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Faux Outrage

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The accusations began suddenly and strangely.

The bold ones would simply declare, “You are left-handed!” while those compromised by self-doubt or a sense of humility and calm would less confidentially raise this serious allegation in question form:

“You’re left-handed, right?”

“Right.”

(ABOVE) An emporium of woe.

“That’s what I thought.”

“No, right.”

“You’re a righty?”

“Yeah, right.”

“So you are a lefty?”

“No, right.”

[etc.]

These types of conversations consistently left both parties confused, and following each successful defense of my correct-handedness, the accusing party would always walk away muttering the same sentence: “I don’t know why I always thought you were a lefty.”  And I didn’t know either.  For years, I could not understand why I was so often called upon to defend myself from the serious, frightening allegations of left-handedness.

I used the regular scissors in grade school!

Notebooks are made for me and my people!

Standard manual can-openers do not frustrate me in the slightest!

And then one day, all at once, “miraculously” and without warning, I immediately realized why close companions would come to the conclusion that I was left-handed, even if they had no idea where the assumption came from: I wore a (calculator!) watch on my right wrist.  For whatever reason, I did not receive the memo explaining that you are supposed to wear your watch on your non-dominant wrist.

I guess I’ve always been a bit of a rebel.

We tend to think of watches as a wardrobe staple, but the reality is that until the First World War — when watches were tied to the wrist with a leather strap for easy access — wristwatches were thought of as exclusively within the feminine domain.  To illustrate this point, in The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch, one gentleman lets it be known that he “would sooner wear a skirt as wear a wristwatch.”

Do you think he would be surprised to learn that today men wear both?

The common wristwatch rose in popularity throughout the early 20th century, buoyed in part by the invention of a self-winding system in 1923 by John Harwood (who is not famous enough to have a proper Wikipedia page but does have this).  By the end of the 1960’s, new electric-powered watches flooded the marketplace and by the 1980’s, electronic timekeeping devices had seized a majority control of the watch market.

It’s all true.

And yet, I think the day of reckoning has come for electronic watches.  For mechanical watches, too.  In twenty years, I would not be surprised to learn that watch market has completely collapsed, and that the folks still buying “timepieces” (as they will undoubtedly be re-branded in the future) are the same people who keep a record player in their house and/or are exclusively interested in the art and status of the watch.  Excuse me, the “piece.”

These days, though we may have many problems, we happen to know what time it is.  We have our cell phones, we have our computers, and we can tell by the position of the moon when The Daily Show is about to start.  Watches had a good run, don’t get me wrong, but I won’t be surprised when there is a 60 Minutes report in 2026 where Andy Rooney Jr. III laments the fact that we no longer have the human decency to wear watches.

Oh, and it would sound a little something like this (read in the voice of Andy Rooney):

Whatever happened to watches?  We still need to know what time it is, so why is it that people no longer wear a watch on their wrist?  My dad always wore a watch, and he was never late.  Watches don’t just tell time; they tell a story.  Why, when I was a boy, a watch was a sign of adulthood.  I got my first watch when I was 8.  My mother gave it to me.  She would tell me to be home by six o’clock, and by golly, if the minute hand — do you remember those? — one was click past 12, she would give me a time out.  I still have that watch, by the way, and every time I look at it, I remember to call my mom and make time for the woman who gave it to me.  A watch reminds us there is only so much time.

I am a little bit ahead of the trend, giving up my watch around 2004, and I am happy to report that I’ve barely noticed any change at all.

The only difference now is that nobody thinks I’m left-handed.

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On July 20th, 1969, Two very important things happened as a result of the Apollo 11 mission:

  1. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
  2. Children began to reasonably expect that by the time they became adults, they would own rocketpacks.

I can’t help but feel a deep, nerdy empathy for the 10-year-old who, with tears welling, watched Armstrong and Co. touch-down and romp around in the Sea of Tranquility.  That child had fantastic expectations about his future that made perfect sense at the time, but that we know today to have been completely misguided.

Though our instincts might be to partially place blame on an overly optimistic star-gazing youth, it is impossible to ignore the incredible amount of rocketry-related technological progress that had taken place during his sentient lifetime.

Yet from the perspective of that 10-year-old at the time, it wasn’t incredible at all.  In 1966, just three years before the manned mission, the United States had sent its first unmanned missions to the moon’s surface.  Only 4 years before that was the United State’s first spacecraft to reach another celestial body.  The pace was incredible, and no scientifically-inclined individual in those days — child or otherwise — had justifiable reason for pessimism.

It was just life.

Of course we are shooting rockets into space.

Of course there are people standing on the moon.

Of course I’m going to have a rocketpack.

What were the reasons to believe otherwise?

