Sunday, January 27, 2008

Whether or not the fame is worth it

I've always fundamentally believed that almost everyone, if given the option, would want to be famous. Millions of people crave fame (along with money and power) but few really give a thought about whether or not it's worth it.

This new generation of dead, dying and screwed up young stars are my generational peers. I turned on the TV one morning to CNN to check the scores in the only sport that really matters (politics) and found, along with returns from NH (I think), video footage of Britney Spears being taken out of her house in an ambulance.

That was right around the time they found Brad Renfro dead, who was discovered at ten, and did a brilliant job as the troubled pre-teen Mark Sway in the Client when he was only 11. He eventually messed up his life with drinking and drugs. Like Heath Ledger, they still don't know what killed him.

Heath Ledger's death a week later has been reported far more, likely because of his role in Brokeback Mountain, his former relationship with Michelle Williams, and the tragedy of him leaving a two-year old daughter with no father.

What I keep thinking about is how Heath almost went broke after 10 Things I Hate About You and nearly had to throw in the towel and go back to Australia. (I read that in some teen magazine in the 90s.) It's dangerous to play the what-if game, because if he had, he wouldn't have Matilda, but maybe he'd still be alive.

I am sure there are some stars who'd rather be famous for a short time and then die suddenly and tragically, but how can it be worth it? Britney may have smooched Madonna on national television, but she doesn't have access to her own children because of her hijinks. Is it at all clear that she'll live to a ripe old age, surrounded by family and friends? Or will she go bankrupt, be hated by her children and, God forbid, be the next tragic, inexplicable and probably pharmaceutical death?

There are some celebrities who live normal lives, and even some child stars who don't mess up their lives completely. But when it all boils down to it, who would risk that kind of life and death for themselves or for their children simply to be the next poor sap pursued by paparazzi?

Perhaps that famous patriot ought to have said "give me anonymity or give me death."

Monday, January 21, 2008

Security at York

Last week at York U., my beloved alma mater, some people got assaulted, a custodian was attacked with a weapon, and the fifth sexual assault of the year was reported. York will try to throw money at the problem, and Excal's doing an awesome job covering the stories.

This rash of crimes goes to show more than ever how critical investigative journalism is to modern society. Way back in 2000, the "dirty dining" expose in the Toronto Star cast a public eye on health inspections in the city of Toronto and shamed the city into inspecting restaurants more frequently.

Here is Massachusetts, the Boston Globe frequently investigates all manner of public affairs, from cheating in the military to protectionism in the fire department.

In September and October 2004, Excal's then-Editor-in-chief Sean Palter and writer Maryam Behmard wrote a four part series on security at York, shining a light on how few security patrols actually covered the campus and how little they could do in emergency. York's response then was to defend their minimalist approach to security.

Now that the recent events have made the national news, York is finally acting. But York should be ashamed that they took so long - after all, they've known about this for years. York is a wonderful school, but they should care more about their students and less about their PR.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cloning: What's the big deal?

I'm not saying I wouldn't be creeped out if scientists took some of my husband's cells and grew me another one. In addition to being creeped out, I'd probably be dismayed at having twice the laundry and dishes.

But people ARE NOT fundamentally the same as animals. Animals are not sentient. They don't have souls, organized religion, private property or complex financial systems. What's the big deal if we clone and eat them? (In deference to animal rights activists, who argue that they are sentient and have souls etc, I would note that activists wouldn't eat meat anyways.)

Yesterday, the FDA declared that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe. One official called it "indistinguishable" from standard animals. Yet bloggers and ordinary Americans all over the internet are going nuts over this decision. What's the big deal, people?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Countrywide's respective heads planted firmly in the sand, or possibly their own rectums

Home ownership, the big American dream, took a massive hit last year. I've already written about "subprime" being word of the year, and The Boston Globe named a housing advocate Bostonian of the Year:

Marks came along and argued that people of limited means and imperfect credit could, in fact, become good mortgage bets if they were just given a proper education and a fair deal. Over time, he succeeded in shaming a host of big banks into committing millions to NACA so his organization could write reasonable loans for the banks, getting tens of thousands of working-class people across the country into the ranks of homeownership.

