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Jul. 22 2010 — 1:04 am | 129 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

Of Junk Food and Junk News

Full-Figured Man

Image by Tobyotter via Flickr

Once on a flight I ate a cheeseburger-in-a-bag. It was a wonderfully microwaved beefy dough ball of cheesy-type goo. It tasted amazing! Of course, it’s designed to taste amazing. Mission so accomplished. The sandwich had the right amount of fat and salt to appeal to my ancient binge-to-survive-winter DNA. It was laced with artificial scents, laboratory flavors and synthetic colors. It had the proper “mouth feel.” The right size. The perfect temperature. My cheeseburger-in-a-bag was like a friend who had been paid to be nice to me: comforting, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

In short: The meal was manipulated by years of food science and marketing research to manipulate me. The “taste to actual health benefits ratio” was way off. It was more appealing than life sustaining.

It was the definition of junk.

Which is an apt metaphor for the state of cable news in America. Stick with me here:

Watch your average for-profit 24-hour station for one hour. Your pulse will start racing. Something horrible is going down! Something that will kill you and your family and everyone you care about is close and imminent! You MUST stay tuned! There’s something outrageous! That’s why people are yelling at each other! Cable news starts with a story, removes the grain and nuance then mainlines the fury. It’s all high-fructose hyperbole all the time.

Originally there was one 24-hour cable news channel, CNN. Then there were three. Now the three have spin-offs and there are by my count nine (CNN, HLN, CNN International, CNN en Espanol, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and Bloomberg) all vying for attention. That’s 216 hours of programming to fill with the news of just one day. It used to be the formula of Fox News to be a parody of Howard Beale in The Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Now all the channels are guilty of the same schtick – doing whatever they can to fling themselves to the top of the heap to make their respective Faye Dunaways happy.

In short: The shows are manipulated by years of psychology and marketing research to manipulate us.  The “entertainment to information ration” is way off. It’s more appealing than illuminating…which also makes it junk.

The literal translation of what locals in Somalia call the man on the BBC who reads the news is “He Who Scares Old People.” For the higher-on-the-dial news shows this moniker is a selling point, if not a requirement.

Because if you’re not afraid, you’re not watching.

Just as an experiment – instead of cable news watch PBS or listen to NPR. Try it. It’s like going from Oreos to oat bran. There’s a sudden withdrawal. You keep expecting someone to yell, shake their fists and proclaim “We’re doomed!” but it doesn’t happen. It seems as if the world might go on – that we have some problems, here they are and here is the context for said problems. No one calls anyone a Nazi…unless they actually served in the SS. It’s very novel and foreign when you’re accustomed to “loud equals accurate.” A study released at the beginning of the year by Shawn Powers at USC and Mohammed el-Nawawy at Queens University found that the more their subjects in the study watched Al-Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking. Participants retained their opinions but were more open to the views of others. It’s like all the studies that find a diet of real food consisting of vegetables and fiber makes you feel better in every way. It’s interesting…and ignored.

We have too much over-processed junk food available round the clock, and we are fat. We have too much over-sensationalized news available around the clock, and we are miserable. More importantly a giant chunk of us are incredibly ignorant. Just as obese people are often malnourished, there are people who watch the “news” constantly and are horribly uninformed. It’s overconsumption of junk.

What’s the result of an uninformed, frightened and hysterical populace? As the saying goes, we get the government we deserve: shortsighted, petty and trend-obsessed. Which in fairness…is great for ratings.

Jul. 6 2010 — 2:54 pm | 203 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

In the Last Decade – Extreme Weather Deaths Outnumbered War Casualties

Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico near i...

Image via Wikipedia

Safe to say, nothing is so bad that a hurricane can’t make worse. Take an existing problem, toss it around in the wind and smack it with flying debris – it’s certainly not going to improve. Shoddy construction is made worse, communication concerns – made worse, a struggling economy – made worse, disastrous Bush presidency – made worse. And now the wonders of deregulation – the BP Oil Spill – the worst environmental disaster in the history of the U.S. – found itself in the pathway of early riser Alex, the first official hurricane of this season.

Alex shut down drilling and clean-up efforts for a few days until it made landfall in Monterrey, Mexico, missing the marshes of Louisiana. Rain instead has plagued the region. The BP Oil Spill is already a current-carried glob of doom. It’s a mass of toxic sludge submerged in the Northern Hemisphere’s hotbed of hurricanes. As usual, we are at the mercy of the winds. We are the subjects of the impending season of storms that rip through our Gulf Coast every year.

