I am writing this post because I want something on my blog to rank well for the phrase “weasel poop coffee”

November 9, 2013

Here were the first two things I was aware of when I woke up this morning:
1. A dream I’d just had about my friend Mike who, in an effort to drum up publicity for a project he’s working on, made a long-form travel documentary in which he visited, among others, Ted Nugent and Mavis Staples. I think it was supposed to divine the intuitive from non-intuitive stories like some Malcolm Gladwell book or something. It also seemed like a really expensive, if cool, way to garner publicity.
2. Weasel poop coffee exists and people drink it.

So, it’s been a weird morning.

20131109-075912.jpgFive-star hotels in Honk Kong, have – up until recently – served coffee from berries that have been eaten, partially digested then excreted by animals called civets, which resemble weasels. The coffee beans themselves are not fully digested by the civets, but their digestive juices apparently give the beans a “smooth, chocolatey, earth flavor” (I have seen Caddyshack and I am pretty sure that is not “chocolate” but OK.)

According to a New York Times story from 2010people have been drinking weasely-ass coffee for three years and I am just now finding this out?!?!?! – this coffee sells for several hundred dollars per pound because some people have too much money and the only way they can possibly spend it all is to drink weasel poop coffee. (Oh and apparently fake weasel poop coffee is a problem, too.)

These same hotels now say they will stop serving the coffee because of the cruel and inhumane way the animals are treated. Which, great. Let the civets run free, no longer to be trapped in cages, their poop harvested for literally shitty coffee. It is way easier to cite that as a reason than, say, making the residents of Hong Kong’s finest hotels squirm over income inequality.

Apparently, this is not the only animal whose poop is used to make coffee. Someone on Twitter made me aware of jacu bird coffee, which is harvested in roughly the same manner as the weasel poop coffee but in a more humane way because the animals are allowed to freely roam their South American farm, crapping away the day. “Imagine taking part in natures [sic] own selection process. Survival of the fittest, as Darwin would proclaim.” It seems to me if you are drinking coffee shat from an animal, you have already made your feelings on natural selection known and have deliberately chosen to take yourself out of the running. Somewhere there is an collective of individuals who have written “people who drink coffee pooped out of animals” on their list of the first ones to go during the revolution.

But hey, let me tell you about this idea I have for a certain type of gourmet corn…

Why does Alderman Fioretti want a Chicago City Council hearing on the CTA’s Ventra mess?

November 5, 2013

This morning, I made a snarky comment about the possibility of a Chicago City Council hearing on the CTA’s Ventra problems. One of the main proponents of this, Chicago progressive caucus member Alderman Bob Fioretti, responded and we had a brief discussion on his goals for the hearings.

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An endorsement: Putting to-do list items in your calendar

November 3, 2013

20131103-214644.jpgI love to-do lists. They keep my head organized and clear. Even better is the feeling of knocking completed to-do list items off your list.

Parenting and agency life lend themselves well to the making of lists, but not so much to the doing of those items unless they have a hard-and-fast deadline. In both cases, unexpected situations often arise and must be dealt with quickly, if not immediately. So those short and long-term goals often take a back seat. Parenting adds another layer to this which is anytime you get 30 minutes to yourself you’re really taken with the notion of doing nothing.

I’ve found the best way to make something a priority is to give it the distinction of a calendar entry.
Without a digital represenation of the activity during the day, it’s way too easy to put it off and think ‘I’ll make time for it somewhere else in the week.”

In my personal life, I’ve recently been trying to make more time for reading, writing, running and listening to new music. None of these has a real deadline. If I don’t run three times a week or listen to music at all, nobody cares. There are consequences (poor circulatory health and an underdeveloped knowledge of culture) but nothing falls down.

But when you see a calendar appointent that says you have to write a little on Tuesday night, not Monday night, because if you can see that if you stay up late writing on Monday you won’t be able to get up early for that scheduled run on Tuesday and listening to music should happen on your way to work on Monday mornings because everyone needs quality tunes before starting their work week…things start to create their own deadlines. And the way to enforce this is to actually write in in your calendar.

