Downtown living, billboard views

There’s a new multi-use development going up at South First St. and Riverside Dr. It’s called 422 At The Lake. Here’s what the artist’s rendering on their Facebook page looks like:

Pretty nice, huh? OK, not really. And the artist left out everything that isn’t part of this developer’s property. Notably, the artist left out a new high rise directly behind the building. Were it included, it would loom center left in the image above. 

And there’s one other curious thing the artist left out. It’s a structure that has been bordering the southeast corner of this property for many, many years. And I can’t help but think it may affect the desirability of certain units in the complex:

Um, why would you put apartments there? I can’t help but notice that there’s a big billboard in the way. The side view shows just how close they built this new building to the existing billboard:

Ah, progress. 


NYT Op-Eds vs. E-Cigs: Talking Loud (and Long) and Saying Nothing

The nicotine molecule. If the gateway argument were true, wouldn’t everyone hooked on cigarettes graduate to injecting straight nicotine?I am perplexed by the New York Times’ coverage of e-cigarettes and snus (a type of Swedish smokeless tobacco that is demonstrably far less harmful than smoking).

On the one hand, the Times is to be lauded for recognizing these new forms of nicotine consumption as a topic with potential major implications for our health, and thus one worthy of serious coverage.

On the other hand, it seems that they have taken it upon themselves to be the national nanny/scold on the topic.

Last week they reported that the CDC announced a dramatic rise in teen use of e-cigarettes, while also noting that the CDC’s report buried a contrasting statistic—a dramatic, unprecedented fall in teen smoking of traditional combustible cigarettes.

This should be a good thing, no?

And yet today the Times devotes almost 1,400 words to two separate editorials, one by their own op-ed board and one by guest writers. Both of these editorials urge the need to regulate e-cigarettes in a similar way to conventional cigarettes, alluding to the potential harms, dangers and risks of e-cigarettes. Yet neither offers a single documented fact substantiating even one of those harms, dangers or risks!

And what are those alleged harms, dangers and risks? I suppose the most supportable one mentioned might be that nicotine may change the adolescent brain. The editorials don’t say that it damages the adolescent brain, just that it may change it. If I had to guess how it may change the adolescent brain, my guess would be that it may make the adolescent brain crave nicotine. 

To which I reply, so what? Don’t caffeine (or Pop-Tarts, for that matter) change the adolescent brain this way? I categorically reject the notion that all substance addiction or dependence is equivalent. I have never missed a day of work with a coffee or e-cigarette hangover. I have never robbed a bank or burglarized homes to get money to buy caffeine or nicotine.

The other canard both editorials fall back on is that e-cigarettes may—not that there is one iota of proof about this—but that they may lead kids to start smoking traditional cigarettes. The “gateway drug” argument, in other words. 

As I have pointed out before, this fear-mongering tactic is not only unsupported by evidence, it flies in the face of common sense. It’s equivalent to alleging that drinking beer or wine is a gateway to drinking straight grain alcohol, which we know it is not. And why isn’t it? Because drinking beer or wine is, for the vast majority of people, a much more pleasant and desirable way to consume alcohol.

It’s the same with e-cigarettes. I truly can’t imagine someone developing a nicotine habit by using e-cigarettes and then graduating to a product that is famously more dangerous, and also much more expensive and much more unpleasant to use.

Really, what the scolds’ argument should be is that e-cigarette use is a possible gateway to drinking straight e-liquid, the nicotine solution used in e-cigarettes. But they don’t make that argument, because it’s obviously specious. Yet the “gateway” canard about e-cigarettes persists.

No one is arguing that e-cigarettes are a risk-free behavior. Crossing the street is not a risk-free behavior. Drinking coffee is not a risk-free behavior. Virtually nothing we do in life is risk-free. The argument is about the relative risks and the relative harms. And it is indisputable that if every combustible tobacco smoker in this country switched to e-cigarettes, and that if every kid who experiments with nicotine does so using e-cigarettes instead of smoking combustible tobacco, the net gain to our society would be enormous and immediate.

Smoking combustible tobacco puts a healthcare burden of billions of dollars on our society every year. It kills many longtime users, often by literally leaving them gasping for their last breath. It’s time to stop equating e-cigarettes and other vastly less harmful means of nicotine consumption with cigarette smoking. It’s like comparing apples with… poisoned apples.

Any regulation of e-cigarettes should not impede their tremendous potential to reduce the enormous harm that conventional smoking does to our citizens and our society. 

