Sunday, August 31, 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

SIGA: I Told You So (Part 1)

It was announced that SIGA Technologies received a $55M grant late in the trading day friday, and its stock price shot up 50%. So perhaps my concerns about a troublingly parallel situation with Emergent BioSolutions were unfounded.

This isn't yet the big contract SIGA's imminently expecting (look for it by mid-October). And this was announced at the very end of the trading day before a holiday weekend (we'll see what the price does on Tuesday!). The announcement has still not hit news channels.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Amazingly Graceful Interview

Doing press is really hard. You've got to be clear, smart, and articulate (and who's all those things all the time?). You've got to avoid being misunderstood, realizing that only the pithy nuggets will make the cut, and that all attempts to clarify are futile. If you're not someone the press needs to talk to, you'd better be interesting, or you'll not be invited back. And if you're being interviewed, chances are you have something at stake that you've got to push without seeming pushy, and to spin without seeming spinny.

That's a lot to juggle from within the glare of the spotlight! It's exhausting, and though the process gets easier with practice, experience only increases your trepidation, as you more fully realize the latitude journalists have in framing you within their story. This framing power is the reporter's prerogative, and most use it more or less fairly. But when reporters come to the interview with a negative bias, and you realize, with spotlight shining, that you're serving as Play-Do in whatever scene they're constructing, the creepiness factor can get very high indeed. It's surprisingly easy to come apart at the seams (and thus serve the purposes of a reporter trying to paint you as a bad guy, given that "rattled" always comes across very poorly to audiences).

It doesn't take much for reporters to signal their intentions to their subjects, though audiences rarely pick up on the subtle signals. I'll bet most listeners to last night's All Thing's Considered
interview of New Orleans post-Katrina restoration manager Ed Blakely figured NPR reporter Melissa Block was just being professionally tough. Yes, several questions started with "People say that you...", but that might be seen as giving the fellow an opportunity to refute negative hearsay. But listen carefully to the disdain in Block's voice. Blakely obviously caught it, but he did a brilliant job. He didn't get defensive, he didn't get riled. He stayed positive without glossing over, declined to lash back, and won the joust by a large margin. He didn't let the reporter interrupt, though on two occasions you could hear her gulping air to interject.

It's one of the hardest things in the world to do, and this was a textbook example of how to do it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Making of "The Shining"

"The Making of 'The Shining'", a documentary made by Kubrick's daughter Vivian, offers some great process footage - some of the only behind-scenes documentation of Stanley doing his thing. Also some good natural moments with Nicholson. It's well worth viewing. In fact, I'd recommend watching a second time, with Vivian's commentary track. Thanks to Barry Strugatz for the tip!

One interesting note that's not mentioned in the film: Danny Lloyd, the child actor who stars, was shielded by the filmmakers, unaware he was in a horror movie until he viewed the film years later. He acted only once more, in a TV movie where he played the young G. Gordon Liddy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ad Blocker Exceptions Are the New Online Tip Jar

Seth Godin often has insightful things to say, and his article, "Ads Are the New Online Tip Jar", makes an interesting point: surfers ought to reconsider their refusal to click on ads if they want to assure the survival of the web sites they count on. Godin didn't delve into the demographic aspects, but I'll bet the most defiant non-clickers are among the smartest audiences. And the smartest audiences, naturally, patronize the smartest web sites. So their refusal to click will eventually result in fewer smart sites and more dumb ones. There's room on the Internet for a very long tail indeed, but if that tail turns out to be fatally dominated by the advertising-adverse, online media might eventually skew nearly as mainstream as VHF. But anyway...
There's an underlying dynamic at work, and understanding it requires a long view. It's only been in the last century that audiences have found themselves awash in free content and entertainment. Before the dawn of radio, one had to pay. The modern media advertising model, for all the harm done via its insidious hypnosis (e.g. persuading people to consume on basis of emotions rather than intrinsic quality), has at least resulted in a gratis deluge of useful content. To consumers, the Internet seems like simply more of that - more content streaming their way and vying for their attention. In fact, audiences feel they're doing a favor to a web site by surfing in and bestowing the honor of their eyeballs. Even if they've paid nary a cent, and there are no advertisements at all, they nonetheless deem themselves customers. Decades of advertising-supported media has convinced them that their presence and receptivity is their support. It surprised me greatly when a small number of Chowhound participants would rage and seethe on the rare occasions when we'd ask users to chip in, via honor system, to help pay our four-figures-per-month server bill. It took some time for me to understand the mindset: even when audiences don't pay a cent, and don't view ads, and are therefore no more than kindly feted guests, they nonetheless feel like customers because they've been conditioned to believe that their presence is their support. And self-perceived "customers" bridle at the notion that they ought to give still more. Audiences never really grokked that their free content was never free; that it was all about the advertising. When technology evolved to evade that advertising (i.e. TIVO), they gleefully took to it, failing to think through the deeper value equations. And, conditioned as they've been for the past century to feel like entitled customers as they've enjoyed useful free content, they brought their sense of entitlement with them to the Internet, where they staunchly refuse to support even those non-commercial sites they most love. It's worse than Godin says. No, they don't pay, and they don't click. But it's not just that they fail to take action to help; they proactively subvert support for those resources by using software add-ons to block the ads! It's human nature: I don't like ads. And I don't like paying. So I try to avoid both. End of calculation. Anyway, the notion of payback to a content source from its audience seems outrageous. Hey, I'm visiting your web site, right? I am supporting you! The solution of urging ad clicking is problematic. It would result in click dilution (advertisers expect to pay only for clicks from consumers who are genuinely interested, i.e. "hot prospects"). But ad blockers are another thing. I made what I thought was a strong and clear case for users to create blocker exceptions for their favorite web sites (e.g. Chowhound) here. It'd help if the developers of ad blocking software would make it easier to create site exceptions on the fly. And there needs to evolve a viable model for paying for ad views, in lieu of click-throughs (the Internet started with such a model, but it was dumped too hastily). For one thing, I'm surprised there haven't been more underwriting sponsorships, ala "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", on the Web...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Indie Filmmakers Won't Let Me See Their Films

