Thursday, May 31, 2007

The incredible shrinking Tyra

During the America's Next Top Model finale episode a couple of weeks ago, Tyra was looking especially gaunt and unattractive. I didn't really care why until I read this. Turns out, she has lost 30 pounds. In five months.

For those who have forgotten, or who don't really care, Tyra was photographed looking fat-ish at an unattractive angle a few months back, and was then ridiculed by the supermarket aisle tabloids. She took the bait, and claimed she had fluctuated a lot since retiring from modelling, yes, but that she liked her normal and healthy body just fine. She appeared on her talk show in only a bathing suit to show off her figure. She said she was 161 pounds at her heaviest, up from 120 at her youngest model weight. As I railed at length in a January post, seeing a 5'10", 160 pound woman as fat is a sign of skewed body image. 160 pounds is in the normal BMI range and the 36th percentile for Tyra's age, weight and height--i.e., totally normally and healthy. On the other hand, 120 pounds is underweight.

If Tyra lost 30 pounds from her heaviest weight, she is now at 131, which is around the 5th percentile and five pounds away from underweight. And that's if her starting weight was 161. Much lower and she'd be ineligible to walk the Madrid catwalk, where models under 18 BMI are banned.

Let's assume she's still within the normal, healthy, range. I can't really fault her for changing her eating habits and taking off a few pounds, I guess. But she has lost 30 pounds. In five months. And during those five months she was simultaneously launching her "So What" campaign, striking back at the tabloids and hyper-thin models, and making a big deal about choosing two whole "plus-sized" models to be in the running towards becoming America's Next Top Model (though, conveniently, both were devoid of personality and the ability to pose and were eliminated early).

As much as I appreciate the lip-service Tyra gives to loving-your-body, is her waning figure mixing the message?

P.S. Check out this shot of the ANTM Cycle 8 winner. And her winner photo with Tyra.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ant misbehavin'

Last weekend, I spent a couple of gleeful hours pulling weeds and dying plants out of our front yard to make way for a few new future dead things. In the process I came across a few spiders, some nasty earwigs, and a whole lotta ants.

I respect insects, really I do. I love them so much I let them thrive in the damp plant debris of my overrun yard for months at a time. But I could swear the earwigs I unearthed were stalking me. Two of them came out of the ground and headed toward my feet while I was standing on the sidewalk. And each time I moved, they changed direction to follow me. I'm not kidding. So I squashed them with my spade.

Then, less than thirty minutes later, I found piles of ants busy pulling apart and carrying away the sticky goodness of earwig carcass. Mmmmm...earwig carcass.

At least the earwigs were crushed first. Shortly after we moved into this place, I was walking down our front steps to head to the grocery store when I saw a thrashing, oozing caterpillar being attacked by hundreds of merciless ants. When I returned a few minutes later, the caterpillar was mostly gone and decidedly dead.

I figured at that point that my battle with the ants already inside our home was doomed. Turns out, though, that the hundreds of tiny spiders that stand guard near every crack or hole in our creaky home mostly keep them in check, leaving behind piles of ant carcasses stacked neatly in the corners of our windowsills. As long as I avoid spraying ant and spider killer, and clean mostly with castille soap and vinegar, they keep up their important work. In fact, I've found that not cleaning the nooks and crannies at all works equally well.

I would prefer not to come into contact with ants. It makes me grumpy when ants invade my compost bin, or carry aphids onto my burgeoning herb garden, or herd up my son's leg when he steps onto the grass. And it makes me especially grumpy when I see or read more about just how incredible they are. For intance, a recent study reports that one ant species will throw itself into holes and dips in an ant trail to make the road smooth for the rest. My favorite quote: "Broadly, our research demonstrates that a simple but highly specialized behavior performed by a minority of ant workers can improve the performance of the majority, resulting in a clear benefit for the society as a whole." Darn it, I just can't stay mad an insect that will clean dead earwig meat off my sidewalk, or let 200,000 of its peers literally walk all over it for the good of the colony.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Must-see commercials

Television has a problem. We don't like watching commercials enough, and those of us with DVRs skip through them whenever possible. This is cause for alarm for the execs, who are increasingly looking for "creative" ways to get people to watch the commercials that pay for the programs. Read this edifying AP article for a primer on what's in store for us. Essentially, the methods involve either making the commercials so enticing that viewers will be tuning in just to catch them, or cleverly integrating the ads into the show itself.

To me, though, the fuss over DVR users ignoring the expensive ads seems misplaced. According to the AP article, only 6 out of 10 actually skip commercials, meaning 4 out of 10 don't bother, because they are too lazy to press the skip button 3-9 times, because they don't want to miss the funny commercials, or because they aren't paying enough attention to notice anyway. But DVRs users aren't the only ones who don't pay attention to their televisions. Many people work or read or study through shows, glancing up only when something is interesting. Many leave the room when commercials come on, or turn down the volume. At least those who skip through their commercials keep their eyes on the screen. Some amount of screen exposure is bound to sink in.

As for embedding the ads inside a program, the 6 out of 10 DVR users who know how to skip through commercials are certainly capable of skipping that stupid Ford ad that comes in the middle of American Idol. More "subtle" product placement is a big turn-off for at least one of us, and likely to make me tune out entirely. But even for those of us who avoid commercials, once in a while live television catches up with us, or we catch up with live television, and we are forced to choose between sitting through some lousy commercials and dragging our asses off the couch. And when the commericals win it's enough for me to have the misfortune of watching the latest UPS ad once to get that they have an unfortunate new slogan.

It seems the basic problem isn't a new one, and the solution is the same as always--barrage us with so many television commercials that we will have to at least cursorily notice or be annoyed by a few until we find the skip, volume, or power button. Anything more "creative" than that will only be as successful against commercial-break-skippers as it would be against commercial-break-snackers.

So is there really a problem? Only insofar as (a) we are being sold so much unnecessary crap that we may soon reach an ad saturation point and no longer be capable of absorbing a full sentence slogan--but that's a topic for another post--and (b) the more "creative" the execs get the more fatally annoyed I will be by the blurred line between commercial entertainment and entertaining commercials.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Because having talent is boring

Have you ever passed out with someone on the street and wished that you could blackout in that person's drunken, talentless life?

Lindsay Lohan is rehearsing to make her wish come true, as she prepares for her heartwarming upcoming episode on MTV's "Why Can't I Be You," in which Lindsay gets full access to Paris Hilton's life for 48 hours. Day one: Paris teaches Lindsay how to have someone else style her hair, pose sober, pose while holding a dog, pose while drunk, and pose while passed out. Day two: Paris shows Lindsay how to spruce up a jail cell. Don't miss it!

Partial transcript from the Former Bible Writers' The Book Club meeting

Look at that! Another group of savvy cynicists is mocking us with a literal interpretation of our work, trying to make our gorgeous mashed collection of folk tales, parables and historical interpretation look ridiculous.

Literal? What, like, as in man named Noah rounds up a lion and a lioness and puts them on a boat with two zebras, where they live happily side by side through a torrential rainstorm?

Yes. House built on rock, house built on sand...

But no one would build a house on sand. That's what gives the story meaning.

I know. It's offensive.

No, wait. Look closer. They're not trying to make a point. They're serious.


Yeah. They've even got dinosaurs on the ark.


They're those big animals that lived a few million years before us.

But I don't get it. I never wrote about dinosaurs. Did you?

Not me. Did they read the bible?

I don't know. Maybe they were too busy building that museum. Admission is only $19.95. Let's disguise ourselves and go down there to take a closer look. I'll be the serpent and you can be the burning bush.


Thanks. Seriously, though, these people would be so fun to mess with if we could get down there.

Yeah, as if our first stop on Earth would be Kentucky.

Right, whatever. Let's just get back to this week's reading. Should we start with the first creation story or the second this time?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Well heeled

On the heels of yesterday's shoe-themed post, I'm thrilled to share that Saks Fifth Avenue has announced the opening of a shoe department so large, they say, it will have its own ZIP code.

