Monthly Archives: May 2012


Jordan and I have been moving and our new place currently lacks internet, which is why I haven’t been posting much (“But what’s your excuse the rest of the time?”, I hear you say), and I’d like to talk about stuff.

I won’t say “where did it all come from?”, because I know.  Gifts from well-meaning people who don’t really know you.  Supplies for hobbies you abandoned years ago.  Books and tools and things that you really should have borrowed, but bought instead.  Useless but interesting stuff.  Useless but sentimental stuff.  All seems justifiable, but the end result is still a one-bedroom apartment that won’t fit in one Uhaul.  Nothing like moving to deal a blow to your sense of frugality.

And so, without further ado, I present the 10 most useless things I’ve actually brought along on a move (either this one or a previous one).

10.  This necklace.

Inexplicably enough, I got it at my high school graduation (and no, green was not one of our school colors).  Kudos to the necklace for still working; no kudos to me for still having it.

9.  This Dvorak keyboard.

A real Dvorak keyboard is nice to have.  This, however, is a Qwerty keyboard with stickers on it.

8. Empty bottles.

They will never be collectible if you don’t keep them.

7.  Buttons.

I’ve never actually replaced a missing button, so I have to admit I just keep these around for craft projects.  Don’t even ask why they’re poisoned.

6.  A heat sink.

I pulled it out of a Dell, so it would be incompatible with everything even if it weren’t huge.  Looks interesting, though.

5.  Feathers.

Feathers are one of those things I just can’t resist picking up when I see them.  Turns out this eventually leads to a lot of feathers.

4.  Keys.

Someday I will find the thing this key unlocks and then I will be vindicated.

3.  A broken projector.

Doad (who has been innocent of most of this list) insists that this $500 projector can be repaired by replacing a 50-cent transistor.  But we bought a new projector anyway.

2.  This sweater cord with knots in it.

I have absolutely no explanation for this one.

1.  Rocks.

We found at least eight rocks amongst our stuff.  Some are interesting looking and some were, no doubt, picked up at unusual or memorable locations, but at the end of the day, they’re rocks.  They are useless, valueless, and heavy. And yet I meticulously packed them up and took them from one apartment to another.

Because what else am I supposed to do, just get rid of my pile of rocks?


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Why Advertising Matters

The circular relationship between advertising and culture is a curious one.  Advertising responds to culture, tapping into what’s popular in order to create a positive response to its products, but it also shapes culture, creating social pressure to buy its products.  Either way, of course, it comes back to selling products, because that’s what corporations do.  They are not political; they do not have opinions about social issues (or anything).  This is not to say that they are morally neutral, merely pragmatic.  They exist to make money.

Sometimes the goal of making money crosses paths with social and political goals.  This happens when the issue has become mainstream enough amongst the target demographic that the best way to court them is to act on the issue.  People want reusable bags or fair-trade coffee?  Companies will sell them.  People don’t?  Companies won’t.  It’s (usually) as simple as that.  Consider the perennially amusing-obnoxious War on Christmas.  A business has only one dog in this fight: What will make more people shop at their store?  If it’s “Merry Christmas,” they’ll say “Merry Christmas.”  If it’s “Happy Holidays,” they’ll say that.  Advertisers are not big risk-takers.  They tend to prefer tried-and-true formulas to experimentation (movie trailers, anyone?) and are often willing to sacrifice a potential demographic rather than tweak a working formula (e.g., advertising yogurt only to women).  Thus, advertising can serve as a social barometer: If it’s embraced in advertisements, it’s mainstream.

That’s why the ads reproduced here represent the culmination of a major social change.  The appearance of not just one, but several recent advertisements featuring same-sex couples demonstrates that we’ve moved from “not that there’s anything wrong with that” to actually believing that there’s nothing wrong with that.  These companies are confident that our response to these images will not be outrage or revulsion, but “what a cute couple” or “what a sweet family,” just as if traditional opposite-sex couples had been depicted.

The J.C. Penney ads are the most significant.  Gap and Urban Outfitters both have young, ostensibly-hip clienteles, a demographic among which gay rights enjoys strong support, but J.C. Penney’s clientele is supposed to be everyone.  The presence of children also emboldens the statement, affirming the right of gay couples not only to be seen together, but to settle down and raise families.

These advertisements show that, however long this particular culture war may take to actually resolve, it’s effectively over: Gay rights are accepted by the mainstream and condemnation of the “homosexual lifestyle” is relegated to a dwindling, ever-more-irrelevant fringe.  Anyway, these three companies think so, and they’ve staked money on it.

(Updated to add JC Penney’s Father’s Day ad.)

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Introverts and Extroverts

Being an introvert, I often find that side of my personality regarded as something of a liability; some variant on “enjoys interpersonal interaction” shows up all too often on job and volunteer postings, whereas I have yet to see “enjoys being alone” listed as a job requirement (perhaps if I worked in a lighthouse?).  The idea, of course, is that extroverts have better interpersonal skills and interpersonal skills are important.

