Internet users HATE this!

ImageIf you’ve been on the Internet for more than 10 seconds in the last year, you’ve probably seen the “…hate this!” ads. Apparently, trainers HATE a new dietary supplement that helps you build muscle mass while you sit on the couch!!! Dermatologist HATE a “local mom” who discovered some kind of anti-wrinkle treatment!!! And there are dozens of others!!! Every industry, every profession seems to be HATE someone who has exposed their secret.

ImageI’m willing to bet that all of these ads come from the same back-alley advertising outfit. Or maybe there are two or three.

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Everyone in these low-budget ads seems to hate someone, even if they don’t come out and say it.

They’re ridiculous, of course, roughly on the same niveau as the “one weird trick” ads. I’ve seen them mainly on Facebook, occasionally on Yahoo, and occasionally elsewhere. They seem to reflect an extreme scatter-shot approach to advertising. Unlike the targeted ads that have become common in the last couple of years, these appear to be completely indiscriminate. If I’m right about that, then the advertiser is paying less per impression than buyers of targeted ads, and the low-budget strategy obviously extends to the advertising agencies and graphic design firms who develop the ads.

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Internet users hate these freakin’ ads!

Regardless, I think these ads are a sign of the times, and not just the economics of online media. They’re also further evidence that our attention is drawn to conflict (see also, e.g.: cable television news, checkout-aisle tabloids), or at least that our attention spans are shorter and/or we’re getting so many different stimuli, particularly on the Web, that advertising tactics can get our attention only by dialing up the id.

They’re not very well thought-out. Take the bodybuilder above: Who is he, and why do trainers hate him? Is he the one of the scientists in Cambridge? Or maybe his very image is just inherently maddening. I’m beginning to feel that way about all the people in these ads.

Shakes me, makes me lighter

The song “Teardrop” came up in my MP3 player’s rotation last night, and it gave me an instant of vertigo.

I had just climbed into my car across from Weaver Street Market and was about to drive a couple of miles to the south edge of Carrboro, where one of the law school’s student groups was hosting a cocktail party. I paused for a minute in the driver seat while the song’s intro played. It’s a rising series of notes on a sitar over a loop of snare drum rim shots that sounds like a heartbeat. Low piano chords come in after the first few bars. (It’s also the theme song from the TV show “House.”) The music filled the car as I watched young people trickle into and out of the pools of light on Weaver Street; in that moment, it felt like it filled the world, like a theme song for entire chapters of my life.

MassiveAttackMezzanineThat’s a melodramatic way to say it, but I think it fits. The intro sounds mysterious and full of infinite possibility, a prelude to everything. It’s still playing in the background of my memory of August 1998, when I had just arrived on the west coast of Japan for two years. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album itself was pretty new. My friend Simon lent me the CD for a couple of weeks; I’d play “Teardrop” over and over at night as I went to sleep in my futon with the grassy-smelling tatami flooring just inches from my face. I was fresh out of college, suddenly on the other side of the world and meeting awesome new people every day. Even a trip to the grocery store was an adventure. Sometimes I’d lie awake for an hour as I tried to wrap my head around the possibilities of the coming year or two or three. And yet I slept like a rock during those first few months, because I was so happy and so satisfied.

The song grabbed me so hard last night because it brought back that feeling of endless possibilities for a couple of minutes. At age 37, I’m committing to three years of school, putting myself in a very different social milieu, and starting a new career. The music made for a fortuitous mood as I drove off on Weaver Street to go meet a roomful of strangers.

My cottage, mycology

The fungi are getting out of control here. I’ve worried a couple of times in the last few weeks that they’re on the verge of becoming self-aware.

My roommate and I just spent a couple of hours eradicating mildew from the windowsills and bathrooms. That was a couple of weeks overdue, and it felt good to do.

The front yard is a little more vexing. I’ve been attacking the mushrooms out there every couple of days with a garden trowel, digging up a couple at a time and then tossing them into the street with a flick of my wrist. It’s quick and easy: Kschrrt! Whhht! But it kind of hurts, because I love mushrooms.

The ones that really stand out, so to speak, are the ones that look kind of like uncircumcised penises. They first show up as little lumps about the size and shape of quail eggs, but with rough leathery surfaces (Wikipedia tells me that this surface is called the “universal veil”). I’ve seen, two, three and even five of them clumped together. Then one of them shoots up overnight and is suddenly three or four inches tall in the morning. You don’t have to look too hard to find one of them with his two little brothers hanging out next to him. Then he wilts and melts a day or so later, and then a little brother shoots up. The wilting/melting happens quickly, because these things are mostly moisture and air. The mass of one of the balls expands into a shroomstalk of five times the volume.

