Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Thinker -- Writer's Poke #257

One of the common criticisms of William Shakespeare's Hamlet is that he thinks too much. While there's nothing wrong with thinking, per se, and while most would acknowledge that thinking is probably a good thing when used in moderation, thinking too much can lead to the prison of inaction.

I don't know that Hamlet's flaw was over-thinking. And, it's not clear to me that Hamlet was guilty of inaction. But this isn't a lesson on Hamlet, and I don't want to spend too much time thinking about it. Let's just take as a starting place that Hamlet thinks a lot.

Othello, on the other extreme, is an impulsive chap. Some would say that impulse is his downfall, and that he acts too quickly and doesn't think things through sufficiently. Again, I'm not saying I necessarily buy into that analysis, okay? So cut me some slack here.

My point is simply thus: some of us are more like Hamlet, and some of us are more like Othello. And some of us are more like one of the countless other characters that sprang forth from the fertile imagination of the Great One. The man I like to call Billy.

Which William Shakespeare character is your doppelganger? Or, which one do you identify with most closely, and why?

"A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool." -- William Shakespeare

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Talking for a Living -- Writer's Poke #256

Yes, I used to listen to AM talk radio. Why? Well, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I lived within range of WLS, the "50,000 Watt Flamethrower" out of Chicago. In addition to syndicated programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show and Art Bell's Coast to Coast, I really enjoyed listening to local host Roe Conn's Saturday morning and weekday afternoon shows. All of these shows were entertaining, and that's why I listened.

By the end of the 1990s, however, entertaining no longer seemed to be a prerequisite to getting a show, or growing an audience. Have you ever heard The Sean Hannity Show? Here's a show with no redeeming value, and I say that not just because I disagree with the man's narrow-minded politics. Even today I can still listen to Rush, for example, because he's interesting, at least most of the time. Rush prepares for his shows and always has a "stack of stuff" to talk about. Hannity, on the other hand, never seems to prepare. I'm sure he does, but he's repetitive, has less interesting call-in conversations, and basically just annoys the hell out of me.

Quite honestly, I never thought anyone could ever have a worse show than Hannity, but Glenn Beck proved me mistaken. Beck makes Hannity look like Roe Conn. Beck's gimmick is that he uses "common sense" in a world where common sense is no longer common. Hardy-har-har, Beck. How many times can you use that phrase in a three hour program? And what exactly is "common sense"? Should we rely on it? It used to be "common sense" to say the Earth was flat, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth, etc.

But to me, common sense only goes so far. Beck's common sense doesn't seem to value scientific inquiry, the importance of analyzing data, or the need to test theories and "common sense" beliefs.

Simply put, the real problem with talkers like Hannity and Beck is this: they put beliefs before evidence. They think they know everything, and they lack the ability to listen. And what's worse, their narrow-minded, bull-headed chatter isn't the slightest bit entertaining.

What radio or TV personality would you like to punch in the face, and why?

"A narrow mind and a fat head invariably come on the same person." -- Zig Ziglar

Under the Influence -- Writer's Poke #255

Last night I watched the final HBO special George Carlin filmed before he died. Some will say that he was smart, but too vulgar, that he was more than a comedian, but spent most of the time speaking to the already converted. Call him what you will, but I call him irreplaceable. We are not going to see another comedian/philosopher/prophet like him again for a long time, if ever.

And I started thinking about other individuals that have shaped my philosophy and worldview. In addition to Carlin, four others came to mind immediately: Socrates, Lao Tzu, Carl Sagan, and Kurt Vonnegut.

What attracts me to these men? All of them were thinkers. All of them were willing to question everything. On one end of the spectrum, Vonnegut and Carlin could come off as bitter, but part of that was simply part of their act. Both, I think, admitted that the spark of idealism was still within them. It might be deeply buried, but it was still there. On the other end of the spectrum, Sagan and Socrates exhibited a fascination with discovery. They knew that simple belief and "common sense" wasn't enough. What was required, always: inquiry and an earnest evaluation of the evidence.

And Lao Tzu? For me, he's my connection to the spiritual realm -- an important voice in living an ethical existence, with none of the baggage that comes with Christianity and other religious viewpoints.

Who are the five individuals that have had the greatest influence on your worldview? Why?

"Criticism is the only known antidote to error." -- David Brin

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Sally Forth Affair -- Writer's Poke #254

Whenever people talk about their favorite syndicated cartoons, they usually mention strips like The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dilbert. Sally Forth is not one that generally comes up, but I think it's pretty good. In a lot of ways, I think it's just as smart as the cartoons referred to above, but maybe it's just not as flashy. I guess you could describe it as understated, and not a cartoon for kids, per se. Nevertheless, it's funny enough that it probably should be appreciated by old and young alike.

One of the ongoing story lines is Ted's office romance with Aria. Ted and Sally's marriage seems solid. They don't have any issues that might cause Ted to stray. And if you asked Ted what his relationship with Aria is all about, he would most likely look at you blankly. In Ted's mind, he and Aria are just friends. They share a lot of the same interests, and the chemistry between them is clearly there. But Ted isn't a dog, and the thought of having an affair with Aria would never cross his mind.

Likewise, Aria enjoys Ted's company at work, but she's not trying to destroy Ted's marriage. She's not trying to lead Ted on. But the underlying reality is: she's an unattached heterosexual woman, and Ted is a heterosexual man. If Ted weren't married, it wouldn't take much imagination to see him and Aria together. But since he is married, both of them enjoy each other's company in a strictly platonic way.

Other characters in the strip, such as Sally's friend Alice, as well as some of Ted's coworkers, believe that there is something funny, or at least inappropriate, about Ted and Aria's relationship. Alice describes Aria as Ted's "office wife," and eventually, based on the perceptions of others, as well as the low-level jealousy exhibited by his wife, Ted decides to confront Aria to clarify their relationship. He's never really able to do that, though, as he always ends up tripping over his own words, and/or because Aria cuts him off and makes fun of him.

If the relationship is completely innocent, then one question: When one of Ted's coworkers goes out on a date with Aria, why does that bother Ted so much?

Can men and women just be friends?

"Flirtation: attention without intention." -- Max O'Neil