As an aspiring homeowner (although given the current market, not for three years or so) I know what the dreamers are thinking. I feel that my rent cheque is just throwing money out the window, and I wish I could build equity in something I could call my own. I believe this will happen one day. There is no doubt that mortgage lending improved before it tanked.

From a political standpoint, the question is, who helps the homeowners who are going to be losing their homes? Do we do it because they are deserving of salvation, or because we don't want the economic consequences of crumbling neighborhoods and toppling housing prices? Do we say it's not the job of the federal government to meddle with the housing market?
As an avowed opponent of political posturing too early to make a difference, I will reserve my comments on the primary until the eve of "Super-Duper Tuesday" and my comments on the election until November. By the time whomever is elected, a year will have elapsed and many more people will either have been helped or booted out onto the street.

I will not spare the idiots of Countrywide and similar companies, though. As far as my non-economist mind goes, they lent too much money to too many people who could not pay. They now need to be bailed out by BOFA, a bank that I liked until an inane phone monkey told me that it's illegal to postdate cheques. (My attorney assures me that the phone monkey is an idiot, and his statement is false. But I digress.)

The screenshot below (click on it to see it enlarged) is of the CNN article on "What the Countrywide deal means for consumers" and seems to be worth reading. I didn't finish it, because I was distracted by the "Ads by Google" box on the right, which prominently features a Countrywide ad. Of course, it figures Countrywide would advertise next to articles about their near-demise.

The ad says: "Countrywide® Home Loans
No Closing Cost++ Refinance Loan. Ask the Experts at Countrywide®."

Last I checked, the experts at Countrywide were updating their resumes. I assume their response to any question would be "Would you like fries with that?"

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Starbucks and its small, caffeinated place in my heart

These days, not all the buzz about Starbucks comes from caffeine. The former CEO, Howard Schultz, returned to the company on Monday, making share price rise. Last January, they got named to Fortune's list of 100 best companies to work for, and in September, Michael Gates Gill wrote a book called "How Starbucks Saved My Life" chronicling how a sixty-something former ad exec (himself) got a job at Starbucks when he needed health insurance and quick cash. (Despite getting panned by Publisher's Weekly, the book is supposedly being made into a movie, possibly by Tom Hanks.) At the end of December, Slate noted that mom-and-pop coffee shops sometimes thrive right down the street or across the way from a Starbucks.

Next to Wal-Mart, Starbucks is one of those companies that people love to hate. Liberal-minded people who want to shop local and independent often feel guilty feeding the corporate America cash cow. There's also economic sense. In his series of books on wealth, David Bach tells people to think about their "latte factor" (the amount of cash they waste in a day on coffee and fast food) and save that money, noting that in the long run, it will make a massive difference.

My New Year's resolution last year was to buy from more independent, locally-owned small businesses. Except, of course, for Starbucks. Alison Lobron's recent piece in the Boston Globe was entitled "confessions of a Starbucks regular" - the use of the word 'confession' indicating that she has something to be ashamed of.

It struck a chord with me especially because she was clearly (I deduced from geographical details) talking about my former Starbucks at Shepherd Post (I don't know why it's called that, but it always said that on the receipt) on Mass. Ave., right up the street from the indie place Simon's.

There exist laughable articles and people suggesting that McDonald's is a threat to Starbucks, and that the world will come to an end if Starbucks markets to kids.

It has always shocked me that some suggest that we junkies could remove Starbucks from our lives without consequences. On some frigid mornings when I faced a one-hour commute last year, the prospect of a Starbucks stop was what propelled me out of my warm bed. In college, when the car I was driving broke down three kilometers (what's a mile?) from school, I drank an uber-chocolatey beverage while waiting for my dad to arrive. I have sunk into comfy chairs to grade papers I didn't want to grade and read books I didn't want to read. I once even encountered an old ex of my father's while reading Marx at Starbucks. (Yes, the irony is great.) In Europe, coffeehouses used to be called "penny universities". Now, ones in affluent suburban neighborhoods might be called "four dollar study halls". They create warm, welcoming (and even exclusive?) environments for people to do what they need to or want to do.

