Monday, July 24, 2006

Got Noise?

When did the world get so noisy?

I'm staying at the Hilton in NYC now, and they've got televisions installed in every elevator. For 22 floors, you have to listen to the urgent cadences of a video newscaster. Airports are doing this, too -- more and more televisions are being installed in lounges and waiting areas. And they're ubiquitous in hotel gyms. They've even got them on the Heathrow Express into London (although there, at least, there are "quiet cars," as well).

I wonder if this "all TV, all the time" trend isn't indicative of an overall move away from the notion of personal responsibility. Sensible people know they might have to wait at the airport, or inside an elevator, or on a train, and come prepared with their own (mercifully silent) reading material. If you forget your own material, you might have to endure a bit of ennui -- which should remind you to be less forgetful next time. Now, not to worry, you're not responsible for the entertainment; it's being provided for you. You don't have to remember a thing.

(You'd think that with the constant barrage of news we'd be be a well-informed society, but it doesn't feel that way to me. Maybe it's because the barrage is telecast, not printed.)

Cars beep constantly, too, warning us of an open door, a key in the ignition, and unbuckled seat belt. Makes sense, I guess... after all, what's a little omnipresent irritation if we can save one person from locking his keys in the car?

(Think personal responsibility again...)

Back to airports: why do the electric carts that ferry people through terminals have to be accompanied by such shrill beeping? At first I thought it was a (dubious) safety feature, to help prevent people from getting run down, but then I realized no, that doesn't make sense, the driver could easily slow for or otherwise avoid pedestrians. The purpose of the incessant beeping, I realized, is to get pedestrians to clear a path so the carts can go faster. The implicit tradeoff is silence for speed. An entire airport full of people has to suffer so a few lazy asses can get toted around a little more quickly? Who ran those cost-benefit numbers?

On airplanes, you have to listen to at least ten minutes of announcements after you take off. Most of it has to do with selling you something -- food, drinks, an in-flight movie, duty-free merchandise. So let me get this straight: I've paid for the ticket, and now that I'm a captive audience, you're subjecting me to ten minutes of in-your-face (actually, in-your-ears) advertising? When is one of the airlines going to catch on and start billing itself as the "quiet, haven, sanctuary, advertisement-free" alternative? It's probably just a coincidence that the big carriers are in and out of bankruptcy.

There's music playing everywhere, too. It used to be just in stores and restaurants. Now it's in restrooms, too. Which is great, if you require trumpets to accompany the act of urinating. At a Wild Oats supermarket in Cincinnati, there was music not just in the store, but in the parking lot, too, where they'd installed outdoor speakers that were supposed to look like rocks. I guess you wouldn't want to detract from the inherent naturalness of parking lot music with an artificial-looking speaker. What would happen if I had to endure the two-minute walk to my car... in silence? Would I dislike the store? Would I buy less of their food? Has Wild Oats actually studied this issue, or do they just assume that more people want more music in more places?

A discreet elevator door chime is a good idea -- lets you know when the elevator has arrived in case you didn't see it. But what happened to the discretion? The Los Angeles Bel-Age elevator chimes sound like submarine klaxons. The otherwise elegant Boston Ritz Carlton chimes sound like a pair of live cymbals clanging together over your head.

I guess there's a law requiring trucks to issue a horrible, piercing, repetitive beep when they back up. Has anyone done a study on how many injuries and lives this "feature" has saved, versus how much irritation and loss of quality of life it's produced?

Suburban lawns look serene from the interior of a car. But walk through suburbia during the day, and you'll find the serenity is entirely visual: the cacophony of mowers and blowers that produces that visual effect will ruin your walk and drive you right back into the relative sanctuary of your car. To make suburbia look pretty, we've made it sound awful. Was this choice conscious? Does it make sense?

The noise isn't just constant; it's also loud. My guess is, the volume is jacked up to get through to the hard of hearing. But is making everything loud enough to be heard by the hearing-impaired fair to the non-impaired? Is burdening the majority of the population to provide an arguable benefit to a minority sensible? Are these questions even being asked?

Technology has offered us a choice that didn't exist for previous generations: silence, or aural clutter. As a society, we seem increasingly to default to the latter. I know I'm a curmudgeon before my time but... I hate it. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you ought to.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Middle East and America

I don't fully understand the connection between Israel's war with Hezbollah and the Bush administration's efforts to foster democracy in the region. But a few things concern me.

Sometimes I feel that President Bush believes if he says it, it makes it so. He announced a mission to Mars that was immediately forgotten. He claims America is addicted to oil, and then suggested we would be cured by technology, with no meaningful follow-through. And he has made a centerpiece of his presidency the export of democracy to the Arab middle east -- indeed, to "end tyranny in our time."

The problem with exporting democracy to the Arab middle east is that there are long-standing institutional reasons for our support of Arab dictators -- even those that are our enemies, like the House of Saud. We need oil -- we are addicted to it, apparently -- and so we back regimes that will supply it to us. And even apart from oil, we fear the alternative to the relatively stable, oil-pumping dictators we back: Islamofascists.

