Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

  • Soylent: If It Tasted Better, Heck Yes I’d Drink It

    Date: 2015.06.18 | Category: Consumerism, Food, Health | Response: 0

    You can have your flying cars and your robot maids; the thing that fascinated me most about the old cartoon show “The Jetsons” was the way they ate their meals. Food pills! Just consume one small capsule, and your nutritional needs have been met (and they seemed to taste good, too… I’m not sure how that worked).

    Unfortunately, food pills are “just not possible,” according to an article on BBC.com. The writer quotes a doctor at Columbia University, who said way back in 1936: “Human beings are never going to eat pills for meals… pills can never be made to contain sufficient caloric volume.”

    Photo of Soylent from Wikipedia

    Photo of Soylent from Wikipedia

    And yet, people still dare to dream! If “The Jetsons” were around today, they might drink Soylent, a meal replacement beverage made with protein powder that was developed by a software engineer. “Soylent is supposed to be like an ultimate staple meal,” creator Rob Rhinehart explained. “When you think about food, a lot of people immediately jump to the best aspects, which are great—eating for recreation, eating with people. This is an important part of life, and food is intimately tied with culture and tradition.”

    However, sometimes you just want some quick nourishment, and what tends to be easily available is downright awful. My neighbor’s trash can is always overflowing with fast food wrappers. He’s fairly overweight. Does he actually enjoy the Carl’s Jr. burgers or Chicken McNuggets he consumes in his car on his way to or from work? If there’s a tasty, nutritionally balanced and cheap alternative, why not have a Big Gulp cup full of Soylent?

    Of course, the idea of consuming a beige beverage in place of real food has some folks up in arms. Tess Vigeland, one of my favorite radio personalities (who has a book coming out this fall), recently wrote in her newsletter: “I work to live, I don’t live to work. And I don’t understand why, even if you lovelovelovelovelove your job, you would accept the kind of conditions that lead to the deprivation of one of life’s simpler pleasures: actual food. It’s bizarre and no corporation should abide it, much less reward it. (And you’ll notice that this article doesn’t even question what this product says about our society.)”

    Yes, I’m sure that some Soylent consumers are so busy coding that they don’t want to take time to stop and eat. The New York Timesrecent article about meal replacements included the line, “The time wasted by eating is, in Silicon Valley parlance, a ‘pain point’ even for the highest echelon of techie.” But what about those of us who aren’t necessarily chained to our computers 18 hours a day, but just don’t want to bother trying to figure out what to eat? There has been a lot of “stunt journalism” where writers live on Soylent for a week and document their efforts, but I suspect that a lot of people who are intrigued by it would only want to consume it once a day or a few times a week.

    Lee Hutchinson wrote a very thoughtful piece on Soylent, and I heartily endorse this sentiment: “I work from home. Unless I’m out interviewing someone, my lunches are almost exclusively quick solo affairs. For what it’s worth, I like eating lunch alone—I’m introverted, and spending time in silence and contemplation, whether it’s with an artisanal báhn mì sandwich from Nobi or with a mug of Soylent, is all equally refreshing.” For one thing, I love a good báhn mì; for another, I also eat lunch alone every day, sitting at my kitchen island, reading the East Bay Express or the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section. I eat a lot of Trader Joe’s premade salads, mostly Greens & Seeds or this crazy concoction. I realize I could probably save money by making my own salads, but I enjoy the convenience. If I could replace the salads a few times a week with a filling, nutritious drink, I’d be game.

    Of course, part of the reason I eat the TJ’s salads is that they taste pretty good. (They’re also fairly healthy; I try not to use all the dressing, in an effort to cut down on calories.) And that’s the main reason I haven’t tried Soylent: most reviewers complain that it tastes chalky, or like watered-down pancake batter. (In a priceless critique, the New York Times‘ restaurant reviewer compared it to “the milk left in the bottom of a bowl of cut-rate cereal, the liquid thickened with sweepings from the floor of a health food store.”) The reason meal replacements like Ensure or SlimFast are palatable is because, unlike Soylent, they’re loaded with sugar; Hutchinson points out that “drinking enough Ensure to reach 2000 calories would result in a person consuming a truly ludicrous 120 grams of sugar.” (That’s as much sugar as you’d find in 4 1/2 regular-size Snickers bars.)

