Pretty Busy Right Now

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What have I been doing? In order of time commitment (with the most time spent at the top):

Oh yeah, and then there’s that kid I’m raising, who is pretty well tied for the #1 spot on that list.

So if you were hoping to track me down for a project, I gotta say, I’m pretty booked right now… Talk to me if you’re interested in setting something up for the longer term, though! You can email me at Naomi @ [this domain] dot com

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Occupy the Media

This guy does a great job of characterizing politicians’ current rhetorical tightrope-walking between the populist support of #OccupyWallStreet and the big dollar support of their high-finance-industry campaign backers.

What I most love about this clip is that this reporter makes no attempts to be unbiased. He puts useful information out there within an obviously progressive frame of reference, makes fun of his sources, and still gets the message out. To me, the style of The Young Turks (who made the video above) represents a facet of the kind of disruption needed to make this country the very different place it needs to become.

It got me thinking. How could we make it so that votes can no longer be bought?

The reason politicians take huge bribes campaign donations is to fund their propaganda machines. (They also have a bit of an incentive to take a lot more than they need: they have no obligation to give any of it back! Talk about a nest egg.) The challenge for politicians is to try to balance the implied influence of their biggest donations against the concerns of the vast majority of people.

In the world of Congress and political action committees, things are not always as they seem. Members of Congress all want to vote for Clean Air, but they also want to get campaign contributions from corporations, and they want to pass a law that business will see as “reasonable”.

Republicans in particular have become extremely good at getting people to vote against their own best interests, even in the face of massive contradictions in their philosophy. The democrats appear to be catching up, judging by the video, though they still come out sounding pretty dumb.

The reason politicians need huge campaign funds is in large part because they need to buy expensive TV commercials and other advertising across the nation. We don’t even KNOW how much money has gone into political advertising, because a lot of data have suspiciously gone missing, but it appears to be in the billions of dollars.

Presumably, then, it is drastically important to propagandize the populace wherever and whenever possible, and it is assumed that the majority of the populace is watching a lot of TV.

And there’s a memetic arms race, isn’t there. As a political candidate, one cannot allow one’s competitor to outspend one’s own campaign. Not when there’s a direct correlation between campaign spending and voting outcomes.

Says Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center in Billion-Dollar Obama to Run Moneyed Campaign,

“It’s unrealistic to ask candidates to forego this money, when by definition, if you do what you think should be done, you are going to lose.”

Which frankly should sicken us. Why can our votes be bought? Because if we could figure that out, then maybe we could find a way to make campaign donations not be worth a damn.

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Red Wine: An Analysis of Health’s Red Herring

Much has been made lately of the salutatory benefits of resveratrol, an antioxidant found in certain magenta-skinned fruits like grapes and mulberries, and, much more salaciously, in red wine.

As usual, if there is a link to be found between a popular human vice and a redeeming quality thereof, it will be found and then flogged repeatedly until the shards of its truthiness are spread far and wide throughout the fitness tabloids. Thus we are told at least thrice per year that a glass of red wine is “good for you” because of its resveratrol contents, after which several vague notions about cancer prevention and workout results are bandied about without reference or explanation.

So here’s the latest red wine whopper. Science Daily yesterday published a press release entitled “Red Wine: Exercise in a Bottle?” provided by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

As expected, the pop science world has gone into paroxysms over the renewed permission to drink an alcoholic beverage, ignoring the fact that experimental substance used was resveratrol, not red wine, and that the creatures used in the study did not imbibe, and could not have imbibed, nearly enough red wine to have made a difference to their muscle tone.

The conjecture that red wine is “healthy”, and confers any of the benefits of the minute amounts of resveratrol that it contains, has been perpetrated repeatedly on almost every level of science-like discourse: from the press releases faithfully reproduced on Science Daily, to throw-away mentions in beauty tips on Huffington Post blogs, to the following clip from a Barbara Walters piece on CBS News:

Did you catch that? According to these researchers, who first point out that resveratrol is found in red wine — after which you see the scientist clink his glass with Barbara Walters’ — one would actually need to consume 1,000 bottles of red wine a day to actually intake enough resveratrol to make the 700mg of clinical difference for an average-sized human being of 150 pounds.

