September 22, 2020

I’m on an Un-Invent Spree!

By John Guy LaPlante

This is 2,306 words long. Only fair to tell you what I’ve written about for you. Seven “inventions,” in no way connected except one. What’s that? I think they should no longer exist. We should get rid of them.  Should un-invent them!

Here are the seven. The penny * College majors * What I call the 9-cents nuisance. * Women taking on their husband’s name *  Gay “marriages” *  Eating animal flesh * And number 7,  auto headlights.

How did I get on this spree?

Well, The New Yorker has been publishing now and then a hotly- argued  essay, each labeled “Uninvent This.” They’re fascinating.  Make you think—in fact, make you re-think things you’ve long taken for granted.

Our world is rich with millions of inventions. Make that zillions. Each was …. is….intended to make life better in some way, sometimes for a few people, sometimes millions. A newfangled type of wine bottle opener will be a delight to thousands maybe.  Imagine the millions the ultra high-speed dental drill has helped (I remember the agony of the old style).

We’re not talking just about inventions of physical things.  So many other things get invented – formulas, laws, theories, ways of doing things, cultural habits, traditions, techniques, religions, jobs and professions, philosophies, countries, types of government, on and on. All the result of people coming up with fresh ideas.

Well, some people develop great peeves about one or another of  these inventions, and with reason, mind you, and they disagree. And sound off, saying exactly why. “Un-invent This!” they insist.

The New Yorker’s recent piece by Ted Chiang made enormous sense to me.  He’s Chinese and was talking about Mandarin, China’s main language, spoken by millions.  He grew up in Mandarin and is proficient at it (and writes English beautifully).

He’s not grumbling about spoken Mandarin. His complaint is about written Mandarin.

It is so different.  It doesn’t have an alphabet like English or Portuguese or Russian or Swedish or so many other languages. The alphabet’s letters represent sounds.  Written Mandarin is made up of ideograms…symbols…characters. Thousands of them. Each represents a concept. Nowhere are sounds considered.

You explain something…anything…by writing a whole series of them.  Only few can really master them.  I’ve seen Chinese newspapers. Wow! Just looking at the complexity of the characters made me dizzy. No wonder Chiang’s article is called “Bad Character.”

He argues that that written Mandarin has been an enormous drag on China in so many ways.

It’s a worse nightmare now when most people don’t use a pen—the Chinese favor a brush—when most writing is done on typewriters and computers.  How can this be done efficiently on a keyboard?

So Ted Chiang argues, “Un-invent This.”

Well, here goes with my seven inventions that I would like to see un-invented. Don’t hesitate to disagree.  But please tell me why!

The penny! A hundred years ago it bought a lot.  Hey, when I was a boy, 2 cents would buy my dad his daily Pawtucket Times. Five cents would buy me a two-scoop ice cream cone, or a ride downtown on the trolley.  I recall when in a gas station war, gas was 17 cents a gallon.

Even 20 years ago the penny was worth picking up from the sidewalk. Today it won’t buy a thing.

Do you still carry them around? Lots of people don’t bother.

Pennies are a nuisance. They’re a problem for so many retail businesses and other businesses, too, and of course accountants and payroll clerks and in fact anybody who has to make change a lot and count change.

Well, our two-cent coin disappeared long ago. It became a nuisance. It’s time for the penny to disappear, too. The nickel should become our lowest coin.

So I say: Down with the penny! Un-invent This.

College majors!  Our kids go off to college and right away– not always but-too often—they’re asked what they’re going to major in.  “You must declare your major!”

Hey, they’re just teen-agers.  Have darn little life experience and darn little work experience.  And they’re being asked to make a major life decision. Come on!

And if they go along, they may find their “major” was a major mistake and it will be a pain and a great expense to get started on a better track.

I believe that all college kids should study a variety of during their first two years. Not just compulsory courses shoved onto them.  They should be able to choose from a list, but the emphasis should be on their selecting some in different fields, including liberal arts. Not just one or two.

That would give them a chance to settle on a field far more appropriate.  They would also learn a lot about themselves in finding out why they rejected some.

So I say: Down with premature, preposterous college majors! Un-invent This.

 The 9 Cents Nuisance!  Hamburg for $3.89 a pound.  Gas going for $1.49.  And so on.   In fact, I call it the “9 Cents Malarkey.”

What claptrap that one-penny-less offer is. Who are they kidding?  Retail people using that gimmick just want to make the prices sound lower.  Consider it what it is, a deception, and we all go for it.

What foolishness. That gimmick just makes bookkeeping and record-keeping and check-balancing a bigger chore.

Let’s be frank. Let’s say that hamburg is $3.90 a pound and gas is $1.50 a gallon. And so on. It’s easier. More truthful. Let’s stop this 9-cent foolishness.  Un-invent This!

Women giving up their family name! My daughter was Monique LaPlante.  When she got married she dropped our family name and instantly became Monique Nelson, and forever more. Perhaps she didn’t give it a second thought; it’s the long, ingrained tradition. I believe Monique is perfectly happy to be Monique Nelson.

But I felt like crying at the thought of it—though I want to say loud and clear that my son-in-law David Nelson is a fine husband and fine son-in-law.

I feel it’s unfair to treat our women like that.  An injustice.  Outright discrimination. We’re relegating them to second class. Brainwashing them that they’re inferior.

Think what an uproar it would create if David Nelson had to become David LaPlante if he married Monique LaPlante. Everybody would scream that that’s stupid and insane and unthinkable. Just plain awful!

Besides, by keeping her original name the woman would be giving the world a clue about her ethnic origin—whether she’s of French stock, which “LaPlante” would suggest about Monique, or Spanish or Lithuanian or whatever.  An imperfect clue, I do agree, in our multi-cultural society here in the U.S. when so many of us descend from so many racial stocks.  But clues are important.  Well, I think so.

