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.