8 Potential Titles for My Upcoming Memoir

Author photo by author.

Screwed Up and How I Got This Way: Living with the Legacy of a Dysfunctional Family

Looks Aren’t Everything: How I Achieved Mediocrity Without Them

Again, My Name Is Rich: Coping with Being Utterly Forgettable

The Courage to Change The Things I Can’t: Why I’ve Found Serenity So Illusory

Hey, Where’d Everybody Go?: A Cautionary Tale of Deteriorating Personal Hygiene

A Round Tuit: How I Will Confront Chronic Procrastination, Eventually

Sketchy Memories, Misplaced Grudges: Looking Back with 20-50 Hindsight

Here with Yeti: Five Years Spent Being Upstaged by a Stupid Cat


Signs of the End Times: The Nut Locker Flush Valve Anti-Theft Device

I was using the facilities in a gas station restroom on the outskirts of Houston yesterday when I noticed an interesting piece of hardware on the urinal before me. (Yes, I was going #1 at the time.)

It was stamped with the name “Nut Locker,” and after looking at it for a few seconds, I understood what it was for—to prevent the theft of the urinal flush valve by covering the large nut that connects it to the fixture’s water supply.

All at once my mind reeled with the significance of two pieces of information I had been completely ignorant of seconds before: First, that urinal flush valve theft was a thing, and, second, that it’s such a big thing that at least one company, Punter Distributing of Houston, has designed, manufactured and marketed a product to combat it.

Once reconciled to this new information, it did not surprise me that Houston might be both the epicenter of flush valve theft and the efforts to prevent it.

God help us.

Buy "All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits" by George Brainard

George Brainard is a professional photographer here in Austin, TX. He’s also led some really cool bands over the years. And he’s a true Texas original, whose mama raised him right.

George’s new book, All Tore Up: Texas Hot Rod Portraits, published by UT Press, just came out. Last year I got to see some of its portraits of hot rod-lovin’ guys and gals, and they are just stunning. And the book is beautifully put together, as befitting George’s fine work.

And what a bargain! Only $33.50 if you buy online for UT Press

Highly, highly recommended. And such a great gift it would make!

Spring Pop Quiz!

1. Effecting change within a large organization has been compared to getting a supertanker to do a 180º turn. If a supertanker takes 34 minutes to go from a dead stop to its top cruising speed of 17 knots, which of the following are true?
A) It takes at least 34 minutes for a supertanker to do a 180.
B) The harbor master should be contacted before any such tomfoolery.
C) My dad was in the merchant marine back in the day.
D) I get nauseous on large seagoing vessels.

2. Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was just convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Early in Hernandez’s brief pro career, Partriots coach Bill Belichek devised an unusual play, “Triple dog 9, reverse flare, hash left,” to take advantage of his unique talents. Which, if any, of these statements, describes what makes the play unusual?
A) Upon the snap, the interior tackles slant right and the action follows in that direction.
B) The interior tackles slant right as a feint and the action goes left.
C) The play called for Aaron Hernandez to garrote the middle linebacker when no one was looking.
D) The one time the Patriots planned to use the play in an actual game, they were penalized because Hernandez was caught lining up offside, with his foot down the throat of the opposing team’s cornerback.

3. The European Union is threatening to fine Google billions of dollars for alleged anti-competitive practices. Which of the following statements are true?
A) Very few Europeans could hack it for even one week in the office of a major American corporation.
B) In Europe, “winning” is a synonym for “anti-competitive practices.”
C) The European Union will use the money to buy Albania and shut it down.
D) “Don’t be evil,” Google’s founding ethos, was never meant to apply to Europe.

4. Hillary Clinton finally announced what everyone already knew, that she was running for president. Which of the following statements about her candidacy are true?
A) She will represent the lesser of two evils.
B) She will represent the evil of two lessers.
C) If she blows it this time, they ought to just give her the presidency in 2024, as a combination 97th birthday present and retirement gift.
D) Even if she wins, I may still threaten to move to Canada, but never follow through on it.

5. Racial injustice in the U.S. has been brought into stark relief by a continuing string of incidents in which white police officers kill unarmed black men. Which of the following policy recommendations are likely to reverse this trend?
A) Adding a “gamification” element to the problem by erecting large signs in communities throughout the country saying, “The United States of America: Now Celebrating __ Consecutive Days without a White Police Officer Killing an Unarmed Black Man.”
B) Arming all black men.
C) Equipping all police officers with body-worn moral consciences.
D) Equipping all police officers with guns that, when fired, raise little flags that say “Bang!”


