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Monday, October 19, 2009

Wal-Mart and books: natural enemies

  I have never purchased anything at Wal-Mart, and have yet another reason not to: they ban/censor books. Which is to say they refuse to carry certain books that don't make it past their screens for certain ideas and imagery. If you go to PostSecret ( right now, you'll see a little note in the text, just above the image showing that the latest PostSecret Book made its debut at number 1 on the NYTimes ( Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous hardcover bestseller list(!). The note:
The new book is available from bookstores everywhere* and online.

Thanks for making our secrets #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List.

* Wal-Mart stores continue to ban/reject all PostSecret books.
It is GREAT that the new PostSecet book is doing so well! It's an enjoyable project. It is selling well! How could a chain store ban it?

In theory, all stores are private businesses which can carry whatever they like, and people are free to shop wherever they like. In practice, the predatory business model of certain big-box chain stores is to drive all competition in smaller 'markets' out of business, and then engage in oppressive monopoly practices. Small communities can find their access to birth control, books, magazines, "fair trade" products, movies, and music CDs dictated by the policies of the only retail venue they have access to, which has its own agenda.

Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town ( discusses the scope of this one chain's ability to censor, using a series of conservative screens:
While Wal-Mart is the world's largest CD retailer, and in some regions the only place in town to purchase music[,] entertainment products represent only a fraction of their business. However, it is a different story for recording artists. Because Wal-Mart reaps about 10 percent of the total domestic music CD sales, most musicians and record companies will agree to create a "sanitized" version specifically for the megastores.
They don't use my favorite example, which is an Eels song about how difficult it is to live without a loved one, using a profane word for emphasis. W-M banned the album until the Eels re-recorded the song and changed the title for a sanitized version, though they did it sarcastically: E yells "MONSTERTRUCKER" over the offending word whenever it appears. I learned about this through someone who had purchased the CD at the offending big box chain store in his small-town area without knowing that there was another version of the album available, because no disclosure is required.


I want to say that at least W-M is not vandalizing the songs themselves, but the upside to that would be that it would be more obvious. A friend who attended a religious school in Utah reported that the school had movie night, during which the school would show mainstream movies which they had censored themselves - and often not well, so the students at least knew that they weren't getting the film as its creators intended it (in violation of the license that comes with the films, but that's another matter). The kids who had relatives out of the area would later see the whole film elsewhere if it interested them; the locals didn't have many options.


Can you imagine a censored version of Reservoir Dogs without the violence? Or The Terminator without the one scene that explains where Sarah Connor's son comes from? The English Patient without the adultery? It would make more sense not to watch those films at all, rather than to sanitize them, which is the aspect of censorship that confuses me. I think of films, and albums, and sculptures as complete works: if the content is objectionable, it makes far more sense not to watch it at all than to demand the right to see it 'cleaned up' for your restrictions.

It would make even more sense to make your own original films that follow your subculture's values. But that would require creativity.

I suspect I fail to see that mainstream mass-cultural products have a desirable credibility that even fringe groups want access to, and sanitizing and censoring those products is one way to claim an association with the mainstream, even if that association is fractured at best.


This isn't new: art history is full of incidents in which art was suppressed, especially any accurate depictions of the human figure - a figure we all have, more or less, last I checked.

Michelangelo's sculpture David was considered scandalous, and a strategically placed fig-leaf was installed on reproductions of the work in the presence of important ladies, who weren't supposed to understand male anatomy. That was stupid, too. Funny in retrospect, but stupid.

It is also a bit ironic, if Wikipedia's note that the statue came to represent the struggle for civil liberties is accurate.


Just so you know: during a zombie plague outbreak, I'd be okay with looting a Wal-Mart. That is a very special circumstance, possibly the only one in which I would set foot in one. Just so you know.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:00 AM

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michelle Obama's terrifying pesticide-free garden

  Michelle Obama isn't using pesticides, and it is freaking out lobbyists. You often hear that the personal is political, that little things can make a difference. This is apparently all the more true for the President's wife, because the fact that the First Lady's little garden is organic is, apparently, a threat to big Ag.

At least, they are treating it that way.