In 2007 during a cable interview, Senator Barbara Boxer said, ”One of the very important national security threats we face is climate change.” Warmer waters in the Gulf will promise more hurricanes. Oceans will rise from the melting of glaciers. Heat waves will kill crops and damage industries. Famine, floods, tornadoes, drought, violent storms, fires, tsunamis, disease and unrest? Sure, this could be a concern to the security of the nation.

Now, sacked Hewlett-Packard CEO turned California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina used the Boxer clip for an attack ad. Carly, in her curious Jodie Foster accent, said in the spot, “Terrorism kills and Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather.”

Then the self-proclaimed fringe to the “lamestream media” and fraction-of-a-term governor Sarah Palin chimed in on Twitter, “BarbBoxer sez ’greatest security threat’ is WEATHER. Not nukes, or unsustainable debt leading 2 insolvency? Silly Senator, glad theres competition.” [Spaces added.]

Palin is like a militant reformed smoker – she quit her job as governor and now has contempt for all who continue the habit of public service. Silly Senator, keeping oaths are for chumps.

Okay, first off: the “weather” is not the “climate.” The difference between weather and climate is length of time. Weather is the immediate information – climate is the big picture. So it’s like trying to discuss a concern about a decade and Carly Fiorina says you’re worrying about an hour. This is why climate change deniers disagree with scientists – they’re not using the same measurements. If you believed miles were inches, you’d think you were being lied to by eggheads all the time too.

Our climate is changing. And yes, WEATHER is also something which warrants worry: In the last ten years, there were more Americans who died from extreme weather than there were U.S. soldiers who died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. According to the National Weather Service, during the last decade 5,754 people have died due to weather events such as extreme temperatures, flooding and hurricanes. Compare that death toll with the 5,521 soldiers killed in the two wars we’ve waged since 2001. Truth be told, to date there have been more U.S. lives lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina (estimated 1,800) than there have been U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Afghanistan (1,125).

And as far as Fiorina’s focus on terrorism killing – well, an average of 42 Americans die from being struck by lightning every year. As opposed to – well, almost none from terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Here’s the problem with the Politics of Fear and Confusion: it confuses what to fear. Is terrorism still a threat? Sure. Should we pursue the elimination of terrorism while ignoring all other concerns because it makes politicians seem tough? No – at least not anymore.

This week the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat advisory for the Northeast. Forecasters predict prolonged temperatures exceeding 102 degrees could wreak havoc in cities like New York, D.C. and Philadelphia. Several have already died from the heat. In 1980 during a similar heat wave was responsible for 1,250 deaths.

Why? Because weather kills.

How’s that “worried about the weather-y” thing workin’ for ya?

Jun. 29 2010 — 1:41 pm | 127 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

Look at Our Yellow Ribbons


Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

Edith Shain was 91 years old when she died peacefully last week in her home in Los Angeles. You knew her as the woman in the iconic black and white photo of a jubilant soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. The snapshot tells an American tale of a war ending and an entire generation of people coupling up – creating the suburbs, a solid middle-class and a stupendous baby boom.

What strikes me about the photo is that they really knew how to end wars back then. For example: they used to end wars…back then. There was a global conflict followed by a resolution. Beginning. Middle. End. Done. Birthrate skyrockets.

Now we have two never-ending wars and Cialis commercials on an eternal loop. How far we’ve come.

The U.S. decided to invade Afghanistan after September 11th in 2001. As troops were being mobilized, Americans preemptively bought yellow ribbons to show support for the mission and the troops. Yellow ribbons also appeared in 1979 during the Iran Hostage Crisis and again in 1991 for the troops in Operation Desert Storm. Then ten years later they were back, displayed for all to see: tied to trees, flagpoles, telephone poles and every pole in between. Our nation was awash in American flags and yellow ribbons. “These colors don’t run!”

The other day I saw a yellow ribbon stuck in a chain link fence. The ribbon was tattered, frayed and sun-faded. The war in Afghanistan is so long it has outlasted the material of the ribbons initially supporting the effort. An original ribbon from this current war is now an antique.

About five years into the conflict yellow ribbon car magnets became a big trend. During that time I was traveling all over the country, and in every pocket of the U.S. were cars, trucks and SUVs with magnets showing support for what had become not one, but two wars. Yellow ribbons were ubiquitous. And then gradually the magnets starting disappearing until they were gone. Individually – one by one – in private, with no fanfare and no media coverage – Americans removed their patriotic yellow ribbon magnets from their vehicles. You don’t see them anymore. Apparently something as temporary as a magnet shaped like a ribbon is not the proper symbol for the war we are actually waging.