Independent filmmaking demands vast resourcefulness. Daunting hurdles must be scaled in a market dominated by Big Blandness. So it's puzzling that the critical component of it all - the audience - is so haplessly disregarded. As I attempt to do exactly what independent filmmakers would presumably like me to do - view their movies and buy the DVDs - I find myself blocked at every step.

How do audiences learn about new independent films? For the handful of anointed indies enjoying mainstream distribution at any time, it's easy. Information is "pushed" at us. Trailers are viewed, titles are spotted on marquees, and articles appear in the so-called independent media (really independent-flavored corporate off-brands, which hype independent-flavored corporate cinema - and run its advertising - to the demographic deeming itself independent-minded).

For the rest of the field - the vast majority of films out there - audiences must pull information. And that's fine. Filmhounds like me don't mind doing a bit of legwork to ferret out unsung treasure. We sign up for festival mailing lists, stay on the lookout for poorly-advertised screenings, and eagerly read infrequent media round-ups (hoping mainstream critics will do some scouting for us, which they only occasionally do). Surprisingly enough, there is no central location for timely, thorough, audience-friendly info about the full field of current films - including those small ones in ad-hoc distribution. Even more surprisingly, there has been no apparent effort by filmmakers to organize one. The off-off-mainstream media, even on the Internet, is so fragmented as to be nearly useless.

Lacking a central resource, the cool kids hear about certain cool films via the cool kid grapevine. Indie directors, chronic cool kids themselves, seem content with this mechanism. The rest of us sometimes get wind of interesting lesser-known new films. I keep a running list of titles I'd like to catch somewhere someday. And that brings us to the next hurdle.

It's easy to find a showing of Shrek, but if you're hoping to catch Billy the Kid or A Walk into the Sea, you can't just flip open your daily newspaper. You must hunt down errant screenings. And, naturally, no one helps you do so.

One option is to go to a film's web site for local screening info. But many films have no web sites, and many that do are unindexed by Google - and few filmmakers think to insert the URL into their IMDB entry. But even if you suss them out, film home pages are usually useless. They bombard the visitor with praise, awards, multimedia snippets, and the rotting carcass of the filmmaker's fast-abandoned blog. All hyped up with no place to go, you search for screening info, and find that most directors don't bother to update this info. At best, you'll find a page trumpeting triumphant upcoming appearances (six months ago) in Melbourne or Kuala Lumpur. If I had a penny for every indie film web site that keeps diligently current, especially on screenings, I'd be able to buy a pack of gum. Film web sites, when they exist, and when you can find them, are mostly shiny place-holders, offering audiences scant assistance in seeing or supporting the film.

If you've missed an indie movie in its first wave of appearances, good luck staying abreast of any errant subsequent screenings. No web site will let you plug in your to-see list and then alert you as screenings come up. Amazingly, such a service hasn't even been built for mainstream films! I've never seen the last two Lord of the Rings films on a big screen, and somewhere, sometime, they will be shown. But unless I'm willing to rake, into perpetuity, through listings for my entire to-see list like some overheated obsessive-compulsive, I'll never score. So most of the films on my to-see list are dead to me.

Let's say you've surmounted these difficulties. Struck by aesthetic lightning, you've miraculously awakened from your slavish addiction to mass market entertainment. With ongoing vigilance, you've sniffed out a lesser-known title of interest. You've raked faithfully to locate a screening, arranged your schedule to accommodate, and ventured from the comforts of your home to see a movie whose quality is completely unknowable (you pathetic freak, you!). You've made it to the theater, and - oh, joy! - you love the film! So, of course, you'd like to own the DVD!


Unlike musical groups, directors seldom hawk DVDs at screenings. No, your money is not to be accepted, because the filmmaker must first desperately, ambitiously, and often hopelessly attempt to milk every drab of sales potential out of the work before deigning to sell you a disk.

Months, even years, often go by with no DVD release. And few filmmakers would consider selling you a homegrown burn (for which you'd gladly pay $25). As audience, you're at the back of the line. Again.

