The most recently published RADAR 100 list is now online, too. That means I get to share it. I think it’s my favorite so far: “100 Self-Help Books You Can Do Without.”
Most people probably don’t remember this, or have tried to repress their memory, but in early 2001, the media was ablaze with all sorts of speculation about Dean Kamen’s highly secretive miracle invention. Its codename was Ginger but the device was also mysteriously known as “IT”, which prompted all sorts of great headlines like, “What is IT?” and “Where’s IT at, Dean?”
IT obviously turned out to be the Segway PT, an electronic, two-wheeled, self-balancing, self-propelling vehicle that looked a lot like a very clunky scooter. Yes a very clunky scooter THAT WOULD SOME DAY CHANGE THE WORLD! That was the promised written into the very treads of the Segway. It was energy-efficient and faster than walking. It would afford the elderly and others with limited mobility the chance to get around and live like the rest of us, instead of confined to moss-covered basement cages, never seeing the light of day. Some day it would even displace vehicular travel within city limits. There were very long articles and news stories where people actually discussed the zoning of Segway lanes in the road, to make room for the future of travel. Dean Kamen’s designs for the Segway were noble and no less than revolutionary. And according to all the press and attention that followed its eventual arrival, if there were a sort of quintessential Segway user–the Platonic ideal, I guess–I think most would agree it looked a lot like this:
However, almost six years later, I think it’s safe to say the average Segway user looks bit more like this:
What was once heralded as the future of getting-around has, in a few short years, become exclusively the province of attention-seeking dorks and weirdos. It’s really interesting to me that something so ambitious could become forever perverted like this in such a short amount of time. For a while, the Segway was an expensive novelty. You’d see someone–usually a man nearing middle age, wearing a fannypack–riding one on the sidewalk and you couldn’t help but point and gawk a bit. If you were a bold person maybe you’d even ask to give the Segway a test ride.
That day has come and gone, at least for me. Now when I see someone cruising toward me on a Segway I usually regard that person with the same amount of disdain and embarrassment-by-proxy I do for people who purposefully show up at largely-attended public events covered in exotic birds or snakes or ferrets. (Earlier this summer I saw a guy cruising the Coney Island boardwalk with a parrot on each shoulder and a snake around his neck. We get it. A single species would have made your point just as well.)
Fortunately, I am usually spared this particular discomfort. I rarely see people riding Segways for sport these days, and I have never seen anyone ride one out of necessity. Instead, from what I can tell they’re used primarily as novelty rental vehicles from companies that offer city tours with an emphasis on the adorable. Segways are apparently also a really good go-to vehicle if you’re looking for an eye-catching way to distribute free samples of Go-GURT Smoothies.
Maybe it’s a sign of the unfulfilled technological promise of the late 1990s that the future of automobiles has netted out as the present-day adult tricycle, or that today the requisite uniform of the Segway pilot is not a helmet or a windbreaker, but a loud Hawaiian shirt and jester’s cockscomb. Or maybe it’s not a sign of anything except the limited appeal of a $5,000 scooter.
…the chatty old man at Starbucks. When he steps up to order his coffee and butter croissant, you can be sure you’ll get an earful. He flirts, he inquires, he quips. It doesn’t matter how long the queue is, or how much of the busy employees’ attention he’s dominating. Sometimes I’ll watch him in line, as he searches out things in the store he can use to start conversation. Today he examined some of the inoffensive CDs on the counter and, when a barista approached, he removed a British Invasion CD and chatted about it for a few minutes, then put it back on the rack, and ordered his usual. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It seems like chatty old man always has something to talk about!
And sure, that might qualify him for the “Mr. Friendly” award, but Mr. Confidence? Well, what if I told you he did all of this unsolicited chatting THROUGH AN ELECTRONIC VOICEBOX STUFFED INSIDE A HOLE IN HIS THROAT??? That is confidence.
I am not much for small talk to begin with, but if I had to speak with a digital robo-voice through a special electronic device, I think I would choose my words very carefully. I wouldn’t go out of my to approach a Starbucks barista and say, “Hel. Lo. Will. I. En. Joy. This. Com. Pact. Disc. Sound. Track. For. In. The. Wild. Be. Cause. I. Am. Pret. Tee. Wild. Young. Lay. Dee. Ha. Ha. Bloop. Bleep. Bzz.”
