Sunday, April 27, 2008

The modern sideshow

Each week, it seems, pictures of a new human oddity surface on Yahoo. Such interest in the plight of a result of natural human curiosity, and shows the evolution of society’s treatment of such people. In ancient cultures, someone suffering from a rare mutation might have been subject to a wide range of treatment, from worship to death, since various civilizations interpreted the appearance of such unusual deformations in their midst as anything from a curse from the devil to a blessing from God.

In the 1800s sideshows became a common sight in America, as circuses traveled the countryside, displaying “human marvels” to curious spectators. The Siamese twins Chang and Eng were two of the earliest examples, and soon afterwards P.T. Barnum made Tom Thumb the star of his famous exhibition.Sideshows remained popular for until the mid-20th century, when people suffering from these genetic oddities were finally granted dignity (and pity), rather than being mocked and humiliated.

Today, “sideshows” consist of people with extensive (voluntary) body-modification, like tattoos and piercings. The people who were once ridiculed now often live in anonymity, and/or attempt to have their problem surgically fixed. When they do decide to have surgery, it often makes world news. Their pictures are splayed across the Health or Odd News sections of popular websites, and quickly make the rounds on the internet. Often they are children, which can make it particularly heart-wrenching.

Given the absence of sideshows from general society for several decades, most of us never got the chance to see such incredible examples of genetic mishaps in person. I, for one, never would have believed it possible to have a 50lb tumor in your face or be born with two sets of facial features. I would have dismissed such claims as exaggeration or pure science fiction. But globalization and modern media have made it possible for journalists to find out about and record the existence of such extraordinary people, and provide photographic proof to the world. Hopefully making such unfortunate cases of human malformation public will give us more credulity when confronted with outlandish claims. Theories like intelligent design cannot account for people like Huang Chunsai or Lui Hua, whose bodies are far from intelligently designed. We are an animal species like any other, and are not (yet) immune to the abstruse and wretched whims of nature.

Keep reading...

The Return of the Celebrity Crush

It’s been a while since I had a serious celebrity crush. One of the earliest I can remember was Christina Ricci, followed by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Neve Campbell, and a series of other actresses whose careers peaked during my middle-school years. Like most heterosexual men, I also had an intense Jessica Alba period, as well as a brief fling with 24’s Elisha Cuthbert. In recent years, however, my penchant for developing a deep infatuation with untouchable Hollywood stars has greatly diminished. Perhaps it is because I don’t spend as much time with their images as I once did—I no longer watch TV (other than Lost and The Office), I rarely see mainstream movies, and I long ago ended my subscription to Maxim. Recently, however, I saw a mainstream movie, and it wasn’t long before I’d fallen for one of the leading ladies, Mila Kunis.

The film was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest release from Superbad producer Judd Apatow’s comedic repertoire. The lead actresses in Apatow’s movies always give realistic, sympathetic performances, playing the types of girls men pine for, rather than lust after. Kunis is no exception—her Rachel is the gorgeous girl-next-door who uses words like “dude” and eases awkward moments with her casual demeanor. Basically, she’s every guy’s dream. Kunis, like other Apatow beauties, doesn’t overact or let her character become banal. Like Emma Stone as Jules in Superbad, Kunis delivers her lines with pitch-perfect self-deprecating tone.

It would be hard enough to resist Kunis’s exotic eyes or Hawaiian tan. But coupled with Segel’s masterly screenwriting, she becomes irresistibly adorable. Unfortunately (a word I use ironically, because it always amuses me when fans believe they would stand a chance to date their celebrity crush if they were single), Kunis has been dating Macaulay Culkin for over 6 years. Guess I’ll have to try forgetting Mila Kunis. Keep reading...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Restaurant Rave #1: Wildfire

As someone who enjoys eating ethnic foods (the more obscure the better), I typically avoid standard American restaurants—places where expensive steaks and seafood are served with potatoes and glasses of expensive wine. I am also the kind of person who would rather try a new restaurant each time I go out than return habitually to the same familiar spot. I am rarely so taken with a restaurant or a particular dish that I feel the need to return or recommend it to a friend. So it is particularly unusual for me to publicly extol a restaurant, especially one that is practically the definition of a classic chophouse.