Curious about future dvd release plans, you return to the film's web site for an update, and find the same frozen, static, buoyantly hypey billboard as ever. Perhaps you email the filmmaker via the chirpy "contact!" button. Odds are, the email account is dead (these are, after all, Potemkin web sites), but even if the message goes through, you likely won't receive a reply. The filmmaker is either busy with a new project, or busy being lavishly depressed at the film's dismal failure. At best, you'll get a vague response. When it comes to the topic of prospective DVD releases, erstwhile artistic types suddenly turn into polished corporate spokespersons, offering only carefully-worded vagaries.

Oh, and signing up for the movie's mailing list is more likely to draw spam about subsequent projects than updates on the one you're interested in.

And, finally, at the very end of the line, directors would rather damn their work to the scrap heap than post it online for all to freely view. Have the work seen by sympathetic viewers? Nah!

You have bashed your nose against the final barrier. You realize, finally, that you are not in any way significant within this process. Right or wrong, this is the message received: "Sorry, chump, you may NOT watch my film. I am fighting too tenaciously for major league biz hook-ups to pay you the slightest heed. And if my dreams crash and burn, even as I bemoan my impoverishment, I'd scoff at your miserable one-time 25 bucks. I will clutch my film to my chest, ala Gollum, even as I fall backward into the fiery pit."

While there's no shame in an artist aiming high, there is no other medium in which the actual enjoyment of the work by ordinary appreciative folks seems so completely beside the point. "Very few filmgoers have ever contacted me, period, much less offered to buy a dvd," one young director protested to me. He is oblivious to the valiant efforts required to even reach such a point of contact. Every barrier I've described must shave away at least 50% of potential audience. Anyone who actually manages to track down an indie filmmaker's email address is either a freak like me or an out-and-out stalker.

I will never view most of the films on my to-see list. The filmmakers simply won't let me! Nowhere else in our economic system do I, as a money waving, enthusiastic consumer, feel so utterly thwarted. Though filmmakers complain bitterly about barriers such as financing, distribution, and marketing, some of the most impenetrable barriers in the system are those which deflect me, the audience. And it's maddening to observe how many of those barriers are erected by filmmakers themselves.

I understand what indie filmmakers are up against; the crippling workload, the heartbreaking impediments, the nerve-wrackingingly narrow financing, and the clueless gatekeepers. I understand that updating a web site takes time when all available energy is invested in production, and then publicity and marketing (but...hmm...isn't a web site part of that?). And after slaying dragons to get a film done and out, they need to move on to the next project, rather than flog dead horses for pennies. I understand, too, that filmmaking is a wholesale business where (wished-for) distributors are expected to promote and move the product, and filmmakers are not set up, temperamentally or logistically, to function at the retail level.

But the Internet has made it so cheap and easy to engage the public that it no longer makes sense to ignore it, hoping to shunt all that off on distributors. I'm not suggesting slick storefronts on every film site; just some current, useful information and general acknowledgement that folks who want to see or buy the film deserve consideration. Why neglect the potential fan base that would stick with a director from project to project, fill screenings, buy dvds, and create grassroots buzz?

Organizing filmmakers is like herding cats, but they should come together and create a central repository of
audience friendly info on new films. Meanwhile, they need to at least keep their own respective web sites and mailing lists updated. They should consider early quiet sales of barebones DVDS to serious-seeming fans (especially for shorts, which are mostly ineligible for DVD release deals anyway), and fall back to web video if all else fails. That would grow their audience - and the audience for independent cinema in general.

There are a number of directors whose work I'd always hope to catch and even own. But, energetic as I am in my follow-up, I will miss most of that work. I'll never see most of their films, and simply forget about many of these people. That's because they talk only to the business, and never to the likes of me. They are squarely in the "wholesale" mentality.

Musicians once deemed themselves wholesalers, too, holding themselves aloft from engagement with the hoi polloi consuming their work. They, too, once scrambled harder for biz attention than for audience attention. That changed years ago, when business conditions forced indie musicians to put fans first, and to develop creative marketing and repurposing tactics that made resourceful lemonade from the disintegration of their wholesale channels.

The forces which devastated retail music will eventually fully afflict film, as well. Filmmakers should take a cue from musicians about creatively adapting to shifting business opportunities, and about the primacy of audience cultivation. The time-honored pattern of flailing for fatcat attention while ignoring the public makes no sense in the current day.

Audiences are capricious, and we're being offered an ever-expanding number of entertainment choices. Even the most ardent buffs will, in time, grow less and less energetic in their efforts to overcome the hurdles placed before them by the independent film community. So things need to change quickly.

SIGA Trepidation

Read my previous writings on the pharmaceutical company SIGA Technologies, from which I'm expecting great things.

Hmm, now this is worrisome.

On August 7
it was announced that Emergent BioSolutions had signed a massive contract with the government for their anthrax vaccine - similar to the contract SIGA is currently waiting for. EBS also announced a revenue jump of 88%.

On August 8, their
stock price crashed.


