Tuesday, December 31, 2019

From the Archives - Starving Little Student


I just paid for another quarter of tuition, room, and board for my older daughter, a college freshman at UC Santa Barbara. I find it impossible to lay out that kind of cash without reflecting on how different her scenario is from my college days. About 31 years ago, I was also heading into my second quarter as a UCSB student, and realized that after paying for my tuition and books, I was basically out of money. I’d been saving for college since I was a kid, working all kinds of jobs (mostly in bike shops but also at a factory and a radio station) and now those savings had run out. Distraught, I wrote this little poem, perhaps as a hint-hint to my parents.

The Poem

Starving Little Student – January 1989

 Ooh, starving little student:
 Who’s toiled hard, and cries for rent.                  2
“Not I,” said the Dad. “I won’t share my
 Fortune with no stupid kid. I was just
 Doing fine now that I’m of you rid.”                    5

 Ooh, starving little student:                               
 And who will pay his college fees?
 “Not I,” said the Mom. “The entire idea              8
 Is utterly absurd. I’d be laughed at
 And scorned if your damn father heard!”

 And who will take pity in his heart,                     11
 And who will feed a starving student?               
 “Not I,” said the government. “I would
 If I could but I cannot I know; I need                  14
 All my cash for my missile silos.”

 Ooh, former starving student:                            
 Will no one give the kid a job?                             17
“I will,” said the Shop. “For all bikes                  
 Created return unto me; a wrench
 You will hold, a mechanic you’ll be.”                  20

Footnotes & Commentary

Title & line 1 – Starving Little Student

My poem is a rip-off of, or (as I saw it at the time) a tribute to, the Simon & Garfunkel song “Sparrow.” At the time, I thought the first line of that song was “Ooh, lovely little sparrow” but I have just learned it’s “Who will love a little sparrow?” I guess my error made this line easier; the more direct ripoff/tribute— “Who will starve a little student?”—wouldn’t make much sense. Not that “little student” really fit either; I was 6 foot 3 and about 180 pounds and had a very high—and thus expensive—caloric need.

Line 2 – cries for rent

This is a little joke: the original line was “cries for rest.” Speaking of rent, it was definitely my biggest expense: to share a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys cost me $250 a month, and tuition back then was only about $500 a quarter.

Line 3 – “Not I,” said the dad

Actually, if my dad had only refused to give me money, that wouldn’t have been so bad. But as I discovered when I applied for financial aid, he was meanwhile declaring me as a dependent on his taxes (even though I hadn’t lived in his household in over four years). Thus, I couldn’t get any need-based financial aid because it was assumed I was getting support already. Nice.

Line 4 – stupid kid

I realize these are ungenerous words to put in my dad’s mouth, and to be honest I don’t think he found me stupid. (That said, there is a long-running family dispute about whether or not, after I’d done a 130-mile bike ride as a teenager and got caught in a thunderstorm, my father said to me, “You’re not very bright, are you.”) What frustrated my dad was my choice of major (English). He was kind of ahead of his time in promoting the incorrect notion that anybody who possibly can should study STEM.

Line 5 – now that I’m of you rid

This clunky word order is a classic failing of my early poetry. I grasped at some point that poets are technically allowed to put the verb at the end of the sentence, after the object. In fact, I probably thought this made me sound all fancy and literary. Don’t worry, I do realize now how terrible it sounds. It was just a convenient way to get the rhyme and meter right. I should have tried harder … for example, I could have written “I won’t let you have a free ride—God forbid!” It’s tempting to just go back and fix it now, but that would be cheating. Plus, I want you to give me credit for progressing as a poet. (I know—like you care!)

Line 8 – “Not I,” said the mom

In my mom’s defense, she had remarried, and my stepfather—whom we called “the landlord” because that’s how she met him—was kind of a dick. She was loathe to ask him to help me out financially and no longer had her own income. (He was pretty loaded so she no longer needed to work.) To his credit, he did end up supporting me to the tune of $120/month for nine months out of the year. Not a huge amount of money, of course, but it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and it obviously wasn’t his duty to give me anything.

Line 9 – scorned if your damn father heard

It was a very bitter divorce and in fact the idea of being my sole financial supporter did inflame my mom. It wasn’t uncommon for my brothers and me to fall into this parent-vs.-parent chasm. My brother Geoff never did get money from our parents, and was almost literally a starving student. He got by on meals that a friend of his would filch, daily, from her sorority house.

Line 11 – who will take pity in his heart

I lifted this line verbatim from the Simon & Garfunkel song, which is laziness at best and borderline plagiarism at worst. And as you’ll see, it makes no sense in context.

Line 13 – the government

This is easily the weakest stanza in an already unimpressive poem. It’s not like I was trying to get food stamps or something; government student loans would have been more appropriate to mention in the second stanza. And since when does the government—any government—have a heart? They operate based on policy, not feelings like pity. This is all great evidence of why I didn’t deserve a merit-based scholarship.

Line 14 – missile silos

And here it is, ladies and gentlemen: the very worst line of the poem. It’s a disgrace. First of all, common sense tells us it’s the missiles themselves, and the airplanes and aircraft that launch them, that make military spending so high. Silos can’t be a big part of that expense. Meanwhile, the meter is all screwed up here, obviously, because “silo” is trochaic (i.e., the stress falls on the first syllable) rather than iambic (i.e., stress falling on the second syllable) which is what’s needed here. Instead of lazily settling for such weak phrasing, I should have written, “Big funding for schools? A bad stratagem. We need all our budget for ICBMs.”

