Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Holy Shit, Hook!

I'm gonna disappoint some of you loyal readers when you learn that I'm not referring to one of the best adventure movies to come out of the early nineties. Instead, I'm here to tell you about a song that came out three years later. The song that called us all idiots to our face, and we sat here bobbing our heads and proving Blues Traveler's point.
Hook (the movie)
It was this movie. And if you disagree you can shut your mouth, Philistine.

"Hook" ripped its chord structure directly from Pachelbel's Canon in D. That's the song you hear at weddings that might as well be called "Here Comes Everyone Who is Not the Bride." The progression is eerily powerful as an earworm. It's a song that will inevitably described as either Good or Catchy by anyone who hears it, even if they don't like it.

That's why it was chosen. Not in a nefarious way or even out of capitalistic self-interest...sort of. It was an artistic choice in the same way the title "Hook" was. As were the lyrics, which you probably don't remember even seconds after you belt them at the top of your lungs. They're surreptitious and overt all at once.
Like Bryan Cranston disguising himself as Heisenberg

You see, "Hook" is a song about how easy it is to manipulate people into enjoying trite, simplistic, boring music. The only thing original about it is its self-awareness. If you don't believe me, just check out some of the lyrics:

It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel that I’ll convey
Some inner truth of vast reflection

But I’ve said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
And it don’t matter who you are
If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks

Because the hook brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely
The hook John Popper is referring to is the musical concept of a riff that catches your ear and makes you stick around to hear the rest of the song. It worked, too. "Hook" peaked at 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It got there by telling its audience that they were going to be taken in by the composition of the song and convinced that it said something meaningful even though it didn't.

And we obliged. Which actually kind of makes it an interesting song. Hell, check out the video:

If you can get past the incredibly '90s hair and tucked in t-shirts (and the realization that Paul Schaffer was in Blues Traveler), you'll see a perfect companion piece to the song. It's a guy watching television and being taken in by contestants in a beauty pageant and a Citizen Kane-esque politician, all of whom are literally telling him that he's only listening because of the way their words are presented, not what they're actually saying.

And the more you listen to the rapid-fire third verse, the more you understand that it's just John Popper saying, "This is really low and valueless as art, but hell, it'll make me some money."

Holy shit.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Holy Shit, John D. Rockefeller!

John D. Rockefeller

Let's talk about wealth. You know how we like to use the phrase "filthy rich?" Well, if wealth is filth, then John D. Rockefeller could single-handedly destroy Captain Planet by the sheer weight of his putrescence.
Captain Planet vs. Hitler
Though to be fair, Hitler almost destroyed him with a rude glance.

The man was moneyed. Big time. You think you have a wealthy relative? Your cousin or uncle who started a business and owns a McMansion? Pah. Plebe. Rockefeller could buy most small cities if he had been so inclined. He could have swooped in on his hometown of Cleveland, for example, and bought every single building within the city limits. Probably. I didn't look that up, it just seemed right. Sue me.

You think Bill Gates has wealth? Well, he does. He is currently the richest man on the planet, valued at over 72 Billion Dollars. That's after he gave much of his fortune away to charity. But adjusted for inflation, Bill Gates did not have as much money as John D. Rockefeller. Not by a loooooooooooong shot. Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller was worth about 665 Billion Dollars. More than NINE TIMES as much as Bill Gates.
Bill Gates frowning
Sorry, William.

You know how Occupy Wall Street took "We are the 99 percent" as their rallying cry? The "1%" in the time of Rockefeller...was Rockefeller. He was the sole member of the top 1% of wealth-holders in America. In fact, since he personally controlled 1.53% of the GDP of the United States, he could have legitimately claimed to be both a part of the 1% and joined in the chant, "We are the 99%." Because he was both.

To the great benefit of society, Rockefeller poured a massive amount of money back where it was needed through charitable giving. He was, in many ways, the founder of modern philanthropy. There's a good reason you hear the name Rockefeller fairly often, whether it's related to medicine, the arts, or education. His money played a key role in the establishment of as Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Vassar, as well as a number of historically black colleges. In his early days, he was a Lincoln-supporter and a die-hard abolitionist.

Of course, on the other hand, he was also a die-hard capitalist, which meant crushing his competition underfoot when they didn't measure up and leaving them destitute. That's business, to be sure, but there weren't as many protections against monopolies back then. Rockefeller was one of the classic Robber Barons of the 19th Century who, intentionally or not, set about establishing a new type of aristocracy through their control of the economy. Anyone who ended up starving, they argued, was simply a victim of evolution. They called it Social Darwinism, and it was based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the works of Charles Darwin.
Charlie Darwin facepalm
Come on, guys, I said natural selection.