Weeds Video Is Back Online

The very funny video from this week's "Weeds" with the Chowhound shout-out, which was down for a few days, is back up. As I said on Thursday, wait for the commercial to play first.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mainstream Chowhoundishness

It always gives me a kick to see someone writing like this. I don't mean the kind shout-out to Chowhound. Just the tone and enthusiasm. And the intrepid iconoclasm.

Don't miss the writer's bio beneath his picture.

Slog Flogging

The Slog's stats indicate that a small but dedicated group is stopping by. Welcome, it's good to have you slogging along.

There currently are two inbound links. One is on in the Yahoo Finance message board for SIGA Technologies, where a bunch of absolute lunatics (I say that with love) club each other over the head re: a stock that's perpetually lies more or less motionless. My
mentions of the company here have constituted what passes for Big News when it comes to the long-simmering SIGA. I guess I sort of rallied the troops for a minute there.

The other link to the Slog was kindly inserted by the proprietors of the Jackson Heights Life community.

The Yahoo message board link is essentially dead and buried. And as for the second, well, everyone in the Jackson Heights Life community who's going to drop by pretty much already has.

I'm not trying to aggregate lots of readers. I experienced a steeply scaling audience once, and definitely got it out of my system. And I realize that regardless of traffic influx, the Slog will eventually lose most of its steady readers (for reasons described here). But googling my name lists this Slog as only the 14th result, and a couple more links might be helpful. So if you're enjoying reading along, please consider recommending it so a few (and only a few!) more people can come enjoy, as well.

UPDATE: Right on cue (actually, two weeks before cue)...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Awesome Bargain Tech Services will scan 1000 of your shapshots and send you back a DVD a few days later...for just $50! Read NY Time's tech columnist David Pogue's rave review of this service.

Here's another Pogue article on
extremely cool services for cellphones, most of them free. I use them all, religiously, but Jott, in particular, may have literally saved my life. It's unsafe to text message while walking or driving, but the temptation's awful when you have something important in mind you suspect you'll soon forget. Jott offers a number you can call, speak a message, and have it converted to text which is emailed to yourself or to others, via speech recognition technology plus some live human double-checking. It's much easier (and safer!) to speak your thoughts than to thumb them into your smartphone! And it's free!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

From Next Week’s Episode of Weeds

The single funniest shout-out to Chowhound ever. Drop everything and view immediately (have patience while the ad runs first).

The Only Real Pomegranate Is Fake Pomegranate

I'm so sick of pomegranate. A quick stroll through any grocery will convince you that the food industry gods have anointed this flavor; it's everywhere. Making one's way through last month's Fancy Food Show was like viewing the world through pomegranate-colored lenses.

As always when a food meme goes viral, the actual implementation has all the nuance of a Kool Aid flavor. Pomegranate is one of the most richly complex of fruit flavors, but you'd never know that from the current wave of dumbed-down pomegranate products.

But today I drank some serious imported Turkish pomegranate juice, from a company that probably has no idea the fruit's gone trendy here, and remembered just how rich and nuanced a flavor this could be. it's not actually juice so much as a punch, including apple and lemon juice concentrates. But the other flavors are cannily blended in to enhance the pomegranate. Sometimes, to make something really pomegranatey, you've got to add other stuff.

Including, um, "pomegranate flavor". Well...huh. Ok, so an
artificially-flavored juice dosed with lots of non-pomegranate ingredients tastes more redolent of "real" pomegranate flavor. This is, I suppose, just more fuel for the argument I advanced in my article "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors".

Anyhoo...I bought this
Baktat Pomegranate Juice at Yaranush Mediterranenan Foods, a large White Plains grocery full of nuts, spices, breads, canned and packaged goods, and a lavish array of Armenian mezes and desserts. I'd been looking for Armenian since wonderful Ruth's Gourmet, late of Fort Lee, closed down.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #11

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I am hearing so many new sounds now. I walk outside and hear the jays screaming a warning (and other, nicer bird sounds, too!). And the ticking in the stove when you light the gas. It is exciting! Voices are sounding better - less artificial, but I am still reading lips, I think. 

[I've sent Priscilla a link to this entry, which accounts for why she may never stop lip reading, even if her implants work perfectly].

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Andy Kaufman Rarities

I've always been a big fan of Andy Kaufman, and have him on my mind right now as I'm finally getting around to reading Bob Zmuda's Andy Kaufman Revealed: Best Friend Tells All. The book's a must-read for fans, though certain amount of it doesn't pass the smell test. I suppose it's temptingly easy to make stuff up and elevate one's importance when reminiscing about a dead guy few others got near.

Reading the book has renewed my efforts to try to find a few rare Kaufman videos. I last surfed around for them back in the long-ago days before I fell in the Chowhound hole, and I'm constantly amazed at how much stuff that was unfindable online in 1997 is now ubiquitous. But I couldn't find several of the more intriguing-sounding videos. Also, I'd always figured the legendary screenplay for "The Tony Clifton Story" was completely off-radar.

Wrong and wrong. I just came upon the
motherlode. There's a downloadable 1.5gb video compilation of lots of rare TV appearances (the streaming version on Google Video is down), plus the entire Clifton screenplay. Cinephiles will find tons (and tons...and tons) of other good stuff on this incredible site, too.

