Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Chowing of America

There's a downside to economies of scale. It's when you produce things people don't want. Small scale, you have a bunch of things people don't want. Big scale, you have a TON of things people don't want.

Theoretically, companies figure out what people want before they produce a ton of them. The drawback to this is that it is difficult and requires intelligent, capable people. The current corporate environment is such that they don't do difficult things well because they have trouble keeping intelligent, capable people.

What's a corporation to do? Why not just tell people what they want, which is what they happen to have a ton of!

And thus, the "Chowing" begins.

Look at what happened to Ben & Jerry's. The "cool" ice cream guys. Ben & Jerry's on Wikipedia: After a failed attempt by Ben Cohen to return the company to private ownership, Ben and Jerry's was purchased in August 2000 by the Unilever conglomerate...

What was told to me off the record was that Unilever muscled the company. They would buy the shelf space for their own brand, and crowd Ben & Jerry's off the shelves and into bankruptcy. To keep the company going, they sold it. And now what happens?

However, in 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest accused Ben and Jerry's of abusing the "All Natural" label for using artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, and other factory-made substances in their products. Ben and Jerry's official response was that they used a different definition of "all natural" than the CSPI. In August 2006, Ben & Jerry's came under criticism from the Humane Society of the United States for using eggs in its ice cream that come from hens confined in battery cages.

I'm here to tell you, it just isn't the same. As much as we love Cherry Garcia, some weird stuff's been creeping in. Look at the most recent ingredient list, and I bolded what used to NOT be in there: Cream, Skim Milk, Liquid Sugar, Water, Cherries, Egg Yolks, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Coconut Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Cocoa, Natural Flavors, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Caramel And Red Cabbage Juice Extract (For Color), Guar Gum, Milkfat, Soya Lecithin, Carrageenan

It's a crying shame! "Natural flavors" are not. They are made in labs. Just FYI.

And that incredible, vast range of flavors? Shrinking since 2000. I was told that the shops get half the flavors they once had.

Thanks, Corporate America. Just another cool thing you've destroyed to make another penny per unit. Because that's the sick part, isn't it? That we would pay a nickel a unit to have the old Cherry Garcia back. I'd pay another five or ten bucks so my jeans would be sewn by a union worker in this country. Corporations are making it harder and harder to hunt down quality stuff. The kind of stuff I want, and am willing to forgo stuff I don't want, for.

But that is not the way it works for Corporate America. The plan is: drop the price per unit by decreasing quality. Then the Consumer has to buy more for the same level of satisfaction. The jeans wear out sooner. The coffeemaker breaks sooner. The ice cream does not satisfy.

Modern corporations would vastly prefer consumers without choice. This is why Neopolitan ice cream was invented in the first place. Produce was the first to fall into line. They won't offer a tasty tomato, when the tasteless ones ship better. Why do you think they used to load up baked goods with trans fats? So they can sit on the shelves longer.

Their goal is to remove all that different food from the supermarkets, and replace it with People Chow. Want music? We have Music Chow. Want to read? We have Book Chow.

We have more and more, and enjoy it less and less.

Aren't you excited? It's Chow Time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ya Gotta Pick One

In the Seinfeld episode "The Wig Master," Jerry tries to return a crested jacket, and when asked his reason for the return, answers, "Spite." When he is told that is not an acceptable reason, he claims he never liked the jacket anyway, but it's too late. He only gets one reason.

Because that's the way it works.

The Religious Right claimed their objection to stem cell research was that the blastocyst had to be destroyed in order to harvest the stem cells. Now that the news is full of the latest innovation, which extracts stem cells without destroying the blastocyst, are they satisfied? Apparently not.

A quote from the NY Times (behind the firewall, so no link, sorry) sheds some light: But Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, suggested that the new procedure would not satisfy the objections of Mr. Bush, who vetoed legislation in July that would have expanded federally financed embryonic stem cell research. Though Ms. Lawrimore called it encouraging that scientists were moving away from destroying embryos, she said: "Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions. This technique does not resolve those concerns." Their concerns are that someone, somewhere, did cause the death of a blastocyst to persue stem cell research, and that renders the whole thing ethically iffy.

