Cancer: that involuntary form of suicide

Breast cancer cells

Today I had lunch with a relative who is a few years younger than me. She is recovering from an emergency surgery brought on by ovarian cancer.

The cancer had gone undetected until it placed her life in immediate peril. One day she was working in the corporate headquarters of a bank. The next day she was undergoing an emergency hysterectomy. 

My relative is recovering nicely, but she will have to take chemotherapy treatments later this month, to make sure that the surgeons removed all of the cancer.

Cancer, as most readers will know, has a way of insidiously spreading. That’s why it’s a perfect metaphor for so many bad things that don’t stay in one place.

I’ve lost a number of loved ones to cancer: a grandmother, an uncle, a cousin, a cousin-in-law. 

I’m sure you’ve lost loved ones to cancer, too. Cancer is the leading cause of death on the planet—or so the Internet tells me. 

You are most vulnerable to cancer if you smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol, or were exposed to asbestos or other hazardous chemicals. Obesity is a factor in certain cancers (especially liver cancer). 

But cancer can strike anyone, at any time. Steve Jobs was fanatical about his health. Jobs subjected himself to ridiculous juice diets to cleanse his body of toxins. That didn’t protect him from the pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of fifty-six.

Youth is no bulwark against cancer, either—as it generally is for conditions like heart disease. Young people are diagnosed with cancer every day. 

I’ll never forget the courageous final battle of Lauren Hill, an Indiana college basketball player who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015. She was only nineteen. Lauren Hill was a lot more accepting of her fate, at such a young age, than I would have been in her position. She spent her final weeks raising money for cancer research, so that others might be saved. (She knew by that time that it was too late for her.)

Lauren Hill, if you’ve read about her, was truly a noble soul, one of the best examples of humanity that I’ve seen—especially among the Millennial generation.

Better than me, I will readily admit. 

There are many famous, otherwise healthy people who cancer took before their time: Patrick Swayze, Michael Landon, Vince Flynn….just to name a few.

Healthwise, cancer is the only thing that frightens me on a personal level. I have a resting pulse of sixty. I have a near-perfect diet. I work out every day. I’m never going to need a heart surgeon. 

I’m not worried about arteriosclerosis, either. It just isn’t going to happen, with my lifestyle. Not before the age of ninety. 

In my work as a writer, I don’t expose myself to many physical dangers. I don’t drive much. I don’t get into bar fights. I don’t do extreme sports. 

While I could die a violent death…I think the odds are against it. 

But I’m as vulnerable to cancer as anyone else. And there are so many forms of cancer, I can’t even begin to worry about all of them—let alone take measures to protect myself.

Not only is the reality of cancer terrifying, but so is the very idea of it

It is one thing to know that our bodies are vulnerable to various forms of violence…to germs, viruses, and other pathogens. It’s another thing to know that our bodies can turn against themselves—and us, in the process. (If you can’t trust your own body, then what, in this world, can you possibly trust?)

I was raised Roman Catholic; and I was taught that willful suicide is a sin. But what about involuntary suicide? Cancer is the body’s attempt to commit suicide for us, even if we want no part of the act. The body, being ungoverned any moral restraints, is free to commit one of the ultimate mortal sins.

That’s not a medical definition, of course; but it is an observable one. My loved ones who died of cancer—not one of them wanted to die. They were helpless and frustrated, as their bodies engaged in an aggressive process of self-destruction.

In his 2011 book on the subject, physician/author Siddhartha Mukherjee called cancer “the emperor of all maladies”. 

That’s not a very scientific description, either. But who can argue with it?

The importance of habits

I am enjoying Jame’s Clear’s book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

The election of 1896

I am enjoying Karl Rove’s The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.

I know that many readers would rather devour the latest book about Donald Trump, or–failing that–maybe something about World War II. (How many books have been published about World War II? I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess.)

The period between the Civil War and World War I is an often neglected era of American history, but much happened then, and there are parallels to our current time.