Read details on the contents of the compilation video, plus some other Kaufman commentary here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The World's Only Michael Phelps Critique

You may not have heard that Michael Phelps is tied for the claim of most successful olympian of all time, having won seven gold medals. Perhaps you're in a coma. Or else maybe you're deaf-blind (in which case: why not consider cochlear implants?).

Not to take anything away from Phelps and his achievement, but swimmers participate in more events, and so have a shot of winning more medals. So he's vying for more of a swimming record than a bona fide olympic record. The media never point this out, of course, because they must flog their star who keeps audiences coming back and viewing ads.

If I were a champion shot putter or marathoner who'd beaten my competitors by a wide margin to win the single medal for which I was eligible, I'd be put off by all the attention on a swimmer who tends to win by fractions of an instant.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Burly Guys Hiding in My Shrubs Make Me Paranoid

An extremely unpleasant woman who I barely know is filing an extremely annoying lawsuit against a third party I don't know at all. And, in order to succeed, she needs my testimony.

So there's a subpoena out there with my name on it, and burly guys have been ringing my doorbell and knocking on my windows for days in their effort to place it in my hands. This morning the knocking and ringing has stopped. It's dawned on them that I'm less than willing to receive their paperwork, and they've resorted to stealth mode.

I look out my window, playing "Where's Waldo?", trying to figure out which bushes they're hiding behind. And while my conscious mind is taking it all in good humor, and is rationally aware of the situation, I feel latent subconscious crevices filling with tiny micro-jolts of paranoia. I do understand that eventually I'll be served this subpoena and be compelled to waste a day giving the most unhelpful possible testimony without perjuring myself. I know that it's only a piece of paper and that there's no actual ill will out there. Yet my stress level is nonetheless up a detectable trace, for no rational reason. How interesting!

I don't usually tend to paranoia; it's not among my issues. My first impulse when finding myself on the receiving end of hostility is to notice how little it hinges on me, personally. Most bad behavior has very little to do with the recipient and everything to do with the inner microclimate of the bad behaver. That's nowhere more obvious than now, an unpleasant situation that's utterly impersonal and which can bring me no harm. Yet the image of burly guys hiding in my bushes clashes with my comforting image of "home sweet home", so my reaction, though very mild, is irrational. Magnify that reaction a thousand times, and I'd be waving guns around (if I owned any). Funny, I never pictured myself as a gun-waver, even after having read everything Hunter Thompson ever wrote!

The various mental illnesses are much more gradual, much more shades-of-grey, than people think. We all have the potential to gravitate toward any of them if circumstance (and, more importantly, our reaction to circumstance) pushes us. One can observe "normal" people experiencing slight whiffs of these mindsets every day. These gutters of our mind's bowling lanes are probably as commonly touched upon - as "normal' - as emotions, which they resemble. Like emotions, these irrational winds are harmless so long as they remain manageably mild. The distinguishing point is the continued functioning of one's internal witness, i.e. the rational faculty to observe and discount one's own irrationality. It would take an awful lot to make me wave a gun around my front yard...but I suppose everyone has their point of no return.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chowhound Traffic Plummets

A few days ago, became And it's certainly had a big effect on the traffic stats! We haven't seen so dramatic a bump for's traffic since they rigged the user profiles to appear at a domain! Old bookmarks and links have been rigged to redirect, which accounts for the (surprisingly high, considering) remaining traffic to the non-existent domain.

Friends frequently ask me if this sort of thing makes me grind my teeth. Not at all. Whatever CNET needs to do to make a profit from this resource (advertisers prefer placement amid static editorial content rather than unpredictable user-generated content, so CHOW needs to be the shell) is fine by me, so long as the Chowhound community is allowed to do its thing without too much corporate interference. I struggled for a decade to keep its lights on, and my biggest concern is to see the resource's continued existence assured.

Really, I'm quite amazed that it's still up and running. How many 1997 era labor-of-love sites continue to earnestly do what they originally set out to do? It's comforting (and it's also been comforting to have extricated myself from its operation last winter - though I still help out informally)!

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #10

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

The sound is beginning to change now. Voices sound more like voices now (especially my own) with a much more realistic and individual sound to them. I have started listening to music. I bought a CD a while ago but never opened it - "Circle of Fire", sort of chanting/fusion. I really enjoyed it because I can hear it pretty well (though the vocals are harder to discern) and I love it and keep listening to it! What a difference this new cochlear implant (CI) makes!

I went to a bluegrass festival and could hear the music surprisingly clearly. The banjo had a very sharp clear tone that was very easy for my CI to translate. The Gibson brothers played really well, with nasal vocals and yodeling. All surrounded by Winnebagoes and tents, in a field of grass with a faint aroma of cow dung, and 6 inces of mud wherever you had to walk!

Continue to Report #11

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Twelfth Nighfth

Have you ever really looked at the spelling of the word "twelfth"? Isn't it, like, a little bit crazy? Like the weirdest, most demonic triphthong ever devised? 