I have two or three of them out there right now. Three weeks ago, when it was a little rainier, I’d have a half-dozen out there some mornings.

I wish I knew what to call all these different varieties. This particular kind looks like a newly sprouted netted stinkhorn, but it doesn’t get the nets that netted stinkhorns get, and it doesn’t really stink. They even smell strangely pleasant, maybe a little like something I might stir-fry, when I’m able to forget that the damn things have taken over my yard. So I just call them “yard-cocks.”

Back when it was rainier, I’d get gigantic hemispherical clumps of golden-orange mushrooms, which were much worse. Each clump was six to 15 inches across, with one- to two–hundred stalks. Those smelled pretty bad when they were alive, and they absolutely stank when they wilted and then rotted. After putting up with them for a couple of days, I went on a rampage with my hiking boots and the garden trowel, and almost completely filled up a kitchen-sized trash bag. I must’ve collected about 15 pounds of the damn things. I’m kicking myself of not getting any pictures. I tried a few Google searches just now and didn’t come up with anything that looked even remotely similar. They didn’t look particularly ugly – just kind of like humongous brains sitting in the middle of my yard.

In the last week or so, I’ve noticed several less-obtrusive varieties of mushrooms. Some remind me of tiny black clam shells. They seem to grow within a few inches of the yard-cocks, so I’m wondering if they might just be different body parts of the same organism. A couple of other varieties look more conventional. You can see all of them below in the slideshow below.

Never in my life have I had so many mushroom varieties right in front of me. These are all in my front yard, which is only 30 or 40 feet wide. I live in an apartment complex of about 100 units. Each building is four to six units. They’re almost like little cottages.

I’m pretty sure they’re all feeding on the roots of a tree that was cut down or ripped out two or three years ago. I think I know right where the stump was, even though most of it got taken out. It was smack in the middle of my little yard. The ground is kind of soft and spongy right there, and the grass hasn’t fully grown back yet. You can actually see a little piece of a root sticking out in one of the pictures.

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Rusty Iron

I just watched “The Iron Lady,” and was disappointed. It could’ve been so much more.

Specifically, it could’ve been twice as much. Two films, instead of half-hearted attempts at two films crammed into one. It was 1) the story of Thatcher’s career and 2) a portrait of an old woman puttering around the house, looking back on her career and her marriage. And neither of these two mini-films was very effective.

The senility frame story just didn’t make me care. A lot of elderly people become senile. If this particular case was worthy of a movie, then please give me a reason to care about it, or even understand how it happened. Was it Alzheimer’s? A blow to the head? Emotional trauma from her husband’s death? A lifetime of stubbornness?

Maybe “Iron Lady” could’ve had several more scenes showing how her senility developed, to link the two mini-films. We got a hint of this in the scene where Thatcher berated her deputy for the grammatical errors in the draft of a policy paper. If indeed she began to lose touch with reality while she was prime minister, that would’ve been interesting to explore in several additional scenes.

Of course, I can see how difficult it would be to make an American audience care about Margaret Thatcher’s senility; most of us just don’t know enough about her — particularly those of us who came of age after she left office.

Then again, I never would’ve guessed that a movie could make me care about George VI’s stutter, and the “Iron Lady”‘s shortcoming only heightens my respect for “The King’s Speech.” But that movie made a choice that perhaps should’ve been obvious: It focused squarely on the period when George was improving his speech and made me care about that process. It wouldn’t have been compelling if the focus had been split between 1) the speech lessons and 2) a comprehensive overview of his reign as king.

I can’t write about “The Iron Lady” without noting Meryl Streep‘s performance. She richly deserved the Oscar.

Growing my anti-bad-grammar peeves

This is a rant about several non-standard usages of words and phrases that have become common in the last few years. It’s kind of a petty rant, and you might think it’s a silly rant. But I haven’t had a rant in a while, so I think I deserve one.

1. Portmanteauverboard!
First, I think portmanteaus are getting out of hand. We’ve got “Obamacare,” “Brangelina,” “ginormous,” “advertorial,” and God knows how many others. I even have a tube of “hydratensive” cortisone lotion.

Most of these are fitting, or at least clever and fun. And I guess it’s a half-second quicker to use a portmanteau in place of an “x,” an “and” and a “y.” More importantly, a portmanteau can save a few characters when we’re limited to 140, like when we’re texting… and maybe also when we’re sexting. So I’m not too riled up about portmanteaus. I just think we’re going portmanteauverboard with them. I’m getting portmaneauverload.

