Clothes Make the Man

Earlier this month I talked about the Pioneer 10 mission, which sent an unmanned probe beyond our solar system and to the stars. Affixed to this probe was the famous Pioneer Plaque, depicting two human figures, one male and one female. The significance of the plaque, from a scientific standpoint, is the pictorial representation of its origins, and how to find us. Also significant is that the humans pictures are naked. Naturally, many people were upset by this back in 1972 when the probe was launched, while others lampooned the hieroglyphic image as being earth-centric. Indeed, great thought went into designing the plaque and its message to whomever would ultimately find it. Would extraterrestrials even understand its intended meaning? The human figures being nude certainly raised eyebrows, suggesting perhaps that we all walk around naked, the males raising their right hand as if taking an oath. (And considering that more than half the world’s population is either African or Asian, the caucasian complexion and appearance of the Pioneer-ing couple might be somewhat misleading to our other-worldly visitors.)

Why naked? Why would the plaque portray us as if we don’t wear clothes? Humans have been wearing clothing since the beginning of civilization. Ancient Egyptian fashions were actually more sophisticated than Hollywood and history books would have us believe. Of course there are the occasional deviations to fashion, like the trend of Minoan women to expose their breasts wearing a V-shaped, split garment with mid-length sleeves. Most cultures throughout history have placed great importance on dress. Traditional dress has often been used to identify national origin, from the Bunad in Norway to the Sari in India, for centuries upon centuries. Clothing styles help us to distinguish ourselves from one generation to another. You wouldn’t often see a man in his 70’s wearing cargo shorts and sporting a backwards cap and a Hollister t-shirt. Likewise, few 19-year-old males are comfortable wearing a suit and tie. Just as age determines appropriate dress, so do occupation, gender, socioeconomic status, class, and day of the week.

Europeans can easily identify when an American is in their midst (the white socks are usually a give-away). Actually, we stand out like a wine stain on a white shirt pretty much everywhere we go. Speaking of white shirts, I was mildly admonished (as a technical consultant) that my attire was not conservative enough for the place I worked (finance). That same attire would have been completely inappropriate for a Rush concert. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, appearances do matter.

When I was going to my first job interview out of college, my step dad took one look at my shoes and told me no one would hire me. They were certainly not shined, but I felt my black oxfords were in good enough shape for a sit-down with school administrators. He would not hear of it, and made me shine them before leaving the house. I now understand where he was coming from, he being a veteran and of another generation. Back then, people made more of an effort than we do these days. And it changes as you get older. Lately, I do take the time to shine my shoes for special occasions, or when they look like crap. Most men, I believe, do not own shoes that can be shined. And they probably don’t own a suit, either.

Abraham Maslow, in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”), supposed that humans are driven by having needs met on a tiered basis, the most basic set being “physiological” in nature, those related to being fed, avoiding dehydration, and protection from the elements. The basic need of “homeostasis” – maintaining body temperature – is as crucial as the needs for food and water, sleep, sex, and breathing. On a purely individual level, the need for clothing is simple: cover the body adequately to protect from frostbite or sunburn and everything in between. But once a person, an individual, becomes part of a collective, part of a village or a city, he is within the constraints of that society. Social needs are much different.

Society dictates that clothing is more than something to cover yourself. Social ideals and limitations are very difficult to overcome. (You can test this by wearing a burqa in Fort Worth, Texas. You will soon realize that your appearance really does matter.) While the clothes we wear are a reflection of who we are as individuals, the styles we choose are determined by our culture. Naturally, young people move in a direction that separates them from their parents, but Americans dress like Americans, and Nepalese dress like Nepalese, but with blue jeans, lately. Here in the 21st century, you can wear whatever you like, within reason (you apparently are not allowed to hike in the nude in Switzerland anymore.) If clothes make the man, what can be said about the trend-setter? What can we say about the rank and file?

I ask myself, am I just meeting my basic need, am I a follower of societal norms, or am I going to wear that silver lamé jacket to the office on Halloween?


Clean Enough

We cleaned up a little today. I say, “a little” because I have a small degree of OCD, and I have been known to stay up late into the night, scrubbing pots and sanitizing surfaces. Today we really only tidied up. Cleaning would have been a grueling and time-consuming experience, one that might cost one’s soul. But I was satisfied with the tidying. Tidy is better than nothing. Tidy is preferable to filthy. And filth is just unacceptable.

But my house is not clean. To me, “clean” means you can eat off it. Your dishes are clean. But is your bathroom sink? Probably not, when you think about it. But just how clean are those dishes? As I write this, my Bosch dishwasher is applying extremely hot, detergent-laced water to my plates and glasses, knives and forks. The rinse cycle should be enough to remove any residual chemicals from everything, but I’m not so sure. But, I fill up a glass and drink without a second thought, because I am confident that any microbes have been dispatched and no longer pose a threat.