Except, that is, for "triphthong"?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vocation and Identity

I've met a couple of yoga teachers who, via much patience and resourcefulness, have coaxed their bodies to do remarkable things...but who turn helpless and anguished when facing impediments in their daily lives. They cannot apply what they've learned outside the milieu in which they've learned it.

I know an investor who, like all great investors, excels at seeing clearly through the emotion of the moment to find a rational course. Such detachment can only result from years of determined effort to cooly navigate clouds of anxiety and exuberance. Yet in his personal life, this fellow is capable of raging uncontrollably at minor setbacks, losing in the subsequent drama all ability to efficiently problem-solve.

I once drove cross-country with a film director who I respected for the penetrating visual awareness he demonstrated in his movies. Yet as we'd pass beautiful landscapes, he'd usually be occupied - shouting into his cell phone or trying to roll a cigarette or otherwise failing to notice. And when we discussed interesting encounters we'd had en route, it was clear that he'd failed to register anything beyond the most superficial level. Without camera and script, the director viewed the world as a drab la-di-da.

Of course, those who make a habit of applying professional wisdom to their personal lives can seem eccentric. A dentist who pays conspicuous attention to her mailman's teeth, a dancer who sizes up the body mechanics of a relative, or a restaurant critic perpetually chatting up strangers about their favorite haunts all seem downright obsessive. We feel obliged to try to view the world through more than just the single lens at hand. And, lord knows, we want to leave all that
work stuff behind when we're not working!

Once upon a time, we 
were our jobs. Accountants looked and acted like accountants, and tended to be conservative in personal affairs. Bookstore managers were erudite, bartenders were chatty, and guitarists never wore watches. You were defined by what you did, you acted and looked the part, and thus you added your specialized hue to the social rainbow. Your painstakingly polished lens served you well.

No more. Remember "
What Do People Do Each Day", the great kid's book by Richard Scarry? Published in 1968, the book's quaint depictions of the working world - with everyone exuberantly playing their roles and constituting their parts in a seamless whole - seem downright archaic. These days, career is nothing more than your (grimace!) day job. It's not who you are! Your banker may sky dive, and your tax specialist may be a compulsive shopaholic. Most of us are entirely repelled by the very notion of career as self-image. It's no wonder we spurn those skills and functions we've cultivated as we've gone about doing what we do!

Is it a question of expanded boundaries of freedom and individuality? By keeping a squalid office and littering his speech with profanity, is an accountant declaring his staunch defiance to fitting a mold? Is the sexpot librarian, with the slightly racy dress, making a statement of individuality? I don't think so. They've just chosen to personify images from pop culture, rather than images of vocation. The skydiving banker is, consciously or not, modeling himself on someone he saw in a movie once...rather than modeling himself on his vocational mentors. The librarian might be playing out her identification with Christine Aguilera. Only by emulating Christine Aguilera can the librarian feel that she's expressing who she
really is. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for individual those rare instances where someone has something individual to express. But much is lost when we swap vocational personas for pop cultural personas. The Christine Aguilera image, spicy though it may be, entails very little seasoning. By identifying with what we do all day, we stand a better chance of fully integrating our hardest-learned lessons.

Not everyone pursues a pop culture self-image in lieu of a vocational self-image. Many drop adult identity entirely when they leave work, reverting to immature, larva-like proto-selves. They resist fully inhabiting their career roles, certain they're truly much more than 
that, but, lacking courage to actually change or grow - or at very least to fully identify with whatever, for better or worse, they devote their lives to doing - they settle into foggy slurries of restive consumption and dazed ennui. They cling dreamily to outdated notions of who they'd once imagined they'd turn out to be, overlooking the hard-won value in who they've actually become.

Update: Maybe we ought to blame the waiters. Once upon a time, waitering was a career, and waiters performed their jobs with pride. As that notion disintegrated, it triggered a shattering of the occupational food chain, until, presently, even the most distinguished professionals feel as as non-personified by their career position as any waiter.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Five Egg Omelet...It's a Wrap!

A friend recently told me about his favorite to-go item from diners: an omelet wrap, with cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon, sausage, and a five egg omelet. Now, that's remarkable enough just right there (his explanation, by the way, was "You can't run a Ferrari on 'regular"). But my mind keeps going over and over the "five eggs" part. Not four. Not an even half-dozen. Five eggs.

I can't seem to let this go. "Five eggs" will surely be a new meme. Of course, now I want a five egg omelet (though I'd never have previously imagined ordering one)!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Random Acts of Self-Kindness

Nice thread on Ask-Metafilter this week on life-changing gifts one might buy for oneself (note that, in jaded Metafilter parlance, "oneself" is referred to by the phrase "someone special").

I don't have time to surf sites like AskMetafilter much, but I do bookmark the page showing 
their daily highlights. That page includes links to pages listing all the most popular user "favorites" for the week, month, and all-time. Strangely, the weekly and monthly favorites are usually more compelling than the all-time ones.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Dark Knight and Jean Luc Godard

I'm very excited about the Godard program starting this weekend at Jacob Burns Film Center (in Pleasantville, NY). I haven't seen many of his films...a serious gap in my film education especially given that many critics agree he was the father of the modern cinema, and I vastly prefer modern movies to the older classics. Plus I really love the Rube Goldberg-ish wall sculpture at Jacob Burns. I think it's mostly to there to keep little kids occupied before Sunday afternoon shows, but I could sit and stare at it for hours.

