I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
Henry David Thoreau
February 2, 2000
GROUND HOG DAY, and Other misLeading Indicators
Yes, I’m sure you’re aware that today is yet another “Groundhog Day.” In an unexpected, pleasant surprise, I scoured today’s Dallas Morning News and found nary a mention. However, the various TV outlets could not exercise such discretion. Once again, we got to see the good, yet exceedingly silly-appearing, citizens of Punxsutawney, PA, carry on this “popular 114-year American tradition”. According to one source, the ‘event’ traces roots back to at least 17th century Germany.
Ah, there’s nothing quite so queerly quaint as the continued celebration of ancient animal-based folklore. Unless, of course, we consider the media attention paid to it.
Now, I want to know what’s going to happen in the future as much as anybody. I prize predictability. But it seems to me we need to exercise some differentiating discretion in terms of which ‘leading indicators’ we choose to base our conclusions upon.
Of course, everybody knows that Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t have a degree in meteorology, and probably (I’m assuming here) doesn’t have so much as a thermometer, barometer or Ouija board down in his hole. So this is simply some innocent Chamber of Commerce boosterism on the part of an otherwise nondescript town with an unpronounceable name.
But yet I wonder.
I wonder how many people hear the news: Punxsutawney Phil came out and spied his shadow early this morning near the small Pennsylvania hamlet bearing his name. That means that, unfortunately, we’re in for six more long weeks of winter. … and they immediately think to themselves, “Rats. I was hoping for an early spring.” No matter that this person lives in Iowa instead of Pennsylvania. Or Nebraska. Or California, Alabama, or Texas.
Even though we all ‘know’ this is just a myth, a legend, a folk tale – we still react to the ‘news’ as if it’s credible! Incredible.
I attribute this kind of “reacting-to-what-should-be-ignored” phenomenon to the psycho-linguistic equivalent of Chinese water torture. That is, individual ‘drops’ of nonsense, by themselves, have no impact. However, with repeated ‘droppings’ over time, the cumulative impact wears down our senses and better judgment until we eventual start reacting – however innocently or briefly – to the nonsense as if it were ‘fact.’
I submit we need to pay close attention when someone (usually with nothing better to do) comes up with some arcane, yet interesting, correlation of circumstance, coincidence and outcome.
For example, several years ago (perhaps in the late ’70s or early ’80s) Robert Stovall, a guest on Louis Rukeyser’s “Wall $treet Week” television show, revealed his “Super Bowl indicator”. His research revealed the interesting tidbit that if a team from the original National Football League (before the merger with the American Football League) won the Super Bowl, the stock market had a good year. If a team from the old AFL won the game, the market didn’t have a good year.
Now that’s an interesting correlation. But before you put much, uh, “stock” in it as economic theory, I think it’s appropriate to ask a question: How does one event relate to the other? How does “A” lead necessarily to “B”? How is “B” foreshadowed or predicted by “A”? If you ask yourself this, and the only reasonable explanation is that it’s a happenstance of circumstance (or a circumstance of happenstance), then – well, you’ve got your answer.
“KNOCK ON WOULD”, and other Silli-stitions
While we’re on the subject of senseless silliness (at least while I’m on it, I have no idea where, or what, you are or might be on), let’s talk about superstitions, those spiritual siblings of misleading indicators.
Whereas the misleading indicator is supposed to merely predict or foreshadow the outcome, the superstitious action actually causes the outcome.
That, in my estimation, amounts to a significant difference.
Think about it …
- the calendar turning to a “13” on a Friday causes bad luck
- the black cat causes bad luck
- walking under a ladder causes bad luck
- handling a frog causes your warts to go away
- the ladybug lighting on you causes good luck
- the horseshoe causes good luck
- the four-leaf clover causes good luck
- opening an umbrella indoors causes bad luck
- having a rabbit’s foot causes good luck
- spilling salt causes bad luck, unless you pitch a pinch over your left (not your right!) shoulder
- the unwashed t-shirt causes the pitcher to win the game
- knocking on wood doesn’t cause good luck, but it prevents bad luck
I expect that most (but probably fewer) of us recognize these as simple, harmless, fun little ‘traditions’ no more consequential than Groundhog Day. But again, over time, these ‘harmless’ little drip, drip, drippings begin to sink in, and take root in our nervous systems such that we actually begin to react to them. I’ve seen some people attempt various positions of contortion in order to find ‘wood’ with a free hand to ward off ‘jinxing’ themselves for something they, or someone else, said.