I do admire principles. And I think they should stick with them. They shouldn't take antibiotics, because people have died from antibiotic reactions. They shouldn't have anesthesia for surgery, because people died while anesthetics were being developed. In fact, they shouldn't have surgery at all, because every procedure meant someone died while it was being developed.

They won't go that far; apparently there is a limit to principles. But that's really beside the fact. Because they had a reason to object to stem cell research. That reason was addressed.

And you only get one.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hope for the dim.

In 1997, I received a kitten from a Christian biker filmmaker. (That's another story.)

Smokepuff was and is a gorgeous ball of fluff. Due to his intense camera-phobia, I have terrible pictures of him, but this turned out to be his breed of cat, The Tiffany, which he resembles physically.

These cats are known for their gentle nature and loving devotion.

I have to say this description also fits him perfectly. The breed standards do not go into detail about their intellectual faculties, so while this is a clue, I don't know how he stacks up as mentally typical of the breed. We adore him, but there is no doubt that Puffy is also extremely dim.

How dim is he? the audience asks.

Well, he has a tendency to panic when my husband and I wear hats. This apparently changes our profile in his head enough for him to doubt that he recognizes us. Since strangers make him panic, the reflex operates even after he gets a good look at us, sans hat. While his face brightens happily, his legs still try to run away, though usually in different directions.

We think he has tenuous connections throughout his nervous system. He is capable of grace once all his limbs settle on a plan, yet tends to fall off even the most large, flat, and stationary objects. His tongue, especially, seems to operate independently. He will lick his chops after a treat past all possibility that any residual flavor remains.

One night his tongue, post-treat, went a little wild, in the fashion of a broken windowshade. It continued its motions so long that even he noticed, and thus he kept putting his limbs in front of it, apparently thinking that he had been interrupted mid-cleaning. He seemed incapable of reining it in.

When I realized what was going on, I had to perform a "Puffy Reset" which is accomplished by gently and firmly pressing down on the top of his head. This reboots the system and restores him to tranquility. (When we received a visit from my mother's Papillon puppy, Puffy hid under the bed for several hours until my husband crawled underneath and reset his head.)

Last year it was time for Puffy's teeth cleaning. I dropped him off with the usual procedures. (If I carry him clamped to my chest, he is happy to be transported to and through the gates of Hell itself. A carrier, on the other hand, brings on panic, and the effect is eerily reminiscent of the famous "Mindbeast of the Id Breaking Down the Door of the Krell Laboratory" scene from Forbidden Planet.) He passed his preliminary exam and was handed over to the technician, which he mysteriously never minds. So I was shocked to get the phone call that told me the teeth cleaning had uncovered a serious problem that called for emergency surgery. His eyeteeth, which had always protruded from his mouth in charming vampire fashion, had gotten infected to the point where it was threatening to invade his circulatory system. I immediately authorized his surgery and was happy to bring him home, sans fangs, where he made a quick and complete recovery with the help of vitamins, antibiotics, and kitty morphine.

My discussion with the vet reassured me on several points. He wanted to know if I had seen any changes in Puffy's behavior. I had not. He ALWAYS spent a lot of time hiding under the bed, and he ALWAYS had a good appetite. The vet agreed with me that cats are particularly good at hiding their illnesses. There wasn't anything to tip me off, even with the drooling, which is something he does a lot of the time, anyway, especially around Cherry Garcia ice cream.

And no, his occasional ice cream indulgences hadn't caused the infection; the rest of his teeth were in great shape and Puffy was cleared for future tiny treats. It seemed to be a congenital problem lurking since birth, waiting for a random gene (and Puffy has no other kind,) to activate and cause problems.

