Category Archives: Pop culture

Reviewers Focus on New Instead of Good

Something that I often see happen with professional reviewers is that they get so focused on the details of what they’re reviewing that they can miss the big picture. As they become ever more expert in their field, they tend to get mired in the miniscule differences that only an expert can see. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you want your reviewers to know what they’re talking about – but you need to be aware of this possibility and read the reviews accordingly.

For example, in reviews of TVs (not TV shows….actual TVs) you’ll often see reviewers rhapsodically discuss the blackness of the blacks, or maybe discuss in detail the customizable settings 7 layers deep, like this: “I really appreciated that both THX Cinema and THX Bright Room offer basic adjustments.” And for the serious gear-head, that is useful info, but for most of us, we just want to know if the picture is any good.

Similarly, this review of The Avengers discusses “the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism” (lines I wish I wrote, to be honest!) of the film, but not so much its entertainment value. Again, a useful review for the cineaste, but perhaps less valuable to a guy looking for a fun Friday night flick. Of course, you should probably know that a film review in the NY Times is going to trend toward the intellectual and away from the fun.

We saw a similar dynamic in the recent reviews of the new Yahoo weather app. Reviewers loved it, raving about its “modern design” and calling it “stunning.” And it is indeed a lovely app. But is loveliness essential to a weather app? When you say something like this

Visually rich is a great way to describe the new Yahoo Weather app for the iPhone. It uses Flickr community images to illustrate the weather in glorious, full-screen color rather than a boring table of temperatures with some tired pop-meteorology icons

– aren’t you missing the forest for the trees? Because what most users really want from their weather app is the ability to quickly see the weather forecast, and those “tired” icons do a pretty good job. Look at this photo, from Yahoo’s weather page on the web.

Tired, but very useful

Tired, but very useful

Pretty useful, yes? But the reviewers, so focused on their reviewerly details, have lost sight of what the real goal is, because they so want something to be different, fresh, new. Just like the NY Times wants The Avengers to be other than cynical, while the target audience wants nothing more than cynically formulaic entertainment. So absolutely read reviews, but keep in mind that most reviewers care about different things than you do.

Kids Say Hey: The Casualization of America

Here is something interesting I’ve noticed over the last year or so. The generations younger than mine – let’s say everyone under the age of 25 or so – use the word “hey” the same way my generation used “hello” and “dear” and “to whom it may concern.” When I get a cold email from a recent college grad who wants an informational interview, she starts it “Hey Thoughtbasket.” When I was in her shoes, I started such letters “Dear Thoughtbasket.” When my nephew sends me an email, he uses ‘hey” instead of “hi” or “hello” or just “Thoughtbasket.” When there are notes in the common areas of my building, they begin with “hey fellow tenants.”

I don’t love “hey” as a word; it’s too vague for me; I prefer more precision in my language. However, the real point of this post is to use “hey” as an example of the casualization of our society. Rather than a formal structure, in which the younger generation uses respectful language toward their elders, our society has eased into a more casual stance, in which we’re all pals who can say “hey” and then high-five each other. I’m not saying this is a bad thing….I am generally in favor of breaking down barriers, whether they are class-based or age-based. But it does seem kind of coarse. Like when there was that controversy a few years ago because a women’s athletic team wore flip-flops to the White House. There are situations where a little respect can go a long way, and respect is not conveyed by the word “hey.”

And of course, regular Thoughtbasket readers know how I feel about flip-flops; they were the topic of my first blog posting ever.

Go casual! Flip flops at the White House.

Go casual! Flip-flops at the White House.

Is Gun Culture Just As Bad As Hollywood?

When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA held his famous press conference after the Sandy Hook massacre, he criticized and cast blame on Hollywood and the videogame industry and their violent products. This is a common trope of the NRA and certain elements of the gun crowd: that our society’s media products glorify violence and create a culture where massacres are bound to happen.  According to LaPierre, the videogame industry is “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people” and thus we have “killers, robbers, rapists, gang members who have spread like cancer in every community across our nation.”

And here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree. The data from studies of this are inconclusive, including a new study that just came out: see more here and here. But to me it seems hard to believe that a person, especially a malleable teenager, can keep watching grotesquely violent movies like the Saw series, or playing shoot ‘em up games like Doom or Killzone, and not become slightly inured to violence. Maybe more violent, maybe not, but certainly with a greater tolerance for violence.

But if you buy into the concept that violent memes in culture could play a role, then the NRA itself, and those same certain elements of the gun crowd, are just as culpable as Hollywood and videogame makers.  I mean, look at the NRA’s favorite saying: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” Kind of violent, right? Or another quote from LaPierre at his press conference: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” How is that statement less glorifying of violence than Killzone? Or remember Sharron Angle and her call for “2nd amendment remedies” to government decisions she didn’t like? That sounds like a glorification of violence to me. How about the claim of gun rights activists that the 2nd amendment is all about fighting tyranny by enabling armed revolt against the government; that too sounds like promoting violence against laws you don’t like. [Note: I am not versed in the history of the 2nd amendment, so I have no idea if this claim is right or not; I only point out that it tends to be expressed in a way that glorifies violence.]

