Mankind has always been obsessed with variations on a theme. Whether that theme is music, cars, fruit, butterflies, or plants, people constantly strive to compose, produce, plant, harvest, provide and catalogue endless variations on that theme.
Sometimes it is the work of individuals that enriches the world and their posterity with new selections of things to use or contemplate upon. Mozart for instance took a French tune ‘Ah, vous dirai – je Maman’ and produced twelve variations on it (K. 300e (K.265)). Jules Verne rattled off countless oceanic species in his “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. Other times it is groups of individuals that provide us with new flavors to savor. Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores adopted the title “31 flavors” to mean that they would provide a different flavor for each day of the month (they’ve since produced over 1000 different flavors of ice cream!).
Note: I use the male pronoun throughout my writing in the traditional sense of the word (the pronoun “he” often was used to mean “some person” regardless of gender before the Equal Rights Amendment ERA came to the forefront of history — abusing the word “equal rights” in much the same way as proponents of gay rights do today) since I grew up in the time right before the feminists insisted that we confuse everybody by sometimes changing the convention of pronoun gender (based on our Germanic language roots) to some mishmash of he-shes or she-hes or she-shes instead of the traditional he-hes which is more in line with the sound that I make to myself when I laugh at the nonsense of the feminists who forget that in our English language’s Germanic roots the word “man” often meant “one” or “person”, i.e. either sex. And no, I’m not some chauvenist pig – I’m very grateful to have a loving wife who I hopefully respect as my equal. And I rather enjoyed Dan Brown’s reference to the sacred feminine and the masonic traditions embodied in Mozart’s Magic Flute in which it is sung “Mann und Frau, Frau und Mann, reisen an die Gottheit an…” (Husband and wife, Wife and husband approach godhood [by reason of their marriage]).
The consumer as well has encouraged the trend towards more selection. John Naisbitt wrote in his popular 1982 book “Megatrends, Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives” how consumers in free market economies had witnessed a marvelous growth since the end of WWII in not only the number of consumable market niches, but in the selections available within those niches. As soon as technology caught up with mankind’s aspirations for variety, man was no longer slave to his own production lines and the uniformity of interchangeable parts that had fueled the initial industrial revolution. Man had discovered that he could continue to produce such uniform and interchangeable parts but assemble them in customizable ways using more flexible, adaptable production lines that responded to customer feedback more like a living organism responds to its environment through the mechanisms of homeostasis.
On a finer level of granularity, mankind has made much progress in the last century in the realm of chemistry and synthesizing compounds. The constituent identities and proportions of aromatic compounds of flavors and fragrances in nature have been discovered via gas chromatography and spectroscopy. Artificially synthesized versions of these constituent flavor compounds have been mass produced. The efforts of countless man hours and persistant dedication on the parts of scientists, lab technicians, manufacturers, etc. led to an end product in the 1980’s: the miraculous Scratch N’ Sniff stickers! I still remember scratching and smelling a few — they had ones that smelled a little like pizza, one that smelled like peppermint, ones that smelled fruity, and others that were designed to smell yucky (e.g. skunk).
As hunger is most apparent in the midst of a famine, so is the appetite of man for variety most apparent when faced with a depravity of selection. A notable example was demonstrated by the East Germans after the Berlin Wall was erected. They, like most people’s enslaved under the Soviet Union’s communist rule, had little variety when it came to consumer consumption of goods and services. For instance, tropical fruits like bananas were very uncommon and often had to be obtained from visitors from the west.