The Nation referenced a strange letter that big Ag recently sent to the White House in protest of the absence of poison. They also circulated the letter and advised others that the entire idea of a garden without chemical pesticides made them "shudder." The idea of food with chemical residues gives someone nightmares, it turns out. Thankfully, this someone does not cooks my food.

La Vida Locavore:: Organic White House Garden Puts Some Conventional Panties in a Twist ( has the whole text of the letter, which is quite a piece of propaganda... against home gardening. Scary, scary gardening. A sample:
We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food needs.
It takes a moment to figure out what they are trying to say. Apparently, my grandparents had lots of time to mess around growing food without pesticides, and they could ignore their families, which is a luxury modern people cannot afford. Also, if I garden, my goal must be to produce a year-round supply of food.

I hate having to choose between caring for my family and growing food. I'm so glad that farmers are willing neglect their families so that I can live a modern life... Sorry I trailed off, I was laughing again.

Lobbyists are not paid to make sense: they are paid to put the interests of their industry first. Their industry now employs very few people; requires lots of chemicals and energy inputs; requires heavy taxpayer subsidies; is so successful that farmers produce more output than can be profitably sold in this country, so that farmers may be paid not to farm because their output will further depress consumer prices and worsen the glut of overproduction... Fewer and fewer people are benefiting from this arrangement. And so the lobbyists feel the need to write letters like this, which somehow manage to make their entire industry look ridiculous.

Farming is really hard work. Farming organically, which everyone in the world did until the 1940s or so, is even harder. But it produces some really great products, it improves the land if managed properly, and farmers are paid a premium for their work. Reading letters like this one makes me take the industry position to its natural, illogical extremes: microbreweries are inefficient, and you don't have time to brew beer, so just drink Bud; you really don't have time to cook your own food or run a restaurant, so just eat frozen entrees made by professionals in modern factories; styling your hair that way takes up too much of your time, you should shave you head and wear one of our wigs, which will save you thousands on shampoo; why spend so much time writing individual e-mail messages, when professionals can send one note to all of your friends at once...

Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, but it is strange to see the quantity position aggressively put forth in an age when (I like to think) there is abundant evidence of quality coming back into style.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:33 PM

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Classics of Zombie Literature

  Yes, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith is all I had hoped for. It is literature. It is gory. It is romantic. It involves ninjas. And it provides social commentary about the place of women in society in new ways. I quote:
My sisters and I cannot spend any substantial time searching for [my sister's boyfriend/captor], as we are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married.
Yes, as you might expect, it is unseemly for ladies to slay legions of the undead, and even more unseemly to do so WELL. No matter how one's country might need one's help during periods of shambling, brain-eating unpleasantness, a respectable lady, especially a married one, must retire from her violent, gory, life-saving service. (Oh, the stupidity of patriarchy.)

I love this book. I recommend it. If you're near me, I might even be willing to loan it to you.

I'm not saying I want the undead versions of all enjoyable works of literature... although, come to think of it, Wuthering Heights would be even more joyously overwrought if... If... NO. Wait. Stop right there! Don't! Well... Hmmmmm.....

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:28 PM

Friday, October 03, 2008

Maternal pride

  My mother was raised as a Latin Mass Catholic, and has historically appeared to be uptight about a wide range of sexual topics. (In the past, she's said some things that I perceived as homophobic, but then again, she's said a few things that might pass as 'heterophobic' also.) She told me two things that are really pride-inspiring this week.

The first: anti-marriage activists came to her door. Well, they're actually just anti-marriage for SOME people. But they came around, all frothed up, and my mother made the mistake of answering. They went on an anti-gay rant. To which my mother replied, "God must love gays, because he made so many of them." They did not like this, and left in a huff.

Mom: 1
Small minded freaks: 0.

The second: she watched the debates, and thinks Biden is lame for believing that marriage should be limited to hetero couples, just as the small minded freaks do.

Mom: 1
Biden: *yawn*

'Such a pleasant surprise.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:30 PM

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Insomnia and Returning from the Dead.

eatbrains08, SF Zombie mob, photo by Steven P.I have looked exhausted lately, largely from an unusually severe, multi-day bout of insomnia.

