#MPRraccoon: The Little Raccoon That Could

Yesterday afternoon, (what felt like) everyone in the world got together on Twitter to cheer on a small raccoon that had climbed the side of a 23 story building in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Yesterday afternoon, (what felt like) everyone in the world got together on Twitter to cheer on a small raccoon that had climbed the side of a 23 story building in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For a little while, everyone huddled around the #MPRraccoon hashtag, holding their breath and waiting to see if the little guy would make it.

FYI: The little guy made it. He started climbing down late last night, changed his mind at some point, and headed upwards again. Early this morning he made it to the roof of the building, where live traps with bait had been laid out, and he was captured. He’s going to get some care (if he needs it), and he’ll be released safely somewhere where he won’t bother anyone. Read all about it.

Also, here’s a gif of the little guy cresting the roof of the building, the reaction in a local newsroom when the raccoon makes it to the roof, and an update from the UBS building about the raccoon being safely caught for release.


It’s easy to sneer at something like this. “OMG, it’s just a raccoon,” sneerers say. “They’re awful, mean little rodents. They’re vermin,” and et cetera, et cetera. And that’s true enough. Raccoons are often nasty, aggressive little critters who kill things and get into your trash and make a nuisance of themselves.

But they’re also super cute, you guys.

Amusements aside, it’s interesting to look at why things like this happen on Twitter.

About the time I checked in on the hashtag, this tweet was the top result for anyone clicking on the tag on Twitter:

What you see here is a small raccoon perched on the window ledge of a very high building. It’s cute, and it looks a little concerned and tired.

It’s small, and human minds automatically interpret that as “young.” Human minds automatically empathize with young things – we’re hardwired to care for babies. Small animals trip all the same triggers that human babies do. Humans see small animals and our hindbrains go “BABY, OMG” and we want to take care of them. It’s why we have pets.

Also, as the photos showed, the raccoon was way, waaaay up high, on a rather small ledge, so it’s clearly not safe.

You click on the tag and the first thing you see is a fuzzy animal that your brain immediately interprets as “BABY IN DANGER.” And you’re hooked.

So now you’re following the hashtag on Twitter, and your immediate impulse is being reinforced by hundreds, and then thousands of other people who are experiencing the exact same thing, and empathizing with you while you experience it. If you’re tweeting about it yourself, as you’re almost certainly going to do, then you’re likely also getting lots of Twitter feedback in the form of comments, retweets and likes.

Receiving those – particularly if you’re not used to a lot of activity on your tweets – is positive reinforcement. And positive reinforcement gives you little dopamine hits. Dopamine is the pleasure drug in your head (it’s more than that, but for the sake of simplicity…). So you’re watching this thing happen, with tons of other people, who are all tickling your pleasure centers, and you’re completely emotionally invested in the situation, now.

Add to that the fact that this particular instance is completely innocent. There are no real shades of gray in this spectacle. It’s a small scared animal in a bad situation and you’re just cheering for it to escape the bad situation safely. There’s almost no way to be the bad guy here. You can cheer for this little guy, and there’s no real way to feel bad for doing so.

It’s innocent and harmless, a completely black and white situation with clear good and bad outcomes, and there is precious little of that going around these days.

Plus, there’s community. You’re one among thousands participating in this event, and more, it’s an event that escapes all our current divides and tribalism issues. Everyone is cheering this little raccoon on: Republicans and Democrats, straight people, gay people, religious people of all sorts, people from around the whole world, and none of the things that usually divide us apply to the situation we’re rooting for.

We’re all in this together, rooting for a clear, innocent, good outcome, and nothing we usually argue about matters. And something like that is basically pure heroin right now.

Of course we all spent 12+ hours rooting for a masked rat on the side of a building. Society – particularly in America – is positively desperate for a reason to get together on something. Strife and stress are not good for us, and our brains seek ways to make them stop. We want to get along. It’s a built-in feature. So when something comes along, like an adventurous little raccoon, that gives us a way to do that, we’re all in. Continue reading “#MPRraccoon: The Little Raccoon That Could”

On Vaping & Moral Panics

The recent spurt of anti-vaping articles are part of a moral panic. Vaping is an excellent harm-reduction option for current smokers. If you smoke, switch to vaping. If you vape, don’t go back to smoking. If you don’t do either, don’t start. This isn’t rocket science, people.