Germs, huh? What if I told you the food you eat is already contaminated with millions of bacteria? Actually, we ingest a huge number of single–celled organisms everyday, and we’re totally aware of it. Lactobacillus acidophilus and similar strains are commonly found in yogurt and some other dairy products, and are seen as “probiotic” for their benefits to gut health. A green mold, Penicillium roqueforti, is what gives roquefort cheese its distinctive flavor. And the human body is host to more microorganism cells than human cells. It seems we are not as  “clean” as we would like to believe. But not to worry. The truth is, you wouldn’t last a day without your symbiotes.

Years ago, I read Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. The book is about fictional and hypothetical events surrounding the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but not the life you imagine if you grew up watching Star Trek. Instead, the scientists are faced with a potential extinction event. But the narrative explored the crossing of evolutionary paths between humans and microorganisms over the eons, how we are forever linked with our own symbiotic flora: bacteria, mites, fungus, yeast, and more. We live in concert with another world, one that lives in and on us. You would think this would creep me out, but this book was a real page-turner. Needless to say that my perspective was altered because of this, and the subsequent research. I found that I could still manage to eat, even knowing that there might be all manner of things living on or around my food. I was comforted knowing that I have an army of little creatures lying in wait, ready to annihilate whatever bogeys appeared on the radar.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still wash my dishes and pots and pans con forte, and I’m still fairly methodical about cleaning surfaces, towels, linens, and so on. When I say something is clean, I mean that you could pour mac’n’cheese on it, and would eat it. Again, how clean are your dishes? Is the glass you’re drinking out of really cleaner than your kitchen floor? Yeah, probably. But I am not saying my floor is clean. It isn’t. It is clean enough to make me comfortable. I mean, I’m not going to eat off it. In fact, it’s not clean enough right now so that I’d crawl across it. Now if I had kids, that would be a different story.

Kids are messy. But they have some superhero gut flora keeping them relatively safe. (Interestingly, I ran across a study published by Arizona State University that focused on levels of gastrointestinal problems in autistic individuals. The study found a correlation between the severity of autism and the degree and frequency of GI problems in children.)

Somewhere along the way years ago, we let corporations tell us germs are bad. All germs. Bad. The truth: we depend on these little guys for a lot of things. Yes, there are still dangerous microbes like salmonellaClostridium botulinum, and Escherichia coli, which can result in death. These things are nothing to take lightly. Hot, soapy water are a good defense. A little chlorine bleach diluted in water goes a log way, too. Yes, be on guard, but don’t freak out. You can kill most bacteria with stuff in your pantry. You don’t need to buy all those chemicals. They only pollute your home.

I tell people not to worry. Most of us will not be affected by superbugs, and your best bet is to wash your hands. That one simple act could keep a lot of people from getting sick. And one other thing: there is no “three second rule.” But if you drop a cookie on the floor and decide to eat it anyway, be more concerned about the fat and sugar that will stay with you than for the bacteria that might have hitched a ride in the brief encounter with that kitchen floor.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Next Friday is Halloween, a special time here in the States, where dentists prepare for an surge in appointments, and parents accompany their small children as they parade up and down neighborhoods in search of artificially-flavored treats while dressed as the latest cartoon characters or video game anti-heroes (the kids, but sometimes the parents). Good, clean fun; or a complete disaster. Take your pick.

On that night, after the candy supply is exhausted and the streets are devoid of trick-or-treaters, I invite you to sit in your dark house and watch something scary on TV. (You can afford to lose some sleep, so don’t fret). My recommendation: if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime memberships, search on “Doctor Who Season 3”. Look for episode 9, “Blink“. This is a satisfyingly scary installment of the long-running British sci-fi program. You actually don’t have to be all that familiar with Doctor Who to enjoy this particular episode. That’s because the Doctor, played by David Tennant, is barely in this one, and most of the story centers around a young woman named Sally, who has a penchant for hanging around old, derelict mansions (we can’t all be extroverts).

Sally soon finds herself at the center of a mystery involving a stolen blue box, a missing woman, 17 DVD’s, and a time-traveller. “Blink” is appropriate for children over 10, but use discretion. I find this to be one of the best episodes of the Doctor Who franchise; ironically, though, it hardly features the title character, except for a few scenes on a video screen. Most of the action revolves around Sally and the people she encounters. Freema Agyeman makes a brief appearance as Martha Jones, companion to the Doctor. Doctor Who fans will recognize the tendency for companions to be young attractive women. There have been a handful of guys in the mix, but the disparity is quite obvious. Never mind, that, though. The Doctor is sending a message. And it’s important:

“Don’t blink…blink, and you’re dead. Don’t turn your back…don’t look away…and don’t blink!”

“The Shakespeare Code”, for that matter is a pretty good episode involving witches and the Bard himself (not quite looking like his portrait, but who cares?). It’s kind of fun for any Shakespeare buffs, English majors, or your average frat boy. Maybe not so much that last one, but they deserve a jab from time to time. If I seem partial to this show, consider that “Blink” was written by Steven Moffat (CouplingSherlock), and many episodes were written by Russell Davies (Torchwood, Queer as Folk). There are many others.


