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I’m a freelance interactive content strategist and copywriter in Austin, TX. See my work here.

I post about whatever geeky stuff interests me. Sometimes I post funny stuff that I make up. About once a week I post videos of my cat Yeti ignoring me. I welcome reader suggestions and feedback. I seldom get any.

Oh, yeah. I’m also the recording artist currently known as ManChildATX.

Friday
Feb272015

The Most of Yeti, Vol. 1

Our cat Yeti may have crossed the rainbow bridge, but his work lives on. Here are some of my faves from the early days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somehow, the “Shit My Cat Texts Me” concept never took off, but, hey, cat tongue:

Yeti was into the “food thing” back when most people thought it was just something you eat to obtain nourishment:

The first on-camera incidence of Yeti “cranking one up”:

Yeti again shares screen time with one of his animal co-stars, never breaking character even with a dog snout up his bum:

Sometimes Yeti couldn’t help but make an on-camera editorial comment, as at the end of this video:

 

 

 

Thursday
Feb262015

Yeti, Feline Star of Obscure Web Video Series, Dies at 18-ish

Baby Yeti: Could you not just plotz?

Yeti, a Siamese cat from South Austin who was featured in a series of over one hundred YouTube videos which never managed to catch on with viewers beyond a cultish, highly select audience, crossed over the rainbow bridge on Wednesday, February 25, 2015. He was 18-ish. The cause was in-home humane euthanasia following a diagnosis of advanced kidney disease. “Essentially it means he died of old age,” said Dr. Michael Stone, Yeti’s longtime veterinarian.

 

Yeti, who was also variously known as Yedward Crookfinder, Yetwurd Spaghett-wurd, Fur Guy, Mr. Man, Gorilla-faced Boy, Crybaby Yeti, the Orb, Yedouard Shevardnadze, Monkey Man, Dr. Humpenstein, Sky’s-the-Limit, and the Bird Killer, was adopted at the ridiculously cute age of six weeks by his human mom in 1998. When she married five years later, Yeti was enthusiastically adopted by his human stepdad, too. But not, like, legally.

Yeti, with his step-canine, ZeusHis humans spoke with awe about how freaking sweet and cute he was. “I mean, if anything, I should hate him,” said stepfather Rich Malley, the off-screen cat interviewer in the video series that never achieved more than “very highly acquired taste” status. “I had dreams of being a celebrity cat interviewer and he held me back for five years,” Malley said.

“All the same,” Malley immediately continued, before his guest was able to gracefully ease out of the conversation, “I know I’ll never have the same connection to any cat I work with again. Communication like we had is rare in this business, my friend.”

Making poor editing choices for his never-popular web video series.Yeti’s mom related an anecdote to explain the cat’s singular specialness to her. “I was filling out an advanced pet care directive at the vet’s office, so they’d have a record on file in case one of our six animals had an emergency while we were traveling,” she said. “As I went down the list, I found myself checking off low dollar amount ceilings for five of our pets, but when I got to Yeti’s name I ticked, ‘The sky’s the limit.’ That’s where his nickname Sky’s-the-Limit came from.”

Yet there were occasional reminders that Yeti’s paws were made of clay, and not just that one time when he tracked some kind of clay-like mud all over our newly cleaned floors.

He was a shameless and inveterate bird killer, with all-but-defenseless baby birds being his preferred quarry. Unlike some hunting housecats, he never presented the corpses of his kills for his owners’ approbation. Typically, the only evidence remaining from an avicide was an orderly pattern of baby bird feathers in the yard, leaving observers to speculate that he scarfed down virtually everything else.

2008: Again with the dogs?On the negative side of the ledger, too, was his legendary appetite for chewing on electrical and electronic cords. His teeth were renowned for being able to destroy a cable either by puncturing its insulation or slicing it clean through. This destructive urge presented itself in a clearly recognizable pattern, but was nonetheless difficult to prevent given the profusion of cords in every single goddamn room of the house. “The only way to stop it was to pick him up and hold him in your lap and give him lots of attention until he forgot that he wanted to chew on cords,” Mr. Malley said. “He didn’t care whether you had work to do. It was either lavish him with attention for as long as it took him to get over the cord-biting thing, or constantly replace chewed up earbuds and power adapters.”

Yeti’s backyard boulder. His grave is beneath this favorite perch.Perhaps an equally annoying but much shorter-lived behavior of Yeti’s was his climbing up on the roof—either his own or the next-door-neighbor’s—and screaming pitifully until one of his humans came outside and coaxed him to jump onto and climb down the tree that he had climbed up and jumped off of to get on the roof in the first place, often only minutes before. The full-body throb of his purring upon being held and cuddled after he was gently plucked off a low fork in the tree led some to believe that this was the entire point of the exercise. “Totally,” his human mom said. “He used cuteness as a deadly weapon.”

2012: Executing the rare combination question mark tail and rear twinkle toes maneuver.But without question the most idiosyncratic and deeply disturbing of Yeti’s signature behaviors was his late-stage pelvic humping. Long neutered, and, at 12-years-old, seemingly beyond any vestige of sexual drive, at this advanced age Yeti’s innocent pre-snuggle biscuit kneading was suddenly replaced by a mindless—and endless—lascivious hip thrusting kinda thing, which was accompanied by a facial expression that seemed, well, shall we say, just a little too content. Viewed at first as a naughty but amusing behavioral aberration, as it became an everyday thing his grossed out and annoyed humans soon actively discouraged it by physically separating Yeti from the current focus of his ardor, whether it was a bedspread, the fuzzy red wool blanket, or, in one often recalled embarrassing incident, a party guest’s heirloom fur coat.

Still, his endless good nature and limitless capacity to give and receive affection more than outweighed his annoying habits. Recognizing his one-in-a-million specialness early on, his humans learned to cherish each and every day they spent with him, knowing their time with him would someday have to end. They were gratified that they were able to ease him from this life after he received his fatal prognosis, but before he knew a single second of suffering.