Then, as now, there were anxieties about immigration and the changing face of America. (Catholic immigration was the issue in the late 1800s.)

There were complex economic debates (tariffs, currency reform, and the burgeoning government surplus–yes, surplus.)

William McKinley, meanwhile, isn’t a president who lives vividly in our national consciousness, more than 100 years after his assassination. But he was a determined individual who weathered considerable personal challenges, including the deaths of two children, and the chronic illnesses of his wife, Ida. Rove’s book provides an in-depth character study of our 25th president, as well as a glimpse into his times.

I frankly did not expect Karl Rove to be an entertaining writer, but Rove has more than exceeded my expectations. His book about William McKinley is one of the best popular histories that I’ve come across in quite some time.

Digital sharecropping in the social media age

Digital sharecropping is a term coined by Nicholas Carr back in 2006, when he described how the owners of online platforms had convinced millions of people to create free content for them…which they could subsequently monetize:

What’s being concentrated, in other words, is not content but the economic value of content. MySpace, Facebook, and many other businesses have realized that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.

Nicholas Carr, 2006

When Nicholas Carr wrote the above paragraph, social media as we know it today was still in its infancy. The concept of digital sharecropping is worth examining in the context of 2019, now that social media has become the virtual cancer of the Internet. 

But before we delve into digital sharecropping, lets look at few exceptional situations, that look like digital sharecropping, but really aren’t.

Talking with your friends on Facebook

Like most of you, I have a personal Facebook account that I use to keep in touch with my old high school classmates and work colleagues. 

I write a fair amount of content in my personal Facebook page. I do not consider this digital sharecropping, because almost all of this content involves inside-group discussions that would have no meaning whatsoever to anyone who isn’t part of my various inner circles (school, work, family, etc.) 

Digital sharecropping involves content that you create for public consumption.

Writing for Wikipedia

Wikipedia, on the surface, is the purest example of digital sharecropping. Wikipedia contributors not only write for free, they write without any recognition or attribution whatsoever. 

Wikipedians aren’t in it for money or recognition, though. They are committed to the development of Wikipedia as a vast utopian project, and they don’t mind toiling away in anonymity. 

There seems to be an esprit de corps among Wikipedia contributors, which, quite frankly, I do not understand. (If I’m going to take the time to create content online, it’s going to be mine, with my name on it.) 

But they know what they’re getting into, and it apparently works for them. I suspect that Wikipedians are the kids who, in high school, eagerly volunteered to work on the class homecoming float.

Wikipedia, moreover, has no discernible revenue model. The head of whole thing, Jimmy Wales, has a net worth of about $1 million. 

Granted, this is a lot more money than many of Wikipedia’s worker-bee contributors have in the bank; but in comparative terms, it’s peanuts. Mark Zuckerberg has a net worth of $66 billion. Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter) has a cool $5.5 billion.

Whether or not an ersatz, mediocre online encyclopedia that clogs Google search results is the world-saving thing that Wikipedians believe it to be, Wikipedia clearly isn’t a nefarious money grab. The site seems to rely on an annual fund drive for voluntary donations, in fact.

(As the above paragraphs might suggest, I have some very mixed feelings about Wikipedia, but that’s another topic for another time.)

Follow the money

True digital sharecropping always involves money—usually ad revenues. In 2018, Twitter made $2.61 billion in ad revenue. Facebook made $16.6 billion serving ads during the same period. 

Once again: that’s billion—with a “b”.

It wasn’t so long ago that everyone who was motivated to write online aspired to have an independent blog that earned some money by serving Google Adsense ads…or maybe Amazon Associates link.  

That’s a tough way to get truly rich, but it’s not a bad formula for a respectable side income. During the 00s, I ran a website devoted to the study of the Japanese language. I didn’t get rich off the endeavor, but I did enjoy a monthly ad revenue in the high hundreds, sometimes low thousands, of dollars. 

