A view of the world from my own unique perspective

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Is There a Hidden Inspirational Message In Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

Have you ever experienced a really profound dream – one in which you’ve stumbled upon the hidden mysteries of the universe, and one so intense that it actually woke you up in the middle of the night? Upon awakening, you think to yourself “This is it – I’ve discovered the secret! Yes, it all makes sense now!” Then you roll over and go back to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning, you’ve completely forgotten what your dream was about. I had one of those dreams a few weeks ago, but this time it happened just a few minutes before I was supposed to wake up, so I was able to remember it. It doesn’t seem as profound now as it did when I was dreaming it, but for what it’s worth, here it is…

In my dream, I uncovered a secret inspirational message contained within Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Of course, since Einstein died in 1955, we can’t ask him if it’s true, so this will be nothing more than the whimsical nocturnal speculations of my overactive imagination.

Albert Einstein

I suspect that I was able to connect the dots because I’m a fan of Leonard Bernstein and had recently been watching his Harvard lectures. In 1973, this Harvard alumnus delivered a series of lectures at his alma mater called The Unanswered Question. In the first lecture, Musical Phonology, he told the students that the principal thing that he learned from his masters at Harvard was a sense of interdisciplinary spirit, and that “the best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline.

It was in a similar interdisciplinary spirit that I was dreaming about something very analytical, which appeals exclusively to the left hemisphere of our brains – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – from a decidedly right-hemisphere point of view. I was contemplating relativity from a new and unique vantage point: the self-help section of a bookstore.

EMC2

Even if you don’t understand it, you are undoubtedly familiar with Einstein’s relativity equation: E=MC² It states that energy (E) equals mass (M) times the speed of light (C) squared. It’s also important to know a couple of facts about the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second, or about 300,000 kilometres per second. Einstein stated that the speed of light was always constant, and that nothing (or at least nothing with any mass) can travel at or faster than light. I admit that it does seem strange that there could be a maximum speed for anything in the universe, but the concept of light’s maximum velocity can be illustrated in the following graph:

Energy vs Speed Graph

This graph displays speed along the x-axis (horizontally) and energy along the y-axis (vertically). The faster an object travels, the more energy is required to reach that speed. As you can see, there is a vertical asymptote at c (the speed of light). I’m sure that you already know that a vertical asymptote is a vertical line that the graph plot approaches but never actually touches (because its value would have to be infinity in order to reach it). In this graph, it means that it will take an infinite amount of energy to propel anything at the speed of light. That’s why nothing (with mass) can travel that fast – there just isn’t enough energy in the universe to do it.

And now, the essence of the dream… was Einstein an even greater genius than we thought? While E=MC² was certainly a groundbreaking equation for physicists, it could also be interpreted as an important social statement. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity might actually be a parable – much like one of Aesop’s Fables – disguised as an equation. I had finally decoded the secret, inspirational message contained within the equation, because I (much like Leonard Bernstein’s professors) was examining it within the context of another discipline.

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The 80/20 Rule and Project Management

If that graph looks familiar to you, then this might be why. If your job is at a manager’s level or higher, then you probably know about the 80/20 Rule, known formally as The Pareto Principle. It’s embraced by many different industries, and each one places their own personalized spin on it:

  • 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your clients
  • 80% of network traffic occurs during 20% of the day
  • 20% of computer code contains 80% of the errors

In project management, there is a popular maxim paraphrased as follows “80% of a project can be completed in 20% of the time… but it’s that final 20% that requires 80% of the project’s timeline (or even more, in many cases)“. This graph illustrates that maxim quite well.

Take a look at the graph from a Project Manager’s point of view, but relabel the x-axis as “Percent Complete” and the y-axis as “Time”. At the 80% mark, the project time requirements start to skyrocket, and soon it becomes clear that delivering every feature (flawlessly) within the initial time frame will not be possible. Compromises are inevitable. Did Einstein leave this message for Project Managers in his Theory of Relativity?

