Howard Schultz’s empty… chair

Howard Schultz continues his project in trying to be a presidential candidate with no concrete policy ideas or, as far as anyone can tell, policy knowledge, giving the country things that might make nice slogans or amusing little stories to sell coffee and hoping we’ll think they’ll work for leading a country.

Speaking to the Commonwealth Club of California, he offered this take on making Congress work better:

Instead, Schultz said, Congress ought to do what he used to do at Starbucks board meetings — put an empty chair at the table, to represent the customer. In Schultz’s version of Washington, he said, the same empty chair would be installed in all government meetings to represent the average citizen.

This sounds familiar.

Romney Accepts Party Nomination At The Republican National Convention

What’s a great counterweight to the flood of corporate and lobbyist money to Congress that has created a government that doesn’t act in the best interests of the public (something that Schultz correctly identifies as a problem)? A chair to make everyone feel guilty!

His whole campaign feels more like a hostage-taking than a serious attempt to get elected: if you vote for an “extreme” candidate I’ll come in and ruin it all – you’ve been warned. It’s not appealing, it’s not good for the country, and it’s not even good for Howard Schultz, who seems to be working toward his place in history being that of a weird political footnote.

Pigs gone wild

Well, they already were wild.


First let’s get this out of the way: Schadenfreude!

Second: Why do people think animals are there for them to take good Instagram shots with, versus being sentient beings with their own lives who maybe aren’t in the mood? Why would you think stomping into these pigs’ home and trying to frolic with them is something they want to do? Did they invite you?

But mostly, this was what I thought: what the fuck is a “fitness influencer?”

Turns out the University of Iowa has something to say about it.

According to Pixlee, a branding agency, another definition of an influencer is, “a user on social media who has established credibility in a specific industry. A social media influencer has access to a large audience and can persuade others by virtue of their authenticity and reach,” (Pixlee, n.d.). Basically, people trust influencers and are interested in what they have to say because they many people want to imagine that they could bring the concepts these influencers speak of into their own life.

So basically, a PR person who doesn’t need to be able to write anything.

Maybe I’m just jealous that I can’t get paid for taking pictures and putting them on Instagram. I’m not sure what kind of influencer I would be, though? A napping influencer? A dog cuddle influencer? A reading lit fiction influencer?

Wait, I’ve got it.


Cranky old man influencer! Watch this space.

Burnt Man

fcs_facebook-665x375I think that I would go to Burning Man if I had a time machine. I’ve never been, but my take from reading and hearing about it is that it’s been invaded in a major way by people with lots of money, little real interest in what Burning Man is about, along with a gaggle of wealthy Silicon Valley types. In other words, the kind of people whose general absence make Houston such a great city. As this continues, it seems to have the makings of a Fyre Festival in the desert; Cory Doctorow writes about some moves the people running the thing are making to try to prevent the worst of it.

The wealth part is one thing, but Doctorow also talks about the spirit of the event.

Burning Man has long struggled with the tension between its commitment to “radical decommodification” and grifters and their ultra-high-net-worth marks who organize “turnkey camps” where you can pay giant sums to pretend to be a Burning Man “participant” while being looked after by paid “sherpas” (including, rumor has it, sex workers), in luxury settings designed to repel non-paying attendees (sometimes guarded by private security guards).

One such camp has been the subject of a lot of complaints.

[Management] has also started to purge known grifters, including Humano the Tribe, a turnkey camp that has been likened to the Fyre Festival due to its sky-high prices (up to $100K per attendee), and history of deceitful practices and mismanagement, including raw sewage spills, mass-scale littering (Burning Man is the world’s largest leave-no-trace event) and alleged sex trafficking for its highest rollers.

It’s hard to feel bad for people charging a cool $100K to sit in an RV in the desert or the people who have given them money for this and may not get it back. Schadenfreude!