To be sure, my generation dabbled in the promise of rocketpackery, but oddly, though I was born more than a decade after the moon landing, I never felt that I was destined to carry a rocketpack. My friends and I more closely associated the technology with science fiction than the obvious end-result of our current scientific pace.  We never lived in a time — like those kids who watched the moon landing — when strapping a jet engine to our back seemed plausible, let alone the logical conclusion of the direction we were headed as a society.

At least I had video games.

Let me be clear: It’s not unusual or remotely interesting that a 10-year-old in 1969 has a vastly different impression of how the world was going to progress by the time he became a grownup compared to the impressions a 10-year-old in 1992, but the promise of a rocketpack is an interesting case.  Usually, a modern child would have a more optimistic sense of what is possible given the advances that had occurred in his lifetime on top of whatever the child from a previous generation knew/understood.

Not so in the case of the rocketpack!

As time went on, while the desire to fly around via one’s own personal rocket remained constant, the reasonable expectation that it would happen in our lifetime diminished with gradual-to-great speed.

Ironically, full-scale globalization and unrelenting world-wide media is what distracted wide-eyed kids like myself from the planet earth.  By the time I was cognizant, national attention had shifted from space travel and exploration to military technology.  Growing up, I was far more likely to hear reports of the Patriot missiles and “bunker-busters” of the (First) Gulf War than anything resembling the optimism inherent in the Apollo missions.  I feel this is true despite fond, specific memories of watching the sun rise one morning in Florida in hopes that we would see (what turned out to be an aborted) Endeavor launch.

So here we are, even further from July 20, 1969.  Do any of us still feel as though rocketpacks are in our future?  Do kids today have any optimism whatsoever about rocketpacks?  I know there are a bunch of prototypes floating (!) around, and I know that investors are always “working on a new fuel source,” but we landed on the moon over 40 years ago and the best we have to show for it are jetpacks that hover for around a half minute.

I’ve had sneezing fits that lasted longer.

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Color me unimpressed.

In any event, my generation lucked out.  What we lack in rocketpackery we make up for with the Internet.  Sure, we don’t have any fancy astronaut heroes, but there are over a billion search results for “cat videos” on Google.  Yeah, it’s true that we never really experienced what it was like to root for our country in a purely scientific, progressive context (as opposed to military and athletic prowess), but now we can order a pizza without picking up the telephone!  And our telephones don’t even have cords anymore!  No, we won’t get to watch US citizens walk on the surface of Mars anytime soon, but hey, did I mention the cat videos?

I’m turning 30 in a few months and I’m starting to believe/fear that I’ll never own a rocketpack of my own.  Maybe it’s for the best, though.  A rocketpack would seriously cut into my Internet time.

Ain’t technology (and awkward folksy speech) grand?

Every so often, in the midst of an all-to-common daydream (the one where I am doing the opposite of whatever I am actually doing), I am comforted by how wonderful it is to live in a time when most of my otherwise fatal — or at the very least, highly destructive — flaws are muted by the tangible result of a long line of expertly developed technologies.

For example, I can’t spell, but what I can do is press F7 and notice red squiggly lines beneath my unintentionally-though-irresponsibly-lettered words!  My sense of direction is as developed as my extra sensory perception, but I have no trouble following the soothing, robotic instructions from that not-quite-British lady’s voice on a GPS.  I’m a terrible hunter (probably?), but man, these modern food delivery systems really make eating really, really simple!

Technology: quite grand, indeed.

And yet, as the years go by, as technologists continue to technologize technologizingly, there are folks who wish to turn back the clock — to the extent that we still physically “turn back” clocks, which we don’t, because clocks are digital now.  We have somehow gotten to the point where the phrase “turn back the clock” has evolved into an example of the days-of-yore notion it references. It’s pretty incredible, actually: a saying that hearkens back to the past is completely outdated.  So, as a general rule of thumb, the next time you wish to accuse someone of being a Luddite (Ludditity?), do not fist-poundingly declare that they wish “to turn back the clock” unless you are trying to score some serious irony points.

I digress.

(Really.  It’s what I do.)

(Also, I do a lot of typing in parenthesis.)

Anyway, back to the intersection between food delivery systems and technology.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that the development of food preservation technologies radically changed the course of human history.  By storing and modifying foods in such a way as to increase their shelf-life, people were able to apportion time otherwise spent on fresh food prep for, well, pretty much anything else.  And that was a good thing, except when that “anything else” time was used for causing destruction and general mayhem.  Food preservation led to reduction of illness (though an increase in slicing-your-hand-open-on-jagged-can), extended life expectancy, and enabled complex communities to form by centralizing food production, which allowed people to focus on developing other socially useful skills (like clock-making!).