Only some of this insomnia is induced by Peet's products. I swear. Peet's soy chai induces the tastiest insomnia anywhere!

But I don't look as bad as I do in this photo. (And I hope not to for about 60 more years.) This was an outtake from photos Steven took of me participating in the San Francisco Zombie Mob (, which is how I spent my Saturday afternoon. Yes, I was a zombie, a member of the undead, and I wandered through downtown SF with about 350 of my closest undead friends, crying out for fresh brains.

It is terribly... liberating. We are told to look "nice," to dress tidily and modestly, not to stand out, not to make noise, not to be weird (as if I have ever listened to that), and suddenly we get to set all of those silly rules aside and roam, dripping blood, to maul our happy (and clearly marked) victims whose silly drama in their futile resistance matches our own silly drama in mauling them.

It is delightful, in so many happy ways.

Special highlights: an early victim, looking so innocent with his (empty) paper coffee cup, milling about, waiting to be mauled... The victim with an armful of balloon animals, and the fabulous faux-horror facial expressions he made as we converted him to one of our kind... The group in Chinatown that attempted to fight the zombies off with toy swords... And the best part, the absolute best part, was the meeting of the two zombie groups on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. Oh, the sound!! The happy, happy, happy sound! We took up the entire block. It was truly beautiful.

Tourists loved it. Tour bus operators loved it. Passersby faked screams and ran away, smiling. Non-participants feigned attempting to defend their storefronts from us. The people who couldn't deal with it were also a riot: there is something so inherently ridiculous in pretending not to see hundreds of passing zombies and making tight-lipped little frowny faces of disapproval and scurrying off. The people who demanded rational explanations were just as funny. Must everything have a rational explanation? I've seen television: I know people are willing to suspend rational thought for vast periods of time.

Flickr is filled with pictures tagged "eatbrains08," many of which contain gloriously ghastly images of me. My favorite video of the zombie march so far is Zombie March, August 16, 2008, by ( I'll post a link to Steven's photo/video montage when he has it posted.

I posted a small set of images to, yes, of all places, Facebook: Oh, the horror! Zombies roam the Streets of San Francisco!: photos by Steven, cropped and posted by me. (You can view these without a Facebook login.)

The event was delightful, and I believe I've recruited many people to participate next time, when it will be even more gory and grand.

Zombie Beauty Tips:
-a clay and avocado mask turns you a truly alarming shade of gray-green, and leaves your skin soft and pleasantly scented. Be sure to put some on your lips: zombies have dead-looking lips.
-that dark eye makeup that you regret buying, the nearly black one with red glitter in it, is PERFECT for making your eyes look sunken-in. If you have an eye-shadow primer, use that to ensure that it doesn't wipe off unintentionally.
-cheap, nasty lip gloss makes good blood-substitutes, despite the nasty bubblegum scent. Smear some down the side of your face, and onto your shirt.
-clothes that don't fit well, which can be hacked at with dull scissors without any regret, looks best on zombies. I'm sure you have some around.
-rely on other, organized zombies for high quality, washable blood.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:41 PM

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

  Technology is someone else's friend? One of my girlfriends observed that I have this Apple phone, which she announced was much more advanced than her phone. She remarked that the phone is "high tech" for me.

This girlfriend has never seen me sitting on the floor with one of my computer cases open, installing daughter boards, sound cards, or memory, or setting the jumpers on sound cards. Or editing digital photos and writing HTML. Or using power tools. Or playing video games (actually, she's seen this, and I was good at them while she was watching.)

What I think she really means, in a round about way, is that I don't buy in to the standard gadgetry set that defines modern life. More specifically, I suspect what she actually wanted to point out was that I don't drive a car.

I wasn't sure this was a reasonable thing to suspect, but then I got an e-mail from another girlfriend which (1) welcomed me to the current century and (2) suggested that I would next buy a car. This message was from someone who does not own a computer, and who has never assembled or modified one. Someone who reformatted a memory card full of vacation photos in her camera while traveling because she didn't know what 'reformat' meant. Meanwhile, cars, if this isn't obvious, are stunningly inefficient machines whose internal combustion engine design has changed relatively little since invented and applied to vehicles in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cars are also conceptually back-asswards for urban dwellers: it makes no sense to haul a sub 200-pound person around in a 1.5 ton plus box, which needs to be stored during most of its useful life.