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Perfectionist Personalities

We all know people who are perfectionists, and I’m sure you’ll agree that they can often be trying. Some of these folks – those who insist that others should rise to their perfectionist standards – can be annoying or even insufferable. Personally, I think that perfectionists are generally not very happy, since they have set for themselves, a goal that cannot realistically be achieved, and therefore exists in a continual state of disappointment.

Perfectionist

In that same graph, let’s relabel the axes once again and assume that the x-axis represents our own perceived level of perfectionism, and that the y-axis represents the time, money and energy required to reach this level of perfection. Since we are all imperfect beings, targeting 100% is a pointless exercise. In fact, I would love to show this graph to a perfectionist and say “Study this graph, and then please abandon your quest for perfectionism. None of us will ever be perfect, so stop trying. As you can see, you can reach and maintain a fairly respectable level without even breaking a sweat, but soon as you set your sights on 100%, the effort (relative to the gains) rises exponentially. The graph is speaking to you!

Could Einstein have coded into his equation, this sage and practical advice for the perfectionists in our lives?

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Reinterpreting Relativity

For more than a century, Einstein’s concept of relativity has been viewed only one way. Could it also be examined within a social context? I’m going to propose that Einstein embedded a behavioural allegory in his Theory of Relativity, and that the following is his hidden personal and motivational message for all of us: What relativity really means is that you must measure yourself relative to those around you, and not on an absolute scale of perfection. Since none of us is perfect, then your life is really a lot better than you realize. If you’re a perfectionist, then trying to achieve 100% perfection is merely an exercise in futility. Do the best you can, but as you can see from the graph, anything more than that will take a disproportionate amount of time, energy and money.

Einstein was certainly a genius, but I’m going to propose that he was also a cross-disciplinary visionary who purposely designed his Theory of Relativity to appeal to both hemispheres of our brain. This theory challenged Newtonian physics and also contained an inspirational message for everyone. It simply took the rest of us a century to decode this second component. Who could have guessed that analyzing a graph of the speed of light might make us a little more… enlightened?

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And now, I’d like to pose what I call The Grand Unifying Question: should books about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity also be placed in the self-help section of your local bookstore?

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Decoding The Donald: A Snake In Politician’s Clothing

Over the past few months I’ve been joining many of you in a common goal: trying to solve the enigma that is Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. What makes him tick? What motivates him? I just can’t figure this guy out. However, I’ve now developed a number of hypotheses, which I will detail in this series of blog posts entitled Decoding The Donald. This is my sixth hypothesis, in which I propose that he can be understood by reading one of Aesop’s Fables, and listening to a 1960s pop song.

Donald Trump - Black Background

A number of years ago, I discovered an old pop song called The Snake, by Al Wilson, which is based an Aesop Fable called The Farmer and the Viper. Originally released in 1968, the song lyrics tell the story of a kind-hearted woman who sees a half-frozen snake lying on the ground while she was walking to work. Taking pity on the animal, she decided to take it home with her and nurse it back to health. As she was cuddling the snake, it bit her. The lyrics tell the rest of the story, along with the moral:

“I saved you!” cried that woman,
“And you bit me even, why?
And you know your bite is poisonous,
And now I’m gonna die!”

“Oh shut up! Silly woman!”
Said that reptile, with a grin,
“Now you knew darn well I was snake
Before you brought me in.”

I really like this song and its story. In fact I think that it’s something that fathers should play for their teenage daughters just before they start dating.

I hadn’t thought about that tune much, until 2015, shortly after Donald Trump declared his candidacy for President of the United States. As you know, many media outlets immediately started reporting and detailing Donald Trump’s bizarre and unsavoury behaviour:

  • Trump referred to Mexicans as rapists, and argued that he needed to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep them out.
  • He disparaged Ted Cruz’s wife with a tweet showing an unflattering photo of her, alongside a glamour shot picture of his own wife, Melania.
  • When referring to his opponents, Trump used demeaning nicknames such as Little Marco and Crooked Hillary.