    My hope is that the success of Soylent has led other people to work on meal substitutes that might be equally healthy and also taste yummy. For those of us who have trouble coming up with a nutritionally-balanced meal of whole foods three times a day, because planning, shopping and cooking is a bother and eating restaurant or take-out food is expensive and unhealthy, it would be a big help. Soylent wouldn’t be replacing brunch with your friends or even a simple, hearty family dinner; it would be a substitution for that quickie McDonald’s burger you grab on the run or the fat- and sodium-laden frozen entrées that many people rely on. Now someone just needs to figure out a way to make it at least a little more delicious.

  • More Education Is Not the Answer

    Date: 2015.06.14 | Category: Consumerism, News | Response: 3

    One of my prized kitchen possessions is a Hamilton Beach hand mixer that I got sometime back in the 1990s. I only use it a few times a year–it’s handy for mixing cake batter or whipping cream, not so much for heavy-duty tasks like creaming butter and sugar–but it’s a useful tool and has held up well. On the body of the mixer is a faded, peeling sticker that’s somehow survived all of these years; it says “Buy American–Made in U.S.A.”

    Today, Hamilton Beach is owned by a company called NACCO Industries, and all of its products are “made by contract manufacturers in China,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The company “has no plans to bring that production back to the U.S. Alfred M. Rankin Jr., Nacco’s chief executive officer, says it wouldn’t make economic sense to open new plants in the U.S. for such products.”

    I’m not sure where in the U.S. my mixer was made; Hamilton Beach was founded in Racine, WI, but I was unable to find information online indicating where its factories had been located before the manufacturing was outsourced overseas. Of course, Hamilton Beach is just one tiny example in a veritable flood of outsourcing in the post-NAFTA age. You can now buy a mixer that’s the modern-day equivalent to my old one on Amazon for under $20. How much would it cost if it had been made in the U.S.A. by union workers earning $15 an hour plus benefits? A lot more, I’m guessing.

    The price of breakfast cereal keeps going up, but Kellogg’s Special K is now made in Mexico. I grew up near Battle Creek when it was still a company town–“Cereal City.” Nowadays the company is desperately trying to get concessions from its U.S. workers and moving production to countries like Malaysia and Thailand as well as Mexico. It has stated that it may soon close one of its four remaining U.S. plants.

    There’s no denying that a lot of well paid manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. in the past 25 years. A lot of people who at one point may have taken a factory job are now working retail; according to studies, the average age of a retail worker is 37 years old. They’re not high school kids working mall jobs for “fun money” after school and on weekends. These are adults trying to make a living.

    According to most of our politicians, on both the left and the right, the answer to the jobs problem in our country is education. “Getting the best possible education has never been more important than it is right now,” said Barack Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address. “And that’s because in today’s world, a good job requires a good education.” Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC emphasizes the importance of  giving “all children a better future by transforming our education system through choice, high standards and accountability.”

    Unfortunately, I know too many fellow Gen X’ers who are highly educated and underemployed, and if you think having a STEM degree is the route to upward mobility and permanent employment, this New York Times article about Disney should chill you to the bone. Disney laid off 250 tech workers, and “many of their jobs were transferred to immigrants on temporary visas for highly skilled technical workers, who were brought in by an outsourcing firm based in India. Over the next three months, some Disney employees were required to train their replacements to do the jobs they had lost.” If you didn’t stick around and do the training, guess what? No severance payment for you! One of the laid-off workers, a man in his 40s, had just received an “outstanding” performance review; his supervisor noted “that he was looking forward to another highly productive year of having the employee on the team.”

    Hiring immigrants onH-1B visas can save companies between “25 percent to 49 percent,” according to the Times story. And it’s not just the Magic Kingdom; “Last year, Southern California Edison began 540 technology layoffs while hiring two Indian outsourcing firms for much of the work. Three Americans who had lost jobs told Senate lawmakers that many of those being laid off had to teach immigrants to perform their functions.”

    In the globalized world, in an era when the most highly-valued companies often employ only a handful of people (the Eastman Kodak Company had 165,000 employees at its peak, while popular mobile app Instagram had 15 employees when Facebook acquired it for $1.2 billion), I don’t think there is an answer, except to accept the fact that there’s going to be a permanent underclass of people in this country who are just scraping by with little hope of economic mobility. No politicians are talking about this, for obvious reasons; it’s not what people want to hear. Even the much-talked-about “freelance economy” may not help; won’t Uber and Lyft prefer to switch over to driverless cars when it becomes feasible rather than dealing with human drivers with all of their flaws and demands?

