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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – Don’t Go… Grow!

If you’re a regular viewer of The Simpsons, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Apu

Apu has been a part of The Simpsons since its first season (in 1990), making his debut appearance in an episode called The Telltale Head. Despite being animated, he is surprisingly well-rounded. Apu graduated at the top of his class at Caltech – the Calcutta Institute of Technology – and holds a Ph.D in Computer Science. His doctoral dissertation described an AI computer program that would play an unbeatable game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Apu took a job at the Kwik-E-Mart initially to help pay of his student loans. Apu’s last name, Nahasapeemapetilon, is a variation of Pahasadee Napetilon, a friend of one of The Simpsons’ writers. Apu is a vegan, an ardent cricket fan, and likes to design and build furniture. Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria.

As far as I know, everybody loves Apu. For almost 28 years, Apu has been (and still is) a beloved character in The Simpsons, but during the fall of 2017, there arose a torrent of negative articles about him. These articles stated that the character was racist, and by extension, The Simpsons itself was racist. Given the speed at which this change of heart occurred, I initially thought that we were experiencing what Malcolm Gladwell would call The Tipping Point.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed that the entire world was disgusted with Apu. There were articles in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Slate, The Guardian, and The Verge, to name a few. I had a difficult time grasping this sudden sanctimoniousness.

That is, until I took a closer look at these articles, and noticed a certain similarity…

Each of these sources quoted a comedian named Hari Kondabolu and mentioned his upcoming documentary, The Problem With Apu. After a while it became clear what was happening. Hari Kondabolu was using the media to promote his new film. He had something to sell, and was displaying a level of outrage and victimization that seemed well out of proportion as a response to an animated character. I suspect that he wanted to make the rest of us worked up enough to see his film. In my opinion, he was trying to create a scandal where none had existed before.

I decided to watch his movie’s trailer. Kondabolu had enlisted some of his Indian friends to join him in his outrage, so it would appear that he wasn’t alone in his ranting. When he started to say that he liked The Simpsons, his friend (whose hatred for Apu was so all-consuming that it made him despise the entire series) wouldn’t let Hari finish his thought. He interrupted Hari, and them proceeded to insert words into his mouth “[Because] you hate yourself“.

This was manufactured outrage, and I wasn’t buying it for a second. Judging by the vast majority of the people commenting on this YouTube video, neither was anyone else. In fact, the commenters made a number of good points:

  • Everyone gets lampooned in The Simpsons. That’s the point of the show.
  • Groundskeeper Willie is portrayed much more negatively as an ornery Scotsman. Mr. Burns possesses all of the negative qualities of an evil capitalist.
  • Are Americans actually blaming an animated character for what they perceive as limited opportunities in their lives?
  • I don’t care if he’s voiced by a non-Indian actor. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
  • Apu has been treated well by the show’s writers. He owns his own business, he married a nice woman and they are raising a family together. He’s a hard worker, he respects his culture and he is generally happy.

If Shakespeare were alive, he would have summarized this issue thusly: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“, or perhaps as one commenter put it “Much Apu about nothing“.

At this point, I was ready to dismiss the whole thing as the bombastic histrionics of one individual, done in order to promote his documentary… except for two things:

  • Hank Azaria responded to these articles and comments on the speculation that Apu may no longer be part of The Simpsons.
  • Kondabolu does make a good point. After almost 28 years, Apu’s character hasn’t changed much. While he did get married, have children and now appears to own the Kwik-E-Mart, his character has remained essentially static.

During this time, the disparity between television and reality was growing. The cultural makeup of our society has changed, along with our perception and acceptance of immigrants. Indian actors are appearing in more American television shows and are portraying people in prestigious professions: Mindy Kaling is a doctor in The Mindy Project; Kunal Nayyar plays an astrophysicist in The Big Bang Theory; Paull Walia has starred as a doctor in several television series, including Grey’s Anatomy, General Hospital and The Young & The Restless.

Kondabolu is reminding us that, even as an animated caricature, Apu no longer represents South Asians in North America. What’s going to happen to Apu? In one article, the interviewer asks Hari Kondabolu about rumours that Apu’s character will be killed off, He replies “I’d feel mixed about it… There’s more creative solutions, but it’s easier to kill off the character than change.

But does this mean that Apu should be kicked to the proverbial curb? Only if you believe that animated characters must remain static forever and are incapable of developing. Killing Apu’s character, or otherwise writing him out of the show, is nothing more than an emotional response and a myopic knee-jerk reaction. There are better ways to handle this situation. One that I’d like to propose is allowing Apu to grow and develop. Apu’s character shouldn’t be as flat as his two-dimensional animation.

Raj With Drink

Character growth has already been demonstrated in a recent television series, and in my opinion quite effectively. During the first season of The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali suffered from selective mutism – he wasn’t able to speak in the presence of women who weren’t related to him. Personally, I thought this running joke was getting old quickly, and I suspect that the BBT show’s writers did as well, since they created a loophole for him during the eighth episode of the first season: he could speak to women, but only after consuming alcohol. Soon, Raj almost always had a drink in his hand. By the sixth season, Raj’s selective mutism was purged entirely after his girlfriend, Lucy, broke up with him. Raj’s character evolved considerably since the series started. The Simpsons is now in its 29th season.

My vision is the development of Apu during a season-long story arc. I feel that this is the most realistic way to go about it, since no one is going to buy a sudden awakening or a life-changing epiphany. During the course of an entire season, I’d like to see Apu slowly observe the world changing around him, and then realize that new opportunities abound. Here are some subplot ideas that can be wovwn into the main stories:

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Character Development Scenes

Episode 1 Goal: Apu encounters and interacts with non-stereotypical Indians.
Scene: Russell Peters is driving through Springfield, and stops at the Kwik-E-Mart for a drink and some snacks. As Russell is paying for his items, he strikes up a conversation with Apu. After some small talk…

Apu: It’s nice meeting you. My name is Apu.
Russell: Everyone is so friendly in this town. Nice meeting you, too. My name’s Russell.
Apu: Russell? That’s your name?
Russell: Yes, my name is Russell. Russell Peters.
Apu: [leans in closer. Speaks softly, conspiratorially] Come on. I’m Indian, you’re Indian… what’s your real name?

