Where Celebrity Opinions Belong

“Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one but they think each others stink.”

It seems a truism to say humans are strange and incoherent creatures, filled with contradictions and biases that make us do and say some outrageous things. Take, for example, our fellow mammals who find themselves bathed in fame and adoration. Whereas many come to this elevated status through successful careers in music, sports, film, and television, individuals like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian acquire fame via crudely-made videos hardly deserving of the title pornographic. (Although the videos were intended to shame and humiliate these women, one cannot help but notice how lavishly the victims have profited from their widespread distribution.)

Generally, I hear few objections when prominent individuals endorse humanitarian organizations, cancer research, education and afterschool programs, gender and sexual equality, marijuana legalization, renewable energy sources, and so on. In fact, we laud celebrities who go out of their way to help others, raise awareness for underappreciated problems, and support initiatives we deeply value. Here, their status has great societal benefit.

However, if such a person were to comment, for example, on a presidential election or Syria, foolish rejoinders typically follow like: “stick to [enter celebrity’s employment or vocation here]” and “what do they know about [enter any political topic]?” The famous individual is swiftly and callously berated, mocked as out-of-touch or woefully ignorant of the issue at hand. The irony is that the very things many famous people endorse—gender equality, marijuana legalization, and others—are palpably political in nature.

Why do we do this?

In his Politics, Aristotle argued that humans were inherently political beings owing to our capacity for speech. Our English word, politics, derives from the Greek meaning “affairs of state,” and politic from the Latin meaning “pertaining to public life.”  If we consider this, why do many individuals become outraged when some high-profile celebrity decides to make a political statement? Aren’t we all entitled to our opinions, regardless of their breadth and depth, or lack thereof? (Trust me, I know that some opinions are downright nonsense or embedded in great slabs of stupidity.)

Interestingly enough, we don’t mind prying into the lives of the rich and famous. Avid fans go to extraordinary lengths to discover intimate details about the lives of their heroes. The media is more than happy to oblige by stalking and harassing celebrities. This fetishism extends to dietary habits, sexual behaviors (in what positions and with whom), religious and spiritual inclinations, educational background, fashion tastes, where their children go to school, etc. Fucking everything. Once in the public spotlight, nothing about one’s life remains sacrosanct. Here’s the most baffling part: when delving into the lives of famous, one may come learn that the individual identifies as a feminist, an explicitly political ideology. And the fans rightly applaud this.

But…

Does no one see the contradiction here? If they support equal rights for all genders and sexes, that’s respectable and commendable. But have an opinion on Syrian refugees or, more recently, the bombing of a Syrian base, then that celebrity can go fuck off. [Lugubrious sigh.]

Maybe it’s some form of cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy. Who knows.

Are celebrities entitled to the same rights as ordinary citizens, namely holding and disclosing political opinions publicly for debate? Or do they exist apart for the rest of civilization, giving up their right to participate by virtue of their professions, only to view society from the peripheries?

 

Burritos Never Die: Chipotle Revisited

“If my survival caused another to perish, than death would be sweeter and more beloved.”

Last we were met, I was gathering the stones required to assemble a cairn in preparation for the possible demise of Chipotle. I could only relish as the self-righteous brand took mighty blows. Yet, it seems the beast would survive longer than anticipated. (Damn it!) People enjoy their burritos, it would seem. However, it has incurred several more traumas as it struggles to recuperate.

To recoup lost revenue after the foodborne illness incidents, the fast-casual giant gave away free burritos, created a love story, and promised to make sure foodborne illnesses will never endanger customers ever again. I had once read on the internet that Chipotle had been so desperate for business, it planned to offer a complimentary beer with every burrito. Wouldn’t that be nice?

This week, it’s giving out free chips and guacamole to celebrate its newest claim: it is the only chain in the United States that doesn’t use preservatives. (Now, there’s even a rapping tortilla.) Even with such a gracious incentive, I am still not tempted to venture out of my way for Chipotle.

As I mentioned before, Chipotle isn’t out of trouble yet. A $2.2 billion lawsuit—one could buy a fuck-ton of burritos with that kind of cash—now threatens the company’s livelihood. The story goes that some photographer working for Chipotle snapped a few pictures of the plaintiff, Leah Caldwell, used the photographs to decorate several restaurants, and has profited from them without permission over a nine-year period. Ouch. Part of me hopes Ms. Caldwell wins. Part of me hopes the courts will dismiss this case.