The vet told me that we had caught it in time, and it wasn't a possibility that it had affected Puffy's intellectual capacities, except that he probably had been in pain and feeling crappy for those past few months. And indeed he must have been, because Puffy's dimness has actually lightened since his surgery.

This isn't a Flowers for Algernon story, wherein Puffy suddenly begins solving quadratic equations. He still panics when people come in. He still barks (yes, he barks, he grew up with dogs) at people from our third floor window, because he's not afraid of them when they are two inches tall. He still sticks his head into the cat food can and gets gravy all over his ears. He still needs to be rebooted at times.

But he's getting into our laps a lot more often, and staying longer. He appears more quickly when he's called. He's still Puffy, only more so, and now even more of a joy.

So there's hope. Hope for the dim among us. The point of my admittedly long story is that what happened to Puffy can happen to all of those whose brains have been clouded by negative emotions so ably stirred up by Rovian tactics. We've seen signs that people are not falling for the fear so readily. When the fear clears, people are able to think again.

Just as Puffy retreated into dimness when his system was under attack, so did much of the population when it perceived itself under attack. As Puffy got better, his system actually rebounded, so he was capable of being better than he was before. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of America can wake up from this nightware with some lessons learned, and rebound.

To be Americans again. Only more so.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What Mel Gibson tells us about politics.

There's perception, and there's reality.

It's a private theory of mine, well supported by casual research, that the best villains are played by actors who are actually sweet people. Boris Karloff played monsters, and yet was widely regarded by all who knew him as a kind and generous soul.

On the other hand, from the same era, there's Wallace Beery, who was best known for playing lovable slob types. Jackie Cooper: Cooper later gave the real story. He said Beery was a violent, foul-mouthed drunkard who was disliked by those he worked with. Cooper even said Beery had been abusive towards him and he could not stand working with him. He said Beery was one of the cruelest most sadistic people he had ever known.

And why does this common dichotomy disturb so many people? We are talking about actors, who make their living by pretending to be someone they are not. It makes sense to me that, at the highest levels of craft in this profession, the best actors are those who are capable of playing someone who is 180 degrees from their actual persona, and doing it well.

In fact, my theory about the best villains contains a corollary; that it is freeing, again craft-wise, to play someone who is not like yourself, so that you can be objective about the best way to convey the required persona.

And just what does this have to do with Mel Gibson and politics? It's about a very common phenomena that causes extensive misery: loving the illusion.

For a few decades now, Mel Gibson has successfully projected a loveable guy. A little hot-tempered, sure, and maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but oh-so-funny, and on the side of truth and justice, fer sure. And in one drunken rant, this image has been upended.

And there has been no end of people rushing to the rationalization. From "you can't take drunks seriously" to "yes, the Jews are behind it all!" the outpouring in defense of shattered illusions has been large and strident. And utterly misguided.

It is undeniable that Gibson has revealed a side of himself that has been successfully kept hidden. And I think it's undeniable that impaired judgement played a part, but it does not excuse the sentiments expressed.

I may be wrong, but based on my personal experience, what a person does under the influence of alcohol is a reliable guide to what they are really like. For instance, I am what is known as a "happy drunk." If I have a few glasses of wine, I get philosophical, opinionated, rabidly interested in psychological structures, and empathetic to the point of sappiness. But then again, I'm like that sober.

Gibson didn't get drunk and rave about aliens infesting his tighty-whities. And if he had, the explanation would be written off as a delusion. Sure, this would alienate the aliens, who would not finance his movies in future. But it wouldn't necessarily upset his image. And if we discovered that his father was well-known for his own theory about underwear-aliens, we would nod to each other and say, "That's where he got it from."

I think this same explanation covers what Gibson actually did. Unlike alien-paranoia, which could, with judicious attention to undergarment purchases, be kept under control, anti-Semitism is a virulent and unexcusable prejudice. It's a little more understandable in a Midwestern farm family who might not have met an actual person of the Jewish faith in generations. It's inconceivable in a person whose professional career involves working with people of all persuasions, some of whom are Jewish.