But based on my two experiences at Wildfire (located outside Perimeter Mall), I do not hesitate to add it to my shortlist of favorite restaurants, and encourage everyone to try it for themselves. Minor disclaimer: The only food I have gotten thus far at Wildfire was lunch take-out, so I cannot vouch for table service. Nonetheless, given the degree of care that goes into a simple to-go order, I am confident the servers are of superior quality as well.

The dishes I have eaten are the Char Crusted Turkey Burger and Lemon Chicken Breast. Without going into the details of their ingredients, I will just say that both were cooked perfectly, and flavored with just the right balance of seasonings. The wild rice side is also delicious; mixed with peas and other minced vegetables, it tastes rich and earthy, but not oily, as many wild rice dishes tend to.

Besides the outstanding quality of the food, the attention to detail in packing the to-go order was unexpected and impressive. The main dish and side are packed in separate containers (helpful, though a little wasteful and unnecessary), and the staff thoughtfully includes a plate, plasticware and napkin, and wetnap in the bag. A loaf of onion bread with butter is also complimentary.

I cannot rave enough about Wildfire; there are few restaurants that stand out in so many categories. Follow the link below to the website, where one can find a full menu and other information.

Wildfire Website Keep reading...

Facebook Fail

This week Facebook introduced a major new feature called Facebook Chat. As if Facebook members didn’t already have enough ways to communicate with each other (messages, wall postings, etc.) they now have yet another way to waste time. And this one, I predict, is going to be a biggie.

As far as I can tell, there is no easy way to hide from potential chatters, or to opt out of the feature entirely. *CORRECTION: Users may "Go Offline," which prevents them from appearing on someone else's list of online friends.* If you’re on Facebook, you’re visible to your friends and available to chat. This poses a problem to those of us who may keep a Facebook tab open at all times, not counting on it becoming a distraction when four friends initiate a chat. Facebook long ago showed online/offline status as part of someone’s profile, but I doubt many seized the opportunity of seeing a friend online to start messaging with them. Now users can interact with each other in the moment, while on the website, much like Google Talk on Gmail.

At first glance Facebook Chat seems like a technological regression, given its similarity to AOL Instant Messenger, the online conversation mode of choice for millions of middle schoolers in the late 90s. While it does superficially resemble AIM in functionality, Facebook Chat does distinguish itself in several important ways. First, a buddy list is not necessary, since the application takes uses the built-in friends list. This eliminates the need to save email addresses, etc. Second, Facebook Chat takes advantage of developments in web design software (probably Ajax), making it possible to conduct a chat and navigate on the main Facebook page simultaneously. This eliminates the need to toggle back and forth between windows, a bit of a nuisance. Chat windows can also be neatly minimized into the bottom of the main page, and red balloons pop up to notify you of new messages.

I, for one, am conflicted about this most recent Facebook innovation. It’s helpful to be able to contact a friend instantly if they’re online, but sometimes I just want to be online in peace, and not be bothered with banal back-and-forth texts. But I am a focus group of one, and I won’t underestimate my peers’ desire to be in constant contact with each other. Facebook has probably hit a home run with Chat—but I want to be in the dugout. Keep reading...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Searchsleuthing: My new distraction

For many years internet users were unable to use common words, like and, it, or the, in their search queries. Search engines, like Google, automatically ignored these terms, known as stop words, because they tend to slow a search down. It was, however, possible to get around this possibly unwelcome elision by putting brackets or quotation marks around one’s search term. This would allow one to search for bands like “The Who” or “The The,” the latter of which must have named itself with the intention of frustrating future fans (The The was formed in 1978).