That’s because these studies of resveratrol on mice are done using doses anywhere from 22mg / kg all the way up to 400mg / kg. Scale that last figure up to human size, and you’re looking at a 4 to 5 gram dose of resveratrol — something like 5000 bottles red wine per day.

And just to put things in perspective with regards to the claims being made about resveratrol and its ability to “replace” exercise: only one positive human trial exists that has shown effects on blood sugar lowering, in which patients consumed 3 to 5 grams of resveratrol per day — a hell of a lot more than the 700mg the above supplement schills would have you buy from them.

Yet here we have a quote in the “Red Wine: Exercise in a Bottle?” press release about red wine being an acceptable substitute for taking resveratrol supplements:

“If resveratrol supplements are not your cup of tea,” Weissmann added, “then there’s good news. You can find it naturally in red wine, making it the toast of the Milky Way.”

The casual reader might assume that Weissmann is Mr. Upstanding Science Researcher who actually conducted the study, who is commenting on his results and recommending you go ahead and have that glass of red wine. Careful reading, however, reveals that Weissmann here is the editor-in-chief of the journal which produced this press release. (Let us also note that this article appears also “with editorial adaptations by the ScienceDaily staff.”)

So what are we to believe? The Truth of the matter is that you simply cannot consume enough red wine to make any measurable difference in your metabolism. Red wine is being used to “sell” scientific research about a phytochemical (resveratrol) which just happens to appear in a minute concentration in the beverage, much the way images of scantily clad young women are used to sell beer, especially in places where such women appear in minute concentrations.

Should we forgive the science publicists? After all, they’re just trying to make research accessible.

No, I really don’t think we should. Headlines tend to create the culturally-accepted truth, especially when repeated without contest. The facts are never far from the headlines — follow along in my “heckling the science news” section below — and yet the media chugs down the “drink red wine for health!” meme faithfully.

Sites like Science Daily serve as repositories for science press releases, created by associations and institutions whose job it is to make an impact on awareness of scientific studies on behalf of their researchers.

There isn’t a scientist out there who would argue for the consumption of 1000 bottles of red wine per day, so I find it hard to believe that there is any serious scientific discourse around that concept whatsoever. The blame falls on science marketing for perpetrating a very stupid myth, one I am intensely bored of reading about.

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Why I Planned a Home Birth (and You Should Too)

The at-home birth of Calvin Chaos! (and his midwife looking on) A couple of articlettes just popped up on nytimes.com regarding home birth, which is (in the present American ficton at least) a controversial subject. Apparently home births are on the rise [sciencedaily.com], at least for white American ladies, and that’s a good thing.

The beautiful thing about my homebirth is there wasn’t much of a story? Pretty much: i went into labor, my midwives showed up, i gave birth. –Ambrose, commenting on nytimes.com

In 2010 Q4, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy entirely at home, entirely naturally. I had planned to do so from about month 3 of my pregnancy, after I had studied all the angles. (Here are many of those angles.) For me, the biggest motivator in staying out of the hospital was the knowledge that the more preparation I did myself, and the more of the birth experience I felt responsible for, the better would be the birth outcome. There’s a lot IN that, and feel free to ask for specifics, but it’s well outside the scope of this blog post to go into all of it.

What prompted this post was one of the nytimes.com articlettes entitled, “Having Baby at Home: Share Your Story”. I decided to share my story, especially after reading several anti-homebirth comments which were more highly recommended than any others. For example, this little gem from the inflamed Tara:

I find it pretty inflammatory that women think they are better than science and medicine. Yes, it’s a medical procedure, for better and for worse. The “medicalization” of childbirth is the very reason we no longer see cemetaries piling up with the headstones of women in their childbearing years.

So, here’s my inflammatory opinion: I have yet to hear a justification for homebirth that doesn’t sound like this: “I’m special, I’m special, I’m special.” Please. Have your baby in a hospital. If you are not happy with your “birthing experience,” try getting a life.