Line 16 – former starving student

I guess the idea here was that I would have to drop out of college. That’s a bit of exaggeration, of course. I just needed a part time job. God, what a drama queen.

Line 17 – will no one give the kid a job?

Factually, it really was hard for me to find a suitable job. I managed to get a bike shop job in Montecito, but my commute was 17 miles each way by bike, just to work a four-hour shift. For the first week I had the job, it poured rain every day so I’d show up drenched. My boss seemed to take pity on me and simply took me off the schedule without formally firing me. I passively declined to complain and the job just kind of ended. I really needed a job on campus, but those were mostly reserved for kids on the Work Study program. I was not eligible for this program because of my dad’s income level. Thanks again, Dad! I wonder how much he saved on his taxes with that little make-believe dependent trick. Probably like $100. (Note: I am not bitter.)

Line 18 – Shop

Why is “Shop” capitalized here and not “Government” in line 13? I guess it’s because I was trying to make “shop” a proper noun since I couldn’t make “bike shop” fit in that line. So, so sloppy. Please—don’t judge. I was under a lot of stress. I was broke.

Line 19 – return unto me

Another ripped-off line from the Simon & Garfunkel song, which of course doesn’t really fit because the job I ended up getting was at the Associated Students Bike Shop, which didn’t sell bikes. That is to say, the bikes were created elsewhere, so being taken to this shop for repair wasn’t a return in any sense. I should have worked with the idea that I myself was returning … as in, returning to my roots since this was the sixth bike shop I’d worked at.

It was a pretty cool job, though. Because this was through the Work Study program, the shop was required to be really flexible about my class schedule. Like, if I had a midterm or something I was automatically given time off. And I could be in the middle of a repair and when it was time to head to class, I could just walk away. I was also permitted, and to some degree encouraged, to show customers how to fix their own bikes. Why “to some degree”? Well, my supervisor hated it when I spent more time with the good-looking coeds than with our male customers. (This wasn’t just personal preference; for reasons of ego many of the dudes didn’t like being shown anything.) My supervisor bawled me out a lot for this attention imbalance but he wasn’t my manager so I just smirked.

“But wait,” you’re thinking (if indeed you’re still reading), “I thought you couldn’t get Work Study?” Well, my manager cut me a deal. He said the shop is supposed to pay half my hourly rate, and the University the other half. Since I didn’t qualify for the program, I couldn’t get any money from the University, but if I was willing to work for half the normal pay, he’d take me on. Score!

Line 20 – a mechanic you’ll be

What did I mean “‘a mechanic you’ll be’”? I already was a mechanic! That’s why they were willing to hire me! It’s a good thing I didn’t try to recycle this poem as some kind of class assignment…

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Online Holiday Gift Guide!

NOTE: This post is rated R for coarse humor and pervasive profanity.


It’s gift-giving time! Let’s go gifting! Or better yet, let’s stay at home in our fuzzy slippers and gift from here! Then we won’t even have to touch the godawful shit we’re foisting on friends and family! All we gotta do is pay! We don’t even have to come up with our own ideas, because it’s not the thought that counts—it’s the money! So here is my online gift guide … all the crap you wouldn’t want for yourself but will gladly—for some reason—give to others!

How about a Keurig?

A Keurig coffeemaker is the gift that says, “I know you can’t figure out coffee filters, French presses, Mr. Coffee, or any other normal way of making coffee!” For the hapless, clueless, or just plain lazy, here’s another giant hunk of single-purpose plastic appliance—the Death Star of coffeemakers—to clutter up that kitchen counter!

It even takes little cartridge pods so your loved one can create maximum waste! And when he loads the pod he can pretend he’s slapping a magazine into some hi-tech weapon! But wait, there’s more! Your lucky recipient doesn’t have to make do with plain old coffee: with specialty K-Cup pods he can enjoy blueberry, caramel vanilla, and even French-toast flavored beverages, and pretend he’s one of those loser kids in the Willy Wonka movie! And that’s not all: this little coffee-brewing jewel comes with a 30” cord so if your gift recipient still manages to screw up his coffee—perhaps by running out of K-Cup pods—he can just strangle himself!

Wow, a nostalgic candle!

Look, you can send that former Texan in your life a fabulous scented candle that says “homesick” on it! That way his friends will know he wishes he still lived there instead of wherever he ended up! Kind of like celebrating the lack of agency in his life!

But it’s not just a statement, it’s an actual candle! It smells like dark leather, fresh pine, fish bones, thick lemon slices (which smell different from thin lemon slices for some reason), combined with cyclamen and a touch of sage to summon the big, bold aura of the Lone Star State! And you what else? Since a big Texan man might think it’s a bit wussy to have a fancy candle in his home, it also smells a lot like an old dried-out cow pie! But just in case that seems kind of dirt-baggy, the label informs guests that this candle is “Made in small batches in the USA!” Holy shit, this big-hearted, big-hatted dude is gonna love it! It’s the elegant home furnishing that says “Don’t mess with Texas!”

Internet-connected, voice-activated smoke detector!

