Sunday, November 29, 2015

Challenging A NYT Reporter On That Pesky "Gentle Loner" Language

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Hypocrisy of Burning Man

It's that time of year again. 70,000 people invade a fragile desert ecosystem - during a historic drought, no less - paying at minimum $400 a piece. That's not a typo; admission price has increased at 16 times the rate of inflation over the last 20 years. This doesn't include the price of travel, food, water and anything else you have to lug out to the desert.

There, people participate in an entirely for-profit corporate event and pretend to practice "radical inclusion" and "decommodification", all while failing to see the painful irony of excluding those who do not have the privilege to afford the price of admission and stay, nor the ten days off from real world responsibilities.

If Mark Twain were alive today, I am certain he would be verbally demolishing the Burning Man phenomenon with his trademark razor-sharp wit and acid-tongued critiques he reserved for the worst of hypocrites.

For what we have here is the very definition of hypocrisy. This is also the reason why Burning Man has become a sad joke among those out on the front lines of social change and social justice conflicts, in the real world.

Newsflash: You cannot change the world by pretending that the ever-worsening socio-cultural, economic and racial injustices in this country and on this planet don't exist. You are attending a very expensive, very elaborate, drug- and alcohol-fueled party in the desert, and you're privileged to do so. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. At least have the self-insight to admit all that. Drop the gag reflex-inducing Burning Man rhetoric about how special it all is and how anyone who criticizes the glaring contradictions of Burning Man culture doesn't get it. (Yeah, I know. Not gonna happen.)

I get it just fine. I don't begrudge anyone their ten days of sex, drugs, music, art and narcissism while rolling in alkaline desert sand; spend your vacation money any way you like.

But don't delude yourself into thinking you are better or more evolved than anyone else because of it. Attending Burning Man and conforming to its culture is anything but a radical act. It merely reflects the larger reality of life in America in 2015: The growing divide between rich and poor and the tenaciously destructive habit of the privileged to escape, ignore and erase the marginalized and non-privileged. 

In the span of one year, #BlackLivesMatter - in which anyone can participate for free from anywhere - has done orders of magnitude more to dismantle white supremacy in this country than Burning Man has done in its entire existence.

You can take that, Burners, and throw it on the ash pile of your privileged self-indulgence.

Friday, July 3, 2015

How I Confront Everyday Racism

Sunday, June 14, 2015


[Scroll to bottom for tl;dr]

[This is a no-spoiler review]

[Update August 27, 2015: Netflix has renewed Sense8 for a second season. Yay!]

I might not have noticed Sense8, had it not been for all those consistently terrible reviews the Hollywood establishment keeps churning out over the show. Collectively, mainstream Hollywood and "the critics" seem to be quivering with outrage over Sense8 like a hound dog trying to pass a peach pit (hat tip to Hunter S. Thompson for the metaphor).

On the surface, there isn't much outrage at all. Rather, a studied confusion and feigned indifference over the series, proclaimed a failure: Complicated, confusing, long-winded, structureless, tedious, impossible to follow. So studied and feigned, in fact, were those reviews that it made me wonder: What were these people watching that bored them to death... yet felt compelled to rip to shreds in the mainstream industry press? What bothered them so? I mean, aside from the above-mentioned confusion and tedium, which isn't exactly uncommon in Hollywood fare.

So I looked up the series info and happily discovered the greatest news I'd seen in film and TV in many years. Sense8's co-creator and co-writer is J. Michael Straczynski! I'm aware The Wachovskis get equal credit for Sense8, not to mention the entire cast and crew, as well as Netflix for backing the project.

And yet - if it weren't for JMS's credits popping up, I probably would not have watched it. Nor would I have gotten a Netflix membership just to check it out. (Congrats, btw, to Netflix. After all these years of resistance, you finally got me. And all it took was getting JMS on board to make an original series. See how easy that was?)