Welcome to Earth

I admit I read science fiction books, and I have seen most every episode of the Star Trek universe of programs, and the movies, not to mention Star Wars, Firefly, Dune, Doctor Who, and the list goes on. I look up at the night sky and wonder if there are people, or something like that, living among the stars. I fully admit that I have imagined contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, as have many others before me, namely, Carl Sagan, whose Cosmos led me to wonder about such things.

When I watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), I am keenly aware that there may not be many species like us – that is, human-shaped. TNG assumes that other species might look like us. Of course, this is mostly a matter of limitations of a 1980’s TV show, whose budget and audience might not have tolerated beings that look like a jellyfish or a praying mantis. (Earth has some spectacularly bizarre creatures of its own.) The aliens all speak English and possess mostly human-oriented sentiments, emotions, and morals and customs. In reality, or to the extent of my imagination, ET might have completely alien (no pun intended) concepts of right and wrong, equality, justice, compassion, free will, and so on. Like the Klingon, Worf, from TNG, another species we encounter might have a more pronounced capacity for aggression and violence – even more than humans. There’s no telling, honestly.

But when and if we come across aliens out there – perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in 1000 years – and if we are able to communicate, somehow, what will we tell them about ourselves? How should humanity make its first impression to the universe? We don’t exactly have a good record making new friends. Take for instance the idea that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, an absurd idea to the people already living in these parts – who were, by the way, not inoculated against smallpox. But 500 years later, and we close banks and government offices in his honor. Go figure.

I imagine our first conversation might go something like this:

Earth Man: “Hi. I’m from earth.”

Alien: “That’s a weird name. What does it mean?”

Earth Man: “It kind of means, soil or ground.”

Alien: “That’s funny. Our planet, ¡¡¶¶∆••§º, means exactly the same thing.”

That is, of course, assuming our first contact will not result in global conquest or an interstellar smorgasbord featuring Human à la King Casserole (read, Twilight ZoneTo Serve Man). Now that I think of it, first contact will probably be more like some alien arriving in a corn field near Tulsa, planting a flag, and declaring its discovery in the name of the ˙∂ƒ∂∑åµ Empire. Praise •••∆∆!

In 1972, Nasa launched Pioneer 10, a mission to reach out to the universe, to break the ice, as it were, saying, “hi, we’re humans, check us out.” The plaque affixed to the spacecraft provided clues to what and who and where we are. An illustration on the plaque also gave whomever would find it a visual representation of human beings, caucasian ones, with relatively flattering features. “Hi, we’re humans. Check us out. We’re nekkid!” And when and if these interstellar travelers do arrive, they’re bound to scratch their heads (or cranial brain-containment capsules), looking back at the picture, then they’ll look at our wicked fat selves. “Dude, you’ve really let yourselves go,” they will say in their address to the UN.

Pioneer Plaque_otiginal

And we will say, “we, the people of earth, welcome you,” and hopefully our alien overlords will choose to forgive that we are ignorant, gluttonous bastards who can’t be bothered to help those in need, and there’s no excuse for us. But I remain optimistic.

The universe is a big place. Humans occupy a (statistically significant) zero percent of it.. We’re pretty arrogant to presume there’s no one else out there, but so far there is no evidence. But a few hundred years ago, only a handful of people in the world recognized the basic principles of physics, stuff they (should) teach fifth-graders. There are new planets being discovered every week, and some scientists believe they recently have found an earth-sized world about 500 light-years away. That means that by the time we have figured out how to travel to the stars, and we’ve somehow managed to invent a spaceship that can travel even 1/10th the speed of light (30,000 km per second), by the time our first explorers arrive in 5,000 years, human civilization will have progressed to a point where a new generation of astronauts might overtake our original mission – thus beating them there by hundreds of, if not a thousand, years – or we will have blown ourselves up by then.

I like to think that humans will survive. We’ve been around for nearly 2 million years, and we’ve progressed nicely in the last few decades. But we have a long way to go. We still have a myriad of problems here at home – poverty, disease, lack of basic necessities, war, irresponsible journalism, and the list goes on. If you believe the outlook embraced by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek, the future is bright, and these problems that have plagued mankind for millennia will forever be a thing of the past. I like to think this could be true. But there is a noticeable Marxist undercurrent in TNG, especially where it comes to people on “Federation” worlds, and that’s not going to be widely accepted in some parts, namely that corn field near Tulsa.

Carl Sagan famously predicted that “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” I really hope we do get there. But I know we are not ready. We have so much to discover here on earth. We’ve barely explored our own oceans. (If you want to see some really alien creatures, check out Okeanos.) I’m sure we will make it to the stars. I hope the universe gets to know us. I think we’re a really cool species, not to mention all the diversity we have, like dogs and snakes and cucumbers, platypuses, grizzly bears, pumpkins, and jellyfish. I wouldn’t be surprised if our extraterrestrial visitors looked a lot like lobsters.

Welcome to earth. Hang on a bit. We’re not ready.