This hot little number is for that special person who is good and fed up with standard smoke alarms that, when they go on the blink—and they always do—are impossible to silence. They shriek and howl, as does anybody in earshot, and no little button can ever stop the sound, nothing can, not until you’ve clawed at the alarm, banged on it, and eventually ripped it out of the ceiling, taking those stupid little molly-bolts and a bunch of drywall with it, and smashed it on the floor. Well, those days are finally over for the person lucky enough to be on your gift list! Finally, when this thing goes off—announcing in a computer voice (that is somehow even more excruciating than the standard shrieking) exactly what dangerous vapor is supposedly threatening her home—she just can scream at it, “ALEXA: SHUT THE FUCK UP!

Macho coffee!

Give your boyfriend, husband, father, or son the gift that says, “I’m all about turning every aspect of my life into a pissing contest!” It’s badass coffee in a black package with a daring skull-and-crossbones logo!

And in case that’s not enough to impress his guests, it even has a warning label on the back!

Oh my god, this shit could kill somebody who isn’t ready for a big, bold taste and gobs of caffeine! And you know what? If you bought this poor bastard a Keurig coffeemaker last year and he’s still trying to fish his male ego out of the gutter, this strong-ass coffee will be perfect!

Electric roller skates that are also Segways!

You know that nerdy friend who actually wanted a Segway, but couldn’t afford one? And wanted the Google Glass but couldn’t get on the list? The friend who wishes there was a such thing as a wireless Internet-connected fanny pack? Well guess what? Segway makes “Electric Hovershoes” which are like roller skates you get to stand on instead of wearing! And they’re electric! And they have headlights and taillights!

These things are so fucking weird your friend will think they’re a hoax, until he tries them! Who’s laughing now!? He’ll be so thrilled he’ll almost die, until he finds out you don’t have a pair yourself so he’ll have to go skating all by his lonesome! But guess what? That’s just more babes for him! Win-win!

The Sweetgrass Boxed Set!

That sensitive—and literary—soul in your life probably can’t get enough books about humility, our sacred earth, and how to rebuild our relationships with plants, animals, and humans alike, learning from our plant-based elders. She also can’t get enough beautiful words like “meadow” and “compassion.” So give her the gift of sweetgrass—a treasure trove of books on the subject!

Included are Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Road Back to Sweetgrass: A Novel by Linda LeGarde Grover, Sweetgrass by Jan Hudson, Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell, Sweetgrass by Mary Alice Monroe, and—just for the hell of it—Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert! And they’re all packaged up in a beautiful faux-sweetgrass box lined with—you guessed it!—satin.

Camouflage bedding!

There’s a certain kind of man in your life who doesn’t have the time—or the headspace—for humility, for our sacred earth, for rebuilding relationships, or for plant-based elders. He’s a glowering, brooding type … and you know what he’s brooding about? Security. Protection. He doesn’t pretend for a minute that there aren’t threats—very real threats, clear and present dangers—and being prepared for them always falls to him since the little woman has her head in the clouds over satin-lined gift boxes and journeys to authenticity and belonging, shit like that. Who’s gonna keep this family safe during the most vulnerable time—when everybody’s lying in bed, fast asleep? Well, those dangerous would-be burglars and kidnappers will have to find this family first, am I right? And just try it with these badass camouflage bed sheets.

And guess what? If that intruder bastard’s tactical flashlight does foil the camo, there’s another little surprise in store: this comforter is an American fucking flag! Just so that bitch-ass punk knows what kind of patriot he’s dealing with! If he doesn’t just absolutely shit himself on the spot, he must be blind or something!

Sloth tea infuser!

There’s nothing worse than giving a humdrum gift, right? It’s always better to give your loved one something that causes utter bewilderment. Imagine your mirth when the lucky recipient unwraps this flabby figurine and resists the urge to blurt out, “What the hell is it?!” Well, she’ll figure it out. It’s a (pretend) sloth that your friend or cousin fills with her favorite loose tea and hangs on the end of her mug—or better, on the edge of her glass, so she can watch the lazy mammal appear to pee in her hot water!

And not to worry, this clever little sloth is made of food-safe, BPA-free silicone so it’s soft, non-toxic, and (obviously) tasteless! Your friend can stop worrying about teabags clogging up landfills or compost bins … clean-up is a cinch! She just discards the loose tea leaves, and hell, while she’s at it, the whole damn sloth as well! Throw its arboreal ass out into the street!

Star Wars cookbook!

The perfect gift for that rare, rare breed: the Star Wars fanatic who knows how to cook, or wants to learn! Inspired by Disneyland and the almost incomprehensibly venal cynicism of Hollywood, this actual hardback book is full of recipes for such made-up non-foods as Roasted Kajaka Root, Fried Endorian Tip-Yip, and Parwan Nutricakes.

The recipient’s dinner guests will have no basis to evaluate the authenticity of these dishes, so it’s a can’t-lose proposition! Maybe you’ll get invited over for Laser-Fried Deep Space Oysters (yes, that does mean wookie testicles)!

Freak his shit out!

OMG, do you have one of those boyfriends who’s totally insensitive about others’ crippling emotional problems? The kind of guy who learns that a mutual friend is in therapy and says something coarse about it behind the person’s back, like “Get a backbone”? Well, no time like the holidays to turn the tables! Get that callous motherfucker a pair of custom-printed boxers with your face right in the crotch! 