As a workplace tactic, I definitely recommend doing this for anything you have to get done on a certain day as well as any of those ephemeral tasks you should be doing but are easily pushed aside, like industry research or diving into analytics. Since other people will see your time marked as “busy” it ensures it won’t get pushed aside for a meeting. Plus, a standing hour of right brain thinking makes it easier to tackle left brain work.

There are productivity gurus who will tell you this is a terrible idea – I think there’s a portion of Getting Things Done that specifically says not to do this. But anytime I follow this rule, I get more done and feel more relaxed and in control. I even go so far as to use this tactic to remind myself to eat oatmeal three times a week. (My blood pressure isn’t going to reduce itself.)

Image via ironybelle

That time I inadvertently wrote the liner notes to Mavis Staples’s “Hope at the Hideout” album

November 2, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about 2008 lately and it occured to me I’ve never posted this.

Back on June 23rd, 2008, Mavis Staples made an appearance at The Hideout, one of Chicago’s best live music spaces. I was there as a fan but back when I was working at Time Out Chicago it wasn’t unusual for me to turn the personal into something professional. I went to the show with my friend Lindsey because, if memory serves, Erin was out of town for work (we were four months away from that first trip to Vermont).

I spent an inordinate amout of time in our home office the next morning, writing this review. I’ve never been a fast writer and I sweated this one hard because it was Mavis Freaking Staples and because there seemed a lot more going on that night than just a few songs. Pretty sure I ended up rolling into the office late because I was trying to get this one right. But I was pretty pleased with it. Still, I posted it and then kinda forgot about it.

A few weeks later, the publicist of her label emailed me and asked if it would be OK if they used the below review as the liner notes for a live album of that night’s performance called Hope at the Hideout. I didn’t have an actual bucket list but I remember the time a high school friend and I discussed how we’d love to write the liner notes of an album someday. So uh…yeah…Mavis Staples can definitely use my review…uh, thank you.

I asked her publicist to let me review it so I could make it better, seized with fear that once it was printed inside the label I’d discover some horrible error or typo. I’m sure the below could be improved but I stared dumbly at it for a while and thought “Well, if they liked it, it must be fine” then told her to go ahead. I think I’ve mostly avoided re-reading it in the past because I’m worried I’ll find something wrong with it. (Even now I’m just cutting-and-pasting it.) The album was released on Election Day 2008.

So if you buy Mavis Staples’s Hope at the Hideout, you’ll see the following in the liner notes with my name at the end. I don’t talk about it much because it seems like something I lucked into. Or I’ll wake up one morning and find out I was wrong and they used something Greg Kot wrote instead. (Even though I own the thing and can double-check it anytime I like.) But I’m posting it here as a reminder, to myself at least, that sweating things out is sometimes worth it.

Mavis Staples, Hope at the Hideout

There are few living musicians who can lay claim to being America’s conscience, even fewer who continue to make vital music. On Monday night at The Hideout, Mavis Staples proved she’s still capable of both. But far more than merely being capable, the 69-year-old Staples showed she can light a fire, agitate for change or re-energize the American songbook.

20131102-081021.jpgThough she never referenced it directly, it was impossible – even in an anachronistic setting like The Hideout – to experience Staples’s performance outside of the context of an election season in a country at war. Opening with “For What It’s Worth,” a song whose power – at least in Buffalo Springfield’s all-too-familiar version – has long since ebbed thanks to its ubiquity, Staples tapped into the song’s theme of absolute corrupted power, giving new resonance to lines like “Paranoia strikes deep…it starts when you’re always afraid.” Later in the night, she would sing of waiting for a letter from a long-away son or daughter (“Waiting For My Child”) or of letting her light shine in the streets or on the battlefield (“This Little Light of Mine”).

Staples commanded the stage with a dual mission: To record a live album (the bulk of her performance that night pulled from last year’s We’ll Never Turn Back, a collection of songs from the black civil rights movement) and, in her words, “to bring joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations…to last for at least the next six months.” Just enough to get us to Election Day.