I will continue to buy children presents at Magic Bean and towards the end of my time in Cambridge, I eschewed Shaw's in favor of the Evergood Market. But Starbucks regulars won't quit Starbucks for the same reason that Obama supporters say "I voted for him because his rally moved me to tears." It's not logical, it's emotional.

Or as a wise friend once said, "Comic books will get you through times without food better than food will get you through times without comic books."

Sunday, January 06, 2008

What would you do for $3300...

Here in Boston, there are always ads in the Metro free paper looking for subjects for research studies. I've always been sorely tempted. Compared to what I do all day, answering a few questions or having blood drawn seems like a piece of cake.

In this week's New Yorker, there is an article (don't get excited, it's not online) about the practice of guinea-pigging - being a human guinea pig. Apparently, college students, illegal immigrants, low-wage workers and other people who have time on their hands will participate in invasive research studies in order to get cash.

The downside, in addition to boredom, is occasional risk of debilitating injury or death. Yikes. Maybe this is less sexy that I originally thought.

From Guinea Pig Zero, I bring you the story of a woman who lived in a research facility taking meds used to treat bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. In exchange for 23 days in the facility, she earned $3300.

For $3300, I might:
  • Write a bunch of articles.
  • Allow someone to draw blood, presuming they were not a lousy phlebotomist.
  • Teach a bunch of kids something vaguely educational (that's what I do.)
I would NOT:
  • Take any medications that could suddenly kill me.
  • Pee in a bedpan (just too gross).
  • Share a squalid room with 7 or 8 others.
  • Take on crazy diet or water restrictions. (They banned CAFFEINE!)
This leads me to ask: What would you do for $3300?

On fun words of 2007

This year's "word of the year" was apparently subprime.

CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- Even the American Dialect Society knows how risky home mortgages are these days.

The group of wordsmiths chose "subprime" as 2007's Word of the Year at its annual convention Friday.

"'Subprime' has been around with bankers for awhile, but now everyone is talking about 'subprime,"' said Wayne Glowka, a spokesman for the group and a dean at Reinhardt College in Waleska, Georgia. "It's affecting all kinds of people in all kinds of places."

About 80 members of the organization spent two days debating the merits of runners-up "Facebook," "green," "Googleganger" and "waterboarding" before voting for an adjective that means "a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage or investment."

The choice signifies the public's concern for a "deepening mortgage crisis," the society said in a statement.

"Facebook," as a noun, verb or adjective, was popular with younger linguists, Glowka said.

One of the thing the article noted is that some of these slang terms have been around for some time. "Facebooking" and "friending" have been part of the college lingo since at least 2004. "Green" is as old as the hills, or at least as old as the hippies.

But what is HOT is a different question. Facebook is massive right now - lots of forty-somethings have accounts, as well as most middle schoolers. CNN even had a story of a guy who called in sick, and was outed by Facebook photos (here). In Canada, the police tried in vain to keep people from discussing the names of two underage homicide suspects, but everyone was writing about it on Facebook.

I know people who advertise yard sales and parties on Facebook, but also small businesses. I posted wedding pics (as did my sister and brother-in-law), my friends posted pictures of their newborns, and those of us who broke up found plenty of ways to use Facebook info to share that with the world.

I'm reminded of an exchange from Shakespeare in Love:
Nurse: It is a new day.
Gwyneth Paltrow: It is a new world.

Friday, January 04, 2008

57 people in a living room (sort of) matter

I suppose blogging pundits are all saying that Iowa doesn't matter, and to an extent it is true, but it's nice to know that the position of "Leader of the Free World" isn't one that can easily be purchased.

What I kept hearing from the talking heads on CNN last night is that Romney spent TONS of money. Both Clinton and Romney tried to portray their candidacies as fait accompli, but clearly neither were.

Their spin people keep saying they can still win, but I like what the caucuses say about America. Even if a political machine rolls into town and steamrollers everyone, the people still get to speak, and they will not always be bought.

How nice.