It seems to me that this is just the life cycle of anything good and interesting: people hear how good and interesting it is, and flock to it, and ruin it. It’s not just Burning Man; I’d argue that it’s also SXSW, the city of San Francisco, and my former favorite divey beer joint here in Houston.

Sometimes things evolve. SXSW is still an interesting thing, it’s just a different thing. San Francisco is still a great place, it’s just also a cautionary tale for what happens when you construct an experiment in massive economic inequality and extreme entitlement.

Maybe the management of Burning Man will figure this out. Maybe they won’t and it will be something interesting but less special. I wouldn’t worry; the people who are doing new and interesting things will find somewhere else to do them.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with trying to preserve what it (or anything else) has been before; it’s just hard to fight what seems to be a consistent pattern, so there’s no shame if it doesn’t work out. Creative expression will find an outlet. It just might not be where it used to be.

Children of the anti-vaxxers

img-1While growing numbers of Americans are deciding that it’s better to risk their children contracting terrible diseases to avoid imaginary, scientifically debunked risks of vaccination, it turns out that children are often smarter than their parents and will go get vaccinated as soon as they legally can. When that is depends on their state’s laws; vaccinations are considered a medical procedure so in many cases, these young people are stuck unless they can convince parents who’ve already demonstrated difficulties with understanding risks and clinical data to let them do it.

This story looks at one such young man, who has now turned 18 and is getting caught up on his vaccinations.

For her part, Lindenberger’s mother says her son’s decision to seek out vaccinations for himself felt like an insult. “I did not immunize him because I felt it was the best way to protect him and keep him safe,” Wheeler said of her son, calling his decision “a slap in the face.”

“It was like him spitting on me,” she continued, “saying ‘You don’t know anything, I don’t trust you with anything. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You did make a bad decision and I’m gonna go fix it.’”

Well… yeah. That seems like a pretty accurate assessment. (The story continues on with mom’s thoughts about the polio vaccine, which are – surprise! – based on bad history and poor understanding of what the polio vaccine actually is.)

Americans have now lived in comfort and safety long enough that we’ve lost a lot of appreciation for the things that protect us, and the severity of things we’re protected from. I fear that it will take some pretty terrible outcomes for us to wise up.


The toilet seat is a spy


Private eyes, they’re watching you.

There’s enormous potential benefit like this smart toilet seat that collects a number of physiological measurements each time you sit down. This data can help detect heart disease early, which is a tremendously good thing.

But this is the United States, and there’s a problem. Who gets the data? It’s one thing to have this data going to your physician where problematic readings can be flagged for patient follow-up. It’s fine if the data is staying with you and alerting you when you should go see your doctor.

But we know it won’t work that way. You’ve got the manufacturer (who will probably look for ways to monetize this pile of health data they’re accumulating) and there’s the insurer, who will want in on this (perhaps subsidizing said toilet seat). And since most of us in the US get our health care through an insurance industry that spends a lot of money figuring out whose policy to cancel and what claims to deny (because that’s how they improve their financial performance for shareholders), there’s a really big problem.

Americans are in a funny spot with all the health data getting collected. If we lived in a country that provided healthcare to all of its citizens, this would be great data for clinicians to use to help us live longer, healthier lives. This is unfortunately not the country we live in.

Sounds great for the Canadians, though.


Schultz’s vortex of babble


“Why didn’t they clap?”

Things aren’t going well.

Howard Schultz had a “major policy address” which, like everything else in his benighted campaign, contained no discernible policy. Unless you think “I am a centrist, so I will bring everyone together!” and “I support ordinary Americans, as long as that isn’t anything too concrete!” count as policy.

Mostly it seems that Schultz’s theme is “both sides are terrible and unreasonable, so pick me!” So he shared insights like these:

Some on the far left want to ban guns altogether… The far right has pushed back on even reasonable limitations on gun ownership.

That would first part wrong, second part right. Has any Democrat proposed banning guns altogether? No, because that’s a stupid idea.