The problem is, President Bush seems to have lost sight of these two fundamentals -- we need oil, the elected Arab alternative might be Islamofascism -- in promoting democracy in the region. With Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Ahmadinejad in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it's hard to be sanguine about the prospects of further elections in the Arab and Persian middle east.

It seems to me we've changed the policy without changing the fundamentals. This is like trying to move a house without touching the foundation. All you'll get is collapse.

The real choice is to back dictators to the hilt, or get off oil. We can't have it both ways.

I don't know what will be the outcome of Israel's war with Hezbollah. My guess is that it will spread, to include Syria and possibly Iran. The US could be pulled in, too. I would also guess that we'll see disruptions in the supply of oil, which will raise the price, which will encourage us to use less. Which, with some will, imagination, and guts, we could have done through taxes instead of a war.

We're going to get off oil. The only question is how. Will we do it for ourselves, gradually, sensibly, and relatively safely? Or will we wait to have an oil diet imposed on us by war and other outside events?

Door #2, no doubt. How sad to know exactly what to do, and yet lack the will to do it.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Gay Marriage, Flag Burning, And Congress Again...

The pace of the Last Assassin tour hasn't left me nearly the time I ordinarily devote to the news, but a few items have caught my attention.

The Republican-controlled Senate has now tried twice to amend the Constitution -- first, to prohibit gay marriage; second, to prohibit flag burning (so many prohibitions! It's enough to make you miss the Bill of Rights). We'll get to the substance of these issues in a moment, but first, let's pause to consider our government's apparent priorities.

The Senate's time is limited (not limited enough, if you ask me), so you might expect Senators to spend their limited time only on the issues that matter most to the nation. A reasonable shortlist might include the war in Iraq, the war against Islamofascism, securing loose nukes, reforming the tax code, making America more energy independent, immigration reform, redressing growing income disparities, protecting the environment... I'm sure I'm missing various priorities, and I'm sure reasonable people will differ on the inclusion of various items and on their proper order. But still. Gay marriage and flag burning are the foremost crises of the day?

Let's see if we can get to the heart of the matter.

Gay marriage: some people approach this issue from a religious perspective. I can't argue with them. If your position is, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it," there's nothing to discuss.

The nonreligious objection to gay marriage seems to be that marriage has traditionally been between a loving, committed man and a woman, and that we shouldn't lightly alter what most people agree is the fundamental fabric of human society.

I respect this argument, although my take is slightly different. I believe the fundamental fabric of human society is marriage between two loving, committed adults. That the two adults in question have traditionally been a woman and a man reflects not some necessary element of society building, but rather that most people are heterosexual and that our laws and mores are therefore in part a reflection of heterosexual prejudice.

So although I'm a conservative, and wouldn't lightly alter marriage or any other fundamental societal building block, I don't see gay marriage as a significant alteration at all. The opposite, in fact: because I believe that loving, committed couples are the molecules that make society strong, I want to encourage more of them. Permitting gay marriage seems an excellent way to do so.

I think we can therefore safely say that the HOTM on gay marriage is one's take on this question: what is the fundamental building block of society? Marriage between a loving, committed man and a woman? Or marriage between two loving, committed adults? If you answer "man and woman," you'll be against gay marriage. If you answer, "two adults," you'll be for it.

Flag burning: I note in the introduction to this blog that I believe our political opinions and religious beliefs are located in the same place in our brain. That the sight of a burning flag can cause anger comparable to the outrage produced by the desecration of a religious symbol supports this notion. But the fact that the outrage is real and legitimate shouldn't prevent us from asking a question: is the desecration worth banning?

I tend to approach policy in cost/benefit terms. How many flag burnings are there? How many people are even aware of them of them when they occur? How much pain do they produce? Measured against: How much would it cost to amend the Constitution to ban them (direct costs of getting the amendment through plus the cost of lost opportunities)?

Because I think people who burn flags are cranks whose provocations say far more about the cranks themselves than about anything the flag symbolizes, I rate the cost of flag burning as low -- far lower than the cost of an amendment. If your sense of outrage at the sight of a burning flag is high enough, though, the cost of an amendment might be lower, in which case you'll want to amend. I think this is the HOTM on flag burning.

So maybe amendment proponents believe that what makes marriage fundamental to societal health is the institution's exclusively heterosexual provenance. And maybe proponents are also sufficiently outraged by flag burning to think it worth banning.

Of course, there's another possibility.

It's possible that amendment proponents don't give a damn about married gays or burning flags. It's possible they're simply trying to distract voters from the real news of the day, namely Iraq, by getting the media to cover a Senatorial sideshow instead. It's possible they're trying to mobilize the right-wing base a few months ahead of the November midterm elections. It's possible that, regardless of your views on gay marriage and flag burning, the Senate is insulting your intelligence.

Perhaps I'm cynical. But I like what Oscar Wilde had to say on the subject: "That quality of seeing things as they really are is called cynicism by those who have not got it."