Perhaps this is what is necessary to keep in step with the likes of Zappos and other online retailers. Zappos boasts over 1,000 shoe brands in its warehouse. Its women's shoe selection is divided into three main categories: dress, casual, and athletic. Casual shoes, in turn, are categorized as casual boots, casual clogs, casual comfort shoes, casual flats, loafers, Mary-Janes, Mules, Oxfords, Casual Platforms, Casual Sandals, Slippers, Work & Duty, and more. (It gives me no great pleasure to say that in that space in my brain that should be reserved for the details of our judicial process or the writings of Thoreau, I instead store knowledge of what it means for a shoe to belong to each of these categories.) There are over 28,500 women's casual shoes listed, though, to be fair, some listings are just variations in material or color on a single style.

Shoes are great. Some are works of art. I once saw an exhibit of art-athletic shoes in a modern art museum that was quite impressive. There is a shoe museum in Toronto that houses over 10,000 pairs, and covers the history and art of shoes. The Virtual Shoe Museum currently features video of a "dance performance starring platform shoes" called aKabi, which should not be missed. Another virtual museum, the High Heel Shoe Museum, features shoes with a minimum 2.5 inch heel and includes ultra high heel stiletto shoes and fetish shoes, with links to places where you can buy many of the styles, which is totally great.

Equally great is the existence of shoes that are functional. Though, in the right climate, shoes aren't a strict requirement, unless you are planning to receive some kind of service by McDonalds; though many people manage to live without shoes, sometimes even by choice or conviction; and though shoes can cause all sorts of functional problems when worn incorrectly or for purposes that defy or transcend strict functionality, they can be useful additions to a wardrobe. And it is especially great that so many people, rather than spending an afternoon hunting and gathering food for their dinner, can use those valuable hours roaming a ZIP code in New York, or sitting on a couch shuffling through Zappos' 1200 or so pairs of "surf and skate" styles to find just the right pair for their totally unique lifestyle.

The Saks department will be known by its unique ZIP code, 10022-SHOE. It will take up the entire eighth floor, and will, according to the official Saks statement, "hold a place in US history as the first floor to be granted its own designated ZIP code by the United States Post Office." This is a cute store name that makes for a nice press release to go along with Saks' expansion, but I'm not sure how true their claim is. To be precise, it is the ZIP+4 code that is unique, not the five digit ZIP 10022. The USPS defines the ZIP+4 as an actual ZIP code plus an optional four digit add-on that "identifies a geographic segment within the five-digit delivery area, such as a city block, an office building, an individual high-volume receiver of mail, or any other unit that would aid efficient mail sorting and delivery." The code 46556-5660, for example, is designated for the first floor of Badin Hall at Notre Dame. Snagging a four letter word as your +4 that designates not just the floor of a department store but the stuff for sale on that floor is an excellent trick, though. Well done.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Happy feet

According to census data, Americans bought over 2 billion pairs of shoes in 2004. With a population just shy of 300 million that year--as Gerber so kindly advertised to us last year, the 300 millionth American joined us in October, and will surely be walking in time to take advantage of the fall shoe line--that makes over 6 pairs of shoes per person.

The Superior Footware company notes that the US per capita consumption is the highest in the world. In Europe the average per person is 4.8 pairs per year, in Saudi Arabia and Japan 4.5 pairs, in Canada 3.8 pairs, in China 2.7 pairs, in Vietnam 0.4 pairs, and in India 0.7 pairs.

In a chapter entitled "Find an occasional use," the book Mass Affluence: Seven New Rules of Marketing to Today's Consumer puts that US average a little lower--only 5 pairs per person per year. The book, which is unabashedly all about solving the problem of getting people who already have more than they need to think they need more, says that in the 1920's the average number of shoes sold per person per year was 2.5. Whereas that rate of purchase was probably just enough to replace a one or two pair shoe wardrobe as they wore out, the average America woman today owns 30 pairs of shoes. And that is the average. "Much of this shoe fetish," the authors say, "can be attributed to the disproportionate buying of the moneyed masses, whose share of total shoes purchases is disproportionately higher than their share of feet."

According to the Worker's Rights Consortium, the hypothetical average present-day Chinese and 1920s American may have it about right, at least assuming (falsely) the existence of a mass of average consumers that isn't, or wasn't, too heavily swayed by the "disproportionate buying of the moneyed masses." Their living wage estimates call for high enough wages to allow each member of a family to buy two pairs of shoes each year, along with three sets of clothing. This is more, for example, than allowed in times of sacrifice in American history. The Witheridge Historical Archive gives the number of shoe purchases allowed during wartime rationing in 1942 as one pair every eight months. It is also more, clearly, than a person living in extreme poverty is able to afford, probably more than most people who make shoes for a living can afford, but enough to keep a couple of pairs of good shoes on each person's feet.

Meanwhile, among the extremely and relatively wealthy, the pressure mounts to own more shoes. And, once we own them, we face the task of deciding which ones are special enough to take along when we travel. A post by JazzCruiseDiva on message boards at suggests being conservative and bringing only four pairs (dressy, casual, tennis shoes and sandals) along on a cruise, and coordinating the clothes you bring to match. Not, the poster warns, a pair to match each outfit. That would be silly. One should resist the urge to take the other 26 pairs along. Those pairs will do just fine resting in their shoe racks at home.

If you don't own a shoe rack, check out the selection at The Container Store, which currently offers 17 styles of floor shoe storage, eight types of shelf shoe storage, five types of hanging shoe storage, and five types of "overdoor" shoe storage. Prices range from around $10 to $150. One overdoor variety will hold 30 pairs of women's shoes, and is a bargain at $40, provided you have an extra door in your house over which to hang it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sanity, thy name is Keith Richards?

The Rolling Stones have been trying to schedule their first concert in Serbia for some time. A 2006 date had to be cancelled when Keith Richards famously fell out of a tree in Fiji. During the rescheduled European tour, they were scheduled to play at the Hippodrome racetrack. There are a few (300) horses living in stables at the track, but no problem--organizers said they would just sedate the horses through the concert to keep them calm.

At first, the Stones didn't see any problems with this. Who doesn't need horse tranquilizers to get through a concert? But then some animal rights activists gently pointed out to them that if a potential concert venue is also essentially a home, and if its residents must essentially be drugged into a stupor in order cope with its visitors, perhaps an alternate venue would be more suitable. It's just proper etiquette--like at least offering to stay in a hotel and have dinner in a restaurant when you are visiting friends from out of town. Perhaps the horses would like a few complimentary tickets and a backstage pass to the relocated concert, maybe a gift basket of apples and sugar cubes, but don't force them to clean up their stables and self-medicate.

The animal rights appeal has worked--on Wednesday it was announced that the Hippodrome concert will be relocated. Or, in the words of Raka Maric, manager of the production company organizing the concert, "We didn't manage to convince The Stones' management that the concert would not harm the horses." But we tried. We really, really tried.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Brad is my new hero

I never considered Brad Pitt the kind of man who could make me forget about my wedding vows. Sure, he's a decent actor, and I respect that he's not afraid to make himself ugly or scary or an awesomely anti-consumerism terrorist, or to appear in a film squint-off with Claire Forlani. But he also apparently thinks 4.5 years of marriage is a success story, though I'm hoping for the sake of the colony that he has changed his mind about that.

I, for one, am beginning to change my mind about Brad. A while back, when I read something about him getting deeply interested in architecture, I brushed it off as harmlessly kooky. Then yesterday, he unveiled his latest project: a housing development in New Orleans. It is aimed at providing housing for families who have so far been unable to return to New Orleans. There will be a community center included that is designed to provide shelter during the inevitable next storm. Plus, the housing will be eco-friendly, with solar panels and other such things.

Oh, Brad, tell me more about how we should use this project as a template for communities that are rebuilding...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

News Corp gets back

More food for thought on my new favorite topic--charity in the hands of big business:

On the night of the Idol Gives Back performance show, Ryan Seacrest announced that News Corp would be generously donating 10 cents per Idol vote, up to a maximum of 50 million votes, or $5 million. In other words, for every call a viewer made to vote for their favorite Idol contestant, a few cents would be given to charity. Wow. Big round of applause. That is a lot of money. Seriously. No sarcasm intended here. That's like food for a week for 100,000 African families, or school for a month for 250,000 African children, or 500,000 mosquito nets to save families from malaria.

