Archive for the ‘Taste’ Category

From the not-really-surprising-news category comes a New Scientist report earlier this month that the entire world was irradiated by follow-on effects of the Fukushima disaster. Perhaps it’s exactly as the article states: the equivalent of one X-ray. I can’t know with certainty, nor can bupkis be done about it by the typical Earth inhabitant (or the atypical inhabitant, I might add). Also earlier this month, a tunnel collapse at the Dept. of Energy’s Hanford nuclear waste storage site in Washington State gave everyone a start regarding possible or potential nearby release of radiation. Similar to Fukushima, I judge there is little by way of trust regarding accurate news or disclosure and fuck all anyone can do about any of it.

I’m far too convinced of collapse by now to worry too much about these Tinkerbells, knowing full well that what’s to come will be worse by many magnitudes of order when the firecrackers start popping due to inaction and inevitability. Could be years or decades away still; but as with other aspects of collapse, who knows precisely when? Risky energy plant operations and nuclear waste disposal issues promise to be with us for a very long time indeed. Makes it astonishing to think that we plunged full-steam ahead without realistic (i.e., politically acceptable) plans to contain the problems before creating them. Further, nuclear power is still not economically viable without substantial government subsidy. The likelihood of abandonment of this technological boondoggle seems pretty remote, though perhaps not as remote as the enormous expense of decommissioning all the sites currently operating.

These newsbits and events also reminded me of the despair I felt in 1986 on the heels of the Chernobyl disaster. Maybe in hindsight it’s not such a horrible thing to cede entire districts to nature for a period of several hundred years as what some have called exclusion or sacrifice zones. Absent human presence, such regions demonstrate remarkable resilience and profundity in a relatively short time. Still, it boggles the mind, doesn’t it, to think of two exclusion zones now, Chernobyl and Fukushima, where no one should go until, at the very least, the radioactive half-life has expired? Interestingly, that light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, seems to be telescoping even farther away from the date of the disaster, a somewhat predictable shifting of the goalposts. I’d conjecture that’s because contamination has not yet ceased and is actually ongoing, but again, what do I know?

On a lighter note, all this also put me in mind of the hardiness of various foodstuffs. God knows we consume loads of crap that can hardly be called food anymore, from shelf-stable fruit juices and bakery items (e.g., Twinkies) that never go bad to not-cheese used by Taco Bell and nearly every burger joint in existence to McDonald’s burgers and fries that refuse to spoil even when left out for months to test that very thing. It give me considerable pause to consider that foodstuff half-lives have been radically and unnaturally extended by creating abominable Frankenfoods that beggar the imagination. For example, strawberries and tomatoes used to be known to spoil rather quickly and thus couldn’t withstand long supply lines from farm to table; nor were they available year round. Rather sensibly, people grew their own when they could. Today’s fruits and veggies still spoil, but interventions undertaken to extend their stability have frequently come at the expense of taste and nutrition. Organic and heirloom markets have sprung up to fill those niches, which suggest the true cost of growing and distributing everyday foods that will not survive a nuclear holocaust.

The Internet is now a little more than two decades old (far more actually, but I’m thinking of it’s widespread adoption). Of late, it’s abundantly clear that, in addition to being a wholesale change in the way we disseminate and gather information and conduct business, we’re running live social experiments bearing psychological influence, some subtle, some invasive, much like the introduction of other media such as radio, cinema, and TV back in the day. About six years ago, psychologists coined the term digital crowding, which I just discovered, referring to an oppressive sense of knowing too much about people, which in turn provokes antisocial reactions. In effect, it’s part of the Dark Side of social media (trolling and comments sections being other examples), one of numerous live social experiments.

I’ve given voice to this oppressive knowing-too-much on occasion by wondering why, for instance, I know anything — largely against my will, mind you — about the Kardashians and Jenners. This is not the sole domain of celebrities and reality TV folks but indeed anyone who tends to overshare online, typically via social media such as Facebook, less typically in the celebrity news media. Think of digital crowding as the equivalent of seeing something you would really prefer not to have seen, something no amount of figurative eye bleach can erase, something that now simply resides in your mind forever. It’s the bell that can’t be unrung. The crowding aspect is that now everyone’s dirty laundry is getting aired simultaneously, creating push back and defensive postures.

One might recognize in this the familiar complaint of Too Much Information (TMI), except that the information in question is not the discomfiting stuff such as personal hygiene or sexual behaviors. Rather, it’s an unexpected over-awareness of everyone’s daily minutiae as news of it presses for attention and penetrates our defenses. Add it to the deluge that is causing some of us to adopt information avoidance.