Apple can't sell me a watch, but their early adopters might.

With very few exceptions (backpack vacuum cleaner, e-cigarettes, treadmill desk, Jose Altuve), I am not an early adopter.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, my current desire for the newly launched Apple Watch is a 1. I know lots of people are ordering them, and I hope they enjoy them, but it’s not for me.

At least not yet. I’m not naive enough to proclaim that I will never buy a new class of Apple product just because I don’t “get it” when the product comes out.

I didn’t get the iPod when it came out. A couple of years later, after seeing people use them for a while helped me “get it,” I bought a second or third generation iPod from a friend who was upgrading to the latest generation. I used the hell out of that thing and came to see it as an amazing product. I later supplemented it with an iPod Shuffle.

Same with the iPhone. I didn’t really get what it was about, or how it would be more useful to me than the mobile phone I then had. Now I’m on my second iPhone, having upgraded to the last two previous versions when their replacements came out (i.e., I got the iPhone 4 when the 5 came out, and I got the iPhone 5 when the 6 came out).

In both cases, I came to understand the utility and desirability of these devices by observing how earlier adopters used them.
I find that pretty interesting. In both cases, my desire started at around 1, but I ultimately acquired the items once I saw and understood how other people used them and relied on them. And I came to rely on them a lot, too.

Apple knows this. They know that there are scads of people who will buy the next cool Apple thing as soon as it comes out, whether they need it or understand it or not. And they know there are even more people like me, who will wait and see how those early adopters take to the product and, in so doing, define the way it is used and shape the narrative about how it is described.

Sure, I’ve read quite a bit about the watch on and other sites, and I’ve read some early reviews. But right now, Apple can’t sell me a watch. I don’t wear a watch, I don’t want a watch, and I sure don’t want to spend a few hundred bucks on a new type of watch that I don’t see the utility in.

I can read statements like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “integrates the various components of your digital life” until the cows come home, but until I see what that actually means to people, to me it’s as abstract as abstract can be.

Yet, I wouldn’t bet against me wearing one by 2018.

Is it skepticism or cynicism? How a radio ad helped me figure it out.

Do you know the difference between being skeptical and being cynical?

How would you put it into words?

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Not bad, not bad.

As for me, while I’ve implicitly understood the difference in my own mind, I’m not sure I would’ve had a good way to explain it to someone else. Hearing a radio ad yesterday helped clarify it for me.

First off, I’ll say that I’ve been called a cynic a lot in my life. Back in the day, that was probably true more often than not. But these days I work hard to try to be a more positive person. I tell myself it’s OK to be skeptical, just don’t be cynical. But what does that mean?

Yesterday, I was listening to a Houston Astros baseball game on the internets radio, as it will be my wont to do almost daily from now through September (and, God willing, maybe even into October).

In between innings, I heard an ad* for a Houston jewelry story, narrated by a sultry-voiced female announcer.

This announcer talked about how meaningful it would be for our ladies if we, the male listeners, bought them diamond engagement rings. As she bullet-pointed the arguments to counter our mental objections to this sudden idea of our spending a shit-ton of money we don’t have to buy diamond jewelry we know nothing about, she emphasized a final point: a “lifetime diamond quality guarantee.”

I immediately thought, “Oh, yeah, right, like someone is going to give his fianceé a diamond engagement ring and someday she’s going to return it because it doesn’t sparkle enough. That’s going to happen!”

And I thought, “That’s skepticism.”

And then I questioned, “Or is it cynicism?”

Which is it?

It’s skepticism. Skepticism is the questioning of received wisdom. Skepticism says, “This may be a good place for me to buy a diamond ring, but is the ‘lifetime diamond quality guarantee’ likely to ever be meaningful to me? Probably not. So as I evaluate whether I want to do business with this jeweler or not, I should not give the guarantee much weight.”

(By the way, as a native Missourian, skepticism is my birthright. Missouri is the “Show Me” state, and “show me” is nothing if not the skeptic’s mantra. That’s why, to my horror, every once in a while I will actually hear the words, “Well, I’m from Missouri, so you’re going to have to show me,” come out of my own mouth. Who am I, my mother?)

So when does skepticism cross the line into cynicism?

Where skeptics question the truth, cynics assume bad faith. Cynics believe that all human behavior is a zero-sum game. A cynic says, “if you want me to do X, it must be because it will be good for you and bad for me.”