He lived. He loved. He had fur on his face. There will never be another one like him.

In lieu of flowers or donations, please send contact information for reputable siamese breeders.

Saying goodbye to Mom on his final day. Note tongue.
Monday
Feb162015

Jon Ronson takes on Internet shaming

Sacco’s original tweet. 

The Valleywag blog post that opened the gates of hate.

British writer/journalist Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats) specializes in human foibles. Many of his subjects have already been judged and found to be zeroes by society’s binary assessment machine (1=good, 0=0). One of Ronson’s interests is what happens to those zeroes after society moves on to assess someone else. Justine Sacco is one such person, and Ronson interviewed her in yesterday’s New York Time’s Magazine. (UPDATE: Ronson’s article is actually an excerpt from his forthcoming book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, to be released March 31. Want.)

Sacco sent the infamous tweet above while waiting for an 11 hour flight to South Africa to see her family. She meant the tweet as a sarcastic satire of white privilege. I could’ve told Sacco that underlying sarcasm and satire are often invisible online, leaving the words they are meant to upend to be taken literally.

At the time she sent the tweet, Sacco had fewer than 200 followers on Twitter. But someone who saw it forwarded it as a tip to the editor of the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag. Valleywag editor Sam Biddle embedded Sacco’s tweet in a blog post and slapped a snarky headline on it, as seen underneath Sacco’s tweet, above. Of course, Biddle’s sarcasm was understood correctly. And then it was Katie bar the door.

You probably know how the story played out online. While Sacco was in-flight, the twitterverse rose up in indignation at her perceived racism. By the time Sacco landed—and completely oblivious to her—she’d been fired from her job and, for a day at least, become the most hated person on the Internet.

Like many people, I was initially amused by Sacco’s plight. But quickly, it started to seem like crowd-sourced cyber bullying. Why would thousands of people go out of their way to pile on this gleeful, retributive bandwagon? How could people who’d never heard of Sacco before decide that her life deserved to be derailed because of one viral tweet? And, what interested me most, how does someone survive such a coordinated and vengeful vendetta of public vilification? Did no one who took delight in skewering Sacco stop to think, “Whoa, one misplaced word here or there, and that could’ve been me?”

Because that’s what I thought. And I questioned how I could ever possibly live through such a public humiliation and shaming. In his article, Ronson talks to Sacco and others who have inadvertently become the momentary target of the Internet’s ire. They’ve lost jobs, relationships, friends. And many of us—myself included, at times—cheered at their shaming. Not our finest hours.

 

Monday
Feb092015

My Cat Yeti on Harper Lee's New Book

Wednesday
Feb042015

I'd Rather Be Selling Supplements

Photo by Jeff Nelson from Canada (ft_edm_park__0080.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You and I are in the wrong business, my friend.

Well, unless you are in the nutritional supplement business. In which case only I am in the wrong business.

Because only in the nutritional supplement business can you make billions selling products that not only don’t have to do what you say they do, they don’t even have to be what you say they are.

Unless you get caught. Which GNC, Walgreens, Target and Walmart just did, by the State of New York.

Conservative politicians like to talk about stamping out waste, fraud and abuse. I can’t think of three better words to describe the nutritional supplement racket, and the we-trust-you-until-people-get-hurt regulatory environment it operates in.

(Note: the term “nutritional supplement” as I’m using it is meant to describe products winking-ly sold as specific remedies, like echinacea for colds, or as specific preventatives, like ginkgo for Alzheimer’s disease. But considering there’s a whole section at my local Walgreen’s devoted to vitamins and minerals dispensed in gummy candy form—for both adults and children—there’s a lot of snake oil selling going on there, too.)

What the New York case brings into stark relief is that anyone in this country can sell anything as a nutritional supplement and market it as a specific remedy or preventative, with no testing or evidence to support the claims.

How is this legal? Because it’s legal. Not like this kind of thing wasn’t happening already, but a 1994 federal law specifically made it legal. To make all sorts of unverified claims for a product, all supplement sellers need to do is tack on this Food and Drug Administration disclaimer: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.”

That’s it. No state or federal government agency needs to investigate the product, either for safety or efficacy. The FDA only investigates a nutritional supplement when problems are reported. By that time, consumers of the product may be very sick. Or even dead.

But a product that doesn’t kill you or make you sick is fine. Even when, as we have now learned from the New York case, the product does not contain the allegedly “active” ingredients it is supposed to. Again, there is no federal oversight or inspection ensuring these supplements contain the ingredients they claim to. Unless, of course, people start getting sick or dying.

The government tells supplement sellers, “We trust you, so don’t do anything bad.” Supplement sellers, in turn, rely on their “trusted” suppliers to accurately list the ingredients that should go on the label that carries the seller’s brand. If you take nutritional supplements, these nod-and-a-wink relationships between suppliers, sellers and the FDA are the only things protecting you.

Not only may the product you think you are buying be ineffective for the purpose for which you are buying it. And not only may it not contain any of the key ingredient(s) you are buying it for. It might also contain unlisted ingredients that you are deathly allergic to.

How did this happen? I think there is a direct line from the beginnings of the alternative health movement to now (and it encompasses the nutso anti-vaccine movement as well). After World War II, our culture embraced the primacy of science as never before. Anything old-fashioned and not scientifically validated was discredited. Like breast feeding and midwifery, for instance. When it came to folk wisdom and remedies, it’s true: we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The counterculture of the 60s and the 70s changed that. As with the examples cited above, there was plenty of justification to argue that there were products and practices outside of establishment medicine that might have a benefit.

But, again, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of saying, “Well, yeah, some of these substances and practices may have merit after all, but we should test them to find out,” we said, “Screw testing! Screw validation! We’ve already seen that establishment medicine is biased. Anything might be possible! Anything might be true!”