    One person who has dared to speak about the underclass is economist Tyler Cowen. “There’s nothing we can do, says Mr. Cowen, to avert a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans,” writes William Galston in the Wall Street Journal. “More American cities would become the equivalent of El Paso plus Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez—thriving metropolitan areas with ‘shantytowns’ attached… In zones set aside for cheap living, we would build some ‘makeshift structures… similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.'”

    “Is this a country you would want to live in? I know I wouldn’t,” says Galston. Perhaps not, but Cowen’s vision seems frighteningly plausible to me.

  • R.I.Prius

    Date: 2015.04.06 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 1

    According to an IHS Automotive study, the average age of a car on the road in America today is 11.4 years old. A few weeks ago, I would have been one of the drivers pushing that statistic up; our Toyota Prius was purchased in July 2002. I wrote about it here back in November, and what I feared eventually came to pass: the Prius eventually required too many pricey repairs and it was time to give it up. Joe and I decided to donate it to our local animal shelter, which has a deal with an organization that tows it away, sells it at auction, and splits the profits so the charity gets 70% of the take. (We haven’t found out yet how much the car sold for, but considering that the Kelley Blue Book value was south of $3000, I can’t imagine it’ll be a big donation; still, every bit helps, right?)

    The guy from the car company came to pick it up at 6:45 AM (I’m not a morning person, but the time was non-negotiable; “I’m coming down from Stockton!”). The plates had been removed, and I’d emptied the car of all of our old maps and canvas grocery bags and expired car wash coupons. (I also found a tiny notebook in which I’d recorded the price of gas back in the summer of ’02: $1.45 a gallon!) I couldn’t bear to watch him put the car on the tow truck and drive it off; late last year, we drove a rental car right behind an AAA truck towing the Prius to our mechanic in Berkeley, and I found it almost heartrendingly poignant. It looked so vulnerable up there somehow. The car had been part of my life for so long; it was super cool and cutting edge back in 2002, but it hadn’t been high tech or trendy for over a decade. Still, we had put over 98,000 miles on the car (so bummed we didn’t make it to 100K!) and it felt sad to let it go.

    Our mechanic persuaded me not to buy another hybrid, simply because we don’t drive enough to make it worth the extra cost. The 2015 Corolla we wound up buying does get very good mileage; we had no trouble driving it from the Bay Area up to Ashland, OR (350 miles) last month without stopping to fill the 13-gallon tank. We like the hands-free cell phone feature (just push a button on the steering wheel to answer a call!) and the fact that we can stream podcasts or music directly from our phones with Bluetooth (on the Prius, we had to hook our phones up to a clunky cassette adapter).

    Other than that, though, it’s a pretty boring car. It’s what you buy when you want something reliable and relatively inexpensive to get you from point A to point B. I thought that maybe at this point in my life, I’d be driving something cool, but why bother when the vast majority of our trips are to Trader Joe’s, the farmer’s market, the dog park, or my book group? Despite our recent trip to Oregon, I doubt there are tons of exciting road trips in our future; the Prius only left the state once, back in 2006, for a swing through Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.

    So far, we haven’t added any personal touches–the Prius had fun personalized plates and a Boston Terrier sticker–and it’s possible that I will never feel as attached to it as I was to the old car. Which is probably for the best. Madison Avenue has persuaded us to spend more than necessary on “cool” vehicles (there was that horrendous Super Bowl commercial with the faux focus group in which a bunch of women said they’d rather have sex with, uh, meet a guy who drives a truck than one who owns, God forbid, a compact), but for many city dwellers, a car represents just one part of our transportation mix. Joe and I both have Clipper (transit) cards, and we deliberately chose to live in a neighborhood where many destinations are accessible on foot. Car-sharing and bike-sharing programs are growing in popularity in dense urban areas. And maybe–just maybe–when it’s time to replace the Corolla, Google will finally have perfected those self-driving cars.

  • Driving Away

    Date: 2014.11.20 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 2

    What could be more exciting than a new car? Now that the holiday season is almost upon us, I’m sure those ubiquitous Lexus commercials (you know, the ones featuring luxury autos bedecked with gigantic bows) will be all over the TV soon. On “The Price is Right,” there’s no prize more valued than “a new caaaaaaaar!” And “new car smell” is so popular that simulations of it are available in sceneted oils, candles and air fresheners.

    carI, on the other hand, find the idea of trading in my 2002 Prius for a shiny new auto to be… well, sad. Yes, the car is 12 1/2 years old. The acceleration is, to put it kindly, poky. The steering wheel is so worn that it feels pebbly to the touch. I had it detailed for the first time about a year ago, but the interior still bears stains. It’s got dents and scrapes a-plenty, and while it’s possible to listen to music or podcasts from an iPhone, it requires plugging the phone into a cassette adapter. Oh, and the sound system’s on-off switch doesn’t work, so you have to turn the volume all the way down if you don’t want to listen to the radio.

