Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.
The recent hacking of the Twitter accounts of many prominent people including Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, and Mike Bloomberg highlighted how vulnerable all of us are when using social media. The hacking of your social media accounts can be leveraged by sophisticated criminals to make you a victim of identity theft or to steal your assets. However, there are simple steps you can take to avoid being hacked. Here are five best practices that we all should follow to protect ourselves.
1. Use Strong Passwords
Having a strong and unique password for each of your social media accounts can go a long way toward protecting your security. Unfortunately, too many people use the same password for all of their accounts. This makes you particularly vulnerable to being hacked because in the event of a data breach at one of your online accounts, the hackers now have the password for all of your accounts, which puts you in great jeopardy. (I’ll have Identity Theft for $500, Alex).
Consider using a password manager, which is an app you can use that will create complex passwords for each of your online accounts. All you have to do is remember the one password to your password manager. Some people are concerned that even a password manager can be hacked. While this has not occurred yet, it is a reasonable concern. A good way to generate your own complex passwords for each of your accounts that are easily remembered is to start with a base password, such as IDon’tLikePasswords. This is a good base password that has capital letters, small letters and a symbol. Now make it even stronger by adding a few symbols such as !!! to make your base password IDon’tLikePasswords!!!. This base password can easily be customized for each of your accounts with a few added letters. So, for instance, your Amazon password could be IDon’t LikePasswords!!!Ama. This is an easy way to create complex, unique and easy to remember passwords for each of your accounts.
2. Provide Fake Answers to Security Questions
A security question is an important element of protecting you from being hacked. Unfortunately, enterprising hackers have managed to change the passwords of their targeted victims by answering common security questions with information found through online searches. Often we are our own worst enemies when we provide too much information on social media that is available for a hacker to learn the name of your dog, for instance, or other information that might provide the answer to your security question. An easy solution to this problem is to provide a nonsensical answers. There is no legal requirement that you answer your security question honestly. Thus, the answer to the security question asking your mother’s maiden name can be “firetruck.” You will remember this because it is so silly and no hacker will be able to guess it.
2. Use Dual Factor Authentication
One of the best things you can do to protect yourself from being hacked is to use dual factor authentication on your accounts. With dual factor authentication , when you login to one of your accounts, an additional form of authentication is required. Most commonly, after you type in your password, a special one-time code is sent to your cell phone. You then must enter that code in order to access your account. Even if someone manages to steal your password, they will not be able to access your account. Actress Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud account containing nude photos of her was hacked when she unwittingly responded to a socially engineered email that appeared to come from Apple asking her to confirm her password. If she had used dual factor authentication, even if the hacker had her password, he would not have been able to access her account.
3. Beware of SIM Swapping
Some very sophisticated hackers have been able to defeat dual factor authentication by SIM swapping your phone number to the hacker’s phone. A Subscriber Identity Module, more commonly known as a SIM card, is an integrated circuit that stores information used to authenticate subscribers on mobile devices, such as cell phones. SIM cards can and are transferred between different devices, such as when you get a new phone. Hackers call your cell phone provider posing as you, answer a security question, and have your SIM card switched to their phone, enabling them to defeat dual factor authentication, because now the authentication code is going to their phone and not your phone. Fortunately, you can set up a PIN or password in order to access your mobile service provider account to protect yourself from SIM swapping. Particularly prudent people can even require that their SIM card only be changed in person.
4. Use Security Software and Install Security Updates Right Away
Make sure you have installed good security software on all of your devices and install the latest updates on your programs, applications, and computer and mobile device operating systems as soon as they become available. Note that even the most up-to-date security software will always be at least a month behind the latest strains of malware. This is why, even if you have the best security software, you should never click on links in emails or text messages unless you have absolutely confirmed they are legitimate. Clicking on links infected with malware sent through socially engineered phishing emails and text messages is the most common way that malware is installed.
Nothing you can do will absolutely guarantee that you will not have your social media accounts hacked, but following these five best practices will go a long way toward keeping you safe.
Featured image: (AngieYeoh / Shutterstock)
I don’t remember the final conversation I had with my father. Toward the end of his life, he was hard to understand on the phone, as years of substance abuse and failing health had garbled his voice. He’d call at inopportune times — from a rehab center or hospital on the Cape, or the home of a friend in Florida he had somehow charmed his way into — and I’d hurry to get off the phone. Sometimes I’d find myself annoyed by his attempts to reconnect and let the call go to voicemail. It had been more than 15 years since we’d had anything resembling a normal relationship, and more than 30 since he and my mother had. Even in my frustration, though, it was hard not to think of his looming existential deadline. I may never get the chance to talk to him again, I’d say to myself. I always did. Until, of course, I didn’t.
On good days, he’d tell me about his latest living situation, calling from a flip phone with a number that changed as frequently as a drug dealer’s. He’d ask about my writing and where I’d traveled to lately, seemingly in awe of all the opportunities I had that he didn’t; even approaching 40, I’d revert to the role of a young boy eager to make his father proud, despite having received plenty of love from my mother and stepdad. He’d lobby me to put in a good word with my sisters on his behalf, a message I would relay. Just call the old bastard back, I’d tell them. You’ll regret it someday if you don’t.
I do, however, remember the exact day and time of our final few text exchanges, because they’re still on my phone, where, for at least as long as the cloud exists and I stay current on my bill, they’ll live forever. There’s a photo I sent him from December 2015, just after I’d had a chance to interview Tom Brady. What Massachusetts dad wouldn’t want to see that? It kind of breaks my heart to read his reply again now: “im so proud of u my son i cant wait to show everyone tomorrow i cant express my joy dad go get the big fish son agAIN IM TO PROUD FOR WORDS LOVE YOU DAD.”
Reading other texts from around that time makes me laugh: “i feel like such lo gool o gohurrf horp,” he wrote. “,,ro jlpw up pi f.” I still have no idea what he was talking about. And then in February 2016, the last message I’d ever receive: “hello my son how you doing today i have been in the hospital for two weeks now but I’m getting better TALK TO you Soon love Dad.” Three months later, he died of sepsis.
Our devices are where we carry out the business of living our lives. … Should they also be where we lug around our memories of the deceased?
I was thinking about those texts during a family dinner at my mother’s, not long after my father’s death. Someone had asked about a wall of photos that functions as an ad hoc memorial to assorted ancestors on my mother’s and stepfather’s sides, all mustachioed, bonneted, and stoic. The Wall of the Dead, we joked. But it occurred to me that the pictures are different from my father’s text messages — as are the letters I have stashed away from my beloved grandmother, stuffed with newspaper clippings she thought I’d like and uncashed $5 checks for “pizza.” My wife just found one in which my grandmother tried to persuade her to get me to give up on writing and find a real job. Those artifacts are moments frozen in time, part of my distant past.
Our phones, on the other hand, are tools we live with every day. I could respond to my dead father’s final text right now, adding to the running conversation. Our devices are where we carry out the business of living our lives and are increasingly our primary means of communicating with the people in them. Should they also be where we lug around our memories of the deceased? More to the point, do the digital ghosts the dead leave behind make it harder to let them go at all? The idea that the dead can speak to us feels like something from a horror or sci-fi movie. Yet the reverse, talking to them from the here and now, whether through prayer, quiet reflection, or even speaking out loud — You’d love this, wouldn’t you, Ma? — doesn’t seem strange at all. Keeping our loved ones stored in our smartphones, often not deleting their contacts for a long time after they’re gone, has made this even easier to do. We ask our devices for directions home, to bring us food, to broadcast our entire selves to the world. Now they’re also boxes we carry around that store our conversations with ghosts.
Megan Summers, who works for Facebook in New York, is the perfect example. She told me she has voicemails from two deceased friends that she can’t listen to now, but she needs to know they’re with her just in case. “It’s almost as though I am saving them for the future,” she says. “They just really need to be in the world to me. If I lost them, I’d be devastated.”
Shortly before Selene Angier, a copywriter from Cambridge, lost her mother, she received a voice message of her mom singing “Happy Birthday.” It was before she knew how bad her mother’s cancer was, and now, years later, the song serves as a time capsule of happier days. Angier listens to the recording on her cell on her birthday every year. She’s even backed it up, just in case she loses the phone. “I cherish that voicemail, and a few other random ones I have not deleted yet, even the super-boring stuff like ‘I’m running late, be there soon!’” she says. “It’s a great comfort to still hear her voice, more so on the day she brought me into this world.”
When we spoke, Angier’s father was dying of cancer and she was preparing his digital memorial, saving everything. “On my birthday,” she says,“I asked him to leave me a voicemail singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, so I’d have his, too. He mistimed the recording, and all that’s there is ‘…to you!’ followed by a minute of silence.” He’s since passed away.
Lindsay Mace, an administrative assistant for adults with disabilities who lives in Kingston, lost a close friend in 2011 and saved his contact in her phone for four years. For the first year and a half, she regularly dialed the number, telling me that “the saddest part was calling and not hearing his voicemail anymore but a disconnected line. I left one message for him after he passed. I just wanted to hear his voice and get some reassurance he wasn’t really gone.” Calling was a means of staving off some of the more overwhelming emotions, she says, things she couldn’t deal with all at once. “I finally erased it because I felt it was time. Long after the number had been shut off. Sort of like, I don’t need this anymore. I feel like I know he’s still here.”
Texts and voicemails are just two of the ways in today’s digital world that we can stay connected to those who’ve passed away. But when it comes to online memories, cherished or not, they’re hardly the only ones.
By some estimates, 8,000 to 10,000 Facebook users die every day. What survives is a trove of digital footprints, including posts, messages, and pictures. So where does it all go? Turns out you can name a legacy contact, typically a close friend or family member, to manage your profile in the event of your death. Immediate family members can also select the option to memorialize the account, turning off certain features, such as birthday reminders, which many users report are exceptionally painful to see.
Gmail, meanwhile, has a tool called the Inactive Account Manager that lets you tell Google what to do with your account after you have stopped using it for a certain amount of time. Before the deadline, Google will reach out to see if you’re still there, checking your digital vital signs. If you don’t respond, it will contact your preselected trusted contacts with a message you’ve written. “Hey man I’m dead lol. Don’t look at my nudes, please,” or something to that effect. And Twitter has the option to remove the account of a deceased family member, but only if you submit official proof of death — not exactly a breezy ask when you’re grieving.
Which brings me to my next point: As technology advances, it promises to change the very nature of how we mourn our loved ones. A few years back in Wired, writer James Vlahos documented his final few months with his father, during which he tried to capture the idiosyncrasies of his dad’s voice and upload it into an artificial intelligence chat software he called the Dadbot. It was an attempt to effect a sort of immortality — a concept many are working on around the world, and one sure to be improved upon.
Still, it’s worth asking: How can we ever move on in this brave new digital era if the dead are never truly gone? Right now, we don’t know much about the impact of our devices on mourning. There just haven’t been many studies of it, says Elsa Ronningstam, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital. I suspect that when it is studied, we’ll find that phones have vastly complicated, and perhaps even forestalled, our ability to grieve in a natural fashion.
Our digital mourning isn’t nearly as separated from our everyday lives as the experience of visiting a graveyard or holding a physical letter or photo. Such a ritual “is an act that has space and takes its time,” Ronningstam says. “That has been part of our human lives for many, many years.” The ease with which we can access memories of lost loved ones on our phones or social media accounts, on the other hand, may end up trapping us in our grief.
“Say you’re in a romance, and the romance breaks up and you’ve got that person’s voice on your telephone,” says Donnah Canavan, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College. “I think to the extent that you use listening to the person’s voice to keep you connected to that relationship, it’s bad for you.”
Still, allowing yourself to remember is part of the mourning process, says Michael Grodin, a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine who works with trauma patients from around the world. “You can’t get rid of the memories, but you don’t want to constantly be in the moment.” In his estimation, there’s nothing abnormal or unhealthy about returning to digital artifacts; it’s no different from cherishing an old blanket or wearing a loved one’s T-shirt. It’s just a matter of monitoring the extent of it. “If it’s interfering with relationships, everyday functioning, your ability to work and carry on with life, then it’s worth seeking professional help,” Grodin says.