He’ll be freaking out and sweating bullets even before you insist, quite forcefully, that he put them on! Drag him over to the mirror and say something shocking like, “Look babe, you’ve got me where you want me!” Hold his damn eyelids open like in A Clockwork Orange and make him look at that shit!

When he stammers out some incredulous protest, you’ll be like, “What’s the matter, honey? Don’t you like them?” He’ll be so emotionally shattered he’ll lose his sex drive altogether! He’ll wake up in the night screaming! And then you break up with that insensitive prick! His New Year’s Resolution will be to try to put the pieces of his psyche back together!

Incongruous t-shirt!

Everyone on your list could use a new t-shirt—and this isn’t just any t-shirt. It says “Unicorns are born in July” on it because, well, God, who the hell knows? I guess that’s kind of the point, right? Unless I’m missing something? Damn, this thing is perfect!

Imagine your joy watching that friend, daughter, or sister do the math, trying to figure out when exactly those unicorn parents had sex to give birth in July. Except how long does a unicorn gestate? That’s an easy one—340 days!

Now, you might think this gift is only appropriate for someone born in July who identifies as a unicorn, right? Wrong! Everyone else can wear this shirt ironically!

Vanity beard comb!

If your man not only has a beard that’s so long he has to comb it, but is willing to actually take time doing this, let’s face it: chances are he’s a bit of a narcissist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not vain, too! Make sure you stroke his ego along with his beard, with this beautiful walnut-wood beard comb engraved with “DANGEROUS MAN.”

Yes, he’s not only a hipster, but he’s a bit of a rogue! Kind of a blackguard, really, and not above a bit of savagery—you gotta keep an eye on him! This little folding comb suggests those straight razors that certain murderers like to cut throats with, but don’t worry, these teeth don’t bite! Your man’s beard has never been so soft—and his heart so hard! Are you getting hot yet?

Just a shit-ton of batteries!

You know what’s harder than finding the perfect gift? Charging those stupid nickel-metal hydride batteries! What a pain in the ass. Those stupid chargers with the little colored lights that make no sense—like, why does it light up green when I plug it in, when I’m pretty sure these batteries are dead? Does the light go out when they’re charged, or does this mean the battery is already charged? Is this charger fucking stupid? Well guess what? Your lucky friend or family member doesn’t have to worry about that anymore, because you just gave him a shit-ton of old-school, single-use batteries!

And it’s all guilt-free because he didn’t choose them and it’s too late now to worry about it! For once he won’t be secretly bummed about his gift and thinking, “What am I gonna do with this?” With this inarguably useful gift, you’ll be a damned hero!


In case you’re wondering, all of the above are real products except the Braiding Sweetgrass Boxed Set. All the books listed are real but you can’t actually get them in a boxed set (at least, not yet).

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Is This Peloton Ad Sexist, & Should We Care?


A commercial for the Peloton stationary bike went viral recently based on widespread accusations of sexism. In this post I evaluate the ad, explore the question of its alleged sexism, and (more importantly) assess a much bigger problem illustrated by this flap.

The ad

You can see the ad here (at least for now; Peloton has pulled it down and might go after re-postings of it). On Christmas morning, an affluent man has given his fit, pretty, 30-something wife a gift of a $2,300 exercise bike. She gasps, “A Peloton?” The rest of the ad is the woman vlogging about her rides. She’s visibly anxious at first, telling her smartphone camera, “‘I’m a little nervous, but excited.” Then, “Five days in a row. Are you surprised? I am.” At the end the camera pulls back and she’s just shown the finished video to her husband; it ends with her saying, “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me. Thank you.”

After running for a while, the ad suffered (as detailed here) a widespread backlash across the Internet. The more people forwarded it in disgust, the more of a story it became. Eventually it had amassed a reported 3.7 million views, with 2/3 getting a thumbs-down, before Peloton yanked it. Of course, Peloton defended itself, and naturally a lot of anti-PC people joined the fray. 

Seizing the moment, the movie actor Ryan Reynolds, who is launching his own gin brand, did an ad using the same actress, making fun of the Peloton spot. In the gin ad, this same wife is at a bar with two girlfriends. As the scene opens, the wife just stares blankly ahead of her, for a solid ten seconds, as if pithed. Then she toasts “to new beginnings” (she’s no longer wearing a wedding ring) and aggressively downs an entire gin martini in one go, before enthusiastically accepting another from her friend who says to herself (and us), “It’s gonna be a fun night.” Clearly the wife has changed her mind about this gift and her husband.

Further fanning the flames, the actress went on “The Today Show,” along with Ryan Reynolds, to discuss the two ads. Lots of other mainstream media have weighed in, including the “Financial Times” of London.

So … is the ad sexist?

My initial reaction to the ad was that it’s pretty stupid, anyway. First of all, a $2300 exercise bike, which comes with a $50/month subscription to online spin classes, doesn’t strike me as a very good gift. For this kind of money, you’d have to really want it for yourself—which is itself a big if. I know a ton of cyclists and very few of them are interested in indoor workouts; those who are want to use their own racing bike, on a proper resistance trainer or on rollers, rather than this clunky gym-ass thing with its unisex saddle and corny aero handlebars. To shell out that kind of coin, you’d have to be really committed—but the wife looked surprised to receive it, and a bit apprehensive. I can relate … if my wife bought me a $2300 rowing machine or a fancy yoga mat, I’d have even more trepidation than the Peloton wife (as would my wife upon seeing my Year-of-Dana-Doing-Yoga vlog, which would be more unsettling than “The Blair Witch Project”).