Who the hell is this amazingly generous News Corp? Well, News Corp is a mega-corporation that owns Fox Television, among many, many other things, such as DirectTV, National Geographic Channel, HarperCollins, New York Post, MySpace, and anything with the Fox name on it, including 20th Century Fox. Incidentally, 20th Century Fox produced Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, that movie the remaining Idol contestants were shown checking out last night in a lengthy clip.

Yesterday, News Corp announced that its profits have increased 6.7% in the third quarter compared with the same quarter last year. Net income: $871 million. Overall sales: $7.51 billion. A big chunk of its earnings came from the movie Night at the Museum, which earned $571 million and starred Ben Stiller, who was, coincidentally, featured repeatedly doing a silly I'm-gonna-sing-and-dance-badly-until-we-reach-$200-billion bit in a pre-recorded guest appearance on the Idol Gives Back show. You may also remember that bit at the beginning where Stiller tried to make a joke of listing the many, many movies he has starred in. By the way, Night at the Museum was released on DVD the night before the Idol Gives Back event aired, and if you have DirecTV it will be premiering on pay-per-view May 23.

A cynical post on TV Squad notes that, unlike the post-9/11 or tsunami televised charity events, which were broadcast commercial-free, the Idol Gives Back two hour extravaganza was broadcast with commercials. No word on how much money Fox made on those commercials, but the 2005 two hour finale brought in $40 million. Of course, maybe all the commercials were PSAs; I wouldn't know, since I recorded the event and skipped them. I just can't take all that advertising and promotion.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Escape from...I don't know what, exactly

Spider-man 3 opened this weekend in the U.S., and has opened worldwide over the last several days. The movie was made for $278 million. It has made $373 million worldwide in its first six days.

In the U.S., the movie made over $140 million in its first weekend. Put another way: In one weekend the people in one country spent two times the amount of money raised by the "historic" Idol Gives Back campaign two weeks ago. To see a movie.

I mention this not to beat a dead horse, or to suggest we should all agree to plant a tree in organic soil, pick up some litter, and then donate the time and money that would otherwise be spent making or watching Spider-man 4. But it's not unfair to give some perspective to these mind-boggling numbers, to pause to consider what a paltry figure $70 million is in the entertainment industry that generated both hugely successful productions, before those of us who can afford to blow $10 head out to enjoy a nice piece of pre-summer escapism.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

False Idols

Last week, American Idol morphed into a one-night-only fundraising extravaganza. The purpose of the televised charity event was to raise awareness and money for poor children in Africa and the United States. It was a brilliant idea to use the built-in audience of the highest rated show on television for a good cause, and to use the raw energy of music to emotionally connect people who are wealthy with the plight of people who are poor. The American Idol phenomenon brings in millions of viewers and millions of dollars in revenue and advertising. It attracts big-name celebrities who themselves earn obscene amounts of money. So it is not surprising that the event got impressive results--as of Tuesday night they have raised over $70 million from corporate and individual donations.

The show itself had good intentions, and was at times sincere and thought-provoking. Host Ryan Seacrest introduced video segments showing himself and the Idol judges visiting children and families living in conditions unimaginable to most anyone able to view the show on a television set. The most genuine moments of the night came when the cameras glimpsed the basic raw emotion of people affected by poverty and of the Idol host and judges witnessing it firsthand. And even set against this backdrop of poverty, malnutrition and a lack of basic health care there were a few heartfelt and humble musical performances that hit the right note.

But it turns out that it is impossible to exploit the power of American Idol to raise money for people in extreme poverty without juxtaposing extreme poverty with the incredible excess of the Idol empire. So for the rest of the of the night, these few true notes were surrounded by a string of false ones: some typical Seacrest moments, brief appearances by a handful of lip-syncing, well-dressed celebrities, marginally funny moments with wacky comedians Ben Stiller and Jack Black each doing their wacky thing, and several oddly celebratory and showy tunes. Even portions of the video segments seemed a little off, perhaps because they were set to a Top-40s soundtrack. Someone decided the anthem for poverty in Africa is by Coldplay, while in America it is by John Mayer. There is something odd about hearing Mayer sing "Waiting on the World to Change"--a song featured prominantly on a CSI episode and quite likely your morning commute--while we watch the sad faces of hungry children.

It wasn't the fault of any one person involved. People were trying to talk about unspeakable situations, so of course virtually any moment of the show that involved people who are not living in poverty opening their mouths to speak seemed horribly trite when juxtaposed with stories of dying mothers and orphaned children. And it must be incredibly difficult to approach such a somber topic on an entertainment show without sending people running to Nickelodeon or the latest Law & Order marathon. I get that the producers had a tough job trying to balance education, inspiration, and entertainment, to keep viewers tuned in rather than turning away.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the show, however, was that the producers felt entertainment and inspiration were not enough to keep people watching, that they felt they needed to dangle the possibility of a contestant elimination to keep the audience tuned in long enough to feel guilty or generous enough to give some money. As on any normal Wednesday night, Ryan Seacrest called the names of contestants one by one, and warned the audience that they were in for a big surprise. What could the surprise be? Could the producers have decided to send all six remaining contestants home and give the money that would have gone toward their recording contracts to starving children?

When Seacrest reached the last name, for a moment we were led to believe the surprise was that Jordin, one of the most talented contestants, had been voted off. Jordin burst into tears, and I felt so sorry for her that I forgot for a moment all those kids orphaned by AIDS, or forced to live in trailer parks surrounded by drug and gun traffickers. Not to worry, though--yes, the kids are still poor, but Jordin was safe. The big surprise was...that no one would be eliminated, as it would obviously be inappropriate to send someone home on charity night (but don't worry--this week things got back to normal as contestants sang Bon Jovi songs between Coke and Ford ads before not one but two of them were sent home!!!).

American Idol sells itself as a show for the masses, a show that gives anyone with a telephone and a television the opportunity to participate by voting. Last week everyone was given the opportunity to participate by giving. We were told that most people watching could spare a few dollars, and that even a few dollars would help make a big difference in children's lives. By focusing on the consequences of poverty, American Idol's giant fundraiser also indirectly highlighted the relative excess of the middle and even lower class existence lived by most people in this country. It is an appropriate response to feel gratitude if not guilt for the comfort and access to resources that we have, and perhaps a deep sense of the injustice of our excessive car-driving, mall-shopping, Starbucks-drinking habits, and all of the time, energy, and resources many of us use up on the pursuit of frivolous things. It is appropriate as an average American to feel inspired to give something or do something to help less fortunate people or to change our own lives in some way. And, last week, the show succeeded at convincing many average Americans to give away a few hard-earned dollars.

But American Idol is not really a show for the masses. It is a show for the advertisers and the producers and the big-name celebrities, designed to sell products and music and tickets. Idol's fundraiser was no different. The average American did not bring in over $70 million in one night. The bulk of that money clearly came from corporations, and from viewers who can give away in one night more than most people can make in a year. Such viewers got one special live plea from Ellen Degeneres, who co-hosted the show, and challenged all her rich friends to match her $100,000 donation. But the whole production was really for them. All those well-dressed celebrities were not lip-syncing and mugging for the cameras to get Jane in Cleveland to give $10; they were there because they are part of the elite group of people who can write big checks and appeal directly to other people who can write big checks. And it was that corporate and celebrity in-fest that made the night feel at times so wrong. It was the corporate and celebrity in-fest that drew President Bush's awkward live appearance Tuesday night to congratulate Idol for its success.

A couple of days after the event, I stumbled across the accidental juxtaposition of two stories on the IMDb news (see screenshot below). The first tells us that ABC offered to pay Rosie O'Donell $10 million per year for three years to continue as host of The View. The second says that the preliminary estimated amount of money raised by American Idol was $60 million. That's right--ABC was willing to pay a single person just under half the amount raised by this enormous event to work for three years as a morning talk show host.