Again, my skeptical response to the radio ad was, “Oh, yeah, right, like someone is going to give his fianceé a diamond engagement ring and someday she’s going to return it because it doesn’t sparkle enough. That’s going to happen!”

If I were a true cynic, I would also tack on, “Because the people who run that jewelry store are lying scumbags who are only trying to rip me and everyone else off.”

When it comes to the store in question, I don’t assume that cynical take is true. I’m pretty sure the reason they mentioned their “lifetime diamond quality guarantee” is because they know how hard it is to get radio listeners to consider buying from them versus all of their competitors, much less versus simply doing nothing. They don’t expect the guarantee to move me to buy a diamond ring from them. But they do hope that maybe it will make me a little more likely to step into their store if and when I ever want to shop for a diamond ring.

A skeptic asks, “Is this information true? And even if it is true, is it meaningful for me?”

A cynic says, “That’s definitely a bunch of bullshit, because all people are totally rotten all of the time.”

*I have never done a blog post about the dehumanizing, mind deteriorating poor quality and unremitting repetitiveness of the advertisements that run on the Houston Astros Radio Network (HARN). But with enough therapy, some day I will. For now I’ll just mention that the first couple of games this season, the MLB internet feed of the HARN broadcast was muting out the ads between innings. Silently, I prayed to God—that guy whom I only seem to believe in when I want something—asking that this practice be maintained all season long. What a huge quality of life enhancer it would have been! But, skeptic that I am, I questioned whether it would last.

However, because I am not generally a cynic, I did not assume, “It won’t last, because everything about baseball sucks.”

Now that the ads—God bless ‘em—are back, I’m assuming that they’ll stay there, but not cynically. As I cringe to hear Adam and Diego from the Citgo Fueling Good Road Team in the same ad for the 3rd season in a row, for the 9989th time, I believe it’s possible that whoever was cutting out the commercials in the first few games might start doing it again. I really, really hope so. But, yes, I am skeptical.


Obituary headlines that pull no punches


Oscar Siggets, 93, Ruthless Capitalist, Dies after Too-Short Illness
Brought sketchy, cost-saving innovations to meat processing industry

Mary Nells, 74, Cynical Golddigger
Widowed by three wealthy husbands older than her by a combined 139 years

Sammy Martin, 85, Actor Tied to Irritating ‘60s Sitcom Catchphrase
Lean final four decades for the “‘How They Hanging?’ kid”

Magdalene Arnell, 57, Debauched, Heartless Industrial Heiress
Liquidated family concern upon inheritance, laying off thousands; partied life away

Gerald Tervino, 77, Friendless Philanthropist
Calculated generosity kept heads of charities in thrall of odious douchebag

Catherine Bobbins, 79, CPA and Spending Scold
Few attend service for ever-irritable, harshly judgmental “Queen of Lean”


Do banned beer ads and empty tower blocks signify the Iran-ification of Turkey?

Leaving Kayseri; a pristine mosque occupies an otherwise barren easement between railroad tracks and a warehouse complex. Photo by T. van den Bout

About two weeks ago, I returned from a two-week vacation in Turkey. A conversation with a young Turkish man, a look at the dark side of one of Turkey’s vaunted “Anatolian tigers,” and the brief crackdown on the Turkish press following last week’s fatal hostage-taking incident in Istanbul got me thinking about the future of Turkey and it’s young people.

First, the young man.

“Do you think you’ll stay in Turkey?” one of us asked him.

“Not if it turns into Iran,” he replied with some sadness, but without hesitation.

He was in his early 20s. Like many Turks we met, he’d been born in a Western country where his family had emigrated, and had moved back with them. Some of these returnees came home before the start of Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, and some likely because of it.

Erdoğan was Turkey’s prime minister and is now its president, traditionally a much less powerful position. Even though his party’s chairmanship term limits forced him out of the PM post, many believe the new PM is just his puppet. After 12 years of rule, Erdoğan still tightly holds the reins of power in the country, and he seems to have no intention of letting go.   

The early years of his regime heralded a new era of Turkish progress, freedom and openness. And there seems to be little debate that in many important ways, Turkey and Turks are better off since Erdoğan’s rule than before it.

Many emigrant Turkish families, familiar with the comforts of life in Western countries but tired of permanent second-class status, moved back. For them, the heady early days of Erdoğan’s reign must’ve seemed especially promising.