In other film news, I saw Dark Knight (the new Batman film) in IMAX last night, and was depressed afterwards. Not because the movie's so dark and melancholic, but because I couldn't follow the plot, which left me feeling dumb. I'd heard that this is a fantastically great piece of filmmaking, but I couldn't get past my inability to understand what was going on.

But I felt infinitely better after reading David Edelstein's review in NY Magazine, describing the film as "noisy, jumbled, and sadistic," and "spectacularly incoherent." Ah, good. So it's not just me!

And Edelstein liked the same director's previous film in the series, "Batman Begins" (which I understood pretty good, but didn't like at all).

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


My big project this month is a rescue attempt of a homeless severely paranoid schizophrenic (I'll explain another time), and so I've been researching the disorder. I've found a couple of resources that should be read by anyone who is (or thinks they may be) schizophrenic, and by anyone who knows or cares for schizophrenics. Or, for that matter, by anyone else!

Fred Frese is a severe paranoid schizophrenic who has been in and out of hospitals, and given up on more than once. But now he's a leading psychologist and even came to run one of the institutions in which he was once committed! Here's
a story about him.

Having read about Dr. Frese's story, check out his masterwork:
12 Aspects of Coping for Persons with Schizophrenia.

The most interesting takeaway is that Dr. Frese may be functional, but is not "normal", nor is he particularly aiming to be. He can be schizophrenic and productive, active, and happy - even though he may remain a bit odd-seeming to others. Dr. Frese uses his medication not to conform, but to stave off the most inconvenient effects and to help extricate himself from particularly disfunctional periods. It's an extremely enabling view of the condition, and one which will revolutionize the thinking of anyone caring for sufferers.

It's common knowledge that stress can trigger latent schizophrenia, as can alcohol and other substances. Dr. Frese notes a couple of factors I'd not heard before. First, positive stress (i.e. excitement) can be as much a trigger as negative. And, also, "statements of resentment, disapproval, or dislike, and any comments expressed with critical tone, pitch, rhythm, or intensity in their voice, hostile remarks indicating personal criticism, and emotional over-involvement, constant worrying about matters, overprotective attitudes, intrusive behavior" are all factors that contribute to relapse. That's obviously a trap, because when someone is rambling on about how the CIA is plotting against them, a certain amount of disapproval and criticism may well be forthcoming.

Please give Dr. Frese's piece a read. You may realize you know more schizophrenics in your daily life than you'd thought. And you'll be better suited to treat sufferers insightfully.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Seldom Frequent Flying

I'm a treasure horder. I have a basement stocked with ancient Belgian ale, a bookcase full of carefully-chosen DVDs, and a list of over six thousand restaurants to try someday. 

Progress is slow; I'm eager to gather, but loathe to consume. That has meant plenty of overaged beer and wine, lots of eager stops at long-closed restaurants, and a stockpile of more books than I'll ever read. I have trouble finding the sweet spot of buying and enjoying at a proper and coordinated pace. My impulse is to pamper my future self, to the point of denying my present self. I suppose I just like him better.

But finally it's paid off. I've been gathering frequent flier points for years, never using them. And in an era where a $900 roundtrip fare from NYC to London is considered a good deal, this trove is valuable indeed!

If you've been sitting on frequent flier credits, this is the time to use them. For one thing, airlines are so strapped for cash that they're starting to put the squeeze award travel even more than their value will likely decline. And, like my musty wine and half-disintegrated cigars, miles can expire if you don't watch out!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Saying Intentionally Dumb Things to Friends

It's a good idea to periodically say intentionally really dumb things to your friends, and watch their reactions. If they react pretty much as they usually do, you're in deep trouble.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Always Talk to the Mask

One of the casualties of running Chowhound has been the behind-scenes vantage point on some extraordinarily poor human behavior. As anyone who works retail will tell you, if you spend your days with the public, a tiny percentage of what you see will burn holes through your retinas. It's just a matter of statistics...the more people you interact with, the more chance you'll bump up against those distant ends of the bell curve inhabited by the Hannibal Lechters.

While your average waitress or postal clerk only sees hundreds of people per week, and has war stories aplenty to show for it, moderators of large online community see thousands or even millions. At that scale, one comes across not just the asshole-ish 1% and the repulsive .1%, but the horrific .01% and the unthinkable .001%. There's even been one single .0001% individual who chills my soul at the mere recollection. One of Chowhound's moderators is a doctor who's spent years treating indigent addicts in the South Bronx. After just a few weeks working with us, she declared that she'd been shocked to observe vastly more twisted and demented behavior in a given week of moderating Chowhound than she ever had at her day job. Helping to manage Chowhound amounts to what she describes as "a post-graduate course in aberrational psychology".