Befitting the intimate space, Staples performed with only a three-piece band, and a trio of backup singers. The warm acoustics of the Hideout were the perfect setting for their Southern-fried soul and Staples’s voice moved with ease from the high notes of church-choir praise to a throaty growl of defiance. The deep, swampy bottom of the rhythm section perfectly complimented guitarist Rick Holmstrom’s no-wasted-notes style.

Though Staples has performed some of these songs countless times over 40-plus years – she introduced “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” as the first song her father “Pops” taught her to sing – she injected her set with a stunning immediacy, as these are both traditional songs, and stories of her life. Whether it’s the autobiographical lyrical touches she adds to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi” or the lunch counter standoff of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the politics of Mavis Staples are very personal indeed.

As for the happiness and inspiration she promised at the outset, Staples and her band delivered. A Monday night crowd of once-in-a-while concertgoers is a rough audience, and most of the assembled kept a hushed reverence as she sang, limiting their joyful noises to moments between songs. But by the end – with warm encouragement from her backup singers – she helped them find their voice in call-and-response and revival rhythms, bringing the night to a close with the hopeful promises of “On My Way” and “I’ll Take You There.”

Anger burns hot. So much so that if not properly directed, it burns up quickly, preventing movement, resulting in sadness or frustrated impotence. Hope, on the other hand, promises joy on the other side of the river, just over the mountain, a few more miles away. It is this country’s primary renewable resource and, as such, Staples’s show demonstrated why it is the only way to conquer fear and inspire change.

Set list:
For What It’s Worth
Eyes on the Prize
Down In Mississippi
Wade In The Water
Waiting For My Child
This Little Light of Mine
The Weight
Why Am I Treated So Bad?
March Up Freedom’s Highway
We Shall Not Be Moved
Turn Me Around
Encore:
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
On My Way
I’ll Take You There

Five years

October 25, 2013

Erin and I are in Vermont this weekend, celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary. We got married out here then and we’re staying at the same B&B we did then. A few things have changed but not much.

Yesterday we spent our afternoon in a bar/restaurant called Bentley’s, which five years ago was the first place we landed when we arrived and the last place we spent time at before leaving for the airport. As we sat there, we dug back into this Glamour.com article about how we were going to live-blog and “Twitter” our wedding. (We weren’t, really, but nevermind.)

Reading it five years later, it seems adorably quaint – both the tone of wonder and surprise and the idea that such a thing would be worth writing about at all. At the time, I suppose it was. Twitter was only a year and a half old and had yet to become the celeb-filled and influential communications tool it is today. And the extra spin that we were eloping but people could follow along as it happened – again, not really what we were doing – gave it a societal change element.

The biggest jolt the article – and our accompanying website – provides is how long ago it seems while feeling as if the time has flown by. For example, I barely remember what iMeem was but apparently we used it to build our wedding playlist. Also, we had enough time on our hands to build a playlist and write a bunch of pages for a whole other website. The jobs we had then are four jobs ago in both our cases. We were still living in a small apartment in Roscoe Village and there was just Glin, no Abigail yet.

Somehow though, it doesn’t feel as if that much time has passed and everything seems new still. I’m still ridiculously in love with Erin. She remains my greatest champion and between her and Abigail they are the people with whom I prefer to spend the most time.

Erin’s sleeping next to me as I write this (typed out on my iPhone because I can’t get the WiFi to work on my iPad for some reason so forgive me my typos). We found a new restaurant here that instantly became a favorite last night. In a few minutes, we’ll go down to breakfast and then later revisit the farm where we got married five years ago. This weekend will be like that: old favorites and new discoveries we didn’t have time for then because of all the wedding hijinx. Exactly how you’d like it to be.

20131025-085413.jpgWhen I got up from the table at Bentley’s to use the bathroom, I started to wander around and remember the circuitous route it takes to get there: around the bar, through the hallway, up the stairs, around the corner. I remembered it exactly. Five years ago and it was like no time had passed at all.

