Friday, January 11, 2013

Naturally Harmless?

I recently discovered a piece of "science" known as GAPS: Gut and Psychology Syndrome, and its progenitor, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. According to the "official" website for it, it is defined as such:

Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAP Syndrome or GAPS) is a condition which establishes a connection between the functions of the digestive system and the brain.

Essentially, whenever your child stops breastfeeding (or, in case of children who do not breastfeed, shortly after birth), "abnormal gut flora" begins to develop, turning their digestive system into a source of toxicity as opposed to nutrition and health. Breastfeeding protects children from these "abnormal gut flora", you see.

I bring this up because it is closely related to "science" I would read/hear about frequently at my previous job. For those of you who do not know, I worked at NBTY, Inc., one of the world's largest supplier of vitamins and supplements (and the company behind the retail chain Vitamin World) for ~4 years, the last 2 of that being in the department that dealt, specifically, with the ingredients in the products and all of the questions customers had about those ingredients. Despite my feelings about the company and its management, I greatly enjoyed this aspect of my job, and was very interested in learning about the ingredients, their potential effects, etc.

Frequently, customers would cite an article or infomercial that had revealed the wonders and secrets of certain products or ingredients, and would wax intellectual about things that they, frankly, had no actual knowledge of. Kevin Trudeau (or, as many called him, Dr. Trudeau, who is not a doctor of any kind) was probably the most common individual mentioned, due to his visibility within the industry (books and regular infomercials) and ridiculous claims. Most people were not aware that Mr. Trudeau is a convicted felon, and cited his frequent issues with government agencies such as the SEC and FTC were simply due to the government attempting to silence the truth that Mr. Trudeau was attempting to spread. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that Mr. Trudeau had no credibility when discussing matters of health or nutrition, millions of people still believed his claims, which he made with tremendous confidence and salesmanship; considering the fact that he has a long history of implementing pyramid schemes (sorry: multi-level marketing) and defrauding individuals, his reputation as an expert in marketing is well-established, so it is not very surprising that he is able to convince people that he is speaking in earnest.

One semi-famous example of Mr. Trudeau's dubious medical claims was his endorsement of Dr. Robert Barefoot and his Coral Calcium product. Mr. Trudeau trumpeted Coral Calcium (sourced from coral reefs, though it consists primarily of calcium carbonate, which is quite commonly found in nature and is used as an antacid, among other things) as a revolutionary product, stating that a study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association displayed the product's ability to cure various forms of cancer; said study does not exist, with the basis for this claim being that researchers found that subjects at risk for colon cancer experienced reduced growth characteristics associated with the development of cancer after prolonged intake of ~1,200mg of calcium via low-fat dairy foods.

Though this was several years ago, this is the sort of predatory marketing prevalent within the wide fields of human health and nutrition today. A frequent sentiment, echoed by Trudeau, is that prescription medications and, in some cases, OTC medications are what actually cause illnesses instead of treating such, and that "natural medications" (namely, various herbs) should be used instead. These "natural medications", according to believers, do not have side effects at all, in contrast to the vast number of potential side effects in even the most pedestrian prescription medication. Yes, prescription drugs have side effects; this is not new knowledge. However, making the statement that herbal products have no side effects is not only erroneous, but dangerous. Allergic reactions aside (allergies are also caused by GAPS!), herbal remedies also offer a wealth of potentially harmful side effects, including liver damage, hypertension, kidney damage, insomnia, nausea, heart attack, etc. The fact that people believe that these "natural remedies" are harmless speaks to the distrust and fear of prescription medications (which, in many cases, is well-founded, as well as the excellent job that the industry has done to convince people to go to any lengths to be healthy, whether or not those lengths are valid or not.

If you take herbal supplements and they seem to be helping you, then by all means continue to do so. But never make the assumption that natural is equivalent to harmless.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cover of Darkness...