When it comes to really horrific people, I've found there are two types. The first is the Moustache Twirler. Moustache twirlers not only consciously acknowledge their bad behavior, but revel in it and generally own it. You know how in movies, villains always openly boast about what they've done? Well, surprise: it really happens that way (sometimes). On message boards, it's easy to spot this sort, as they choose nametags such as 'Torquemada' or 'Ballbuster'.

Obviously, moderators love moustache twirlers. For one thing, they make things easy, and, for another, they're more fun to pick off the video game screen than robot spammers bombarding penis enlargement ads.

The other type of horror is vastly scarier. These are the Psycho Pollyannas: people who retain immutably lofty self-images as they do base and underhanded things. Their high-minded self-image is impervious to the abundant reality of their own behavior. For a laser-precise send-up of this mind-set, have a look at my
all-time favorite Daily Show moment, a masterpiece of satire by Rob Corddry posing as a news analyst. Here's the money quote:
"There's no question that what took place in [Abu Ghraib] was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn't be judged on the actions of a...well, we shouldn't be judged on our actions. It's our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn't mean it's something we would do."

One Psycho Pollyanna became a popular and trusted participant on Chowhound. The moderators received a tip that this person had been "shilling" (posting fake raves for operations in which one has a hidden interest), and much detective work ferreted out an enormous amount of the most brazen subversion. She'd spent vast energy to quietly but persistently stir up interest in businesses in which she or close friends had financial ties. The odd thing is that this person truly loved Chowhound. She'd been a regular for years, had befriended many of our users, had even chipped in. She genuinely applauded our values. It happens often, yet never fails to amaze, when those who appreciate and personally benefit from the honesty of a resource like Chowhound systematically seek to subvert that honesty. It's sort of like slashing all the tires in a parking lot and then expecting a ride home.

When confronted, she took vast umbrage. She blazed with righteous indignation. Her disconnection was palpable. Even though we clearly knew - and she knew we knew - everything she had done, and we had indisputable evidence, nothing could breach her upstanding self-image. And it was that veneer - that mask - which spat upon our accusation. There was no attempt to deny what she'd done, because she'd been caught red-handed, but in a battle between reality and self-image, self-image was the easy winner. Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn't mean it's something we would do.

We foolishly tried to offer her a second chance, in spite of her long history of calculated subversion, inviting her to recant and swear never to repeat such activity. Of course, no such thing could possibly be forthcoming (live and learn!). So we banned her, and she spent the next year or two using all conceivable means to harm the site, generally, and me, personally. She huffily broadcast her allegations of persecution to all who'd listen...while repeatedly attempting to resume her covert guerilla publicity campaigns under a series of aliases. To this day, her "persecution" stands, for many who've bought her tale, as testament to the Chowhound staff's Nazi-like random cruelty.

We've seen a dozen or so cases much like this. And learned to handle them more carefully, though the fallout's always messy.

The real-world lesson I've learned from Psycho Pollyannas is that when you come across one (and you will, as they're out there in far greater plenitude than you'd imagine)*, you will get nowhere by addressing them as transgressors. They're unable to recognize themselves as such even with their noses pressed directly into their own moral effluvia - so they will genuinely perceive you as the villain. The thing to do is to address only the wholesome, self-righteous mask they present the world...and try to work from there. Because, having drunk their own Kool-Aid, the masks face inward as well as outward, and they quite truthfully can't see beyond the pose.

So...always talk to the mask!

* - in fact, don't we all show this same tendency in our day-to-day denial of our own dark sides, as well as in the building and maintenance of our mythic self-images? Everyone but moustache twirlers thinks of themselves as being "a basically good person" - a conclusion that remains remarkably impermeable to contrary evidence. The difference, of course, is that most of us have at least some capacity for confession, responsibility-taking, and shame. But even with the sane, one always does best by talking to the mask.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #9

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I had a conversation with three of my yoga students this morning who were telling me that with the new CI hearing aid I am speaking differently, more clearly. That sounds really good, though I never knew that I was not clear!

I told a friend that I can hear myself putting blush on my face, and she was surprised at that, and said she would run a test to see if she could hear that..and sure enough, she could! There is so much sound that normal hearing people block out.. and now I am hearing everything (well, almost)! With all the extra noise, that's why I have to rip this thing off my head every once in a while.

Continue to Report #10

Friday, August 1, 2008

Online Trolls

Yesterday's NY Times included a wonderful article by Mattathias Schwartz on online trolls.

And the Times' ever droll and insightful Virginia Heffernan
blogged about it, leading with a David Hume quote that also illuminates my point in my Knol entry (three down from this one) about how anonymity emboldens bad behavior on Wikipedia.

John Mayer Gives His Dad Computer Tech Support

As posted to the Real Dan Lyons Blog, this video of music star John Mayer giving his dad computer tech support via telephone expresses a variety of angst so universally recognizable that it may be the first new archetype generated in the 21st Century.

But, really, it also points out a huge untapped demand for super-patient newbie tech support (a much narrower service than what
Geek Squad tries to provide).

You don't need versatile computer experts, just patient, articulate, easy-natured people. Hire a bunch and have them do parental tech support. The marketing campaign would be hilarious, as the angst is portrayed in highly amusing ways, and both parents and children would recognize the value in paying for a neutral third party.

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