Even after all these interviews and the hours I’ve spent thinking about my father’s texts, it’s not entirely clear what they mean to me, or if they mean anything at all. Contending with the digital endpoint of a relationship with a person who was a constant and loving part of your life for a long time is a lot different from when it is a reminder of someone who was absent. I can no longer call my father on the phone, but that was true for most of my life anyway. Perhaps I should have done so more often. Perhaps he should have. Every text I have now is a glaring reminder that neither of us bothered to. I feel guilty about that. In part that’s because he had the foresight to die before my loving stepfather, hogging all of my good “my dad died” writing before the man who actually raised me could get the chance. I wonder if he was capable of thinking about any of this stuff in the last week or two he spent in a medically induced coma at the hospital as his children and exes reemerged to say goodbye one final time. It was like a dress rehearsal. We were talking to him, but he couldn’t talk back. I guess I’m doing the same thing now.
Although we still cannot speak directly to the dead, these days they can call back out to us. And what they say, whether in a voicemail, text, or tweet, is the most important message any of us will ever be able to convey: I was here. I am gone now, but I was here.
I just went back and looked at one of my last text messages to my father, sent shortly before he stopped responding. “Hi dad was planning on calling soon,” I wrote. “Glad to hear you’re well.” I wonder how long he saved that one from me? Probably right up until the end.
Luke O’Neil has written for Esquire, New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic and is the author of Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia (OR Books, 2019).
This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.
Weight loss scams are among the most common, and with good reason. Many people want to lose weight, and most of the scam products promise to do that for you easily without diet or exercise. The unfortunate truth is that there is no magic formula for fast and easy weight loss, but con artists continue to prey on people looking for that quick solution to their weight difficulties.
In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the State of Connecticut settled a case against the marketers of LeanSpa and refunded money to its victims. Now the FTC is making further refunds to people who lost money to them. LeanSpa promoted ineffective açaí berry and colon cleanse weight-loss products, falsely telling consumers that they could get free samples of these products if they paid a small shipping and handling cost. The truth is that the consumers were not only charged $79.95 for the “free” products, but also were billed monthly for additional products that were extremely difficult to cancel.
Weight loss scammers use a variety of methods to lure you into purchasing their worthless products. Many create websites that appear to feature articles from legitimate magazines or news organizations touting the miraculous weight loss products. Often they will use photos of celebrities and suggest that these celebrities endorse their products, which in many cases, they do not. Recently, a phony weight loss advertisement appeared on Instagram that contained photos of movie director Kevin Smith, who lost 60 pounds in the last year. The advertisement also contained Smith’s endorsement for the particular diet pills. However, while the before and after photos of Smith were real, having been taken from Smith’s own Instagram account, Smith took to Instagram to vehemently deny he had ever taken the diet pills or endorsed the product.
Even if a celebrity does endorse a product, it does not mean that it is effective. The FTC took legal action against former baseball great Steve Garvey for endorsing a weight loss product that was totally ineffective. Although a federal court ruled that Garvey did not knowingly misrepresent the effectiveness of the phony weight loss product, the fact remains that the product itself was worthless.
Many of the advertisements for phony weight loss products appear on social media. In June, Facebook changed its algorithm to reduce the distribution of phony weight loss products, although their efforts have not been totally effective.
As exemplified by the LeanSpa scam, many of the weight loss scam products are advertised as free trial offers. However, these free offers also ask for your credit card number, allegedly for identification purposes. The scammers then enroll the victim in monthly subscription programs that regularly charges their credit card. They also make it all but impossible to cancel the order or get a refund.
So how can you determine if a weight loss product is a scam or not? Here are the ten commandments of avoiding phony weight loss products.
- Be wary of any weight loss product that is sold exclusively either over the Internet or through mail-order advertisements.
- Don’t believe the claims of any weight loss product or program that promises that you can lose large amounts of weight quickly without dieting or exercise.
- No cream that you rub into your skin can help you lose substantial weight.
- Weight loss body wraps that purport to melt fat away don’t work. If you lose any weight, it is merely water loss. Once you rehydrate, you will gain back the lost weight.
- No product can block the absorption of fat or calories. There is no magic potion that will help you lose weight while still eating a high calorie diet.
- Spot reducing of hips, thighs or anywhere else is impossible.
- Seek advice from your doctor before starting any weight loss program or using any weight loss product.
- If a company touts scientific studies that support the miraculous claims they make for their product, you should check to see if there are any legitimate scientific studies that support their position.
- Be skeptical of celebrity endorsements. Often, as in the case of Kevin Smith, the celebrity didn’t endorse the product. Even if a celebrity endorses a product, it doesn’t mean the product is effective.
- Be particularly wary of weight loss products that claim to have a secret formula to drop weight without diet or exercise. There are no such secret formulas and if there were, they would not remain a secret for long.
Featured image: Shutterstock
The Internet’s weird. On one hand, we’re supposed to be very careful about our privacy and what we post online. On the other hand, every social media site expects us to post pictures of ourselves as our account avatars.
So what if you don’t want a bunch of pictures of yourself on the Internet because you’re concerned about privacy? Or what if, like me, you’re camera-shy and don’t like having your picture taken?
A standard solution is to let a picture of something else take your place — one of your pets, or a logo, or maybe a favorite flower. But you don’t have to skip out on representing yourself just because you don’t want to put up a picture. You can make an avatar.
What’s an Avatar?
An avatar is a visual representation of you. It can be serious, or cartoony, or funny, or whatever. There’s one avatar app called Bitmoji that lets you make a character and then do all kinds of poses and messages with it. We won’t be talking about that one in this article, because it’s for smartphones only. Instead we’ll be looking at Web-based applications — nine of them — that allow you to make a picture of yourself to use on social media. There are three non-silly ones, one mostly-non-silly one, and five pop culture / silly ones. Hey, it’s the Internet: we’re into cats pounding on pianos and pugs rolling down hills. You’ve got to make plenty of room for silly.
A note about image formats: most of the sites allow you to download your completed avatars as PNG files, which is a common image format file and should work on any social network. Some offer JPG, which is also fine. Don’t choose the SVG format unless you know what you’re doing.
Avatar Maker isn’t the most complicated or feature-packed site on this list, but it’s simple and quick. Start by specifying whether you want to build a male or female avatar, and you’ll get basic options for face, eyes, hair, and clothes, with some subcategories of options for things like glasses, eye shape, nose, eyebrows, etc. There’s also a selection of abstract backgrounds if you want something a little more snazzy than a solid color.
Once you’ve designed the avatar to your satisfaction, you can download it as a PNG image file in one of two sizes, or download it as an SVG file. I had some fun playing around with Avatar Maker’s “Random” function, which does just what it sounds like and generates avatars randomly. It helped me learn more about some of Avatar Maker’s functions.
Get Avataaars is even simpler than Avatar Maker in that it you don’t have to specify male or female before you start making your avatar. And that’s why I think this is the best choice for non-binary or genderfluid users: you have a lot of choices here. Want to have a Mia Wallace-style bangs-‘n’-bob with a moustache? No problem. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but the developers have done a pretty good job making this gender-neutral.
It’s simple to use, too; there’s a series of drop-down menus you use to specify each of your avatar’s features. Sometimes how the feature is described is a little confusing (there’s no “hair” option; instead there’s “top,” as in top-of-head) but as your choices are reflected instantly on the avatar it’s not difficult to figure out. You can download your images as PNG or SVG.
Generally social media avatars only show your face, or perhaps your head and shoulders. But maybe you want a full-length avatar? That’s where Character Creator comes in. Here you can choose a full-body male or female and then customize them with a clothing selection that’s all over the place (there are only a few styles of top for a female character, but you can have epaulets) and a bewildering array of facial expressions (most of which seem to reflect negative emotions).
There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize the default-athletic body style; you can’t be short or overweight, for example. I suspect users who are Patreon patrons of the site get far more options; regular site users can only download the resulting avatar in SVG format. This site is lots of fun to play with, but you may discover it doesn’t have enough options to generate an avatar you like.
Hexatar is like a middle ground between serious avatars and the funnier pop culture ones. If you want something that’s a little different and unusual, but you don’t want to go as far as making a manga or South Park version of yourself, this is a good choice.
The avatars here are more angular and hex-based than the first few choices, but there are still lots of options for building your character. There are tons of eyes, eyebrows, ears (you want square ears? Go for it) and even face shapes. Like Avatar Maker, you can also choose a different background.
Downloading your avatar from this site is a little confusing. On the menu bar all the way to the right is the download icon, but if you click it nothing will happen. You have to click on the download icon, then click on the “Download” text above it. When you do that Hexatar will generate a PNG image file for you to download.
Funny and Popular Culture Avatars
The first four avatar makers will create perfectly fine avatars for your social media (well, depending on how silly you get when using them). But if you’re not overly worried about looking “professional” online, you might have more fun with an avatar maker that draws its inspiration from popular culture.
Face Your Manga
Face Your Manga lets you create an avatar that looks like manga, a Japanese comic book style. Manga is popular the world over — for example, Face Your Manga originates from Italy! Be warned that this site uses Flash, and some browsers block Flash content by default. Once you’ve picked the gender of your avatar, you get tons of options for customizing it. And I mean tons. This avatar maker lets you add crow’s feet, or freckles, or a third eye in the middle of your forehead. If you don’t care for that you can add earrings, or piercings, or if you’ve really had a bad day you can make your avatar “flip the bird.”
Do you remember the Powerpuff Girls? It’s a cartoon series, launched in 1998, that aired on The Cartoon Network. (A series reboot was launched in 2016.) The show features the adventures of three young sisters as they use their super-powers to fight villains and make the city of Townsville safe. The art is very stylized, and that reflects in the avatar maker. The tool is not limited to girls — Powerpuff Yourself also allows for Powerpuff Boys, too (or maybe Powerpuff Dudes?). This is another avatar maker that genderfluid and non-binary folks might like.
The customization options for the avatar’s body are limited to hair (facial and top-of-head), eyes, mouth, and skin color, but there’s also a “Gear” option. There you can add clothing, glasses, shoes, and some accessories. Want your avatar to hold a taco and stand next to an admiring unicorn? No problem. Once you’ve finished your character, you take a little quiz to see what kind of Powerpuff you are, then you can download your avatar with or without a background.
Peanutize Me was launched in conjunction with the Peanuts Movie, which came out in 2015. It’s nice to see the tool has been kept up, as generations have followed the adventures of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and everybody in the gang. It’s even been updated — if you’re not interested in making a human avatar you can also Snoopytize yourself. (Because come on — if you were in the Peanuts universe, you’d want to be the coolest character. Right?)
For Snoopy you can choose small, medium, or large, but for the kids you pick boy or girl. Instead of a list of options the site walks you through step-by-step: the skin color, the hair, the eyes and eyebrows, etc. This is another site that gives you a full-body avatar instead of just a face. The customization options are a little limited, but I really like how the avatar looks when you’re done. The site also makes it really quick to download the avatar as a JPEG image or as wallpaper for your computer desktop’s background.
Is South Park really over 20 years old? Yes — it began airing in 1997 and about 300 episodes have been broadcast. The upside to that is that most people will recognize your avatar. The downside is … well, South Park isn’t universally popular and most people will recognize your avatar.
SP Studio is not an official South Park site, but is instead a tool created by someone who based the look on South Park. And it’s very South Park. You can customize the hat, clothing, face, eyes, hands, etc. With this site you can also add text to an avatar. There’s also an option to add something to your character’s hands, but note that the options include what appear to be alcohol and drugs.
The site can be a little confusing at times, but it makes really cute avatars. The site owner is also constantly adding new material to the site. His latest addition is a set of swimming wear for your avatar to wear during the summer months. Once you’ve finished creating your avatar, you can save it in one of three styles (note the copyright disclaimer, though).
Family Guy Yourself
Family Guy is just a little newer than South Park, first airing in 1999. If I had to choose a full-body avatar tool, it would be a close call between Family Guy Yourself and Peanutize Yourself. This would probably win because of its downloading options; more about that in a minute. This is another choose male / female setup, only you can choose from two body types: slim, or a bit overweight. There’s an average number of cartoony choices for your avatar: hair, eyes (glasses or no), shirts and pants, etc.
The avatars turn out pretty well, but what I really liked about this tool was set of the download options. You can download a full-body avatar, or just a head/shoulders image like most social media uses. And once you’ve made your choice, you can download a PNG file with one of five different background colors.
You might not feel comfortable putting your picture online, and that’s okay. With these avatar makers you’ve got plenty of different options to express yourself — seriously or not!