But Erdoğan’s push to remain in power seems tied increasingly to his government’s efforts to expand the Islamization of Turkish civil law. We were told, for instance, that signs promoting the sale of alcohol, though not its actual sale, were banned about a year ago. As with Coke in this country, the company that makes Efes, the Budweiser of Turkey, supplied custom signage to thousands of small neighborhood markets, complete with the Efes name, logo and colors. Now there are new signs, but the Efes name and logo don’t appear on them. But—branding!—the colors remain, so everyone, locals and tourists alike, know that Efes beer and other alcohol is sold within.

A beer brand (but not its slogan) covered over in an Istanbul restaurant. When I took this photo, the panel covering up the name looked much closer in color to the background. Only the camera flash revealed there was a brand name underneath.

The ban on alcohol ads and many other creeping legal impositions of Islamic mores and rules has our young friend, and no doubt many of his peers, pondering whether Turkey is where they want to spend the rest of their lives.

It’s not as if Islam is having a hard time there. Though by its constitution Turkey is a secular country, well over 90% of Turks identify as Muslim. But just as in the U.S., what belonging to a religion means in actual practice varies widely from person to person, and region to region.

Which brings us to that Anatolian tiger.

Two of Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul and Izmir, are considered its most liberal and progressive. Together, they are home to a little more than 20% of Turkey’s population. Though there are plenty of conservative Muslims in both, they are also the big concentrations of liberal thought and political leanings.

Kayseri is Turkey’s 11th largest city, and one of its fastest growing, with its booming industrial and construction sectors earning it its “Anatolian tiger” status. Lonely Planet also cites it as the second most devout Muslim city in Turkey. I don’t know what that’s based on, but I’ma run with it.*

We saw parts of Kayseri, and undoubtedly the worst parts, because it is the domestic air travel hub for Turkey’s Cappadocia region. We saw the parts we had to see to get the hell out of Dodge.

Granted, no one anywhere who can help it wants to live near the airport, so its easy for travelers just passing through to get an unfair picture of a place by only seeing the surrounding environs.

That said, ass-ugly does not do justice to the miles and miles of Kayseri and its outskirts that we saw.

First, nearest the airport, there were row upon row of new, and apparently vacant, housing blocks. The style that came to mind was, “Post-Soviet Kleptocratist.” These were big, completely charmless and weirdly ornamented buildings, when they were ornamented at all. And I’m including being painted entirely in Mylanta orange as ornamentation.

But above all, to me these big empty buildings were cheap-looking. The men who built them may not have been paid well, but some folks somewhere had to have made piles of dough—there were dozens of these brand-new empty ugly buildings. The post-Soviet reference may not be far off either, seeing as how Erdoğan and Putin seem to have a bro thing going on. Once free housing stopped being part of the plan in Russia, there were undoubtedly a lot of job-seeking former bureaucrats with a talent for converting government revenue (or, even better, debt) into sad architecture on a massive scale, while generating fat paydays for insiders.

After the tower block section came Kayseri’s Motor Mile-and-a-Half, an endless parade of sparkling new car dealerships. Hi, Kia. Oh, hi Hyundai. Looking swell, Mercedes. And, hey, Peugot! You’re still a car?! I guess so, in Turkey!

Then we progressed into the Eraserhead industrial section. Imagine Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes times ten. U.S. concrete plants are models of minimal impact compared to Turkey’s. Yes, it’s a messy business, and there everyone who lives or drives by it has to deal with it.

At the heart of Eraserhead-ville, we drove past a massive processing plant or refinery. Your guess is as good as mine. To me it looked like one enormous plumbed contraption that conducted whatever it was that it conveyed through some very large and befuddlingly-shaped appurtenances. Was it almost art but for being ugly? Or because of it? I still can’t say for sure.

Kayseri is a city, but Turkey is a country with some 11,000 rural or rural-ish villages. I think of our young friend, his fears, and how it seems that Erdoğan’s escalating embrace of Islamization coincides with his efforts to hold on to power that is becoming increasingly autocratic. I think of those endless empty tower blocks in Turkey’s second-most devout city and wonder if Erdoğan means to fill them with rural Turks, who are more likely to be conservative, and might show gratitude and loyalty for getting to take part in Turkey’s economic miracle, even if it means dirty, dangerous work in Eraserhead-ville and coming home to a brand new, depressing brutalist slum in the sky. For many, it may well be a better deal than what they have.