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Episode 2 Goal: Apu sees limitless opportunities for Indians, well beyond beyond the Kwik-E-Mart.
Scene 1: Apu is watching TV and hears a news story about Microsoft, including a short interview with its CEO. Apu was expecting Bill Gates, and is astounded to learn that its CEO is Satya Nadella.
Scene 2: Later that week, there is a news story about Google. Apu is expecting a brief statement from Larry & Sergey, and is once again shocked to learn that Google’s CEO is Sundar Pichai. Apu starts to realize that America is indeed the land of opportunity for everyone, and wonders whether he can do more with his life than manage the Kwik-E-Mart.

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Multi-Episode Story Arc

Each year, the Kwik-E-Mart franchisees meet in a different city for their annual convention. This year, they are meeting in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. While at the hotel, Apu meets up with some other franchisees, and they share entertaining stories about their stores and customers, as well as trading Squishee machine maintenance tips. The group agrees to meet at a nearby restaurant for lunch, but Apu doesn’t hear them – he’s wandered off to another corner of the room, and is marvelling at a prototype of a new Squishee machine. When he returns, his group is gone, and he now has to forage the neighbourhood himself and find a place to eat.

Apu walks a couple of blocks and finds a small restaurant, not too far from Stanford University. As he is waiting for his food, he overhears a group of young people at the next table discussing their work and a couple of particularly perplexing coding and AI problems. Apu gets up, walks over and offers to help – after all, he did code an unbeatable Tic-Tac-Toe program as part of his Ph.D thesis in Computer Science, and is quite familiar with the theoretical and practical applications of artificial intelligence.

As it turns out, these young people are all Google engineers, and they are astounded by Apu’s programming insights. They initially assume that he’s visiting professor at Stanford, since the restaurant is frequented by its faculty. Their conversation becomes quite animated: Apu’s solutions could have applications in Google’s self-driving cars, and could form the foundation of an enhanced search engine that knows what you’re about to search for before you even start typing. One of them notes “If we embed his designs into Google Glass, it might become something that people actually want to wear this time. I think Sergey will be absolutely thrilled, since Google Glass was his pet project.” They invite Apu to join them at the Googleplex that afternoon, to meet with their boss.

Googleplex

The Cliffhanger: Apu is hesitant. There’s an important seminar starting in less than an hour. They are going to demonstrate the Squishee machine prototype, and announce a couple of new flavours for next year. He’s going to know what those flavours are before anyone else. On the other hand, he’s never been inside the Googleplex before. He now stands at a fork in the road, and is genuinely undecided.

I’ve written a lot more, but this is how the story arc would begin.

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Closing Thoughts

I can understand where Hari Kondabolu is coming from. During the past quarter century, our cultural landscape has shifted, moving slowly and almost imperceptibly, like tectonic plates, until the continual movement culminates in an earthquake. Suddenly, we are jolted awake, with the the realization that Apu is no longer an accurate representation of South Asians in North America. However, it’s not to late to develop and enhance his character. Let’s make this a positive growth experience for all of us.

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How I Would Deal With Celebrities Who Harass Women

The dominoes have started to fall, and they are now tumbling faster and faster. At this moment, we are living through what Malcolm Gladwell would call The Tipping Point.

Hollywood Sign

We are now all uncomfortably aware of this poorly-kept secret: women in the entertainment industry have been sexually harassed and assaulted by men in power, but rarely has anything been done about it. The tides started to turn in October 2014, when Bill Cosby was accused of multiple drug-facilitated sexual assaults. At first, we didn’t want to believe it – as Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby was America’s father during the 1980s. He liked Jello pudding and he didn’t swear during his comedy routines. What’s not to like? Then, as more and more women came forward, it became clear that our safe, comfortable reality was about to come crashing down. The number of accusers kept climbing until the total surpassed 50. This could not longer be a conspiracy or a collusion – we needed to adjust to a harsh, new reality.

What was a single tremor in 2014 turned into an earthquake during the summer and fall of 2017. One after another, major entertainment and political figures were being accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., James Toback, Ben Affleck, Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken.

As I was beginning this blog post, Charlie Rose was accused by eight women of sexual harassment. He has since been suspended by CBS. As I write this now, Pixar animator John Lasseter has just taken a six-month leave of absence from the company after acknowledging “missteps” in his behaviour with Pixar employees.

People are understandably outraged, not only by the abhorrent behaviour but also by the jarring pervasiveness of it. There is a collective desire to punish these perpetrators, and I share that feeling with you. However, what concerns me is not how we feel, but how we’ve reacted, and the consistency of our knee-jerk reactions:

These punitive measures may make us a sense that justice is being served, but they’re simply short-term, feel-good reactions. In my opinion, there is a much better way to handle these situations, and it begins with examining what we, as a society, want. Yes, we want them to pay for their transgressions, but there is a broader goal: we want them to stop abusing their power or position, to respect others, and to behave like decent human beings. The path to this goal begins with a look back at our childhood.

Childhood Lessons

When I was a little kid, my brother and I usually got along, but not always. When we were fighting or being antagonistic toward each other, my mother would walk into the room and say “I want you two to play nicely together!”. In hindsight, she was very wise. Instead of removing one of us from the room, she deliberately kept us together so that we would learn how to get along with each other. She didn’t adjust our environment because we weren’t well-behaved; we had to change our behaviour and adapt to our environment. It was a form of social Darwinism, and it worked… for a little while. Over time, my brother and I did learn to play nicely together.