There is a ton to be said about gun rights and gun safety, and I’m not saying any of it, although I did recently point out that stupidity + guns = badness. But I am saying that if you want to talk about how culture breeds violence, you better be careful about your own words, because they too might breed violence. In my opinion, the gun crowd isn’t careful, and their cultural contributions are as violence-tinged as anything out of Hollywood.

By the way, has anyone ever noticed that LaPierre sort of looks like the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right before the Ark of the Covenant melts his face away?

Wayne LaPierre

Wayne LaPierre

Villain With Face Melting

Villain With Face Melting

Emerging Diseases and Forest Fires

I have been interested in emerging diseases ever since reading The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which was so intense that it kept me awake during an entire overnight train ride from Boston to Washington DC. So I was very psyched at Christmas to receive a copy of Spillover by David Quammen. I just finished it, and know a lot more now about how diseases jump from animals to humans.

Scary cover, great book!

Scary cover, great book!

Quammen uses the book to explore theories about why there seem to be more frequent incidents of humans being infected by animal diseases (think SARS, Ebola, Hendra, Avian Flu, etc.). One of the theories he discusses concerns how increased human development is breaking up large contiguous ecosytems into smaller ecosystems separated by cities, farms, etc.

For example, a large forest might be full of bats that could be carriers of some nasty virus. This forest contains metapopulation of bats, or a series of smaller populations that meet and mingle at their edges. In a metapopulation an infection is likely to be constantly present, but at a low level of incidence. If each smaller population becomes isolated, however, that population will likely go through a boom and bust cycle of infection, with periodic epidemics infecting most members of the population.

If that highly infected population runs into humans, there is increased likelihood of the infection passing to the humans. In other words, if 90% of bats are infected, then there is a higher probability of bats passing their disease to humans than if only 10% of bats are infected.

As development has broken up formerly vast forests into smaller forest segments surrounded by cities and suburbs, we have seen metapopulations of natural disease reservoirs (bats, rats, mice, etc.) broken up into the isolated populations that are more likely to transfer diseases. Hence the increasing number of obscure infections jumping into humans.

What struck me about this theory is the parallel to forest fires. Current wildfire thinking holds that if you put out wildfires, fuel loads will build up and eventually you will get a catastrophic fire that can’t be controlled (like the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, which burned nearly 500,000 acres; I drove through the edge of that fire, and the smoke turned day into night). But if you let natural fires burn, they will clear out the fuel load and not turn into conflagrations.

So you can have small, more frequent fires, or rare, catastrophic fires. Much like you can have frequent, low levels of infection in your animals, or rare, but massive levels of infection. And in both cases, human intervention in the environment is what moves things from low-level balance to a high-level cyclic system.

Bad Driving, Google Edition

My series of posts about double parking gets to intersect today with a trend getting some recent publicity: tech companies using private buses to drive their employees from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley.

You can read more about these buses here, here and here. There is a little controversy around these buses: on the one hand, they are clearly more environmentally friendly than having everyone drive their own cars. On the other hand, they are pretty freaking big, and often drive on city streets that aren’t designed for vehicles that large. Moreover, they use stops that are designated for city buses, and then the city buses don’t have room to stop.

Moreover, and this is my pet peeve, they don’t even pull all the way over into those stops. The photo below is of a private bus on Lombard Street, clearly not pulling into its stop and clearly blocking a lane of traffic. I don’t actually know which company’s bus this is; they tend to hide their affiliations, except for the Genentech buses, which are festooned with Genenetech logos, and which often do exactly what is pictured here, in the same exact spot.

Google bus blocking traffic

Google bus blocking traffic

In addition to their clogging up of city streets, I am a little torn on the private buses. I appreciate their greenness, but I wonder if the buses didn’t exist, then maybe a lot of these people would move out of the city and to Silicon Valley, closer to their work. Should we really enable people to live far away, rather than supporting a denser work-home nexus?

Bad Driving, Sysco Edition

People who know me in real life know how much I hate double parking. Those who double park are putting their convenience ahead of the literally dozens of people who get jammed up behind them. And double parking when there is a space you could actually pull into? That just makes me crazy. It’s so rude. So here is the first of a series of photos of egregious double parkers. This series will appear sporadically, and the photos will not be of great quality. But you’ll get the idea.

Sysco Delivery Truck

Sysco Delivery Truck

This Sysco foodservice truck is making a delivery on Hyde Street in San Francisco. Note to the right that there are at least two yellow parking spots, reserved specifically for loading (that’s what yellow means), sitting empty. This driver just couldn’t be bothered to pull into those reserved spots, and instead blocked one of three lanes on this major southbound thoroughfare.

There is only one word for this behavior: ASSHATTERY!

Spending Too Much on Brand Names; BMW, Coach, etc.

Interesting that it’s a car webzine ( that has written the best commentary I’ve seen on the trend of the past few years in which young people have been spending well beyond their means on brand-name cars, purses, clothes and other consumer products. There was a time when buying a BMW, or an Armani suit, or $1,000 purses and shoes, was something done by people in their 40’s and 50’s, who had been well paid for decades. Now 25 year olds PR account executives making $40,000 are buying Jimmy Choos and putting them on their credit cards. Or as the article says, a few years ago “the idea of spending four figures on a handbag when one worked at an entry-level white collar job would have been seen as irresponsible and reckless at worst, crass at best.” The pre-financial crisis debt binge wasn’t just about mortgages. People were overspending on all kinds of goods, and they still are.