That said, the ad didn’t get my heckles up particularly. The wife might have asked for the Peloton and is only pretending to be surprised to receive it. And as my wife pointed out, she might have played up her trepidation for her vlog, to seem more humble.

Curious about the opinions of other reasonable people, I polled my bike team for input, asking who found it sexist. One pal replied simply, “nope,” and another found it “no more sexist than any other commercial,” citing car ads where the man always drives.

Another of my teammates had this observation: 
Well, I’m not sure if it’s sexist but it’s definitely lame. What I find annoying about it is her fear and trepidation. It’s not like he just gave her a downhill mountain bike or a track bike. She’s going to be riding in her comfy home. Also, having gone through childbirth she knows more about pain than her husband. The fact that the ad makes her seem worried about that really makes her seem diminished, weak and lacking any confidence. Although they don’t show her husband out shredding it up on a bike or doing super ‘manly’ things, you get the impression it’s his role to bring her out of her meek little shell. [If I did my own version of this ad, she’d say] “Hell yeah, I’m going to crush this thing” or “Uh, I actually wanted a gravel bike.”
The “Financial Times” writer had a similar reaction, finding the ad “unintentionally sexist” based on the woman’s statement, “a year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me.” The writer points out, “Not only did her husband know better, it seems, but he was right to push her into becoming more toned.”

Moreover, just like with the clearly sexist Pinarello ad I reviewed awhile back, I cannot help but mourn the lost opportunity here: the ad creators should have reversed the roles. This would lessen the risk of anybody being offended, because fat-shaming is less often aimed at men. (The ad creators rightly identified the fat-shaming risk and made sure this wife was thin even before getting the bike.) In my experience men are more likely to blithely let themselves go, so for a woman to give her husband the bike just makes more sense. Males, who have historically enjoyed the power position and who also seem to think a few extra pounds just makes them cuddly and/or Falstaffian, can be expected to have a sense of humor about being overweight. I think an ad could tastefully play with that. Upon receiving the Peloton the husband could say (a bit too sincerely), “You shouldn’t have,” and then his wife could poke him in the soft belly and say, “Actually, hon ... it’s time.” He could then mount the bike with typical male swagger, only to have his first online spin class kick his ass. From there, his gradual apotheosis into a truly fit person would make a much more satisfying “personal journey” than the original Peloton ad is able to provide.

So why did this ad agency go with the dangerous trope of a guy pressuring his wife to get fitter? It could be unconscious bias. Perhaps the idea of a generous guy, who knows what his wife needs, came naturally to the ad creator, based on habitual, prevailing sexism.

My wife suggests a simpler reason for having the woman receive the gift: maybe the ad creators focused on an attractive woman just to get more people to watch. I asked her, “If the ad starred Chris Hemsworth, wouldn’t you watch?” She replied, “I don’t think that would work … he’s too large, he would dwarf the machine.”

A final note on the sexism question: frankly, I’m more disturbed by the actress’s interview on “The Today Show” than by the ad itself. While an entire creative team failed to detect the tone-deafness of the ad, the actress—as if conditioned by a society that blames women for everything—takes full responsibility for the public reaction. She declares, “Honestly, I think it was just my face. Like, I think it was my fault! My eyebrows looked, like worried, I guess—I don’t know, people were like, ‘She looks scared, she looks worried,’ and I’m like, oh no, my eyebrows, they moved!” The female interviewer immediately responded, “That’s absurd. If your face conveyed the wrong emotion, that’s not your fault. The director should have spotted the problem and re-shot the scene.”

As if! Alas, what actually happened was that the interviewer said, “I guess a lot of people have Botox and stuff and their eyebrows stay straight.” (She really said this—look for yourself.) Cripes, where is the support for this put-upon actress who was just doing her job as best she could? Where is the sanity? Oh no, a commercial offended people—must have been the actress’s eyebrows! Let’s prescribe a toxic drug to fix that! Not that I’m asking for the “Today” spot to go viral and launch a massive outcry. I think we’ve all suffered enough.

Should we even care about this ad?

Okay, time to back up and consider: is it even worthwhile to worry about any of this, when more than 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 a day? Well, it can be. To ponder anything deeply, on a legitimate intellectual level, has intrinsic value, so as long as we’re looking at a larger question (e.g., what sexism is and how it manifests in human behavior), versus trotting out some knee-jerk reaction based on an entrenched worldview we already had. But I take issue with how the reaction was fueled: Americans have been trained to react strongly to specific media moments, to the point that a clumsily-produced ad gets thousands of people attacking each other in the comments section of all the “news” articles celebrating and sensationalizing the supposed scandal.