I believe this parenting principle can also apply to adults. Of the people in the above list, let’s use Kevin Spacey as an example. After his reprehensible behaviour was publicized, Netflix, understandably, wanted to distance itself from him, and they cut ties with him. I get that. I’m sure that they see him as a toxic person, a general liability to their brand, and perhaps even to their bottom line. However, this is still a Lady Macbeth-esque knee-jerk reaction. Naturally, without their lead actor, the future of his television series, House of Cards, is up in the air.

I believe that there is a better approach to this situation, using a variation of my mother’s conflict resolution technique.

© Creative Commons Attribution, labelled for non-commercial re-use.

As yourself this: Will removing Kevin Spacey from his studio environment make him a better person? Rather than simply fire him (and possibly cancel House of Cards), I’d like to propose the following scenario:

Kevin Spacey’s current contract is torn up, and renegotiated, with the following additional provisions:

  • His annual salary will remain the same, but he will now receive only 50% of it.
  • The other 50% will be divided as follows:
    • 25% of his annual salary will be divided evenly among the co-workers he molested
    • The other 25% will be divided evenly among the rest of the employees. Not just the on-camera talent, but everyone working on the show.
  • He will apologize, in person and individually, to every colleague he harassed or assaulted.
  • He will treat everyone working on the show with the utmost respect and courtesy, at all time, both on and off the set.
  • Those colleagues whom he molested who no longer want to work with him will still be entitled to their share of the 25% portion of his salary, even if they find work elsewhere.
  • If he behaves inappropriately again, then he will be fired immediately and his character will be written out of the show.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the difference here is that his environment will not change; he will remain in it, learn to adapt to it, and learn to treat everyone around him with respect. This is actually a harsher punishment than simply taking away his show, because it makes Netflix the proverbial parent, who is saying “Listen, Spacey, you are not going to run away; we won’t allow it. You are going to stay here, and you are going to treat everyone with the utmost consideration.”

My proposal will give him the opportunity to start practising this less puerile behaviour, day after day, week after week, and month after month. He’ll still earn more than enough money to live, but the sudden reduction in pay will be a reminder that the pendulum still needs to swing the other way for a while before a balance can be restored. Over time, his new civilized comportment should become his new normal, just like it did for my brother and me. I, for one, have faith in Kevin Spacey; like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, I don’t think he’s too old to turn over a new leaf. I think he can transform himself into a decent person, and that is, ultimately, our goal.

In fact, this scenario, with minor modifications, could also be adapted for Jeffrey Tambor and Charlie Rose.

Let’s not be reactionary and change the environment for celebrities who behave poorly. Keep them in the same environment, make sure they know that they’re being watched, and then hold them to a higher behavioural standard. They need to practice continual respectful interactions until it becomes second nature. My proposal gives them that opportunity.

As I turn on my television and continue to watch the proverbial dominoes fall, our collective responses seem dishearteningly similar. It’s tempting to step in when karma isn’t moving fast enough for us, but let’s not succumb to knee-jerk reactions. If we want to create a better society, we need to play the long game. What we see as just and immediate punishment is merely our attempt at changing the environment in response to their actions. Let’s take this opportunity to shape their behaviour and help them realize that they must adapt, and that the changes must come from within.

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To The Edge Of the Universe!

The End Is Near 1

This protester’s sign may be a little premature, but he is correct. Humankind’s reign will eventually come to an end, and there is important work that (I feel) we must complete before we are extinguished.

There are three events that will cause the end of our collective existence: two are naturally-occurring and are in the very distant future. However, the third is one that we created ourselves, and may occur within the next 100 years. Let’s examine each one individually.

The Red Giant

Everyone who’s taken a high school science class knows that our sun will become a Red Giant in about five billion years. At that time, its diameter will increase until it becomes 200 times its current size, and its outer edge will be in the Earth’s orbit. This means that Mercury, Venus and the Earth will be consumed by the sun and completely incinerated. I admit this sounds disastrous, but during the next five billion years – assuming that humankind hasn’t nuked itself out of existence or rendered the Earth uninhabitable in other ways – I expect that we will have devised a way to travel to and colonize other planets, in order to continue our lives elsewhere. This event doesn’t particularly concern me.

Sun, Red Giant-600

Now let’s zoom out a little more and examine things on a cosmological scale.

The Big Crunch

I assume that most of you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory – not the television series, but the hypothesis that offers to explain how the universe was created. About 13.75 billion years ago, all of the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point called a singularity, which then expanded very rapidly, much like an explosion. At this moment, our universe is still expanding (as it has been doing since it was created), but many people who subscribe to this hypothesis also believe that at some point in the future, this expansion will cease and the universe will then start contracting. This contraction will continue until all of the matter in the universe collapses into a single point once again, which will be denser than a black hole. This event is known as the Big Crunch – the Big Bang in reverse. It will be the end of space and time, the universe itself, and (most importantly) everything that was ever created by its inhabitants.

Big Crunch

Although the Big Crunch won’t happen anytime soon, this is still a distressing thought. Everything that humans have ever created and accomplished – every book, building, invention, language, medicine, piece of art; all of our, music, poetry, sculptures and computer software – the entirety of our accumulated wisdom along with the fruits of all of our labours – will one day cease to exist. Preserving our collective knowledge as our sun becomes a Red Giant is a trivial matter – we simply have to move to Mars or to the outer planets in our own solar system – but there is no escape from the Big Crunch. There is no place in the universe where we can safely store this knowledge – no celestial bank vault or safety-deposit box – because, ultimately, all of the matter in the universe will eventually be destroyed. I realize that matter cannot be created or destroyed, but during the Big Crunch, the knowledge and wisdom and beauty contained in that matter will no longer exist.

A Global Catastrophe Of Our Own Making

While there’s still plenty of time before the universe collapses, there is another calamitous event that is just around the corner. Climate change could start making our planet uninhabitable, starting in less than a century.

CO2 Emmisions Chart-600

  • In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the shows host, quoting Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, warns of dire and potentially irreversible consequences for the planet’s food supply if we aren’t able to limit the global temperature rise to below 2°C, or our cumulative global CO² emissions to less than 2,900 gigatonnes. This upper limit is represented by the gray bar in the graph on the left. The red bar represents our present cumulative global CO² emissions. At our current rate of CO² emissions continue, we will exceed that threshold in about 20 years, as indicated by the graph on the right.