Isn’t a woman telling us something when she wears an engagement ring? Why shouldn’t the fellow wear one? Isn’t wearing wedding rings an important clue?

You know, some other cultures are smarter about this and recognize women should retain their birth identity when they marry.

Just a few days ago, in the New York Times, I read, “Japanese Wives Fight to Use Own Surnames.”

It reported the Japanese Constitution promises gender equality.

A hundred years ago it was decided every married couple should have the same surname. It could be the husband’s or the wife’s—up to them to decide. But nearly all the time it’s the husband’s that wins.

Lots of women grumble that it’s hard to feel equal if they have to give up their surnames. Some are using their own surname. One wife says that at work, “I feel more who I am.” Another says that on the job, “My name is my brand.”

A survey shows that presently, a quarter of Japanese married women who work use their surnames.  And the movement is growing.

I admit that this is an imperfect solution. Because by keeping their own name, they are failing to give society a clue that they are married. And didn’t I say that clues are important? But hey, I just thought of this: by wearing a wedding ring, they would be giving us an unmistakable clue!

Anyway, I’m cheering for them. Justice is justice.  So about this husband’s-name tradition for women, I say, Un-invent This!

 Gay Marriages! This one is going to get me into trouble, too. But here goes.  I believe that homosexuality is a real thing. Truly men can be attracted to men and women to women.

And I believe it’s fine, even commendable, for them to sign up for an ongoing and publicly acknowledged relationship that is emotional and sexual.  That’s what we do when we say, “We’re married.”

But I don’t think gays should say they’re married.  They should say “We’re partnered,” or “We’re a pair,” or “We’re unioned,” or even coin some new word meaning that.  Providing all committed gay people get to adopt it.

I think that’s important because it’s good, in fact it’s important for society to know exactly what couples are committed to. For sure, their wearing a standard symbolic ring—a new, distinctive design, accepted by all gay couples, would be a huge help.

My wife and I were married. We said we were married. Everybody knew what that meant. Why shouldn’t gays let us know what their relationship is?  Saying they’re married is misleading us.

So I say: Down with calling gay marriages “marriages”!  Un-invent This!

Eating animals! I became a meat eater because my parents were meat eaters. My wife was a meat eater. No surprise that our three children are meat eaters.

But I’ve become a vegetarian.  I no longer eat flesh of any kind.  And I’m enjoying my meals.  They’re delicious. Plus it’s an acknowledged fact that a vegetarian menu translates to a fine nutritional diet.  In fact, it also saves a lot of money.

Furthermore, there was an ethical dimension to my becoming a vegetarian, and I feel good about giving up meat and seafood and poultry: no animal of any kind has to be killed for me to fill my tummy.

Hey, I believe it hurts a cow or a pig or a chicken or a fish or a lobster to be killed to provide food for us (imagine, a lobster being dumped alive into boiling water!).

Full disclosure: I became a vegetarian over a period of time.  It started with a traumatic event when I was 8 or 9 and saw my grandpa slit the throat of a great big pig that had been born and raised on his farm. I’d visit it and say hello, so to speak, every time we visited. I saw him slit its throat, then gut it, and the poor pig was squealing and hollering so loud they must have heard him a mile away down in the village.

Later I got to realize that slaughtering that pig was essential for the family to make it through the long winter.  Today, that ain’t the case. We have non-flesh food aplenty.

So I say, down with eating animals!  Un-invent This!

Those powerful headlights on our cars and trucks.  They are better than ever.  Excellent! BUT! I’m driving home on Route 154.  It’s late.  A black night.  No, moon.  I’m on a straight-away.  My high beams illuminate the highway far, far ahead.

Now a lone car is heading toward me.  He has his high beams on, too. They’re blinding me.. He’s closer now and I flick my lights down.  But he doesn’t.  I flick up, then quickly down.  He ignores that.  His lights are awful. He whizzes by. What a jerk!

Which makes me think: why don’t we have headlights that flick up and down automatically, depending on the upcoming traffic? Wouldn’t that be a blessing? It shouldn’t take a Thomas Edison or a Bill Gates to invent that.

I am alone again.  I have the high beams back on.  Now I have to make a quick, sharp turn to the right. I do that.  I know the road well. In a hundred yards I now take a quick, sharp left.  My lights remain fixed straight ahead, of course.  Suddenly I spot a dead dog right ahead, in my lane.  I think it’s a dog.  I miss it. Lucky me.

If only my headlights had swiveled during those two hard turns! I would have seen more of the road. And faster. How good that would have been! The old Tucker car sprang to my mind.

The Tucker 48. Sound familiar?  You have to be very old like me for that to mean something.

It was called the Tucker 48 because that was the model year, 1948.  It was named for Preston Tucker, its brilliant designer and manufacturer.  It was futuristic, revolutionary, with fantastic new features.

Here’s the one I was remembering. It had three headlights, two that worked just like ours, and one in between. It was called the Cyclops (he one-eyed creature in mythology). The Cyclops swiveled left and right, in sync with the front wheels.  A Cyclops light would have let me see that dog earlier!

I remember how exciting it was to read about the Tucker 48. Sadly only 51 were completed.  Preston Tucker was railroaded out of business. So sad!  Look him up on Google and read about his incredible car. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for our current car makers to look it up, too.

So I say, dump those fixed-straight-ahead headlights. Also dump the manual high / low beams. Un-invent them!

Well, enough about all that.  I’m tired and I’m going to bed.  But I have another half dozen popular inventions in mind that I feel should get un-invented.  If I get a word or two from you that you’re interested, I’ll tell you about them.

So, good night! Please don’t ruin your precious sleep by pondering what inventions you yourself can think of that should be un-invented. On the other hand, what fun that would be!

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