No More Presents

I’m no better than anyone else.


I walk through the streets, headphones on, same as all the rest. We may as well have fish bowls on our heads like astronauts outside their spacecraft. The only thing that makes me better, if only by the breadth of a hair, is that I’m not texting while walking. I’d like to say it’s some sense of decorum that prevents me, but it’s probably just a fear of walking into something or someone. I confess to succumbing to frustration at times and not deviating course from someone clearly incapable of staying on one.


“Uncouth buggers,” I think, dipping a shoulder gently but with purpose.


“Sorry!” they say cheerily, eyes never really looking up.


I don’t even like to take calls on my mobile in public places let alone text. I end up talking very low and feeling like some shut-in, heavy-breathing phone-sex addict. My equivalent of “what are you wearing” is “how long will that take and how much will it cost?”


Subtle distinction.


I ducked into a bar at the airport not long ago. I sat down, ordered a drink, and while the barman was making it I pulled out my phone and checked to see if my flight was on-time. This kind of app is one of the few redeeming characteristics of modern mobile technology, I find.


After tapping a few things and learning I was on-schedule, I caught a glimpse of an older gent sitting next to me with one stool in between.


He was subtly shaking his head disapprovingly.


I knew what for, but I wasn’t! I swear! I was just checking my flight, not Snapchatting or checking in or some such thing.


“It used to be that when you went to a bar you went to actually strike up a conversation over a drink.”


Nothing more needed to be said. This was an argument I couldn’t win. I put my phone in my pocket with great ceremony— like lowering a casket slowly and sacredly into the ground for internment.


We spoke for the better part of half an hour. He was an eccentric– possibly lascivious, definitely alcoholic, and obviously well-to-do. He had flown up to Boston from the Vineyard so he could have supper at this club, spend the night in one of its rooms, and then fly home tomorrow. I gathered he did this weekly and whenever the mood struck him.


This is my moral beacon.


Just last week I was in the barber shop. It’s a typical four or five chair place. The youngish, perhaps early thirties, guy next to me is texting the entire time. His arms were well outstretched, low toward his knees so no hair would sully his phone. The barber occasionally tried to make conversation with him. Most times the customer never even looked up. “Yeah. Yeah.”


“Shall I shave off your eyebrows?”

“Yup. Yeah.”


That didn’t happen. I wished it would have.


As I’m watching this unfold, his barber and I catch eyes and exchange little rolls.


It was at this time that I became aware that my barber had said something to me that I completely missed– so engrossed in the terrible texter beside me.


Pulled into his insidious vortex of


And now Google piles on with the cruelest cut of all.


I need a self-driving car like a fish needs a self-driving bicycle.


Driving is one of the rarest of occasions when one can be, should be present.


Google wants to take this present back.


No more hearing the engine wind as the gears climb toward changing before falling into a lower rumble. No more eyes canvasing the terrain (whether to behold it for all its beauty or to guard against Big Wheels or small dogs). No more stereo cranked up. No more singing full throat in your own little leather appointed sound room. No more sun in the face or wind in the hair.


Great. Soon we’ll be hurdling “forward” in the Jetsonsmobile at the speed of (yellow) light.


I’m no Zen Buddhist. I’d rather eat bees than listen to Eckhart Tolle drone on. But there is more than a little truth to the idea of interconnectedness. And the more we let having “friends” on Facebook supplant getting together with our friends, the worse we’ll be. The more we Snapchat and less we chit-chat over coffee, the more isolated we’ll continue to become.


Alas, that genie is out of the bottle and into the mobile phone I fear, and we will continue to move amongst other people but never actually with them. We’ll know the joy of arriving with no idea how we got there. No more here. Just turn-by-turn there.

Whose Brain is This, Igor?

Dr. Joseph E. Murray died this week at the ripe old age of 93. Even in monster years, that’s a pretty good run. The good doctor found fame for having the audacity to believe that he could save lives by transplanting human organs from one person to another. As it’s been successfully done 28,535 times this year alone, I think the jury’s in. He was right. And oh so wrong to so many.


In his day, he was compared unfavorably to the first Doctor who “thought he was God.” In an NPR interview Murray recalled, “Well, they (were) saying that God didn’t want this to happen. It’s unnatural. The doctors are on an ego trip. Dr. Frankenstein stuff.”


If Murray thought he had a rough go of it, he should have had a Starbucks with Shelley. In her day she was crucified for being a discredit to her profession and her gender.


The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

-The British Critic (April 1818)



Cut to today where there’s actual debate about ‘shadow siblings’, where parents are essentially growing genetic clones of their children in case the first-borns ever need a lung or liver should theirs fail. The dilemma or strategy, depending on one’s point of view, is beautifully dramatized in the novel My Sister’s Keeper.


If there is such a thing as a line, this scenario seems to approach it to me. But, that’s the point. To me. Things I do or believe make no sense whatsoever to many– starting with my parents.


Transplants, like any major advance in technology, medicine, the arts, or any other facet of life, are not for everyone. That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. Choice. Some would gladly take a kidney from a donor or bake themselves in chemotherapy and radiation treatment to wring even a few more grains out of the hourglass. Others, when confronted with their mortality, pour themselves a stiff drink and sit stone-faced waiting for their grim guest’s arrival. It’s a choice. Who are we to say?