Featured image: Screenshot from avatar maker “Peanutize Me”
Have you been “sharenting?”
The common practice of releasing a torrent of photos, videos, and stories of your children on social media can be difficult to resist. After all, they mean so much to you. “What kind of cold-hearted cretin wouldn’t want to see my 13th post in a day of little Jaxon’s romp in the autumn leaves?” you may be asking yourself.
But, even if your “sharenting” is welcomed by others — like, say, hundreds of thousands of followers — you might be creating an unwanted digital footprint for your child that they can’t even consent to yet. This concern is particularly timely after mommy bloggers, like the one who wrote recently in The Washington Post, have expressed dismay at their growing children’s reactions to having intimate details of their lives documented online.
While you may not have the wide internet reach of an Instagram influencer or a famous blogger, there are plenty of other privacy and safety concerns to consider when posting about your kids. For many of us, social media sites have become the main channel for storing our memories, but is there a better way?
Change Up the Apps
If you really want to hang on to your Facebook, there are some privacy changes you can make to better secure your family’s digital life. Making private photo albums and posts is a way to limit the people who see your content. Of course, you can’t have absolute control over the content once it is released, but you can feel better, perhaps, about who is seeing your pictures and stories.
Another app, called Keepy, was originally developed for saving and sharing kids’ artwork. The platform has grown, however, and the app can now be used for keeping a collection of pictures, videos, and voiceovers to share with loved ones. Grandparents, aunts, and friends can even leave their own “voice message” style comments, and the whole gallery can be viewed from any device.
If you like the “story” video form that has taken over social media sites of late, then you might be interested in Steller, an app that lets you combine photos, videos, and text into digital flipbooks that tell your story. You can then share your flipbooks via texting, e-mail, or virtually any other form of online communication. Steller is used largely for travel and marketing stories, but the burgeoning social media platform offers an easy way to tell your family’s stories and share them however you like.
A few apps now make it possible — and simple — to print your pictures in the most exciting ways. With Postagram, you can mail a personalized postcard to just about anywhere in the world for $2 domestically and $3 internationally. Send a vacation greeting, holiday card, or just a casual “hello” with your own pictures and text without messing with postage stamps. The app Recently sends you a magazine each month featuring your own photos. For about the price of a Netflix subscription, you can turn your beautiful iPhone or Android snapshots into a glossy zine where your family is always the cover story.
Before Facebook and Instagram and even e-mail, there were still methods of saving family pictures and stories. People got creative, and they didn’t have to worry that their years of memories might disappear with the downfall of some app.
If you want to go old school with your archiving, spring for a vintage photo album like the offerings at MochiThings or Wayfair. Organizing and filling your albums could be a fun family activity, and you can display them prominently in your home where friends can peruse them at will. It may not give the immediate dopamine rush that you feel when those “likes” come rolling in on Facebook, but it could feel more lasting and special.
Another fun alternative to posting is to keep a memory jar somewhere handy in the house. Whenever a significant (or totally insignificant) memory is made, jot it down on a strip of paper and toss it in the jar. At the end of the year, you can read all of the experiences you had and put them somewhere safe.
For the long-winded among us, letter-writing can be an intimate proxy for blogging. A friend told me she writes regular letters to her toddler detailing the fun and troubles of the day. She plans to bundle them up and give them to him someday when he is able to read them. This could work on a weekly or even monthly basis. If you write daily letters to your tot, take into account the heavy lifting that will involve to gift it to them later, and consider paring them down occasionally.
What are your favorite ways to save memories, online or offline? Let us know in the comments.
Featured image: Shutterstock
We all go through a lot of painful times in our lives. We endure broken bones and root canals and tax audits and maybe even some particularly bad paper cuts. When I was a kid, I had such a bad earache one night that I had to go to the emergency room. (Oddly, the pain went away while I was sitting in the waiting room.)
But there are very few things in life as painful as watching people of a certain age who know nothing about technology talk about technology. That was the case this week when several senators and representatives questioned Mark Zuckerberg about the latest privacy scandal involving Facebook.
I’m not a fan of social media (you may have read about that in this column 2, 3, or 5,000 times), but it would have been better to get some questions from people who actually knew something about, well, social media. Sure, some of the questions were clever, some incisive, and some even focused on Facebook’s power, but too many questions showcased a lack of understanding of not only how Facebook works but how internet advertising works in general, especially if you love chocolate. Some of the people asking questions actually thought that FaceMash — a joke version of Facebook from when Zuckerberg was still in college — was still in business.
It’s not that a lot of the officials asking questions didn’t know how algorithms work or how cookies are stored on a browser. A lot of people don’t get that stuff. But if you’re holding two days of hearings questioning the CEO of a company that shared the data of 87 million of its customers, you would hope those people would know that when you “reboot,” it doesn’t mean you put your boots on again.
Mark Zuckerberg is now living out every young person's worst nightmare: trying to explain how tech stuff works to the nation's elderly
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) April 10, 2018
It was almost enough to make me feel bad for a multi-billionaire. Almost.
I have a problem with the Star Wars movies. I haven’t yet seen the most recent film, The Last Jedi, but I did see all of the films before it and something really bothers me.
(This is where I put a space and give you plenty of notice that SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
Han Solo dies in The Force Awakens. Now, this in itself isn’t a big deal, since heroes die in movies all the time, but it makes it hard to watch the first three in the series (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi). If you go back and watch them now, you see that when they succeed in their mission and Han and Princess Leia have a family, it doesn’t lead to peace and happiness in the universe. It leads to the birth of their son, who grows up to kill a bunch of people, lead a new war, and eventually kill his father Han Solo. That’s really an odd thing to have in the back of your mind as you watch everyone smiling and Ewoks dancing at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Anyway, here’s the trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story, the prequel that depicts the early adventures of Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich). It’s directed by Ron Howard and opens on May 25.
The world’s oldest military veteran (and probably the oldest person in the U.S.) just took a ride on a private jet.
Richard Overton of Texas served in the Army during World War II, and he recently received a free trip to visit the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He still lives in Austin, Texas, in the same home he built 70 years ago.
It’s really amazing to think that Overton was born in 1906. That’s the year of the great San Francisco earthquake, six years before the Titanic sank, and eight years before the start of World War I. Teddy Roosevelt was president.
Herman Wouk Deserves a Medal
It’s not 111, but 102 years old is pretty good, too. That’s the age of writer Herman Wouk, famous for the novels The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. He even wrote for comedian Fred Allen in the 1930s and ’40s! There’s a petition on the White House website to honor Wouk with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wouk turns 103 next month, so let’s get that medal for him now. He needs 100,000 signatures before the White House will consider it.
Friday the 13th
If you’re the superstitious type, you’re probably spending today avoiding black cats, ladders, and mirrors (you don’t want to chance breaking one). Maybe you’re so paranoid that you don’t even want to take any risks and you’re reading this on your laptop while curled up in bed.
You’ve probably wondered how Friday the 13th became Friday the 13th. If you’re really young, you might think it has to do with the gory film franchise (it doesn’t). Instead, it involves the Knights Templar, Judas Iscariot, and/or the number 13 itself.
If you do fear the day, you’ll be happy to know there’s a name for your fear: friggatriskaidekaphobia. That’s something you can tell people today. You can explain that you’re not crazy, because there’s actually a name for it.
RIP Susan Anspach, Cecil Taylor, Soon-Tek Oh, Chuck McCann, and Mitzi Shore
Susan Anspach was an actress who appeared in movies like Five Easy Pieces and Play It Again, Sam and TV shows like The Slap Maxwell Story and The Yellow Rose. She died last Monday at the age of 75.
Cecil Taylor was an acclaimed jazz pianist known for his innovative style. He died last Thursday at the age of 89.
Chuck McCann was a veteran comic and actor who had a really varied career, from roles in movies (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) and TV shows to classic, long-running TV commercials. He even originated the voice of Sonny, the “Cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs” bird. He died Sunday at the age of 83.
Mitzi Shore was the owner of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where many comics, including Robin Williams, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, and Roseanne Barr, got their start. She was the mother of Pauly Shore. She died Wednesday at the age of 87.
Quote of the Week
“We had to decide, do we go back into the lobby or into the elevator? Those are terrible options when what you’re looking for is a hospital.”
—Late Night host Seth Meyers, whose wife went into labor in the lobby of their apartment building last weekend
This Week in History
The Great Gatsby Published (April 10, 1925)
Apollo 13 Launched (April 11, 1970)
The seventh manned Apollo mission almost ended in tragedy when an accident occurred around hour 56. It was the basis for the 1995 Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 and the source of a famous quote that a lot of people get wrong.
This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Men Working (April 12, 1947)
My favorite detail of this Stevan Dohanos cover is that the guy hasn’t even finished painting the “Men Working” sign.
To me, spring food = boring food. In the winter we have enticing, filling comfort foods like pasta and chili and steak and soups. Spring means … salad?
But if we’re going to eat during the warmer months of the year — and the latest medical evidence suggests we should — let’s make sure they’re the best salads we can eat. Here’s a recipe for a classic Cobb Salad, which seems to have everything in it but chocolate and potato chips. Here’s a Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad, and our own Curtis Stone has a recipe for an Apple Salad. And here’s a list of edible flowers (yes, flowers) you can throw into your favorite salad. Dandelions are okay, but stay away from those azaleas.
Supposedly, if you eat a lot of salads, they’ll help you live longer. Maybe to 102 or even 111.
Next Week’s Holidays and Events
Taxes Due (April 17)
Spring is also tax time! You get two extra days to file this year because the 15th is a Sunday and the 16th is Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.
National High Five Day (April 19)
Maybe you can give yourself one when you finish doing your taxes.
This Is Us?
We live in a time when a kitchen appliance company has to join social media because a TV drama featured their product starting a fake fire. (By the way, This Is Us spoilers ahead.)
On a recent episode of the hit NBC drama, a kitchen towel caught fire because of a broken Crock-Pot, setting the home of beloved character Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) ablaze. As fans of the show know, Jack dies at some point (though no one knows how yet), and now not only are they upset by that, but they actually think their Crock-Pots are dangerous, so they’re throwing them away.
Let me repeat this: Because of a fictional fire on a TV show, people in real life are throwing away their Crock-Pots. Apparently, this is us now.
The company that makes Crock-Pots had to join Twitter (they weren’t on it until this happened) to tell people that the show is fictional and so was the fire. Dan Fogelman, the show’s creator, had to go on social media to say that not only is the show fictional, but the Crock-Pot in question was really old and broken.
There’s an old saying that any publicity is good publicity, though I don’t think Crock-Pot would agree in this case.
Two Minutes to Midnight
I know that sounds like the title of the latest straight-to-DVD action-thriller, but it’s actually a sign we’re closer to doomsday (Closer to Doomsday could be the sequel).
The atomic scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock, which isn’t a real clock and is apparently capitalized, have moved it to two minutes from midnight. The scientists take into account a lot of factors when deciding whether to move the hands farther away from (that’s good) or closer to (that’s bad) midnight, such as the current president’s decisions when it comes to dealing with other countries, the U.S. standing as a leader in the world, how the president and other world leaders deal with nuclear war and climate change, and how viewers react to a fictional fire on a TV show.
This is the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953, when President Truman announced the U.S. had developed the hydrogen bomb in the middle of the Cold War.
Nuts for Nutella
The French love Jerry Lewis, film noir, and … Nutella, apparently. For the past couple of weeks, the citizens of France have been rioting at supermarkets because Nutella has been on sale for up to 70 percent off. I don’t really get it, but here’s the footage.
It’s like Black Friday here in the U.S., only instead of people fighting over TVs and toasters, it’s hazelnut spread.
Where Did “Dilly Dilly” Come From?
I’m sure you’ve seen some of the current TV commercials for Bud Light that take place in an ancient kingdom of kings, queens, and magicians. The phrase from the ads — “Dilly Dilly!” — has become popular. It’s the “Where’s the Beef?” of the early 21st century. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it a couple of times this week. But where did it come from? Is it a real thing, or did the ad creators make it up?
The people at Anheuser-Busch say the phrase has no meaning; it’s just “nonsense and fun,” though the translation seems to be “go for it,” and it can be used as either a salute or a rallying cry.