So the reality has to be: Gibson is an anti-Semite. He does hold unreasoning prejudices against a certain group of people, and maybe more, for all we know. And the fact that he's admitted to substance abuse problems does not change this fact.

In fact, it explains it. It must not be easy being Mel Gibson, having to hold two irreconcilable facts in his head at all times. He hangs on to his anti-Semitism as a link to his father, a professional Holocause debunker. And he is confronted, day after day, with people who are Jewish and yet do not fit his preconceptions.

It's enough to drive a man to drink.

It's a fact of Hollywood that harsh truths about real actors can cause career ripples. And the same applies to politicians. There are few cliches more enduring than the public face of piety and goodness being ripped away to show the real monster beneath the mask. It's enough to make cynics mistrust any public face.

But just because a public face can be manipulated doesn't mean they all are. Because if we are willing to look for the signs of the real face, they are always there.

This isn't the first time Gibson has been accused of anti-Semitism. It's just the first time the evidence has been so stark. And from the time I heard about George W Bush's mocking imitation of a death-row murderer pleading for her life, a request that was met, out of many possible responses, with an absolute relish for ensuring her demise, I knew about Bush.

It has nothing to do with pros or cons about the death penalty, or guilt versus innocence, or Texas politics.

"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me." The Houston Chronicle, August 10, 1999

The mask slipped. We saw how Bush uses power. And there's not enough rationalizations in the world to explain away how easily Bush revealed himself to a newspaper reporter. By his own claim, Bush was not drinking at this point in time.

Whether you are voting for the Leader of the Free World or choosing a date, it's important to remember to look beneath the illusion. We all try to put our best face forward. How closely does the reality match that face? Clues abound. We only have to look for them.

Instead, too often, we settle for the comforting illusion. It's so much nicer. It makes us feel so much better. And when we go for a drive down a dark road with an oh-so-charming person, the moment when the mask comes off is lit by the flash of hindsight.

Of course! It's so obvious now!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Happiness: It's all in your head. - Unhappiness has risen in the past decade: 'Happiness has a very weak relation to the events in our lives,' Haidt says. 'Your happiness level is determined mostly by the structure in your brain -- not by whether good or bad things happen to you. Negative events hurt or feel bad, but they are not usually as bad as we think and don't last as long as we think.

Gee, I guess the fact that "unhappiness has risen" is simply that brain chemicals have changed in the last decade.

Ya think? That the chains of amino acids that have been doing their thing for millenia just up and changed around in the last decade and that's why people are more unhappy?

Oh, YEAH. That must be it.

This beanhead really ticks me off. (I'm not wishing on him a cancer scare. The thought occurred, I admit it, but I didn't DO it. Can't control those pesky brain stuctures, ya know.) While I am a big fan of perspective, this nihilist "it's all in your head anyway so what does it matter" outlook is truly reality-ignoring at its worst.

By saying happiness has a very weak relation to the events in our lives the person is implying that we could be just as happy living in a tarpaper shack with a demented relative as we could be in a mansion with a devoted rich spouse, all else being equal. And yes, that's theoretically possible. But it sure would be easier in the second instance, wouldn't it?

He goes on to say, Happiness is an individual thing, like a thermostat in our brains with a baseline that's predetermined by genetics. So there's really not a lot you can do about it, though apparently he's written a whole book on giving it a shot. If you come from a glum family, that's why you are glum. And they are glum because of that genetics thing, instead of your father losing half his torso in a mining accident, and Granny using her .22 on potential dates, and Momma keeping it all together with the Bible and a smile, even though her drinking is getting a bit out of hand.

Naw, getting away from your family won't help the glum.

There is a kind of depression that is not related to life events. And that kind of depression is related to whacky brain chemicals. And those people should be helped. But there's much more depression related to all kinds of tragedies that originate HERE, in the all-too-real-world, that will impact a person regardless of their brain chemicals. In fact, we have a word for somebody who is cheerful despite losing loved ones.

That word is sociopath.