Cover songs can be really good, with notable examples being Placebo's version of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", or Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". They can also be terrible, like anything Guns N' Roses has done. There are songs out there, though, that should never be covered; unfortunately, this has not prevented bands from covering these songs. I thought I would share some songs that are untouchable from my POV. Feel free to comment on my selections and add your own. Enjoy.

NOTE: When I say "cover", I don't mean playing live; I mean actually recording a version in a studio.

Neil Young - Like a Hurricane

The Smiths - There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

Don McLean - American Pie

Michael Jackson - Billie Jean

Ben E. King - Stand By Me

Blue Oyster Cult - Don't Fear the Reaper

I am sure there are plenty more, but those are the ones that come to mind. Please add any you feel should be on the list.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3--First Thoughts

So, I am ~12 hours in on my first playthrough of Mass Effect 3, and it is, of course, excellent. However, I do have some issues, primarily with regards to design. To wit:

1. From what I can tell, if you're doing Priority storyline missions, they are all contained on Disc 1, but if you want to go off and do side missions that require you to land/dock somewhere, you have to swap Disc 2 in. This is mildly annoying, but not enough to really upset me.

2. Speaking of side missions, you have no way to really determine your progress with any side mission at all, which is really awful. If I can't recall if I got a specific item or not, I don't want to roam the 5-6 places I can go in the Citadel and hope to find the person I am supposed to give it to. I much prefer the way Mass Effect 2 handled these quests, with a "checklist" showing what you have done so far. Of course, I think that's tied to how they chose to do scanning, which brings me to...

3. Scanning...meh. I love the "scanning" (yes, I know you just drove around) in the original Mass Effect, as exploring other planets and such was what really drew me into the game, before the story got more interesting. Scanning in Mass Effect 2 was better overall, and I thought was a great way to do it without having the annoyance of getting the Mako stuck in a crevasse in some mountains. I really dislike how inconsequential scanning feels in Mass Effect 3; I scan a planet, find the one spot that has something, launch a probe, and get the item. That's it. There's no interaction, no surprise, nothing. Not to mention that using your scanning pulse will bring the Reapers calling after ~2 uses, which is annoying if you have not managed to retrieve each War Asset in that particular system, as doing so afterwards requires tight timing.

4. The usable squad members are pretty lackluster, especially if you had, uh, casualties in Mass Effect 2. Yes, the new squad member from the DLC is pretty sweet, but being unable to use certain people from previous games, even if they survived the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, pretty much sucks.

Those are my primary complaints, although I probably have others I just can't think of right now because I am not playing the game at this moment. Overall, I still love the game, but my early thoughts have me ranking it as my least favorite of the trilogy so far. And yes, to those who have finished the game, i know about the ending, and I have zero problems with it; all of the above issues are way more bothersome to me.

Anyone else have complaints similar to mine?

Friday, February 17, 2012

TV Party!


Television is so strange. How is it that, in an age where "reality" shows about housewives, stereotypical self-proclaimed guidos, and backstabbing competitions have flooded the airwaves, there exist shows that have some of the greatest writing the medium has ever seen? Shows like CommunityParks & RecreationBreaking BadSouthlandGame of Thrones, et al amaze me with the strength of their writing, and their ability to actually tell human stories.

I know that piling on the whole reality tv genre is kind of passé, but I can't help it, especially because I watch a couple of shows within the genre. I, of course, believe those shows to be different, superior to the vast gulf of inane shows within the genre, but they're really not; producers attempt to manufacture confrontations between contestants via soliciting catty comments and clever editing. I don't really care if Austin was pissed that Jerrell took "his" sewing machine, Bravo; I just want to see if the clothes they make are interesting or a disaster. Maybe that makes me part of the problem also; I don't know. 

However, the fact that my favorite shows have more human moments than those reality shows is something I choose to celebrate. Parks & Rec is a great example. Since it was created by the same people who created The Office, it could have easily developed into a clone of that show, and it sort of was in the first few episodes. Leslie wasn't very likable, and it appeared that it was simply going to focus on the silliness of bureaucracy without exploring the characters and what made them who they were. However, that eventually changed, and it showed that these characters have different sides, and are just as flawed as your typical individual. 