And that just got my postpartum panties all in a bunch. Luckily, commenter Sarah had already found the best way to respond (emphasis mine):

Women choose home birth not because they believe they’re special, but because they believe they aren’t. They choose it because they believe that, like the billions of women who came before them, they can deliver a healthy baby into this world without the aid of drugs or scalpels. If complications do arise, and drugs and scalpels become necessary, then they can transfer to the hospital at that point. But there is no reason to assume that most women need that kind of intervention.

Right! I believed I wasn’t special. In fact, I believed I was retarded by comparison to those hundreds of generations of women before me, because I hadn’t had my first child at 18, and I hadn’t been squatting 15 times a day, and I hadn’t been walking for hours every day, and so on. These and many other little factors add up to make or break a successful natural birth.

The more I read about the physiological makeup of a classically healthy woman, the more I realized I’d have to WORK to be UN-special enough to have a home birth.

Succeeding at a home birth is not the easy route. You have to fight for it.

Hard core pinata training at the baby shower.


But it’s worth fighting through the tough but actually pretty bearable pains of labor to avoid the possibility of a spinal abscess from an epidural.

It’s worth doing 6 to 8 weeks of sometimes enjoyable perineal stretching to avoid 6 to 8 weeks of healing a painful episiotomy.

And it’s definitely worth the immeasurable hormonal and immune system benefits of drug-free vaginal birth to you and your baby from having a relatively short, uncomplicated labor, which you can make more likely by doing prenatal yoga all through pregnancy in order to train the hips to open up easily and to train yourself to relax in the face of pain.

The rewards of finding your way through the labor process without drugs or surgery, and out of the medical environment, are many and great. You can eat or drink whatever you want, whenever you want. You can get in your own shower and afterward swaddle yourself in towels for a little while. You can wander around like a zombie, moaning through the pain, if it seems to make sense at the time.

There is a place for the medical establishment around childbirth, of course, and I wrote a bit about that in my comment on nytimes.com — mostly spurred into action by Tara the Inflammable. I’ve copied it below; enjoy.

I had a fantastic home birth last year. I was a low-risk pregnancy to begin with, but I carried “late”. That is, I carried my baby for almost 42 weeks, which is in fact the NORM for white women with their first baby.

Most hospitals these days will not allow you to bypass your “due date” — as if every woman’s body runs on a perfect clock (we know it doesn’t!), and will instead SCHEDULE your birth so you won’t be “late”. Presumably this is to decrease the chances of complications, but somewhere along the line, medical science decided to ignore actual evidence and instead go with their gut feeling on how much this actually helps.

My decision to deliver at home was based on widely available statistics and on my anthropology studies which gave me information that allowed me to trust the natural birthing process.

My midwife — who this year will have overseen more than 1000 births! — took every precaution as I went over my “due date” (which, by the way, the majority of white women with their first baby bypass, so how is it “late”?). She even had me schedule a prenatal screening where they monitor the baby’s heartbeat to make sure everything was still fine. Any good midwife will take care to integrate (not shun) modern medicine wherever it is appropriate.

My birth at 41.5 weeks was completely natural. The labor lasted about 8 hours, and I pushed for about 24 minutes. I had no vaginal tears, just a “bruise” which was sore for maybe 4 days. My baby was born at an entirely moderate 7.5 pounds and in the best of health.

If I’d been with a hospital for my prenatal care, they would have scheduled me for an induction at 40 weeks. My son would have had a lower birth weight. And most likely, due to the pitocin based induction, I would have wound up laboring too fast and needing an epidural.

All in the name of making birth “safer”. Never mind the fact that doctors and caretakers still aren’t washing their hands regularly enough, and that a hospital is the most likely place for newborns to catch infectious, possibly lethal diseases.

People who think that medicalized births are categorically better are simply wrong. Births should happen in safe, non-medical environments (home or a birth center) more often than not. A hospital backup plan is always warranted, but it shouldn’t be Plan A.