A few examples of these highly charged comments (below the “Inside Edition” article here): 
  • “Getting your thin wife a weight-loss gift is bad husbanding. No intelligent man would do that. The commercial is cringey and weird. She looks like she’s going to cry in almost every scene and seems so desperate for his approval, like a child or abuse victim. It’s bizarre.”
  • “lol fat shaming serves to put pressure to live a healthy life. America has become overrun with fattys and it has become normalized to the point noone cares anymore. Put down that donut lardass!”
  • “If a woman wanted an exercise bike, she’d buy one for herself. Similarly, if she wanted to lose weight/get fit, she would do so. The idea that she needs to have these things bought for her/introduced into her life, continues the idea of women being economically dependent and/or passive, unable to make decisions for themselves. Similarly, the focus on a woman’s body, having a man re-design it for her, and for her to express gratitude at the end, is a long way from 21st century feminism.”
  • “I hope all the haters don’t buy a Peloton and burn them in protest , PS Trump would hate that”
  • “What’s with women freaking out about nothing all the time. Wtf!”
The vitriol is thick … but of course this is nothing new. So much Internet content is just a launch pad for people to vent about their personal philosophies and disparage those who disagree. I just checked out a cyclingnews.com article pretty much at random (I selected the first one I stumbled on involving doping) and counted up the journalist’s words versus those of the commenters’. The result? This totally humdrum article about a doping proceeding, “Freeman fails to get tribunal charges dropped,” ran just 423 words, but generated 1,540 words of commentary (so far). A couple of the more inflammatory comments: “Just blame the Aussie. F*CK it seems to fit most narratives around here,” and, “You would think he was friends with the Clinton’s,” and in response, “And why did you leave out Trump’s corruption and lies?” You don’t have to look very hard to find people flying way off the handle, straying ever further from the original content. So it is with this Peloton flap … people are more incensed by the gender roles portrayed in the ad than they (apparently) are by the actress throwing herself on her sword in an actual TV interview that, unlike the ad, is not a work of fiction.

Whether or not the ad was sexist, the fact that it went viral, and that this is such a common effect, starts to lead us toward what I think the larger problem is.

The bigger issue

One of my cycling pals replied to my inquiry email with this comment: “By talking about this you/we have fallen prey to their marketing scheme. They made a somewhat controversial commercial and we’re spending time discussing it. Free publicity.” I don’t quite agree, if we construe “they” to mean Peloton. I don’t believe that the Peloton folks deliberately sought an ad that would get them free publicity by causing controversy. If they had, they wouldn’t have pulled the ad down once the controversy was sparked. Meanwhile, the fact that people are discussing this ad won’t necessarily lead to more people shelling out $2,300 for an exercise bike. Buzz might sell one soft drink versus another, but nobody is going to spend big money on a complicated product they only gained awareness of through a viral reaction to a poorly made ad.

That said, I agree that we’ve fallen prey—but the perpetrator isn’t Peloton, it’s Google, Twitter, and Facebook (and to some degree CNN). Consider what I (reluctantly) put you through earlier:

It’s impossible to follow scandals like this without wading through a lot of ads, and telling Google (and/or your social media sharing platform of choice) a lot about you. They are the real beneficiaries of Internet content going viral, and not surprisingly they’re the ones training us to get outraged, to leave comments, and to forward things along. To extend the virus analogy, they’re the ones who have turned the Internet into a giant Petri dish.

A recent “New Yorker” article profiles Roger McNamee, a former tech investor who now denounces Facebook and Google for “sowing discord among Americans.” McNamee, the article explains, published a number of op-eds in mainstream magazines pointing out that “the social-media business model thrives on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users share it; the more the algorithms amplify it, the more ad revenue is generated.”

Obviously ad revenue for news publishers is nothing new, and I’ve quoted CNN and the “Today Show” in this post. So how does social media fit in? Well, platforms like Twitter and Google make sure everybody sees everything. The Peloton ad ran for three weeks with very little reaction—in the “Today Show” interview the actress says initially her only comments were from friends and family saying “I saw your commercial!” The complaints, when they came weeks later, were all at once, out of nowhere. She hid out for a while, thinking “it’s gonna blow over,” but acknowledges, “it didn’t really blow over as quickly as I thought it would.” Well, making things go viral, and sustaining controversy, are things Google is really good at. (I can’t pick on Facebook because I don’t use it, but their role in our last election speaks for itself.)

I base my accusation on what I witness firsthand on Google. For example, let’s look at how I stumbled onto this whole thing to begin with: Google served up a link to the story, without my asking, when I opened a new browser tab on my Android phone. I didn’t think to capture the original click-bait but here’s one of the follow-up articles Google dangled in front of me:

I wouldn’t have even clicked the link, but after ignoring Google’s unsolicited news feed for months, I was starting to get pissed off and was already contemplating a blog post whining about all the crap Google has been serving me up. Particularly annoying was a bunch of stuff about Chris Cornell, the deceased former front man for Soundgarden. To some degree, I’d asked for this, because I did do a Google search on Cornell. (Noting a strange similarity between his song “Like Suicide” and the poem/novel Pale Fire, I sought to determine if Cornell had read Nabokov.)

Ever since that lookup, Google has offered me a drip feed, through my phone browser, of some ongoing soap opera about Cornell’s death, mostly just gossip that has nothing to do with my interest in Soundgarden music. Look at this crap:

Note also that article about some protest of bubble tea … what did I do to be presented with that? I’ve also seen a bunch of headlines about some spat between Eminem and Nick Cannon, whoever he is. This supposedly neutral delivery platform isn’t just guessing about what content might interest me; it’s trying to serve up anything that might inflame me. I asked my older daughter what’s in her Google feed, and she said mainly FUD-type “articles” sowing college-related anxiety, like “Are you in the right major?”