To demonstrate how far off the beaten path lawsuits can become, we only need to look at the three gentlemen accusing Chipotle of intentional deception this past November:

The class-action lawsuit, which was filed last week in Los Angeles, claims that the men ate chorizo burritos at three different locations earlier this month where signs for the product indicated that it contained 300 calories… After consuming the hefty burritos, however, the men realized that the flour tortilla with pork sausage that can also include rice, beans, guacamole and cheese, was way higher in caloric content than advertised. According to the complaint, plaintiff David Desmond “felt excessively full and realized that the burrito couldn’t have been just 300 calories.”

What is this if not the epitome of frivolousness?

If the experiences of the plaintiffs are true, I shall refrain from exploring their collective ineptitude, for it should be readily apparent. I would only hope the courts extend a massive legal middle finger to the cretins. Instead, I would rather focus on the company’s CEO, Steve Ells.

You read that correctly. Monty Moran, Ells’ co-CEO since 2009, retired at the beginning of this year. One could hardly blame Moran for abdicating his responsibilities in light of recent lawsuits and bombardments by E. coli and Norovirus. However, Moran’s departure is palpably more invidious than that. The board of directors at Chipotle felt Ells alone would return Chipotle to its former glory with his “high standards” and “unyielding commitment.” I suppose it’s safe to say that Moran just wasn’t up to snuff.

Even before Ells became reunited with his complete power, the fast-casual magnate scrambled to salvage his—I thought mortally—wounded empire. I was confused by one thing he did. In a rather curious move, Ells scrutinized, if not berated, the image of his restaurants not only during a time when Chipotle desperately needs to restore its image but also when Ells himself had fought so hard maintain a flawless facade. In his diatribe, Ells lamented slow service speeds and the slovenly appearance of dining rooms, among other things. Perhaps this is the type of thoroughgoing individual required to lift the burrito purveyor from the ashes.

Since Ells’ reascension, moreover, four board members announced they would not remain with the burrito chain, some of whom have been with the company eighteen-plus years. Although none of them gave an official reason, the directors went out of their way to insist that their departure was neither coerced nor related to the recent turmoil. Please keep in mind, these are the same directors who declared that Ells could turn Chipotle around. O ye, of little faith! Nevertheless, change is certainly afoot.

Some say Chipotle has its worst days behind it. I’m weary of such analyses, especially when uttered from biased parties, namely shareholders whose wealth depends on the success of the company. (I suspect a similar claim could be lobbed at me, but in the reverse.) I don’t know whether all these changes will restore people’s faith in Chipotle. I do know that I still have those stones ready should Chipotle fail.

 

The Devil’s Lettuce

A closer look at demonic vegetation

I apologize for the brief hiatus. My absence wasn’t due to anything extravagant or glamorous, just quotidian tasks and responsibilities one is often mired in. I offer the following post in recompense.

Marijuana: it’s just a plant, right?

Yes, and so much more. But, I mean, where does one start with such a divisive herb? Marijuana (or cannabis) has such a rich history and is currently one of most hotly debated topics, particularly when it comes to recreational use. Proponents of marijuana often cite potential medicinal applications and its benign nature relative to alcohol and tobacco, while opponents decry it as a gateway drug which threatens to vitiate the moral fabric of society. Historically, intelligent and sober discussions about marijuana have generally been stifled by an oppressive stigmatization that has, in part, successfully equated marijuana with immorality, corruption, debauchery, and licentiousness. (Politicians claimed legalizing marijuana in Colorado would increase adolescent marijuana usage… so much for that, eh?) It’s this condemnation that led to stern legal prohibitions and a poverty of knowledge of marijuana’s true benefits.

In writing this post, I wanted to briefly touch upon the relationship marijuana has had in human history, as well as discuss the opposition to it, the medical research that has been conducted, and what the future holds for this herb. (I may decide to explore these topics more in-depth at a later time.)

This is my longest blog post to date. You have been warned.

Continue reading “The Devil’s Lettuce”

My Chosen Path

Destroying that which impedes the way

I’m giving the reader another biographical entry into the happenings of my life. Consider this an extension of my 2 a.m. gym session., with more intimate reflections and disclosures from the author.

Since my late-night gym session, I’ve encountered death in its various guises and succumbed to quasi-debilitating injuries, the vicissitudes of life that remind one how tenuous it all really is. Yet, I have survived and thankfully recovered. And I often ask myself whether I can still be motivated to improve my health and wellbeing. As I have said, motivation can be derived from rather unlikely places; in the aforementioned post, it was hatred.