However, the phrase sounded really familiar to me, and then I remembered the song “Lavender Blue.” I know the version by the band Marillion in the 1980s, but it has also been sung by people like Burl Ives, Dinah Shore, and Sammy Turner, and it was featured in the 2015 Cinderella movie.
Pay close attention to the lyrics.
RIP Mort Walker, Warren Miller, Marlene VerPlanck, Robert Dowdell, John Morris, and Louie Elias
Did you know that Mort Walker’s comic strip Beetle Bailey got its start in the Post in November 1948? The title character was originally named Spider, a slacker college student who thought about going into the Army. Walker died Saturday at the age of 94.
Warren Miller was a filmmaker best known for his films on skiing and other outdoor sports. He died last week at the age of 93.
Marlene VerPlanck was an acclaimed jazz singer who performed with many famous bands and musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Mel Torme. Her voice could also be heard in thousands of TV commercials over the years for companies such as Michelob (“Weekends were made for Michelob”), Nationwide (“Nationwide is on your side”) and Campbell’s Soup. She died January 14 at the age of 84.
Robert Dowdell was an actor best known for his role as Chip Morton on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He died last week at the age of 85.
This Week in History
Fire Kills Three at Cape Kennedy (January 27, 1967)
Three NASA astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — were to be the crew for Apollo 1, the first of many missions that would eventually land a man on the moon. They were killed by a fire on the launch pad, which started due to an electrical problem. Due to pressure in the cabin, they could not escape.
“We Are the World” Recorded (January 28, 1985)
Many of the top singers and musicians of the ’80s (and, for some reason, Dan Aykroyd) got together after the American Music Awards, left their egos at the door, and recorded the song to help fight the famine in Africa.
This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Forgot His Briefcase (February 2, 1957)
I should showcase Thornton Utz more often. He’s one of my favorite Post artists and has some great train/bus/car-centric covers, including this one in which a robe-clad wife rushes to get her husband’s briefcase to him before the train pulls away from the station.
New England vs. Philadelphia (Food, That Is)
Has there ever been a more American Super Bowl game than the Patriots vs. the Eagles? Maybe a Patriots/Cowboys matchup would be a close second. The Pats and Eagles met once before, in 2005, so this Sunday’s game is the rematch.
The game is also about food (beyond chips and dip, that is), and there’s always a battle between the two cities in that department, too. For New England fans, here are recipes for American Chop Suey, Clam Chowder, and the classic Boston Cream Pie. If you’re an Eagles fan, how about this authentic Philly Cheese Steak (yes, made with Cheez Whiz), some scrapple, and these Marble Brownies made with Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
The game starts just after 6 p.m. ET, but NBC’s pre-game starts, believe it or not, at noon. If you don’t like football, watch it for the commercials. If neither of those options strikes your fancy, there’s always the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet.
Next Week’s Holidays and Events
National Boy Scouts Day (February 8)
The Winter Olympics (February 8-25)
Bob Costas won’t be the host of NBC’s coverage this year, but Katie Couric is back at the network and taking his place. She’ll be joined by Mike Tirico for 27,000 hours of skiing, ice skating, luge, and other events. Okay, that time might be an exaggeration, but not by much.
By the way, even if you don’t go to the Olympics, you still have to watch out for scams.
At an Apple event in January 2010, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad:
“What this device does is extraordinary. … It is the best browsing experience you’ve ever had … way better than a laptop, way better than a smartphone. … It’s an incredible experience. … Phenomenal for mail. … It’s a dream to type on.”
For 90 minutes, Jobs explained why the iPad was the best way to look at photos, listen to music, take classes on iTunes U, browse Facebook, play games, and navigate thousands of apps. He believed everyone should own an iPad.
But he refused to let his kids use the device.
In late 2010, Jobs told New York Times journalist Nick Bilton that his children had never used the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Bilton discovered that other tech giants imposed similar restrictions. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.” His five children were never allowed to use screens in their bedrooms. Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, bought hundred of books for his two young sons but refused to give them an iPad. Walter Isaacson, who ate dinner with the Jobs family while researching his biography of Steve Jobs, told Bolton that “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.” It seemed as if the people producing tech products were following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.
This is unsettling. Why are the world’s greatest public technocrats also its greatest private technophobes? Can you imagine the outcry if religious leaders refused to let their children practice religion? Many experts both within and beyond the world of tech have shared similar perspectives with me. Several video game designers told me they avoided the notoriously addictive game World of Warcraft; an exercise addiction psychologist called fitness watches dangerous — “the dumbest things in the world” — and swore she’d never buy one; and the founder of an internet addiction clinic told me she avoids gadgets newer than three years old. Her favorite computer game is Myst, released in 1993 when computers were still too clunky to handle video graphics.
Greg Hochmuth, one of Instagram’s first software engineers, realized he was building an engine for addiction. “There’s always another hashtag to click on,” Hochmuth said. “Then it takes on its own life, like an organism, and people can become obsessive.” Instagram, like so many other social media platforms, is bottomless. Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. Users benefit from these apps and websites but also struggle to use them in moderation. According to Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist,” the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
These tech experts have good reason to be concerned. Working at the far edge of possibility, they discovered two things. First, that our understanding of addiction is too narrow. We tend to think of addiction as something inherent in certain people — those we label as addicts. The label implies that they’re different from the rest of humanity. They may rise above their addictions one day, but for now they belong to their own category. In truth, addiction is produced largely by environment and circumstance. These entrepreneurs know this. They recognize that the tools they promote — engineered to be irresistible — will ensnare users indiscriminately. There isn’t a bright line between addicts and the rest of us. We’re all one product or experience away from developing our own addictions.
Bilton’s tech experts also discovered that the environment and circumstance of the digital age are far more conducive to addiction than anything humans have experienced in our history. In the 1960s, we swam through waters with only a few hooks: cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs that were expensive and generally inaccessible. In the 2010s, those same waters are littered with hooks. There’s the Facebook hook. The Instagram hook. The porn hook. The email hook. The online shopping hook. And so on. The list is long — far longer than it’s ever been in human history, and we’re only just learning the power of these hooks.
Tech offers convenience, speed, and automation, but it also brings large costs. Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all. When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it’s hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes.
A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes, as does the reward of completing a World of Warcraft mission, or seeing one of your tweets shared by hundreds of Twitter users. The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of the experience it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun; in 2016, it’s addictive.
I spoke to several clinical psychologists who described the magnitude of the problem. “Every single person I work with has at least one behavioral addiction,” one psychologist told me. “I have patients who fit into every area: gambling, shopping, social media, email, and so on.” She described several patients, all with high-powered professional careers, earning six figures, but deeply hobbled by their addictions. “One woman has two master’s degrees and she’s a teacher. But she’s addicted to online shopping, and she’s managed to accumulate $80,000 in debt. She’s managed to hide her addiction from almost everyone she knows.” This compartmentalization was a common theme. “It’s very easy to hide behavioral addictions — much more so than for substance abuse. This makes them dangerous, because they go unnoticed for years.” A second patient, just as accomplished at work, “went through a horrible breakup, and then stalked her ex-boyfriend online for years. With Facebook, it’s far more difficult to make a clean break when relationships end.”
“The impact of social media has been huge,” a second psychologist told me. “Social media has completely shaped the brains of the younger people I work with. I could be five or ten minutes into a conversation with a young person about the argument they have had with their friend or girlfriend, when I remember to ask whether this happened by text, phone, on social media, or face-to-face. More often the answer is, ‘text or social media.’ Yet in their telling of the story, this isn’t apparent to me. It sounds like what I would consider a ‘real,’ face-to- face conversation. I always stop in my tracks and reflect. This person doesn’t differentiate various modes of communication the way I do … the result is a landscape filled with disconnection and addiction.”
Technology is not inherently bad. When my brother and I moved with my parents to Australia in 1988, we left our grandparents in South Africa. We spoke to them once a week on expensive landline calls and sent letters that arrived a week later.
When I moved to the United States in 2004, I emailed my parents and brother almost every day. We talked on the phone often, and waved to each other via webcam as often as we could. Technology shrank the distance between us.
Tech isn’t morally good or bad until it’s wielded by the corporations that fashion it for mass consumption. Apps and platforms can be designed to promote rich social connections, or, like cigarettes, they can be designed to addict. In many respects, substance addictions and behavioral addictions are very similar. They activate the same brain regions, and they’re fueled by some of the same basic human needs: social engagement and social support, mental stimulation, and a sense of effectiveness.
Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach, irresistible and un- predictable positive feedback, a sense of incremental progress and improvement, tasks that become slowly more difficult over time, unresolved tensions that demand resolution, and strong social connections. Despite their diversity, today’s behavioral addictions embody at least one of those six ingredients. Instagram is addictive, for example, because some photos attract many likes, while others fall short. Users chase the next big hit of likes by posting one photo after another, and return to the site regularly to support their friends. Gamers play certain games for days on end because they’re driven to complete missions and because they’ve formed strong social ties that bind them to other gamers.
So what are the solutions? How do we coexist with addictive experiences that play such a central role in our lives? Millions of recovering alcoholics manage to avoid bars altogether, but you can’t apply for a travel visa or a job without an email address. Hardly any modern jobs allow you to avoid using computers. Abstinence isn’t an option, but there are other alternatives. You can confine addictive experiences to one corner of your life while courting good habits that promote healthy behaviors. Meanwhile, once you understand how behavioral addictions work, you can mitigate their harm, or even harness them for good. The same principles that drive children to play games might drive them to learn at school, and the goals that drive people to exercise addictively might also drive them to save money for retirement.
Addictions are damaging because they crowd out other essential pursuits, from work and play to basic hygiene and social interaction. The good news is that our relationships with behavioral addiction aren’t fixed. There’s much we can do to restore the balance that existed before the age of smartphones, emails, wearable tech, social networking, and on-demand viewing. The key is to understand why behavioral addictions are so rampant, how they capitalize on human psychology, and how to defeat the addictions that hurt us and harness the ones that help us.
A decade ago, who could have imagined that Facebook would attract 1.5 billion users, many of whom say they wished they spent less time on the site? Or that millions of Instagram users would spend hours uploading and liking the 60 million new photos the app hosts every day? Or that more than 20 million people would count and monitor their every step with a small wrist-bound device?
These are remarkable statistics, but they represent an early waypoint on a long climb. Behavioral addiction is still in its infancy, and there’s a good chance we’re still at base camp, far below the peak. Truly immersive experiences, like virtual reality devices, have not yet gone mainstream. In 10 years, when all of us own a pair of virtual reality goggles, what’s to keep us tethered to the real world? If human relationships suffer in the face of smartphones and tablets, how are they going to withstand the tide of immersive virtual reality experiences?
We can’t abandon technology, nor should we. Some technological advances fuel behavioral addiction, but they are also miraculous and life enriching. And with careful engineering they don’t need to be addictive. It’s possible to create a product or experience that is indispensable but not addictive. Workplaces, for example, can shut down at six — and with them, work email accounts can be disabled between midnight and five the next morning. Games, like books with chapters, can be built with natural stopping points. Social media platforms can “demetricate,” removing the numerical feedback that makes them vehicles for damaging social comparison and chronic goal-setting. Children can be introduced to screens slowly and with supervision, rather than all at once. If app designers can coax people to spend more time and money on a smartphone game, perhaps policy experts can also encourage people to save more for retirement or donate to more charities.
Our attitude to addictive experiences is largely cultural, and if our culture makes space for work-free, game-free, screen-free downtime, we and our children will find it easier to resist the lure of behavioral addiction. In its place, we’ll communicate with one another directly rather than through devices, and the glow of these social bonds will leave us richer and happier than the glow of screens ever could.
Adam Alter has written for The New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, and WIRED, among other publications, and is author of The New York Times best-seller Drunk Tank Pink (Penguin, 2013).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before I was old enough to get a work permit, I delivered newspapers in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. You might say it was my first job in publishing. At the time, Philadelphia was a three-paper town: There was the Inquirer, the Bulletin, and the tabloid Daily News. Where I lived, we also had a local paper, the Norristown Times-Herald.
First, I delivered the evening Bulletin (its slogan: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin”) daily and Sundays. It was heavy with advertising, especially on a week leading up to a holiday, and I would pile the papers on a Radio Flyer wagon that I hauled up and down the streets like an undersized tugboat pulling a coal barge upriver. If the weather was especially rotten, my sainted mother would drive me around in the family station wagon. But I was usually on my own — come wind, rain, or snow. After two years humping the Bulletin, I jumped at the chance to deliver the much thinner Times-Herald. The route was smaller, there was no Sunday edition, and it actually paid better. I did that until I landed a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket.