If I were in the chatty old man’s shoes and voice modulator, here are the only things I would ever bother pressing my hand to my throat-hole to say:
“Ex. Cuse. Me. Can. You. Kind. Lee. Die. Rect. Me. To. The. Near. Est. Gun. Shop?”
“Par. Don. Me. But. Can. You. Please. Tell. Me. How. To. Dis. En. Gage. The. Safe. Tee. Switch?”
I don’t know how you feel about Gawker (and that is not an open invitation to tell me), but last week they published their first book, Gawker’s Guide to Conquering All Media, a product made of pulp and ink and, strangely, not one single photograph.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I was responsible for some of that pulp and ink, by filling the Gawker book with my writing. And because several other very funny people I know also lent their writing to it, and I figure that’s a good thing.
If you ever find yourself trapped in a book store, under a pile of copies of this book, and you think to yourself, “this is probably going to be a terrible way to die, and yet even in this tragic position, I can’t help wondering what Todd Levin has written for this book that is literally about to squeeze the last bits of air out of my lungs…” then you can save some time by flipping ahead to “Book to Film” section, or the “NPR Fundraiser Premiums Wishlist” or the “Know Your Radio Formats” chart, or the “Spotlight on Music Bloggers” checklists, or a couple other things I’ll leave to the imagination.
There are, as I mentioned earlier, many other very funny sections written by professional comedy writers that I could also recommend, but this is my selfish web site. In any case, I stand behind (nearly all of) my contributions to this very important book that is sure to be remembered through the ages.
In 2001, I participated in a kind of art swap called “20 things. 20 people.” The idea was to make 20 pieces of art to be distributed amongst the project’s 20 participants and, in return, you would receive 20 unique art pieces. Neat.
Since I’m not particularly crafty, I decided to use the project as a clearinghouse for ideas I’d had over the years–things I believed had some kind of (creative, financial) potential, but a potential was too lazy or too unskilled or just too busy to realize by myself. I had hoped other people would take these ideas, one sent to each member of the project, and do something wonderful with them.
Among those ideas was one of my personal favorites, held over from the first dot-com boom, when everyone seemed to have a ridiculous amount of disposable income. Baby Wigs. Wigs for babies. The way I imagined Baby Wigs was they’d be made from soft yarn adhered to little skull caps that would fit snugly over your baby’s head. The yarn would enable designers to experiment with all kinds of adorable or impossible hairstyles–for instance, a golden yellow “bee hive” hairdo with little yarn bees attached to it–while still providing your baby with a practical hat to keep its crazy, bald head warm. I even went as far as naming the product–”Wigglewear”–because this is the way I focused my creative energy back in 2001. I would share the idea, in great detail, to anyone who would listen or anyone I could corner for several minutes, and many people thought it was a pretty viable product, particularly because babies are one of the two areas of consumer behavior where people will make purchases without a moment of rational thought. (Pets being the other category.)
Many years passed, and then I saw a commercial parody on Saturday Night Live for “baby toupees,” which was very funny because it featured babies in toupees. (Incidentally, my original idea for Baby Wigs was wigs made of synthetic human hair, because I thought it would be really hilarious. I only switched it to yarn because I realized I was in the minority of people who found babies with thick, bushy Ted Koppel haircuts hilarious.) As I said, the commercial was a parody, preying on the “insecurity” of babies who suffer from baldness. Funny, and a nice coincidence.
But now (via kottke’s “buzzfeed” sidebar) everything has come full circle, as I see there is a legitimate (sort of) company that actually manufactures real (intentionally hilarious) toupees for babies. And sure, they’re marketing them as Halloween costumes–babies love trick-or-treating, after all–but let’s be honest. Baby Toupees is definitely hoping these items become year-round fashion. And they’re right, too. I only hope the CEO of this company is the very same person who received that highly marketable idea from me in 2001.
I know it is a mighty claim, but it’s a very specific one, too.
Apparently Lou Perlman, the boy band svengali (the media loves to call him that) responsible for creating bands such as Backstreet Boyz, N*SYNC, O Town, and Take 5, is now being accused of molesting or making advances on many the young boys whose careers he was responsible for.
(Wait for it…)
I heard before Lou Perlman had sex with the members of O Town, they were just called “o Town.”
You’re welcome, The Internet.