    Despite all that, though, I love the car’s familiarity. I know all of its quirks. I love its small size and tiny turning radius, so appropriate for city living. I also love the fact that it’s long since paid for and insuring it only costs $500 a year. Because we make a lot of short trips, the mileage isn’t as high as you’d expect from a hybrid–usually we get around 35 miles per gallon–but overall, it’s been extremely cheap to maintain and run.

    But now, the trusted mechanics at Art’s Automotive, who have been caring for the Prius for a decade, have informed me that the car has reached the point of no return, where the repairs will become increasingly expensive. Because Joe and I share the one car (an advantage of living in a walkable community with good public transit), reliability is a must. We don’t have a second car to tool around in while one is in the shop.

    And so I find myself researching new autos. I am definitely a Toyota fan, but considering how little we drive (the Prius only has around 98,000 miles on it despite its advanced age), another hybrid probably doesn’t make sense. If money were truly no object, I’d buy a Tesla Model S, but I’d have to have enough cash to bathe in a la Scrooge McDuck before I could feel comfortable spending that much on a vehicle. We’ll probably wind up getting something dull but practical like a Corolla.

    The Prius is only the third car I’ve ever owned; the first two were a couple of Fords (a new Escort and a used Taurus) that vexed me with their unreliability and need for repairs. I was glad to see them go; I think I traded in the Escort, and donated the Taurus to charity (it wasn’t running, so it had to be towed away). But there will be a tear in my eye when I have to say goodbye to the Prius. I would happily keep it for a few more years, were it possible; I had at least hoped we’d make it over the 100K mark. No matter how many cool new features our next auto has, I’m sure it’ll take me a while to stop missing that little blue car.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Kindle Is Back!

    Date: 2014.09.10 | Category: Consumerism, Travel | Response: 1

    mykindleWell, it took almost a month, but my long-lost Kindle is finally back home. It arrived today via FedEx (billed to my account–I’m don’t yet know how much that’ll set me back, but at least it’ll be cheaper than buying a new device).

    I’m not sure how much my social media campaign helped, but at least I did get put in touch with a real live person in Central Baggage who responded promptly to my emails. My biggest piece of advice for somebody who is trying to retrieve a lost item from an airline is simply be persistent. Don’t let them forget that you exist. I hope it goes without saying that you should also be polite (after my initial flurry of Tweets and postings, I let everything play out behind the scenes). Everybody at Virgin America with whom I dealt after I posted my blog entry was pleasant and sympathetic.

    Twitter seems like the best way to get in touch with companies–most of them nowadays have social media teams that check their @ mentions frequently. I only have about 350 Twitter followers, but a couple of them were kind enough to retweet my initial complaint, which expanded its reach. You should also check out travel troubleshooter Christopher Elliott’s list of contacts in case nothing else you try is getting results.

    And most importantly: never get off a plane without checking and double-checking that seat-back pocket! I know that from now on, I’ll do just that, no matter how eager I am to disembark.

  • The Worst Writing Job in the World (2014 Edition)

    Date: 2014.04.17 | Category: Consumerism, Internet | Response: 0

    The most popular post on this blog was published way back in 2010, and was titled The Worst Writing Job in the World. The job? Writing Groupon descriptions. I felt it was high time to revisit that post.

    First, I had to check Groupon.com to see if the once-popular discounter was still around. I unsubscribed from its mailings years ago, and haven’t heard anybody mention that they’ve purchased a Groupon in forever. It turns out that the company still exists, and the writing is as marvelously awful as ever. One current sample: “The dough wizards at Papa John’s create circular masterpieces with original and thin crusts made from high-protein flour to support warm bouquets of toppings.” Somebody got paid to write that!

    Unfortunately for the Groupon writers, their stock options aren’t going to make them rich. Groupon closed today at $7.41, down from its NASDAQ debut (and all-time high) of $26 per share. Founder Andrew Mason, who was fired as the company’s CEO in 2013, released a CD of “motivational business music” called Hardly Workin’ after his dismissal. Sample lyric, from “K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)”: “Don’t make me cut through no thistles/ You can keep all your fancy bells and whistles/ and shove them where the sun don’t shine.” Perhaps Mason could have gotten one of his former employees to ghost-write some better lyrics.