Nowadays, anyone with a creative bent is flocking to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram (owned by Facebook). Writers are now telling each other that “blogging is a waste of time”. 

Creators no longer measure success by visits to their websites, but by their numbers of Twitter followers.

As Nicholas Carr pointed out back in 2006, creative types are motivated by attention, not money. The owners of the social media platforms grasp this—and are eager to exploit it.

We’ve all drunk the social media Kool-Aid, in other words.

How to use social media as a creator without digital sharecropping

Does this mean that the creator should avoid social media platforms completely?

Not necessarily. But as a writer (especially) you should never make a social media site the basis of your online platform. 

Think of each social media presence as an outpost or a method of outreach…nothing more. 

For example, I maintain a presence on Twitter.  About twice per day, I post links to new content at EdwardTrimnellBooks. 

I don’t have many Twitter followers; and I don’t get a huge amount of traffic from Twitter. But I also don’t put much time into it.

What I refuse to do is spend hours composing glib, 280-character tweets that will be relevant for a few hours, at best, on the Twitter platform. Nor do I invest much time arguing with anonymous Twitter profiles about politics (or whatever). 

For me, Twitter is good for posting links, and not much else. 

 

 

Facebook is not even good for that anymore. Approximately two years ago, Facebook began to reduce the organic reach of publishers. This means that even if someone has “liked” your page, they won’t see your posts.

Unless—of course—you purchase ads. Increasing ad sales was the whole point of reducing organic reach at Facebook. 

Facebook is now almost useless for anyone who is a creator—except as a paid ad platform. 

 

What about YouTube? Later this year, I plan to record some of my short fiction, convert the recordings into MP4 video files with graphics, and upload them to YouTube. This will be the basis of my YouTube presence.

The audio files will be the same ones I’ll be using for a future audiobook project.

And I’ll be directing everyone who views them back to EdwardTrimnellBooks.

 

 

There is one social media platform that I refuse to have anything to do with: Reddit

Reddit has a so-called “10 percent rule”:

“….a general rule of thumb is that 10% or less of your posting and conversation should link to your own content…” -the Reddit overlords 

 

What Reddit is saying, basically, is that you need not even think about aspiring to anything beyond digital sharecropper status if you use the site. Every bit of your effort must be applied toward increasing Reddit’s ad revenues. (Reddit’s ad revenues will top $100 million this year in the US market alone….There’s no question what the “10 percent rule” is really all about.)

 

*     *      *

Social media has its uses. It is great for keeping track of your personal contacts. I know people who have found new jobs and new business opportunities on LinkedIn. 

But creatives should not invest hours and hours churning out unique social media content that a corporate aggregator is going control—and ultimately profit from. 

When assessing your social media strategy as a creative entrepreneur, think outpost, not home

Your online home should a space you own—where you set the rules, and earn the profits. 

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have plenty of money already. Reddit, moreover, will get plenty of page views without you adhering to the site’s manipulative “10 percent rule”—and working for them as an unpaid intern. 

Peter Mayhew, R.I.P.

Peter Mayhew (1944 – 2019) passed away on April 30th

I didn’t know Mayhew, obviously, but I enjoyed his performances in multiple Star Wars movies.

I was among the first generation of kids to watch Star Wars when it was new. (I remember watching the very first Star Wars in the summer of 1977, at the age of nine, with my dad.)

Star Wars would not have been the same without Chewbacca, and therefore, without Peter Mayhew.

R.I.P.

‘In Harm’s Way’ and the maturation of Chinese filmmaking

We all know how the war in the Pacific ended. Early on, though, the Japanese seemed to have the clear advantage. In the spring of 1942, the United States desperately needed to even the score against its enemy in the East.

The score was partly evened in April 1942, with the so-called “Doolittle Raid”. Sixteen B-25 bombers, flying without fighter escort, were launched from the USS Hornet. They bombed military and industrial facilities in and around Tokyo. 

It was known from the outset that the planes could not return to their carrier. Fuel and distance might have been issues, but the more immediate problem was that a B-25 couldn’t land on the deck of the Hornet. 

