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Thursday, October 21, 2010

8 Things We Kept Doing Long After They Were Stupid

Stupidity is omnipresent in our world; in every misspelled drive “thru” sign, in every distracted commuter, in every Snuggie commercial, in every deposed Ugandan prince who needs our help moving large quantities of money.  Stupidity has become something of a national past time for America and it threatens to overtake heartless consumerism as our countries chief export.

But we like to think of stupidity as something “out there”, something confined to a hyper-visible minority or, at worst, a majority that doesn’t include us.  After all, you’ve heard yourself calling all the other people on the road idiots but you’ve never heard their pet names for you. 

The danger is that by externalizing stupidity, we often fail to recognize it when it becomes institutional.  If we are unwilling to challenge our own egos and recognize the idiotic nature of some of our own choices, we risk falling into a world where stupidity is self-sustaining.  Simply recognizing the inanity in our actions is meaningless if we don’t then change them and thus far it seems that we are a nation perfectly willing to carry on with folly.  Need proof?  Okay, how about the fact that you live in a country that still…

 #1) Mints Pennies

First of all, we just don’t care about pennies.  We leave them in the little pan next to the register, they aren’t worth bending over to pick up and all they do is get in the way of the good change when you’re digging through the big popcorn tin for soda money.  Pennies are so close to valueless that many of us feel compelled to toss a nickel into the fountain at the mall.  Pennies cannot even purchase imaginary wishes any more.

What causes this to rise to the level of stupidity is the increasing cost of minting a penny.  Right now it sits at about 1.2 cents.  Yes, more than a penny.  Add to that the looming shortage of zinc and copper and the massive expense of transporting pennies from mints to banks and you have yourself a cute little antiquated tradition that flushes millions of dollars a year down the toilet.

Survey after survey (funded by the zinc industry) shows that American’s just love that little penny so we keep making them.  Never mind the fact that to buy lunch with pennies you would have to weigh down your pockets with about six pounds of jingling coinage.  And never mind the fact that the diner probably wouldn’t accept your handfuls of pennies as payment anyway.  We’ve done the whole penny thing for a long time, so who cares if it’s stupid?  It’s kind of like…

 #2) Printing Phone Books

Really?  We’re still going to do the whole phonebook thing?  Internet and all?  I mean, you thought that $11 worth of pennies was heavy.  The average phone book weighs in at about two and a half pounds depending on the municipality.  There are several different companies that produce these behemoths and many of them compete directly in overlapping markets, which means that each year our country produces more than one phone book per household.  In fact, there are more phone books produced each year than there are people in the country.  About 400 to 500 million all told.

If you haven’t already done the math, that works out to about 562,500 tons of phone books produced and distributed each year.  That’s a hard number to get your head around so to put it into perspective, that’s almost twice the weight of the Empire State Building.  And this is over something that is completely useless for the 73% of households that are online.  Keep in mind that the 27% that don’t have computers don’t all have phones.  In fact, many of them don’t have people in them either. 

The most liberal estimate is that about 18% of households use a phonebook at all.  The average household is about 3 people and they don’t exactly need a phone book each so at most this country needs about 18 million phone books a year and maybe twice that many again for businesses.  This means that for every phone book that does more than hold a door open there are 28 more (about 70 pounds worth) that are only there to piss off the mailman.

But other than the environmental ramifications and the wasted labor, what’s the harm?  I mean, it’s not like phone books are all that important.  It’s not like the future of our nation depends on phone books, right?  Why, that’s more the domain of…

 #3) Electing Senators

Senators have complicated jobs that include campaigning, fund raising, smiling, not being witches, distorting facts, smearing others and occasionally legislating.  Together they form the most powerful body in the nation (other than Chuck Norris).  They have the power to enact law, ratify binding treaties, confirm the most vital appointments in the nation and impeach duly elected officials.  They are often called the “World’s greatest deliberative body”, though there are other more common names for them that I won’t be repeating here.

All that being said, it seems the very model of stupidity to elect them in such a random, haphazard and thoroughly unrepresentative way.  Two senators per state was once considered a great compromise, but that was at a time when we were still trying to convince the states to give up their individual sovereignty.  Once that issue was settled, we probably should have started addressing this nonsensical negotiation right away.  But we didn’t because stupidity has a limitless supply of fuel.

Consider that the senators that represent Wyoming are drawing from an electorate of about 272,000 voters.  The senators from California represent more than 18 million.  That means that in our “representative democracy”, one fiftieth of the most powerful body consists of people who are beholden to the whims of a group about the size of Plano, Texas.  Nothing against Plano, Texas, but is there any logical reason for the 0.0018% of American’s who live in Wyoming have 2% of the governing power?  Should the votes in Wyoming really be 72 times as important as the votes in California?

Considering all of that, it’s really no surprise that our legislators come up with ideas like…

 #4) Daylight Savings Time

I’ve always been amused by national “Miss Havisham” day.  We wake up an hour earlier than normal, we puzzle over the clocks in our hazy, zombified state and try to figure out if our cell phones have automatically reset.  We spend three or four days in this quasi-temporal state of flux while we try to convince our bodies that the US senate has the power to bend time.

Originally, daylight savings time was promoted as a way of giving farmers an extra hour of sunlight at the end of the day, because we all know how those farmers like to sleep in late.  When this was exposed as ridiculous, we switched to the excuse that an extra hour of daylight reduced crime by keeping the streets lit a bit longer.  When someone pointed out that street crime generally didn’t take place in the early twilight hours to begin with, we switched to a new excuse about reducing energy consumption.  When studies showed that there actually wasn’t any noticeable decrease in energy use (we use light bulbs less and air conditioners more), senators finally gave up trying to rationalize it and admitted that they just like screwing with us.