After several months of watching and reading these unflattering stories, I began to wonder: could Al Wilson’s song also apply to Donald Trump? Has Donald Trump ever heard this song? At 70 years of age, he would have been 22 years old when it was first released. Would his ego allow him to recognize himself in the lyrics? Hmmm…. probably not.

Then, shortly after he was chosen as the Republican nominee, something unbelievable happened. As I was watching the news, I saw a brief clip of Donald Trump actually reciting the lyrics to The Snake! I guess he was familiar with the song after all. I could scarcely believe my good fortune; this seemed almost too good to be true! I quickly dashed to my PC to search for the complete video and the proper context. I found the video on YouTube:

Predictably, Trump wasn’t referring to himself during his interpretive reading; he was comparing the snake to Syrian refugees entering the United States. Trump was vehemently against the idea of accepting any Syrian refugees, and wanted to impress upon his audience that these refugees are all inherently nefarious people who are incapable of changing their ways, just like the snake. Personally, I thought that this was a pathetic attempt to tar an entire group of people with the same brush, and didn’t think that anyone could possibly take him seriously – even an auditorium full of his supporters.

Nevertheless, this was still an incredible piece of video. The supreme irony made this clip pure comedy gold, and when I was watching it, I felt like like Seinfeld‘s Kenny Bania “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!“. The similarity was practically jumping off the screen, and to me, reciting these lyrics was certainly a risky proposition. Did he want everybody in his audience to mock him mercilessly? Apparently what was obvious to me certainly wasn’t obvious to The Donald; he just wasn’t connecting the dots. I guess introspection isn’t his strong suit.

Sadly, this navel-gazing comparison was lost not only on his audience, but also on a sizable portion of the general public. All of the behavioural examples listed above happened early in Trump’s campaign, long before before he was chosen as the Republican nominee. Donald Trump had already revealed his character admirably. Over and over again, he made it exceedingly clear to the entire nation, exactly what kind of person he is, and made it easy for us to predict what we might expect of him in the future. We all knew this, yet was still “taken in”, and chosen over all other contenders as the person best suited to represent the Republican party.

It doesn’t get any plainer than this video. Behold what is right in front of you. Here is Donald Trump on stage, reciting an allegorical tale that essentially describes himself. He thinks he’s warning you about the danger of accepting Syrian refugees (he’s not – it’s a ridiculous argument), but he’s inadvertently telling the voting public what kind of person he is, and exactly what they can expect from him in the future, while remaining blissfully unaware of this affinity himself.

The next move is yours, America – don’t rely on hindsight, and don’t kick yourself for the next four years because you didn’t recognize this in time…

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How K-Tel Shaped My Music Listening Habits

On April 27, 2016, Phil Kives, the founder of K-Tel International, passed away at the age of 87. K-Tel was a household name back in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you grew up during those decades, then you probably bought (and may still own) some of their products, such as the Patti-Stacker and the Veg-O-Matic.

K-Tel Patti-Stacker

In addition to time-saving kitchen appliances, K-Tel also produced music compilation albums. When I was about eight years old, my parents bought me a copy of K-Tel’s Sound Explosion – 22 Original Hits, 22 Original Stars. This was a big deal to me because it was my first “grown-up” LP. Up until then, my music collection consisted entirely of children’s records. I wasn’t familiar with these Sound Explosion songs, but I was happy to be listening to the same music as my parents and their friends. A couple of years later, I acquired two more K-Tel albums: Disco Dynamite and Music Machine. With 22 songs on each album, this was a great way to start building my music collection. It was cheaper than buying all of the 45s, and took less time than recording the songs from the radio onto cassettes (which was usually an exercise in futility, since the songs were invariably interrupted by the disc jockeys).