With all the red-baiting and pundit-driven fear of the U.S. becoming a communist country because we no longer let health insurance companies deny coverage to sick children, we’ve lost sight of an important fact: the Soviet Union – communists – lost their collective red shirts in Afghanistan. The perils of fighting a determined local force whose idea of infrastructure is a bridge to the sixth century proved too enormous for the last super power that fought there.

In fact, Afghanistan is an empire graveyard. It has been for millennia. How about this for a foreign policy: don’t invade a place where the last successful incursion was led by Genghis Khan.

Last week a Rolling Stone article about the war in Afghanistan resulted in the retirement of General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. The media attention focused on the personnel issue in the chain of command. What was skipped over was the passage about the COIN (acronym for counter-insurgency) doctrine created by McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus. “The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975),” wrote reporter Michael Hastings.

That’s right. We are looking at past mistakes and incorporating them into our current conflict – which is like gathering a bunch of defective parts, putting them into your new car and being surprised by the outcome.

So far the war in Afghanistan has cost the U.S. $300 billion. It’s already the longest war America has ever fought. The date President Obama gave for the start of withdrawal is July 2011. The war hawks argue this is too soon.

As if.

You can say many things about the war in Afghanistan but “not long enough” is not one of them.

Maybe those worn-out ribbons are more of a symbol than we planned on.

Jun. 22 2010 — 2:04 pm | 176 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Exploit This Tragedy

Image representing Bill Gates as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

Before the tar balls had a chance to touch down on the white sands of the Gulf Coast – the message from the oil-soaked Republican Party was clear: “Don’t exploit the disaster…if you’re a Democrat.” But if you’re a member of the GOP, feel free to exploit this endless spill for political gain. Use it as a battering ram against the president. “Obama’s Katrina.” “Obama un-American for criticizing BP.” “The moratorium is worse than the spill.” “Obama isn’t doing enough.” “Government is bad – where’s the National Guard?” So on and so forth.

But don’t try to pass an energy policy in the wake of the biggest environmental catastrophe this country has ever witnessed. That’s exploitive. Crude.

The “don’t exploit this tragedy” knee-jerk catch-all phrase is absolutely meaningless. In American politics, we rule by crisis. There is no political will to act unless something is burning, melting or spewing. We don’t plan for the future – we brace for it. Our policies are all emergency-based. Our country is like someone who won’t pay their bills until they get a shut off notice.

“We can wait no longer! Now is the time!”

The Republican’s hands-off philosophy back when they held all three branches of government enabled a horde of deregulated industries with imaginary blow-out preventers to burst: the banks, Wall Street, the auto industry, the housing market etc. We’ve had to attend to these disasters, one after another. Tipping point after tipping point. Cliff after cliff.

The one issue Obama did address when it was only slightly gangrene was health care. Yet this is also the issue he gets criticized for doing instead of mopping up the Armageddon-of-the-month.

Appointed Arizona Governor Jan Brewer enjoys exploiting a tragedy to defend her disastrous-to-civil-rights immigration law. Have any Republicans admonished her for it? Nope. It’s a showdown – and Obama is IGNORING the crisis! Even though most statistics admit both incidents of violence and illegal immigration at the border had already declined. Even though “securing the border” is as ambiguous and unobtainable as “wiping out terror.” Even though according to Arizona Republic, the Customs and Border Protection, the federal law enforcement agency has an annual budget of $17 billion, doubling what was spent in 2003. “I have repeatedly sent letters to the administration and to the president of the United States with absolutely no response,” Brewer said on Fox News. It’s like calling your elderly relative just to have them bark at you that you never call. I can’t imagine why Brewer would get ignored.

But if a perennial progressive issue turns into a crisis – tragedy is suddenly sacred. A mass shooting at a school? Don’t exploit this tragedy to talk about gun control. Miners killed due to hazardous conditions? Don’t exploit this tragedy to empower unions. Our Gulf Coast lost for a generation because of drilling shortcuts? Don’t exploit this dead gulf or you’ll kill jobs.

The point is: Obama should exploit this tragedy in the Gulf. Not “exploiting the tragedy” is saying the status quo is perfect. Don’t do anything. Just wait out the clock.

Yes, just like the “actions” of the 109th Congress – the last one controlled by Republican majorities in both houses. When the Republicans set the agenda, they met a whopping 242 days in two years, which was 12 fewer days than the 80th Congress, the first to be dubbed a Do-Nothing Congress by President Harry Truman. The 109th had an average of eight months off a year – because nothing celebrates government ineffectiveness more than a gig in congress being a nearly no-show job.