Besides, health care costs are already through the roof. Why should we drive them up further by submitting mothers to unnecessary procedures?

Falling asleep on your own bed with your newborn son: WORTH FIGHTING FOR

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Radio Valencia: the little radio station that could

I’ve spent many, many hours over the past year helping build a new “pirate” radio station in San Francisco called Radio Valencia.

Listen Now if you dare:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And if you have a minute, visit the website and check out the ever-increasing array of show blogs and nifty widgets for your amusement. Most of the DJs camp out on the chat during their shows and may even do a little monkey dance at your command. On the radio!

The website itself is the result of many weeks of planning, the heroic thematic efforts of Orin Zebest (capitalizing on initial designs by Rick Abruzzo), and the fortuitously timed release of WordPress 3.0, which made it possible to give each show its own “show blog”, i.e. sub-site. We wouldn’t call it “feature complete” by any means, though — still lots more neat stuff to come.

We Want the Airwaves

Someone is broadcasting our stream here in San Francisco over the 87.9fm frequency (you know, the one Pirate Cat got fined over). Given my own history with Pirate Cat Radio and the subsequent events thereof, I find the idea of Radio Valencia broadcasting on 87.9 rather funny. Alas, we cannot take credit, and have no idea where the rogue transmitter might be.

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On Connectedness: Mark Pesce at TEDxCanberra

At TEDxCanberra 2010, Mark Pesce, one of my favorite speakers of all time, delivered this missive on the wonderful, horrible powers of technological connectedness.

Many of you, my dear readers, will be struck by how non-TED-like is his delivery. So I will say: understand this talk from his cadence, his emphasis, his deliberation. He’s making his points not just by spouting words.

And many more of you will hear what seems to be Luddism in his message. Stick with it and you’ll understand. And if the habit of instant connectedness has made you a bit impatient, you will find a minor spoiler below the video that may encourage you.

Best bits:

“It’s not my thought to make you fear the future. But rather to make you conscious of it, so that we can prepare. Because it is all changing. It has already changed. It’s going to change a lot more. And in an instant, things can become unrecognizable.”

“This instinct is being bleached to white in the face of a much brighter light.”

“Take this, and dial! And you will have food and knowledge and hope.”

“Because THIS ends, because flesh fails, IT is more important.”

In other news, I have just become aware of cultofmarkpesce.com and I am thoroughly amused.

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Should We Allow Market Conversations With Minors?

Sympathetically incensed by this post on DadWagon.com entitled, “Dear General Mills: Fuck You”, I started giving some thought to the problem of highly child-attractive packaging selling food that even pigeons would reject. The kind of food for which it seems that the lower the cost of the ingredients, the greater the expenditure on marketing to get kids to badger their parents to buy for them.

I’m sure that a ban on child-targeted marketing (if you could get past the absurdly difficult task of defining what qualifies) would be met with cries of suppressing the free market. But what does it mean for children to be participants in the free market, when a healthy functioning market with the accurate consumer pressures can only really happen in the presence of an informed and rational consumer base? (Pushing aside, for the moment, the fact that there is no such thing as a fully-informed and rational consumer.)

Children may or may not know what’s healthy for them, but they have no concept of moderation or proportion, and they certainly don’t know how to identify a “bad” food just from its packaging. At best, we as parents could teach them, but with intensely variable results that couldn’t possibly result in an honest market. Hell, most adults aren’t that good at figuring it out for themselves, and manufacturers are adept at the art of confusing the issue of “healthy”, just to make it that much harder.

As a society we have agreed that children — persons under the age of 18 — are unable to successfully navigate the moral, legal, and fiscal landscape on their own. We don’t enable them to vote, to open bank accounts without an adult before the age of 11 (generally), or to enter into employment until age 14. We don’t hold the same kind of trial for a wayward child as we would for a wrongfully acting adult, because we don’t consider moral judgement to be fully developed until age 18.

We have agreed, in other words, that children aren’t suitable candidates for participants in a consumer culture.

So why do we allow merchandisers to create messages trying to enter into conversations with children as if they are consumers?