JMS is the creator and writer of my favorite sci-fi and TV show of all time: Babylon 5 (1993-1998). Sorry Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and all the other greats, I love you dearly, but in my universe, Babylon 5 is the one show to rule them all.

So "J. Michael Straczynski" was all I needed to know about Sense8 before I ran off to watch Season 1 (12 episodes). I read nothing else about the show and went with whatever storyline JMS had helped bring to life. AFAIK, this is JMS's first show (co)creator credit since B5, so I was in entertainment heaven. I spaced out watching the episodes on purpose, to savor and digest them. I'm currently on my second viewing.

What can I tell you about Sense8 that doesn't either result in spoilers or a 10,000-word long read?

The cast is delightfully diverse. Among them are a trans woman in San Francisco, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton. Her character's name is Nomi. JMS revealed on twitter that it is a word play on "know me". Nomi is joined by an African man surviving in the urban jungle that is Nairobi, a Korean woman leading multiple lives in Seoul, a female Indian pharmacist in Mumbai and a gay Mexican actor in Mexico City. Add to that a patrol cop in Chicago's Southside, an Icelandic woman with a tragic past and a male German diamond thief in Berlin and you have the eight characters whose lives intertwine, being woven into a tapestry of multiple, connected, simultaneous story arcs that also tell a larger tale. Through it all, alternative lifestyles are showcased without being framed in any way as unusual, such as a domestic triad and a madly-in-love trans/lesbian couple. Character development includes families and friends and the daily challenges people face in different parts of the world.

These 8 strangers scattered across the globe discover they are part of a cluster of sensates, who can see, be, and experience each others' lives. They can also interact to affect consensus reality in ways that non-sensates are completely unaware of. In the larger story they are being hunted by people who know who they are, for experimentation, and for extinction. The survival of the 8 depends on them discovering and learning to use their interconnectedness to stay a step ahead of their would-be captors. In this they appear to be aided by another sensate, played by Naveen Andrews from Lost (nice touch).

All the intercultural settings were filmed-on-fricking-location. That is one of the best parts of Sense8. It was shot using local cultural backdrops, habits, cues and social conventions for authenticity. I can personally certify that's true for the San Francisco, Chicago and Berlin locations. 

Sense8 portrays an authentic, global setting and keeps intact our planet's breath-taking human diversity. I have never seen anything like it on TV, and I can't think of anything quite like it on the big screen either. You will see stuff in Sense8 that you have never seen before on a TV or movie screen.

The score is original and performed by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of Europe's best, along with its choir. If you remember the grand score from Babylon 5 by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, you'll have an idea of the treat your ears are in for.

If you cannot identify at least five of the locations on Earth that are part of the opening sequence the first time you see it, you need to get out more. By that I mean "out of your country and culture".

I have no clue why people have trouble with keeping the story arcs straight, or why they think the plot is confusing and structureless. The story arcs are in fact, structured and interconnected in a completely novel way for TV. Netflix really made something awesome happen here, and I do hope they make a Season 2. But even if not, Sense8's existing 12 episodes tell a story that stands on its own, with an ending that leaves the door open for additional seasons.

Fun fact: Netflix is saying that Sense8 was illegally downloaded 500,000 times. There are mainstream TV shows that can only WISH they had that many people so interested in seeing their show that they'd go to the trouble of torrent downloading it.

Sense8 is full of quotable lines, another thing it has in common with B5. For example:

"Without the past, there'd be nothing to think about, let alone anyone to think it."

"Who can say if we make the choice or if the choice is what makes us?"

Last, but not least, be prepared for the fact that at some point, this show will get under your skin, grab you by the throat and bring you face to face with your own life in ways that may not be easy to deal with. For me, it was this line: "In the 80s, Gay Pride parades were funeral marches!" 