  • Author and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with CNN, is also worried that we are reaching the point of no return, and added “The longer we delay, the more I worry we might not be able to recover from this.”

  • Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview with the BBC, warned that humanity was in danger of destroying itself within the next 100 years. Not only from global warming, but also from nuclear war, and genetically-engineered viruses. He then suggested that we need to colonize other planets if we hope to ensure our survival.

Saving Everything Humankind Has Created

When the Big Crunch occurs, everything that humankind has ever created will be destroyed, but now we no longer have billions of years to think of a way to save it. Unless we can curtail our carbon emissions, we will have less than a century before we reach the point of no return, and the beginning of the end.

However, I have an idea – not to save the planet, but a way that we might be able to preserve everything that we’ve created. I will admit, this is a long shot, both literally and metaphorically. Here’s what I propose: We can launch a space probe – one that contains a digitized version of all of our accumulated knowledge (in a multitude of languages), along with a device that will read and translate this data) – and send it hurtling toward the edge of the universe.

Space Probe 2

Right now you’re probably thinking “If the entire universe is going to collapse, then why bother sending out a space probe anywhere, since it will also be destroyed in the Big Crunch?” Yes, that is a reasonable question. The next step in this plan, after launching the probe, is ensuring that it will reach the edge of the universe. Before we can do that, we first need to find out if this is even possible. The universe is still expanding, but how fast is it expanding? After doing a bit of research, I found out that the rate of expansion has its own special unit, called the Hubble Constant. There is some debate over its exact value, but the best guess so far is 71 km/s/Mpc (kilometres per second per megaparsec). The expansion rate is actually a bit more complicated than a simple velocity, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just assume that the rate of expansion is 71km/s.

If we can get our space probe to exceed the speed at which the universe is expanding, then it will eventually reach the edge of the universe. Luckily, space is practically a vacuum, so as long as our probe doesn’t hit anything, it won’t slow down. A continual propulsion source (from solar panels or a small nuclear reactor) can ensure a continual increase in speed. As a reference, the Helios 1 and 2 space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976, respectively, achieved a speed record of 70.22 km/s in their orbit around the sun. Exceeding the speed of the universe’s rate of expansion does appear to to be attainable, which means that we can launch a space probe, filled with our accumulated knowledge, and (theoretically) have it reach the edge of the universe.

The crucial question is: what will happen when our space probe hits the edge of the universe? I have no idea, but after giving it some thought, I think that it will be one of the following scenarios:

  • It will it bounce off the universe’s “wall”, and then simply proceed in the opposite direction, like a cosmic game of Pong.

  • It will disintegrate or otherwise be completely destroyed because it came into contact with an out-of-bounds area.

  • It will become stuck to the edge of the universe by some previously-unknown attractive force.

  • It will re-appear on the other side of the universe, as is if entered a wormhole (much like the arcade game Asteroids, where moving your ship off the right edge of the screen makes it appear again on the left).

  • It will re-appear in some random place in the universe, much like pressing the hyperspace button in the arcade game Asteroids.

  • It will penetrate the edge, and enter some other dimension.

  • It will penetrate the edge and enter the Creator’s World – much like an ant discovering a way through the plastic case of an ant farm.

Edge Of The Universe 2

Of these possibilities, the last two are the most intriguing, because they hold the promise of continuity along with the notion that something may exist outside our universe. When we die, most of us hope that there will be some form of afterlife, because we believe in the continuity of our awareness, or soul. We can’t accept that our essence can just cease, and that we will simply wink our of existence. Similarly, it would be just as tragic if all of our civilization’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom also vanished during The Big Crunch. The last two items in the list give us hope that our collective efforts may not ultimately be in vain, and that we, as a species, might be able to preserve what we’ve created, or present something of value to the creator of the universe.

For all we know, this may even be the purpose of our existence: to find a way to breach the universe’s barrier and give something back to its creator (or impress the creator with our literature, art, poetry, music and wisdom) before everything is ultimately destroyed in The Big Crunch. Our entire universe could even be a creator’s game: design a universe, let it unfold, and see how many civilizations will develop from the primordial ooze, and how many of them will eventually become technologically advanced enough to break through our universe’s barrier and send a message, before they annihilate themselves, destroy their homeworld or time runs out.

I have no idea which of these touching-the-edge-of-the-universe scenarios will turn out to be correct (if any), and I can’t even calculate the odds of a space probe reaching the edge of an expanding universe intact (although I’m sure they are astronomically low). However, if we do nothing, then all will be for naught – everything that every human has ever created will be destroyed. As for the most immediate threat, climate change, we have become a modern-day personification of Ebenezer Scrooge: unless we drastically change our polluting ways, we will also see our names on a (metaphorical) gravestone.

What are our chances for success? No one knows, but however infinitesimal they may seem, I believe that we have to try. Besides, you do buy the occasional lottery ticket, don’t you?

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Unintended Lyrical Inspiration: Lenny Kravitz

This post is one in a sporadic series in which I analyze pop song lyrics from a my own unique perspective, and discover inspiration where the musician never intended any. Today I’m going to examine a song by Lenny Kravitz called Always On The Run.

This song – a collaboration between Lenny Kravitz and Saul Hudson (who wrote the music) – opens with a guitar riff that’s reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, followed by lyrics that that consist of well-intentioned maternal advice. Here is a line from the first verse (at 0:52 in the video) that in my opinion, rises above the rest: 

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If your reaction to this line is indifference, then I agree that it may not sound particularly meaningful or even important. The first few times that I heard this song, this admonition didn’t do anything for me either. 

So what are we supposed to get out of it? On the surface, this line, when spoken by a parent to a child or teenager, probably means “You can achieve whatever you like in life. You are limited only by your talent and ambition. However, you can also decide to do as little as possible and coast your entire life, without striving to develop your character or a solid work ethic. The choice is yours.”