The obvious answer, of course, is that even if we were ready to regulate these messages, we would have an extremely hard time deciding where to draw the lines of acceptability. Could an appointed “marketing czar” satisfactorily put the kibosh only on those brands attempting to speak directly to minors?

But when a huge fast food chain like McDonald’s can admit that even for kids, marketing sells carrots, then we’ve reached the stage at which we’re declaring, without room for doubt, that market conversations drive decision-making. In other words, those veggies wrapped in brightly-colored packages festooned with cartoon characters really are better than their naked veggie counterparts.

And when a leader like McDonald’s makes these assertions, then it seems that in our free market crazed society (not necessarily a bad thing, but just sayin’), we’ve decided that there is no putting the spirits of branding back into Pandora’s box.

This choice (made entirely by corporations FOR us, it must be understood) means that the task of parenthood would not be to teach how to choose healthy foods based on knowledge of foods themselves, but to guide children through a brand landscape that seeks to engage minors in conversations based on profit motive, rather than intent of good for the child. Parents might then teach not about avoiding the attractive packaging and happy-faced cartoons, but about which happy-faced cartoons represent the Good Food.

But can we teach children in this way? The very essence of marketing is to cut to the core of human desire, to slip past the cognitive filters with a combination of emotional engagement and sensory overload. And through forces we don’t quite understand, aesthetic choice might be influenced but can’t be rationed with. As the Roman saying went, “de gustibus non disputandum est” — there is no disputing taste.

There are also implications for the foods themselves. To say that the conversation is not about the product but about the brand is to say that there is nothing intrinsically appealing about carrots — that the appeal of food comes from the sensory overload delivered by its packaging. This is fertile ground for Michael Pollan to have covered.

It’s never my intent or interest to issue decrees, to try to “solve” cultural problems, although I do think that exploring and discussing the issue actually constitutes real action towards betterment of everyone’s condition.

But I will say this. We could just ban kids from grocery stores and fast food joints.

Thanks to Jonathan Foote for un-bastardizing my egregious Latin.

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Why The Interstate Battery Warranty is Worthless

…And its implications for Modern Consumerism

This is a tale of how even customer service with “good intentions” can sometimes have a deleterious effect on customer approval and long-term loyalty.

I can’t blame Interstate’s customer service rep(s) for how they acted; but it would be useful for Interstate to understand why this particular customer — my partner, Josh — chose to buy an entirely new non-Interstate battery when his Interstate battery died, even though he was eligible for a free, unconditional replacement under the Interstate battery warranty.

It is also a demonstration of how consumer attitudes have shifted and continue to shift beyond the behaviours expected by classical economics.

Not long ago, Josh found his Mazda RX-8 in an unstartable condition after about a month of garaging. He quickly tracked it down to a dead battery — which was curious, given that he’d only bought the battery about a year ago. Untroubled as he had an Interstate battery that was well within their much-vaunted warranty, and he still had the receipt, he proceeded to call around to find locations that would replace his battery.

The Interstate warranty is of course a lengthy and legalistic document, but it boils down to this: all batteries bought from Interstate which fail within a certain time period (depending on type and usage of battery) will be replaced free of charge. Simply take your dead battery with the receipt to any Interstate vendor — regardless of where you purchased it — and you’ll be provided with a new one.

Simple enough in theory. But as we quickly discovered, Interstate is not actually able to enforce their own warranty.

First Josh called up a local Firestone and asked if they would replace the dead battery. Firestone informed him that they wouldn’t give him a new battery unless he paid for 2 hours of labor. Since 2 hours of labor costs about double what a new battery costs, this course of action would be patently ridiculous.

Next he called Midas to see if they’d replace it. They told him they’d only replace an Interstate battery if he were holding a Midas receipt.

Finally, Josh called the local hardware store about a mile and a half from our place. They also refused to honor the warranty in their store since the Interstate battery hadn’t been purchased through them.