Recently, however, Google eliminated its use of pesky stop words. One might think this would have opened Pandora’s box for clever marketers, giving them the opportunity to “own” common words, by ensuring their placement at the top of search results. For some words, this hypothesis holds true. Barnes and Noble is result number one when one googles and. Other companies with claims to certain words include NBC (its show Life is first in line for this SETIesque query), CNN/Forbes is the answer to money, and good old Microsoft dominates word, the most frequently used noun in English.

Other common words turn up surprisingly modest sites. Funbrain is where one can find—it hardly needs to be said—fun. A search for the most-used action verb in English, see, brings up the home page for See’s Candies. is puzzlingly the first result for of. And the state of Indiana has some issues with its search engine optimization. It comes up tops for in (the most common English word) but behind Indiana University with a direct search for the state’s full name.

Several non-profits manage to score first place as well. Teach For America is the lead result for for, but slips three spots when one searches for teach., a non-profit dedicated to fighting poverty and AIDS, lays claim to the loneliest number. A handful of media companies hold sway over some very powerful words. Home is The New York Times and it can be found at Slashdot. But it’s satirical newspaper The Onion that wins the biggest prize of all, the most common word in the English language (the)—already used 23 times in this post. Something called The White House is runner-up. A search for love turns up a humble Wikipedia entry (a site that dominates search results for the vast majority of nouns), while searching for sex leads one, not surprisingly, to a porn site. Surprisingly, a search for love results in nearly three times as many links as a search for sex (1.9 billion compared to 700 million).

See what your own searchsleuthing reveals—amusing surprises abound! Keep reading...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vandalism and Creepy Little Boys

Several years ago a man on a nearby street accused me of beating his mailbox with a baseball bat. He claimed that I had done this to take revenge for him yelling at me as I sped by his house. I was flabbergasted, as I was innocent of both the pretext (the speeding) and the crime. Nonetheless the man persisted, saying he had seen me smashing his mailbox late at night. Unfortunately I first had to convince my father of my innocence (somehow he doubted it, despite my history of 4.0+ grades, avoidance of risky behavior and confrontation, and generally gentle demeanor). Once this was satisfactorily accomplished, we visited the man at his home to hash things out. Offended at the accusation, I struggled to maintain my composure and not give anyone a reason to think I was capable of such violence. We left, with me not taking responsibility, but still apologizing for the damage. To this day I do not know whether the man truly believed I was the culprit, or whether he made the story up.

The reason this story became relevant again recently is the regular appearance of a creepy blond boy walking by my house. Every few weeks, as I'm outside getting the mail or going to my car, I'll see him walking back from school. As he passes my house, he turns to stare at me, and often continues walking backwards and staring until he's 200 feet away. I hypothesized about the provenance of this strange child; he seemed to appear out of nowhere, and disappear up the hill. Finally, last week, these two strange pieces of my life came together when I saw the boy in the yard of my accuser. Evidently he is the man's son.

For all I know the man tells his son bedtime stories about the kid at 1675 A---- who smashed their mailbox when the boy was just a tot. So the boy stares at me with intrigue, the way any normal child might stare at the neighborhood criminal.

But hopefully this strange drama is at its end, for the house in question is now up for sale. Keep reading...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I like Miley Cyrus?

When you're 22 years old, it's hard to stay up to date with what's popular with tweens. Since I'm not a tween or the parent of one, all the information I get is filtered through the media, which may not be the most accurate source for the scoop on tween trends.

Despite my isolation from this fast-paced tween world, I've heard a lot about this Miley Cyrus girl over the past few months--about how her concerts sell out for exorbitant prices, and that parents were up in arms about profiteering by ticket scalpers and resellers. I also knew she was the daughter of Billy-Ray Cyrus, and that she was the title character in some Hannah Montana show, which may or may not be related to this High School Musical thing, another tween phenomenon I'm vaguely aware of.