As some of us UT grads learned in Professor Rory Coker’s wonderful course on pseudoscience, “Anything might be possible” and “Anything might be true” are key rhetorical weapons in the huckster’s arsenal. (See: Earmarks of Pseudoscience, by Prof. Coker.)

What savvy business man or woman wouldn’t be attracted to a market where “anything might be true,” and no one was bothering to check what was true and what wasn’t in any case? Is it any wonder that nutritional supplements eventually became a mainstream, billion dollar business?

So, in the early 90s, after huge numbers of consumers had already been defrauded and/or sickened, Congress finally decided to act. But by then, the horse was already out of the barn and too much money was at stake. The industry by then was big enough to throw a lot of money around for lobbying and campaign contributions. And once it got what it it was after, it would have even more money to spend.

Thus the industry got the law that it wanted. Now it can make virtually any claims for its products—so long as it also disclaims those claims. And it can stuff anything it wants in its capsules—so long as it doesn’t get caught. And if there are any penalties for being caught, I for one certainly don’t expect them to be severe enough to deter future abuse.

You think supplements made big money before? Whoa, daddy. Look at them now.

Like I said, I’m in the wrong business. Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens? They’re in the right business.

See also, NYT: What’s In Those Supplements?

 

Friday
Jan302015

How people outside the U.S. enjoy their superior Internet service

“Americans pay far more and get far less when it comes to the Internet than many other people around the world.”—HuffPo, America Pays More For Internet, Gets Slower Speeds, Than Other Countries

While we dupes here in the U.S. contend with internet service providers fighting for their right to continue offering the least service for the most money, people in other countries have been enjoying faster internet speeds at lower cost for years. In fact, internet users in those countries have developed ways of using the internet we couldn’t even think of, such as:

Grocery delivery—Move over PeaPod and Greenling. In Norway, where they get download speeds of 5GB/sec for $14/month, the clever Nords don’t have to wait for their groceries to be delivered after ordering them online. Now using a 3D bioprinter they can download their groceries directly (after carefully placing a reusable grocery bag under the output chute, of course). Over there, “printing” groceries for a family of four takes around 15 minutes. Contrast that with your house, where downloading a single cocktail onion would take the better part of a day.

Streaming video—A while back I posted a video showing the different download speeds I get on different streaming services. But even my relatively quick Amazon Prime streams pale in comparison to what they get in Peru, where they pay the equivalent of $8/month for 10GB/sec service. There even home users of limited means have banks of monitors, allowing them to watch multiple ultra-high definition streams at once. A Peruvian man recently boasted on Twitter that he watched the entire run of Breaking Bad in 90 minutes. Granted, he probably missed some stuff—he admitted he wasn’t sure who “Heisenberg” was—but still.

Telemedicine—Here, we brag about the latest advances that connectivity has brought to our medical care, such as when a rural hospital is able to fax an x-ray to a big city specialist in just under 9 hours. But let’s look at Albania. There, where users take for granted speeds of 20GB/sec for around $3/month, your doctor can perform a “remote physical” exam on you in real time, via your government-issued tactile sensory responder. (Citizens themselves are responsible for removing and replacing the disposable lubricated rubber finger on the tactile responder after each exam.)

Audio in/out ports (shown) optional for extra chargeE-Learning—More and more U.S. students are attending college courses online. Sure, the audio and video can be as much as a minute out of sync, making it seem like your professor is a raving schizophrenic. But, hey, at least you can attend class in your PJs, right? Well, screw that. In Tanzania (40GB/sec, $.50/month) you can have a USB3 port installed in your skull that lets you transfer a bachelor’s degree’s worth of knowledge into your brain in just under a minute. (Example reflects liberal arts education. STEM-related degrees may take slightly longer.)

Monday
Jan262015

An update from my neighborhood listserv

HELIO NGIEBSOR!!!1!
I just wanated to ALERT EVERONE that a man knocked on my door. Hel said he was LOOKING for HIS DOG. He was about sixty-two. and he was black. I’m NOT BEING RACIAL. I’m just saying that for identifi… for ifden… for to help recognize him. If in case the police are called.—BERTHA ON HOLMES AVE

Hi, I just wanted to alert everyone that an elderly man knocked on my door (he was about sixty-four), and he was black, which I only mention so you will know if a man comes knocking on your door whether it was this man, or perhaps another man of a different skin hue. That’s the only reason. At any rate, he seemed like a nice man, but I didn’t open the door. I’m not sure what he wanted—it was hard to make out what he was saying through the reinforced steel panels—but I think he was asking if I had seen his doll. Maybe he’s senile? In which case hopefully the police are kind to him, if anyone feels the need to call the police.—Janet on Pierce Pl.

Neighborhood residents who live on the south side of the ‘hood, please be aware that there have been reports of a man knocking on doors looking for young women. For identification purposes (only, not for any other reasons) he is a large black male, approximately 6’2”-6’4”. I’m not sure if the police have been called.—Marvin on Hackberry St.

HELO NIEGBSOR!!
I forgotted to MENTION that the Afro-American gentleman who CaMe to my door was holding a dog collar and a LEESH!!!! So he may rilly BE LOOKING FOR HIS doG.—BERTHA ON HOLMES AVE.

Neighbors, we are trying to locate my dad. Our son’s little dog ran away and Billy was so heartbroken that “grandpa” has been canvassing the neighborhood all morning trying to find him. Unfortunately, Dad left his cellphone at the house, so we have no way of letting him know that Rascal came home safe and sound. If you encounter a man carrying a leash and dog collar, will you please tell him his daughter said the dog is safe and he should come home? Thanks.—Candace on Cedar Elm St.

HEY , NEISGHROB!
DOES ANYONE know why there are ALL THOSE POLIC CARS at the corner of HACKBERRY and CEDAR ELM? It looks like WORLd WaR IIII over there!! Just askin’!!!!—BERTHA ON HOLMES AVE

 

 

Monday
Jan192015

NYT Op-Ed: "Will the FDA Kill Off E-Cigs?"