You could fit a shit-ton of loyal political partisans in those tower blocks is all I’m saying. And add to and consolidate your power in the process, making a minor urban stronghold a more major one.

And turning Turkey more into Iran.

Make no mistake, this rural-to-urban Kayseri relocation scheme is complete and total 100% speculation on my part and quite possibly complete and total 100% bullshit. What I know is that I saw a bunch of brand new empty apartment buildings that looked like they had to be government-built. And I created an explanation based on my sketchy grasp of Turkish affairs and a brief conversation with one young man. But on my side I would just mention that not only did I read Lonely Planet: Turkey, I went to Turkey: The Actual Country. For two whole weeks.

As to the Istanbul hostage-taking and it’s bloody ending and how it relates, I somehow missed the actual event in the news last week. I only learned about it yesterday, reading about the Turkish government’s punitive response to news media outlets that ran a photo, first posted on Twitter, of the hostage, a government prosecutor, with a gun to his head. Aside from blocking Twitter and other sites that ran the photo (evidently only for a short time), the government decreed that offending Turkish media organizations were barred from covering the prosecutor’s funeral.

The bullyish press clampdown reminded me of our young acquaintance, and it got me wondering whether the looming tower blocks cast more shadows darkening his future.

(*Here’s a BBC article from 2007 that compares and contrasts secularism and devout Islam between Izmir and Kayseri.)


Dork-cation extra: Litter grabbing boat on the Bosphorous

One of the things that impressed me most about Istanbul is how tidy it is. I mean, don’t get me wrong, any city of nearly 15 million people is going to display some soot, grime and wear. And the İstanbullular as individuals don’t seem any more fastidious than, say, New Yorkers. You see people flicking cigarette butts in the streets everywhere, and a fair amount of casual littering. Plus, we were told by our vacation rental rep that when we needed to discard of our household trash, we were to find a place on the street where others had dumped their trash. But under no circumstances were we to let a policeman see us doing it, because it’s illegal.

So why don’t you see cigarette butts and litter and piles of trash on the streets? Because Istanbul is constantly cleaning itself up. Those illegal trash piles? They never get very big and they are gone—all of them—by sunrise, every day. Mechanical street sweepers are omnipresent, as are human street sweepers with brooms and dustpans. Relentlessly, they go after every cigarette butt and gum wrapper in sight. 

And along Istanbul’s extensive waterfront teeming with tourists? You’d expect to see quite a bit of floating debris in the water, wouldn’t you? Well, you may see a little here and there, but not for long. The Rube Goldbergian boat in the video above sees to that. Dork that I am, I could’ve watched it all day. 

Uh, from the flight deck, this is your captain...

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. We’d like to welcome you aboard Skyward Airlines flight 3233, with service from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. That service specifically being moving you through the air between those two cities while dehumanizing you in every way possible.