The truth is that healthcare costs are the biggest driver of unaffordable care… Yet neither side has developed, let alone offered, a credible plan to reduce costs by increasing competition. Or requiring more transparency on prices from hospitals and drug companies. Or investing in preventive care.

This is just stupid, because there’s the assumption that “increasing competition” (an ill-defined term that could mean a lot of different things) will reduce costs. (Given how much advertising for health insurers and medical facilities I see, I get the funny feeling that we actually do have competition at the moment.) And sorry, but there are credible plans for reducing the cost of providing healthcare and improving preventive care on the table now (you may have heard of this “Medicare for All” thing, Mr. Schultz?). If Schultz thinks it’s a bad idea (we know he does) he should explain why.

The more Schultz talks, the more his campaign is revealed to be a lot of half-ass platitudes. My read is that Schultz is basically a sensible moderate conservative (regardless of party affiliation) – the kind of not-crazy Republicans who have gone to ground while the orange monster tries to wreck the country.

The public response seems to have been, “Oh, Howard Schultz, the Starbucks guy? He must be pretty smart, sounds interesting… wait, this putz is Howard Schultz? Ugh.”

So naturally, CNN is hosting a big “town hall” with him tomorrow night. (Here in Houston, no less.) Because it’s easier than intelligent reporting.

Consumer fetishism

I am generally not a squeamish person. I am not grossed out by things people eat that seem strange to my American sensibilities (I may or may not try them, but I certainly wouldn’t call them weird; all of this is just stuff we’re trained to think about as normal and it varies by culture.) I think the rise of insect cuisine is interesting (and probably necessary in the future for us all, if we want to support billions of humans on a strained planet with a changing climate).

In short, I’m not someone who looks at unfamiliar food practices and says “Ooh, gross!”

But when this eat-your-placenta thing popped up as a popular thing for privileged Americans, I thought, “That’s kind of odd.”

Some will tell you it’s common in other cultures (no, not really, although there are rituals in some cultures about burying the placenta in a special place). Yes, we have observed animals eating placentas after giving birth; this may be an instinct to not waste a source of nutrition, it may be an instinct to hide the evidence of vulnerable offspring being around from predators, we really don’t know.

So – whatever makes you happy.

But “what should I do with my placenta” seems like a problem that arises only for the most privileged among us… and it’s broadened beyond food options, as this mommy-blog post shows us. (And no, I don’t know why a “top ten” list starts with something labeled as the first of nine items. Math is hard.)

It starts with edibles – making placenta capsules, and a lasagna recipe – and then moves on to a placenta bag, which is “suitable as a placenta cover while your Lotus Baby is transitioning, and is lovely to keep the preserved placenta in once your baby has been Lotus Born.” I don’t know what that means, sorry.

You can also buy placenta-based nutritional supplements and skin care products, which don’t even require you to have your own placenta – thanks you, sheep and cows! So now placenta-based wellness is available to all us, even those who forgot to save their placenta (oops!) or are biologically incapable of having one (Hi!).

But the oddest of these is the placenta teddy bear.


The placenta is treated with sea salt, tannin and egg yolk before it can be made all cuddly and cute.

Just don’t let the family dog get a whiff of it, I think.

So we’ve gone from “some cultures have placenta rituals” to “maybe I would like to do something like that” to “hey, let’s market placenta products to people!” Which is, I suppose, how things go in our consumer-oriented society.

But at this risk of feeling judgmental, this feels like something from a culture that’s staring intensely at its own navel, searching for a way to make every little thing meaningful because meaning is somehow absent. I’m not a parent, so maybe i just don’t understand. But it seems to me that the meaningful thing in all this is that you have just brought a new human being into the world, which is an incredibly meaningful sign of hope in a world that currently doesn’t have much of that on offer, a little package of unknown potential, and a huge responsibility for the next two decades of your life.

That’s pretty amazing. Does anybody need placenta jewelry to make it more so?