On our wedding site, I said this:

Without Erin, there is no story, you see. There is no “us.” There is no “rest of my life.”

I hope that feeling never goes away.

Happy anniversary, Erin.

A Silk Road to ruin: The Paper Machete – 10.05.13

October 23, 2013

I’ve said this before but one of the reasons I like performing at The Paper Machete is its hard-and-fast deadline and word count. The show starts at 3pm. If I’m going to make it to The Green Mill on time to read my piece, it needs to be written no later than 130pm. There’s no bargaining, no extension unless I want to piss off the good people who run it. And unless I want to disrupt the flow of the show, I can’t go on and on for thousands of words.

Deadlines and limits make you creative. They force you to go places or try things you might not otherwise to get to your goal.

If I had more time to work on this piece, I probably would have made the ending seem less depressing or inevitable. I’d have found a middle ground. But it was 130pm and I had hit my word count and I still ended up with a piece I was really happy with.

Whatever you think of the FBI, you have to admire its flair for marketing.

On October 1st, the FBI arrested and subsequently put a name to the man behind a website called Silk Road. Silk Road was a two year old website through which one could buy and sell drugs. An internationally-known marketplace where approximately 1.2 billion dollars were exchanged over its life. Before it was shut down, the site had a user base of 900 thousand and had earned its owner – a man known only as The Dread Pirate Roberts – approximately $80 million in commissions and a writeup in Forbes, the first two words of which referred to Roberts as “an entrepreneur.”

That’s a big deal. And naturally if you’re the FBI you’d want to make a big deal about something like this. Now, criminal investigations are complicated things. They’re a mix of tireless work over long hours and a lot of luck. You don’t always get to pick your shots.

So perhaps a signed complaint asking a judge for an arrest warrant just four days before a government shutdown – which would curtail the FBI’s ability to, say, post a press release on its website about the arrest is entirely coincidental.

It’s entirely possible that the timing of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s arrest had nothing to do with the conclusion two days prior of America’s most beloved series about a murderous drug kingpin who poisons children. (OK, to be fair, it was just the one.)

I’m just saying an organization that maintains a list of “America’s Most Wanted” and produces daily radio shows has a flair for the dramatic.

Purely as a matter of scale, the shutdown of Silk Road is interesting. But it’s also interesting because of the technology that powered it. Silk Road users maintained their anonymity through the use of two technologies: a piece of software called Tor which allows everyone from journalists to NGOs to, yes, criminals use the Internet without revealing their actual, physical locations. And all Silk Road transactions were conducted using something called Bitcoin, a purely digital currency that uses cryptography and a series of electronic ledgers to blah blah blah nerd talk sci-fi Star Wars magical unicorns of money.

As interesting as the technical aspects of this story are, you came here for a mix of current events and social commentary mixed with some showmanship and bitcoin is like the band that plays before the burlesque dancers so I’m just going to skip to the parts where the gloves start coming off.

So big drug marketplace shutdown and an interesting statement on somewhat obscure technical tools for conducting anonymous, often illicit activities. But who cares, right? Tor, bitcoin, pirates. It’s hard to take something seriously when it sounds like a game of Dungeons and Dragons. None of you are looking to create a billion dollar drug empire…OK, maybe that guy. Also, Chad The Bird. I mean, obviously.

At first blush, the real impact of the Silk Road story is that the era of the Internet as a haven for criminal anonymous activities is over, especially with the NSA listening in on every message just short of “Do you like me, Circle Yes or No.”

No, the real lesson here is “The mythical permanent record we were all warned about in grade school has finally become real and it’s the Internet.”

You see, the government figured out the Dread Pirate Roberts is actually a guy named Ross Ulbricht. According to Ars Technica’s report on the government’s criminal complaint, the first mention of Silk Road was made by a user on a website called Shroomery.org. This same user posted a comment in a Bitcoin forum back in 2011 asking for some help with the nascent digital currency. This user’s account had an email address attached to it: “rossulbricht at gmail dot com.” This same Gmail address was attached to a Google Plus account which listed some of his favorite videos, some of which were from a place called the Mises Institute, which is named after an economist whose theories the Dread Pirate Roberts frequently cited as the basis for the larger philosophical ideas behind Silk Road. Similar references to these economic theories were also found on a LinkedIn account registered to Ulbricht.