Our flight plan calls for us to cruise at an altitude of 36,000 feet, which sounds crazy high to me. But what do I know? I’m just the ringmaster of this circus. Anyway, we hope you’ll just sit back, though not with your seat actually back, and enjoy the flight. As much as humanly possible, anyway.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. A brief announcement: when I referred to myself as the ringmaster of the circus I was speaking metaphorically. There are no clowns or wild animals in this cockpit. Well, except for First Officer Dougie. Now, feel free to relax and enjoy the flight, while preparing at any moment to engage in emergency crash landing procedures.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is your captain. Dougie up here reminded me that some of his in-laws are on board and he’s a little miffed that I may have given the impression that the way he and I used to cat around back in the day is still the status quo. That’s a negative on the status quo from back in the day. I repeat, negative on the catting around status quo from back in the day. Dougie is a happily married man and is entirely faithful to Janet at all times. Now just sit back in an upright position with your tray table stowed and your feet under the 15 pounds of personal items placed under the seat in front of you, and make a good faith effort to enjoy your flight.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain reporting a bit of a good news/bad news situation up here. As you may have noticed, we haven’t moved a mother loving inch since we closed the cabin doors. The good news is this is nothing to be alarmed about, as an aircraft that remains motionless on the ground is an aircraft at low risk for plummeting from the sky. The bad news is, we’ll be stuck here, where you all will feel increasingly trapped like sardines in a tin can, until we make a very late departure, at which point, yes, there will be an increased risk of plummeting from the sky, because upon departure we will be moving, and quite rapidly, I might add. We will also be quite a ways off the ground, which, in all candor, does mean that in the unlikely event that any plummeting situation should occur, the cessation of said plummeting will be more consequential than if we, say, jumped the curb on the runway. Not expecting any plummeting, just want to cover off on all possibilities. We should be getting under way eventually, so just sit back, enjoy the sensation of not moving while planted firmly on the ground, and enjoy this indeterminate pre-flight interlude.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. You may have noticed we just started to roll back. That was my bad. We didn’t have clearance to do that yet. We’re awaiting instructions from the tower as to whether we should roll back forward to where we were, but as of now, it sounds like they are a little upset with me and just want me to, in their words, “stay put and don’t go playing cowboy on the taxiway.” Just sit back, sit tight, and I’ll be back shortly with more information, presumably. Thank you.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. A little inside baseball here. You may not have realized it, but the jetway? That long serpentine indoor-outdoor kinda hallway thing that you walked through to get from the terminal to the aircraft? Well, folks, you probably didn’t know this—fact is, I’m just learning it myself, but it has other functions. Namely to provide standby power to the aircraft when it is parked at the gate. Now, as you may remember, a little while ago I mentioned that I did a little-bitty unauthorized rollback. Based on my instrument readings and the angry gesticulations from the ground crew, it appears that our standby power connection has been severed, and so very shortly I will be shutting down all non-essential power consuming systems, such as cabin lighting, cabin ventilation and the pumps that supply that blue water to flush the toilets. This is only a temporary condition while we are stuck here in limbo halfway between the gate and the runway. As soon as I am authorized to move the aircraft, we’ll be bringing the engines up to speed, and they should be able to recharge those non-essential cabin systems well before halfway through the flight. Which, by the way, could be getting under way at any moment. Or not. Hard to say. Now, just sit back, and enjoy some quality sitting time in the stuffy darkness. And for the benefit of your fellow passengers, for the time being, please refrain from using the restrooms for anything other than number one. Thank you.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. I forgot to let you know that we were given permission to roll back from the gate. Well, we were given permission to roll back from where we had already rolled back a little from the gate already. You have probably already realized this, as for some time the aircraft has been rolling hither and yon as we traverse the lengthy and serpentine route to our takeoff runway, which we are just now turning onto. I would have announced this sooner, but there’s been a lot going on up here, what with all of the driving of the aircraft that I’m responsible for and everything, and I should probably cut this communication short, because this is the important part of the takeoff checklist where I actually do the things I need to do, like jam the throttle hard onto full power, to get this enormous and heavily laden aircraft airborne. It’s not a big deal, I’ve done this kind of thing many times before, but, really, let me get back to you, because we’re approaching the speed at which it is too late to abort our takeoff and I only have a couple of fractions of a second to figure out what this little flashing light and audible alarm are trying to tell me. Not to worry, I’ll be back with you momentarily, successful takeoff or not. Now just sit back, remain strapped in, and remember it might not be a good idea to have any sharp objects in your pockets. Thank you.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. Well, we made it! Into the sky, I mean. Are those airport engineers good or what? They designed that runway to be 8,600 feet because they knew someday a flight like ours would need every last inch of it. I’m a little in awe, frankly. But now that we’ve heaved this massive lumbering bird into the sky, our autopilot is taking over and it’s pretty much a piece of cake from here on out. Well, until we have to land in a couple/few hours. But don’t you worry about that now. I’ll update you when we have that mess to look forward to.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain. Did I forget to announce that we were heading into that turbulence that we just headed into? Sorry about that. Better late than never I guess. If that last jolt didn’t help you figure it out, it’s a real good idea to remain in your seat with your seatbelt fastened to avoid smacking your head into the overhead compartments. If that just happened to you, then it’s pretty obvious you’ll want to avoid it from happening again, so word to the wise and all that. By the way, in my experience, scalp wounds bleed a lot but are usually not all that serious. If you can’t stanch the blood flow, please press the call button and a member of our flight crew will bring over some towels, although they can’t really get up now either, because, hey, after all, they’re on the same aircraft as you, and as I intimated, we’re going to be bouncing all over the sky like a pinball for God knows how long. Now, just sit back, relax with your hands clenched firmly on both armrests, try to keep the blood out of your eyes as best you can for the time being, and enjoy the remainder of the flight, which, God willing, won’t be until we land at our arrival airport.