The great and powerful nicotineBoy, it’s rare—and possibly unheard of until now—that I agree with any of the thinking that comes out of the American Enterprise Institute think tank. But here is Dr. Sally Satel arguing many of the same points I made a few weeks ago about how federal regulation of e-cigarettes should make them MORE attractive and accessible to smokers than conventional cigartettes. Strange bedfellows. 

Friday
Jan162015

My Cat Yeti Is Unmoved by Houston Astros Trading for Evan Gattis

Thursday
Jan152015

Culture Catchup #3: "Ten Years in the Tub," and my ginormous Nick Hornby man-crush

I kinda wanted to open this post by asking, “Where has Nick Hornby been all my life,” but the answer—in England, mostly—is pretty obvious. And, it’s not, like, all my life, since he’s only been publishing books since 1992, when I was in my, um, late-late-late adolescence.

But nevertheless, that “where has he been” feeling kind of aligns with the GINORMOUS MAN CRUSH I’ve had for Nick Hornby since I started reading “10 Years in the Tub,” a collection of his books columns for the magazine, “The Believer.” (According to Mr. Hornby, I shouldn’t feel too bad for not even really knowing that “The Believer” existed, because that doesn’t make me any more ignorant than billions of other earth folk.)

I’ll just insert here that one of the unfortunate side effects of my GINORMOUS MAN CRUSH on Nick Hornby is that once or twice a day, I’ll hear Mike Myers, in character as Austin Powers, inside my head asking, “Do I make you Hornby?” Sadly, I’m not making that up. I don’t even like those movies.

So, I know I’m an ass for never reading Mr. Hornby before, although I think he’d be pretty understanding about it, since eliminating guilt from the reading list is one of Mr. Hornby’s—oh, hell, let’s drop the formalities, this isn’t the New York Times—since eliminating guilt from the reading list is one of Nicky-boy’s frequent touchstones.

Read what you like, and blow off those who would shame you into reading unenjoyable stuff because it’s “good for you,” that’s our Nicky-Nick.

Good ol’ Nickums.

I have vague memories of two dear departed friends ages ago both urging me to read the Nickster, and then getting into a beery disagreement with each other over the reasons I should. Agreeing in principle I should read Dear Nick, but vehemently disagreeing on the particulars as to why. I could be manufacturing that out of memory fragments real and imagined, but it could also be true, as anyone who knew those friends will understand.

Here’s the thing about reading Nick’s “10 Years in the Tub:” I started feeling sad about finishing it on, like, page 5 of its 800-plus pages. I savor each column-length chapter like a delicious morsel of chocolate.

Here’s another thing that made me sad about how happy I am to have finally “hooked up” with Nicky-poo: it’s so freaking obvious that a huge chunk of the people who read him will feel exactly the same way I do. In other words, I’m not special. In other words, I’m just another one of the fan-boys or -girls that Joey Nickels probably spends an increasing chunk of his waking hours trying to avoid.

Poor Nickly. That’s what happens when you write prose that reads the same way butter melts in your mouth. Except letting butter melt in your mouth doesn’t make you laugh and feel smart. Also, reading Nicksy-wick is not literally like reading butter. I won’t be responsible for what happens if you put butter in your eyes. (Unless it winds up erasing all of your annoying crows feet and laugh lines, in which case let me know. Then watch this space for a post announcing the launch of my new EyeButter™ line of bio-ceuticals.)

This fanboy/girl effect was proved to me by the response I got from my mother-in-law when I sent her an email thanking her for the book and telling her how much I was enjoying it. She said, in so many words, “Oh, yeah, you read Nicky-Nick and you just think, Wouldn’t he be great to have a beer with?”

Oh, really? So, you, too? Hands off, bitch, he’s mine. I don’t care who came out of your womb.

But you see what I mean? To read Sweet Nick is to love him.

Even more, for me, is that to read Nicksy-poo makes me want to write, in the same way that seeing a great band in a club makes me want to go home and work on my music. I’ve always felt like my creativity is a vessel that can only hold so much consumed inspiration. If I read, watch or listen to too much, the excess forms a wax-like plug at the top of the vessel. In fact, I feel like a wax-like plug has formed at the top of this metaphor, trapping me—and you, on the off chance one of you has made it this far—inside.

At any rate, Nicksums (this is getting challenging) quickly fills my vessel to the “time to go create” line. Not too many other writers do that in quite the same way.

Unfortunately, there’s a strong urge to emulate, too. Nickers’s writing is so deceptively natural, easy and conversational that, yes, he makes me want to go write, but he makes me want to go write exactly like him. Which is not cool.

Nonetheless, I’m indulging myself by shamelessly ripping off Nikki Nixx throughout this post.

Because, you guys (note the hopeful plural), he does so many little things that I love and relate to and like to do in my own writing. Like writing as if it’s just the two of you kickin’ it, just havin’ a conversation. And writing discursively, while still being, um, cursive enough to create an overall sense unity to each piece.

Oh! And in “10 Years in the Tub,” he has this little running gag based on a throwaway reference to the Polyphonic Spree. The Polyphonic Spree! From Dallas! He knows who they are! And bases a running gag—running as in 10 years running—on them. Who else would do that? No one. How cool is my Lil Nicky?

I don’t know where he’s been all my life, but I’m pretty sure Laddo Nick will be hanging around on my bedside table long after I finish “10 Years in the Tub.”

 

Thursday
Jan152015

NYT on E-cigarettes: again with the "gateway drug" argument

The Times had a story about JuJu Joints yesterday. These are a new kind of disposable e-cigarette sold in Washington, where marijuana is legal, in which the active ingredient is THC instead of nicotine. 

After the inventor explains the product, we get this from Times correspondent Kira Peikoff:

“Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Many addiction researchers fear that e-cigarettes will pave the way to reliance on actual cigarettes, especially in teenagers.”