2. Anti-overused prefixes
The prefixes “pro-” and “anti-” also save time for writers and politicians who want to sum up the views of protagonists and antagonists with just four or five extra characters each. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also exacerbates our tendency to reduce a complex issue to two opposing viewpoints. The speaker or writer throws in the prefixes and moves on to the next sentence without taking an extra 10 seconds to explain the two, three or four angles in the issue.

I think these two suffixes work better when they describe categorical support for or opposition to something. And I think that’s how they were used initially. Take anti-aircraft guns, for example. They were widely used for the first time in World War II, to blow enemy aircraft out of the sky. No time or reason for nuance. (And of course nobody needed to specify that they were “anti-enemy-aircraft guns.”)

But now we have “anti-illegal immigration” activists and God knows how many other compound pros and antis.

I understand their purpose. Take the phrase “anti-illegal immigration.” Nearly all of these activists say they’re against illegal immigration, not all immigration, and I think that’s true for most of them, as it is for most other Americans. But the “anti-” prefix makes the opposition seem absolute, visceral and categorical. It’s unfortunate, because illegal immigration is a complex issue. Those of us who oppose it have varied reasons for doing so, and I like to think that most of us understand that we have to balance that opposition against other priorities and values to one extent or another.

In sum: If a topic is complex enough to require an adjective, it’s tricky to be categorically for or against it.

On the other hand, I guess it makes sense when the goal is to pigeon-hole someone: “I believe the Republican Party will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts,” Newt Gingrich said of Mitt Romney on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

3. An unlikely usage
When and why did “likely” become an adverb? News writers started using it as an adverb about five years ago, usually to express a probability of something happening in the future, as in this AP headline from last weekend: “Right-to-work protesters will likely continue if bill signed.” A couple of my friends have started using this construction in e-mails in the last year or so.

Nobody uses this construction when talking. So why in writing?

And did everybody forget the word “probably”? Here’s my little theory: Saying something “will probably” occur acknowledges that we don’t know for sure, and readers immediately recognize this because writers and speakers have been using the phrase “will probably” for hundreds of years. But a lot of news writers — and a lot of other people — want to avoid standing out as being uncertain. The phrase “will likely” doesn’t stand out that way (even though everyone who thinks about it for a split-second realizes that the writer is not really claiming to know the future.)

4. Growing misuse of “grow”
“Grow your business” has become a business buzzphrase in the last couple of years. I don’t think it’s because businesspeople have forgotten the verbs “build,” “expand” and “foster.” I think it’s a sort of jargon that the speaker or writer uses to identify with the business community, and to imply a sort of exclusivity, a sort of subculture.

“Grow” is supposed to be an intransitive verb in most cases: Children grow into adults. Improper use of a word grows out of control. It’s supposed to be transitive only when the object is something that grows biologically. Farmers grow crops. I’m growing a beard. When someone says he’s growing his business, I wonder how often he waters it and whether he’s using compost.

The grow-as-transitive buzzword has gotten so out of hand that I even hear and see it used to describe increases in numbers. “We’re growing subscriptions!” “Jim-Bob Inc. is growing jobs!” These are doubly silly: Not only do they misuse “grow” as a transitive verb; they’re saying that the subscriptions are getting bigger, or the jobs are getting bigger.

“Rickshaw” detours to Raleigh

Rickshaws have come a long way — with at least one major detour — in the 140 years between their invention and their arrival in downtown Raleigh.

Even the meaning of the word “rickshaw” has changed. The word originally — and still today, outside the United States — referred to two-wheeled affairs pulled by runners. They first became popular in Japanese cities in the late 1800s. The name is derived from the Japanese word jinrikusha (人 力 車), which literally means “human-powered wheels.” Rickshaws still make the occasional appearance in urban tourist districts, including the one at left, which I came across in Tokyo in December 2000. During two years in Japan, though, I never saw anyone use one for practical transportation. I’ve seen pictures and videos of them in use in India and Bangladesh.

Pedicabs, relabeled by their marketers as “rickshaws,” have become popular in the U.S. in the last decade. Donald Mertrud studied pedicab operations in Denver; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Orlando; and Charleston, S.C., before founding Raleigh Rickshaw, the larger of the two downtown pedicab companies, in mid-2007. Of those other five cities, the first three have more than 600,000 residents, with downtowns large and dense enough to support pedicab services. Charleston and Orlando are much smaller, but draw large numbers of the tourists, a key clientele for “rickshaw” services.