To come full circle on the Peloton ad: if I’d just seen the commercial, without all the bolted-on outrage and counter-outrage, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. I’d have shrugged it off like most stuff, and I think most other viewers would too. But when the Internet dispute engine got a hold of it and spun it up, telling us to weigh in and get indignant, we obeyed. The Peloton company and its products are innocent, even if this ad was hapless. It’s the Internet platforms, and their methods of escalation, aggravation, and amplification, that are turning us into a bunch of indignant scolds.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Interview with Santa Claus


In his most in-depth and personal interview in years, Santa Claus reveals the trials and travails, the pressure and preoccupations surrounding this most hectic season.

Interview with Santa

Santa Claus breezes through the kitchen into the family room of his North Pole home, rosy-cheeked and jolly and looking very much like he might say “Ho, ho, ho.” No, he’s not rocking a bright red suit with white trim and a wide black belt, and he’s not as rotund as most pictures portray him, but it’s unmistakably Santa. He’s dressed casually in a comfy button-down shirt that turns out to be a Saturday Stretch Flannel from Lucky Brand. His wife bustles in the background, brewing coffee and baking cookies in honor of my visit. Other than the dark windows—there hasn’t been sunlight or even twilight here since October—and the near-chaos in the nearby workshop, we could be in any nice old couple’s cozy home.

Santa, thanks for having me up again … it’s been too long. You’re looking good—have you lost weight?
Well, yeah, I think I’ve dropped about twenty pounds, so I’m getting around a bit easier—but of course, I’m still as old as ever. Older, even!

Are you on some kind of diet? Paleo, maybe? Ketogenic?
Heavens no, I never dabble in that stuff. The main thing is, my contract with Coca-Cola came up for renewal and we just couldn’t agree on terms. Decades of partnership, up in smoke. So I’m not drinking that stuff anymore, which is the only change, but the pounds have just melted off!

Well, that’s good to hear. I’ve always wondered, frankly, how you can be as spry as you are, with millions of families leaving cookies out for you on Christmas Eve. Do you gain a lot of weight on the big night?
Not at all, I’m running around in a frenzy the whole time, and remember, I’m going back up those chimneys as well! And those cookies people leave me … not to sound ungrateful or anything, but I bring most of those back to my elves. They really dig that.

Speaking of the Christmas Eve frenzy, of course the holiday season is starting to build toward that crescendo. How are you holding up?
Well, it’s always kind of terrifying to think of how much has to happen between now and the 25th, but I’m used to it. In some ways I guess it’s actually getting easier.

How so?
Well, to be honest, business is falling off a bit. More and more, the kids are asking for digital products, and that’s never been my bailiwick. And these Gen-Z kids are all about “experiences” which means even less stuff for me to manufacture and deliver.

Does that bother you at all?
No, no … it’s never been my job to shape anybody’s tastes. I just need to make sure that what kids ask for, they get.

Provided they’ve been good, of course…
Oh, don’t get me started on that!

Actually, I was going to wait a bit for the uncomfortable question, but since we’ve stumbled into it, let’s just bash on. You’ve been under some pressure about privacy concerns … would you care to talk a bit about that?
Well, sure … everyone else has had their say, I don’t mind having mine. Look, it’s no secret I have a long tradition of making it my business which kids are naughty, which ones are nice, and so forth, and naturally I’ll leverage technology to do that efficiently. My business is all about scale—I mean, look at the population growth I have to deal with—so efficiency is always front and center. How could I not leverage the Internet for that? But I have never shared any of my customer data with third parties. In principle I collect and use personal data only to the extent necessary to determine which kids get gifts and which ones don’t. I do receive letters from kids via email but I have secure servers and a strict data retention policy around that. And to be honest, this might be the last year I even bother to try to differentiate among these kids anyway.

Wow—that’s kind of a bombshell actually. You’re talking about just giving gifts to everybody?
Yeah, the Santa Claus brand has really taken a beating because of the public’s growing—and, let’s face it, overdue—focus on privacy. There’s so much abuse of personal information by Facebook and Google and all these other platforms, I feel like the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. And don’t even get me started on achieving GDPR compliance … that was a complete nightmare. Honestly, the costs to my business are so high with these regulations, it’s almost not worth it. I can think of worse things than naughty kids getting gifts on Christmas morning. Maybe if I just throw out the surveillance completely, and give presents to everybody, those wayward kids will stop nicking their siblings’ stuff—and I’ll save a bundle on all the effort I’m no longer making, all that data I’m no longer sifting through!

That seems really magnanimous of you…
Hey, I’m Santa! What do you expect?

Since we’re already kind of in the muck here, can we talk about the scrutiny you’ve had around workplace conditions and labor concerns?
Wow, I was kind of expecting more softballs from you! But hey, it’s all good. Look, I run a fair operation here—it’s always been a union shop and I’ve never fought that. I pay these elves a solid living wage year-round despite the highly seasonal nature of our business. I invite you to walk out on the floor yourself and ask any of these elves if they’re happy here. Well, not right now, obviously—they’re busier than a cat burying crap on a marble floor—but hit them up after New Year’s and they’ll tell you how reasonable a guy I am to work for.