Forget the fact that she abruptly stopped talking about a THC delivery system to insert boilerplate handwringing about a nicotine delivery system. There’s that “gateway to real cigarettes” argument again.

This is like saying, “Thrill researchers fear that playground slides will pave the way for children to want to slide down storm drains.” Or, “Harry Potter researchers fear that children who enjoy the stories will make a complete break with reality and live in a fantasy world in their head.” Or, “Cupcake researchers fear that children who learn to eat a cupcake at one sitting will graduate to eating a wedding cake at one sitting, because, you know, more of a good thing.”

Shouldn’t the researchers stop “fearing” this and that, and do some actual research to find out if it’s true? Will relatively low-risk, easy-to-consume e-cigarettes lead people (especially teenagers!) to inhale more expensive, noxious burning tobacco that all of them know is much riskier to their health? 

I “fear” this bullshit will continue until someone actually produces some research, at which point I fear these frightened researchers will be eating a bit of crow.

Tuesday
Jan132015

Culture Catchup #2: "Beware of Mr. Baker"

 

I’m a rock drummer, OK? Not a great one, certainly, but I’ve had my moments.

But until I saw Jay Bulger’s terrific documentary about the drummer Ginger Baker, “Beware of Mr. Baker” (on Netflix), I never truly understood the concept of “time.”

Or “toyme,” as the Cockney Baker pronounces it in the film. Or often spits it out:

Interviewer: What did you like about (any musician from his past whom he respected)?

Ginger Baker: TOYME! HE HAD TOYME!

Interviewer: So, why didn’t you like working with (any musician from his past whom he didn’t think much of)?

Ginger Baker: HE HAD NO TOYME!

Oh, sure, I understood about rhythm, about keeping a beat, and all the cool things one might do within the confines of that notion.

But I never really understood that “toyme” itself could be a musical medium, at least in Baker’s hands. I’m going to have a hard time (heh, unintentional) explaining what I mean by that, probably. But basically, this guy, Ginger Baker, seemed to be able to take time and subdivide it so that the component pieces themselves were music.

In other words, I heard Ginger Baker play things in this movie, that if you converted them to a series of identical clicks—rather than a series of sounds made by a drum kit—those clicks in and of themselves would be musical. It’s like painting with math instead of color. 

Or something.

That didn’t really help, did it? Oh, well. Listen to Cream’s White Room in the video above. Ignore the overly grandiose parts. Listen for how the drums seem to propel the music forward while simultaneously seeming to be slowing musical time down altogether.

That’s not really a great illustration of what I’m talking about either, but it is a great illustration of a rock song with a really cool fucking drum part.

So, yeah, I knew Ginger Baker was supposed to be this incredible rock drummer, and I knew that he was in Cream, the first rock “supergroup,” and I knew that I grew up hearing a few Cream songs, like “White Room,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” on the radio and that the drums sounded really cool. And I guess part of me always wondered, if this guy was supposed to be so amazing, why didn’t he do much that I have heard of since then?

Well, one answer is that he did a bunch of stuff afterward, and a lot of it was really cool and worthy of listening to, but it just never came up on my (limited and weak) musical radar. I mean, sure, I’d heard of Ginger Baker’s Air Force—which AllMusic.com says was ”arguably the pinnacle of the legendary drummer’s achievements of the 1960s”—but I never sought their music out.

Another answer is that he did a bunch of music afterward that was perfectly awful.

And the ultimate answer is what unifies the first two answers—he was incredibly difficult to deal with. When he made really cool and worthy music, it wasn’t for very long, because every group he was in would implode within a short time. When he made perfectly awful music, it was because the only people left who would play with him specialized in the perfectly awful genre.

Dude was difficult. Incredible, once-in-a-generation talent. Uncompromising personality. Hardcore heroin junkie. Hell, combine any two of the three traits and you get “difficult.” Combine them all and you get a human Category 5 hurricane.  

In all sincerity, after I finished watching this documentary, I thought, man, I am glad this movie got made. Not only was I glad the story was told, I was glad it was told this way.

Just to point out a couple of things I learned that were especially gratifying/mindblowing: One, the movie directly confronts a question that I’d wondered about, which is, if Ginger Baker is so great, what sets him apart from and above other celebrated rock drummers, like The Who’s Keith Moon or Zeppelin’s John Bonham? (Answer: just about everything aside from the fact that they all used wooden sticks as part of their jobs.)

And, two, Ginger Baker sat in regularly with Fela Kuti’s house band. In Lagos. In 1972. And kicked ass. (Fela Kuti was, well, look it up.)

In closing, I’ll point out that one of last year’s heavily hyped indie narrative films was “Whiplash,” about a young jazz drummer and how the pursuit of musical excellence compromised his humanity. I liked it fine. But, oh, boy, does “Beware of Mr. Baker” cover the same territory in a more compelling way. And it really happened.

If you are interested in stories about creativity and creative people, or if, like me, you just always wondered, WTF with Ginger Baker?, you’ll enjoy this film.

Monday
Jan122015

Culture Catchup #1: Don Hertzfeldt's "It's Such a Beautiful Day"

 

“Donhertzfeldt” by Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donhertzfeldt.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Donhertzfeldt.jpg

Don Hertzfeldt makes animated films, and I became aware of him through his Academy Award-nominated short film from 2000, “Rejected.” This short has been viewed millions and millions (and millions!) of times on YouTube. and deservedly so. It’s dark and brilliant and ridiculously funny. It’s well worth investing 9 minutes in.  If you’ve never seen it, you should watch it. I’m embedding it at the end of this post. Do it. 

Whether you should watch Hertzfeldt’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” well, that’s another matter. I saw that it was added to Netflix and eagerly checked it out. It started out as funny and dark and brilliant as “Rejected.”  

Here’s the thing: I love Hertzfeldt’s style of dark, twisted humor. In fact, I’ve often plumbed the same depths in my humor writing “career.”