I've lived in West Hollywood since the 80s and the first friends I made in LA were gay men and trans women, ca. 1985. Through these friendships, I began to appreciate LA, its dangers, its diversity and its creative underbelly, often invisible, shaping cultural change. I enjoyed that for about three months before the specter of HIV threw a pall over everything. The sex-is-death decade was in full swing, as was stigmatization of HIV as a gay disease. Over the following years, I lost all of my original friends to HIV. Every single one. To this day, I feel that ache, that sense of loss, of people forever erased, when I bike ride around West Hollywood, in neighborhoods where my friends used to live. I have always railed against the silence and stigma around HIV, not to mention the fact that Ronald Reagan didn't publicly acknowledge its existence until more Americans had died from HIV than in the Vietnam War.

And then...JMS's Sense8 storyline not only acknowledges the existence of these funeral marches, but includes a beautiful performance art piece that commemorates the horrific times that was life in gay communities across the country in the 80s. I cried my eyes out over that scene. I am grateful to JMS for having brought it to life.

J. Michael Straczynski did it again. He created an epic serial that is smashing the boundaries of what we've come to expect from serials - and he did it without showing a single rape scene in 12 episodes. (Go home, GoT, you're done.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Article in Modern Ferret Magazine (1997)

In February 1997, Modern Ferret Magazine published my article on the history of ferrets in its 9th issue. I wrote the piece to examine and dispel several myths and to document factual information about the interaction between humans and members of the mustelid family, including the domesticated ferret, over the centuries.

Modern Ferret Magazine was a fantastic resource for ferret owners and, sadly, stopped publication in 2003. A website with more information about the magazine still exists at

I found a single copy of this issue while going through a closet full of books, journal articles and writings from college, grad school and my early career. I'd long ago lost the original manuscript in a hard drive crash and thought that with Modern Ferret Magazine's demise the article had been lost for good.

I've revived the article here in blog format and hope that the font size is readable. Apologies for the typos that slipped past the editing process.
Enjoy. Feedback, comments and questions welcome.

Below is Leonardo Da Vinci's painting "Lady with an ermine" (1489/90). The painting's permanent home is Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland. It is currently being displayed at Wawel Royal Castle while the museum is under renovation. Seeing the original painting is on my bucket list.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hey, Millennials! It's 2015: Your 15 Years of Fame Are Up! What Will You Do Next?

It's 2015 and it won't be long before Millennials will have to cede their crown to a new generation. The leading edge of the post-Millennial generation turns 15 this year. If someone doesn't coin a name for them quickly, they will define themselves, and that definition will be all about owning the 21st century. If you were 15, wouldn't you?

The only reason those born in the 21st century don't have a name yet is because English is really bad at describing the first decade of a century. What do you call that? The Pre-Teens? The Double-Oughts, as they did in the 20th century? How about something more modern, say, the Double Zeros, or slicker, 00s? Before you choose the latter, remember that 00 is used to designate bathrooms in Europe. Yeah, I got nothing, either. Nothing catchy, anyway. As a linguist, this shouldn't be a huge challenge for me. I'm sure other writers have arrived at this juncture and said "Yeah, I'm not going to throw THAT out there".

How did this generation-naming thing get started, anyway? Maybe there's some inspiration there.

As far as I can tell, it started with the Baby Boomers ("Wait? Not everything does?" - The Baby Boomers), the generation BORN between 1945 and 1960 (sometimes you'll see 1965). For several reasons that include post-war optimism and medical advances, the U.S. saw a huge spike in births post-1945. This effect propagated, with a slight delay, to other countries post-WWII. Born in late 1961, I'm at the trailing edge of the Boomer generation  and I remember one constant from my childhood: Everything was getting super-crowded. Starting school on time for everyone was getting to be a challenge for still struggling economies such as West Germany. There was a teacher's shortage, a classroom shortage, a textbook shortage. I wanted to start 1st grade at 5, which was possible, but had to wait until I turned 6, because too many others who were already 6 weren't in school yet.