K-Tel Music Albums

I was content for a while… that is, until I bought a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Its version of Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven was longer than the version on my K-Tel album. This seemed odd to me, since I just assumed that my K-Tel albums contained the complete songs. Of course being a kid, I had no idea how many songs an average LP contained, and I never wondered how Phil Kives was able to fit 22 songs onto two album sides. As I started listening to the radio more often I began to notice that other songs were also much longer than my K-Tel versions. I now realized what was going on, and I felt a profound sense of disappointment, and that I had been cheated. These weren’t complete songs at all – they were all heavily edited. Those K-Tel albums were the musical equivalent of a tasting menu, and (if you’ll forgive this tortured metaphor) one that left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth!

I now felt that my burgeoning music collection was a waste of money (OK, technically it was my parents’ money), since I didn’t even have the complete songs. Now I had to buy some of this music over again, in order to hear the complete songs and experience them properly. While this may not seem like a big deal to you, as a pre-teen with limited financial resources, it was a significant setback for me.

My second music-acquisition setback occurred during my teenage years. I was happily building my music collection by listening to AM radio stations (1050 CHUM, 680 CFTR and 1150 CKOC) and buying the 45 RPM singles of the songs that I liked. When I started listening to FM radio stations, it happened again. Unknown to me at the time, AM radio stations usually played the edited “single” versions of Top-40 hits, while FM stations played the full-length album versions. Once again, I felt ripped-off. However, upgrading this time was going to be a challenge. Those 45 RPM singles (at the time) cost $1.14 at Sam The Record Man, but albums – most of which contained only one or two songs that I liked – cost $5.99 or $6.99, which was quite an expense for a high school student who didn’t have a job.

In hindsight, one good thing did emerge in the midst of this musical and financial angst. I started to consider songs not merely as entertainment, but as a form of art. I also began to view disc jockeys and the music industry with contempt, for butchering this art in their misguided belief that consumers could only enjoy to songs that were packaged in small, bite-sized, three-minute pieces. This was utter nonsense; if I could sit through an entire classical symphony or even a four-movement concerto, then I could certainly digest a four or five-minute pop song.

As far as I was concerned, this wanton butchering of of pop music was blasphemous. Imagine that you are an art gallery curator, and that you’ve recently acquired an invaluable collection of well-known paintings. Your gallery is holding an exhibition to show off your new collection, and you want to give the public their money’s worth by displaying 100 of these paintings. Unfortunately, when the collection arrives, you realize that the canvases are larger than you thought, and that you won’t be able to fit the entire collection in the allocated space. What would you do? Display fewer paintings, or buy a bunch of smaller frames and then take a pair of scissors to each painting to make then fit into these smaller frames? This sums up the way I felt about the people who created the edited “single” versions of pop songs, as well as the staff at K-Tel Records.

Picture Frame Mona Lisa

You obviously know what this painting is – enough of the canvas is visible to tell you that much – but you’re not experiencing this piece of art as completely as you should.

Since my teenage years, I’ve become almost obsessive about building a proper music library. I stopped buying 45 RPM singles, and I now ensure that songs I do buy are always the full-length versions. A song is a musician’s piece of art, and it should be listened to just as it was written. Anything else is incomplete and diminishes the experience. This philosophy has also led to a few joyous discoveries over the years. From time to time, I discovered that the album versions of some songs contained not only an additional verse, but also an extended opening instrumental (Jet Airliner, Driver’s Seat . Occasionally I would discover huge swaths of new material (Come Sail Away, Love Is Like Oxygen, Call Me, Magic Man. The full-length versions of Santa Esmerelda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Rapper’s Delight still amaze me – they both clock in around 15 minutes, with almost no repetition!

You might assume that I love the 12-inch maxi singles, disco remixes and assorted extended versions of songs. Well, yes and no. I like them, but only if they contain additional, fresh material. Adding 16 bars of a pulsating drumbeat does nothing to enhance the song; it’s just a cheap (and lazy) way to sell additional copies of the record. I also have no use for YouTube remixes that simply copy and paste the existing musical material – they also add nothing to the experience. I’m looking for new material that wasn’t present in the original recording. That’s why even now, decades later, I’m still pleasantly surprised with some of my musical discoveries. Thirty years after it was released, I heard – for the first time – the extended rap in the song Miss You, by The Rolling Stones (from 1:46 – 2:37). I had never heard this version on the radio, and it isn’t included on their Some Girls LP.