But whenever I’m writing stuff in this vein, I’m always conscious of how limiting it is. There are only so many gags that can end with someone’s limbs falling off and blood spurting out, or someone being killed unexpectedly in some absurdist way. IMO, of course. 

It’s not like Hertzfeldt doesn’t have things to say. He does, and he says many of them brilliantly. He also uses a lot of interesting, creative animation craft and technique in “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” resulting in sequences that alternate between arresting beauty and dark malevolence. I also find his use of classical music here inspired (just as it is in “Rejected.”)

But, man, I found getting through the hour-long running time of this film to be a slog. It starts to feel like Hertzfeldt’s absurdist darkness works at cross purposes with his attempt to present a coherent theme (the film was stitched together from several short films).

Let’s ruminate on the randomness and isolating forces of modern life, and then a character gets run over by a train. Ha ha! See?! I’m glad you think that’s funny, because it happens over and over and over again (literally, with the same train).

Watch “Rejected.” If you love it as much I do, you may want to consider giving “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” a try. Or you might want to savor and celebrate “Rejected” as a singular work, without feeling the need to supersize it.

 

 

Tuesday
Jan062015

A 1908 Impressionist Masterpiece: The Artist's Son, Texting

M.S. Rau Antiques, of New Orleans, has a full-pager in today’s New York Times advertising two works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, an important 19th-20th century impressionist painter, and the father of celebrated film director Jean Renoir.

One of the works is, in fact, a portrait of Jean Renoir dated 1908, when the future director of “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” would’ve been 14.

And, OK, I know Jean Renoir is not sending a text in this painting, but, geez, doesn’t it look like he is? I mean, the subtle way Renoir Pére uses light and color to capture the young man’s mien and attitude—it’s uncanny. If the painted figure could talk, you could imagine it saying, “I could give a shit about you and your portrait, Dad. Can’t you see I’m busy?!”

 

Monday
Jan052015

My Cat Yeti on His 2015 New Year's Resolutions, Or Lack Thereof

Thursday
Dec182014

New Study on Teen Smoking Defies Warnings of Harm Reduction Foes

Nicotine molecule (not to scale)A federal study on teen smoking rates shows e-cigarette use among teens has surpassed their use of traditional cigarette smoking, and that the number of teen tobacco smokers continues to fall. This should be good news.

But wait. Nicotine prohibitionists who oppose harm reduction efforts tell us that as more teens try e-cigarettes, many of them will use them as a “gateway” to the traditional, vastly more harmful tobacco kind. 

The lede in the New York Times story about the study explains (emphasis mine), “A new federal survey has found that e-cigarette use among teenagers has surpassed the use of traditional cigarettes as smoking has continued to decline. Health advocates say the trend for e-cigarette use is dangerous because it is making smoking seem normal again. They also worry it could lead to an increase in tobacco smoking, though the new data do not show that.”

And, “E-cigarettes have split the public health world, with some experts arguing that they are the best hope in generations for the 18 percent of Americans who still smoke to quit. Others say that people are using them not to quit but to keep smoking, and that they could become a gateway for young people to take up real cigarettes.But that does not seem to be happening, at least so far.”

O, cursed data! How you confound knee-jerk, unsupported naysayer theories! And those stupid teens! Why are they resisting going through the gateway? Maybe it’s because unlike e-cigarettes:

Cigarettes taste bad
Cigarettes make you cough
Cigarettes make your hair stink
Cigarettes make your clothes stink
Cigarettes make your breath stink 
Cigarettes are way harder to hide from your mom (see stink items)
Cigarettes are heavily taxed, and thus cost more
Cigarettes are known by everyone as a reliable way to destroy your health and give you cancer 

All of these things nudge teens who are going to experiment with nicotine (like, probably all of them) to do so with e-cigarettes rather than regular cigarettes. 

Harm reduction foe: But then, just as with traditional cigarettes, a subset of teens who experiment with e-cigarettes will become hooked on nicotine!

Me: Riiiight, so? 

Harm reduction foe: All addiction is bad-wrong. Say, might you have a cup of coffee by chance? I need a little pick-me-up.

Me: Sure. Here’s a cup. 

For more of this kind of ranting, read my three-part screed, Nicotine Is a Great Fucking Drug: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

NYT: E-Cigarettes Top Smoking Among Youths, Study Says

 

Thursday
Dec112014

Latest rejected letter to the editors of People Magazine

Dear People Editor of People:

I am writing about your issue with “Bil Cobsy: Is He Really a Raper?” on the cover. Bil Cobsy was a famous entertaner with a big TV show. Now he stands accursed of drugging and raping women over periods of time.

I have give it a lot of thought about the question “Bil Cobsy: Is He Really a Raper?” Can not we give him the buffet of the doubt? Can not we say, “OK, yeah, maybe he raped those women, but he didn’t mean to drug them?” Or, “OK, yeah, maybe he druggded those women, but he didn’t mean to rape them. He fell.”

Let’s be fair. Here.

Sincerely and for fairness,
Viddra Chirm Yedalla

 

Monday
Dec082014

My cat Yeti declines statement about meaning of the word "state"

Wednesday
Dec032014

Nicotine Is a Great Fucking Drug, Part 3: Where's the Harm in Harm Reduction?

 

This post, the third and final installment in a series, is in response to a remarkable New York Times article called, “A Lesser Warning? Maybe,” about the efforts of Swedish Match (SM) to get the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a warning label for SM’s snus tobacco product that states it is less harmful than cigarettes, a move toward social harm reduction I am thoroughly in favor of.

I hereby nominate Hon Lik for the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Hon who?

Hon Lik is the Chinese pharmacist generally credited as the inventor of the modern e-cigarette. Hon was a former smoker himself and his father died of emphysema caused by smoking.

