Posts tagged ‘Funny Business’

April 3rd, 2011

Flights of Fancy

Time Magazine recently ran an article encouraging readers to think of airports as small cities. From Beijing to Dubai, the last decade or two has seen mammoth new airports built in expectant hotspots. (Although the US has generally lagged in building new airports or rehabilitating older ones, part of our multi-generational failure to invest in our own infrastructure.) Airplane orders are sometimes looked at as a sign of economic health, given the average cost per passenger jet (upwards of $300 million for a Boeing 747) and the broad supply chain of manufacturing needs and services that go into building each one. Orders are up so recent indicators suggest that, indeed, things are improving in our economy.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago as I sat with a colleague at the airport in Buffalo, New York, waiting for my flight back to JFK. Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, the fault this time was not with the airline (JetBlue, which was generally strong on service and on its communication around the delays) or with weather in Buffalo. It was raining and windy in New York, and JFK was suffering from a range of unspecified delays, which meant that my 6:30pm flight didn’t leave until 11pm, and didn’t land until 1:30am. The only good thing about the situation was that flying into JFK meant we were able to get home: the flights into LaGuardia airport were all canceled.

If you live virtually anywhere in the United States, you will know that 2010-2011 has been an especially rough winter. The eastern states, from north to south, were hammered with snow, causing numerous kinds of shutdowns. So was the Midwest. There was even snow in San Francisco, definitely not the norm there. While “winter” is technically over, and temperatures in New York are a bit warmer, this only means that what would be snow has been replaced by a lot of rain. Much of this can be attributed to global warming, and specifically to the environmental impact of having a few percentage points more moisture in the air than we did a decade ago. More moisture in the air means more moisture that’s likely to come down in the form of rain or snow. And if the pattern of more rain or snow—more in frequency and more in volume—continues, it means we won’t be flying as much as we think we will in the future.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a database of flights, including those that were canceled. As you can see from these two charts, cancellations in January 2011 from two airlines at two airports were significantly higher than in the previous four Januaries: for USAirways, a high of 140 in 2011, compared with only 68 canceled flights the year before; for American Airlines, 95 cancellations in 2011, compared with a previous high of 30 in 2008. (I chose USAirways and American Airlines based on an awareness of their frequency of flights from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports respectively. I selected LGA and JFK because they are my two local airports.) Sorry, you’ll have to click to see the charts at full size.

Sure, it’s possible January 2011 was an anomaly, the weather-and-airline-traffic equivalent of an earthquake. Only time will tell. But if this past winter’s weather continues as the norm, we may need to reevaluate our expectations about the role of air travel in the global economy, not to mention as a means of getting around. Perhaps there will be some environmental benefits as a result, though one gets the sense sometimes that it may be too late to reverse the damage.

December 16th, 2010

Public Fun

I woke up yesterday feeling intellectually under-caffeinated. When that didn’t change after a large cup of coffee, I decided something else needed to happen—and in the random and mysterious ways of the subconscious, I started thinking about some wordplay around letters of the alphabet. I started, of course, with “A,” and came up with almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus off the top of my head. As I wrote them down on a scrap of paper, next to my computer, my conscious mind took over, and I thought about Tweeting my three words. But … why?

Why indeed. My three words all happened to be foods, and I thought it might be fun to focus my brain teaser a bit further by requiring all the words for each letter to be foods. The alliteration was clear (if nonsensical—but then, the whole thing was nonsensical), so I thought of calling them “alliterative diets.” But who would do a diet of almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus? It seemed more fun expressly calling them fake diets. Alliterative fake diets. And so a Twitter hashtag was born.

If none of this sounds funny, well, you had to be there. It’s not funny the way that most humor isn’t once you start dissecting it–so I’ll stop, and just point out that you can see the (public) list of my Tweeted #AlliterativeFakeDiets by clicking on that link. Then I’ll move on to say that what you (most likely) cannot see is the way this took off on Facebook with a couple of friends. They responded to my silly idea precisely because it was silly, and because they like food, and by the time I’d gotten to “F,” the theme was fairly clear and they were off and running. All the letters not at the link above were covered by my friends, on Facebook, from their own inspiration.

And this, you might say, is why I love the internet—and have come to love social networking in particular. Not so much because I created a nonsensical brain teaser for myself and then others thought it was fun, but because it makes it possible to have fun with people, in near-real-time, over distances large or small. If I had just mentioned it to my wife, she would probably have brushed it off as early morning nonsense. My three year old might have enjoyed playing, but I couldn’t stick around all day to hear her come up with food words. My colleagues might have enjoyed this (at least some of them) but I didn’t want to forcibly interrupt—and, anyway, some of them follow me on Twitter and could join in there. Why share them over Twitter in the first place? Because my “alliterative fake diets” concept is exactly the sort of thing that works well on the internet generally and Twitter and Facebook in particular.