The incredible excess thrown at the feet of the small percentage of people in this world who speak in hundreds and millions of dollars is at least as hard for me to fathom as the incredible poverty of the large percentage of people in this world who speak in hundreds or tens or ones. It is wonderful that a few generous people gave away millions of dollars in one night, and also sad that a few people and businesses have that much spare change lying around. For the rest of us, the real lesson of the night was not just that we can do more to feed the poor, but that we should do less to feed the wealthy.

Monday, April 02, 2007

But was the coffee fair trade?

A Panama coffee producer attempted to break the record for world's largest cup of coffee over the weekend, using 300 pounds of beans to brew 750 gallons of coffee in one enormous mug. Now if I could just build the world's largest straw, I might be able to wake up this morning.

Monday, March 26, 2007

NIH: Your childcare choices might matter

A mixed bag of news surfaced this weekend about the long-term effects of early childcare on child development. While the AP reported on a study by the National Institues of Health that linked problem behavior in fifth and sixth graders to the quality of childcare in earlier years, Reuters reported on a study by the National Institutes of Health that found few effects of poor quality daycare lasting past the same age.

Wait a minute. The National Institutes of Health conducted both studies? Don't the NIH powers-that-be talk to each other?

In fact, both articles are reporting on the same research, but their interpretations of the results differed just slightly. The AP headline: "Study Links Child Care to Problem Behavior." The Reuters headline: "Few Effects of Poor Day Care Last Past Age 11." The first paragraph of the AP article: "The more time that children spent in child care, the more likely their six grade teachers were to report problem behavior." The first paragraph of the Reuters article: "Some effects of poor quality day care last until age 10 or 11, but very few, and good parenting is probably more important, U.S. government researchers reported on Monday."

Both articles are right, more or less. Read each of the articles in their entirety and you find that the results are not particularly suggestive of anything. Yes, there seem to be some lasting measurable effects on children who attended poor quality daycare centers, or who had large quantities of any sort of early non-Mommy child care (the study considered early child care to be time spent with a caregiver who is not the mother for over 10 hours per week). But these effects are difficult to pick out when just looking at a class of sixth-grade children. Sure, we might want to take note of the fact that fifth graders who had poor daycare tended to do less well on vocabulary tests, on average. But if little Jimmy acts up in class, should we tsk, tsk at his mother for not getting him into Montessori six years ago?

What is interesting here, to me, is that both the AP and Reuters reporters lead their articles not with the fact that a study on the effects of early child care has been released, but with a conclusion that childcare does or does not effect behavior in the long term, and that, faced with tenuous study results, there was such a disparity between the authors' interpretations of the research.

I don't want to read too much into the fact that that AP article--the one that leads with the statement that child care is linked to problem behavior in later life--was written by a man. I don't want to make any judgements based on the fact that the Reuters article--the one that concludes daycare doesn't mean much in the long run--was written by a woman. Mr. AP may have a spouse at home caring for his children, or may at least, as a father, be the less affected and judged of parenting partners. Ms. Reuters, may be a mother whose children are in daycare, and may, as a mother, be the more affected and judged parent in her relationship. Gender and family roles could be significant here, but I would hate to make such assumptions. Maybe neither of the reporters has children. And of course Mr. AP, if he is a father, could be deeply entrenched in fatherhood. Yet regardless of how much individual modern-day fathers are involved in or affected by parenting choices, they are still, as a whole, held less reponsible for them by society (and by the authors of the NIH study, apparently).

Because of the deep implications of childcare choices, those reading and, perhaps, those reporting on this study are bound to want to figure out what the research means for the parenting choices they are making or have made. I can say for myself that I want to read the results of the study as validation of my choice to spend as much time as I can with my child in his early years. And I know if my child were in full time daycare now I would want to pull from the results that he'll probably not be affected much by my relative absense in the long term. If I had an older child who had been in loads of childcare as a preschooler I might feel an added twinge of guilt or concern about my previous choices.

And I think these all are exactly the wrong responses to this study. There is not enough here, from what I can see, to use as the basis of a recommendation for or against childcare. Given the multitude of factors that weigh into the childcare decision for individual families, this research doesn't seem to have much to say to individual families except that they should consider their childcare choices carefully. Obviously. The results seem significant mainly from a public policy perspective, and suggest we should work to improve the quality of daycare for those families that need it and can't afford to pay a premium for it.

Is it impossible to report on the implications of guilt-laden parental decisions objectively? Is it impossible as a parent or prospective parent to read about general results of a study of about 1300 families and not want to justify or kick yourself for your decision to have a daycare center look after your child for 20 or 40 hours a week? Possibly. But perhaps when dealing with research on such important and difficult choices we should be extra careful about using that research to assuage or feed parents' insecurities, and avoid wrenching conclusions out of inconclusive research.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Books as accessories

My husband noticed the following organizational quirk and passed it along to me. Z Gallerie, a store that sells furniture and other decorative items, also sells a few books, and files them on their site among the candles, fake flowers, picture frames, and other "accessories". It's worth noting that the first book in their inventory is World Changing, a useful reference book all about environmentalism and eco-conscious business, consumption and living. Here, apparently, it is eco-consciousness as accessory. Go to Z Gallerie. Uncover your style. Grab a tropical leaf pillow, Monstera leaf placemats, and a copy of World Changing to showcase your profound respect for nature. Accessorize.

Wanted: Number one fan

Think you're the biggest fan of the Anytown Insert-Mascot-here Team? Do you live and breathe some kind of sport for some period of months every year, and feel depressed when the final game of the season is over? Well, just try to beat Mahadeb Sarkar. Or, please, don't. Sarkar, a 25-year-old Indian man, was so upset after his national cricket team lost that he hung himself. Sure, he was also upset about a fight he had with his wife, but the fight was about the game. His wife was also upset about the loss (of the game, not her husband, apparently), and attempted to hang herself but failed. Meanwhile, another Indian cricket fan had a heart attack after the defeat. Ah, the thin line between sport-as-entertaining-national-pastime and sport-as-Greek-tragedy. These deaths are incredibly strange and sad. On the bright side, looks like there is now an opening for biggest Indian cricket fanatic, if anyone is interested.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cows and chickens going on a diet

There's a familiar disconnect in today's Reuters article about meat. The story is that the high cost of feed, driven up by ethanol demand, will cut the amount of meat produced by reducing the weight of cattle and the number of chicks hatched. But the story takes little notice per se of the animals who will be eating less feed. Instead, it talks of beef output, meat and poultry production, beef and broiler production, and a "decline in beef carcass weights" (my personal favorite). Just as "freeze damage would cut the Florida orange crop by 6 percent and California's by 20 percent from a month ago," apparently "beef output would dip by 62 million lbs and chicken by 124 million lbs from last month's estimate." The production problem is real, but that doesn't make Reuters' euphemistic approach to the story of our animal farms any less jarring. Are the poor animals going to starve, or just be force-fed a tad less or kept alive a bit longer before they are harvested?

So when we reach peak oil it will still be light outside

Daylight savings time began early this morning in the U.S. Apparently, this means I've done my part for the environment today, and all within minutes of getting out of bed. With the push of a few buttons, I've helped America save 10.8 million metric tons of carbon emissions in the next 13 years. Sure, that's 10.8 million metric tons over 13 years out of the billions of metric tons created each year in this country. Still, I don't see Europe rushing to spring forward in the beginning of March.

Yeah, OK, the EU made a few enviromental policy changes this week. But I care so much about the environment that I downloaded a software update this week so my computer would skip from 1:59 to 3:00 today. So much about energy conservation that one of my clocks was still set on daylight savings time from last year. That is the American way. The American government is just as aware of the looming environmental crisis as the EU is, but prefers not to flaunt that awareness. It even quietly encourages our greatest minds to do the same. Let us effect change by going shopping for electronic devices, preferably for the kind with enough technological prowess to automatically shift their times forward on the second Sunday of each March. It's not about what we do, but about what we do without knowing or acknoledging how or why we are doing it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A genuine imitation

I have never understood the appeal of fake fur. Most people in civilized society--including, perhaps, those who shop at Neiman Marcus--do not need the warmth of fur, or can get the same warmth evisceration-free, from sources that do not squeal or bleed through the production process. It is with good reason that, for anyone who cares deeply or even marginally about unnecessary animal suffering, fur should symbolize not only decadence or wealth but human willingness to tread heavily on the earth.