This dramatic birth rate increase was an actual spike in the demographic charts and was thus named a baby boom before the Boomer concept ever existed. It was the sheer number of Boomers that earned them notice and a generational designation, one that every subsequent generation tried to imitate. Or at least people never stopped hanging labels on following generations, none of which has equaled or rivaled the Boomers in numbers. So I'm not sure why it was continued.

I suppose one reason is wanting to differentiate yourself from the Boomers and their numerical superiority. To emerge from the shadow of a numerically unequaled generation. Let's not forget advertising and marketing, who like their "target demographics" neatly defined and labeled. This is, in some ways, a doomed effort. With more and more Boomers entering retirement age each year, their numbers and expected unprecedented longevity ensure that Boomers will remain part of the demographic picture, a marketing and voting block to be reckoned with for decades to come.

So where does that leave the post-Millennials? I have a suggestion: Why not drop this whole thing of labeling yourself with a marketable and catchy name and instead embrace the 21st century?

And Millennials? You came in at some point after the whole GenX / GenY mess (does anyone even remember the difference?) - labels used for those born between roughly 1965 and 1985. Those labeled as "Millennials" today actually have birth dates in the twilight of the 1900s, yet are defined, curiously, as the generation who "came of age" at the millennium: those born between 1985 and 1999. 

First, that's not how the Boomers did it. They went by their birth dates, not some vague notion about "coming of age" during the 1960s. The "coming of age" label doesn't fit the very trailing births of the 1900s anyway: those who were young kids when the century turned, just like the Boomer label never truly fit me.

Second, whether it is true or not, the actual Millennials (born 2000 and after) will look at you as the previous generation trying to appropriate a designation that didn't belong to you yet. Or at least not as fully as it does to those born post-1999. The generation that will contest your Millennial crown is only now getting around to becoming aware of such things. And they will seize upon the one thing that is fully theirs and that of the generations to come: a birth date after 1999.

And with that, dear post-Millennials, you win the generational jackpot. The labels of the 20th century worked only because the definitions of where the boundaries fell remained somewhat vague, with ranges used more often than fixed points in time. There's nothing vague about defining post-Millennials, you are one if you were born 12:01 a.m. or later on Jan. 1, 2000. You don't need any other label than that to embrace your identity and your future. 

Yet generational identity isn't just about dates. Post-Millennials are the first generation to grow up experiencing social media and cell phones not as an emerging oddity, but a daily routine. Even those of us who are early adopters of emerging technologies can't lay claim to knowing what it's like learning to navigate social media or smart phone usage as we grew up. Today's parents are taking social media literacy seriously, and the most precocious teens are already rocking it, with the potential of reaching millions, and soon, billions of people through an online presence. If you were 15 today, and the entire world could be your potential audience, what would you do with that? 

Millennials grew up largely without social media or social media-literate parents (your parents probably thought social media were a fad) and the guidance needed to avoid pitfalls such as dangerous encounters, overexposure or divulging embarrassing and private information that will remain public for the rest of your life. One of the more interesting approaches I've seen to teaching responsible social media use is to create accounts for your kids, let them use or post to them while growing up, let them read with supervision, yet keep everything private, limited only to trusted family members until the kid turns 18, with the understanding that the kid will know the difference between responsible, productive social media use and irresponsible, dangerous uses by then. Millennials had to muddle through all that on their own.

So post-Millennials, the 21st century is all yours now. You will develop and acquire technologies as strange to my generation as TV would have been to my great-grandfather. You will change the world in ways that previous generations cannot predict. You refuse to follow the patterns of your predecessors. You don't seem to be a good future market segment for gas-powered cars, coffee, tobacco or anything involving throw-away wastefulness - staples of the 20th century. Marketing people don't know what to make of you, and I think you should keep it that way. 

Oh, and don't sweat the label thing. You don't have to invent one, because you already have one: a birth date of 20xx!

If there is one piece of advice I can give you from the tail end of the Boomer generation: Don't limit your real life or social media experiences to those in your own age and socio-cultural group; why would you? You have the whole world at your fingertips; all you need to do now is choose wisely how to interact with it.