We’ve continued to expand the zone of “pretend” time to the point where daylight savings time spans for more than half the year, leading many to wonder why we don’t just set the clocks back once and forget about it.  This is more than just a humorous reminder of how stupid we are.  There is an actual death toll involved here.  Accidents from traffic collisions to industrial mishaps to mining disasters tend to spike in the days following the onset of daylight savings and while the numbers are low, they are significantly higher than the perceived savings.

But we should forgive daylight saving time.  It’s a relatively new institution and surely we’ll hash it out eventually, right?  I mean, we wouldn’t just use a system indefinitely if it was incredibly stupid, right?

 #5) The Fahrenheit Scale

We are a nation of stupid measurements.  We prefer the whole 12 inches=a foot, 3 feet= a yard and 1760 yards=a mile thing to the instantly divisible metric system.  We choose a system of weights that doesn’t bother with any increment between a pound and a ton over one that actually makes sense.  But at least those measures were once based on something.  At least there was a time when they (kind of) made sense.

Not so for the Fahrenheit scale.  They were just numbers on a thermometer.  Arbitrarily assigning 32 to the freezing point of water and 212 to its boiling point never made any more sense than it does now.  They were chosen more or less at random.  There is no significance whatsoever to the 0 point on the Fahrenheit scale and no rationale behind its continued usage.

Celsius has a problem or two of its own, of course.  Unless temperatures are expressed in decimals it is only half as specific as the Fahrenheit scale which means that there is a warm 25 degrees and a cool 25 degrees, but could we not meet halfway with a scale that has freezing at 0 and boiling at 200?  Heck, I’d even be okay with dropping the values down on Fahrenheit and just saying that 180 is the boiling point of water.  I can compromise.  We could call it the Celsenheit scale.

We tried as a nation to convert to metrics once, though we didn’t try very hard.  It’s almost like we knew we would fail long before we started.  But what can you expect from a country that hasn’t gotten over…

 #6) Believing in Ghosts

There has always been a fringe group of outliers in this country that immerse themselves in the supernatural.  Many of them do so strictly for amusement, of course.  If people really thought that evil spirits roamed the haunted grave yard they wouldn’t exactly pay for a tour of it.  But surveys consistently show that as many as half of Americans profess to actually believe in ghosts.  Between one fifth and one quarter say that they’ve seen or felt a ghost.

A plethora of television programs have popped up in the last few years to take advantage of our gullibility.  Curiously, the existence of these programs seems to be increasing the percentage of the populace that believes in such apparitions.  I say curiously because if you’ve ever watched one of these programs you know how painfully obvious it is that they never find anything to remotely suggest that such a thing as ghosts exist.  For those who have not seen the programs, allow me to sum them up:

(Interior: Filmed in infra-green even though the lights are on to make a normal house seem creepy)

Ghost Hunter One: “Hello?  Ghosts?”
Ghost Hunter Two: “Hello?”
Ghost Hunter One: (excitedly) “Did you hear something?”
Ghost Hunter Two: “I sure hope so…”

Never mind the fact that “dedicated” “scientific” “experts” using “scientific” “tools” and “methods” have been unable to turn up a single shred of convincing evidence that there is anything at all to these claims.  Not one single piece of evidence, not one photograph, not one video that can’t be discredited by a dedicated twelve year old. 

In my experience, nobody over the age of born will admit to watching these shows, so I’m sure the networks are putting them on for some charity tax write off or something.

 #7) Driving SUVs

There are three general reasons for buying SUVs:  Safety, storage space and a desire to speed along the coming of End Times by making the planet unlivable due to automotive pollution.  While the last two are quite valid, the first one is suspect.  It is also the most common reason people give for buying an SUV.  Never mind the fact that it is completely and demonstrably false.

This one is understandable on its surface.  Most of the people buying SUVs are parents and there is very little you can’t talk a parent into doing if you wrap it in the word “safety”.  Parents will sanitize their homes to laboratory standards, feed their children any number of strange concoctions and pay twice as much for identical products if they believe the alternative is safer.  And how could SUVs not be safer?

Simply put, big vehicles are no safer than small vehicles.  The size of a vehicle has very little to do with how safe it is in a collision.  The speed and weight of an automobile in a collision is so great that adding mass to add safety is like ordering a Diet Coke along with your Grand Slam at Denny’s; insignificant in the long run.  SUVs do not have a better safety record, they cause far more accidents, they are far more likely to roll over, they are far more likely to kill passengers in the other vehicles involved in a wreck and they make it really hard to find a good parking space.

 #8) Post Offices

Going to the post office in the modern world is like buying an abacus from Radio Shack.  Sure, there are some companies that rely on the post office because they like the pricing and they get sick and tired of FedEx and UPS delivering all of their packages on time.  There are companies that would cease to exist entirely if it weren’t for the post office, like the post office for example.

But do we really need them anymore?  Does anyone send anyone letters anymore?  Heck, even a fax is considered pretty low tech these days.  You can pay your bills online, you can browse the catalogs of the world digitally, you can wish happy birthdays on Facebook and, let’s face it, you would have forgotten to send the card anyway.  And still, despite the lack of utility, the government continues to subsidize the postal service.  Could we not cut out the middle man and have the Publisher’s Clearing House just throw away their own magazine offers?

There are valid reasons for keeping the postal service around, not the least of which is the terrible consequence of disgruntling all of the postal carriers at the same time, but how long will we continue with this outmoded tradition?  Every year the post office will become less relevant.  Every year we will need them less.  How long before we finally just give in and get rid of it?  Well, judging by our track record, we’ll get to that right after we finish converting to metric.

1 comment:

  1. How very droll. I enjoyed this one much more than the Halloween blog but that might be because I indulge in stupid more than I do in wearing costumes.