So I have never understood the desire to achieve the look of being selfishly comfortable at the expense of other life forms, without actually flaying anything to get that look. Now, it turns out that even fake fur comes at a heavy price.

A series of recent investigations have uncovered widespread mislabeling of fur sources at a variety of clothing retailers. The latest report tested 25 coats that were labeled fake and found real fur in 24 of them. And not just fur, but dog fur. While I'm not thrilled about fur of any kind, it is certainly most disturbing to imagine the family dog being skinned alive to trim your hoodie. As high end retailers scramble to deflect blame and avoid fines by pulling the fake fake fur from their floors, it seems that the only way to be sure you are not wearing Spot is to avoid fur of all kinds.

What to do when a child doesn't fit in

Another entry from the annals of government parenting by proxy. A mother in England is facing the possibility of losing custody of her son if he doesn't lose weight.

The boy is 8 years old and 218 pounds, making him three times the average weight for a child his age. His weight makes him prone to a number of health problems, and already he is unable to take part in certain school activities and stays home from school frequently due to weight-related illness. His mother seems to feel helpless to stop the boy's eating. She says he eats three times what is normal for his age, complains if he doesn't get as much to eat as he wants, and will steal and sneak food.

Health services says taking custody of the child would be the worst-case, last resort scenario, but that it is a possibility. They cite evidence that the boy's weight is a health risk. They say they have tried to intervene, but that the boy and his family have missed appointments. They say allowing the boy to continue to eat and grow the way he has would amount to child abuse and neglect.

Since becoming a parent myself, I often bristle at the thought of government authorities reigning over my parenting practices. All too often, it seems the authorities meddle in parenting choices they simply disagree with. In Texas, a one-year-old child and his older brother were taken from their mother in 2002 and kept in foster care for several months after their parents tried to develop photos of the younger child nursing. Authorities called nursing an 18-month-old "performance of a sexual act", demonstrating a tragic misunderstanding of shifting societal norms. Although the norm in the United States may now be to nurse for mere weeks or months, until formula became an accepted and a relatively acceptable substitute for breast milk, nursing for several years was as normal in the United States as a whole as it still is among a subculture of mothers in this country and in many other parts of the world. Health practitioners widely endorse nursing into the preschool years. Researchers are now even urging HIV-positive mothers in Botswana to nurse, considering the risk of transmission to children less than their risk of contracting a deadly gastrointestinal illness from the water in formula. The standard WHO recommendation is for a minimum of two years of nursing for all mothers. The idea that a young, nursing child could be taken from his mother because authorities do not understand a relatively normal parenting practice is deeply disturbing.

Of course, lines may be reasonably drawn in different places in different societies. In the United States, we agree that a certain level of physical punishment is unacceptable and that parents who cross the line can lose custody of their children. We agree that children under a certain age are unable to consent to be married or to have sex. Though children of the same age in other times and places might already have families of their own, and though these children might be perfectly fine and happy within their time and place, it is basically good that we set socially agreed-upon standards. We do this out of concern for the mental and physical health and well-being of the child, and out of an understanding for what is acceptable for the majority of people who live here and now. We must also, however, remember that current standards are relative and fluid, and that there is a large grey area at their boundaries.

In the case of the overweight child, concern for the child seems to stem from a growing obsession with healthy eating practices, and frustration with a child and parent who haven't jumped on the bandwagon. This particular child's weight problem is extreme, and there are valid concerns at the heart of health service intervention. But though I think the case of the 218 pound 8-year-old is tragically close to the line, I don't think it has crossed into custody-rights territory, and hope extreme government interference does not become typical in such cases.

The main concern in this case is that the boy's lifestyle choices are dangerous to his current and long term health, and that his mother is enabling unhealthy choices. I agree. Let me be clear that I feel sad for this boy, and hope he and his mother will make some changes. The boy seems unhappy and unhealthy, and my heart goes out to him. I feel frustrated by the parenting choices his mother is making, and feel she has a responsibility to help him maintain his health.

But I don't see the risks here as objectively much worse than those taken, for example, by children whose parents allow them to be involved in extreme or Olympic-level sports. Young figure-skaters, for example, are at risk for incuring severe injuries during practice and for severe chronic pain in later life, as well as for crippling conditions such as early onset osteoporosis, not to mention the effects of emotional stress during competition. Yes, the young boy in this case is unhealthy now, and may develop serious conditions such as diabetes and heart problems if he doesn't lose weight. But our willingness to accept certain health risks while deploring others stems from the value we place on athleticism, strength, and being thin at all costs, and the apathy and even disgust we feel towards people who lack those qualities.

Does the possibility of fame, fortune, and a crowd full of fawning fans really make calculated health risks acceptable for child athletes, while our recent societal obsession with "healthful" eating means a boy whose health is at risk because he is eats too much could be taken away from his home, mother and sister? Beyond expressing their disapproval and encouraging changes in behavior, how far should the government go to intervene here?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


On Saturday, from Russian President Vladimir Putin's mouth spewed a bilious critique of American global policy. While speaking at an international security conference, Putin accused America, basically, of provoking global instability while striving for political domination.

In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a softer approach; as reported in the NY Times, Gates joked that "old spies have a habit of blunt speaking" and that Putin's speech "almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time." Gates dismissed the content of Putin's speech outright: “All of these characterizations belong in the past. The free world versus those behind the Iron Curtain. North versus South. East versus West, and I am told that some have even spoken in terms of ‘Old Europe’ versus ‘new.’ ”

But Gates--and the rest of us--should not be so fast to brush off Putin's words, or to underestimate the suspicion felt worldwide toward the U.S. government. In a recent survey, 68 percent of Germans agreed with Putin. Ignoring the opposition may work at the political level, but does nothing to quell broader fears of American arrogance and irresponsibility.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fashion ecology

Here's a questionable benefit to poisoning one link on the food chain: the vultures of Nepal are getting their own restaurant. The daily daily special is diclofenac-free cow. Apparently, the vulture population in South Asia is threatened by the widespread (though illegal) use of the drug diclofenac to treat inflammation in cows. Drugged cow carcasses poison and kill vultures. The restaurant managers are attempting to boost the dwindling vulture population by collecting sick and dying cows that have never been treated with the drug. Once dead, the cows are presented for local vultures to snack on.

In unrelated news, a popular London restaurant is currently offering up free meals to models threatened with an unhealthy Body Mass Index. Minus-sized models can present an identification card with their clothing size on it to receive the grub. The restaurant is getting some good press for the program; whether they save any dwindling models is another matter. Skinny models may find eating to be so detrimental to their livelihood that offering the cow (or, if they prefer, "charter pie containing leeks, chicken, and bacon") for free may be insufficient incentive to fatten up.

In Madrid, a larger carrot is being dangled. Models there can now be denied runway access if their BMI drops into carrion territory. The policy was set after a rise in eating disorder-related death within the modelling community; recently 5 models were barred from appearing on the Madrid catwalk until they "fatten" up.

Though other fashion capitals are talking about adopting a similar policy, unhealthy body and body image has poisoned the water, and it could be some time before cultural obsession with the unnatural evaporates. In Spain, for example, plastic surgery, often with walk-in appointments and financing plans, is so common it was recently added to the monthly inflation equation.

(Sadder still is what is being dropped from the equation. Apparently money once spent on cloth, upholstery fabric, and most appliance repair has been diverted for the repair and maintainance of a certain corporeal aesthetic.)

But it is not just our wallets that are affected. A recent study highlights the deep inner reach of body image consciousness, and the detrimental effects negative self-image can have on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Dr. Lora Park, of the University of Buffalo, New York, developed the appearance-based rejection sensitivity (ARS) scale to measure "the extent to which people anxiously expect to be rejected by others based on their looks." People with a high score are those most likely to think of themselves as unattractive and to base their general self-worth on their appearance. In Park's study, a high ARS score predicted that subjects were also likely to be anxious, neurotic, insecure, and to not eat well.

