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Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Trip: Diversity (and lack thereof)

I imagine the world is a big place. But it doesn't seem that way.

Okay, space-wise it's big. And it sure took a lot of time to go the length we did, both by plane and car.

But I'm accustomed to videogames, where I can go from a boiling hot desert with erupting volcanoes and flying lava and rock-monsters attack to a frozen forest with no gravity and funny-looking animal-people who live in invisible shoes just by taking an elevator. So my standards aren't in sync with the Real World.

The Real World isn't so exquisitely designed. Once we left the airport, apart from the language difference we might as well have still been in Tel Aviv. Roads, roads, and more roads awaited us. And here's the kicker: They were black with white stripes and green signs.

What? That doesn't shock you? Well, it should! What a lack of imagination! Would it have killed these countries to be original? Where's the place, I asked everyone around, with pink and yellow roads? Where's the place where the roads are all underground?

See, I don't think it's enough for each place you go to to have different coordinates on the map. I think each place should feel different. How were the roads here any different than the Israeli roads? Hmmm:
  • The traffic lights were slightly different.
  • There were more pronounced sidewalks.
  • Did I mention the traffic lights? Oh, and there were fewer zebra-striped crosswalks too.
Already you can see that the price of the plane ticket was totally worth it.

We actually crossed the border into Canada, but if it weren't for the different pictures on the crossing lights and the font on the road signs, I might never have known. The roads looked the same there too.

And why is it that every car looks the same? I know people always think I'm stupid for asking that but- They do! Where are the one-seaters? Where are the triple-decker ones? Where are the long thin ones with three seats, one in back of the other? Where are the ones where the driver is underneath the rest of the seats, by the wheels? Or on top of the roof, where he can get a real view?

And not only were they all the same design, but they all seemed to be the same boring colors as well! I couldn't have picked our rented car out from the rest in a parking lot, because they were all the same color. What good is having a DVD player on the inside, when on the outside it looks so bland? (How bland? Well, I can't remember what color it was- that's how bland.) Where were the cars with polka dots?

So what about the people? Surely, you ask, I met hundreds of interesting people while driving all that distance?

Heh. No, I'm just kidding- I know you didn't ask that. I mean, everyone knows that the last thing you'll see on the road is a human being! (Except for the oddly friendly American cops, who are too busy doing their two jobs to actually be human.) It's the beauty of progress- once upon a time, everyone walked everywhere through lovely forests and lava-filled monster-ridden deserts, and along the way they met everyone else who happened to be walking. (It should be noted that back then, roads probably looked different from each other.) Then one day Mr. Ford came along, and everyone could finally hide their individuality from everyone else inside identical boxes of metal. And humanity, as a whole, breathed a sigh of relief.

Oh yes, people love to pretend they're no different from everyone else. My father was constantly insisting that I tuck in my tzitzit, because having them out would stand out too much in America. And then he also forced me to shave off my beard, and even the little messy tufts of hair on my cheeks! I liked those blatantly asymmetrical tufts. You look at the messy-tufts, and you say, "That's Mory.". Or at least that was the plan, which was why I was growing them at different lengths. He forced me to shave the messy-tufts off, so that I'd look more "normal" for the bar mitzvah pictures. Bleh!

There's one place where, horror of horrors, you actually have to see people who look different than you, and that's waiting on a line. While we were on a line for the "Maid of the Mist", we saw a bunch of Amish people. I don't think I'd seen any Amish before. My family thought they looked weird, and I think they saw that as a bad thing.

Myself, I thought they looked weird too. But weird is good! See, if someone looks different than you, you start to wonder if they live different too. If you were to see someone whose legs sprouted out of the top of his head and walked upside-down, you'd wonder if gravity was reversed where he lived and they all walked on ceilings. And that's a good thing to think about! Every time you see weirdness, the world grows a little.

The real problem is all the people who don't stand out, because as far as anyone else is concerned they don't exist. They're just a shadow of the larger culture, not individuals. They might as well be doing a job and wearing uniforms for all the humanity they display. Because ultimately, humanity is all about that weirdness, I think.

And people are weird, whether or not they show it. I bet every person in those cars is a fascinating individual in his own right. But driving through identical road after road, seeing them only as the inside of a metal box, you'd never know it.

I imagine the world really is a big place. But it doesn't seem that way.



"How were the roads here any different than the Israeli roads? ..."

You forgot the yellow traffic signs (as opposed to Israeli red triangles) and the writing on the road! That's pretty creative if you ask me...

But seriously, the reason the roads and signs arn't all colerful and uniquely designed are because on the road people want safety more then anything else. The second objective is to get where they are going; this involves seeing the signs.

Some experts decided that roads should be black and white (probably cheapest and stands out) and that warning signs should be red or orange or yellow, and direction signs should be green (probably because blue and purple don't stand out as much and red orange and yellow are taken).

Once in a while you could have something stand out that doesn't bother the safety and speed of the people, for example that weird bridge they're building in Jerusalem. But people don't have the money to spend on making every road interesting.

By the same rule, cars are not one-seaters, triple-deckers, etc. because people don't want to buy cars like that. All they need is to get to some place fast, safely and conveniantely. Besides, companies would have a hard time manufacturing unique cars because they make so many. (This is also a reason why there arn't any manufactured polka dot cars)

However, cars and roads are not like people, because they don't consider what other contries/companies do as a reason for what they do...

Should have been in the last post:
"So what about the people? Surely, you ask, I met hundreds of interesting people while driving all that distance? ..."

The cars are not about hiding everyone's identity and making everyone the same, they are just meant to save time. That has the unfortunate side effect of not meeting anyone interesting that might be on the road.