When LPs and CDs are remastered, there are often additional tracks added to the original playlist. These can be outtakes, early versions or alternate versions of the original songs. I love listening to these because they give me some insight into the creative process of the musicians and lyricists. I like experiencing their musical ideas that were considered, but eventually ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor”. One excellent example is an alternate version of Who Are You, by The Who, which contains a verse that wasn’t included in the version of the song. Evil Woman by The Electric Light Orchestra is another notable example – this alternate version contains an extra verse plus a short orchestral intro.

Turntable Stylus

Over the decades, I’ve become philosophical as I reminisce about my music library. I don’t harbour any ill will toward K-Tel or its founder Phil Kives. Yes, I did have to spend more money on my music collection and buy many songs more than once, but I’m glad that I started my musical journey with a K-Tel record. I now have more of an appreciation for music as as art form, and less tolerance for mass-produced, butchered versions of songs. I believe that the quality of the pop and rock sections of my music collection is higher because of this experience. Indirectly, Kives taught me that songs should be experienced in their entirety, just as the artist composed it, and not how the record labels decide to repackage it.

I still have my three K-Tel compilations albums, tucked away in my vinyl collection. Although it’s been decades since I’ve played them, I can’t bear to get rid of them. They were among my first LPs, and were responsible for making me a more discriminating music lover, and less likely to accept the edited and watered-down sonic pablum that’s still being fed to the masses.

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CFRE Roadshow Promos

CFRE LogoBack in the 1980s, when I was a student at the University of Toronto, I worked part-time as a disc jockey at their campus radio station, CFRE. The station broadcast throughout the campus, in the student residences (via hard-wired speakers) and also on 91.9 cable FM. I had one two-hour show, once a week, usually from 8:00am – 10:00am, which worked out well for me, because it was before my classes.

Technics-SL1200The next year, I became the station’s Production Director, which was amazing because I had a recording studio full of equipment all to myself (including two Technics SL-1200 MKII turntables)! I also had the opportunity to hone my music editing skills using the tools of the era: a 15-inch-per-second reel-to-reel tape deck, a razor blade and splicing tape. No digital editing here – back then, we had to physically cut the tape, re-arrange it and then paste it back together to create our music mixes. If we did a good job, then no one would be able to tell where the edits were made. I tell ya, you kids these days have it so easy…

When I started my Production Director role, another staff member (and disc jockey), Eric Disend, compiled a 30-second promo for the station’s external DJ service, which we called the CFRE Roadshow. For a fee, students could hire station disc jockeys for residence parties – we would bring the station’s own equipment, along with at least 200 LPs, stored in milk cartons. When I heard Eric’s promo, I was blown away by his technical editing skill. I was used to hearing complete songs on the radio and hadn’t heard such slick editing and segueing before. His promo certainly inspired me because after a while I started thinking “I’ll bet I can do something like this, too”. Over the next few months, I conceived, compiled and constructed versions two, three and four of the CFRE Roadshow promos.

CFRE v2

I said nothing at the time, but I created a small tribute to Eric’s work in Promo #2: I included another sample from the same Dead Or Alive song, You Spin Me Round. Just like Eric’s montage, the lyrics in my second sample were also “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”.

I still had these promos recorded on cassette tapes, and converted them to MP3s a few years ago so that they wouldn’t be lost forever. Here they are, for posterity. They may sound a little dated now, but I remember these promos being fairly well-received by the other station staff members.

The songs in these montages may be a little more difficult to guess. Although most of these songs were popular during the 1980s, not all received radio airplay, and some samples are taken from extended mixes of the records. Try to guess as many as you can, and write your guesses in the comments.