Annoyed, Josh went looking for their account on Twitter, didn’t find them, and posted a public gripe about Interstate batteries that was something along the lines of, “Interstate’s battery warranty is worthless. Firestone and Midas won’t replace.” Within minutes, a user known as @interstatebatts, which turned out to be the official voice of Interstate’s customer service division, told him that his battery should absolutely be replaced, and that Josh should contact Interstate more directly to remedy the situation.

Over Twitter and phone conversations, the situation was relayed, but not exactly remedied. Interstate appeared to have no interest in trying to hold their resellers and vendors to their stated warranty.

Instead, Interstate suggested to Josh that he go ahead and take the battery to Firestone — paying them for 2 hours labor — and that Interstate would reimburse him for that labor time. End result: Josh gets his battery replaced for free; Interstate spends 3 times what the battery is worth.

We Can’t Afford to Just Be Consumers Anymore

In the classical model of economics, a self-interested consumer like Josh would readily accept Interstate’s offer, seeing no downside.

But Josh is part of a new class of consumers who understand the idea of “voting with your dollar”, and it goes well beyond which brand of toilet paper you bring to the checkout line. There are several immediate downsides to the “resolution” Interstate brought to the table:

  1. Firestone would be rewarded for their ridiculous 2-hour-minimum policy to change the battery.
  2. Interstate would continue to be unable to enforce their warranty.
  3. The customer (Josh) would have no reason to believe he’d be able to get a new battery in the future without all of the nonsense implied by the resolution — namely, paying for the 2 hours of labor himself and then securing reimbursement from Interstate.

Josh looked at the options and decided not to enable the vendors in their bullying of Interstate, and not to encourage Interstate to bend over for them. And he realized his time in chasing down his due was worth more than the value of the product in question.

So in the end, Josh refused the offer, and bought a brand new non-Interstate battery at a chain auto parts store, which will honour his receipt at dozens of locations around the Bay Area.

And he swears never to buy an Interstate battery again, because even the best-intentioned customer service and warranty offers mean squat if they cause the consumer more hassle than the product is worth. His decision was rooted in a certain kind of “new self-interest” wherein consumers can see the web of consequences arising from a transaction and can vote with their dollars — or in this case, with their acceptance of customer service — on whether they’d like to live in a world that continues to operate in that way.

Interstate may have written up an “impressive warranty”, but it’s worthless without a business ecosystem willing and able to fulfil it.

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Costume, Culture, and Coterie

Culture fascinates me, particularly the foundations and perpetuations of niche subcultures transfixed on certain anchor points. We think of “hipster bars” and the type of people who frequent them, as if they are a distinct race, and we feel strange that we can pigeonhole individuals this way; except that these snap assumptions so often bear out that we can parody, hilariously, how to become this “sort” of person.

Why can we do that? Why do people who dress a certain way tend to hang out at the same places, talk about the same sorts of things, and use the same brand of smartphone? Of course much can be explained by upbringing, socioeconomic class, geographic location, and so on. Those factors are the traditional foundations of culture.

But these factors don’t explain the ever burgeoning emergence of subcultural tribes composed of non-related individuals who often have none of these things in common, and yet are found exhibiting remarkable similarities and frequently anchoring themselves to arbitrary foundational concepts.

Recently, my sister Mary, fashion model and model loligirl, brought my attention to this mini-documentary about Lolita, a subcultural genre founded on the revival of Victorian and Gothic fashions.

Lolita was originally a Japanese fashion but has found purchase in tiny caches all over the world, and can now be considered a truly international phenomenon. The fact that Loli-girls frequently number something like a dozen or less in any given city (outside of Japan) and yet maintain a certain consistent quality of dress, speaking, and acting — all of which stand in stark contrast to these individuals’ local cultural standards — makes this a subculture worthy of study. (Important note: not identical, but consistent.)

With regards to what it means for individuals to emerge into and form subcultures, one of the women interviewed in this video totally hit it out the park, starting at about 4 minutes 30 seconds. (Or watch the whole thing if you want to get Mary’s snarky comment about it.)