These results are disturbing given the current push for heightened image consciousness. The question is whether kicking a few models off a catwalk will do for the general human population's body image what the diclofenac-free cafe has done for South Asia's vultures.

Update: GE's ecocon

GE is negotiating with the EPA to weaken proposed railroad locomotive smog control rules, the Wall Street Journal is reporting.

As a spokesperson for GE puts it, they are discussing with the EPA "how to achieve attainable and sustainable emission reductions"--a politic way of saying they are negotiating just how much money the EPA's reductions will cost them. The sticking point, it seems, is the technology that would have to be developed to meet the reductions guidelines, which would take effect between 2011 and 2017.

GE, you will recall from my previous post, is currently in the midst of its "ecoimagination" ad campaign, through which it is promoting its ecologically innovative technologies, and portraying itself as an ecofriendly company. The campaign itself, as I previously argued, misses its mark. Now it also seems GE is misplacing money to hype their ability to take salt out of ocean water while they haggle over their desire to lower locomotive emissions by six tenths of a gram less than the EPA would like in the next ten years.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fish out of water

GE has an underactive "ecomagination". In their new commercial, which is titled "fishing" and can be viewed at, a fishing boat hauls a net overflowing with clear and fresh bottles of water from the ocean. The fishermen excitedly sort through their catch; one proudly displays an impressive four foot long bottle. A voiceover boasts that GE technology is turning saltwater into drinkable water.

The practice of making ocean water safe for human consumption is less ecological and innovative than it is disturbing. If there is a need for this technology it is because we are depleting and damaging our freshwater resources. GE's "ecomagination" campaign suggests we should solve a problem we have created not by learning from our mistakes but by stepping on as-yet untapped, undepleted, and less damaged resources. It suggests that if the water around us is disappearing or dirty, we should drink up and pollute away. GE will come to the rescue.

But beyond being troubled by the underlying message of the ad, I question the efficacy of the ad itself. If the "ecoimagination" campaign is meant to appeal to the eco-conscious, it is a sure misfire. Not only might GE's desalinization technology be unimpressive to this demographic, but the imagery used in the ad will likely evoke thoughts opposite those intended by the execs who conceptualized the ad.

For example, the ecologically aware tend to be concerned about the resources used in bottling water; seeing hundreds of plastic bottles hauled out of the ocean could bring to mind waste and environmental destruction rather than joyously clean and bountiful harvest. Furthermore, recent research suggests the ocean's fish supplies will largely disappear by the middle of this century at current fishing rates, so likening exploitation of the ocean's water to that of the ocean's fish is more likely to disturb than impress anyone who is thinking beyond what store their next Dasani will come from.

Less stuff, more birth control

A recent study (summarized here) concludes that the biggest contributors to our ecological footprint are population size and consumption.

The ecological footprint is a rough and somewhat abstract measurement of the impact humans individually and collectively have on Earth. It is, as defined in the aforementioned article, "a quantitative measurement of the stress placed on the environment by demands for available lands and resources to meet the need for food, housing, transportation, consumer goods and services." There is strong evidence that we are currently overstressing the planet by leaving an ecological footprint that is larger than the productive area of the poor overworked planet.

The study is rather optimistic, suggesting, for example, that it is within the realm of possibility that we will reach the Millineum Development Goals of the UN. I won't pretend to know what that means. But I will suggest that this news should not encourage us to sink comfortably into our SVUs and go about our Sunday shopping. Right now the U.S. has a footprint of 1.4, that is, 1.4 times the sustainable level. It is the country with the largest footprint, and though the study's authors do not expect that to be true in 2015, this is not because the U.S. is expected to dramatically reduce its footprint by then. Rather, China and India are expected to outpace the U.S., and to help bring our global footprint to 1.6. This is depressing. Even bringing our global footprint down to 1 means we would be using exactly the land and resources our environment can sustain. Meanwhile, the population grows and global warming reduces the amount of land we have to live on.

I am, however, encouraged by one aspect of the study: the two most significant contributors to our downward-spiraling global environmental dilemma are the two things we can each easily contribute less to on an individual level, by simply reducing our daily consumption and limiting our procreation.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A compact Superbowl?

We've been watching the Superbowl this afternoon/evening, and, as I often do when I watch big productions, I feel depressed by the enormity of resources used for each second of this thing. Personally, I wouldn't care that much about giving up the football (kind of like the Bears, apparently), but there are other big productions that I enjoy more, and they all take up so much time, energy, and material. So I've been sitting here thinking about what it would take to make the Superbowl compact-friendly. Used material for uniforms and costumes? Compostable food and packaging? A souvenir-exchange program? Native plant-based and drought-resistent turf? Ban all those commercials? Make the tickets cheapest and easiest to get for locals or people who will walk or bike or drive fuel-efficient cars to the game? I don't suppose those spotlights are CFLs?

Even as I watch Prince kick ass, I'm thinking, how many brightly-colored suits does a man need?

I'm only sort of kidding. There is something to be said for the importance of sports and the arts and all that, and I respect the time and energy people expend to do something well or make something beautiful and/or thought-provoking and/or entertaining. At what point, though, do the costs outweigh the intangible benefits? Is big necessarily bad?

Monday, January 29, 2007

A horse is a 14-year-old girl is a Joe Montana

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro has been euthanized due to some progressively deteriorating health issues. Barbaro was known as a gifted race horse, but eight months ago suffered a mid-race "breakdown" of some kind that, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end. Since that time, Barbaro has endured surgeries, complications, painful recovery, and, now, death.

As you might deduce from the general lack of detail or nuance in the previous paragraph, I'm not much of a horse racing fan. But I had heard of Barbaro. I knew he was considered phenomenal. I read about it when he broke down, and, like many, assumed death-by-needle was merely hours away. I was vaguely aware that he was instead treated to the best in horse medicine and encouraged to fight back. That was eight months ago. Just enough time had gone by that my mind had wandered onto greener pastures.

Roy Jackson, one of Barbaro's "owners", said of the decision to euthanize the horse, "We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain." When I read this, two things came to mind: middle-aged men with fused spinal vertabrae, and limber 14-year-old girls.

I recently read a story about the pain endured by former football stars in the post-retirement years. Football players place enormous pressure on their bodies for a few years of their lives. They are injured every single time they play. They undergo treatments that are something like placing layer upon layer of spackle over an ever-widening hole in a wall. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed 30 retired NFL players and found that 20 of them cope with severe chronic pain, 3 have had joint replacements, and 9 have been told they will need joint replacements in the future. The men are in their 40s and 50s now. (See the original article, and my previous commentary on it.)

The football players were grown men when they played. Although they may have begun playing at a young age, these players reached the height of their careers as adults. They were old enough to choose their paths. So I have few problems with the choices of the adult individual athlete, even if they regret their choices 25 years later. In fact, I admire many of them. I nevertheless feel somewhat uncomfortable with the system that pushes these men to push themselves beyond reasonable limits in order to sell diet Pepsi.

I am even less comfortable with those sports whose star athletes hit retirement before they are old enough to hit the bars. Last weekend, I watched a women's (more accurately girls') figure-skating championship while holding my sick and napping (and thus far non-athletic) four-year-old. At one point, just before breaking for commercials, they showed an old home video of one of the competitors at age three, skating to a full-scale routine in full-scale costume through an act reminiscent of JonBenet Ramsey.

The figure-skaters are 14-17 years old now, high-school age, gangly and awkward as they wave to the cameras and mumble through interviews. Yet they skate, many of them, beautifully, sliding onto the ice with grace. I have great respect for their abilities. And I have great fear for their futures.

In an extract from 'In defense of Animals' (a longer portion can be found here), Peter Singer explains:

The animal liberation movement [. . .] is saying that where animals and humans have similar interests - we might take the interest in avoiding physical pain as an example, for it is an interest that humans clearly share with other animals - those interests are to be counted equally, with no automatic discount just because one of the beings is not human. A simple point, no doubt, hut nevertheless part of a far-reaching ethical revolution.