CFRE Roadshow Promo 1 (Eric): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 2 (Bob): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 3 (Bob): 

CFRE Roadshow Promo 4 (Bob): 

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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.

The Return Of The Scarlet Letter

When I was in university, one of the books in my American Literature course was The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I enjoyed it, but until recently, I didn’t recognize the brilliance of the novel or see just how prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne was.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter, since it’s on just about every English teacher’s reading list, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, allow me to refresh your memory.


Scarlet Letter Book CoverThe story takes place in Boston, in 1642. At the time, the city’s citizens were known as Puritans. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from the Church of Rome, and hence wanted to purify the Church of England by ridding it of all traces of Roman Catholicism. They demanded a very strict code of conduct, and by today’s standards they would be considered fundamentalists, or even extremists.

The book’s main character, Hester Prynne, has been charged with committing adultery. After being found guilty, her punishment is prison time, and afterwards, being required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently on her dress. This sentence was considered especially light, since adulterers under Puritan law are usually branded or put to death. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the book, the “A” stands for adulteress, and wearing it in public is meant to shame Hester in front of the townspeople. Since Hester has refused to name the man involved, she must bear this shame alone.

During this course, we discussed the meaning of the letter “A”. The obvious interpretation was that it stood for adulteress, but our professor encouraged us to dig deeper and come up with additional meanings. We reasoned that it could also stand for angel, since Prynne always maintained a regal bearing, and able because Prynne demonstrated that was able to live life on her own terms, without the assistance of a man. Our professor then added his own personal interpretation: America. The letter, or at least the laws that led to its display on Hester Prynne’s dress, symbolized American culture at the time.

As I was making my way through the book, I thought that this tale was just a quaint glimpse into a long-forgotten Puritanical existence. I was glad that our modern, progressive society, now largely free of its ecclesiastical manacles, no longer behaves so sanctimoniously, and that we were now well beyond such pettiness and overt derision.

As it turns out, I spoke too soon… during the past generation, I’ve noticed a resurgence of these Puritanical practices in our society. I am now witnessing what I am going to call “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”. Much like a neighbourhood of anti-vaxxers, suddenly faced with a new outbreak of a long-vanquished disease, many people are now behaving in a manner from which I assumed we had all evolved. This unabashed schadenfreude – something I thought was beneath us as a society – is returning with a vengeance, thanks to social media.

With each passing year, it appears that we are becoming more like our judgmental 17th century predecessors. Allow me to share some of my observations:

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A Sign Of The Crimes

The first “signs” of a behavioural shift began before the advent of social media. From time to time, I would read an article about a judge who meted out an unconventional punishment to a petty thief or a misbehaving teenager. In lieu of a criminal record or jail time, the guilty party would have to stand in public beside a large sign that described their transgression.

Shaming Sign 2

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Before long, parents started mimicking these judges and delivering a similar punishment to their errant teenagers.

Shaming Sign 3

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Shaming via E-Mail Forwarding

I then noticed that e-mail was no longer being used solely as a business and communication tool. It was now wielded as a weapon and used to ridicule others. Some infamous early examples were Claire Swire, Peter Chung, Lucy Gao and Aleksey Vayner.

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Social Media As A Catalyst

The increase in the prevalence of online shaming coincided with the rise in popularity of social media. While social media has certainly altered – for better or for worse – the way we communicate, I believe that the anonymity of online communication allows us to revert to the holier-than-thou mindsets of those 17th century Puritans. We can become openly disapproving of others because no one can trace our comments back to us. Unlike the targets of our derision, our reputations won’t be damaged by our disparaging comments.

Soon, web sites dedicated solely to embarrassing others began to appear.

People Of Wal-Mart: There is a web site called People Of Wal-Mart that displays photos of Wal-Mart shoppers. Visitors are free to upload photos themselves and add them to the collection. I will admit that some of these photos are humourous – like the above photo of the suspicious loose candy, entitled Looks Legit”. However, as I’m sure you know, these are generally photos of people who are inappropriately dressed, who are behaving poorly, or who have substandard parenting skills. Essentially, these socially-challenged souls are put on display so that we can mock them. If that isn’t gratifying enough for us, there is now a rating system (1-10 stars) and a user comments section, so that visitors – under the identity cloak of online user names – can ridicule them even further.

