Category Archives: Life

Old Favorites through New Ears: The case of Black Happy

black-happy-pegheadBlack Happy was a band from northern Idaho, with some popularity in the early 1990s. Especially in northern Idaho, Moscow and the area more specifically. I must have drove my roommates in college completely insane with how much I listened to their CD Peghead. I listened to that thing over and over. When Black Happy broke up, I attended one of their last concerts, in Spokane I think (though it may have been Seattle after I moved there for grad school). They were even better live (not too many bands that can claim that), with people slam dancing pretty much the entire night. I went with a buddy who was significantly bigger (taller, stronger) than most and he got into the slam dancing. Maybe a little too much.

For me, the thing that made Black Happy distinct and special was the fast paced music, the fast lyrics, and the killer horn section that accompanied the more traditional guitar, bass, and drums.

I listened and listened to that CD, but never really listened to the lyrics. I recently pulled my CD out and gave it another “spin”, and listened a bit more carefully. Black Happy grew out of another band that was Christian metal. Not that I really knew that back when I was listening to Peghead so much. And maybe back then, in my college days, I really wouldn’t have cared.

I was more religious myself back then. I went to church regularly and even joined a Bible study group. However, with time, I just realized that, for me, religion held no answers. The answers I sought, to the big questions of the universe, always ended with “God” in religion, and that wasn’t satisfying. So, I moved on.

Today, I am a pretty liberal guy who isn’t at all religious. So, when I listen to the lyrics of songs like Bullmonkey, with their obvious religious and conservative undertones, my first reaction is negative. For example, Bullmonkey goes:

You think we’re livin’ in ’84
When you don’t know it’s sad and what’s more
Big Brother’s coming not blind or deaf
Didn’t you know he’s coming from the left

Clearly, they had some issues with liberal politics.

That said, when all is said and done, I can simply recognize the fact that these are some damn fine musicians, who played with more energy and passion than anyone in the top 40. Do I disagree with their politics, their world-view? Sure. But I can also just enjoy listening to some great music. Besides, I have more than enough songs in my playlist which represent the other side of the divide.

Life: A Poem

A child’s laugh fills the room,
fills our hearts.
Full of energy, full of adventure,
full of life.
In a split second, that voice, that laugh is gone.
Gone forever.
Forever silent.

Life is fragile.

The silence is maddening,
filling our hearts with despair.
Pulling us into darkness.
Into oblivion.

A child’s laugh pierces the silence,
pulls us back to the light.
Reminds us of love.
Of life.
In that laugh is all that was lost,
and all that still is.

Life endures.

With Great Power…

After Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, the first lesson he learns is that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Society is constantly having to relearn this lesson, especially as technological advances give us more and more power in new and different realms. Harnessing the power of the atom has given us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Medical advances have allowed us to extend life, even create life such as so-called test tube babies. Genetically modified food offers great hope to help feed the world but also the dangers of Franken-food. And the internet has revolutionized how we communicate, both for good and bad.

One of the next big frontiers of science is neuroscience, the science of the human brain. By understanding how the brain works, we are understanding more about how we function, why we behave the way we do, and what differentiates each of us. We are now at the point that we can, using a brain scan, know if we are looking at the brain of a psychopath or a normal person. If you think about it, this is tremendous power. This is probably as close as we will ever come to Minority Report, being able to tell if someone is likely a criminal before they ever do anything.

Think about it. If a psychopaths brain is truly different from the rest, a brain scan will identify who is a psychopath before they do anything to harm anyone. We would know if they have the potential for becoming a psychopath. And we might even be able to do that scan when they are a child.

Given that we could, in principle, do such a scan and identify potential psychopaths long before they become psychopathic, what should we do with that power? Should we scan everyone’s brains, and closely watch those that are likely to become psychopaths? This seems a huge infringement on personal liberty, but if it prevented the type of massacre that occurred in Norway, might it be worth it?

On the flip side, if psychopaths and other sociopaths truly have a different brain structure, how much of their actions are they really responsible for? If it is all brain chemistry controlled by genetics, should we all be thankful we have normal brains? Should we try to identify these people so we can find some way to treat them so they can lead normal lives?

And, finally, consider the fact that there is a very fine line between psychopathy and genius. Studies suggest many of the top CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits. If we somehow controlled the behavior of presumed psychopaths, would we be impacting other areas of society, including business and politics?