Raleigh doesn’t exactly fit either category, but Mertrud¹s business seems to be going strong after four years. He told me earlier this month that he owns 20 of the pedicabs. They can cost $3,000 to $4,000 each. Mertrud makes his money by leasing the pedicabs to the drivers for about $25 per five-hour shift. After paying that, the drivers keep whatever they collect in fares and tips. A friend of mine who worked for him went home with anywhere from $20 to $150 for a shift, a range familiar to waiters.

Mertrud wouldn¹t discuss his business model with me, but it looks like it probably brings in annual revenue of about $94,000, if you reckon with an average of eight drivers per shift, two daily shifts on weekends and one during the week. It’s probably a good living, but it’s also decidedly a small business.

My first experience with pedicabs, one afternoon in August 2000, revealed a smaller business ­– a much smaller business, in fact. I had walked across the Thai border into the small Burmese town of Myawaddy, and was immediately set upon by a pedicab driver who was maybe 18 or 19 years old. I told him a dozen times that I had the equivalent of only about $10 in my pocket and had to make it last for a couple days. But he was relentless, and I eventually agreed to a ride, with a twist: I’d buy lunch for him and two of his friends at their favorite restaurant. In exchange for that reduced fare, I did the pedaling. Lunch came out to about $5 for the four of us, so I guess the driver earned $1.25 for those two hours. For me, it was priceless.

On the road again, and off again, and on again

Raleigh and Atlanta have totally different approaches toward billboards, shopping-center marquis and other roadside signs.

Atlantans seem to like all of this clutter. Or at least they’re willing to put up with it because they dislike it less than they dislike driving around looking for the right shopping center like I keep doing.

In Raleigh, the signs are few and unobtrusive — maybe even too few and unobtrusive. I’ve missed at least 10 turns in the last week simply because I didn’t see the signs.

Just this afternoon, I drove by a Home Depot three times before seeing it. Yes, Home Depot, the giant big-box store with orange logos. Strangely, the sign on the store itself wasn’t orange. And there wasn’t any sign at all out by the street, at any of the entrances to the shopping center. I saw the location on my GPS, but I drove right by it twice on Strickland Road, and then I drove a half-mile in the other direction before coming back and driving around in the shopping center until I saw it.

"X" marks the spot where I turned out of the parking lot ... and onto a six-lane controlled-access highway

The same thing happened yesterday when I was looking for the Bed, Bath & Beyond in Cary. That time, I even drove through the shopping center without seeing it. It was in a back corner, and the parking lot had a lot of nice trees in it. After driving through that shopping center and the one next to it, I turned out of the shopping center directly onto an entrance ramp to US-1. There wasn’t even a sign for US-1. Just — boom! There I was on a major highway, a controlled-access highway like an interstate. Then there was the US-1/I-40 interchange, and after getting on  I-40, and I had to drive a mile and a half east before getting off and turning around. And then I missed the turn back to US-1 southbound. And then I missed the damn turn again. US-1 southbound was exit 293-A. In one direction, 293-A exited together with 293 and 293-B. And in the other direction, one exit ramp was separate from the other two. I guess both of those layouts are somewhat normal for interchanges where two major highways cross, but ya gotta tell me where to turn, dude. Also, it’s common here for a freeway interchange to have two different exit ramps depending on which way you want to go on the crossing road. Almost all the interchanges on I-440 are like that.

Anyway, I came back to the shopping center and almost drove by BB&B for a second time before glimpsing it behind the trees. I may look into a helicopter taxi for next time.

I-40 near Raleigh

The upside to this minimalist approach to signage is that the highways look really nice, particularly to someone who has recently driven around in Atlanta, and on I-85 between Atlanta and Charlotte. The picture at left is of I-40 near Raleigh. I just found it on someone’s blog, so I don’t know whether it’s east of Raleigh, or between Raleigh and Durham. They actually look the same, even though the area to the east is completely rural, whereas the stretch between Raleigh and Durham is only 15 miles and connects the state’s second- and fifth-largest cities.

I-75 near Marietta, Georgia

In Atlanta, nothin’ but billboards! The worst stretch I regularly encountered was I-75 southbound from Chastain Road to North Marietta Parkway. And none of them were even interesting billboards. The only one I can remember was for Superior Plumbing. There was a blue triangle in it somewhere.

I definitely appreciate the relatively scenic roads here. And I can see myself preferring them once I get to know them better, or once I buy an onboard GPS system that talks to me … or an autopilot that lets me lean back and enjoy the view.

The billboard-free roads must be the result of zoning policies in Wake County, which includes Raleigh; and Durham County and Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill. I don’t remember any similar restraint in Charlotte. I may just attend the three counties’ next zoning board meetings to salute them for their policies. And while I’m there, I’ll suggest that each highway entrance or exit ramp be marked with its own visible sign.