A number of new regulations and New Deals came along that would help to mitigate the control of the Robber Barons and give the middle class a stronger ground to stand on, but my personal favorite was a proposal (watered down before passing and later repealed) called the Wealth Tax Act. If it had been made into a law, it would have charged a staggering 79% tax on the top earners in America. The threshold for this tax bracket, though, was high. So high, in fact, that it would effectively be levied only to a single person. They could have just called it the John D. Rockefeller Tax.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Holy Shit, Silphium!

I decided to go a little festive for this week's entry and talk about Silphium. It's nearly Valentine's Day, after all, so it's only appropriate. Silphium was an herb that was so valued for its flavor and medicinal properties that it was said to be worth its weight in silver. It's been found on ancient coins from Cyrene in North Africa. And its seed pod looked like this:
Silphium Coin from Cyrene
Yes. That's why it's festive.

If that looks more like a heart symbol to you than an actual heart does, you might be onto something. In fact, it's possible that Silphium seed pods are the origin of the heart symbol as we know it. There are other theories, too, but it's usually best not to illustrate them.
This close, they always look like landscape.

Silphium was apparently a wonder plant. It was described as an incredibly aromatic herb that every good cook should always have in their kitchen. It was also used for a medicinal purposes, treating all maladies that stretched from sore throats to pregnancy.

The reason this plant is thought to be the origin of the heart symbol, you see, is that it may have been an early form of birth control. And what could be more romantic than sending your sweetheart a message that says, in essence, "I want to have consequence-free sex with you."
"I Birth Control New York" has...what I'll call an interesting ring to it.

Alas, the ancient civilizations eventually had to give up their herbal anti-baby love drug. Through some combination of over-harvesting, over-tilling, over-consumption, or over-grazing, Silphium became extinct early on in the Common Era, around the time of Nero.

The way I choose to see it is that people were so excited to discover that they could easily make with the hanky-panky and not worry about babies, they all ran out to the fields and harvested the shit out of Silphium until there simply weren't none left for nobody. Thus did the promise of copulation lead to the demise of a pillar of the North African economy.

Holy shit. Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Holy Shit, Phineas Gage!

Phineas Gage and the Big-Ass Tamping Rod

Phineas Gage had an especially rough day at work. It was 1848 and he was a foreman on a railway construction project in Vermont. There was a big outcropping of rock in the way, so naturally Phineas decided to blow it to hell with blasting powder. It's possible that he neglected to add sand to his magic explosion powder, and as a result his day worsened significantly.

As he was packing the explosives into place with a tamping iron, the iron made a spark. If you've ever been around gunpowder and sparks, you can probably guess what the result was. It was an explosion. It drove the iron, with terrific force, back out of the hole and into Phineas Gage's face, where it created a brand new hole of its own.
Phineas Gage's Skull
It was a way less meticulously dug hole, too.

The effect of this (what surgical journals would later refer to as, I shit you not) abrupt and intrusive visitor was to literally destroy both his left eye and his left frontal lobe. Of his brain. The thing that tells the rest of your body what to do all the time. In most instances, this sort of injury is accompanied by almost instantaneous death. Not for Phineas Gage, though. He survived and even sat up on his own after a few minutes.

In fact, while the injury ultimately did lead to his death, it would take about another twelve years to get around to it. In that time, Phineas Gage became a marvel of the psychological and neurological science communities. When the tamping iron took out a chunk of his brain, it appeared to have taken most of his "how to not be an asshole" knowledge with it, so naturally Gage turned into kind of an asshole for a while.
Cat derailing a train
Like this but smaller and less feline.

Which was a huge deal. It seemed to confirm suspicions that our actions are, in a way, preordained by the contents of our brains. This played right into the hands of phrenologists, a large group of charlatans who managed to convince much of the scientific community that our personality types are dictated largely by where our heads are bumpiest. The fact that Gage had a dramatic swing in his behavior after part of his brain was destroyed was pretty compelling.
Phrenology Map
Part of the "White People are Just the Greatest" branch of pseudo-science

However, a recently discovered report seems to indicate that Phineas Gage got back to his old self by the time he died of a massive seizure in 1860. Either he re-learned the social conventions that had been literally blown out the top of his head, or there was a fundamental problem with the model of phrenology. Which there obviously was, since it's been thoroughly debunked anyway.

Maybe it was just an enormous amount of stress that had caused the change. I mean, he had suffered quite a bit of trauma. That much trauma is bound to cause some disorder in his life involving stress.


Holy shit.