I have lots of questions and no answers. I think these types of questions will soon confront us. And technology is advancing at a pace that is much faster than at least our political and legal systems can keep up with. We will be faced with a future where people who barely understand the implications of the science, much less the science itself, are placed in a position of trying to address these questions. I think the sooner society as a whole dwells on them, the better able we will be able to deal with them.

Feeling guilty for needing help?

We all have this image of those that depend on government assistance, stereotyped by the so-called welfare queen, who is trying to milk the system as much as possible; someone who epitomizes laziness and wants someone else to care for them.

However, a recent NY Times piece points out that all of us are depending more and more on government assistance to get by and, ironically, it is in precisely those places where opposition to government aid is greatest where dependence on that aid has grown the most. In particular, the article describes research by a professor at Dartmouth College, Dean Lacy, who has found:

Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates.

That is, the places that give more than they get tend to be Democrat, and those that get more than they give tend to be Republican. This isn’t new, it has been discussed before. It always struck me as strange. Those that rail most against taxes and big government are those that receive the most benefit. Whether this is from farm subsidies, food stamps, or whatever, the fact that the objections to government helping people come most from those getting that help strikes me as odd.

The article doesn’t give much insight into why this is the case. It does allude to the fact that maybe some of those receiving benefits are somehow ashamed of that and would rather that it not be so easy to get government assistance. That is, they’d almost rather be forced to take a harder road where they are more self-reliant. That the government helps them is almost a failing on their part, which by extension is a failing of the government.

I guess I don’t quite understand fully. Maybe it is related to the so-called American dream which provides us with the comforting notion that if we just work hard enough, we will have that nice suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.3 children in an idyllic neighborhood. The reality, in my opinion, is not so clean. There is no way our system can support all of us attaining that ideal; as I’ve written about before, it seems to me that a large number of us have to fail in achieving that dream in order for our system to function. We need people at the bottom of the ladder to perform those jobs that the majority of us don’t want to do.

So, is it a failure to attain that dream, a failure of being self-sufficient and thus needing government help the reason for this contradiction in people taking government resources but at the same time wanting to cut them? Do they feel guilty for having to take them? Do they resent having to, in some sense, rely upon those that are willing to pay more taxes to support them? Do they resent that they even have the option, that government isn’t forcing them to struggle heroically in face of adversity, in the fashion that so much of American mythology is based?

I guess, in the end, I don’t have an explanation and I really don’t understand this dichotomy. If we do end up electing politicians who do cut the safety net, it is those very people who want it cut that will be hurt the most. Ironically, it is those that support having the safety net that can best deal with it being cut. Not much of politics seems rational to me, and this particular issue epitomizes, for me, the irrationality of politics in America.

Company by Max Barry

Jones is a new hire at Zephyr Holdings, a company in Seattle.  His very first task upon arriving at the office is to find out who ate his boss’s donut.  From there, Jones begins a quest to find out exactly what it is this company he works for does. I mean, what is their business.  The answer is both surprising and a bit unsettling.

Company is the third book I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government and Syrup being the other two). Company follows right on the heels of the others, exploring the relationship between the corporate world and everyday life.  In Company, Barry focuses on the employees, the worker-bees in any corporation, and their role in the company’s successes and failures.  In particular, he examines how the different aspects of the company — marketing, IT, procurement, etc — work together — or don’t — for the betterment of the company.  But, he also explores how corporate culture demands personal sacrifice from the employees in order to maximize corporate success.

Barry explores corporate culture by taking it to absurd extremes — or, at least, I hope he does.  I can’t imagine working in an environment that he describes.  At the same time, while reading Company, I couldn’t help but think that “that’s a lot like where I work.” For example, regarding the different organizations in the company and their relationships to one another, I’ve often thought that there must be someone where I work who’s sole job is to make up new forms, just so I have new ones to fill out.  Not because it leads to more productivity, or makes it easier to do my job, but just because.  Just because someone has a job to make forms.

By lampooning corporate culture, Barry exposes some of the trends that are really disturbing once you think about them.  I won’t go into details because I think it would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that by painting corporate life in an absurd extreme, Barry offers insight into just how corporate culture is affecting us, both as individuals and as a society.

I really enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, both for its entertainment value and its perspective on our market-driven society. I’d really like to hear what people who are in large, multinational corporations think about this book.  Barry himself used to work at HP. Any HPeons out there willing to give their thoughts?