The recent spurt of anti-vaping articles are part of a moral panic. Vaping is an excellent harm reduction option for current smokers. If you smoke, switch to vaping. If you vape, don’t go back to smoking. If you don’t do either, don’t start. This isn’t rocket science, people.

🚬 NPR: He Started Vaping As A Teen And Now Says Habit Is ‘Impossible To Let Go’

In one of the most restrictive measures nationwide, San Francisco voters this week upheld by what looks to be a large majority — nearly 70 percent in a preliminary tally — a ban on the sale of flavored vaping products, as well as conventional menthol cigarettes.

This is a moral panic, like D&D and Satanism back in the 70s and 80s, particularly in relation to flavored ejuice. Cake-flavored vodka is a thing, y’all. I don’t want to hear your BS about vaping flavors until after you get rid of all the candy-flavored alcohols out there.

The head of Colorado’s health department, Dr. Larry Wolk, finds it hard to believe industry claims that it isn’t marketing to kids.

“I have to call BS on that,” he says, “because the flavors are cotton candy, Frutti Tutti and they have cartoon characters on their labels and you can mix flavors and strengths. It’s really appealing to kids, whether or not they are intentionally marketing to kids.”

Cake. Flavored. Vodka. Smirnoff also has several fruit flavors, a bunch of “confection” flavors like whipped cream, caramel, and root beer float, along with ice cream flavors and tropical flavors. And that’s not even mentioning things like Apple Pucker and other fruit and baking flavored alcohols. You wanna talk about marketing to kids?

“Believe it,” says 21-year-old Julien Lavandier. “It’s a habit for me, you know — all the time when I set down my schoolwork to do homework, take a rip of the Juul. When I get in my car, take a rip of the Juul.”

[…]

“It’s impossible to let go once you started using,” Lavandier says. “I’ll tell you — after even an hour and a half or two, I am chomping at the bit to find my Juul.”

“Vaping” is (mostly) using nicotine, just like smoking is using nicotine. Nicotine is very addictive, and it’s brutally difficult to quit. So if you’re vaping, you’re becoming addicted to nicotine, just like if you were smoking. So yeah, it’s frickin’ hard to quit doing and you’re going to want to do it all the time. It works that way with cigarettes, too.

One of the benefits of e-cigarettes, according to the industry, is that the devices can help people quit their use of tobacco products. When it comes to that habit, the advice from Ray Story, the founder and CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association is “don’t start at all.”

“But if you’re going to smoke or do e-cigarettes, then certainly take an e-cigarette because it’s vastly less harmful,” Story says,”if you consider both of them contain nicotine, and both of them are addictive. It’s vastly less harmful than conventional tobacco.”

The thing is, vaping is safer than smoking. Vaping nicotine juice from an ecigarette is much less harmful than smoking cigarettes. So if you’re gonna do one, definitely vape. (I have no idea about those Juul things – they use nicotine salts, not ejuice. That might be different.)

Look, this is simple. If you aren’t already addicted to nicotine, IE, a smoker or vaper, don’t become one. Smoking is definitely terrible for you. Vaping probably ain’t great (although it’s most likely better than smoking a cigarette).

If you are already addicted to nicotine, and you can’t quit, definitely switch to vaping if you’re using tobacco. Smoking, chewing, all that stuff, is 100% scientifically terrible and going to kill you. Science is pretty sure vaping is safer.

“So my biggest concern,” he says, “is, you know, right now I’m puffing, puffing, happy, worry-free, and then in 20 years I’ll have to explain to my kids why I’ve developed popcorn lung — or some new form of lung cancer,” Lavandier says. “Because I didn’t know what the risks were of e-cigarettes. It terrifies me.”

Emphasis mine.

One last thing: Vaping does not cause popcorn lung. There’s a BS scare about that going around and it’s been repeatedly debunked. Also, US companies don’t use diacetyl in their juices anymore. Buy good juice from good companies.

Good Journalism: You suck at the news. Stop it.

People talk about “the news” like it used to be better than it is now. That’s not the case. “The news” has always been at least semi-unreliable.

People talk about “the news” like it used to be better than it is now. That’s not the case. “The news” has always been at least semi-unreliable.