I’d like to add an additional interpretation: “Once you decide to leave the nest, you are essentially on your own. If you lack ambition and decide to coast though life, no one (other than your immediate family) is going to care if you don’t accomplish anything.”

You’re probably thinking “Come on, that’s just common sense. Everyone knows that they have to make their own mark on the world, and no one is going to care if they are not reaching your potential.” That’s what I thought too, until a decade ago, when society started to change. This change was the emergence of the helicopter parent, and the deleterious effects that their over-nurturing was having on their children.

Garden Hose

When I was a child, we didn’t have helicopter parents, and in hindsight, my friends and I had a fair amount of freedom:

  • There were no cell phones, so we could be playing with the neighbour’s kids all day long, and our parents weren’t the least bit worried.

  • I rode my bicycle up and down my street, and on the road, since our street didn’t have any sidewalks.

  • Starting in Grade 5, I walked to school and back, by myself. This was a 20-25-minute walk, each way.

  • We played road hockey, and if a car was coming someone would simply yell “Car!” and we all stepped aside. I didn’t see this as inherently dangerous.

  • I remember a field trip in Grade 6 that involved orienteering. After a lesson on how to use a compass and read a map, we were sent into the woods (in small groups) to find various markers on trees, and then make our way back to the starting point.

Parents At Job Interviews

Today, many parents not only drive their teenagers to high school, they rarely let their kids out of their sight. While you could argue that this is merely an enhanced form of parental nurturing, I call it coddling, and it doesn’t end when the children grow up and become adults. Some parents are even accompanying their adult children to job interviews, which I think is just bizarre.

What emerges from this overbearing style of parenting, is a set of unrealistic expectations from others and from society. Witness bridezillas and promposals

Helicopter Parents, Pool

If the constant, smothering attention weren’t annoying enough, some helicopter parents believe that their child can do no wrong and often blame or even harass teachers because their child is performing poorly in class.

Imagine growing up surrounded by people who give you participation trophies so that you will never experience disappointment, and who bend over backwards to ensure that you never have to exert yourself. This, to me, is similar to growing up with Secret Service protection. You will eventually feel invincible and believe that no harm will come to you, no matter what decisions you make.

That’s why I believe that many of these kids will enter the workforce with a skewed sense of entitlement. Not all, obviously, but a greater percentage than the previous generation.

That’s why Lenny Kravitz’s song lyrics have acquired a renewed relevance. Once you strike out on your own, it will be up to you to make a name for yourself, which requires paying your dues and working harder than everyone you know. If you don’t succeed, no one will care.

While society owes you nothing, this doesn’t mean that people will be mean to you. In fact, people will likely be kind and sympathetic. For example, if you are at a fast food restaurant and the cashier is a man in his mid-30s or mid-40s, you obviously aren’t going to make fun of him. On the contrary, you may think:

  • He enjoys what he does for a living – so who are we to judge?
  • Maybe this is all he’s capable of doing. We mustn’t criticize.
  • Maybe he needs to work two jobs to support his family or for an unexpected expense.

However, you’re not going to wonder whether this middle-aged McDonald’s cashier is achieving his version of fulfillment or self-actualization in his life. That’s his problem.

Lenny Kravitz GH

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If you’re a young adult about to enter the workforce, memorize this line. Better yet, make it your mantra. I hope that you will become an ambitious and accomplished person, and that you’ll make your own positive mark on the world. On the other hand, if you decide to take the path of least resistance in life, no one will care. Your well-meaning helicopter parents created an artificial environment for you, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to the real world that you are about to enter. Lenny Kravitz may not have thought about it in this way, but he has just given you a valuable life lesson.

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The Most Hurtful Interpretation

Human interactions can be challenging. Even though I don’t know you, I’ll bet that you often feel misunderstood, especially by people who know you very well.

You’re not imagining things. You were born with a social disability, and I’m going to explain exactly what it is, and how you can adapt to it. Once you succeed in doing this, it will feel like someone has bestowed upon you, a remarkable sixth sense. You will be able to detect what others around you cannot, and in time, all of your relationships will become more harmonious.

If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. If you’re a fan of the television series The Big Bang Theory, you probably know that Sheldon is not the most socially-adept creature, in part because of his difficulty in interpreting facial expressions, and therefore, the emotions of others. We were all saddled with a similar interpretive disability – one that makes it challenging for us to accurately interpret the true feelings and intentions of other people.

A few years ago, I was perusing a book co-authored by Jack Canfield, one of the authors of the Chicken Soup For The Soul series of books. Unfortunately, the title of this book escapes me right now, but it contained one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read. Canfield wrote – merely as an aside – something that I thought was absolutely profound. He said “If people hear something that has multiple interpretations, then they will assume that the most hurtful interpretation is the correct one“.

Teary Eye

At first I thought this was just silly. Perhaps young children (who are continually seeking parental approval) may assume this, but we’re all educated and mature adults with superior reasoning abilities. In any conversation, all interpretations will be considered, and then evaluated properly and sensibly.

Then something unexpected happened. As the weeks and months went by, I realized that Canfield’s pronouncement was true. I heard example after example, with stunning (and frankly, troubling) regularity – more instances than I could count. My otherwise wise and educated family, relatives, friends and colleagues were all affected equally by Canfield’s unsettling statement. My surprise morphed slowly into intrigue. I thought to myself “The divorce rate in this country is about 45%. How could the percentage be this high when there is presumably a year or more of character vetting and compatibility analysis during the courtship and engagement periods? Could this behavioural quirk be a contributor? If we were all keenly aware of The Most Hurtful Interpretation, would our marriages and relationships last longer?“. I realize that this is merely speculation, but like Carrie Bradshaw hunched over her MacBook “I couldn’t help but wonder…“.