Preservatives changed the world!  For the better!

And yet, today, “preservative” is a bad word.  Preservatives are not to be trusted, consumed, or ever even purchased in the first place.  We are now inundated with reports that they will make you sick, ruin your local community, and even kill you in the long term!  In other words, the opposite of the actual history of food preservation.

Of course, there are good reasons for buying preservative-free food when preservation is not at the top of your list of concerns, but let’s cut these world-changers some slack.

So please, when you’re standing in line so you can pay twice as much for bread that will last 15% as long, just know that one of the primary reasons you’re able to make the choice to live a highbrow, organic lifestyle is due to the trail blazed by those pesky, icky preservatives you’re paying so much to avoid.

On July 4th, we are encouraged to consider the stunning, improbable history of the United States.  We take time to recognize that our great country was not formed by accident, or by lottery, or at the arbitrary whim of conquerors.

As it turns out, this is a pretty special place, this “America.”

Strangely, though we often find ourselves speaking vaguely about “our freedoms,” we rarely if ever discuss with specificity what those freedoms actually are, why they are special, and how they should be utilized in order to create a more perfect union.

It is possible, of course, to use your “freedom” in a way that negatively impacts those also-free persons around you.  I’ve maintained for a long time that a person is truly free if they are able to run directly into traffic.  Yet, as we drive in our cars (or in our buses or in our hovercrafts eventually), we hope those pedestrians walking alongside the road don’t feel the sudden urge to bolt across the speeding steel curtain.

In that way, we should also recognize today, on Independence Day, that our ability to enjoy ourselves comes not only from our founding documents and also the laws and technologies implemented since then, but also from each other.  By virtue of being free, we have the ability to negatively impact those around us.  Luckily, being free also gives us the opportunity to improve the lives of strangers and passersby.

We are all in this together.

Happy Fourth, everyone!

Use your freedoms wisely.  Do not play in traffic.

(You might not be as lucky as this squirrel.)

Eli Whitney is about sixty thousand times more famous than he should be.

Does anyone know who invented the microprocessor? (Ted Hoff)

Does anyone know who invented the steam engine? (Thomas Savery)

Does anyone know who invented anesthesia? (William Thomas Green Morton)

Does anyone know who invented radio communication? (Guglielmo Marconi)

Does anyone know who invented insulin? (Sir Frederick Grant Banting)

Does anyone know who invented penicillin? (Alexander Fleming)

Then why oh why oh why oh why must everyone know who invented the cotton gin?

One of the only reasons I can think of is that American schools focus a great deal of time on American slavery (in the North, anyway) and Eli’s gin o’ cotton fits well enough into that discussion and takes a day of instruction away from that parade of horribles.  Now, before this gets out of hand, I want to make clear that I do not believe that Eli Whitney was a no-talent hack or that the cotton gin wasn’t an important invention — it was!  It’s just funny to me that the same people who don’t know who their senators are can tell you who invented the cotton gin.

Eli Whitney was on a stamp, has a museum, and a big-ass gravestone.

“But Zach!” you cry (weirdly), “The cotton gin led to the environment that started the Civil War!”

Did it?

The cotton gin was so influential in starting the Civil War that the states took up arms against each other 68 years after it was invented (1793), 36 years after Eli Whitney died (1825).  That would be like saying the invention of the jet engine (Frank Whittle and Dr. Hans von Ohain!) in the 1930’s was one of the causes of 9/11.

And before you squeal that “68 years wasn’t a long time in those days,” let me put this whole ordeal into perspective: Eli Whitney was born before the Revolutionary War.  He was 10 years old when Paul Revere went galloping through Boston.  That’s a long, long time before the American people ask what’s civil about war, anyway? To say that it was “it wasn’t a long time in those days” to explain away the 68 years it took for this cotton ginned “cause” of the Civil War to actually cause the Civil War is the kind of weird attachment to Eli Whitney that I just do not understand.

I recognize that the cotton gin was crucial in creating an economically powerful American South and created an environment where slavery was expanded greatly (since demand for slaves was tied to the economic prowess of cotton), but the causal relationship between the cotton gin and the Civil War is completely overstated. The C-Gin certainly led to a demand for more slaves which undoubtedly was the very real cause of the Civil War, but I’m pretty sure that a time machine and cyanide pill with Eli Whitney’s name on it would not have put a preemptive end to the War of Northern Aggression.  (Side note: if you ever find yourself going back in time to secretly murder a historical figure, I do not recommend labeling your evidence with the target’s name.  That’s just bad form.)

The cotton gin is a notable invention in American History, but I think it’s pretty clear that Eli Whitney is way too famous.

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