For someone who masterminded a small drug empire using an untraceable digital currency, Ulbricht didn’t exactly cover his tracks very well. You could rightly argue that if you’re going to start selling drugs on the Internet, you shouldn’t do it with the same email address your aunt sends all her “THE TRUTH ABOUT OBAMA’S MUSLIMNESS” emails to.

It’s a little hard to blame Ulbricht for this behavior. After all, he’s no different than anyone else who leaves bits of his or her interests and views in various corners of the Internet. We used to be able to think of our lives as different circles of friends and family but for most people, the dream of keeping our personal lives and our professional lives separate died in a Facebook argument about the President’s birth certificate between a significant other and an aunt we never see. You can leave a job, but your former co-workers will continue to follow you. And it’s a lot harder to get over that bad breakup when someone’s Instagram account is just clicks away.

And thanks to the current nature of the Internet’s cloud architecture it’s all tied into a central username or email address for sheer convenience if nothing else. Argue, if you like, that Ulbricht was an idiot and if you and Chad The Bird were going to start a criminal enterprise, you would at least go to the trouble of creating a second email address. But who gets on the Internet for the first time thinking they’re going to create a criminal enterprise? Or cheat on their girlfriend? Or need to lie to their boss about calling in sick that day?

The problem isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about your privacy, it’s that we think we can hide in the sheer volume of conversation happening online right now. The Internet’s ubiquity has made everything we do on it seem ephemeral. A phrase like “the Internet of things” and gear like FitBit or Google Glass means we have – in a relatively short amount of time – gone from thinking of it as worldwide network of blogs and websites – to something we can wear on our faces or wrists or clip to our belts. Because it’s everywhere there’s the sense that no one will see us if we jot down a few thoughts in a notebook we literally tuck into our pocket, only showing them to a few people we know. Conversations on Facebook, Twitter or in comments sections have now become so ubiquitous they’ve come to feel like little more than a conversation we’re having with a friend on the bus or the train. We lean over and chat conspiratorially with a friend, confident that the stranger seated in front of us can’t hear and so what if they can anyway? Our stop is up next and we’ll be gone.

So while the details of the time you sat at a bar in college and rambled on about some obscure economic theory is…long forgotten by the time your 401K breaks $500, there’s usually a trail when you do the same thing online. And someone with the time and motivation to look for it can find it.

I’m not sure what the end game looks like here. Either we’re all going to end up truer, more honest versions of ourselves or everyone is going to end up hiding their online selves behind Tor and Bitcoin and the Internet will become the least social version of social media ever.

Silence is a strategy sometimes

October 22, 2013
Napa Road

Thing I did this month: Ran through Napa Valley and took this picture

I swear this will not turn into a blog about my work.

This has been a month of work trips, live readings, volunteer projects and personal distractions. Hence, the neglect here. (Not counting the drafts of things that felt best left in that form.) In many ways it’s been a fulfilling month but when the glass is full, it’s sometimes best to stop pouring water into it before you make a mess.

When I get some spare time, I’ll post the essay I read at The Paper Machete earlier this month and the two-minute burst of goofiness from last week’s 20×2 Chicago (though I think I’ll wait until the video goes up for that one as it works better performed than merely read).

Until then, here’s a piece I co-wrote with fellow Cramer-Krasselt’er Jeana Anderson about five questions brands should consider before they make  ”newsjacking” a part of their social media plans, particularly on days when tragedy occurs. I can sum up the whole piece with this paragraph:

It’s unlikely your fans will get upset if you decide to “stay dark” for a day. If you post something anodyne, your commentary will probably get lost in the volume of conversation or you’ll risk earning a spot in the inevitable roundups of embarrassing brand posts. When in doubt, leave it out.

I’m a big believer in making a bigger impact with less content so it felt good to plant a flag here.