Uh, from the captain, this is your flight deck. I beg your pardon. You know what I mean. As you may have noticed, we have begun our initial descent, which is why, if you are sitting by a window, everything on the ground looks a lot bigger now. That’s just an illusion. It’s all the same size, we’ve just gotten smaller. All part of standard landing procedure. I’d like to remind you to sit back and relax as you remain strapped in, alert and ready for any eventuality. I’ll be honest, I’m not in love with the way landings work at this airport, although I’m certainly not complaining. Other pilots seem to have no problem with it, so I’m big enough to admit that maybe it’s just me. At any rate, it’s always worked out fine up until now, for all intents and purposes. You may not even be able to tell what kind of a nightmare we are going through up here as we try to bring this beast down safely. So hang in there, and I’ll be back with our final announcement once we stop skidding and I’m pretty sure everything is A-OK. Please keep us in your thoughts.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is your captain. We’d like to welcome you to Los Angeles, which is, it turns out, our correct destination, although there was some brief disagreement about that up here for a moment. We know you have a choice of airlines, and we do appreciate your choosing Skyward for your travel needs today. And we hope that the big takeaway is that everything worked out this time, more or less, so why not give us a shot at it again sometime? Now, as you prepare to disembark, we’d like to wish you a nice stay in San Diego.

Uh, from the flight deck, this is the captain one final time. I mean Los Angeles. Sorry.


What's In My Bag

OK, first of all, it’s none of your goddamn business. If you were a cop, no way is it constitutional that I have to show you what’s in my bag. So just keep that in mind.

Second of all, this is my old bag. I switched to a new bag last week. HEB gives away a limited number of free reusable bags on Fridays, but it’s first come, first served. I got there early and bought a pack of gum so’s I could get a new bag.

And I been carrying it around all week and thinking it didn’t feel right. So that’s when I went through my extensive collection of worn bags and found that I left all kinds of good stuff in my last bag. Really, this feature should be called “What’s In The Bottom Of The Last Bag I Was Using.” But fuck it. Let’s do this.

13 Cents, a button, and a video game token

Never leave home without them, unless you leave them in your old bag.

iPhone 4 Case

I found this baby in mint fucking condition. Someday I WILL find the phone to go with it. You can bet on that, Jack.


Blueteeth Headset

I found this, too, and what a pain in my ass it’s been. First, it hurts my ear hole. Second, it keeps falling out. And third, it picks up signals from the Trilateral Commission only sporadically. Screw it.


Remember these? This is from a bank account I had when I was runnin’ with my old lady. No, I mean my old, old lady. The bank that gave me this checkbook closed in the bust during the early ’90s. Whatever.

Stick On-able Velcro

What’s not to love here?

Metal Thingy 

Yeah, I wrote about this before. So what? It cares more about me than you ever will, so shut up.


Plastic Thingy

I have no fucking clue what this is for. Still, could be useful someday.

Used Ear Plug

Still valuable if for no other reason than if I am found dead, they can find this in my bag, test the DNA on it, and confirm that it had been in my ear at some point before I died.

Small Rock

This is not just any small rock. It’s this small rock. And it’s mine. So shove off. 

Pay Stub

Somebody no longer has a durable paper record that one day long ago they received $100 from Texas Monthly Magazine. Because I have it. Obviously, it’s safer this way.

Other Metal Thingy

I have no clue what this thing is or what it is for. But I do have a very strong feeling that it was instrumental to me in one of my past lives. So, no, you can’t have it.

Plasma TV Cleaning Cloth

OK, Mr. or Ms. Irresponsible, when you are ready to admit that your plasma TV is filthy because you couldn’t keep track of a simple little cleaning cloth—and one that comes in its own individual anti-static tote bag, at that—give me a call and you can reclaim it. IF, that is, the serial number you have written down matches the one in my head.


At one point, I needed this to connect one thing I had to another thing I had, but I do that all virtually now, so I just keep this around for sentimental purposes. And for aesthetics. 

Open Sack of Balloons

It says 50 balloons on the package, but I only counted 43. Now I may have used a balloon or two at some point. But seven? Come on. Lesson learned: count the goddamn balloons as soon as you open them.

Lip Balm Collection

This is how I figured out I still had stuff in my old bag. ‘Cause my lips get real, real chapped sometimes. And I couldn’t find any lip balm. Why? It was all in my old bag. That’s right. Reunited. And it feels so good.

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:




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.

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.


I'd Rather Be Selling Supplements

Photo by Jeff Nelson from Canada (ft_edm_park__0080.jpg) [CC 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?