    Now that Groupon is no longer the hot new start-up on the block, it’s time to crown a new king, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with me when I say that the new Worst Writing Job in the World is… Upworthy headline-writer!!!!!

    Upworthy is the horribly annoying site that generates those hyperbolic headlines that just dare you to ignore them. When they first appeared, I clicked on them. But you won’t believe what happened next. I trained myself never to click on an Upworthy URL. Because the articles never lived up to the OMG this is so amazing! promises of the headlines.

    The site has become a favorite target of parodists (Funny or Die, riffing on the Pixar movie “Up”: “The First Ten Minutes Will Make You Sob. The Next 86 Will Change The Way You Think About Balloons”). A joke “headline generator” uses random bits of Upworthy-type phraseology to create counterfeit click-bait. Can you guess which of these headlines are real, and which were generated by the randomizer?

    1. Before You Say Babies Can’t Be Homophobic, Listen To These Six Words From A Former Klansman.

    2. Watch What This Make-Believe Girl Means To 1000 Sexual Predators.

    3. I Thought It Was A Deadly Poison. But Then I Saw This Amazing Short Film.

    4. 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.
    At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you.

    5. That Moment When An Author Gets Real About The Biggest Problem In America.
    Get ready to spend the rest of the day trying to pick your jaw up off the floor.

    6. His Military Dad Was Disappointed In Him When He Came Out. For A Really Good Reason.
    At 4:48, we meet his dad. At 5:20, we learn why his dad is so amazing. And I try to keep my composure. And at 6:53, it’s party time.

    7. Think You Have Job Security? Maybe You Should Listen To This Queer Former Model.
    At first you’ll be intrigued. Then you’ll be blown away.

    8. I’d Ask You To Like This Photo, But Then I Think That Proves The Photo Right.
    Seeing these three ads was like getting a tweeting-hearting-liking punch in the stomach.

    9. Watch A Slandered Witness To A Murder Become A Legend With Six Words.
    The good stuff starts at 0:30. Make sure to stick around till 1:34.

    10. This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

    Ready for the answers? The even-numbered stories are real; the odd-numbered ones are fake. “I thought all ten of these headlines were real Upworthy stories. When I found out the truth, it blew my mind.”

    When I wrote my initial post, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Groupon style guide, which revealed the secrets of achieving the “Groupon voice.” Well, Upworthy has been kind enough to make their how-to document available as well. Page 15 made me roll my eyes. Page 23 made me mad. And by the time I got to Page 28, I kind of hated life.

    Here is the key to writing Upworthy-style headlines, and what must make working there an unmitigated hellscape: you have to write 25 headlines for every single story. Twenty-five! And they illustrate that dictum with a photo of a toilet. In case you didn’t get the point the first time, the document repeats the 25-headline dictum over and over again. (“You should write 25 headlines unless you want the terrorists to win.”)

    The doc also reveals the target market for Upworthy content: moms on Facebook. “Almost all your traffic will come from Facebook,” says one slide, illustrated with a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with a Photoshopped crown on his head. “Middle-aged women are the biggest sharers on the Interwebs.”

    Unfortunately, relying on Facebook is a dangerous business strategy, since the social network site is constantly tweaking its algorithms; one report said that Upworthy’s traffic dropped by 51% after Facebook made major changes to its users’ news feeds. The assumption is that you’d rather see photos of your friend’s new baby than links to Upworthy or the many clones (ViralNova, Elite Daily, etc.) that have followed in its wake.

    If annoying viral headlines are still plaguing you, you might want to try installing a browser plug-in called Downworthy. No longer will phrases like “Will Blow Your Mind” and “You Won’t Believe” infect your web surfing; Downworthy will rewrite them for you on the fly. “Will Blow Your Mind” will be automatically replaced with “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment”; “Will Change Your Life Forever” turns into “Will Not Change Your Life in ANY Meaningful or Lasting Way”; and “Won the Internet” becomes “seems alright.”

    By the way, if you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to share it with your social network. Feel free to tell them that this photo of a sleeping Boston terrier will totally restore their faith in humanity.

    sleeping Boston terrier

  • In the Bag

    Date: 2014.02.12 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Response: 1

    Today, I did something I very rarely do–I looked at the traffic stats for this blog. By far the most popular post is a review of a Rush concert I wrote, titling it “What about the voice of Geddy Lee,” a reference to a song by my favorite band, Pavement, which mentions the Canadian singer’s distinctive warble. Apparently, anybody looking for info on Geddy’s voice winds up here. Somewhat disturbingly, another perennial favorite is an entry I posted shortly after a friend of mine committed suicide called “50 (or 25) Reasons to Go On Living.” The top search query that lead people to that one: “why go on living.” Somehow, I can’t imagine that anyone on the brink of doing themselves in will read about my desire to see the rest of August Wilson’s oeuvre or my curiosity about the ultimate fate of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and say, “Why, it really is a wonderful life!”

