Monday, October 31, 2011

Nice Hat!

Valery, Madelaine and The Nice Hat
When I was in Venice Beach last year visiting relatives in Los Angeles I bought a hat.

It wasn't an especially unusual or remarkable hat.  It was just one of several dozen piled high in one of many little souvenir shops along the boardwalk.  Or so I thought.

That hat has garnered me more attention than any other single article of clothing I've ever worn, including all of the many hats I've worn over the years.  I'm a 'hat guy' if you will.  I've always liked hats.  I have owned more than a few and have worn them all with some pride at one time or another.

But, something about this hat is different.  Just about everyone who has ever seen me in this hat has taken the time to remark on how much they like it.  That's a lot of comments!  They come from friends and co-workers, of course, but also from lots of perfect strangers--like a parking lot attendant or random people on the street.  Just yesterday while out walking, I saw someone staring at me and when I looked back, he smiled and mouthed, across the busy noisy street, "Nice hat"!

"Nice hat"?  Really?  It makes me wonder what it is that prompts them to make that particular comment.  After all, I am used to standing out a bit.  Some people will comment on my wedding ring (unique and simple) ties (always fashionably thin, thank you Mad Men) or my pen (I have many) or even my watch (a $9.99 Academy special), but this hat has taken the prize, so to speak.

At first, I thought it was because so few men wear hats these days.  But that is actually changing.  A lot of men are wearing hats again, though most are young hipsters wearing some small version of the 'old-fashioned' fedora.  Many men wear the plaid version of that old style, but most wear something very similar to the one I have, which is a simple blond straw hat with a black band about an inch wide.  Oh, and mine has some feathers.

You know, I think it's the feathers.  A small spray of colored feathers are stuck in on the right side, one of which happens to lean over in a delicious feminine curve.  The others back it up with a bit of stiffness.  It's not the kind of feathers, though, just the fact that they are there.  No one else has feathers in their hat.

But what is that saying?  Feathers?  What is it about them that prompts even the parking lot attendant to say something?  What makes a total stranger stop in the street and say "Nice hat?"

For a long time I thought people were so startled by the sight of an old guy in a feathered hat that they couldn't help but make a remark.  And "nice hat" is the first thing that comes to mind, even though they were probably thinking "Are you kidding me?  You look ridiculous in that hat!"

That could be true, I guess.  I never assume that folks are thinking anything but the worst about me.  But that's unnecessarily self-deprecating, especially in this case, after getting so many comments about the hat.  I have come to accept the fact that most folks are actually complimenting me.  But for what?

I've thought a lot about it and concluded that it's about a sense of style.  And it's not like I am a particularly stylish guy.  Ask my brother David or my Bride.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  It isn't about me or my style.  It's about style in general, in the world at large.

I think that people are so hungry for the visual appeal of someone dressed with a sense of style that when they see one, they often feel compelled to make a remark.  I think that it's simply a spontaneous reaction--an irrepressible expression of gratitude--for brightening their field of vision.

"Thanks for standing out!" seems to me to be the most literal translation of "Nice hat"!

Well, it's not like I have to work at it.  In fact, where I work, on a college campus, it is actually pretty easy to stand out.  My hat is more than enough to make me visible, especially when compared to a sea of t-shirts, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.

It's come down to this:  The uniform absence of style in the way that most people dress has us all (even those without a sense of style) hungry for some small bit of visual appeal.  Even though we hardly know it, we are all hungry to 'taste' something bright and fresh and flavorful for our eye.

That's the reason for style in the first place.  It sets us apart.  And that, sadly, is also the reason that so few people have a sense of style.  Most people just don't want to be set apart.  Most people just want to blend in, to become a part of the wave and avoid the crest.  Style is turmoil, and to be different is to be in the crest.  It's where the breaking up of 'normal' creates style.  It is a way of expressing the desire to be different.

I am not only not afraid of being different, I seek it out.  So, now when someone I don't know smiles, waves and says, "Nice hat!" I'll remember that they are the ones I do it for.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Talking to Machines


Hello?  Can you hear me?

These days, thanks to a few popular gadgets it has become fashionable to talk to our machines.

Today, it seems that many of the more forward thinking geeks think that we will soon be talking to all of our machines as a matter of course.  Me, I am not so sure.  

Part of my skepticism has to do with the technology, to be sure, but also with the way we expect to interact with the devices themselves.  The problem is not a matter of communication, but one of tone.  