Airline Passenger Shaming: If you behave poorly or selfishly on airplane, don’t be surprised if your photograph appears on the Passenger Shaming Facebook group or Instagram album. If your behaviour is particularly egregious, it may even be described in detail in newspaper articles.

Airline Passenger Shaming 1

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Ashley Madison Web Site Hack

Ashley Madison CoverThese days, web sites get hacked all the time, but the Ashley Madison data breach in July 2015 was different. There were no ransom requests or any attempts at monetary gain. Its user data was made public because the hacker(s) objected to its line of business, and wanted to “out” all of Ashley Madison’s customers as part of a moral crusade against the company. Over 60 gigabytes of customer information were made public, including names, address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

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The Police Are Now Participating

More recently (as of October 2015), the practice of public shaming is being adopted by a police department in West Virginia. Anyone caught soliciting a prostitute in the city of Huntington will have his photograph displayed on a billboard, visible from one of the city’s busiest streets.

Police Shaming 1a

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Fat Shaming

In November 2015, someone from an organization called Overweight Haters Ltd. began handing out insulting cards to overweight passengers on the London subway. The cards read, in part, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony. Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves.“.

In January 2016, after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher became the target of body shaming because she no longer looked like she did in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.

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What Is The New Scarlet Letter?

Scarlet Letter 1aIn my American Literature class, we suggested that Hester Prynne’s letter “A” – in addition to adulteress – might also mean angel, able and America. I think that the letter “A” is still apt when in today’s age of social media shaming. It continues to stand for adultery (as evidenced by the Ashley Madison data breach and the police billboard displaying the names of “johns”), and I would now like to propose some additional meanings:

  • Amoral: Behaviour publicized by the West Virginia police billboard, and the miscreants forced to hold signs in public describing their transgressions.
  • Airplane: An obvious one, abundantly illustrated in the Passenger Shaming Facebook group.
  • Anonymous: The anonymity of the Internet means that it is far easier for us to shame someone in cyberspace than to confront that person face-to-face.
  • Ashley: Given their motive, I’m sure that the Ashley Madison hackers would love to see every Ashley Madison customer forced to wear a large, embroidered letter “A” on their clothes, just like Hester Prynne.

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Conclusion

The Puritans did have a harsh and antiquated form of punishment for moral crimes, but I will say this in their defense: at least Hester Prynne was limited to the scorn of her town’s inhabitants, and only of those whom she encountered in person. Today’s shaming targets are not as fortunate. Jessie Jackson is quoted as saying “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up”, and I agree with him. Not only have we lowered ourselves to the disdainful, judgmental behaviour of the Puritans, but now thanks to the Internet, our shaming no longer has any geographical boundaries. Those who have been targeted now have to face coast-to-coast, or even global, consternation.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, then I urge you to re-read it. As you do, think about how you use social media and ask yourself how much our attitudes and behaviour have really evolved. Surely, we’re more enlightened and more sophisticated than the Puritans; let’s not allow these new forms of communication drag us back into the 17th century.

Bass Riff Music Montage

Bass Guitar StringsAt first, I was planning to construct a montage of songs with memorable bass lines – there are hundreds of them. However, after listening to a few, I realized that they are overlaid with so much instrumentation that the songs were always instantly recognizable. Therefore, in order to give you a bit of a challenge, I decided to compile a list of tunes that contained isolated bass riffs. There are ten well-known pop and rock songs in this montage, from the 1960s to the 1990s.

As usual, there two different montages: an easy version with one second of silence between each drumbeat sample, and a more challenging version with no silence between the samples.

The Bass Riff Montage: 

 

The Bass Riff Montage (with silence between the samples):