But I'd never heard her music. From what I understood it was only played on the Disney Channel to promote her other Disney-related activities. So when I found myself singing along recently to a catchy pop song on the radio, I didn't suspect at first what I was actually listening to. (I have a weakness for a certain hip-hop/pop radio station, and this song had been played into my head over the course of the week). The beat of the song sounded like it was made for the danceclub, and singer sounded mature and just a little sultry. Something like Lasgo.

So there I am, singing "The last time I freaked out,
I just kept looking down,
I st-st-stuttered when
You asked me what I'm thinkin' bout..." when I hear a familiar word.

"...she's just being Miley." At least that's what it sounds like. I panic. Have I really been singing along to Miley Cyrus? So I go home and google the lyrics, and sure enough, I am singing along to Miley freaking Cyrus. I was mortified. One might think I would try to bury this shame and never share it with anyone, but I feel the truth needs to be heard.

I have to face facts, and the fact is, I like Miley Cyrus. Keep reading...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Your first word every day

I've decided to start keeping a log of the first word I utter each morning. Is it a curse word? The first word in a sentence? Is it muttered just to myself or said to someone else? At what time do I say my first word?

Try to do the same and post your results here. Keep reading...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cereal news: Good and bad

First, the bad: The current Post Honey Bunches of Oats campaign. It's hard to drive somewhere in Atlanta these days without seeing one of the horrendous bus shelter ads for Post. I pass three during my 10 minute drive to school. Why blanketing a city with a single boring, uncreative ad would get people to buy cereal is beyond me. From a copywriting perspective, "What are you waiting for?" is one of the least compelling headlines possible. Post is also running equally horrible TV spots, showing Post "employees" getting people on the street to sample the product. Ugh.

Post website

At the opposite end of the marketing spectrum is Target's Archer Farms brand cereals. The Archer Farms line already sported some of the best design and most creative flavor profiles of any store-branded foods I've seen. Publix design comes close, but their products are much more basic and conservative. This week Target quietly reintroduced its cereals in all-new packaging: slim, rounded boxes with resealable lids rather than plastic bags, and made from 50% post-consumer content. Ironically, I'd come up with a design for a cereal box several months ago that did away with the bag and had a spout for pouring, similar to a milk carton. Target's accomplishes the same thing, but with more pieces. It's about time companies realized cereal doesn't always have to be packaged in cardboard boxes with plastic bags (which are often frustratingly difficult to open).

Target is also earning some eco-friendly cred with its offer in this week's Newsweek. Readers who create an envelope out of Target's inside front cover ad and stuff it with old Target bags get a free "Retote," made from old Target shopping bags. I like the idea, but I'm not sure a) people will take the time to construct the envelope and b) the envelope could physically hold old bags.

Archer Farms site
Keep reading...

Advertising/Programming disconnect

I had the TV on for a few minutes this morning, which is probably the first time I've seen Saturday morning TV in literally 15 years. MyFox Atlanta was showing a program called Teen Kids News (a straightforward, if not contradictory title). The first commercial during the break was for a product called Hoveround (picture below), a motorized wheelchair for the physically impaired. Definitely not a product for the audience of the show, unless they're going to buy one for Grandma for her birthday. Daytime TV and advertising certainly make strange bedfellows.

Keep reading...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I hate Spirit Air

Though I despise the company, for some reason I am still on Spirit Air's email list. This means I am occasionally subject to their inane, borderline offensive sexual innuendo sales (see M.I.L.F., Threesome, and Strange sales above). The names of these promotions are innocuous enough to most people, but guaranteed to elicit chuckles from a certain frat boy demographic that understands the double entendres. It's just a guess, but I won't be surprised if on April 20 I get an email about Spirit's "Get High" sale. It seems Spirit is striving to become the airline of choice for male hedonists, given their marketing tactics and range of destinations (Vegas, Florida, many Caribbean beaches). Interesting approach, but it falls flat with me.

