Innocent Bystander September 2003

On Second Thought

Ideas whose time has come, unfortunately
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Earlier this year headlines on the obituary pages of many newspapers carried the name of Charles Rolland Douglass, who died in April at his home in Templeton, California, at the age of ninety-three. Douglass was the inventor of something that has intersected with the lives of nearly all Americans—the television laugh track. His Laff Box, developed in the 1950s, has since evolved into a far more sophisticated instrument, capable of producing moans and groans, oohs and aahs.

The laugh track is something that elite critics of television like to ridicule for its vulgarian artifice—it somehow epitomizes the awfulness, as they see it, of television itself. But the laugh track solved a big problem. Humor is best presented, and comedy most fully experienced, in the context of a crowd. An imperfect substitute, the laugh track proved triumphant nonetheless, helping to make possible the emergence of comedy as television's finest creative achievement. I'm sure the grief at Charles Douglass's funeral was real, but in this case a little canned emotion would have been a wholly appropriate touch.

A handful of people improve the world substantially in more ways than one; and of course the vast majority of us leave no enduring mark on the world at all. But a significant number of people are each responsible for a single notable accomplishment, and they are a mainstay of the obituary columns. Recent years have given us—actually, taken from us—the inventor of the three-point seat belt, Nils Bohlin; the inventor of Kitty Litter, Edward Lowe; and the inventor of Velcro, Georges de Mestral.

Early this summer the Federal Trade Commission inaugurated the immensely popular "Do Not Call" Registry, enabling consumers to remove their names and phone numbers from the databanks of intrusive telemarketers. Someday an obituary for Timothy J. Muris will remind a forgetful public of the FTC chairman responsible for this supreme act of public service. Let us hope that it does not have to be written for many years! By then, a generation from now, children will give little credence to their grandparents' tales of dinnertime browbeating by computerized pitchmen—tales that will seem as preposterous as dentistry without painkillers.

As uplifting as such stories of achievement can be, they have a grim and more plentiful counterpart in the careers of men and women who spend their lives in pursuit of the misguided. "That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea," Samuel Johnson observed, "and that is a wrong one." Johnson's comment might well apply to Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, Germany's ambassador to Great Britain, who has lately launched a crusade to make the teaching of German compulsory in British elementary schools. A previous German outreach effort, in 1939-1945, having come to naught, the ambassador is directing his energies at Great Britain's Department for Education. As one might expect, the ambassador's suggestion has elicited a certain amount of dyspeptic commentary and popular opposition (Volkswiderstand). It is only a matter of time before someone reminds Von Ploetz of the emperor Charles V's remark "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."

Mike Phillips and his colleagues at Plymouth University, in England, recently found themselves drawn to a very different sort of bad idea. The Victorian naturalist Thomas Huxley, arguing for the organizing power of random chance, allegedly advanced the conceit that an infinite number of monkeys banging away at typewriters over the course of infinity would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. The Plymouth researchers set out to explore this proposition, giving six Sulawesi crested macaques the use of a computer for four weeks. In the end the monkeys produced not a single word, and showed little interest in any key but S. "Another thing they were interested in," a spokesman for the project said, "was defecating and urinating all over the keyboard."

The Plymouth researchers seem to have achieved an ironic distance from their experiment, but the only possible reaction to many other efforts is: What were they thinking? A case in point was the plan by the French synchronized-swimming team at the 1996 Olympics to re-create the experience of Nazi death camps by means of a choreographed aquatic ballet. Last year legislators in Nevada approved a measure that would have put an atomic mushroom cloud on state license plates—a move that wiser heads (at the Department of Motor Vehicles, of all places) managed to deflect. Anyone who goes to the finer restaurants has noticed a growing tendency to explain the manner in which the fish or meat on his or her plate lived its life and met its end—details that most people would prefer to be spared. In Washington from time to time proposals are heard to allow advertising on U.S. currency (as a way of raising money) and even to sell naming rights to national shrines. (The Ford Lincoln Memorial? The Victoria's Secret Reflecting Pool?)

Perhaps the most ineradicable bad idea of recent decades has been the yellow Smiley face. Released into the ecosystem in 1963, Smiley and mutations like Frowney have by now colonized every inch of the planet. Smiley-face sweatshirts are today worn by peshmerga guerrillas in Kurdistan and child mercenaries in Liberia. Smiley's creator, Harvey R. Ball, died not long ago, at the age of seventy-nine. One can't help wondering, did friends and family wear Smiley at the funeral? Or did they wear Frowney?

One of the most haunting repositories of truly bad ideas is the well-trafficked Web site of the Darwin Awards, devoted to those who "protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives" through some "astounding misapplication of judgment." Consider, for instance, a recent incident in the Swiss Alps.

A 53-year-old Glasgow man, attempting what police describe as a bizarre stunt, attached a climber's snap hook to an unused overhead tram cable and attempted to manually ride down the mountain. But the mountain was steep, gravity was constant, and he was unable to moderate his rate of descent ...

In an age replete with bad ideas, competition for the designation Worst Idea of All is obviously intense. A friend of mine collects manifestations of the term "a new low," and long ago concluded that this is a concept without a floor. There may in fact be no Worst Idea of All, but the worst idea I've heard lately comes from a company (or perhaps just a Web site) called Coincidence Design, Inc. Let's say a young man becomes aware of a young woman but isn't quite sure how best to make an approach or even whether the young woman meets his exacting standards. The experts at Coincidence Design offer a full range of services. "We can observe her movements from dawn to dusk," the Web site explains. "We can use a clever pretext to interview roommates and classmates from her past and colleagues and girlfriends from her present."

Phase I consists of basic research.

Thorough background check. Identify subject. Vet subject for criminal records, excessive debt, physical diseases ... [Cost: $8,000.]

With Phase II comes a more nuanced exploration of the subject's personality.

What does she like, what does she care about? What did she do last summer? What frightens her, what does she hate? What kind of women did she make friends with, and what kind of men did she date? [Cost: $45,000.]

Phase III brings the moment when the company arranges for a serendipitous first encounter.

Based on the information in the dossier, we suggest a setting and a context. Should you meet her first at a party in California and then, coincidentally, three months later in a New York restaurant? What topics should be broached? How much data can we provide our client with, without arousing the subject's suspicions? The work in this phase ... includes on-site operational management and client training. [Cost: $25,000.]

It may just be me, but I'd bet that the "what frightens her, what does she hate?" category would include finding the paperwork for this arrangement in her new spouse's desk. One can almost see the murderous gleam as her hand steals toward the letter opener. Coincidence Design touts its service as a way of "evening out the distribution of luck in the world." More likely it's an example of how the pursuit of reproductive success can itself lead to sudden removal from the gene pool—and the purchase, in a sense, of a $78,000 Darwin Award. If that award is ever bestowed, we can thank Charles Rolland Douglass for the right sounds to go with it.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.
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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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