It’s Always Been Bad News

Sheets of news have existed just about since we invented writing crap down. Proto-newspapers were popping up in ancient Rome as government-issued bulletins. In the 1500s governments were circulating one-sheet news notices, and in the 1600s business people started putting these sheets of news together using the printing press.

The first newspaper in France, the Gazette de France, was established in 1632 by the king’s physician Theophrastus Renaudot (1586-1653), with the patronage of Louis XIII. All newspapers were subject to pre-publication censorship, and served as instruments of propaganda for the monarchy. [Wikipedia]

Propaganda has existed for even longer, and circulating the news and propaganda go hand-in-hand. As soon as human beings starting writing crap down and handing it out to their friends, they were lying about what they were writing down to influence their friends. That’s just how people work.

Here’s some sources from Wikipedia: History of Propaganda | Newspaper | History of Journalism. Yeah, I know, Wikipedia is like the gold medal winner of lazy sourcing when it comes to things like this, but it’s what I have to hand and it all looks pretty accurate, so work with me here.

The term “yellow journalism” was coined all the way back in the 1890s. Yellow journalism is “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. [Wikipedia]” Sound familiar? It might not, because we mostly call it “clickbait” these days, folks. Shoot, we were even doing listicles, those icky little list articles everyone hates so much, way back in the day.

And that’s not even mentioning the Spanish-American War, probably one of the more egregious examples of bad journalism I have to hand. The Spanish-American War was basically started by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, and if those names sound familiar it’s because they’re now synonymous with good journalism. Those guys? Invented yellow journalism as we know it. Then they used it to start a war.

So “the news” has always been garbage. The Internet didn’t make it bad, it hasn’t gotten particularly worse, people haven’t gotten dumber – it’s always been this way. This is just how people work. Guys, people thought A Modest Proposal, which was written in 1729 and was about poor Irish people eating their own babies to solve the problem of poverty, was serious. We’ve been falling for Onion articles since almost 260 years before The Onion was even founded.

That Doesn’t Mean There Isn’t Any Good News

Good journalists do amazing work all the time, and have been for decades. Probably centuries.

The Times invented sending out war correspondents during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the reporting done by those correspondents led to major reforms in battlefield medical care [Wikipedia].

William Thomas Stead pioneered investigative journalism (and tabloid journalism, the two kind of went hand-in-hand) in the late 1800s, and used it to break the Eliza Armstrong case, a sensational story about child prostitution in England that revealed the selling of children into prostitution and the blind eye that officials were turning to the practice, and resulted in the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. (He actually ended up in jail for his part in the story.)

In 1887, Nellie Bly wrote 10 Days in a Mad House for the New York World and broke the story of the horrific treatment endured by the patients of Bellevue Hospital, a New York insane asylum.

In the 70s, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal.

On December 16, 2015, ProPublica and the Marshall Project published An Unbelievable Story of Rape, some of the best damned journalism I’ve ever read.

Good journalism happens constantly. It isn’t even hard to find. The tricky part is that it’s often mixed in with bad journalism.

The News Is Actually Your Responsibility

I often hear people decry the state of the news, as though it’s fallen so far from its former, lofty origins, and this is bullshit. The news has always been heavily mixed with bias, agendas, propaganda and frequently, flat lies. That’s been the case practically since the inception of the newspaper, and that’s the case today.

Finding the “truth” is hard. It takes effort and practice, and even then, you’re probably not going to get the actual unvarnished objective truth. But if you work at it, you can often get the gist of things.

You have to read a lot of news. You have to read good journalism and bad journalism. You have to read right-leaning sources and left-leaning sources. You have to read liars and paragons of virtue. And then you average all that together and come up with something in the middle, that’s probably about as close to the truth as anyone who wasn’t actually there to see it happen is likely to get.

It takes time. A fair chunk of my day is taken up with scanning various stories. It takes effort. I have a whole process set up for gathering news that involves probably a hundred different sources of information or more, all fetched by various social media platforms, websites and RSS readers. And it takes practice. When I first started out it took me hours to suss out the gist of a given story. Now I can do it in 15 minutes or so, because I know which sources to read and where to find them and who will be updating live in a trustworthy fashion and who checks their sources and who doesn’t and which sources will lie and sensationalize and which ones won’t.

And it’s on you to do all that. If you want to be informed, if you want good journalism, it’s on you to go find it, support it, and show it to people.