The plan, therefore, was for the planes to continue on to China after their bombing mission was completed.

China was then the nominal ally of the United States, but much of the country was occupied by Japanese forces. The American flyers therefore had find their way to friendly troops while avoiding the Japanese. 

So this was a perilous plan, indeed.

In Harm’s Way (2017) is a film about one of those American flyers, who crash-lands in China’s Zhejiang province. He is rescued by a young Chinese widow and her daughter. The resulting story contains equal parts adventure and love story—a reliable formula, as stories go. 

I don’t know if In Harm’s Way is a true story, but that makes little difference for our purposes here. If the story is completely made-up, it certainly could have happened. And if the movie is based on actual events, we can assume a generous amount of dramatic embellishment took place.

In Harm’s Way was made by a Chinese production company. The director is Danish, and the actors are almost all Chinese and American. 

Emile Hirsh stars as the downed American flyer (known only as “Jack” in the movie). The Chinese actress Liu Yifei plays the young woman, Ying, who rescues him. 

Despite the international ensemble, In Harm’s Way is first and foremost a Chinese project. The movie premiered at the 2017 Shanghai International Film Festival. 

The movie has three alternate titles: The Hidden Soldier, The Chinese Widow, and (in Mandarin): 烽火芳菲.

Chinese filmmaking has made great strides in recent years. Chinese production values have come a long, long way since Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, was supervising hackneyed state propaganda films to celebrate proletarian values. In Harm’s Way has a strong script, and the plot moves along at a brisk pace. There were no boring parts, in other words. All the characters are more or less believable—though all the Japanese characters are unremittingly evil, this being a Chinese film about WWII.

Much of the movie (basically all of the flight scenes) relies heavily on CGI. The CGI here is not quite at the level of Game of Thrones, but it’s still pretty good. You know right away that you’re looking at CGI, but this doesn’t jolt you out of the story.

Since the Mandarin language is a longtime hobby of mine, I particularly enjoyed the long passages of (subtitled) Chinese dialogue. Although the story takes place in rural China, the Chinese used in the movie is standard speech (putonghua), rather than the dialect that you almost certainly would have heard in a rural location in China in 1942.

Speaking of language: Some of the best parts of the movie take place shortly after Ying gives Jack refuge in her little home, and the two are struggling to communicate without a common language. Although this isn’t the point of the movie, these scenes make a pretty good argument for learning foreign languages, or at least being open to learning them.

The movie concludes with a historical note about the fate of the Doolittle bombers. Many of them were rescued by Chinese partisans, and the Chinese rightly take credit for this. 

The closing credits of the movie also state that the Japanese executed 250,000 Chinese civilians in retaliation. With all due respect to the losses that the Chinese suffered during World War II, that number sounds rather on the high side. 

To be sure, the Japanese committed many atrocities in China during World War II. (The conduct of Japanese troops in Nanjing in 1937 even shocked the Nazis.) Nevertheless, there are often gaps between the casualties that the Chinese government reports, and those of third-party, scholarly estimates. 

I suspect that this is once such case. The execution of 250,000 people in response to a single incident would have been logistically daunting, if nothing else, under the conditions in China in 1942. Did the Japanese kill innocent Chinese civilians for helping the Doolittle raiders? Yes, they almost certainly did. But a quarter-million?

But once again, this is a Chinese-made movie about World War II. Although seventy-four years have passed since the end of the war, the Chinese are still very much aware of those events. 

If only they reflected as much on Mao’s depredations. (Mao’s portrait adorns Tiananmen Square.) Not to mention their own government’s massacre of two thousand civilians in Tiananmen Square a mere thirty years ago. 

China may no longer be as strictly Marxist as it once was, but the country’s art and culture are still subject to inviolable party orthodoxies. 

These orthodoxies are detectable in In Harm’s Way. But this is still a rather good movie.

