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.