One of my favorite moments in the show exemplifies this: April is a young woman who puts on the facade of hating everyone and everything, but as she grows closer to these people she works with, she starts evolving as a character and a person. She asks Andy, the shoe-shine man still longing after his ex-girlfriend, for suggestions of a gift to buy for her "gay boyfriend". Andy's suggestions are cute but impractical ("Brokeback Mountain DVD!"), but he says he will think about it and get back to her. When they discuss it later, he still has no real suggestions, so when she asks Andy to say what he would want as a gift, he has a speedy answer: a signed Reggie Wayne Indianapolis Colts football jersey that was worn by Reggie Wayne when he caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl. She blows that off and it's forgotten...until the end of the episode, when Andy finds a package at his shoe-shine stand. He opens it to discover a Reggie Wayne jersey. It's a revealing moment, and one that gives us a nice glimpse into April's thoughts. This moment becomes incredibly poignant with a 3rd season episode that is centered around a "fancy dinner party" that Andy and April, who are now roommates, decide to throw and invite everyone to be a part of...but I don't want to spoil it. Watch the show on Netflix...it's worth it.

It'scertainly more heartwarming that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

3000 Miles to Graceland

When I was a kid, I was drawn to New York City: the famous streets, the landmarks, the energy...it just called to me. The genesis of this calling is fuzzy, but I believe it came from various television shows of the time, with a specific nod going to Night Court. That seems preposterous in hindsight, but my gauge of sophistication when I was 10 years old was a show about a night shift Manhattan court run by a group of lovable misfits. Did I mention that I was 10?

As the years progressed, I was exposed to other sources to feed into my love for The City That Never Sleeps, movies and books that reaffirmed my love for New York on a regular basis. Movies like When Harry Met Sally, Big, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Do the Right Thing, Six Degrees of Separation, New Jack City...countless films that chose New York City as their canvas. But even more enthralling were the books: The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, The Stand, The Drawing of the Three, The Bonfire of the Vanities...all of these sparked something within me, telling me that I had to go to New York, that it was the place to be. It was my destiny

But the funny thing about destiny is that we don't really know what ours is (if it even exists). My road to New York, and my infatuation with it, more or less ended in 1998. 

I was quite lost at the time, having gone through an experience typical of myself with the opposite sex shortly before that. I had lost my desire to...well, to do anything at all. To put it a little more eloquently:

He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roll over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion. 

I had, in essence, fallen out of love with life and everything in it. My dreams and desires had, if not vanished, been muted by my own sense of worthlessness and inadequacy. I felt that everything in my life was suspect, and that I needed to go in some other direction. So, with all of this brewing, the first piece of the confluence that would subtly steer my interest away from New York came into my orbit: I watched L.A. Confidential.

I won't rehash the film here, but I was struck by the way that the movie portrayed postwar Los Angeles. The Hollywoodland sign had been changed, the remnants of the Golden Age were being demolished, and these people were caught in the middle of the changes taking place. It made me want to know more. So, I started looking at events and people of the time, and seeing that the guy who wrote the novel the movie was based on had written other books based on that setting...but I wasn't to that point yet. Something held me back. 

I read about Elizabeth Short, the most famous unsolved case in Southland history, perhaps in American history. I didn't identify with Betty like James Ellroy did, but I was fascinated by the case, specifically the anonymity that echoed through it all. It hearkened back to Jack the Ripper, with the killer contacting the authorities, taunting them with items belonging to the victim. However, even with that similarity, Elizabeth Short's murder seemed very...American...in its way. In my searching for more information on the case, I naturally came across many other unsolved murder cases; they seemed to be everywhere. Then, I saw one that exhibited similar traits as the Short case, with the killer taunting the police by sending communications, including items belonging to a victim. I saw a photograph of one of the letters, and when I read the first line, I literally felt a chill roll down my spine...

This is the Zodiac speaking.