Here are just a few examples I encountered:

  • One of my relatives told me that it had been several days since she had read any Facebook posts from a particular member her extended family, and wondered why she had been de-friended. I explained that Facebook doesn’t display every post from each of your friends – otherwise we’d never get through our news feeds. Only selected posts are displayed, and I had no idea what Facebook’s selection algorithm was.
  • A friend and I were e-mailing each other semi-regularly a few years ago. In one message, she asked me something, and I intended to reply the next day, but then forgot all about it. Two weeks later, she e-mailed me again and wanted to apologize if she had said anything to offend me, since I hadn’t contacted her in a while.
  • I was worried sick about you!“. How many times have you, as a teenager, heard these words from your parents after staying out later than you had intended? Statistically, there is a very small chance that anything serious would have happened to you, but that’s not how parents think. They are going to assume the worst.

WebMD Everything Causes Cancer

  • A generation ago, if you weren’t feeling well, you went to see your doctor. Today, the Internet gives us the ability to self-diagnose our symptoms by visiting a number of medical web sites. One of the most popular is WebMD. Just type in your symptoms, and WebMD will display a plethora of diseases and conditions that are associated with them. While poring over this list of possible afflictions, which ones are we drawn to? Which do we think we might have? I think you already know the answer…
  • A few weeks ago, I was watching the Steve Jobs DVD. If you’ve seen this movie, then you’ll remember that Jobs initially denied the paternity of his daughter Lisa. Back in the late 1970s, DNA testing wasn’t nearly as accurate as it is now, and while Jobs did take a paternity test, he said to a TIME magazine reporter that his DNA test results could apply to 28% of the men in the United States. Therefore, he felt no need to admit anything. Lisa’s mother, Chrisann, read the article and thought that Jobs had accused her of sleeping with 28% of the men in the United States. To be fair, this movie is a partially fictionalized account of Jobs’ life, so I have no idea how accurate the recounting of this event is. However, it is a perfect example of The Most Hurtful Interpretation.

Lorne Grabher

  • Finally, there’s Lorne Grabher’s license plate. Mr. Grabher was proud of his fine German surname, and decided to place it on a vanity license plate. For a while, everything was uneventful, but then one person noticed his license plate, and read it as “Grab Her”. This unnamed person felt that Lorne was “misogynistic and promoting violence against women“. So s/he filed a complaint with the Ministry of Transportation and they revoked his vanity plate.

I’m Also Not Immune

After perusing Canfield’s book, I naturally assumed that I would be granted an instant and lifelong immunity to this phenomenon. How could I possibly be affected, since I was now in possession of this incredible insight? Since I was familiar with the underlying behavioural machinations, I could note this behaviour in others from a distance, as a detached observer. Obviously, I was wrong. I was affected as much as everyone else, and this example illustrates that The Most Hurtful Interpretation is not limited to human interaction.

Door Access Card v1a

Last year, as I was returning to the office from my lunch break, I held my access card against the card reader beside the reception area door. The card reader always beeps, and then its light changes from red to green, followed by the audible click of the door unlocking. This time, nothing happened. I tried again – still nothing. It took about 4-5 attempts before the reader recognized my card. I found out later from someone in the IT department that the door reader was a little quirky and had been giving everyone trouble. That should have been my first assumption, since it was not only logical but was also the most likely scenario. However, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at opening the door, my actual thoughts were “Oh no – I’ve been fired! They always deactivate your security cards and computer accounts first. How could this happen? I’m a good worker. What have I done (or not done)?“. Yes, in hindsight this sounds silly, but at the time it was a genuine concern for me.

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Now That You Know…

The first thing you’ll want to do is look for evidence. Keep your ears open and listen carefully to the conversations you have with your family, friends and co-workers. Then listen to the conversations around you. Within a few days, you will probably start hearing numerous examples of The Most Hurtful Interpretation. I was astonished by how many examples I heard.

Fast forward several weeks… since you’ve heard a variety of examples, and are adept at identifying this behavioural quirk, you now possess your special sixth sense! As you listen to the interactions around you, you now have the ability to predict how a statement will be interpreted by the recipient, even when the speaker does not.

At this point, you may want to take steps to ensure that your sentiments are not misinterpreted in a hurtful way. Unfortunately, this is not going to be easy. In Toastmasters, I learned that communication consists of two components: the message we deliver, and the message that the audience actually hears (and interprets). Unfortunately, we can control only the first component. Since the listener is always free to interpret your words in any way, what can you do? Before speaking, think about all of the different ways that your message can be misinterpreted (in a hurtful way) and then consider how to modify your message to reduce the chances of this happening. Here are a few ways to limit the breadth of the interpretations.

  • Speak clearly
  • Choose your words carefully
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Provide plenty of details
  • Surround your message with as much context as possible

Finally, build up a mental case file (or write down the examples you hear). Analyze each conversation, and consider the following:

  • What was the original intent of the speaker’s message?
  • What was the listener’s interpretation of that message?
  • How did the listener arrive at their conclusion?
  • If I were the speaker, how could I rephrase my message to prevent this particular interpretation?

In the arena of human interaction, if it seems that the odds are stacked against you, they’re not – they are stacked against all of us, which levels the playing field. However, you now stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Now that you know about The Most Hurtful Interpretation, you possess a special sixth sense – an acute social awareness that almost no one else on the planet shares with you. It will take a bit of time to develop and hone this ability to predict the reactions of others, but once you do, I predict that you will be heralded by those around you as a talented and empathetic communicator.

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We Can Repair Police Relations, If We All Work Together

So far, July 2016 has been a very difficult month in the United States for police forces and their perception by the general public. There is an ebb and flow in this relationship, but there is also a continual underlying tension. This month, unfortunately, things have really deteriorated:

  • On July 5th, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Stirling was shot and killed by police as he sold CDs outside a store.
  • On July 6th, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer after a being pulled over for a broken tail light. His girlfriend live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on social media.
  • On July 7th, in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were killed by a sniper, as a form of retaliation for the police shootings during the previous two days.
  • The following day, in Ballwin, Missouri, a police office was shot in the neck while walking back to his cruiser after a routine traffic stop, leaving the police officer in critical condition.
  • July 17th: In this still-developing story in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, multiple police officers have been shot, and three are believed to have died.