Here in 2000, isn’t it time to stop the dripping?
THE ULTIMATE “OOPS, I DIDN’T MEAN TO DO THAT!”
Microsoft is negotiating distribution deals with Sprint PCS, AirTouch and others to boost its technology in the rapidly expanding market for wireless devices, according to an email received by CNET News.com.
A “major deal” with British Telecom and AT&T also is in the works, according to the email, which was inadvertently sent to a CNET editor late today. Complete story at: http://technews.netscape.com/news/0-1004-200-1539683.html?pt.netscape.fd.hl.ne
To quote Dick Enberg: “Oh, my!”
May unintended addressees never appear in your emails.
Knock on wood!
John Rocker, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher whom I mentioned in the previous issue, received his punishment this week from Bud Selig, Commissar of Baseball. (I mean, Commissioner.) Selig’s statement reportedly said:
“Major League Baseball takes seriously its role as an American institution and the important social responsibility that goes with it. We will not dodge our responsibility….The terrible example set by Mr. Rocker is not what our great game is about and, in fact, is a profound breach of the social compact we hold in such high regard.”
Rocker was suspended until May 1st, fined $20,000, and ordered to undergo “sensitivity training.” He will miss all of spring training and the first month of the season, or about 24 games.
Eugene Orza, associate general counsel of the players association, responded: “It’s virtually unimaginable that we would not file a grievance” on Rocker’s behalf.
You may or may not recall that when the Baltimore Orioles’s Roberto Alomar spat on umpire John Hirschbeck during a game at the conclusion of the 1996 season, he was suspended for five games at the beginning of the 1997 season.
DMN columnist Tim Cowlishaw wrote a column on the punishment which generally reflects my sentiments.
MORE WORDS AND CONSEQUENCES
Sarah Boman, 17-year old senior at Bluestem High School in Leon, Kansas, composed a work of “conceptual art,” intending to represent “the delusions of an ‘obsessive, compulsive, paranoid madman’. “In the center of the drawing is the word “please” written in big red letters. Sentences spiral out from the middle to show the madman’s spinning, paranoid thoughts,” Sarah said.”
Among other sentences, it contains the phrases: Please, tell me who killed my dog. I miss him very much. I’ll kill you all! You all killed my dog because you all hated him.”
As part of the “conceptual” nature of her work, she posted the unsigned drawing on a classroom door.
In response, a three-person school district suspension committee determined that the work constituted a “threat of violence” agains the school and suspended Sarah for the remainder of the school year. The school principal would only comment, “I think the words speak for themselves.”
Sarah and her parents are appealing the suspension.
Michael Ian Campbell, an 18-year old Florida teenager, was ‘in’ an AOL chat room with a 16-year old teenage girl who attended Columbine High School near Denver. In the course of their exchange, he reportedly made threats to the girl that more violence was to occur at the school:
I need to finish what (sic) begun and if you go I don’t want your blood on my hands…. There is nothing to be scared about, just don’t go to school and don’t tell anyone. If anyone finds out, you’ll be the first to go…. Time magazine has brought more chaos and I need to strengthen this. This is what they wanted and people need to know what is really going on here. Don’t go to school.
As a result of this December exchange, the school closed two days early for the holidays, during final exams the Columbine student was “so distraught” she transferred from Columbine to another school. Campbell was arrested and charged with a felony count of using interstate communications to threaten injury to another person. If convicted, he faces five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. another person.
“Meanwhile, he’s already spent six days in jail and posted $100,000 bail. He’s had to undergo counseling at his own expense, pay his travel expenses to appear in court in Denver, and retain a lawyer.”
Thirteen-year-old Chris Beamon of Ponder, Texas, was held in juvenile detention (jail) for four days because of a homework assignment. His English teacher, Amanda Henry, gave these instructions for a Halloween-inspired creative writing exercise: “A story starter that will make your kids jump out of their skin!“(sic)
According to the Dallas Observer, Chris turned in “a muddled and messy first-person tale about shooting three classmates and his teacher and snorting Freon. ‘…[A]bout 20 kids started cracking up & it pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake, & and Ben starting laughing so hard that I acssedently [sic] shot Mrs. Henry.”
The local district attorney dropped the charges only after extensive Dallas-Fort Worth media coverage.