Down with the lawn Nazis

A jury has just awarded a couple in California a $2.055 billion settlement—over herbicide. The couple claims that long-term exposure to Roundup, the popular weed killer, gave them cancer.

I can’t speak with authority regarding the science behind the couple’s claims, but I do have my suspicions. Round-up kills weeds with lethal efficiency, after all. Is a PhD in chemistry really required to conclude that a substance capable of extreme defoliation isn’t good for your DNA? Does anyone remember Agent Orange? 

I had cause to think about both Roundup and Agent Orange today, and the wonders and dangers of killing plants wholesale with chemistry. When I returned to my house this afternoon, the Trugreen man was just finishing up the latest application of chemicals on my lawn…for which I’ll be billed the tidy sum of $56.28.  

The Trugreen folks are always polite and friendly; but I suspect they are merchants of death. A summer lawn should smell of pollen and cut grass. But this afternoon my lawn smelled like the inside of a Monsanto factory. (Monsanto is the manufacturer of Roundup, by the way.) 

If left to my own devices, I would not employ the Trugreen people. Call me a radical; but while lots of people have gotten cancer from exposure to herbicides, no one has ever gotten cancer from a patch of dandelion or clover.

…Or “surface weeds” as the resident lawn Nazi at my Homeowners Association (HOA) calls them. On the staff of my HOA is at least one full-time employee who—so far as I can tell—does little during the summer months but drive around and look for “surface weeds”, overgrown bushes, or other infractions of lawn etiquette. 

If your lawn is not up to standard in my neighborhood, you’ll receive a written warning, with the threat of a $50 fine if the violation isn’t remedied within 14 days of the issuance of the letter. The letter (yes, I’ve received them in summers past), also contains fine print threatening legal action, if you don’t comply with the HOA’s sundry lawn edicts. 

Yes—legal action over clover. I’m not kidding. 

If your house is located at the end of a cul-de-sac, where you can hide from the lawn Nazis, count yourself as lucky. I’m not lucky. My house is one of the corner lots at the top of my street, literally the first house that the lawn Nazis see when they enter the subdivision.

Which is why I’ll soon be writing Trugreen another check for $56.28.

I’ll admit it: I’m afraid of the lawn Nazis. So I keep my head down, and control my surface weeds.

Things used to be different. During my childhood years in the 1970s (when Agent Orange was still a very recent memory, for some young men), your average suburban lawn had dandelions. 

So far as I can remember, nobody died as a result. People still managed to sell their houses, too. Neither civilization, nor the market for real estate, crashed as a result of a few surface weeds. Life went on. 

Now, of course, a lawn must look not like fescue or bluegrass, but like astroturf. If your lawn looks like something that actually grew from the dirt, without chemical assistance, then you’re probably in violation of you HOA’s bylaws.

Our “lawn obsession” doesn’t seem to benefit much of anyone—except the manufacturers of herbicide (oh, and Trugreen). 

But what about the downsides? 

First of all, we are all increasing our cancer risk by exposing ourselves to so many herbicides throughout the spring and summer—right outside our front doors. The herbicides don’t just linger in the air, either. They also seep down into the water table. 

So eventually, you end up drinking that stuff.

But at least you’ll have a nice lawn!

And then there are the environmental effects. Scientists have discovered that common weed killers are decimating our honeybees.

Once again, I can’t back this up with a scientific study of my own, but I do have an anecdotal observation: In my boyhood years, honeybees—like dandelions—were a part of summer. Both were everywhere. 

Nowadays, I hardly ever see a honeybee—and certainly not in our neighborhood. 

But why should the bees come around? We’ve killed all the clover and dandelions, after all. There’s no pollen for them here.

Why do we bother? So that we can all vie against each other in a chemical arms race, the objective of which is to see who can attain the most unnatural-looking lawn? Mostly we seem to do it to placate the lawn Nazis in our HOAs.