I'm not suggesting we euthanize retired or injured athletes, that we judge that their quality of life is as unacceptable as Barbaro's was. What I am suggesting is that in the area of certain (profitable) sports, humans and animals already receive similar treatment: they are groomed, prodded, pushed to the limit, then left to languish with deconstructed joints and brittle bones. While the feats and abilities of the star athlete are admirable, there is a point at which public admiration of them is pushed into the realm of exploitation and commercialization. Both horse and human deserve better.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tyra Banks: Normal is the new fat

The story goes that Tyra Banks googled her name plus the word fat. Try it. Results include this and this. Tyra was hurt. Tyra, it turns out, is not a cold-hearted superbitch who dances through a broken shoe heel, screws her head back on straight, spews out a self-righteous lecture, then spouts a speech nearly identical to the one that came the week before while shattering the dreams of America's Next Most Forgettable Personality.

Nope. Apparently, Tyra is not only the architect of a successful budding empire; she also has feelings, and those feelings are understandably offended by the cruelty of those who are gleefully peddling the image of "fat"-Tyra-in-a-swimsuit, and word that Tyra's weight is out of control since her "retirement" last year.

In her supermodel heydays, Tyra looked something like this. She weighed in the 120s. Now, her weight is fluctuating, but Tyra says her top weight has been around 161 pounds.

Let's put this in perspective: At 5'10", that weight places Tyra's Body Mass Index (BMI) within the normal range. In fact, according to this BMI calculator, Tyra's top weight is in the 36th percentile for other women her age and height. In other words, approximately 36 percent of women her age and height weigh less. Again, this means Tyra weighs less than average at her top, post-retirement weight. At her lowest post-retirement weight, around 140, she is in the 11th percentile, and also in the normal range. If she weighed 120 now, she would be underweight, and under the 2nd percentile.

I'm not sure how sorry to feel for Tyra. I think she looks great for an android. (Sure, she is not wearing a swimsuit in this photo. Raise your hand if you are over 30 and think you look good in a swimsuit.) Though I am not Tyra's biggest fan, I respect her. It takes a strong person to withstand the kind of criticism she is getting without racing to the toilet. But I watch ANTM. I've watched her tell countless young model-hopefuls with a dab of belly fat that they need to lose weight to compete. This may be reality, but I wonder if she could do more than perpetuate the status quo from her influential position.

It is the rest of us, however, that allow the reality to exist. We may rail against the fashion and modeling industries for their treatment of women's sizing and body weight. We may lament the epidemic of eating disorders among young girls. Yet when a fashion and modeling industry icon "balloons" to a normal and healthy weight, she is widely ridiculed. Those of us who think this is ridiculous need to speak up louder than the image-peddlers if we want to be heard.

An Inconvenient Inconvenient Truth

An after-school screening of "An Inconvenient Truth", the Al Gore documentary on global warming, by Yakima, Washington's Eisenhower High School Ecology Club has been put off--at least temporarily--per school policy that requires, basically, that both sides of all issues be presented to students. Check out the Yakima local paper's editorial on the issue, which makes many good points on what "presenting both sides" should mean.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A different kind of compact, Plus: Disposing of your clothing just got easier!

It's called the Compact Sit-Down Shopping Cart, and it's an update on the old granny cart: a small cart on wheels, with a redesigned push bar resembling those you find on a stroller. But the biggest upgrade is in the seat, which folds down over the basket to give the shopper an instant place to rest.

Clearly, this cart could be a great tool for many people, including the elderly, the disabled, and anyone who walks to the grocery store. But marketers of the gadget seem to have something else in mind. The photo of the cart includes a rather attractive and nicely-dressed woman lounging on it. Sure, she could have an "invisible illness", or be an eco-conscious consumer eliminating the need for plastic bags while grabbing a few essentials at the grocery store on her way home from the office. My impression is more that the company would like to market this as a great mall shopping tool. Shop 'til you drop...right onto our cushy Compact Sit-Down Shopping Cart. Then, shop some more!

I mention the shopping cart here because I find it especially ironic that it showed up on my email alerts for The Compact.

And speaking of The Compact and shopping: Occasionally, on the Compact email list, someone asks what would happen if everyone suddenly started compacting. Wouldn't our used stuff supplies dry up if no one bought anything new? The short answer is, yes, and that would be great. The idea of the Compact is to live off of the overabundance of disposable consumerism (and, ideally, to reduce our consumption of all things both new and used). For example, a portion of our society chooses to repeatedly buy more clothing than they need and then discard the excess at Goodwill. The Compact encourages us to balance out such overconsumption by dressing ourselves in their disposals. If "disposable" clothing consumption did not exist there might be fewer good sources of used material, but also less need for it.

It turns out, though, that some manufacturers are "solving" the problem of disposable consumerism in another way: by making clothing truly disposable. Gizmodo recently noted two new clothing products. First, a "dissolvable" dress, that partially dissolves into a recyclable substance when wet. And second, disposable underwear. I'll set aside my differences with Gizmodo (see here, and here) for a moment to suggest that you check out their commentary on the underwear, which is right on (less so, alas, for their comments on the dress).

Friday, January 26, 2007

Are PC commitment ceremonies in our future?

At face value, appropriate response to the following news seems to be a somber shake of the head: 65% of Americans recently surveyed say they spend more time with their personal computers than they spend with their significant others. What a sad commentary on the state of our society and our marriages, yes?

Not so fast. The vision the stat gives me is of people holed up alone in their dens for the hours between work and bed. But though it is quite possible that, at least on weekdays, I spend more time on the couch with my laptop than with my husband, there is no holing up in a den at our house. What does spending more time with a PC than a partner really mean?

PCs are, for many people, an invaluable tool for their jobs. People may spend the eight to ten hours of their work day largely tied to a desk, which generally also means they are tied to a computer. That in itself may seem like a sad fate, one that keeps the nation's occupational therapists occupied. Do we lament the fact that people may spend more waking hours at their jobs than at home? Well, maybe. But the growing number of American work hours is a larger problem, and the number of work hours spent with a PC is merely a byproduct of that.

When it comes to ranking the relative importance of ones spouse and PC, it seems the real question is, how much of your free time is spent with each? And is time with your PC taking away from time with your spouse? At our house, my husband brings his work laptop home most evenings, so it is not uncommon to find my husband and I sitting side by side on the couch, each working or playing on our own computer. Sometimes this is taking away from conversation; sometimes it is contributing to it. Sometimes it is not much different than sitting together while watching television or a movie. Sometimes it is more like sitting together while each of us is lost in a different book. And when we are not together, sometimes our computers keep us connected where we otherwise wouldn't be, through midday emails and quick chats.

I am as skeptical and fearful of the infringement of technology on our personal freedoms and relationships as anyone (well, as anyone who isn't wearing an tin foil hat), but as with any technology, it is not the technology itself, or the time we spend with it, that makes it a threat to our selves, our societies, or our families. Sure, it is nice to spend time together without PCs--or television, for that matter. Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but if we are to be concerned about numbers, I would be more troubled by news that Americans spend, on average, more than 28 hours a week (the equivalent of two straight months per year or 9 years of a 65 year life) watching television.

P.S. Thanks to my husband (a.k.a. my worthy adversary), who emailed me the link to this story while sitting next to me on our couch.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

We're onto you, McDonald's

Advertising is a powerful thing. I've done well for some time now eating food almost exclusively made from scratch, and cutting out especially sugary or processed items. All without overwhelming cravings. Incidentally, when I watch television it is usually recorded on my DVR, and I skip the commercials. Coincidence? This morning I was reminded of how powerful commercials can be when I watched a few minutes of something live and caught an Oreo commercial. Suddenly, I found myself thinking, Mmmm...Oreos. Wait...what!? Where the hell did that come from?

DVR was the reason I wanted cable. It's like suddenly all your favorite shows are on PBS. No surprise that advertisers are not happy with the DVR situation. And television networds can't be thrilled, either--I haven't watched any new shows this year, simply because I don't see the commercials and therefore don't know about them or feel that I am missing them. And not just the new shows. I'm not a great American Idol fan, but in the past seeing the commercials made me feel that maybe I should be, just as that Oreo commercial made me feel that downing some milk and a bag of cookies would make me feel really good.