Right now there are probably hundreds of other bloggers thinking and writing the same thing I am right now: these events are horrifying, and the violence needs to stop immediately. To most of us, this problem does seem insurmountable, and you may feel, as an individual, that there is nothing you can do about it. However, when I examine things from The Bob Angle, I see a solution. Yes, it is more than one person can accomplish, which is why we need to work together. If we can coordinate our efforts in this area, then restoring a healthy relationship with our police forces can be an attainable goal.

The way I see it, the media’s predominantly negative reporting of police work makes it difficult for us to see the big picture. Here is a breakdown of what’s typically happens following a police shooting:

  • The story gets local, and often nationwide media coverage. Millions of people now know what happened, and understandably, become outraged.
  • Many of these people will be affected by stimulus generalization: they not only become angry with the officer responsible for the shooting, but also with the entire police force and the police forces of other cities. Police officers everywhere are now viewed derisively and may even be the targets of scorn, anger and hate.
  • Some people may even feel compelled to retaliate against individuals who have nothing to do with the original incident.

In Dallas, Texas, five police officers who had absolutely nothing to do with the Baton Rouge or Minneapolis shootings were killed, because the shooter was seeking revenge for the incidents in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. This is the devastating power of stimulus generalization; the fact that these five police officers were completely innocent didn’t deter, faze or perhaps even occur to the Dallas shooter.

Stimulus generation is a formidable force, but with a coordinated and focused effort, we can control it, and perhaps even make it work to our advantage. In my opinion, police relations are perpetually tense due largely to a prevalence of negative media coverage. The media reports unpleasant events for more often than uplifting stories. Incidents that keep us in perpetual fear seem to be the ones that are broadcast most widely. The “feel good” stories are usually left to the end of the newscast (if there’s time). As a result, we are getting a statistically skewed view of what’s happening in the world, and an especially distorted view of what our country’s police forces do every day.

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Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

To be fair, the media does report, from time to time, on the more positive examples of police work. Here are a few of those stories:

  • During the July 7th Dallas protest in which the five police officers were killed, a mother of four was shot in the leg. As she was attempting to shield one of her sons, she looked up and saw a police officer running over to shield both of them from the gunfire.
  • On January 15th, 2016, a Florida police officer was called for a noise complaint. Some kids were playing basketball too loudly in the street. However, instead of admonishing them, he decided to join them in a game. Afterwards, he promised to return and bring a special guest with him. That special guest turned out to be Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq

  • After responding to a trespassing call, two Barnesville, Georgia police officers discovered a homeless teenager who told them that he had ridden his brother’s bicycle for six hours in order to register for classes at Gordon State College. These two officers put him up in a hotel room (and paid for it themselves), and then set up a GoFundMe page in his name to help him get back on his feet again. In an example of how kindness feeds on itself; the owner of a local pizzeria hired the teenager and said that he would schedule the shifts around his college classes.
  • In Charlotte, North Carolina, officer Tim Purdy responded to a call about a suicidal teen with autism. He sat down with him, talked things out, and likely saved this young man’s life. Purdy later told a reporter “This is something that tens of thousands of law enforcement officers that are out there do every single day,” Purdy said in a video. “You just don’t hear about it.

Police Officer Consoling Teen

  • In La Plata, Maryland, an 81-year-old woman who has dementia was reported missing by her daughters. After a brief search, officer Morrison found her, and held her hand as he walked her back home, chatting with her on the way.

Police And Dementia

  • Each year, police forces in Toronto and the surrounding suburbs hold a “Cram a Cruiser” food drive to support local food banks. They set up a patrol car up just outside the entrance of participating supermarkets, and encourage shoppers to donate food, which is then placed inside the car. A couple of years ago, they were able to fill 50 cruisers full of food. This event is publicized, but only in the local community newspapers.

Cram A Cruiser 5

I agree completely with officer Tim Purdy’s comments; in fact, they reflect the central theme of this blog post. The good deeds performed daily by police officers all over the country vastly outnumber the bad things. Unfortunately, we don’t recognize this because media reporting is weighed heavily on the stories that sell the most newspapers or that generate the most page views – that is, the decidedly unpleasant ones. That’s why our perception of police forces is distorted.

After reading my brief descriptions of these good deeds, how do you feel about police officers right now? I’ll bet that your faith is being restored, and that you now have renewed hope for a brighter, more harmonious future. Listing just a few examples of officers who go above and beyond the call of duty to help others was my modest attempt to create a more statistically balanced reporting, but it still isn’t even close to representing all of the helpful things that police officers do for us every day.

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What We Can Do

Individually, we aren’t as powerful as media outlets, which is why we need to work together to create and promulgate a more accurate view of law enforcement across the country. First of all, we need to consider all of the little things that police officers do for the general public every day, and recognize that the vast majority of these acts receive no publicity at all. Secondly, if you’ve had a positive experience with a police officer, then tell your family, friends and colleagues about it. Tell the story repeatedly, and spread the positive message. This is how we can help give the rest of society a more statistically accurate view of police officers, and the good deeds they perform each day.

I’d like to get the ball rolling, by sharing a couple of stories of my own:

  • A number of years ago, one of my father’s friends was in Chicago, attending an educational conference. This was his first time visiting Chicago. After the conference, he had a bit of free time, so he decided that he would drive around and just explore the city, with no particular destination in mind. As he was driving along, he noticed the flashing lights of a police car behind him. He immediately pulled over, and was baffled because he wasn’t speeding or breaking any other laws (that he was aware of). The officer walked up to his car and demanded “What are doing here?”. This man told him about the conference, and mentioned that he was visiting from Canada. The police officer told him that he had wandered into a very bad neighbourhood and that he shouldn’t be here. He then said “I’m going to drive ahead of you. Follow right behind me, and I’ll take you out of here and to someplace safer“. And that’s just what he did.