I've flown with Spirit twice, once to Guatemala and once to Peru. Both times enticed by absurdly low airfares (3 cents! 8 dollars! -.09!), I quickly learned the drawback of flying with America's only European-style budget airline. Customer service simply does not exist. Though the tip is hidden in the fine print of your confirmation email, passengers are ostensibly able to check their bags in advance, and pay $5 instead of $10. I didn't realize this was possible until the return leg of my second trip, but even then was unable to take advantage of the service. I tried half a dozen times over the course of a week, but the website never worked.

Due to this and subsequent problems with my booking, I decided to write a letter to the company. It took me several phone calls to reach a customer service agent who would give me an address for complaint letters (the first said no such address existed). It's been six months, and still no response. After waiting two months or so, I emailed the letter to the company. A week later I received a form letter, saying I would get a personal response within two weeks. That was four months ago.

Spirit may have introduced America to the airline business model of the future, but I doubt being first to market will keep it the leader. Why? Because Spirit sucks. You catch that clever innuendo, Spirit? Funny, huh? Assholes.

UPDATE: Just got the email about the new "Big S" sale.

Perhaps Sir Mix-a-Lot can shed some light on the hidden meaning of this sale.

UPDATE: The MILF sale returns!

Keep reading...

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Atlanta is now solidly established as the center of hip-hop, having produced dozens of chart-topping artists in the past decade, from the genre-bending duo Outkast to the King of Crunk, Lil Jon, and his countless protégés. Many of these artists are one-hit wonders, achieving fleeting stardom behind the momentum of one huge hit, usually a bass-heavy dance track with a catchy hook. These thumping clubbing songs had become virtually synonymous with Atlanta hip-hop, until the snap movement surfaced a several years ago. Songs of this sort rely on low-fi, minimalists beats (the CCG main theme of D4L’s Laffy Taffy epitomizing the genre), and a slow tempo to produce songs that are easy to choreograph a simple dance, or “two-step” to.

The subject matter of these songs is remarkably homogeneous, and its vapidity has been thoroughly discussed already. So rather than analyze the content of Southern hip-hop, I want merely to address the prevalence of a certain word in these songs: Yeah (or a close cousin of it). Yeah is an interesting word. Four letters long, its only consonant is a letter that suffers from an identity crisis. Y, we learn when we’re young, is both a consonant and a vowel. Depending on its position within a word, it is pronounced as some variation of the sound “ee,” represented linguistically by the letter i. The rest of the word is an awkward dipthong not found in any other English word (that I can think of).

Yeah is a casualization of the English affirmative yes, analogous to the French ouais, pronounced “way.” Rather than delve further into the etymology of the word, I’ll briefly discuss its use in Southern hip-hop. During the crunk era of the early part of this decade, Lil Jon was a ubiquitous guest on many popular tracks. Often his only contributions were sporadic exclamations of his catchphrases, delivered in his trademark southern stoner drawl. One of the most common was “Yeeeeaahhh!” The word was so popular that it grew into a hit single (Yeah!) from Usher, featuring backup vocals by the King of Crunk himself.

Yeah has only grown in popularity recently. In many of his recordings, Young Jeezy features his take on the word, a drawn-out, enthusiastic growl, best transliterated as “Jyeaaahhh!” (See And Then What). More recently, Shawty Lo, originally of the group D4L and now a solo artist, has featured his version, a more subdued southern stoner drawl, in many of his songs (Dey Know being the most well known). And the YouTube sensation Soulja Boy, proving himself something more than a one-hit-wonder, has taken perhaps the most creative direction with the word. Changing the terminal vowel sound to a more exclamatory “ah,” Soulja Boy created a catchy retort to people who may be bothering you. His song Yahhh! is a message to all the people who want to ride the coattails of his fame. being the most well known).

Clearly the use of yeah is flexible; for many rappers it is a handy filler word, and serves little purpose lyrically. For lyrics with more meaning, check out the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Keep reading...