    This is, in general, not a terribly popular blog. And I’m fine with that. It is simply a place for me to vent when I feel I have something to vent about. I can also target specific readers. This entry is dedicated to my friend Vallery, who always reads the blog and even comments. She is an extremely talented, generous and intelligent person whom I feel privileged to know. Vallery is an avid quilter; you can see some of her work here.

    She is also the person in charge of book bags for the mystery convention I’m involved with, Left Coast Crime. If you have never been to a mystery convention, when you go to the registration desk to sign in, you are given a canvas tote bag filled with books. Free books! Awesome!! However, if you attend a lot of mystery conventions, you will find yourself accumulating a closet full of canvas tote bags. I have at least a dozen of them, and I’ve given a bunch away over the years.

    The thing is, Vallery always does an amazing job selecting the fabric and design. The totes are sturdy and attractive. I almost always take them along on trips; if you see me in an airport, chances are that I’ll have a Left Coast Crime tote slung over my shoulder. However, I will be receiving two new totes next month–Joe is also registered–and I’m reaching a state of Tote Overload. Knowing Vallery, the 2014 tote will probably have unique features that previous bags lacked, but if the new tote becomes my bag of choice, what will I do with all of my old ones? Like a true pack rat, I don’t want to part with them–they hold too many memories.

    So here is what I’m suggesting for future conferences: a BYOT (Bring Your Own Tote) option when you register. If you’ve already attended a million other mystery conventions, simply let the organizers know that you’ll bring an old favorite along next time–no need to manufacture a brand-new bag. It would be fun–you can strike up conversations with people carrying souvenirs of Hawaii ’09 or Santa Fe ’11 and reminisce about times gone by. (I suspect I’d want to flaunt my credentials as a world traveler and would bring a tote from the U.K. CrimeFest conference.) The free books could be kept in boxes behind the registration desk, and you would be handed a few volumes to drop in your tote. Folks like me who have surplus bags could bring extras, in case somebody checks off “I’ll bring a tote” when they register but then forgets to pack it.

    So how about it? It would be economical and environmentally friendly. And I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of closet space in my tote–I mean coat–closet.

  • The Five Worst Christmas Carols

    Date: 2013.12.23 | Category: Consumerism, Music | Response: 3

    This morning, I had to visit a couple of stores to buy food so that Joe and I could, y’know, eat this week. This was nothing out of the ordinary; I always do our grocery shopping on Monday mornings, after I deliver Meals on Wheels. Monday morning is a perfectly fine time to shop. Unless it’s Dec. 23, in which case shopping becomes a nightmarish hellscape in which you are cursed to drive around and around looking for a parking space within a mile of the Safeway. Then, when you finally reach the store, because it is December, they will be playing Christmas carols on the P.A. In the Safeway, the carols are broken up by prerecorded P.A. announcements that go off approximately once every 30 seconds: Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! And on and on, because nobody at the Courtesy Desk ever answers the page, and I’m feeling positively homicidal. I start wondering why I actually choose to go to the Safeway, when I could use that Amazon subscription service to have a 12-pack of toilet paper and a pallet of mac ‘n cheese sent to my house once every six weeks.

    Just as I was feeling in the mood to bludgeon someone to death with a honeydew melon, Safeway’s Muzak system began playing a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” featuring a children’s chorus. 11 AM isn’t too early to grab a pint of Bombay Sapphire gin and chug it down in the parking lot, is it?

    I think one of the reasons I hate Christmas music is overfamiliarity. Here’s an alternate example: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Back in nineteen-ninety-whatever, when I first heard that song, it sounded fresh and exciting. Now, I feel like I never need to hear that song again, ever. Because it’s been played relentlessly for the past two decades, I know it so well, every single note is tattooed upon my brain. Ditto the American Christmas canon. I feel like the people who are excited to turn on KOIT (a local FM station which plays nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving on) are as freakish as those who, say, think it’s fun to craft their own chain mail shirt. God bless ’em, but it’s just not for me, you know?