Looking back, being a paperboy was a formative experience. I earned decent money for a 14-year-old; I learned how to sell subscriptions and keep payment records; I got to meet the neighbors (and their daughters). But above all, I got to see the funnies before anybody else. I would cut open the bundle, fish out a fresh copy, and settle back for some chuckles and thrills before heading out on my route.
It was then that I fell in love with comic strips in all their glorious variety — humor, adventure, romance, you name it. I had favorites — Peanuts, Prince Valiant, Pogo, The Phantom, Blondie, Li’l Abner — but I would also get caught up in the soap operas unspooling in the likes of Brenda Starr, Mary Worth, and Rex Morgan, M.D. Over the years, some old favorites faded away, as did the Philadelphia Bulletin, but inventive new strips like Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and Mutts arrived on the scene and took the comics in wonderful, sometimes challenging, directions.
Today, wherever I am, I still open the paper to the “funny pages” first thing to start my day with a smile. But I am in increasingly diminished company, as newspapers have consolidated or shut down across the country and readership has dropped dramatically. The numbers tell the tale: In 1960, there were 1,763 total daily newspapers (morning and evening) with a total circulation of 58,882,000; in 2014, there were 1,331 with a total circulation of 40,420,000. Meanwhile, average daily newspaper readers are now in their mid-50s and getting older. And reading the newspaper is not a habit with younger generations, who prefer to get their news online (ironically, often at newspaper websites) or via social media like Facebook or Twitter. Even some of my own contemporaries tell me that they don’t read the print newspaper. “Print, how quaint,” they sniff.
Despite such chattering, I believe we can say with assurance that print is definitely not dead and newspapers will endure, albeit as less of a fixture in daily life than in years past. But what do these demographic and digital changes bode for the comics, an indigenous American art form that has entertained hundreds of millions of readers — including me — since the turn of the 19th century?
I set out to ask some folks who would know.
If there’s such a thing as comics royalty, Brian Walker is it. His dad, Mort Walker, created Beetle Bailey in 1950 and is still penciling it at age 93. The perennially popular strip set in Camp Swampy and starring the goof-off private and his nemesis Sergeant Snorkel currently appears in 1,800 papers around the world. (Fact: Like many young artists in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Mort Walker contributed gag cartoons to The Saturday Evening Post before gaining fame with his comic strip. Beetle himself was named after Saturday Evening Post cartoon editor John Bailey.)
The younger Walker is also a historian, the author of The Comics: The Complete Collection (Abrams ComicArts), an indispensable and authoritative (and big!) survey of the strips and artists who have delighted readers from the 1890s to the 21st century, from The Yellow Kid and Little Nemo in Slumberland to Zits and Pearls Before Swine.
—UClick’s John Glynn
In The Comics, he makes a compelling case for the comics as a singular art form, writing, “Cultural elitists relegate comics to the status of ‘low art.’ Cartoon art should not be judged by the same criteria as fine art. Comics are a unique visual and narrative art form, and both elements should be considered when evaluating the work of an individual cartoonist. Comic creations are also the products of the culture within which they are produced. All these factors must be taken into account when developing an appreciation for cartoon art.”
Finally, he’s a cartoonist in his own right, collaborating since the early ’80s with his brother, Greg Walker, and other artists on Hi and Lois, which was created by Mort Walker and the late Dik Browne (Hägar the Horrible) in 1954 and appears in 1,000 papers today. (Fun fact: Hi and Lois Flagston are Beetle Bailey’s sister and brother-in-law.)
So, you take him seriously when he says, “I wouldn’t recommend newspaper cartooning to an aspiring artist — it’s not a growth industry.”
Indeed, with circulation declining and more and more readers getting their news online, print newspapers nationwide have been allotting less space to the funnies. That and canceling strips that don’t score well in reader polls. In a few instances, even the venerable Beetle Bailey has been dropped as struggling newspapers fold or cut costs by eliminating older, more established (and more expensive) strips. Meanwhile, Walker explains, the major syndicates that distribute comic strips are paying “next to no money” to new artists. “They’re practically giving away new strips,” he says.
At the same time, syndicates like Universal Uclick and King Features are putting their comics online for the enjoyment of the millions of fans who don’t read print newspapers or can’t get their favorite strips in their local paper. “The internet changed the game,” Walker says. “The syndicates were rather slow to jump on the web, thinking their newspaper clients would be upset. They’ve since gotten savvier about expanding their presence in social media with sites like GoComics.com and ComicsKingdom.com, blogs, and Facebook.”
Asked to put on his historian’s hat and name a Golden Age of comics, Walker points to the ’30s and an “explosion of creativity” that brought about such classics as Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, Popeye, Blondie, and Li’l Abner. The decade is also memorable, he says, for the rise of the adventure strip with its long-running story lines and danger-defying heroes (e.g., Terry and the Pirates and Mandrake the Magician) that delivered thrills by the panel-full over the years.
Walker then fast-forwards five decades to the emergence of the baby-boomer artists of the ’70s and ’80s who ushered in a “renaissance” of comics art. “The new generation was inspired by Charles Schulz’s multidimensional characters,” he says. Although children, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the rest of the Peanuts crew grappled with such adult, existential issues as loneliness, disappointment, failure, and loss. With the massive success of Peanuts, Schulz established that a cartoonist could examine the darker aspects of everyday life and still provoke a smile. For the Me-Generation cartoonists, this was a clarion call: What better life to examine than your own? And the time was right for a new approach. “Tastes had changed,” explains Walker. “Readers wanted to see themselves and their experiences in the strips. In the classic era, the artist was in the shadows, behind the scenes; the boomer artists were more autobiographical. When you read strips like Doonesbury, Cathy, Dilbert, and For Better or Worse, you were getting a glimpse into the lives of the artists.”
The new comics cadre also catered to the irreverent, anti-authoritarian spirit of the times with unconventional, envelope-pushing strips like the (sadly) short-lived The Far Side, Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes, this last chronicling the adventures of a wildly imaginative 6-year-old boy and his stuffed toy tiger. “If pressed to name the best comic strip of all times,” Walker says, “I’d have to say Calvin and Hobbes. It works on so many levels.” Indeed, aside from Peanuts, no modern strip has had such an influence and won such acclaim.
Hi and Lois, on the other hand, has been a quiet success for 62 years, as the immutable Flagstons navigate life in suburbia together. With its gentle life lessons and G-rated humor, Hi and Lois offers a sweet counterpoint to the snark and surreal antics of newer strips. “They’re a functional family in a dysfunctional world,” Walker says. “I get nice letters from mothers.”
In the Flagstons’ world, things change over time without really being that noticeable (with the exception of Chip aging into a teenager). “We now have computers, cellphones, flat-screen TVs, and things like that,” Walker explains, “but that’s just the background.”
The one thing sure to never change is the bond between the family members, which can be difficult to capture in a couple of panels. “It’s challenging to show love in a strip,” says Walker, who credits The Family Circus creator and friend Bil Keane with being an inspiration. “He gave me the courage to do things that are sweet and loving.”
But while the Flagston world may change incrementally, Hi and Lois itself has embraced the digital age. There is a Hi and Lois website (HiandLois.com), which attracts thousands of visitors a week with new strips, a weekly blog by Walker, and access to an archive of decades of vintage strips. And these days, the classics must maintain a presence on social media: both Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey have Facebook pages boasting more than 2,500 likes each.
In another telling sign of the times, Walker’s own comics-reading habits have changed. “I buy the Sunday paper,” he reports, “but for daily comics, I go online to the syndicate sites where I can keep up on strips that never run in my local paper.”
Asked about the condition of the newspaper comic strip today, King Features Syndicate Editor Brendan Burford paraphrases Mark Twain’s famous line: The report of its death was greatly exaggerated.
Yes, he acknowledges, print has been in decline, but “there’s no reason to think because there’s a contraction in newspapers that people are going to stop reading and enjoying comics. Overall, our business has been stable.”
Launched in 1915 by legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst, King Features is the second-largest comics syndicate after Universal Uclick. It currently syndicates 62 comic strips to newspapers worldwide and maintains an extensive archive of vintage strips on its website, ComicsKingdom.com. The King Features roster runs the funnies gamut: from boomer faves Mutts and Baby Blues to such old-school stalwarts as Mary Worth and Mark Trail — along with some of the biggest titles in the business. “The number of comic strips we license to more than a thousand clients — strips like Dennis the Menace, Hägar the Horrible, Family Circus, Beetle Bailey — is remarkable,” Burford says. “That’s rare air.”
Still, growth is hard to come by, especially in newspapers, where King Features is competing for space with other syndicates. “Our newspaper clients want something fresh,” says Burford, who has seen tastes change in his 15 years at the syndicate. Adventure comics are on the wane, as readers get their escapist satisfaction in comic books, television, and movies. “People now want to see themselves and their friends,” he says, echoing Brian Walker. “They want a reminder that life has levity.” To prove the point, he cites the enormous popularity of Zits, which features the foibles and fantasies of teenager Jeremy Duncan — and the reactions of his often perplexed parents. “It’s a reflection of today’s family.”
To find that “something fresh” for his clients, Burford sifts through “thousands of submissions” from would-be syndicated cartoonists every year. Sadly, of those few that show promise, he says, “I can only run with one or two” in today’s tight market — which can be frustrating for a syndicator. “I wish we could represent all the talent we like.”
As for the 62 active strips it does represent, King Features has assembled the whole batch, along with a library of vintage comics, on the web at ComicsKingdom.com. For fans of the funnies, this is liberating stuff. No longer get Crankshaft or Judge Parker in your local paper? You can catch up with them online. Or browse past installments of classics like Krazy Kat, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Popeye. Even better, you can subscribe to the site and have your favorite strips emailed to you daily.
Over at rival syndicate Universal Uclick, President and Editorial Director John Glynn remembers being told in 2000 that there “wouldn’t be newspapers by 2010.” Nearly seven years past that deadline, the largest independent syndicate in the world represents more than 80 active comic strips in approximately 2,000 papers worldwide, including such legendary strips as Garfield, Doonesbury, Peanuts, and Dilbert — all of which appear in thousands of newspapers around the world — plus offbeat hits like Pearls Before Swine, Foxtrot, and Get Fuzzy. “Newspapers will be here, one way or another,” says Glynn, “and it wouldn’t be a newspaper without comics.”
Universal Uclick also runs a website, GoComics.com, where funnies fans can browse day-of-publication installments of Universal Uclick’s active strips, plus an archive of such classics as Peanuts, For Better or For Worse, Dick Tracy, and Alley Oop. One of the beauties of the web, he says, is “there is no limitation to the real estate.” Which makes it possible for them to distribute some 400 strips digitally. (In a bit of irony, they syndicate comics to newspaper sites looking to improve on their limited print offerings. “They can carry as many as 40 to 60 strips online with us,” Glynn says.)
At the same time, comics lovers are visiting GoComics.com in impressive numbers. Like King Features’ ComicsKingdom.com, GoComics.com offers free and paid membership subscriptions with email delivery and various other perks, depending on which you select. At last count, according to Glynn, the site had approximately 44,000 subscribers — and a whopping billion page views last year. On social media, too, GoComics.com has tapped into an enthusiastic audience, amassing nearly 180,000 likes on Facebook. That ain’t peanuts, folks. That’s a potent digital affirmation of the enduring popularity of comics.
In Glynn’s view of the future, “newspapers will hang on” while the funnies will continue to find new markets. “We’ll deliver comics to wherever people are reading them,” he says, “be it newspapers, desktops, tablets, or smartphones. I’m a big believer in the medium,” Glynn says, “I think of them as ‘snackables’ that brighten the day.”
Glynn might have had Pickles in mind. The award-winning, G-rated, gag-a-day strip that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015 is a welcome tonic in trying times. A former graphic designer turned cartoonist, Pickles creator Brian Crane takes a sweetly wry look at the lives of 70-something retirees Earl and Opal Pickles and their family and pets. Married 50 years, Earl and Opal have learned to (sometimes grudgingly) accept each other’s quirks as they grow old together, while imparting their accumulated wisdom and humor to the younger generations.