Unlike the innovator’s dilemma, I think of this as the ‘Complacency Conundrum’. To keep calm and carry on versus trying something, anything quite literally, to change a fate which you don’t buy into. It’s not inherited or ordained. It’s authored to those who kick in the stall.

My father went apoplectic when I suggested Baseball was foolish not to utilize instant replay in limited cases. Cases like, I don’t know, when someone legitimately became the twenty-fourth human in history to throw a perfect game only to be denied by an umpire’s inexplicable mistake. We all make mistakes. Fix them when you can, I reasoned. “Mistakes are a part of baseball!” he stammered.


Fine. Baseball’s audience is what it is and is on the trajectory it is. Football, which has heavily leaned both into technology and culture in a way Baseball never would, is on a very different path. Watch whatever you want.


It applies to media in the same way. Accept a fate that’s clear or do something radical to alter it with assurance you’ll be killed for that as well– and not softly. Technology has provided us choice. In the case of Radio it allows us to listen to virtually anything we want whenever we want wherever we are. That’s pretty good, right?


Not to certain Traditional Radio stations. Their formula is DJ chatter, commercials (except NPR), and content– almost in equal measure. Pandora comes along armed with Stanford guys who say, “our data shows the only thing people hate more than idol chatter is farging commercials, so we’re eliminating chatter and shrinking the advertising elephant in the room to the size of a mouse.”


Heretics! Burn them at the stake! That’s crazy talk.


These are the kinder commentary.


I say let them compete. But let them compete on an even playing field. This week, in fact, the Internet Radio Fairness Act was brought before Congress. The old guard, super-heavy-users of leaches and hot toddies, will tell you this is an attempt by Pandora to seek relief from a reasonable burden of “taxation”, sorry, “royalties” they’re currently paying to rights holders. “Why can’t they just run a proper business model like we do?” they’ll ask incredulously, knowing full well they pay no royalties at all.


The real issue, in fact, is not whether online royalties should be lowered but whether over-the-air terrestrial royalties should be instituted.


It’s time.


A transplant is now possible. You don’t have to get one, but it’s not for us to prevent others from getting one. If people want to listen to terrestrial music, they should obviously be allowed to and encouraged to do so. But if they want to listen on their mobile or computer or Xbox or any of the myriad of devices digitally connecting content to ears on a seemingly daily basis, they should be allowed to as well. That means they shouldn’t be penalized for stealing the crumbs from Radio’s table.


A song is a song is a song. An ear is an ear is an ear. Whenever the twain shall meet an exactly equal royalty should be paid to the people who made the music (how it gets divvied up between writers, performers, labels…is a separate, unrelated matter).


Technology has fostered choice. People should have the right to choose. Without equitable terms, we are effectively eliminating choice and furthering a monopoly because Pandora and those like them cannot thrive when they’re paying more than fifty-cents of every dollar of revenue to royalties while Terrestrial Radio pays zero. Change that immediately. Let listeners branch out. Let artists get paid more than ever before. Let competition ensue and choice reign. It might not save lives, but it might just save something that the overwhelming majority of the population wants to see not only survive but evolve to thrive.


Radio. Broadly defined.


Ears don’t distinguish. Why should the law? While choosing Pandora or Slacker or Spotify doesn’t rise to the level of choosing to ask your sister for a kidney or “Abbey Normal” for her brain, it’s a choice all the same. When we stack the deck to prevent innovation for those who seek it from flourishing, we stop progress. Or witchcraft. It’s all in how you look at it.


I’m lucky. I have two great kids. But they’re kids. Sometimes their minds take a step back just before their bodies take two steps forward. (I got a C+ in my one Education class, so I’m pretty qualified here.)

My son recently had such an episode. So we decided to put a moat around him—the old ‘put him on an island.’ No mobile, iPad, iPod, television, or computer– other than for schoolwork. Isolate him so he can think of his err in solitude. Sounded like a solid plan.

Useless. I checked in on his Facebook. Pretty active for someone without access to it. Maybe he’d discovered (or invented!) a literal form of cloud computing. What I do know is this: despite our worst intentions, life moved on fine for him– a bit less elegantly perhaps, but he was far from the monk’s incommunicado we were shooting for.

I felt like Wile E. Coyote. So close, yet so far.

The bottom line is, the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to content. In fact the genie has made the bottle her bitch for daring to think it was content itself. It isn’t.

Whether it’s the bad prose of a lovesick thirteen year old, the call to courage from a rebel leader on some chaotic front line, or a song the big labels didn’t think would climb the charts, it will find its mark as surely as if it was shot from Apollo’s bow. Every time.

You can restrict people’s movement but not their content, their communication. Jail them. Kill them. (Both of which I briefly considered) but their voice, their content, is completely fungible in a connected world. It slips passed any guard, under any door, out any window.

Iran “turned off the Internet” last week. Good luck with that. They can kill rebels, but they can’t quiet them. Technology now favors the many, not the one. Fortune once favored the puppeteer. Now she favors the wireless.