I read that letter, and then another, and another. I was drawn into the vast web of the Zodiac Killer, unable to understand why this individual, who killed at least 5 people (although I believe the number to be 7), was never captured. I read through the brief case details that I found on a couple of crime-based websites, but wanted, needed, more. This was a time when searching was not very refined; Google didn't exist outside of beta testing, and other search engines were full of bugs and just poor coding. One of these searches led me to a site with a bit more information, and that site led me to Tom Voigt and his website: zodiackiller.com  There, I found the motherlode, and my immersion in the Zodiac Killer was complete.

Now, I wasn't interested in the murders in the ways that others might be. Yes, I wanted to understand them, and part of me wanted the identity of the killer to be known. However, another part of me was attached to the mystery, and felt that the killer being unmasked would, in a strange way, violate the victims in unimaginable ways. I believed that the "why?" of the murders could be discovered without the "who?" being revealed, realistically or not, and I did not want to tarnish the purity of the victims with the revelation that some broken down slob had murdered them.

These events caused my focus to shift from New York, with its fast-paced, well-known vitality, to California, with its clandestine lifeline. Now, I want to travel the length and breadth of California, uncovering its secrets. It has too many.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lis(z)tmania!

One thing some of you may know about me is my love for lists, specifically "best of"/"favorite" lists on various topics. I have been asked before why I like to categorize and rank various things so much, and it's a difficult question to answer. The cop out answer is the OCD in me, but it's clearly a little deeper than that.

Part of it *is* attached to the OCD; the desire to bring about order from chaos, and all of that other nonsense. I think more of it has to do with control; after all, if I am creating a list, I am nominally in control of it by default. That gives me great comfort. I don't think that there is necessarily any specific event that makes me desire control over anything; it's more an aspect of the human condition, and I choose to manifest it in a relatively harmless way.

Making lists also helps me focus, even if it is directed at something as unnecessary as what really is the greatest video game of the 1990s? Once I start making a list, I sort of collapse into myself and begin examining each possible entry, researching them if necessary, and imagining the potential arguments for and against it. Reading that, it seems a little batshit crazy, but that sense of focus really does help me through the entire process.

Sometimes, when making a list, I will be reminded of something I have completely forgotten. Sometimes, it's something as simple as, say, an album I left off of my initial Best Albums of 1993 (yes, this is a real example); other times, it could be a seemingly insignificant event from 15 years ago. Memory is an amazing thing, often taken for granted, and while mine is not the sharpest, making lists has allowed me to remember things I have seemingly forgotten.

I think the biggest reason I make these lists, however, is the discussion that stems from them. I left off your favorite movie in my Best of 2000 list? Well, tell me why I am wrong, and I will respond in kind. You think I am crazy for liking The Bends more than OK Computer? Elaborate. It's not argument for argument's sake, like political and religious debates seem to be. While it's virtually impossible to objectively measure the greatness of any work of art, we still try, and, like many things, the satisfaction is in the journey, not the destination.

2001: A Blog Odyssey

Dating back to around 2000 or so, I have wanted to maintain a blog, but believed that I would either just not post consistently enough to warrant having it, or, more likely, I would post the most inane commentaries on the most useless topics, thus making the whole exercise pointless. Little did I realize that it is that very concept that blogs were created for. Sure, there have always been blogs out there that have presented themselves in certain ways in order to be taken seriously, but such blogs are the exception rather than the rule. Blogs allow for unfiltered (ideally, at any rate) stream of consciousness ramblings on topics as varied as ice cream flavors or candidates for political office, as well as a place for those who are interested in writing to hone their craft and receive immediate feedback and critique. The fact that I never took advantage of such a service is somewhat surprising, both to myself and others, as I certainly like to wax pedantic about the most banal of subjects. 

So, with that said, this blog will cover a broad range of topics, some of which I hope at least someone other than myself will find interesting. Books, music, movies, television, games, family, friends, the future...all will be dissected. I look forward to expounding on many, many topics, with plenty of commentary from the peanut gallery. Enjoy.