Cigarette smoking, by far the most common form of nicotine consumption, imposes enormous costs on every society where it is present, which is most of the societies in the world. And when I say enormous costs, I mean real money. Huge healthcare resources are devoted to treating smoking-related illnesses. Not to mention the loss of productivity due to those illnesses. Not to mention the personal grief of everyone who loses a loved one to smoking-related disease.

If there was a worldwide movement (led by the World Health Organization, perhaps), to move nicotine users from traditional cigarettes to Hon’s e-cigarettes, enormous benefits would ensue, almost instantly. Such a move would deliver the single greatest positive impact to world health—ever. Because, again, the problem is not that billions of people are addicted to nicotine. The problem is that most of them get their nicotine from the most harmful nicotine delivery mode available—cigarettes.

Promoting an activity that carries less risk over a similar activity that carries more risk is called harm reduction. E-cigarettes and tobacco-based snus are considered modes of harm reduction for nicotine consumption because, while not adequately studied yet and not risk free, they are, with a near certainty, far less risky than cigarettes, and the relative risks are probably not even close.

Yet, there are plenty of health advocates who want to see these products banned (along with cigarettes and all tobacco other products), or want them to be sold with warnings as stringent as those on cigarettes, along with tax levies that equally discourage their use.

So, according to these public health advocates, what’s the harm in harm reduction? Their arguments will probably be familiar to you:

  1. Addiction = bad

  2. Any activity that is less harmful will get more people to try it than an equivalent activity that is more harmful

  3. Anything pleasurable that is less harmful will always be a “gateway” to something similarly pleasurable but more harmful

These three tired arguments potentially stand in the way of a solution to what for decades has been an intractable health problem, a problem that is still growing rapidly in the developing world. Let’s call bullshit on each of these in turn, shall we?

Addiction = bad. Really? Have you been to a Starbuck’s near a high school recently? You’ll see a lot of minors there who are addicted to caffeine. In fact, underage kids can and do buy energy drinks laced with loads of the stuff. And I’m not aware of any age restriction on the purchase of any form of caffeine, even caffeine pills like No-Doz.

Personally, my addiction to caffeine is way more acute than my addiction to nicotine. By that I mean when I don’t have coffee in the morning, by the afternoon I have a wicked headache. Honestly, more than any other reason, avoiding that headache is why I drink coffee every morning. And it is very easy for me to overdose on caffeine by drinking a littl too much coffee, making me feel terrible—itchy, twitchy and ready to pull my skin off. I don’t have these problem with nicotine.

This all just goes to say that we’re irrationally selective in applying the addiction = bad argument. Alcohol is the other primary example. We know for a certainty that a huge amount of alcoholic beverages are consumed by alcoholics (i.e., alcohol addicts), at a huge cost to our societies. We’ve accepted the use of many addictive substances for centuries. People love ‘em, and they are gonna have ‘em.

The reasons for this kind of hypocrisy are way too convoluted for me to explore here. Suffice it to say that while acknowledging that nicotine is wickedly addictive, we must also acknowledge that modes of delivery aside, other wickedly addictive psychoactive substances are far more dangerous in an of themselves, and far more readily tolerated. So saying nicotine is bad simply because it’s addictive holds no water.

Let’s de-bullshit the second argument, that any activity that is less harmful will get more people to try it than an equivalent activity that is more harmful. Now, I could poke logical holes in that argument. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll wave the white flag and say, OK, you got me. Let’s assume it’s 100% true that making nicotine products with vastly reduced risks equally as accessible as cigarettes will get more people to experiment with nicotine, and get more people addicted.

My response to that is, So what? If we don’t care that people get hooked on caffeine, why do we care that they get hooked on nicotine—a drug enjoyed by billions over centuries—provided they consume their nicotine in a way that carries the least amount of risk to themselves and our public health systems?

Well, that brings us to the third bullshit argument: Anything pleasurable that is less harmful will always be a “gateway” to something similarly pleasurable but more harmful.

This is bullshit for many reasons. It has been proven false with illicit recreational drugs. The vast majority of people who try marijuana never try hard drugs. The vast majority of people who become regular users of marijuana don’t become regular users of hard drugs. On its face, there is simply no logical or statistical support for this argument.

Secondly, why would someone who gets hooked on nicotine through snus or e-cigarettes have any motivation whatsoever to switch to conventional cigarettes? Having used all three products, I can attest that cigarettes are far more noxious than the other two, without conferring significant advantages over them. This rationale for the gateway argument chases its own tail.

Think about it. The anti harm reduction folks say that if we openly acknowledge that some nicotine products are less risky than others, more people will try nicotine via those less risky products. So, why, if they come to enjoy nicotine and develop a dependence on it via those less risky products, would they switch to the more risky mode of consumption that inhibited them from trying it in the first place? Does that make any sense? Anyone? I drink about 16 ounces of coffee every day. It does the job for me. I have never once been tempted to crush up and snort a couple of No-Doz.

However, there are policies that could make this “gateway” argument more true. And, ironically, these self-fulfilling policies are being advocated by the anti harm reduction, absolute nicotine prohibitionists. Those policies would impose stringent restrictions and levies on less harmful forms of nicotine that are equivalent to those imposed on cigarettes.

Get it? If you say they are all equally bad, you remove any inhibition to move from a less harmful kind to a more harmful kind. And if you tax less harmful and more harmful forms equivalently, you also remove or weaken any financial inhibition against moving to the more harmful form.

I sincerely believe that what policy makers worldwide should do is to privilege demonstrably less harmful forms of nicotine consumption over more harmful forms. Raise taxes on cigarettes sky high and allow snus and e-cigarettes to carry warning labels that stress that while they are addictive and not harmless, they are far less harmful than regular cigarettes.  

And while they are at it, they should give Hon Lik the Nobel Prize.

Thanks for reading. You may also want to read Why Anti-Smoking Groups Should Endorse Snus and E-Cigarettes, an article on Forbes.com by Sally Satel. It was published three days ago, but I only discovered it this morning, and I haven’t read it yet, because I didn’t want her arguments to color mine, though I assume many are similar. I plan on reading it now.