    Today on NPR, I heard a Spanish version of “White Christmas” called “Blanca Navidad” and it was actually pretty darned fun to hear a twist on a holiday classic. But some holiday songs should just be retired and never played again, ever, anywhere. Here are my picks:

    5. “Wonderful Christmastime”: This one is down at #5 because it’s not as ubiquitous as other Xmas songs–I don’t think I’ve heard it at all this year (yet!)–but it’s still terrible. It sounds like it took Paul McCartney about five minutes to write. Just thinking about this sing-songy nightmare is the mental equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.

    4. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: This needs to be up there just on the basis of Bono’s line “Thank God tonight it’s them instead of you,” which instantly makes this song the musical equivalent of Justine Sacco’s Twitter feed.

    3. “Jingle Bells”: I was subjected to this song during today’s shopping trip and it occurred to me how simple it is. Simple in a bad way. If you’re older than six, you have no business ever singing or enjoying this song. If my honorary nephew Eric, who is currently two, likes this song when he’s seven, I’m going to put a stop to it A.S.A.P., probably by forcing him to listen to Lemmy’s cover of “Run Run Rudolph.”

    2. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: The repetition… oh God, the repetition. Mike Huckabee tried poking fun at Obamacare a couple of weeks ago with a “Twelve Days” spoof, to which Stephen Colbert rightly responded, “Folks, that is a great song to parody, because everyone know jokes get better the more times you repeat them. It’s what comedians call the rule of twelve.”

    1. “The Little Drummer Boy”: Everyone knows this is the worst carol of all time. Back in the pre-Internet era, former Grand Rapids Press film critic John Douglas used to write an annual column decrying the tune and tracking the first time he heard it each season. When I was a junior in high school, I had an internship working for Douglas’s production company; he was the sort of salty curmudgeon every 16-year-old should get to spend time with. Douglas’s “LDB” hatred rubbed off on me, and I become righteously apoplectic whenever I hear it in public. My first time this year was at the post office. The clerk seemed oblivious. Had it been me behind the counter, I would probably have started throwing packages around in a white-hot rage. The only mitigating factor is that I can’t help but feel some nostalgic warmth for John Douglas whenever I hear it. Such a lovable ol’ grump!

    Other terrible Christmas carols: “Jingle Bell Rock”: If this was a top 10, this would definitely be up there. It’s awful, no doubt about it, but I feel like the original “Jingle Bells” is just a tad bit worse. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”: A truly dreadful novelty hit, but no one ever covers it and it must have been a good five years since the last time I heard it, so I’m letting it pass just due to its lack of ubiquity. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”: A favorite worst-carol pick these days due to its rapey lyrics, but the tune is actually quite pleasant. “Saturday Night Live” put a genuinely sweet twist on it a couple days ago.

  • It’s Showtime!

    Date: 2013.11.04 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Response: 2

    If you’d peered into my kitchen window yesterday afternoon, you would have seen me sitting on the floor with a moist rag and a bowl of Ajax cleanser, wiping the dirty fingerprints and random food stains off the cabinets. Prior to that, I was dusting the wainscoting in the dining room, as well as the base of the pedestal dining table. I also cleaned between the countertop tiles using a grout brush.

    A few minutes ago, I was busily cleaning the kitchen island and spraying the living room with Febreze “Meadows & Rain”-scented air freshener. According to the manufacturer, it is supposed to smell “like a grassy meadow misted in early morning dewy freshness.” I actually find it quite pleasant, though its main selling point is that it effectively masks the smell of dog.

    Intensive cleaning is not something I just do for the fun of it. I only clean like this for one reason: people are coming over. If you are reading this and are upset that you aren’t on the guest list, don’t be–I didn’t decide whom to invite. Occasionally, we volunteer to host a cocktail party for supporters of a nonprofit we are involved with. There is no hard sell, or any sell at all for that matter, at these events, but hopefully they will make people feel warm and fuzzy and inspired to make a donation. A couple years ago, someone at one of our parties made a $10K donation shortly thereafter. Joe and I don’t have that kind of money, but we do what we can to help. In my case, that is to make sure the house is tidy. (I will note here that Joe does help, but he doesn’t obsess over the details like I do.)

    Even when our house is spic-and-span, though, I still feel like it is biding its time to return to its natural state of clutter. Have you heard of a “dry drunk”–someone who still has an alcoholic’s mindset despite the fact that they no longer imbibe? One of the reasons I was so obsessed with the now-canceled TV show “Hoarders” was because I sometimes felt like I was a few stacks of newspapers away from becoming one myself. You just give up that vigilance for a little while, and the next thing you know, you’re making your way through your house via an elaborate network of goat paths.