Continuation of the last post:
People are affected by the societies they are in. No one wants to be considered "weird" (unless they think it's better). But anyone who is different and strange is considered "weird". So people stop being "weird". That's how human society works.

However, when you are just visiting a place, you should not feel like you need to be like the society. Your father may have been wrong about you not wearing tzitziot or growing a strange-looking beard.

The point is people should not see weird as being bad. (At least as long as it's not in your society.) It is not the polite thing to do. But it is natural.


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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Trip: Excellence vs. Accessibility

On the long trip to Detroit, I handed my father a CD to put in the player. It was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one of the greatest works of music ever composed. Beethoven liked to make use of strong contrasts in dynamics for dramatic effect, and so I found myself pressing my left ear to the speaker in order to hear anything at all. I did my best under the circumstances to appreciate the hour-long masterwork, as my family chatted loudly amongst themselves and waited for the whole thing to finish already. It is a piece of music which aims to do absolutely everything in one work, going so far as including an opera in the final movement. Even in that awful setting, I gained a new level of appreciation for the music as I listened. But why should any of that interest my family? They just got a kick out of hearing "Ode to Joy" toward the end; otherwise, it had no appeal for them.

It reached its satisfying conclusion, I took the disc back, and my father turned on the radio. What I heard was a short song which sounded just like any other, with phoney romantic lyrics market-tested to appeal to as large a target audience as possible, with the most obvious harmonic progression you could think of, but a slightly catchy simplistic tune. Miriam and Dena asked my father to raise the volume because they'd heard this song before. He did so, and why not?- the volume was a constant all the way through.

To summarize: Two hundred years ago, there was music which aimed to do everything. Now, there is music which aims to do nothing. Now that's progress.

But I wondered if I shouldn't lose sight of what audience the music was dealing with. My family weren't the sort of audience who cared enough about music to appreciate greatness, but they were looking for some mild entertainment they could use to keep themselves occupied for a few minutes at a time, and if it was soft and inobtrusive enough to allow them to chat on top of it, so much the better. They wanted to not have to get too involved, they wanted simple tunes diluted with simple lyrics. The music on the radio isn't an unwanted plague, it's serving a popular demand.

I can relate to wanting simplification, wanting more accessibility. When we went to Lincoln Memorial, I had a hard time figuring out what the point was, faced with historical context and the specific wording of a historic speech and an image of a historical figure. That's because I just don't care for history, and am unwilling to put in the effort I'd need to understand it.

But in Boston, we heard a small part of a tour about history which I actually enjoyed. Sillily, the tour guide was an actor dressed in old-fashioned clothes. He wasn't a historian at all, just a good storyteller, expressing historical trivia as compelling tales of ordinary people. It wasn't particularly informative, considering that I don't remember anything he said, but I had a very good few minutes listening to each story. I didn't want a history lesson of the sort that only appeals to enthusiasts, because I didn't have the patience nor the interest for history. But what's wrong with enjoying a little bit of simplified history on my level?

It occurred to me that if history were told (accurately, of course) through dramatic movies and exploration games, then most everyone, myself included, would love learning history.

After the Shabbat we spent in Detroit, one of my newly-bar-mitzvahed-cousins showed Benjy and me a flight simulator he liked: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. He had a joystick, and I waited eagerly to see him take off and have some fun flying. It took him ten minutes just to get off the ground, because this simulator was so obsessed with realism that he needed to go through dozens of communications with the tower in preparation, and needed to fiddle with many little doohickeys in the cockpit to be able to take off. When he did take off (using the joystick) and had the plane on its way, he put the joystick down and put the plane on auto-pilot. Apparently, this game was designed entirely for realism -not fun. There was no reward for any of the actions the player took, no excitement, no danger. It was so mundane. I begged him to crash the plane, so that we could at least see an explosion. But he was too responsible a virtual pilot. Yawn.

What I would want to see in a flight game is the experience of flying distilled to the raw thrill of soaring around. You should be able to use that joystick to swing around wildly, thrown off course by every gust of wind, and feel like you are the plane (or preferably a bird) flying free. That's an accessible feeling, a universal feeling. Maybe it wouldn't last for more than a minute or two, but that short time would be such wonderful wish fulfillment.

In Illinois, my grandfather took us out on his boat. He's got a really nice boat, with a refrigerator and a dining room and a bedroom and a bathroom and a nice set-up for the radio. It's a good, reliable boat with all sorts of digital doohickeys all over the place. I wasn't interested in learning to use those doohickeys to use the wind for maximum speed, nor was I interested in understanding what every little bit of the boat was there for, so I just sat in my place and let Benjy and my father help out.

Now, the ideal work would work on both levels. It would be deep enough for pros, but accessible enough to pull in ordinary people so that they might become pros. As I sat, I pictured a fantasy metalude set on an ocean a la The Wind Waker, which would have a great deal of realism in its sailing mechanics (unlike that game's simplistic accessibility) but remain universal in its appeal by using that fictional setting to justify the effort. I'd be perfectly willing to be guided through the real-world nuances of sailing if I saw an interesting-looking uncharted island far off that was sure to have some excitement on it. The lure of the great unknown would pull in the newcomer (initially learning the ropes from an NPC with him), who would then get caught up in the depth of the simulator and have fun not only on the island but in between islands as well.

The last time we saw our other grandparents in Boston, they wanted to take a family photo while they could. They'd had a flat tire, so we were by a street. They didn't like that, but it's what we had. I wished I had had a camera of my own, but it was too late for that. I stood for their picture in a distracted pose, as if I'd rather not be in that particular photo. I couldn't stop them from taking only the most accessible type of picture, and I wasn't sure that I should. But I had the opportunity to add some depth and truth to the image, and so I did.



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