Speaking of HOAs: The Home Owners Association is an instrument of suburban tyranny that has spread its tentacles throughout the heartland in recent decades. In 1970, the HOA was almost as rare as the honeybee has become. As of 2016, though, more than 70 million Americans chafe under their yokes, and pay handsomely for the privilege. (I pay my HOA $300 per year to police my lawn, and my neighbors’ lawns.)

It’s time to overthrow the HOA. Who will join me in the revolution?

But this is really about what we do with our lawns—or don’t do. I’m not arguing that we allow the suburban lawn to turn into a primordial jungle. I have no problem with cutting the grass. Even our grandfathers did that. 

But what the heck is wrong with a “surface weed” or two, if they help the environment? And what if the alternative is inhaling chemicals all summer, and killing off the honeybees?

Down with the lawn Nazis, I say. Up with the perennial summertime dandelion. And up, up with the clover, too.

Is Joe Biden a predator?

By now you’ve almost certainly seen the Joe Biden videos: Biden rubbing the shoulders of young girls and playing with their hair, Biden executing what appears to be a boob-grab of Stephanie Carter (the wife of former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter).

This naturally leads to the question: Is Joe Biden a “predator”, as in: someone who would (or has) used his position to force unwilling women (or worse, girls) into overtly sexual situations?

Some of you may disagree with me, but my gut-feeling is: No, Joe Biden is not a predator. I believe that Joe Biden is a fundamentally good man. (And I’m a Republican.)

This doesn’t mean, however, that those grabby videos and photos won’t be problematic. It’s complicated, but we can state the following with reasonable certainty:

1.) Joe Biden came of age when the line regarding sexual harassment was drawn much less sharply than it has been in recent years. (I’m not as old as Joe Biden, but I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s. And yes, those eras were different.) 

Times have changed; but Biden has failed to change with them. 

 

 

2.) Joe Biden may have intended nothing more than grandfatherly affection when he was rubbing those little girls’ shoulders. But it just looks bad…creepy, even. 

A good rule of thumb is to always, always keep your hands off other people’s kids. Even if you don’t mean anything by it—even if you “like children” in a purely avuncular way—it’s a horrible idea, and it invites the worst kinds of accusations. Biden is certainly old enough to remember the McMartin preschool trial of the late 1980s. What was the man thinking?

 

 

3.) Despite several major personal tragedies (the premature deaths of his wife and son), Biden has spent most of his life in a position of privilege, and probably thought, in many situations, that rules of conduct that applied to others “didn’t apply to him”. (A lot of politicians feel that way.) 

 

4.) As an aspiring candidate for a political party that doesn’t like straight white males to begin with, Biden—as a straight white male—was already walking on thin ice.

The ice just got even thinner.

 

5.) Biden’s political opponents, on both the right and the left, are going to exploit those photos and video clips as the election season draws near. (And there are a lot of photos and video clips to exploit. The guy has been part of the Washington establishment since 1973.) 

Come January, images of Grabby Biden will be everywhere. 

We live in the era of “gotcha” politics. And Joe Biden just handed his political enemies a big gotcha. 

Whatever your feelings about the former VP, this is bad news for him, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

GINZA

銀座

the Ginza

The Ginza is a trendy shopping district near downtown Tokyo. There are many fashionable areas in the city (Roppongi, Shinjuku, etc.); but Ginza retains its unique cachet as the upscale among the upscale. 

Rents in the area are, of course, sky-high. (During Japan’s “bubble economy” of the late 1980s, I remember reading that a square mile of land in the Ginza was worth more than all the land in a handful of countries.)  Stores, nightclubs and restaurants in the area therefore charge high prices—in many cases the highest in the world.

Table of contents

‘Cuba Libre’ by Elmore Leonard

If you enjoyed the television series Justified, if you like westerns, then you owe it to yourself to check out Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard.

I am enjoying this book immensely. Lots of fun. As was the case with the FX series Justified (which was based on source material written by Leonard) there is some snark and black humor in Cuba Libre, but not so much that the tale becomes farcical, and the fictive spell is broken.