We have unconsciously adopted a manner of speaking to our machines that closely resembles the way that wealthy classes spoke to their servants during the last Gilded Age. That is, they talked at their human subjects, in much the same way that the generation previous to them had talked at their domesticated animals (and slaves), who were--not coincidentally--their source of cheap labor. The good nobles of that fortunate 'golden' era talked at their human herd as if those sentient beings were possessed merely of the rights of the civilized animal classes just below them.  The effect of that talking, however, has long been known to be largely ineffective.

In the case of the 'dumb' animals, this may be a foregone conclusion.  The donkey's obstinance may be obvious to his master but resistance may not so clear in the case of people or machines.  Oh, of course humans were considered capable of absorbing verbal instructions (or admonishments) more easily than a dog or a cow, of course, but although good behavior from such efforts at control can be expected, it is by no means guaranteed. To this end, methods of discipline (both physical and mental) outside of mere speech, have been devised and long employed with some ruthless regularity.

Why?  Well, a good dog, for example, can be expected to figure out just what his master is talking about if it is a simple concept that directly affects the animal and the master has been consistent about beating it only when it is willfully out of compliance. Similarly, a good butler or maid could reasonably be expected to understand the master's wishes even when those wished are incompletely conveyed or altogether absent if they know how they are expected to perform generally. Regular beatings and repeated humiliations have been shown improve the performance of both human and animal classes but that is the subject of another essay on the dark side of Skinnerian discipline.

So why would we want to talk to our machines, anyway? What do we have to tell them? Anything of any importance?  Would we want to tell, say, the television what channel, or show, or team, actor, etc we want to watch? The elevator what floor? The car when to stop? Why?  Really, are buttons so hard to push?   Are handles and knobs really so hard to manipulate?  Do we really prefer talking to moving our hands?  I don't think so.

Imagine a world full of people talking to things. The babble will more than merely double our sound pollution problem. Already we have filled the air of many of our forcibly confined spaces with the sound of people sharing useless bits of information and far too rapidly updating their statuses on cellphones. Do we want to add to that the drone of millions of gadget-holders talking to the devices themselves? 

And do we really want--can we actually stand--to hear the responses? Talk about pollution!  And, all in that babble will be the same pidgin computer speech that can be often modulated but never improved, like some perverse strain of ancient Latin or modern Creole.

Sure, you can give the machine's 'voice' a feminine timbre and cover it with an exotic name but it's still a blow-up doll on a blind date. That's the geek point, really.  Use her and abuse her. She won't complain.  Personally, I think you'd have gotten better service from a cheap whore a hundred years ago than you will from a personal digital assistant on your phone today. Oh well, at least Siri won't give you the clap.

Ultimately, however, it's just pointless.  Speaking, or rather, talking at our machines, will not have the same effect as our forebears speech had upon the previous two lowest classes in American society.  This is because machines cannot be sufficiently beaten nor humiliated into improved responses and reactions the way that live beings can. 

Machines are infinitely indifferent to our desires, whether they be expressed as subtle hints or direct threats. They innocently fail to understand without fear of consequence. They say: Break me. Dash me to the ground. Grind me under your heel. Run me over with your golden carriage.  I don't care. The apathy of the machine is pure and incorruptible because it cannot be made to care about it's creator. 

Unlike Frankenstein, we are in love with our creation but it will never love us back.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Desert

No seed
No ground
No water
Will be broken.

No scene
No sight
No word
Was ever spoken.

No breeze
No breath
No sail
On this ocean.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Knot

If you will not
listen
you shall not
be heard.

If you will not
share
you shall not
be needed.

If you do not
seek
you shall not
be found.

If you do not
work
you shall not
be valued.

If you do not
love
you shall not
be wanted.

If you do not
hope
you shall not
be here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hater

Chester is a hater.
If he doesn't hate it now
he'll hate it later.

He hates the light
He hates the dark
He'll hate it when he sees it
And when it's out of sight.

He'll hate it
Before he feels the flame
By crushing out the spark.

There is no why
There is no end
There is no if
There is no when.

Why does he hate?
Is it just his fate
to some deride
and some divide?
Are some hopes
just victims to
eviscerate?

Is it just nature
that made this fool?
Is it instinct
of the cell
that's cruel?
Is mere chance the fuel
in the dual dance
around the pool?

However late
hate came to the plate
Chester the Hater
came later.
In last place
he lost the race.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raise the Stakes

Who am I
Where I be
Who is you
What you see?

Where that shit
How it be
Who is this
When you me?

Why you been
Who I seen
What I give
Where you mean?

Don't look down
Don't look back
Keep your eye
On that track.

Don't reach up
Don't lean down
Hold your hand
Up the stack.