Now we have proof that television shows and advertisers are teaming up to thwart the commercial-skipping powers of the DVR. This video, posted on YouTube, shows a frame-by-frame view of a Food Network show with a single frame McDonald's ad embedded in it. I have seen our future, and it is frequent, inexplicable french fry cravings.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Calculus, coffee, cars, and cleavage

In the past two days, Salon's Broadsheet has covered two instances of businesses using sex to sell their wares. Yesterday, they covered the edifying combination of sex and tutoring in Hong Kong, where one of the largest tutoring competitors boasts it has the sexiest (female) tutors around. And today, honorable mention was given to a delicious Seattle story about a coffee shop where a very scantily clad woman works it while steaming milk.

So I read this story with compounded disgust: A Bay Area Lexus dealer has settled a lawsuit alleging that at least five women were not only treated to the usual in sexual harrassment, but generally forced to use their sex appeal to sell cars, encouraged to show cleavage during sales, and, in one case, subjected to having a skirt pulled down during a pitch in front of a customer.

Apart from the combination of sex and sales, the third story is significantly different from the others. The sexy barista is shaking while she stirs of her own accord, presumably because she finds it helps to bring in customers. And I guess the tutors know about the Hong Kong company's ad strategy when they take the job. Perhaps a few pretty (and I hope smart) women sought the job because they knew they had the bodies for it and could make decent money.

The women employed by the car dealer, on the other hand, were subjected to expectations and treatment beyond their own desires. But the three stories make me equally uncomfortable, and seem somehow related. Women in all three are encouraged by the prospect of increased sales (or by men who are enticed by the prospect of increased sales) to use their bodies to sell. Say what you will about a striptease empowering women; to me, these stories provide a cautionary tale, for both women and the men seduced into spending by them. Not that individual women who are objectified deserve to be, or that individual men who objectify women are not responsible for their behavior, but that, on a larger scale, if we as a society take frequent advantage of the fact that objectification sells--on either the buying or selling end of the deal--I fear that we must be saddened but not too surprised when the objectification slips out of our control.

Return of the Jungle Girl?

The parents of a girl who went missing 19 years ago at the age of eight in Cambodia are celebrating what they say is her return. A young woman, being called a "jungle-girl", was found in the forest scavenging for food. Though some are skeptical, a family has claimed her, and they are undergoing DNA tests to prove she is their daughter.

One strange piece in the reunion story is that the woman does not speak. An eight-year-old would have acquired the family's language before disappearing. But if she has indeed been living in the jungle for 19 years, it would not be terribly surprising if she undergoes some language and culture shock as she reenters village life. A psychologist is travelling to the remote village to assess the unusual--and potentially research-worthy--situation.

No hits, no fits, yes nits!

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View (California), would like to fine or jail Californians who spank their children. Under her proposed legislation, people who spank children under the age of 4 would be subject to a maximum one year jail term and up to 1,000 fine.

Lieber is quoted in the article on SFGate (link above) as saying, "Under current law, parents can beat their children to a reasonable degree. I just think that that's plain wrong and we ought to ban any sort of physical attack on children who are not old enough to defend themselves."

Beating kids is not good. Agreed. But in fact, abusive attacks are already banned, not to mention strongly discouraged by child development experts. The difficulty is in determining where abuse begins. As
Lois Weithorn, of UC's Hastings College of the Law, notes in the aforementioned article, it can be hard to distinguish a spank from a pat. And it is hard to draw the line between a spank and a thrash, or a thrash and a some point it becomes a game of semantics. We may know bad discipline when we see it, but how do we put that on paper? Lieber's proposed law adds nothing to our current ability to sort out the true abuse from the one-time haggard-parent outburst, the occasional spank as relatively painless discipline strategy or even the loving tap on the baby's bottom. And for a relatively minor violation, is the treat of jailing a parent--and therefore separating mother or father from the child for up to a year--the best thing for the child?

So when do discipline and behavioral issues become someone else's purview?

Yesterday, the story broke of a family of three who were kicked off of a plane when they had difficulty getting their tantruming three-year-old to sit in her seat for take-off. When I first read this story (again, on SFGate), I wasn't sure what to make of it. I have a four-year-old, and I traveled with him when he was three, so I was at first thinking some combination of those-airline-Nazi's-did-what-now? and there-but-for-the-grace-of-the-Buddha-went-I. The article I read made it seem it unclear just how much time the child was given to calm down--they were 15 minutes late taking off, but were all of those 15 minutes spent waiting for the child to stop crying?--and the parents said they felt sure with a bit more time and understanding they could have managed. Still, a couple of hundred other passengers were waiting, and the airline got the family on another flight, reimbursed them the fare, and offered them three additional tickets. A pretty generous compensation package--certainly more generous than the ones routinely offered to people who wear T-shirts with words on them.

But then I read this Worcester Telegram article (provided in a comment by whatchoodo on SFGate's parenting blog, The Poop). It provides a more complete angle on the story as the child's parents see it. First, it heightens my own parenting fears, as the parents say their child is normally a dream and had not had a problem on previous flights. Hey--my child is normally well-behaved and flies well, too. God, maybe this could happen to me.

They say out of nowhere, when they boarded their flight home, their child threw a tantrum, perhaps out of fear because her ears had hurt on the descent of their previous flight. Who knows what goes through the minds of those little darling-monsters? Then, according to the parents, via the Worcester Telegram:

“I was trying to console her and the stewardess came over and said, ‘Did you buy that seat for her?’ remembers Ms. Kulesza, 31, who is four months pregnant. “I said yes, and she told me my daughter needs to sit in it. I told her I was trying.”

Moments later, an AirTran Airways employee armed with a walkie-talkie addressed Mr. Kulesza.

“Sir, you need to get her under control,” she said.

“We’re trying,” Mr. Kulesza noted.

The passengers, meanwhile, were quite understanding and one of them offered the toddler a lollipop, which she rejected. Then the walkie-talkie woman returned to the Kuleszas’ aisle and displayed the raw tact and diplomacy of Donald Trump.

“Sir, you need to get off the plane,” she announced.

“What?” a stunned Mr. Kulesza asked. “Are you serious?”

“Sir, you need to get off the plane now.”

They got off the plane, while their luggage and car seat flew on to Boston. In the terminal they were directed to an AirTran supervisor, who told the couple that the stewardess was uncomfortable “because you have an unruly child who struck a woman on board.”

Mr. Kulesza was incredulous. “That was her mother,” he explained. “She hit her on the arm. Lady, this is a 3-year-old child we’re talking about.”

“Sir, we don’t differentiate between 3 and 33,” the AirTran supervisor replied. Mr. Kulesza said the woman proceeded to lecture him about child discipline, and how she would never tolerate her children behaving in such a manner, at which point Mr. Kulesza said, “You really need to stop talking now.”

The couple were also told that, since they had been ejected from the plane, they were banned from flying with AirTran for 24 hours.

OK, so a family gets kicked off for holding up a flight. Sure. Makes me fear for my own future travel plans, but I kind of get it, particularly if the airline was apologetic and helpful later. But a family is kicked off because a three-year-old slapped her mother during a tantrum? Forcing them to spend 24 extra hours away from home, and forcing the father to miss a day of work? And--the real kicker--the supervisor proceeds to lecture the parents about discipline? I don't care who you are. If the parents' story is true, this is one of those it-could-happen-to-any-parent situations. The child is three, was in an unusual setting, was scared, and was being asked to sit and be strapped into a seat. What would the supervisor suggest parents do in this situation? Spank the child?

The scorecard so far: parents may soon have a right to be thrown in jail if they spank their three-year-olds, and they may be thrown off of flights and scolded if they don't put the fear of God in them.

Meanwhile, those nasty critters children sometimes bring home with them are getting a break. In Oakland, the school district is no longer enforcing a 'no nit' policy. While children were once sent directly home at the first sign of lice infestation, the district now reasons that lice are relatively harmless creatures, that their presence is not in fact a sign of bad hygiene, and that the policy of sending kids with lice home causes more trouble than their potential spread, such as missed days of school for infested kids and work for parents. Good points, but...ick. This is where we decide to butt out?