“I’m more attracted into going to a teahouse than I would be at hanging out at a club. You have a certain sense of aesthetics that you project onto the world around you, so when you are looking outwards, beyond yourself, you are sort of, like, looking for the page in the book in which you’re supposed to be illustrated.

This is It

There is a sense of “goes-with”, as Alan Watts would say. Part of it comes FROM culture, and part of it is the ongoing dance of establishment OF culture, in which individuals are drawn to certain aesthetics and find themselves either gathering in cafes wearing black berets, or amassing in dance clubs wearing high-heeled neon boots.

Alan Watts might call teahouses, fluffy dresses, twirling, and looking off into the distance “symptoms” of Lolita. Not all of these symptoms must be in evidence, but they tend to go together. And the individuals — who are not really acting individually, but are rather acting in concert with the Lolita “condition” — draw themselves together and into those goes-with places at the same time they are constantly revising both the places and themselves. The revision itself becomes a game, becomes the topic of interest that continues to draw these people and things together.

But what is that strange force I’ve been dancing around, the one doing all of that drawing?

It’s aesthetic.

What is aesthetic?

I’m not sure. But I had a revelation about it about 2 years ago, and I recorded my thoughts on a Creative Zen thingy that I bought in Tokyo, left in the DJ booth at Pirate Cat Radio a few months later, and never saw again.

Over the course of several cafe outings, in which I’ll be sorting out what kind of aesthetic I can manage now that I have a baby strapped to my chest when I go out, I’m planning to recover those thoughts for a future blog post.

In the meantime: what are YOUR thoughts? What IS aesthetic?

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The Unbearable Lightness of Helium

We are letting go of all our helium. This is no joke. As we satisfy our mylar bellies’ hunger for maximum buoyancy, helium escapes from our planet at a rate much faster than the Earth can replenish it, and the US, holding 75% of the world’s supply, happens to be selling it off at bargain-basement prices [dailymail.co.uk]. We’re set to fully run out of helium around the year 2035.

But some of my favorite comedians — the ones with more than trace elements of intelligence — love to make light of it.

Last night, The Daily Show ran a special report on the looming helium gas-hole. But Brian Malow (the Science Comedian . . . “dot com!”) beat both The Daily Mail and The Daily Show to the punchline back in 2009, in this nerdtastic Ignite talk at the Web 2.0 Expo in SF [laughingsquid.com]:

Helium is a nonrenewable, finite resource, yet it’s a crucial and insubstitutable element in technologies where its uniquely low boiling point is necessary for cooling, such as in MRI scanners and in the manufacture of liquid crystal displays. Why are we so frivolously letting go of helium?

Well, basically, because we can… and because people are unaware that we shouldn’t be able to. Prices have been driven up, scarcity can definitely be felt, but public understanding of the fact that helium, once consumed, can never be retrieved and won’t be replaced, is not exactly at the forefront of environmental education.

“We have to be thinking of these things,” said Lee Sobotka, a chemistry and physics professor at Washington University. “Up to now, the issue often hasn’t risen to the level that it’s important. It’s a problem for the next generation of scientists. But it’s incumbent upon us to have a vision, and tell it like it is a resource that is more strictly nonrenewable than either oil or gas.”

This is not to say that guilt would stimulate conservation. As this party balloon seller remarked in 2008 [herald-review.com], following a huge price surge in helium gas,

“Sometimes customers are a little surprised by the price, but it doesn’t prevent them from wanting a fun arrangement,” he said. “It’s sort of like price increases with things like gasoline or bread, or milk. People don’t stop buying them.”

For the consumer, helium was already an occasional luxury. Now it’s simply a more expensive occasional luxury. It will likely take prices even the rich consider ludicrous to deter consumer-market depletion of helium, which is not likely to happen without tight regulation of the supply.

Et Tu, Boyfriend?

Testing the theory that girls love a bad boy, my partner Josh fritters away our dwindling helium reserves by sending weather balloons up to near-space to take pictures and send back GPS and other sensory data via ham radio. He filed this post on his blog about the third in a series of missions dubbed “Bacchus” under thank god my girlfriend thinks this is sexy. Hmm.

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