I got combinations for the first few letters fairly quickly, and popped them into Twitter, and it had served its original purpose for me: my word recall had improved, my brain was firing a bit faster, and the caffeine was now doing its neuron-connecting job more effectively. But the “conversation” around this with friends took it to a whole new level: it went from brain teaser to mood changer. How could it not be uplifting to see them coming up with combinations like “wasa, waterzoi, watermelon,” and then discussing whether there were rules about what could be included or why one combination worked better than the other? The internet was built for this. Maybe not purpose-built, but it serves the purpose nonetheless. And while it’s easy to laugh off as a means of wasting time, in this case I think the intellectual and emotional benefits were well worth it. We finished the alphabet, which felt good, and that’s a feeling I won’t dismiss easily.

August 31st, 2010

Bloggin’ ’bout my generation

I’m not sure I can credibly claim to blog about my generation.  In fact, I’m not even sure I know what my generation is, since I’m trapped somewhere between being born too late to be a Baby Boomer … and too early to feel much kinship with “Gen X.”  Either way, this little strip from is still funny and rings true.

"With apologies to The Who"

Of course, it helps that I like The Who.

May 19th, 2010

The Fetish of Choice

I ordered a new vacuum cleaner last weekend. It’s taken several weeks of pondering and, on my part, about two hours of research combing through something like 100 different products to make the final choice. We almost bought one the weekend before, after a pop-in to our local hardware store, but I wasn’t sold on the bright red $69 “Dirt Devil” unit. Consumer Reports would bear me out on that: although it rates Dirt Devil products solidly for overall brand reliability and endurance, the vacuums themselves don’t always score well.

This process of searching, of combing through Consumer Reports and other online reviews, got me thinking about the way in which our culture fetishizes choice. This is a phenomenon that has exploded as a result of the internet: the incredible access to information, reviews, product details, and retail sources has made it possible for us all to become consumer connoisseurs, and often for items one never knew required such connoisseurship. Like vacuum cleaners. Or sheets.

If you have tried to shop for sheets lately, you know what I mean: the selection is no longer about fabric, color, pattern, and possibly brand name. It’s now also about thread count, trim style, and the origin of the fabric—nearly twice as many factors. I have bought sheets more than a few times in my life, but prior to the internet I do not recall debates over thread count entering into the equation, or of having such attention drawn to the grow spot for the cotton. Can any of us really tell the difference between sheets with a thread count of 500 versus 600, particularly after they’ve been through the wash a few times?

I’m not trying to do a Grumpy Old Man schtick here—I like the degree to which our choices have increased, and our ability to shop around for and price out products so effectively. But I think we have surpassed the mere offering of a wider selection of products at different prices, glorious though that is.

In researching the vacuum, much was made not only of HEPA filters (to catch dust particles) but also noise reduction. Silly me, I just assumed that vacuums were noisy! If the machine uses bags (as opposed to re-usable canisters), there are a variety of vacuum bag options: some do an extra-good job at trapping dust along with dirt—which seems to me the sort of bag you want want as standard, not as an add-on. For the model I purchased, there are actually two different kind of higher-quality bags, one of which is branded “Clinic,” as if to convey that its dirt-and-dust-trapping would pass muster in a hospital. And there’s even a vacuum (same brand, same model as the one I purchased) made from recycled plastic. It’s tagged as “Green,” though this misleadingly implies there’s something greener about how it works, as opposed to how it was made.

Again, this is not to say that choice is bad, or even to argue that the wide selection of products and services is overwhelming. Others have made—or skewered—this argument, and I tend to side with the (pardon the pun) pro-choice folks. I am not too concerned about the overwhelming options, or the diverse range of products one can choose from in different categories; I tend to think this should be celebrated, and the internet hailed as the liberator. If it sometimes requires more work, more time, and more thought for what might seem like a simple decision, we are still better off as individuals and as a society. At the same time, the internet has enabled us to fixate on standards that sometimes seem more illusory than real—the kind of standards that were once limited to the small segment of people who could afford to worry about such distinctions.

Often, it does not feel like a kind of Consumer Democracy, but rather just a Consumer Absurdistan: a place where we make choices based on factors that have a stronger psychological draw than a practical one, and where such decisions may not satisfy either our actual or our metaphysical needs.