I love New Balance's new Love/Hate campaign

Not many ads these days rely on sound strategy and good old consumer insights; most are the result of a sort of creative onanism and oneupsmanship. But New Balance's Love/Hate campaign, while not groundbreaking in its creativity or media placement, stands out with its clear sense of strategy and target audience.

Most casual runners do have an ambivalent relationship with the sport. It's good cardiovascular exercise, but is pounding the pavement past the point of comfort really enjoyable? New Balance recognizes these mixed feelings, and validates them. It's not often a brand acknowledges the negative feelings consumers have towards its products.

New Balance is in the tricky position of trying to maintain its core consumers of dedicated runners, while also attracting the more common morning jogger. What's more, it's competing with the advertising behemoth known as Nike, which has already earned the brand loyalty of many runners through smart advertising and marketing tie-ins, like Nike + iPod and the sponsorship of city-specific races.

But this campaign has legs, and I'd bet New Balance will see some decent growth in 2008.

Now, for the creative: BBDO and Frederick Bond produced a series of beautiful spots, the best of which, "Anthem," uses vivid German Expressionistic mise en scene (canted buildings and blood-red skies) to bring runners' anguish to life.

BBDO's Anthem spot

By the way, New Balance 992s are, in my opinion, the best running shoes on the market. Keep reading...

The varieties of male friendship

Friendship is an intricate subject, especially the male version of it. Being male may bias me somewhat, but from experience and observation I’ve come to believe men have a distinct approach to this fundamental social behavior. Women tend to have a covey of general-purpose friends—like-minded, like-gendered people who share intimate details of their lives with each other. Men are more likely to have a stable of friends, each of whom fills a particular role. Each friend is like an article of clothing suitable for certain occasions: Going to lift weights? Put on gym shorts and call Josh. Seeing a foreign film? Make it Jason.

A short, but not nearly exhaustive list of a typical man’s friends might include: a workout buddy, a tennis buddy, a golf buddy, a bar buddy, poker buddies, etc. A great tennis partner might make a poor wingman, and vice versa. Some of a man’s friends may be from the office, and his relationship with these work friends may or may not end at 5 o’clock (or 6, 7, 8, what have you.) A man segments his life, unlike a woman, who enjoys the continuity and potential for deeper emotional investment inherent in spending time with the same people for many activities.

It’s difficult (and a bit callous) to think of people as mere objects. But given people’s individual strengths and weaknesses, interests and idiosyncrasies, it shouldn’t be hard to accept that someone would consciously select the company he keeps for any given activity. It is possible, however, for distinct friendship groups to meet and merge, as new common interests are discovered. A trivia team is a likely way for friends of various sources to come together, as it offers something to the sports fiend friend, the intellectual friend, the drinking friend, etc.

Notice that a “deep conversation friend” was not included in the list of likely male companions. Men generally find it difficult to open up to other men (out of fear of appearing un-masculine), and frequently have female friends for just this purpose. Often these female friends are more casual acquaintances (a colleague at work, for example), and therefore not available on a regular basis for conversation. As a result of the dearth of friendship depth, men suffer disproportionately when a meaningful romantic relationship is terminated. Having put all his eggs into one basket by confiding his most personal feelings in just one person, a man goes into panic mode when he finds this emotional bond gone. Suddenly his feelings have no outlet, other than the often-unappealing prospect of paying a professional to listen. Brimming with inexpressible feelings, a man will typically seek solace in the masculine outlet of his choice (sport, sex, drink, etc.) Keep reading...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Google's gag gets me (briefly)

Living up to its reputation for arresting April Fools hoaxes, Google unleashed a basket of bogus goodies for gullible netizens this morning. I fell for the "Custom Time" feature, which purported to allow Gmail users to manipulate the time an email appeared to have been sent (never be late with an email again!) The feature sounds almost plausible, until one reads further on the Custom Time info site, and the satire becomes clear. Visit Wikipedia for an exhaustive list of Mountain View pranks. Keep reading...