There are useful applications to the car, obviously: freight hauling, for example, and traveling in areas or times of day that are not served by sensible transit (such as electric train, light rail, or hybrid bus). But considering the amount of cost and energy it takes to manufacture, maintain, and operate a car, let alone the pollution it generates in operation and when disposed of, the car is a really poorly designed tool for most applications. The motor vehicle industry spends several billion dollars annually NOT pointing this out, so I don't think it's possible to convey any of this to the car-hugging members of my social set.

I'm not sure if any of the aforementioned conversations should change the answers I give when my computer assistance is requested. It's tempting to make a fuss over it, though.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Thursday, September 06, 2007

  Conformity, culture and food. Part of the reason I always informally interrogate people about what they ate for dinner as kids is that I'm interested in the influences that lead people to choose the foods they do. Americans on the whole are having a lot of health problems (like that amazing 50% cardiovascular disease rate) based on the foods they choose, and I've been very interested in how much people think about what they choose eat, and what attachments they have to specific foods. I'm also interested in culture-specific foods, since many of the foods I love now are not from my own ethnic background.

Something I am figuring out is that there is an idea of what "normal" is that our fiercely conformist culture relies on when making these decisions. I have always known people who were pressured in their youth to take up some habit (smoking, drinking really cheap crappy beer) because their peers did it, and it was the "normal" thing to do. I have always known that advertising has a huge influence, and that otherwise reasonable people I know will go out and buy something that looks stupid on them because an ad-filled clothing magazine says that it is the "normal" and fashionable thing to wear.

But I don't think I've really understood how wanting to be normal affects how people make food choices.


When my father had a massive heart attack and required a triple bypass, I was certain that he would take his doctor's horror at his description of his pre-bypass diet as a sign that something wasn't right. He was given some instruction on the subject, which he wasn't especially interested in. I bought my dad a bunch of books by Dean Ornish on how you can restore your heart's health through dietary changes. However, I should have known from reading the old newsgroups that my father wasn't going to be interested. He didn't want to eat for heart health - he wanted to eat the diet he considered to be normal, to show that he had recovered. Changing his diet would make him feel more like a patient, or someone who was recovering from a life threatening condition - and even if that were true, that wasn't "normal." (Unfortunately, having heart attacks in one's 40s is "normal" on my father's side of the family.)

My father, who is prone to going on a fad diet every year or so, even went on the horrifically high cholesterol Atkins diet a few years ago! He eventually decided that it was unbalanced. (Duh.) But even when he went on it, he thought that was a "normal" thing to do, health consequences be damned.

I have friends who go on fad diets routinely, but I've never really thought of those seriously. Fad diets don't work in the long-term. All diets that reduce your caloric intake enough can make you lose weight, but if they aren't healthy enough to use on an ongoing basis, the weight loss will fail when people return to their old habits. I've always thought of fad diets as forms of temporary insanity on the part of my friends, rather than culturally-influenced food decisions. But they are out there, and there are new ones coming out all the time!


I may have mentioned that a friend of mine said he doesn't eat any rice other than white rice (of which there are many types, of course), because he is Chinese, and that's what Chinese people eat. Even though that's not exclusively true - not here in SF, where there are Chinese people in every type of restaurant, eating things that are only "normal" in parts of the world quite remote from eastern China where he was born - he remains certain about the bounds of "normal" rice eating practice.


I also may have mentioned that I told a girlfriend at work about how one of my sisters-in-law was going to make me and Steven a lovely veggie primavera pasta dinner, and my girlfriend said, "Oh, is that in again?"

(Can you imagine? Deciding on whether or not to eat home-cooked food on whether or not it is "in?")


Watching my father choose his meals post-bypass, it's plain he was being influenced by his own idea of normal diets, and by trends and fads that were popular (and conventional, and "normal" for the time). Since I've never really cared what people around me were eating - since my own tastes are spicier, hotter, and more veg-oriented than most of my relatives and peer group - I haven't really thought about the desire to be "normal" in dining choices. But it's there as an influence. I might start asking about that in my food interviews.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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