Looking back, Crane considers himself lucky to be where he is today. “I was a long shot to get syndicated,” he says. “You’d get better odds at a racetrack.” Nevertheless, the 40-year-old novice had encouragement on the homefront — “my wife kept pushing me to submit my work” — and after only three rejections, he was a syndicated cartoonist, right in the midst of what was allegedly an imploding market for newspaper comics. “That’s what they told me in 1990, and papers have gone out of business on me,” he says. “But I’ve weathered the storm pretty well. I’m almost always on top of reader polls, and I’m closing in on 1,000 papers.”
Not surprisingly, the Pickles readership skews older — but not exclusively. “When I speak at events,” Crane says, “there’s a lot of gray hair in the audience, but I do well with younger folks in reader polls.” How to account for the strip’s multigenerational appeal? “I’ve heard it from folks a thousand times,” says Crane. “They tell me, ‘You must have a microphone hidden in our home!’” It doesn’t hurt that Crane maintains a strong digital presence. Pickles is carried online by GoComics.com/Pickles and ArcaMax.com, where it is enjoyed by tens of thousands of fans. And the Official Pickles Comic Page on Facebook — which posts the daily strip, past favorites, videos, reader comments, and personal shares — had amassed more than 34,000 likes at last count.
Crane’s hero is Charles Schulz, whose approach to Peanuts and life Crane admires. “He was humble and kind,” he says. “He never went the easy route, never coasted.”
It’s an ideal that Crane tries to follow in a hyper-competitive business. “I can’t rest on my laurels,” he says. “My daily challenge is to be funny today. I keep trying to surprise myself, looking to find things in my own life that spark ideas.” He doesn’t have to look all that far: With seven children and 11 grandchildren of his own, Crane literally inhabits the world of doting — and occasionally dotty — grandparents Earl and Opal Pickles.
There has always been an underlying purpose to Pickles, Crane says, which is “to point out that being older is a good time to be alive; to laugh at the foibles of growing old.” And, today, 26 years after breaking into the comics business, he wouldn’t change a thing about his own life: “From my myopic point of view, it’s a nice situation for me. I write something that makes me happy.”
Like Brian Crane, Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis ditched a paying career to follow his dream. Unhappy with practicing law in the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-’90s, he decided “I have to do something else” and began cartooning. Pastis studied Dilbert to learn how to write a three-panel strip. In a bold step, he approached Charles Schulz himself at a Northern California skating rink coffee shop and asked for advice. (Schulz was gracious and helpful.) He also recruited Darby Conley of Get Fuzzy fame for input on coloring the artwork. After submitting various strips “five or six times” to syndicates, he clicked with Pearls Before Swine, which debuted online in 2000 in a test by United Features Syndicate, and then in newspapers on December 31, 2001. In 2002, he quit his day job and became a full-time cartoonist.
Today, Pearls Before Swine is carried by 750 papers worldwide and growing. The strip (gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine) chronicles the exploits of Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra, and a crew of delightfully dimwitted Crocs who speak with a mysterious, unidentifiable accent. Regular targets of his snarky humor include vegans, bikers, other strips (e.g., Cathy, The Family Circus), and sometimes even Pastis himself. Often controversial for its adult humor and eagerness to test the boundaries of propriety (is that a swear word I see?), Pearls Before Swine has nevertheless won the National Cartoonists Society’s Best Newspaper Comic Strip award three times and been nominated eight times for the Reuben Award, the society’s highest honor. “You’re not artistic or creative if you’re not pushing the boundaries,” he says.
Part of the secret is being true to himself. “If you write honestly, your body of work reveals who you are,” he says. “If you’ve read the strip faithfully for 15 years, you know me as well as my relatives.”
It’s a successful approach that no longer relies on newspapers alone. Cartoonists today need to diversify and self-promote relentlessly. “To be famous these days, you have to be famous in a number of piles — newspapers, books, music, cable, social media,” Pastis says. “Everybody is hustling harder, even a superstar like Bruce Springsteen has to do a lot more promotion than he did in the ’70s.” There are 18 Pearls Before Swine collections and eight treasuries, plus merchandise (T-shirts, mugs, plush animals, etc.), and Timmy Failure, a best-selling series of chapter books aimed at middle schoolers. The Stephan Pastis Facebook page has upwards of 154,000 likes as this article goes to press. “It’s a revolution,” he declares. “The winners will adapt. With the internet, you now have the ability to address people directly and react to events quicker. I have more fans in Mumbai than in any other city in the world.”
Of course, all the marketing and promotion in the world won’t sell your work if it doesn’t strike a nerve. A sociologist might say the secret to the success of Pearls Before Swine lies in Pastis’ ability to tap into the current snarky zeitgeist using angry Rat, naive Pig, bookish Goat, even the inarticulate Crocs, as his stand-ins. The artist himself makes no such claim, suggesting instead, “It’s sheer, dumb luck it worked.”
I’m sure Rat would disagree.
As a lifetime fan of the funny pages, I’m gratified that many of the great ones continue to thrive. As Brian Walker writes in The Comics, this particular art form has endured because the funnies have timeless appeal. “Their daily appearances make them familiar to millions. Their triumphs make them heroic. Their struggles make them seem human. Cartoonists create friends for readers. Pogo, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dilbert are part of a great cultural legacy that is being further enriched every day. The final panel has yet to be drawn.”
What Letterman Said About Colbert
This week’s stupid internet controversy involves David Letterman and Stephen Colbert. When a preview of Letterman’s talk on Dateline with Tom Brokaw (which was postponed to last Sunday because of the shootings in Orlando) made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, social media and the web in general FREAKED OUT because Letterman supposedly said some bad things about Colbert. CBS shouldn’t have given him the show! They should have given the show to a woman!
You know what happened next, right? We found out that, actually, Letterman didn’t say anything bad about Colbert or “blast” him, as many outlets reported. He simply stated that he wondered why CBS didn’t give the show to a woman (more an observation than “they made a mistake” opinion) and that he didn’t watch late night television anymore and it’s no longer his problem. The “controversial” lines in question lasted for a total of less than 20 seconds, but hey, at least it gave people on social media and pop culture blogs something to have a “hot take” about.
Here’s a snippet from the interview (and here’s the entire episode):
Monopoly: The Musical Coming To Broadway
This could be a complete disaster or the most bizarre, brilliant thing ever seen on stage.
The Broadway production company Araca Group is putting together a musical based on the classic board game Monopoly. It’s still a few years away, so for now we’re just going to have to do with the board game.
You know what’s going to happen. Every actor in the production is going to want to be the car.
Could be great, could be terrible, but it will certainly be interesting. They’re aren’t many Broadway shows that can say they’re brought to you by Hasbro. I can’t wait for songs like “Pass Go (And Collect $200),” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “The Secret Marvin Gardens,” and “I’m Just a Thimble.”
RIP Anton Yelchin
There’s a theory online that 2016 has been a horrible year for celebrity deaths. I think every year seems to be that type of year when you go down the list of famous people who have passed away, but I’ll admit that 2016 does seem to stand out.
Anton Yelchin, a really talented actor, passed away this week when his SUV somehow pinned him against a security fence at his Studio City, California, home. The death has been ruled an accident. He was 27.
His most famous role was as Anton Chekov in the big-screen Star Trek movies. The third in the series, Star Trek Beyond, will open on July 22. Yelchin also starred in several movies including Alpha Dog, House of D, Hearts in Atlantis, Fright Night, Terminator Salvation, as well as TV shows like Huff, ER, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Practice. Here are messages from JJ Abrams and Star Trek star Zachary Quinto:
— Bad Robot (@bad_robot) June 19, 2016
our dear friend. our comrade. our anton. one of the most open and intellectually curious people… https://t.co/zgTxXmyrbD
— Zachary Quinto (@ZacharyQuinto) June 19, 2016
Yelchin’s 2015 Grand Cherokee Jeep was actually recalled because of roll-away concerns.
We had a strawberry moon this week. No, it’s not the name of a dessert or a new rock band – though it could be and probably is — it’s the name we give to the full moon in June, around strawberry harvest season:
This one was unique because it was the first time in 49 years that it happened on the same day as the summer solstice. That won’t happen again until 2062.
Remembering Pay Phones
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been at the supermarket, just minding my own business shopping, when I’ll see someone talking really loudly on their phone. They’ll be arguing with someone or talking about a boyfriend they broke up with or about some medical problem they have. I also see a lot of husbands talking to their wives, making sure they get the right product the wife asked for. When I hear these conversations, my first thought is “I wish phone booths still existed.”
Ian Frazier misses them — or, pay phones in general — too. In a 2000 essay that’s included in his new collection, Hogs Wild, Frazier writes about how they gave us a cultural commonality, and how “they belonged to anybody who had a couple of coins.” Now most of them have gone away because we carry phones with us all the time. And even the ones that still exist aren’t the “booth” type, so there’s no privacy anymore.
But maybe they’re coming back, in a way. Some restaurants and office buildings are starting to put them in again. And New York City is starting to turn some booths into Wi-Fi hotspots. I think there’s an argument to be made that because everyone has their own phone now, phone booths are needed more than ever. And let’s keep pay phones around too for the people that don’t use smart phones, even if the number of those people are vanishing faster than pay phones are.
Starbucks Being Sued
Does Starbucks underfill their lattes? That’s the basis of a lawsuit against the chain brought by two California customers. The plaintiffs say that the company changed their recipe in 2009 and they now use less milk, which makes the drinks 25 percent smaller, which makes them overpriced.
Starbucks tried to get the suit dismissed but a judge disagreed, saying it could go forward.
I always have the opposite problem at Starbucks or the cafe at Barnes and Noble. They always fill the cups up too much, with excessive amounts of ice, and it overflows when I try to put the straw through the hole. I hate when that happens.
This Twinkie is 40 Years Old
In 1976, a high school teacher in Maine unwrapped a Twinkie. He ate one and kept the other under glass so his students could see how long it lasted. Here’s what it looks like today:
— CNET (@CNET) June 21, 2016
That’s odd and fascinating, and I guess we could look at it two ways. We could say, “My God, if it’s still around, what is in those things? Maybe we shouldn’t even be eating them!” Or maybe we should be eating more of them, if it can stay around, intact for over 40 years. Forget daily vitamins or Ensure, just eat a Twinkie a day.
The Twinkie is now owned by one of the teacher’s students, who is the dean of students at the very same school. She has it in her office.
The “Internet of Everything” Has Gone Too Far
This is how people used to shop for Twinkies and other groceries: You’d open up your fridge and cupboards, see what you needed, and you wrote it down. Or maybe you just went to the store and bought what you needed without a list. Now, apparently, if you have to figure out what you need, you take out your smartphone:
Yup, that’s right. Instead of just remembering what you need or taking a guess or having your wife — who is standing right next to the fridge balling a melon — check to see, you push a few buttons and an app shows you what’s in your fridge. Thanks, Samsung! How did we ever get by without this?
I can’t wait until the day I can open an app on my phone and see if I have clean socks or not. Don’t laugh. That day is coming.
National Chocolate Pudding Day
It’s this Sunday. Here’s a recipe for the ultimate chocolate pudding from Betty Crocker. Here’s one from The New York Times using dark chocolate. Or, if you want something a little healthier, how about this recipe for chocolate almond pudding?
Throw some chopped up Twinkies in there and tell us how it tastes. Just make sure you check the expiration date first.
Upcoming Events and Anniversaries
The Berlin Airlift (June 25, 1948)
The crisis, which involved Soviet troops blocking Allied access to parts of the German city, lasted for almost a year, ending on May 12, 1949.
Wimbledon starts (June 27)
The grass court tennis tournament is one of the very few things I like about summer.
Jayne Mansfield dies (June 29, 1967)
The actress died in a car accident along with two others in Mississippi. Her children, including Law and Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay, were in the car but survived.
26th Amendment ratified (July 1, 1971)
The constitutional amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
RIP Ann Guilbert, Janet Waldo, and Michu Meszaros
You’ll know Ann Morgan Guilbert from her role as Millie Helper, neighbor to Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She also played Grandma Yetta (under a lot of makeup) on The Nanny, and appeared on such shows as Seinfeld, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Home Improvement, Cheers, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Murder, She Wrote, and many others. She recently appeared on episodes of Life in Pieces and Getting On. She appeared on stage many times, and had a critically acclaimed role in the 2007 film Please Give.
Guilbert passed away from cancer on Tuesday at the age of 87.