    A few years ago, I tried out a few methods of keeping your house clean. One of them involved index cards–you were supposed to record all of your household chores on 3×5 cards, and then do a certain number of them every day. Fly Lady is another popular resource, though her command of “dressing to your shoes” even when you’re inside the house is a deal-breaker for me. (Scandinavians, like the Japanese, simply don’t wear street shoes in their homes. We are a slippers-wearing people. For events like tonight’s, I don a pair of simple black flats that I have never worn outside. And no, I don’t ask visitors to remove their shoes.)

    The only method I’ve found that is completely foolproof is having people over. Now that we have a house-sitter, I spend the day before we leave on a trip in a cleaning frenzy. (She always leaves the house tidy, though coming home from vacation always seems to require a week or so just to put away everything you brought back with you; I spent part of last night alphabetizing my Playbill collection.) But there’s something extra-intimidating about having people you don’t know in your home. I don’t want anyone to drive away asking their spouse, “Did you see the size of those dust bunnies?”

    Of course, no one ever notices the absence of dust bunnies. That’s one of the things that makes cleaning a thankless task. Plus, no matter how well you do it, you’ll have to do it again in a few days (or, in the case of dirty dishes, a few hours).

    As I was writing this entry, I received an email from an East Coast friend who is in the Bay Area for work this week. He’s coming over to visit us on Saturday. That’s good news: it means the house will stay clutter- and dust-bunny-free for a little while longer.

  • Commercial Music

    Date: 2013.10.11 | Category: Consumerism, Music | Response: 0

    Last weekend, Joe was watching football in the living room when he called out to ask me to come see something. It was an ad for a smartwatch–I’m not going to name the brand–which featured a montage of Smart Watches In Popular Culture, from “Get Smart!” and “Dick Tracy” to “Star Trek” and “Knight Rider.” It’s a clever ad, and I can only imagine how much work it was to get permission to use all of those clips. However, the reason Joe brought it to my attention had nothing to do with the product or the clips. It was the musical accompaniment, a simple eight-note melody playing over a bed of synthesizer sounds, which I suppose was considered “retro-futuristic” enough to back up the kitschy imagery.

    For me, though, that music is much more than just a bleep-bloop soundtrack for “Jetsons” and “Flintstones” clips. It is one of only a handful of songs I have heard in my life that I can say I love unreservedly. The name of the song is “Someone Great,” and it’s by LCD Soundsystem. There are no lyrics heard in the ad, which makes sense, since the song is about reacting to the death of a loved one. The songwriter, James Murphy, has never been willing to discuss who exactly he had in mind when he wrote the song, which makes it somewhat enigmatic; there are dozens of comments speculating about it on a site called songmeanings.com, but no one will ever know for sure unless Murphy decides to spill. I kind of like the fact that he hasn’t done so. In a way, that means the song belongs to everyone who has ever lost a loved one; they can find comfort in it, as I did when I posted the video and lyrics on this site shortly after a close friend’s suicide.

    I hate to sound like an anti-capitalist fogey, but it makes me unhappy to hear that song being used in an advertisement. It cheapens it somehow. I recognize that it’s not my song, it’s James Murphy’s song, and he can do as he pleases with it; he disbanded LCD Soundsystem a couple of years ago, so he no longer has that revenue stream. (He is still active in the music world, though, most recently producing the new Arcade Fire album, Reflektor.) And I’m aware that a lot of people discover new music through commercials. Nick Drake would never have had his posthumous career resurgence were it not for the car ad that featured his “Pink Moon.” But still, I can’t help but feel, why did they have to use this song?

    Earlier today, through my TV lineups page, I received an email from a guy named Steve Young who writes for “Late Show with David Letterman.” He has co-written a book called Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. These musical numbers were “glimpsed only at conventions and sales meetings… the audience is managers and salesmen, and the songs are about how great it is to be working at the company.” I was listening to a few of the tunes, like “An Exxon Dealer’s Wife” and “Don’t Let a Be-Back Get Away” (the latter from the 1959 Oldsmobile show “Good News About Olds”), and while the songs weren’t written and produced for the general public, they still made me think back to the days of commercial jingles. No one seems to write music specifically for ads anymore. It’s probably cheaper and easier to license pre-existing songs, and when they’re already fairly well known, you have the added emotional resonance that comes with them. In the case of “Something Great,” though, the feelings that song brings up in me definitely do not make me want to run out and buy a watch.