 

Tuesday
Dec022014

Nicotine Is a Great Fucking Drug, Part 2: It's All in the Delivery

There’s an analogy here. 

This post, the second in a series, is in response to a remarkable New York Times article called, “A Lesser Warning? Maybe,” about the efforts of Swedish Match (SM) to get the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a warning label for SM’s snus tobacco product that states it is less harmful than cigarettes, a move toward social harm reduction I am thoroughly in favor of.

For millennia, indigenous people in South America have chewed coca leaf preparations. To this day, its use is widespread—and legal—in many parts of South America. Coca leaf contains small  amounts (well under 1%) of the psychoactive substance that, in its highly refined state, we know as cocaine.

But chewing coca leaves is a very different proposition from using cocaine. First of all, while snorting it can deliver the full potency of cocaine within 15 minutes, chewed coca takes much, much longer—as much as three hours—to deliver the full effect of its much lower potency.

Second, the effects are much different. Coca leaf provides a mild stimulant buzz, and has analgesic and appetite suppressant effects. I’ve read speculation that it was a key factor enabling indigenous people in the Andes to survive a life of hard toil and poor nutrition while breathing the thin air of a high altitude environment. Supposedly (I’m relying on Wikipedia here), when a longtime user stops chewing coca, he doesn’t even go through withdrawal symptoms.

On the other hand, cocaine almost instantly delivers a strong brain buzz, and, as is widely known, turns people into amoral gibbering idiots. And it is notoriously addictive, while at the same time creating a tolerance in users that forces them to use more and more to achieve the same effect.

Finally, by my rough calculations, it takes 1000 grams (1 kilo) of coca leaf to make 1 gram of cocaine.

So, coca leaf versus cocaine. A relatively benign application of a naturally occurring stimulant, versus a perverse, life-wrecking unnaturally concentrated use of the same substance.

Where am I going with this?

Cigarettes are to tobacco as cocaine is to coca leaves.

Though, granted, tobacco in its more naturally consumed forms was already more toxic than coca leaves. Though tobacco use was widespread for centuries before cigarettes, people knew that it made some users unhealthy, and even killed them. Still, over those many generations, the vast majority of tobacco users achieved moderate effects from moderate use, at minimal risk.

Then cigarettes changed everything for the worse. They did this mainly by combining two factors: first, they provided a faster, stronger jolt of nicotine than any other popular form of tobacco; and, second, they greatly concentrated the most harmful and addictive aspects of smoking tobacco.

Prior to cigarettes, most tobacco smokers didn’t inhale tobacco smoke; nicotine was absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth (as it is with smokeless tobacco). That changed with cigarettes.

Aside from non-lethal doses of nicotine, cigarette smokers inhale the deadly byproducts of tobacco combustion, which contribute to human mortality in a variety of ways. Furthermore, to increase the appeal and sales of cigarettes, tobacco companies used processes and additives that reduced the harshness, but not the lethality, of tobacco smoke. So users could smoke more cigarettes and get more nicotine—while also exposing themselves to much, much more toxicity and risk.

Like cocaine, cigarettes are a perversion of a naturally occurring psychoactive compound that had been used for centuries by millions of humans. In the case of tobacco, while health risks were not unknown, users balanced those relatively low risks with the enjoyment they got from nicotine.

Now, as exemplified by the Swedish Match effort described in the Times article, some are arguing that it’s time to stop trying to prevent humans who want nicotine from getting it. Rather, they say, it’s time to recognize that people who want it will get it no matter what, and that the best way to counter the horrible individual and societal effects of smoking is to privilege less harmful methods of tobacco delivery.

Swedish Match wants the right to say on their packaging that their snus smokeless tobacco product is less harmful than cigarette smoking, which it undoubtedly is. The testing that has been done to date (which pretty much everyone admits is not sufficient) seems to show that it is much less harmful than American-style smokeless tobacco.

But here’s something else I learned from the Times article. We’ve all heard how dangerous American smokeless tobacco is, about how it greatly increases the risk of oral cancers. What we haven’t heard (or at least I hadn’t), is that the risk of oral cancer from using smokeless tobacco is half of that from smoking cigarettes.

That’s right. Cigarette smokers get oral cancer at twice the rate smokeless tobacco users do. Want to immediately cut the incidence of oral cancer in the U.S. in half? Create strong incentives for smokers to start dipping snuff. Yes, they will be twice as likely as non-tobacco users to develop oral cancer, but they will be half as likely as cigarette smokers. Not to mention they will completely eliminate the risks associated with inhaling the other, non-cancer causing lethal byproducts of combustion, like those that cause emphysema and cardio-obstructive pulmonary disease, by which cigarettes kill more people than cancer.

Now back to snus. Snus is made in a way that actually reduces nitrosamines, the heavily carcinogenic compounds in tobacco. So it’s even less risky than smokeless tobacco. (By the way, I’m not advocating the use of American-style smokeless tobacco. First, it’s a disgusting habit that’s really tough to kick. Second, it carries other risks, like damage to the teeth and gums. Third, as discussed, there are less harmful alternatives.)

Finally, there are e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes dispense with tobacco entirely. Instead, they vaporize small amounts of pure nicotine suspended in common liquid food additives that most of us consume every day. Again, the research on the negative health effects of e-cigarettes is preliminary. What are the long-term health effects of inhaling tiny amounts of glycerin vapor? We don’t know. But based on present knowledge, e-cigarettes almost certainly carry much, much less lower risk than any form of tobacco, even snus.

For many (not all) people, nicotine is a great fucking drug. Decades of experience have proven societies that concentrate their efforts on getting people to stop using it in any form are on a fool’s errand.

And, as I hope I’ve shown, there are much, much less harmful ways that people can consume nicotine. Still, many in the public health community argue that reducing the harm of tobacco is, in itself, harmful.

I’ll explain why they are full of shit in the final installment.