Saturday, May 10, 2008

Whiz Kids

A while ago, I posted an article about greed in which I talked about how a lot of people are making money with their blogs and web sites by placing ads all over them, essentially turning their sites into little more than corporate billboards.

I didn't mean to imply that the internet ushered in a new age of greed. It simply provided a new avenue for it. Greed is nothing new.

For example, don't ask me why, but when I was writing that article, I thought of Barry Minkow. He had nothing to sell, but he made millions of dollars selling it, advertising heavily on TV long before most people had ever even heard of the internet. He was basically a con man who was found guilty and sentenced to prison. But since he was so young at the time, people tended to refer to him as a "whiz kid." And even though they knew what he did was wrong, they remained in awe of his skills and admired him for how long he got away with it.

I don't know if he was a whiz kid or not. I think he might have been just a slick con artist who learned his chops at an early age.

But while we're on the subject, it might be worthwhile to examine the term "whiz kid" for a moment or two. It clearly comes from the combining of the two terms "whiz" and "kid," but the real issue is the etymology of the word "whiz." Everybody's best guess is that it's derived from "wizard," so the issue then becomes a question of where that "h" came from. There no explanation for how it got there, so maybe we should actually be using the term "wiz kid" instead of "whiz kid" when we're referring to children of uncommonly high intelligence or aptitude.

This becomes especially important when we consider that the word "whiz" has another much more popular definition, as exemplified in the sentence "Honey, there's a strange man in our back yard and he's taking a whiz all over the gladiolas."

Okay, enough about that. There's another expression I'd like to spend a little time examining. That expression is "It's so bad it's good."

Recall the following dialog from the movie Ghost World:

Rebecca: This is so bad it's almost good.
Enid: This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again.

They were talking about their high school graduation dance, but you mostly hear it used in reference to movies. And even though it's definitely true of some movies, there aren't a lot of other things it can be applied to. I suppose it's true of most types of art, if your tastes are broad enough, but that's really about it.

For example, I doubt if anyone has ever eaten some really bad food and thought, "That was so bad it was good." And no one has ever tried to drive a car that barely runs and thought, "This car is so bad it's good."

I could go on and on with examples, but I'm sure you get the idea. So I'm going to end right here. But before I do, I'd like to visit the subject of whiz kids again. When Barry Minkow was 16, he started his business, which began as a legitimate one. So whether or not he was a whiz, he was definitely a kid.

But you also hear the term applied to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, referring their youth during the early days of the microprocessor. But they were already in their 20s when they founded Microsoft and Apple, so even though they may have been whizzes, they were no longer kids -- they were actually adults. As a matter of fact, most whiz kids are actually young adults, so maybe we need another term to describe them. I'll leave it to you to think of one, but if it involves a derivation of the word "wizard," please don't try to sneak an "h" in there.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

More of the Same

Today I'm just going to expand a little on what I wrote about last week, so if you didn't find that post particularly interesting, you shouldn't bother with this one.

After my dad read last week's column on counterculture, he sent me a message about the first counterculture in the America. And by "America," I mean the United States, of course, although this was way back in the 1630's, so technically, the United States didn't even exist yet.

Anyway, sometime in the 1630's a group of people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony got fed up with the strict Puritans and set up a mock colony outside of Boston, which they called Merrymount. To quote from The New England Canaan, Book III, Chapter 14 (courtesy of Wikipedia): The Inhabitants of...Mare Mount...did devise amongst themselves...Revels and merriment after the old English custome; (they) prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day...and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day. And...they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon May day they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drumes, gunnes, pistols and other fitting instruments, for the purpose; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot longe was reared up, with a peare of buckshorns nayled one somewhat neare unto the top of it: where it stood, as a faire sea mark for directions how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Mare Mount.

In other words, they got drunk, consorted with the people we now call "Native Americans," and generally did things that annoyed the Puritans. But things didn't stay that way for very long. Things changed pretty quickly when Miles Standish was sent by the Pilgrims to restore order. That's a story that has been repeated over and over in the centuries that followed: Step out of line and you'll be oppressed by The Man.

My dad also mentioned the Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century, who were basically the hippies of their day, to use a possibly unfair and extremely gross simplification. And the next day, he sent me a link to a review of a book entitled "Modernism: The Lure of Heresy" by Peter Gay. The review wasn't entirely favorable but it did get me thinking a little, since I've always found myself attracted to modernism in various forms, such as art, music, architecture, and (to a lesser extent) literature.

The book uses a much broader definition of modernism than the one I'm used to, roughly defining modernism as beginning some 250 years ago. But the thing is (and this is what I've always known but never really thought much about), modernism was more than just a new way to write or paint or compose music or design buildings -- it was a revolt against the established way of doing things, which also makes it a bona fide counterculture.

So there you have it. But before I leave this topic, I have to mention another book review I read this week. The book was by Suze Rotolo, who was the girlfriend of Bob Dylan in the very early '60s and who appears with him on the cover of his 1963 album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I'll probably never read the book, but there was an interesting quote from it that resonated with me, since it neatly sums up the difference between a counterculture and whatever passes for one today. She wrote that the '60s were important because back then, people "had something to say, not something to sell." I couldn't have said it better myself.

I was also talking last week about the environmental movement, which I regard as sort of a failure, since during its 40 years or so, things have only gotten worse. Of course, I can't really blame the environmentalists for that -- if they hadn't been around, maybe things would be even worse today.

The only reason I'm bringing this up is that there's a lot of what I consider pseudo-environmentalism going around these days. I'm not talking about "green-washing" -- the tactic of corporations in which they spend zillions of dollars advertising how environmentally conscious they are instead of spending that money to lessen the damage they do to the environment. I'm talking about things like telling people to replace their incandescent lights with long-lasting energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.

I'm not the first to say it, so you probably already know this, but I'll say it anyway: The problem with fluorescent lights is that they contain mercury vapor, and mercury is a poison that gets released into the atmosphere every time a fluorescent light is thrown away. When they burn out, you're supposed to dispose of them properly, which means taking them to a recycler who accepts fluorescent lights. Assuming everyone can find such a recycler, and assuming they actually make the effort to take the lights to a recycler, and assuming none of the lights accidentally breaks while the recycler is hauling them to the place that safely removes the mercury and disposes of the glass, then I guess there's nothing wrong with fluorescent lights. But those are a lot of assumptions to make. So keep buying those inefficient incandescent bulbs, and if you want to be environmentally conscious, then don't leave all the lights on all the time. And when LED bulbs come down in price -- I think they currently run about $90 per bulb -- start using those.