When you make a list of the greatest cartoon voices of all time, Janet Waldo would be near the top. She not only did the voice of Judy Jetson on the classic ’60s show The Jetsons (and its ’80s version as well), she was Josie on Josie and the Pussycats. You also heard her voice on The Flintstones, The Smurfs, Battle of the Planets, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, King of the Hill, and many other shows and movies.
Besides doing voice work, Waldo was an actress who appeared on such shows as I Love Lucy, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and The Andy Griffith Show, as well as dozens of movies in the ’30s and ’40s.
Waldo passed away last Sunday at the age of 96.
Waldo was involved in a controversy in 1990. She recorded the voice of Judy Jetson for the big-screen Jetsons movie, but producers wanted to have someone younger and, I guess, “hipper” in the movie, so they re-recorded those scenes with pop star Tiffany. Waldo wasn’t happy about it.
Michu Meszaros played ALF on the 1980s NBC sitcom of the same name. Now, you’re probably thinking, wasn’t ALF a puppet? Ninety-nine percent of the time he was, but if a scene called for the alien lifeform to walk, that was Meszaros in the suit. He also made appearances in Big Top Peewee and other movies and TV shows.
Meszaros died at the age of 76 after being in a coma for about a week.
On Wednesday Night, My Worst Fears Were Realized
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that To Tell The Truth was coming back to television on ABC, with Anthony Anderson as host. Well, it premiered this week, and it’s approximately 70 times worse than I thought it was going to be.
While the core of the game remains — celebrities having to guess which one of three contestants is telling the truth — everything else is completely messed up. Everything is really loud, every other joke is sexual, and there’s a live band for some reason (it adds nothing). Even the questioning from the celebrities is different and nonsensical. In previous versions of the show, each person would get a certain amount of time to question the contestants, and then they’d move on to the next person. This new version is more of a free-for-all. Questions are asked randomly, with no order or logic, and sometimes questions aren’t asked at all, only comments are made. At one point, they even changed the later game by using the two imposters from the previous game in the next game because one of them had an interesting secret as well. But that only leaves two contestants to choose from, and … I really don’t get it.
It’s clear that in this modern version, the game isn’t really the important thing. It’s how many smutty jokes Anderson and the cast can get in to make the audience say “oooooooooo!” There’s also no mention of how much money the players get if they fool the panel, and do we really need Anderson’s mother there to keep score and respond to Anderson’s jokes?
In the two episodes that aired this week, there was twerking and even a male pole dancer who put on a show. Sure, it’s great to see Betty White on To Tell The Truth again (even with her usual nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes that got old a decade ago), but I couldn’t name the other celebrities if you paid me (besides Mike Tyson, who looked like he didn’t even want to be there). I think they were reality show stars and athletes, but I couldn’t say for sure.
I’ll probably keep watching it because it’s only a short-run summer show, and I love game shows. But if it comes back next season (these episodes were actually filmed last summer), I’d want to see a complete overhaul. The original lasted for a couple of decades, so they must have been doing something right.
First Ghostbusters, Now Ocean’s Eleven
When the all-female Ghostbusters was announced, the nerd world went crazy. And by “nerd world” I mean “guys.” For some reason, the project got attacked by a certain part of the male fan base of the original movie. I guess because it’s well known that women can’t fight ghosts.
Now comes word that they’re making a sequel to the Ocean’s Eleven movies titled Ocean’s Eight (early rumors said it was going to be called Ocean’s Ocho). It won’t star George Clooney and Brad Pitt, though. This will be a sequel/spinoff that will have an all-female cast. So far the names attached to the movie are Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mindy Kaling. Most of the plot is in the rumor stage at this point, and one of those rumors is that Clooney might make a cameo; Bullock’s character is his sister, who wants to steal jewelry from the Met Ball to frame the bad guys.
There probably won’t be as much of a freak-out over the all-female Ocean’s Eight cast. It’s not in the realm of geeky pop culture like Ghostbusters.
Imagine a Facebook Without Words
There’s one of those weird rumors spreading around the web. This one says Facebook wants to eventually get rid of words and text and go all video. It’s such a ridiculous concept that no one is taking it seriously.
Oh, wait, it’s not a rumor at all. It comes from Facebook itself.
At a tech conference earlier this week in London, Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s operations chief in Europe/Africa/The Middle East, said that in five years, not only will Facebook be mostly mobile, “it will probably be all video.” She also added that “the best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video.” This will come as a big surprise to the people who have been writing for the past several centuries.
Yes, this idea really is as horrifying as it sounds. But don’t worry, writers! Mendelsohn says that words won’t go away completely because “you’ll have to write for the video.” In the future, the only writing that will exist will be captions.
This lines up with what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said in the past, which makes me glad I haven’t gone back to Facebook. You’d think that Zuckerberg would want to put more emphasis on words. After all, this is the guy who discovered books last year.
Imagine a World Without the Period
If words are going away, is the period next?
If I wrote this column without periods, you’d probably be a little confused, a little irritated, and maybe even reach for the Advil at some point. But it might be the wave of the future. David Crystal, a language expert, says that the period is slowly being phased out in communication, especially among millennials. It’s happening in texting, on social media, and in instant messages. Those forms are for speed and getting your point across, not proper sentence structure, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if social media and texting went away tomorrow, would younger people know how to communicate? Soon, all job interviews and romantic interludes will be held on SnapChat.
Think I’m overreacting? Crystal says that not only is the period passé, it might actually be taken as confrontational or sarcastic if you use it. The example he uses is “fine.” If someone answers a text or e-mail with “Fine” (without a period) or “Fine!”, then that’s okay. But if you answer “Fine.” (with a period), people will think you’re annoyed. I’m not making this up. (Personally, I think if someone answers with an exclamation point — “Fine!” — then that would be a sign that they’re annoyed.)
Some people don’t see this as that much of a deal, including Dante Ramos at The Boston Globe, but I beg to differ. Sure, I don’t see the period — or any punctuation — going away permanently. We may use them less in places like social media and texting, but in the places they are needed, they will always be used. But I think it’s a slippery slope. We don’t want to start getting rid of punctuation or certain words or grammar traditions and simply shrug our shoulders.
I do see some people not using periods or proper grammar even in e-mails. I have a relative who sends me e-mails once in a while, and not only does she rarely use periods, she also doesn’t capitalize words, space words correctly, or spell things correctly, often using a mixture of misspelled words and abbreviations. It’s like trying to figure out a code or a text version of Rubik’s Cube.
To Boldly Spend Where No Man Has Spent Before
Is there money in the future depicted in Star Trek? I don’t recall seeing any, but if there is, then maybe we can use these $200 Star Trek insignia gold coins that the Royal Canadian Mint has created. Yup, they’re legal in Canada, though only 1,500 of them were made and they’re already gone — for more than six times their face value. (You can get some other Star Trek collectible coins for the show’s 50th anniversary there, too.)
And no, I don’t understand why the coins are worth $200.
It’s National Candy Month
I’m going to just assume — and I apologize if I’m wrong about this — that you don’t want to make candy from scratch. It’s not easy, and there are so many delicious things you can just buy. And I don’t mean the typical candy you’d find at the supermarket. I’m talking about retro candy that you can buy online from places like Groovy Candies, Retro Candy Online, and Old Time Candy. Yup, you can actually buy the candy you ate as a kid in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (though I’m still waiting for the Marathon Bar to come back).
And if you want to talk about National Candy Month on Twitter, you can probably guess that the hashtag is #NationalCandyMonth.
If you’re on Facebook, well, don’t use any words at all. Just upload a video of yourself stuffing your face.
Upcoming Events and Anniversaries
Father’s Day (June 19)
Here are the letters humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote to his son in his “Father Meets Son” column in The Saturday Evening Post during the 1930s.
Lou Gehrig born (June 19, 1903)
The baseball great’s real first name was Henry, and his ALS diagnosis was released to the public on his birthday in 1939.
Audie Murphy born (June 20, 1924)
The World War II hero’s official site has a ton of information, including The Saturday Evening Post’s account of his return home in 1945.
Jaws released (June 20, 1975)
CNN rounds up 21 things you might not know about the classic movie, including what famous line was ad-libbed.
Great Seal of the United States adopted by Congress (June 20, 1782)
The history of the U.S. seal, which appears on many official documents, is really fascinating.
Three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi (June 21, 1964)
Saturday Evening Post Archive Director Jeff Nilsson writes about the three men who became “victims of politics.”
Jack Dempsey born (June 24, 1895)
The boxer was also known as The Manassa Mauler because he was born in the Mormon village of Manassa, Colorado.
The Best Years of Our Lives
When was America at its greatest?
That’s always one of the great dinner party questions. Are we better off now than we were 4, 8, 20, 40, 60 years ago? With Donald Trump’s slogan being “Make America Great Again,” it’s something people have been thinking about. What exactly made America “great” and what time is Trump talking about? The ’40s? The ’50s? The ’90s? Maybe the 1880s?
Morning Consult, a polling service, asked Trump supporters online what America’s greatest year was. Guess the most popular year that was mentioned. Guess! You’ll probably be wrong.
They picked the year 2000, when Bill Clinton was still president and social media hadn’t been invented yet.
Other popular years were 1955, 1960, 1970, and 1985. Now, those are wildly varied eras (and also very rounded years — what, no one liked 1957 or 1989?). There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Older people probably picked a long time ago and younger people probably picked 2000. It’s almost as if they don’t know what exactly “Make America Great Again” refers to, but they like the sound of it.
I think a lot of people don’t really know when the best years were, they just know it’s not right now (it’s never right now). We have a nostalgic feeling for years ago, and a lot of people don’t understand how we could have liked those times when we had so many problems. Well, name a year or decade when we didn’t have any problems. All eras have great things about them, even the ones where terrible things happened. I think people like times when things weren’t as fast-paced and muddled and changing.
On a personal note, I really loved 1985, when I was 20. I had a fun job with access to pizza and booze, I had less to worry about, and I had so much more hair.
Get Ready to Match the Stars!
From the “things you never thought you’d see again” department comes this news: Match Game is coming back to television. And you’ll never guess who the host is going to be. I’ll give you 1,000 guesses. Never mind, you’ll never guess.
It’s Alec Baldwin! The new ABC show will be part of ABC’s “Fun & Games” block on Sunday nights this summer, along with Celebrity Family Feud and The $100,000 Pyramid. It will be filmed in New York City.
Now comes the fun part: trying to figure out which celebrities will be on the new version. Since it’s ABC, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Jimmy Kimmel and Whoopi Goldberg. Personally, I’d love to see Brad Garrett, Craig Ferguson, Anderson Cooper, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. And Betty White! We can’t forget Betty White!
What’s your dream cast?
This Part of the Column Is Brought to You by Hot Pockets
Saturday Night Live announced something this week, and depending on how you look at it, it’s a good news/bad news type of thing. First, the NBC show is dropping the number of ads the show will have by 30 percent, which equals two commercial breaks. You may think that’s good news, but you know they have to do something else, right? They’re going to starting having “branded sketches.”
Deadlineembed reports — in an article with a headline that misses the real story — that the show will “bring in sponsored content from advertisers who will partner with the show for branded sketches.” They probably want to get more people to watch the shows live, cut out the commercials, but still get the advertising in. A lot of these spots will be the pre-taped segments that seem to get a lot of viral juice the next day. (By the way, I really, really hate the term viral.)
I’m pretty sure this happened on 30 Rock. Jack ordered Liz to include more of General Electric’s products in the show’s sketches, so they had to write sketches with people suddenly talking about and buying GE dishwashers and ovens. Let’s hope this integration isn’t as clunky as that was. Actually, it might be funny if it was as clunky as that was.
With the way that the Internet and social media and pop culture in general are these days, you’d think we’d know about every TV show/movie/album that’s coming up. But sometimes you get an album like Beyoncé’s Lemonade that seems to appear out of nowhere, and maybe even the trailer for a movie you didn’t know they were making.
Here’s the trailer for The Founder, the new film starring Michael Keaton as McDonalds founder Ray Kroc. Looks like fun. It opens August 5.
Introducing the Meat Bar
A “meat bar” sounds like some place men and women might mingle with each other, but it’s actually a new product from Hershey. Yes, the chocolate company is branching out into dried meat protein bars (mmm, doesn’t that sound delicious?).