The idea is misguided.  I believe that extroverts don’t have better interpersonal skills; it’s a misconception.  Extroverts are better at interacting with extroverts; introverts are better at interacting with introverts.  Both often have trouble interacting with each other.

The misconception arises because, since extroverts seek out socialization, more interactions take place between extroverts than between introverts–or, to put the same thing another way, any given interaction is more likely to be between extroverts.  Thus, extroverted styles of interaction are more common and get interpreted as “correct.”  For instance, people in a room or car together are supposed to talk and silence is seen as awkward, even though an introvert might not mind being with people and not talking.

Nevertheless, extroverts aren’t better at social behavior.  When interacting with introverts, their behavior can be oblivious and appallingly rude, and it often betrays an inability to read certain types of social cues.  Many extroverts don’t understand that people sometimes want to be alone: They won’t pick up on cues that they are not wanted and may be interrupting, because due to their extroverted nature, they don’t want to be alone and don’t mind starting a conversation even if they were doing something else.  Some have no concept of personal space.  If you take a step back, a clear sign that they’re standing closer to you than you’re comfortable with, they’ll take a step forward.  And in any group there will be that one extrovert who cannot refrain from touching you, no matter how obviously you don’t want to be touched.

So don’t buy into the idea that you’re socially impaired because you’re an introvert, or that extroverts have some kind of innately good people sense.  All people are good at interacting with people similar to them, just like you’d expect.

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Surviving the Apocalypse

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.  (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Lovep. 248)

Underwater knot tying: Someday you will totally need this.

No, this is not a post about surviving the apocalypse.  This is a post about the oddly pervasive idea that there is some sort of inherent value in being able to survive the apocalypse, despite the fact that the odds are against one’s ever actually needing to.

Consider that Heinlein quote.  What do people who aren’t parents and never intend to be parents gain from knowing how to change a diaper?  Only Heinlein’s tacit approval.  My favorite item is “plan an invasion,” since if you aren’t a head of state, the logistical difficulties of acquiring an army with which to invade seem greater than the difficulty of actually invading.

But the strangest bit of the quote is the “should.”  You should be able to do these things, or–what?  Not “or you’ll wish you had,” nor “or you’ll suffer the consequences,” because half those skills will never be relevant to any one person’s life.  So what, then?  “Or you will have sinned?”  “Or you are a failure as a human being?”  “Or Heinlein will be very cross with you?”

One might suggest that Heinlein is simply elaborating on the adage “variety is the spice of life” and saying that people ought to do an assortment of things every day, but no.  He says “should be able to” and that’s what he means.  Half the items on the list are only really applicable to people in the military; most aren’t the sort of things one could take up as a hobby.  And the last item is dying.

Heinlein isn’t alone; there is a whole widespread mentality that people ought to have skills that are useless to their actual lives.  It crops up regularly when curmudgeons realize that young people lack a skill that was once essential–dialing a rotary phone, say–and they declare the youth lazy or incompetent (the youth’s inevitable competence at skills older people often struggle with notwithstanding).  Most often, they’re survival skills.

There’s an undertone of resentment here that’s understandable; survival skills are regarded as valuable, but once an average urban or suburban middle-class individual has finished his Eagle Scout project, he’ll discover  that being able to start a fire without matches is of no value in daily life.  Even if he goes camping regularly, a much more valuable skill is being organized so you don’t forget matches in the first place.  If you’ve worked hard to gain a skill only to find that you don’t really need it and most people get along just fine without it, it’s easy to start thinking that the skill somehow makes you a more valuable person than someone who lacks it, a consolation that makes your effort to learn seem like less of a waste.  Some people even wish, consciously or subconsciously, that an apocalyptic catastrophe would happen, so that they’d finally have a chance to put it all to use (if you had built a bunker in the 60’s, wouldn’t you have felt a twinge of regret in 1989?).

There is an undercurrent of value here, which is why I’m coming down so hard on this mentality.  In the Heinlein quote and among others who share the view, there’s a sense that if you lack those survival skills, you’ve somehow failed as a human being.  What about handicapped people, or anyone physically or mentally incapable of performing these mysteriously requisite skills?  Even if you carve out an exception for them and say “an able-bodied human being should be able to…”, you’re still placing them in a separate, less valuable class due to their inability to do things they don’t need to be able to do.

Perhaps you are in the army or you have a wood-burning stove or there are other reasons why survival-type skills are really necessary, or potentially necessary, for your life.  If so, then by all means, you should know how to do them.  Learn the skills you need.  Learn skills that will improve your life and the lives of others.  Learn skills that you enjoy.  And remember that your value does not depend on what you know or don’t know.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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