Motivation can come in the form of inducements. Sometimes, it comes in the form of supportive gestures. I have also been moved to action by speeches given by people I admire, and by music lyrics that resonated with something deep inside. More recently, I require fierce pushes from a friend—to whom I am eternally indebted—to help me control my negligent eating habits and to have something resembling a consistent workout schedule. Alas, this lack of endogenous drive for self-betterment has inexorably had some startling health implications. Which leads me to the final motivator—or impetus to immediate action—I wish to talk about, the one that comes into sharp relief when in close proximity to oblivion.

My primary care physician has assured me that my intemperate attitude towards food and drink have threatened to undermine several organ systems, namely my kidneys and liver.

I undoubtedly lack some internal self-disciplinary mechanism that keeps normal individuals consistent and focused on reaching their goals. Perhaps I’m missing the requisite allele for proper portion control or my brain chemistry doesn’t permit prolonged commitments to self-improvement. (I tend to be highly motivated in three-week bursts, imposing strict dietary constraints on myself and adhering to an even more rigid gym attendance.) Maybe these are just more excuses, attempts to sidestep accepting full responsibility for my actions (or inactions). Until quite recently, I found myself coming up with all the predictable and stale responses to avoid working too hard, to avoid sweating too much, to avoid going too far out of my comfort zone. That shit requires energy… and fortitude and resilience and determination. Do I have any of those things?

As a result, I truly don’t know how far I can physically push myself before my meat carapace yields. I don’t know my true potential. After my doctor broke the news to me, entreating me to abandon my bacchanalian lifestyle before I reached the point of no return, I lapsed into a dreadful session of self-sabotaging thoughts. We all slip deep into the recesses of our consciousnesses to debate and fight ourselves and lament certain things we regret doing. Some of my thoughts are merciless salvos whose only victim is I; that’s how it was when I departed the doctor’s office. I focused on the imminent deterioration of my organs, the hardships I would have to endure, the complacency—and, frankly, the laziness—that had precipitated these circumstances.

And then I stopped.

My thoughts were betraying me, proceeding as though I had been defeated. The termites of self-destruction had dined long and well on my self-esteem. I was focusing on all the wrong things. During my most recent three-week burst (it was admittedly longer), my knee had sufficiently healed to make cardiovascular exercise a viable option. I have, at the behest of my friend, increased my walking speed and improved my times, noteworthy and tangible progress. (Isn’t that what we all want?) I even received an unsolicited compliment from a coworker who had noticed I was less voluminous. Some of my work had started to pay off!

More importantly, I realized my mind, despite its willingness to periodically drag me through cerebral hell, had developed a defense mechanism for pernicious trains of thought. Don’t worry, brain. Allow me to assist:

Fuck those self-sabotaging thoughts! And… those termites, too! 

I’m neither infirm nor in extremis (nor in close proximity to oblivion for that matter). I can reverse the abuse and damage done to my body. When I set out on the journey to improve my life, I acknowledged that setbacks were temporary. But I must be willing to accept the possibility of future injuries, of grueling workouts with overwhelming perspiration and excruciating diaphragmatic spasms as I gasp for air. I must visualize my goals and turn my words (and thoughts) into unstoppable determination. I have to do it, as I have been, for moi-même, to become the architect of my own fate. I’ve equipped myself with knowledge and I’ve approached myself—and the flaws requiring remediation—honestly. Now, more than ever, it’s time to act.

Quarantine Protocols and Civil Liberties

When mandatory isolation reeks of benevolent dictatorship.

As technology and globalized markets reach further into previously inaccessible regions, our world veritably shrinks and we risk exposure to exotic diseases. Sometimes, as is the case in recent years, the diseases of old return for an encore performance. I’m sure we all remember the recrudescence of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and the concomitant fearmongering by public health officials here in the United States; Thomas Frieden, then-director of the CDC, compared the Ebola outbreak to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. Yes! He seriously said that.

Foolish comments notwithstanding, let’s not be mistaken. Ebola—otherwise known as Ebola virus disease (EVD)—is extraordinarily deadly with, according to the World Health Organization, an average fatality rate of 50%. And Ebola isn’t the only wee-beastie out there. Indeed, many health agencies worldwide acknowledge a category of communicable diseases that don’t receive their due attention and thrive in tropical and subtropical climes—appropriately named neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)—causing considerable hardship to more than a billion people. That’s quite frightening, but as I adamantly maintain: fear is the one true contagion.

Many admirable healthcare workers and volunteers returned from relief efforts in West Africa only to be imprisoned in their homes for twenty-one days, the incubation period for EVD. This is a scandal.