My father told me that he’s heard similar stories from some of his friends in other cities – Atlanta and Miami – and added that helping people in this way appears to be quite common. This is the type of police story that is never reported by the media, but should be.

  • Back in the early 2000s, I visited a bar in Fort Lauderdale called The Elbo Room. At the time it stood out from other bars because it had three streaming webcams: one inside, one pointed toward their outdoor patio, and one on the roof aimed at the beach. At any time, I could go to their web site and see what was happening there at that exact moment (which was really cool during the early 2000s). About 3-4 years later, a major hurricane was approaching the south-east coast of Florida.

All businesses were closed and people were urged to stay indoors or even leave the area. I visited the Elbo Room’s web page to see if their roof-mounted web cam was still functioning, and perhaps get a glimpse of the weather and the waves. Surprisingly, the web cam was still functioning in the torrential rain, and although the image was distorted by creeping rivulets of water, I could still get a fairly decent view of the surroundings. This hurricane was a sight to behold. As George Costanza would say “The sea was angry that day, my friends“. The waves were crashing onto the beach, almost reaching the road, and the palm trees were bending in the gale-force winds. Despite the less-than-ideal view though the webcam lens, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser, right at the intersection of Los Olas and A1A. It was the only sign of humanity in this decidedly inhospitable environment.

As I watched this scene for the next 10-15 minutes, it occurred to me that this police officer was likely stationed there to keep an eye out for anyone who still hadn’t found shelter, or to make sure that no one got too close to the beach. I was impressed by his/her dedication. While just about everyone else in Fort Lauderdale was safe and sequestered inside their hurricane-shuttered homes, this police officer was watching out for others. This is another story that you won’t find in your local newspaper.

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Closing Thoughts

When we read and watch the daily news, we assume that we have an accurate and balanced view of things. However, our view of the world depends on what is reported to us. Fortunately, our skewed perception of police work can be corrected if we all work together, recognize all of the good work done each day by law enforcement officials everywhere, and share those stories. Only then will be have a more statistically accurate view of what’s really happening, and how much assistance we’re actually receiving from our men and women in blue.

Finally, I’d like to propose the following: the next time you see a police officer, say “Thank you for your service” (or something along those lines). We say this to our veterans who protected us during wartime, so why not express the same sentiment for the men and women who continue to protect us every day?

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The Royal Leadership Lesson

Last year, I decided to start watching a TV series called The Royals – a fictional drama, starring Elizabeth Hurley as the Queen, that re-imagines the British Royal family as a modern, edgy and dysfunctional bunch of characters, whose lives seem to be perpetually rife with scandal.

The series begins with the King mired in a deep and troubled contemplation. He was seriously considering abolishing the British monarchy, because the the rising discontent among the people. Many citizens (who were quite vocal in their protestations) felt that the institution was now completely irrelevant and was a financial drain on the taxpayer. In the second episode, the royal family is preparing to host a garden party at the palace, to which many heads of stare have been invited. Despite the festive surroundings, the King is not enjoying himself; this issue still weighs heavily on his mind.

Staff Kitchen

The camera then turns to the kitchen, where the King and a member of his staff, Prudence (whom he knows by name), are both placing tiny Union Jack flags on a tray of desserts which will be served to the garden party guests. As they decorate the food, he makes small talk by asking her about her life outside the palace walls, and trying to get to know a bit about her as a person. He also asked her what she thought of the monarchy itself, presumably a prelude to the question: does she think that should the monarchy be abolished? Although he requested a completely honest answer, Prudence replied (most prudently) “I am happy to be employed in your Majesty’s home”. While her response may not have been a “big picture” view that the King was hoping for, I can understand that job security and the continuation of her livelihood would be Prudence’s primary and immediate concern.

When I first saw this scene, my initial reaction was “Who wrote this script? This is the King of England, who has hundreds of full-time staff members all ready to do his bidding. Why would be spend his time in the staff kitchen, doing the work of a servant, when he surely has more important things to attend to?”.

A couple of weeks later, I thought about this scene again and realized that I was completely wrong. This was actually an teachable moment moment and a stellar example of leadership. Here’s why:

I’m a member of Toastmasters, and this organization promotes what’s known as a “servant leader philosophy”. That is, the higher one rises in an organization, the more s/he is required to serve others. As members become more experienced and gain new skills, they will be called upon to mentor newer members, assist in club contests, be guest speakers at other clubs, as well as serve as an executive at the Area, District or Division level. It’s a good philosophy that not only keeps us grounded, but ensures that our new skills are used for the benefit of all, and not just ourselves.

Years ago, when I worked in the financial district, there was a story going around the street that Matthew Barrett, who had recently been named as Chairman of the Bank of Montreal, called a meeting of the head office employees. After he introduced himself, he told the audience that everyone naturally assumes that the Chairman is the top job at the bank, but he disagrees. He then displayed a large image of an inverted corporate pyramid and explained that this is how he views himself in the corporate hierarchy – right at the bottom. His job is to serve the bank, its customers and its employees.

Inverted Corporate Pyramid

I also saw something on my Facebook wall that encapsulated everything. This diagram:

Boss vs Leader v2

I now realized that the King was actually displaying outstanding leadership skills:

  • He did not feel that any work was beneath him, and gladly volunteered to help out in the kitchen alongside his staff, performing what is certainly a menial task.
  • He set a good example through his actions, rather than just his words.
  • He made an effort to know his staff members by name.
  • He asked his staff about their personal lives and got to know them as people, rather than just servants.
  • He even appeared to be soliciting their advice on matters for which only the heads of state might be consulted – the abolition of the monarchy. I would imagine that such an inquiry from the King must be immensely flattering to someone working in the palace kitchen.

Above all, the King remained humble. He internalized the advice of Saint Augustine, who said “Do you wish to be great? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation“.

Although his character is fictionalized, he offers a real leadership lesson for all of us.