The bars will be called Krave — which Hershey already uses for their beef jerky products — and will be a mixture of meat and other things like dried fruit and quinoa. The company has also launched a new brand called SoFit, which offers healthy snacks with more familiar ingredients, like almonds and seeds and fruit.
This could work, though they’re really going to have to find a way to market the new bars. Beef jerky is one thing; a bar made of meat is another.
Why are they doing this? Supposedly, sales of chocolate are down. Not in my house!
The Best Commercial Characters of All Time
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that TV commercials annoy me more than they used to. I didn’t think this would be the case. I thought I’d be more patient and calm when it came to things like this, but there are so many commercials that just irritate the heck out of me — from commercials that are run way too often (all car commercials) to commercials that are illogical and don’t make any sense and actually make me not want to buy the product.
But in general, I actually like TV commercials and advertising (I know, I’m in the minority). And there are some TV commercial characters I like seeing all the time. All the various Geico spokespeople/spokesanimals are fun (amazing how many different regular characters they have — it seems to go against advertising common wisdom). I like that older couple who do the Consumer Cellular ads. I’d watch them do a sitcom. I also like Flo from Progressive. She’s cute, and the commercials are effective.
But who are the best TV commercial characters of all time? Paper lists their eight favorites, and they include Flo and the gecko from Geico. It’s not a bad list because they actually remember some of the classic characters from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, like Rosie (Bounty paper towels), Mr. Whipple (Charmin toilet tissue), and Josephine the Plumber (Comet cleanser). It’s really great to see a list done by someone who actually remembers that there was pop culture before Saved by the Bell (though I could have done without the Dell dude). I’d add more animated characters to the list, like The Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean, and some characters from cereal ads.
Since we’re talking about commercials, can someone explain to me why there are suddenly so many commercials for various brands of copper or ceramic pans? I’ve seen at least four different commercials this past week, all different ads for different brands (though they all use the same language and they all seem to do the same exact things). Is there a hostile takeover of the pots and pans industry going on, so that everything we cook with will now be made of copper or ceramic?
I’m just glad there’s finally a pan that can withstand a car running over it. That happens to me all the time.
Today Is Arbor Day
I remember a joke from my childhood: Arbor Day is the day when we celebrate all the ships that come into the ’arbor. I didn’t say it was a good joke.
Here’s the official Arbor Day site, where you can learn more about, well, trees. You can also check out our Tree Planting 101 to help guide you through the process of planting trees. By the way, do kids still play in tree houses? Is that still a thing?
And tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day. Support your local brick-and-mortar bookstore (even if it is Barnes & Noble). And if you want to combine these two days, it’s easy. Books are made from trees.
Upcoming Events and Anniversaries
Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane shot down (May 1, 1960)
The incident and later exchange of American and Russian prisoners forms the basis of the 2015 Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film Bridge of Spies.
Lou Gehrig ends streak (May 2, 1939)
Joseph McCarthy dies (May 2, 1957)
McCarthy died only a few years after leading the investigation into communists in the U.S. government and tangling with CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, a story told in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck.
Kent State University shootings (May 4, 1970)
Four student war protesters were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen.
Cinco de Mayo (May 5)
The day is actually not an official holiday in Mexico, though all schools are closed.
Gary Cooper born (May 7, 1901)
Yup, he played Lou Gehrig.
A&P Files For Bankruptcy
I’ll be honest: I didn’t even know A&P grocery stores were still around. We had one in my hometown that I visited regularly as a kid, but it closed many years ago. There’s a Walgreen’s in that space now. The chain is actually still around in the Northeast, but this week the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A &P) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in five years and have 120 of its 296 supermarkets lined up to sell to other supermarket chains, including Acme Markets, which plans to turn 76 of the stores into Acme stores. A&P tried to find a buyer for the entire company in 2013 but couldn’t find one.
In addition to operating stores under the name A&P, the company also runs Waldbaum’s, Pathmark, Superfresh, Best Cellars, Food Basics, and The Food Emporium locations. I swear that I didn’t even know that Waldbaum’s was a real place. I heard it for years on Everybody Loves Raymond and I thought it was just a made-up name for Wal-Mart, the way TV shows often use a name like FacePlace to stand for Facebook.
The history of A&P is actually quite fascinating. If you’re interested in the history of supermarkets, that is.
The Atlantic asks, “Can Design Help the USPS Make Stamps Popular Again?” I don’t know if lack of good stamp design is the problem the United States Postal Service is facing (there are many), but new cool stamps certainly can’t hurt.
The new stamps are called Summer Harvest and are produce-themed, with pictures of tomatoes and watermelons and cantaloupes. They look like the colorful labels you’d see on old food crates. Stamp collecting has always been one of those things I wanted to get into but I feel like I missed my chance when I was 10 years old. Sure, it’s never too late to start something but starting to collect something that there is so much of now seems rather overwhelming. But these stamps look beautiful.
Oh, and read the comments on The Atlantic article, where you’ll find people who are absolutely flabbergasted that people still use the USPS. Seriously? Even with email and social media and online bill paying, how can people and businesses not use snail mail?
The full trailer for the next James Bond film, SPECTRE, was released this week:
Looks great, right? The Bond trailers are always well done and the movies are always entertaining. But a suggestion for the next film: Maybe it doesn’t have to be about some painful incident/secret about Bond’s past? Every single Daniel Craig 007 film has followed the same pattern (something happened in Bond’s past, he goes rogue, he’s out for revenge, is he too old, this time it’s personal, etc.). Maybe this could be the end of this particular storyline and we can get to some standalone movies?
SPECTRE premieres in the U.S. on November 6. I’m in line for it right now.
The Problem with Gawker
Five years ago I wrote this about Gawker: “I think we can all agree that Gawker is a terrible web site run by terrible people who write terrible things.” Things haven’t changed at the gossip site since then. If anything, it has gotten worse, and everything sort of imploded this week.
First they put up a story (ordinarily a link would go here but I don’t want to give them any traffic) about a publishing CEO who may have attempted to hire a gay escort, then when the web and social media and Gawker commenters (when even Gawker commenters shake their heads …) freaked out about the sleazy, pointless post, management and Gawker Media head honcho Nick Denton decided to take it down. This, of course, irritated the editorial staff at the site and two of the top editors quit in a huff. How dare the “business side” interfere with the “editorial side”?! What about journalistic ethics?
First, it’s all business side. This is the way publications have always been. Second, maybe the management wouldn’t have to have gotten involved if the editors didn’t approve the post in the first place. Somebody had to be the grown up, though honestly, everyone is acting as if this was “out of bounds” for Gawker when in reality they’ve been publishing stuff like this for years.
Just before resigning, one of the editors not only rang up a $550 lunch bill at expensive NYC restaurant Balthazar, he posted a picture of the receipt on social media. Because his resignation was all about ethics. *Cough.*
— Megan Hess (@mhess4) July 20, 2015
The Last Howard Johnson’s
A&P isn’t the only American business institution that might be going away. Did you know that there’s only one Howard Johnson’s left? Now, the fact that there actually is one Howard Johnson’s left is the surprise. I’m sure many thought the chain had gone out of business entirely. In the mid-1960s, Howard Johnson’s generated more sales than McDonald’s and Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.
But there’s one orange-roofed restaurant left in the country and it’s in Lake George, New York (there’s another Howard Johnson’s in Bangor, Maine, but it doesn’t have the orange roof and will probably go out of business soon). The New York Times has a feature on the restaurant and CBS Sunday Morning went to the location to interview the owner. Rachael Ray worked there when she was a teen.
Howard Johnson still has a chain of hotels though. It’s part of the Wyndham Hotel Group, which also runs Ramada, Days Inn, and Travelodge.
Upcoming Events and Anniversaries
The debut of Bugs Bunny (July 27, 1940)
The wise-cracking rabbit made his official debut in the Warner Bros./Merrie Melodies cartoon A Wild Hare.
Plane crashes into Empire State Building (July 28, 1945)
A B-25 Mitchell bomber got lost in fog and crashed into the 79th floor of the New York City landmark, killing 3 crew members and 11 people inside the building.
14th Amendment adopted (July 28, 1868)
Here’s a complete history of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution from the Library of Congress.
NASA created (July 29, 1958)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was initially called the National Aeronautics and Space Agency when first proposed.
Premiere of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (July 29, 1928)
The short was the official debut of Mickey Mouse and was directed by Walt Disney, who also provided the voice of Mickey.
President Lyndon Johnson signs Medicare bill (July 30, 1965)
You can read The Saturday Evening Post feature “Medicare: Headache or Cure-All?” from 1967, along with other articles on the American healthcare system.
Artist, blogger, and social media health activist Jenna Dye Visscher has been painting apples—lots and lots of them. Why? To draw attention to the most overlooked cause of persistent back pain in young adults—a type of arthritis called Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) that attacks joints in the backbone and those between the spine and pelvis. Ankles and other parts of the body can also be affected.
“For an entire year, I painted an apple a day to help raise awareness and funds for the Spondylitis Association of America—and just to have fun! Apples symbolize that health and healing are possible despite dealing with a difficult and painful disease,” explains Visscher, who is one of approximately 2.4 million Americans living with AS.
Here’s Jenna’s story as told to the Post:
For me, AS began suddenly with unexplained pain and fatigue, and it changed my life completely. I was afraid to sleep because of severe stiffness upon waking. Every bump in the road made me wince, and I only ate at restaurants with soft benches or chairs.
Who is Most at Risk?
The exact cause of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) is not yet known. Factors that raise one’s chances of developing AS include:
- A positive blood test for the HLA-B27 protein
- A family history of AS
- A personal history of frequent GI infections
- Being a male age 17 to 45*
*AS can also occur in women and children, and in older adults.
—Spondylitis Association of America
And that’s only part of it! When the condition was having its heyday, my eyes became painfully sensitive to light—eye inflammation is another symptom of AS. And I learned to skillfully hide my fingers, elbows, and ears when the AS-related problem called psoriatic arthritis was shredding them apart.
It took six years of searching before I was diagnosed with AS. I had been treated with pain medications and tried physical therapy, but not until I started Remicade therapy to stop inflammation on a cellular level did I regain a measure of my life back.
With each infusion my body seemed to straighten up just a bit and move with more ease. My mind began to clear as the constant pain released some of its grasp. Most importantly, I was showing signs of being me again.
After a few months I was smiling, laughing, and able to contemplate what to do with my life again. The colors I had become unable to see came flooding back and, along with them, I began to feel the pull of my creativity. The change was overwhelming to me.
Again, here’s Jenna:
I am a lover and a fighter, a dreamer and an idealist. I have a painful disease and don’t know what my future holds. AS is not curable, but I will not live in fear of the “what ifs.” I fought hard during years of pain and fatigue before finding a diagnosis and a course of treatment that restored my health and my spark. I choose to fight for awareness of a disease called Spondylitis that affects so many, but is known by so few.
What Might Help?
• Medications: NSAIDS (ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin), anti-rheumatics (corticosteroids, sulfasalazine, methotrexate), and biologics (Enbrel, Remicade, Humira)
•Good posture techniques
•Applying heat to stiff joints and cold to inflamed areas
•Alternative treatments: acupuncture, massage, yoga, implanted TENS unit to block pain signals to brain
— Spondylitis Association of America
- To the newly diagnosed, and to those facing symptoms and still seeking a diagnosis:
- Know that you can lead a good life: it is just going to look different than what you thought.
- Educate yourself about the disease and available treatments, and advocate for the best care possible with your doctors and insurance providers.
- Be strong. The AS journey can and will be extremely difficult. You CAN regain a measure of quality of life. Good care is your responsibility – and no one can do it for you.
- Search out support. Good information is available at the Spondylitis Association of America (spondylitis.org, 1-800-777-8189) and support groups can be a blessing. Check out online support as well. Many people blog or use social media to share their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge about AS.
- Seek acceptance. Denial and anger are inevitable. But when you move past these stages of grieving your old self, work to find a place of acceptance and happiness. Most days will be difficult, but knowing you can absolutely get past them will make you stronger than almost anyone you encounter in life. Be proud and stand tall in that knowledge.
- Dare to dream! I’m taking a vacation after my 365 days of apples. But then I’ll be looking for new outlets for my advocacy and art and perhaps one day found a non-profit that uses art for good causes. Big dreams! But I’ve learned that if you fight past the tough challenges and minor setbacks, dreams can happen.