I don’t know as many of my rights as I ought to and I suspect this is true for a lot of people, not just Americans. We are all familiar with legal buzzwords like “freedom of speech,” “human rights,” “due process,” “informed consent,” and “probable cause.” Law & Order—and recent publicized encounters by police with people of color—have been rather instructive. Nonetheless, our civic and legal ignorance can leave us in rather precarious situations which perpetuate negative attitudes towards the justice system, and the government generally.

Would we, when stopped by airport security or customs agents, know whether our rights were being violated? Whether we could be detained based on a list of ambiguous symptoms?

Continue reading “Quarantine Protocols and Civil Liberties”

The Language of Evidence

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Who needs evidence? What is evidence, anyway? What is it good for?

Let’s take it from the top.

What is Evidence?

We all know what evidence is. It’s that thing President Trump lacked when he claimed voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Or when he claimed China fabricated climate change.

Evidence, the noun, can be defined in the following ways:

As an aside, I find it rather unfortunate that I have to pay for use of the Oxford English Dictionary—a dictionary (and so much more) distinct from the Oxford Dictionaries. Fie on them for charging for such a treasure trove of English!

Who Needs Evidence?

Everyone!

Why is Evidence Important?

Before I begin: no. The previous section is not suspiciously terse. Everyone needs evidence whether they like it or not.

Human civilization depends on evidence for quite a number of things including philosophy, law, science, and technology. Without it, where would we be? Without evidence, we could expect defendants in a court of law to be convicted based on caprice or whimsy rather than by establishing guilt through facts, information, and argument. Many medical practices and treatments are wholly dependent on well-designed experiments and empirical data validating their efficacy; this field is known as evidence-based medicine. How apropos! The whole scientific enterprise is grounded in claims that can be verified or falsified through measurement, observation, experimentation, and the replicability of such experiments.

Continue reading “The Language of Evidence”

Science and Politics

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

In recent weeks, science and politics have intersected in some very dreadful ways. A growing number of government and political figures have shamelessly tried to thwart, distort, and undermine science. Alas, this is nothing new. Politicians have typically looked askance at scientific endeavors, often regarding space travel, evolution, vaccinations, climate science, and renewable energy resources with contempt. The Trump administration has brazenly—backdropped with deafening silence among Republicans—committed themselves to the despoliation of the environment and the extirpation of climate science from governmental websites, proving themselves inimical to scientific interests and concerns. And we can be sure more executive orders against science are forthcoming.

This is a fucking scandal.

It seems that the rift between politicians and the scientific community, especially in the aforementioned regard, has grown sufficiently large such that any attempt to bridge the divide appears impossible.

Or is it?

Science is grossly underrepresented in government, rather ironic in a country with various institutions dedicated to scientific and medical research. Although not completely absent from the political arena, the list of U.S. Senators with any kind of scientific competency—let alone anything resembling proper STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education—is so appallingly small that it’s worth listing them here. Behold:

  • John Boozman (R-Arkansas) – Doctor of Optometry
  • David Perdue  (R-Georgia) – Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Steve Daines (R-Montana) – Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
  • Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) – Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
  • John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) – Doctor of Medicine

Four doctors and three engineers.

With the exception of Rand Paul, I’m sure a majority of these names are foreign to us. The most prevalent degree among the other senators is a Juris Doctor. No surprise there. But it should be concerning, especially as the Trump administration makes aggressive moves to sabotage climate science. I admit I didn’t look at the House of Representatives; luckily, The Atlantic did a bit of that for me. There was a particle physicist elected to the House in 2014; at the time, “even with a very generous definition of scientists… roughly 4 percent [of Congress had] technical backgrounds.”

It’s a start, I guess.

Back in 2011, China—President Trump’s favorite country after Mexico—had an array of government officials with substantial scientific tutelage. (I’m sure Trump would be bigly disappointed at this fact and I speculate this may be why Trump has made foolish statements about climate change and China.) In 2012, approximately 30 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have science, medical, or technical backgrounds. The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry. The President of Singapore, Tony Tan, has a doctoral degree in Applied Mathematics, and his Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. Scientist-politicians indeed exist and we need more of them.

Science makes the world go round. We need science, technology, and medicine for pretty much everything. Therefore, we need more government officials who are scientifically literate should we hope to have any future whatsoever. Thankfully, 314 Action is a non-profit organization that aspires to rectify this shortage of the scientifically enlightened in the political sphere. Their mission:

  • Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;
  • Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;
  • Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

I’m all for this. We desperately need scientist-politicians to defend and endorse scientific pursuits and legislation. I daresay it’s the only way to guarantee future prosperity, whether socially, culturally, and economically. It will take more than open letters, opinion articles, and marches to combat this anti-scientific administration. Science has the evidence, now it just needs political will to make that evidence heard. This is the next step in science communication.