“But if we seize this moment we can rebuild our economy on a new foundation,” said President Obama on his Organizing for America site this week.

Please, exploit this crisis. Make it the reason a spill like this won’t happen again. “The only real solution is to take American ingenuity to get energy in different forms,” Microsoft’s Bill Gates said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Gates proposes spending one percent ($11 billion annually) of what we spend on energy for research and development.

Finally an idea, not just a denial with a chant. “Drill, baby, drill.”

Yes. Exploit this crisis and exploit the clean renewable natural resources inspired by Bill Gates – the country’s nerds.

Jun. 15 2010 — 12:09 pm | 1,267 views | 1 recommendations | 3 comments

Feminism in the Wake of ‘Ladies’ Night’ is…Complicated

Albert Wynn and Gloria Feldt at the U.S. Supre...

Image via Wikipedia

While perusing the Internet, I came across an article about how to be a more attractive woman. First on the list was to learn how to tell a funny story. “Wit is the key. Be interesting.” When have you ever heard anyone advise a woman to learn to tell a decent anecdote? Never. Encourage women to be interesting as opposed to hot? It was radical! Totally progressive and forward-thinking. Then I realized I misread the premise: it was how to be more attractive to women. The suggestion is well-worn and typical – for dudes.

Here’s the thing: if we still have a need for the word “feminist” then the goal of gender equality has not been reached. No one has to say they’re an abolitionist. It’s just assumed you’re against slavery unless otherwise indicated.

We clearly still need the word – and the concept of – feminism.

The 2010 primary season has marked an unprecedented number of female candidates for national and state offices…according to the hype. Republicans winning Republican primaries across the country is a victory for Republicans everywhere! There are more female GOP candidates this season than ever before. Well, there are four: former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, South Carolina State Representative Nikki Haley and former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.

To some this could seem like a feminist victory. It’s a female Republican victory, sure. But being a feminist and being against reproductive freedoms means you are not a feminist. You can say you’re a Mets fan, but if you only want the Yankees to win – you’re not a Mets fan.

The irony is this swarm of candidates, almost all entirely anti-abortion rights (save Whitman) has the feminism movement to thank for their ability to be candidates. Which is like using Twitter to get your message out about the evils of micro-blogging.

This new trend in the Republican Party – putting up women who want to turn the clock back to criminalize abortion – is complicated for feminists. And feminism in its third wave (or so) is already complicated. Yes, it’s great to think of women in power, but not when they’re against women’s rights as their platform.

The anti-choice movement tells women they deserve better than abortion, that they are the ones who have the best interests of women in mind. But treating women like children who need to be told what’s best for them is hardly equality. It’s a step back. And saying not having an abortion is the right choice – is a choice.

A stealthy anti-abortion movement has been chipping away at access to information and services since before Roe v. Wade. Crisis Pregnancy Centers, the first opening in Hawaii in 1967, are fake women’s clinics offering no medical services, only religious-based misinformation and scare tactics to discourage abortion and in many cases premarital sex. They outnumber abortion providers 2-1 in this country.

The Dutch organization Women on Waves provides health services in countries where abortion is a crime. A doctor with the group told me an alarming amount of their calls are from women in the U.S. in desperate situations. Some are from U.S. soldiers who don’t have access to abortion while serving their country, even if they’re raped. This should be embarrassing to us. This should be a concern to thoughtful female candidates and patriots alike.

Currently, an amendment added to the 852-page Pentagon policy bill repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” calls for soldiers to get the same basic health care access as civilians. Civilians with money, at least. This has been called “government funding of abortions” by opponents and “supporting the troops” by everyone else.

Because nothing says “sanctity of life” like serving in a war zone.

The Republican rhetoric about freedom, the sacredness of the Constitution and government not encroaching on your rights all come to a screeching halt at reproductive issues. Republicans are for those platitudes…but with asterisks. To glaze over this contradiction, female anti-abortion GOP candidates have flippantly called themselves feminists. Which is like proclaiming yourself vegetarian while eating a ham sandwich. They’re not feminists. They’re just female. “Being a feminist isn’t a question of plumbing,” author Gloria Feldt said to me.

Yes, this third wave is complicated. But at least it’s interesting.

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    I was born in a religious group so fringe it makes normal cult apologists shudder. I've rebelled by not having an alias, paying taxes and embracing science.

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