Yet this hunger for variety is insatiable. One only has to remember the frenzied sharing of digitally copied music during the early days of such file-sharing services such as Napster to appreciate how strong a desire many had to greatly expand their selections of music overnight. Others were overjoyed at the digital revolution of being able to consolidate their records into libraries that could be stored much more compactly via computer storage media. While our parents may have owned 25-50 LP vinyl records that were about the diameter of a frisbee but still thin like modern cd’s, today many households easily own hundreds of compact discs that often hold more music than their bulkier predecessors. Compact discs may give way to flash drives and portable hand held hard drives that can hold the equivalent of hundreds if not thousands of compact discs. The turn of this century saw the launch of Macintosh’s ipod product line of portable and independently browsable flash and hard drives tailored to allow the independent playback and browsing of music, picture and video files as well as the storage and transfer of binary data to and from computers. Macintosh also marketed the concept of selling music online on a per song rather than a per album basis at the reasonable price of just under $1 for most songs. Napster file sharing had already been shut down under the pressure of recording artist companies that complained that they were losing out on big profits when people were sharing music for free. Now that the cheap ipods are under $100, my wife and I bought one for ourselves — although we have over 4GB of music stored in our computer’s library, the 1GB of music you can download to the cheap ipod shuffle or nano’s is enough music to last you at least 8 hours. And buying those $15 prepaid music download cards at Walmart can be addicting (my wife still teases me about how I tend to hog the songs on each card we buy). I have to remind myself that I’ve already bought one card this month and can wait till at least next month (I mean, do I really need another handful of songs on top of the hundreds we already have? Yes, but it’s a yes that can wait for discretionary money to be available.) There’s also music provider websites such as mp3.com (a guy at work suggested it as a good site for cheap music), although I haven’t tried their site yet (I couldn’t find the classical music genre listed on their home page) and there are rumors that they may have ties with the Russian Mafia (but hey if their music is cheaper why not? — you’re probably paying the devil for your music regardless of from what source you purchase it from!). The best suggestion I have regarding these new devices I got from reading the paper in some article discussing how ipods were alienating people from each other (a father discussed how his daughter would plug in her ipod earphones and not talk to him anymore on their trips in the car). The suggestion is to use these devices as a tool for sharing your music with the ones you love — i.e. plug your ipod into the radio so that everyone in the car can share the same music. While my wife’s music tastes are a little bit different than mine, I’ve grown to appreciate her tastes more and feel less alienated than I might if I shut out her music from my life. It reminds me of college — I had a roommate who loved country music and I had grown up hating it. Well after living in a small dorm room together with him for a year and even going out on double dates with him to go country dancing (I still can’t dance worth beans), I began to appreciate this genre of music a little more. I don’t flip the channel to country as often as I do to classical, jazz and light rock stations, but I’m not as hesitant as I might have been if I hadn’t had this roommate in college.
How can one comprehend or even manage seemingly infinite variety present in the world? One way is through use of hierarchial models. Large hierarchial models are used in the classifications of the plant and animal worlds of biology. One fascinating way to visualize such large hierarchies of data was given in a paper entitled “Cheops: A Compact Explorer For Complex Hierarchies” by Luc Beaudoin, Marc-Antoine Parent, Louis C. Vroomen. I tried their Cheops Lite program (no longer available?) and was thrilled to see how one can navigate a very large hierarchy from one screen via their idea of recycled, tesselated, overlapping child nodes. I searched the web for animal hierarchies and found many sites on biology and scientific classifications. I ran across one site that showed all the butterflies of Utah – an astounding variety!
Where does this insatiable appetite for endless variety come from? I must admit I’m a little bit old fashioned and share the views of William Paley who wrote in 1802 the book “Natural Theology” in which he describes God as a designer who loved and harnessed the variety in life in tailoring this world to our needs. So it is from God that we get this insatiable appetite from (like father like son or daughter). As C.S. Lewis implied, it is this same insatiable appetite that will drive us to become either more godlike or more devilish in nature.
Man isn’t the only creature to love variety either. As David Rothenberg states on pg. 39 of the 2005 paperback edition of his book “Why Birds Sing”: “In England it was determined that sedge warblers who sing many different kinds of songs mate earlier than those with a more limited repertoire. The females then prefer males that know a lot of tunes; they approve of diversity. Female canaries are more excited into building nests when they hear a large repertoire than a small one…”. Rothenberg also demonstrated how birds appreciate the diversity of other species by going into the details of the ritual mating song of the Albert’s Lyrebird of Australia on pg. 31-32 of the same book: “…Then he begins a series of flawless imitations of many of the other birds that share his home – satin bowerbirds, rosella parrots, yellow honeyeaters, kookaburras.”