Well, I’m sure you’re aware some elves have been lighting you up on Twitter…
Look, any workforce will have disgruntled types … and remember, this is the North Pole. Epidemiologists have long studied how seasonal affective disorder worsens the farther north you get. How many negative tweets from my elves do you get in summer? Go check—I’ll bet you don’t find any. All summer these elves party like rock stars … they don’t even need to sleep!

Fair enough. Now, you have perhaps the most non-diverse workforce in the world … is this by design?
I’m an equal-opportunity employer and if Chris Hemsworth applied for a job I’d gladly grant him an interview. The fact is, I don’t get a lot of applicants and most of my employees are related to one another. You’ve got siblings, offspring, fathers, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and on and on, some of them third, fourth, fifth generation. Lots of companies talk about being like a family; we practically are. We’re like a family-run business times a thousand. And it works out because we’ve tailored the workshop to the elves’ size, so we’ve got a great ergonomic match there where Chris Hemsworth literally wouldn’t be a good fit.

Have you tried to diversify?
Back in the sixties I hired a lot of Oompa-Loompas, but they didn’t really integrate with our elves, and ultimately just couldn’t handle the conditions up here. The North Pole isn’t for everybody. But I never laid off a single one of those Oompa-Loompas. In fact, I’ve never laid off an elf either.

Let’s talk for a minute about Amazon. You’ve got kind of a love/hate thing going on there…
Well, yeah. It’s complicated. On the one hand, they’re eating into my business like anybody else’s, but since I’ve never had a single paying customer, this just eases my burden operationally. Of course I wonder if there’ll be a day when I become completely irrelevant, but I think the charm of a stuffed stocking and piles of beautifully wrapped presents left under the tree, instead of brown boxes left on the porch, will always have their cachet. And yes, it’s true I’ve partnered with Amazon for certain deliveries which has drawn some scrutiny.

Yes, if there’s an opposite of the halo effect you seem to be getting a bit of that…
Well, exactly. I’ve been delivering gifts to homes without fireplaces for centuries—I mean, think of all those New York and London apartments with radiators, or rural homes with propane tanks out back—but still people are shocked—shocked!—to learn that I don’t always slide down the chimney. So anything that challenges their Norman Rockwell sensibilities is suddenly a crime. The reality is, I’ve used a variety of courier services for ages, and a bunch of them have recently been bought up by Amazon. What am I gonna do, upset my whole system by changing providers on principle? The guy who schleps a hundred packages up the freight elevator on Christmas Eve doesn’t care that the company name on his pay stub has changed, nor does the doorman who knows to let him in. A million details go into delivering a billion packages on a single night and I can’t be reinventing the wheel every time Amazon buys someone. It’s not an ideal situation but in the final analysis, two billion gleeful children couldn’t care less.

At this point in the interview Mrs. Claus comes in with a large tray and serves us fresh-baked star-shaped cookies and hot coffee. She smiles demurely and, without a word, heads back toward the kitchen. “Thanks, Meg,” Santa says kindly, peering at her lovingly over his spectacles.

Wow … “Meg.” It’s funny, but I never knew Mrs. Claus’s first name. I didn’t really think about her even having a name.
It’s short for Margaret.

Would she … should we ask her to join us?
Oh, she has no use for journalists. And the way you’ve been grilling me, I can see why! (Laughs.) But seriously, she is a very private person, even more so than I, which is saying something. She’s perfectly happy to work behind the scenes, running the household and so forth. She’s very old-school.

Speaking of wives, and before I forget: my wife wanted me to ask you what you think of all these shopping mall Santas.
Well, historically I haven’t had any problem with them, as they’re fun for the kids and they mean well. There was always the worry that one would get drunk during his lunch break, then climb back in the chair and do something regrettable that would tarnish my image, but I can’t sweat all the what-ifs. But more recently I’ve started to worry about how skepticism is on the rise everywhere, what with fake news and Internet conspiracy theories and all that, and that kids will start putting two and two together—like, “Hey, I saw Santa at Macy’s last weekend, and then today I see him at Nordstrom and he’s like a foot shorter!”—and will stop believing in me as a result. I’m not a demanding person, I don’t seek a lot of attention or gratitude or anything, but the idea that a growing number of cynical kids are thinking the gifts I provided actually came from Mom and Dad … that really gets me down. So the white lie of mall Santas is starting to chafe a bit more these days, but in the end I just have to shrug it off with everything else.

Thanks Santa. And now I have just one more question. I know I’ve asked some tough ones today, so I’m going to lay off and instead turn it around to you: what’s the hands-down dumbest question any journalist has ever asked you?
That’s an easy one. Some dork said to me once, “Santa, you’re more than 1,700 years old. Almost nobody lives that long, the main exception being vampires. How can you convince me you’re not a vampire?”

I hope you put him in his place!
Of course I did.

Um … what exactly did you say?
Well, duh! I can’t be a vampire because vampires have to be invited in! There isn’t a soul on this planet who enters more homes without a spoken invitation. Didn’t that dickweed see “Let the Right One In”? Besides, I really only leave the North Pole once a year … whose blood am I supposed to drink all year? The elves’?

Wow, great points Santa. And thanks so much for sitting down with me today. And please thank Mrs. Claus for the goodies!
Thank you. And sorry a got a bit worked up just now … as you can imagine, I’m under a lot of stress these days. In fact, I’d better get back to work!

Original artwork by Lindsay Albert.
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