Even before I begin, you must know what the title means. It’s the proliferation of options that induces dread in the toothpaste aisle of the store. Paste or gel? Tartar control or extra whitening? Plain, mint, cinnamon, or bubble gum? The matrix of combinations is enough to reduce the typical shopper to a quivering state of high anxiety lest the wrong toothpaste be bought. Oh, how I long for the days when choices ran solely between plain Crest and Colgate. I can’t say whether the toothpaste effect originated with oral hygiene. A similarly bewildering host of choices confronts shoppers in the soft drink aisle. Foodstuffs seem especially prone to brand fragmentation. Woe be the retailer forced to shelve all 38 Heinz products on this page. (True, some are just different packaging of the same basic item, but still.)

Purveyors of alcoholic beverages are on the bandwagon, too. I rather like the bygone cliché of the cowboy/gunslinger riding off the range, swinging into the saloon, and ordering simply “whisky.” Nowadays, even a poorly stocked bar is certain to have a dozen or so whiskys (see this big brand list, which doesn’t include sub-brands or craft distillers.) Then come all the varieties of schnapps, rum, and vodka, each brand further fragmented with infusions and flavorings of every imaginable type. Some truly weird ones are found here. Who knew that these spirits were simply blank canvases awaiting the master distiller’s crazy inventiveness.

/rant on

What really gets my bile flowing on this issue, however, is the venerable Lays potato chip. Seriously, Frito-Lay, what are you thinking? You arguably perfected the potato chip, much like McDonald’s perfected the French fry. (Both are fried potato, interestingly.) Further, you have a timeless, unbeatable slogan: “betcha can’t eat just one.” The plain, salted chip, the “Classic” of the Lays brand, cannot be improved upon and is a staple comfort food. Yet you have succumbed to the toothpaste effect and gone haywire with flavorings (I won’t even countenance the Wavy, Poppables, Kettle-Cooked, Ruffles, and STAX varieties). For variety’s sake, I’d be content with a barbecue chip, maybe even salt & vinegar, but you’ve piled on past the point of ridiculousness:

  • cheddar & sour cream (a favorite of mine)
  • Chile limón
  • deli style
  • dill pickle
  • flamin’ hot
  • honey barbecue
  • limón
  • pico de gallo
  • salt & vinegar (not to my taste)
  • sour cream & onion (a good alternative)
  • sweet Southern heat barbecue
  • Southern biscuits & gravy
  • Tapatío (salsa picante)

(more…)

The first Gilded Age in the U.S. and the Roaring Twenties were periods that produced an overabundance of wealth for a handful of people. Some of them became synonymous with the term robber baron precisely for their ability to extract and accumulate wealth, often using tactics that to say the least lacked scruples when not downright criminal. The names include Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor, Mellon, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, Morgan, and Schwab. All have their names associated in posterity with famous institutions. Some are colleges and universities, others are banking and investment behemoths, yet others are place names and commercial establishments. Perhaps the philanthropy they practiced was not entirely generous, as captains of industry (then and today) seem to enjoy burnishing their legacies with a high level of name permanence. Still, one can observe that most of the institutions bearing their names are infrastructure useful to the general public, making them public goods. This may be partly because the early 20th century was still a time of nation building, whereas today is arguably a time of decaying empire.

The second Gilded Age in the U.S. commenced in the 1980s and is still going strong as measured by wealth inequality. However, the fortunes of today’s tycoons appear to be directed less toward public enrichment than toward self-aggrandizement. The very nature of philanthropy has shifted. Two modern philanthropists appear to be transitional: Bill Gates and Ted Turner. The Gates Foundation has a range of missions, including healthcare, education, and access to information technology. Ted Turner’s well-publicized $1 billion gift to the United Nations Foundation in 1997 was an open dare to encourage similar philanthropy among the ultrarich. The Turner Foundation website’s byline is “protecting & restoring the natural world.” Not to be ungrateful or uncharitable, but both figureheads are renowned for highhandedness in the fashion in which they gathered up their considerable fortunes and are redirecting some portion of their wealth toward pet projects that can be interpreted as a little self-serving. Philanthropic efforts by Warren Buffet appear to be less about giving away his own fortune to charities or establishing institutions bearing his name as they are about using his notoriety to raise charitable funds from others sources and thus stimulating charitable giving. The old saying applies especially to Buffet: “no one gets rich by giving it away.” More galling, perhaps, is another group of philanthropists, who seem to be more interested in building shrines to themselves. Two entries stand out: The Lucas Museum (currently seeking a controversial site in Chicago) and The Walmart Museum. Neither resembles a public good, though their press packages may try to convince otherwise.

Charity has also shifted toward celebrity giving, with this website providing philanthropic news and profiles of celebrities complete with their causes and beneficiaries. With such a wide range of people under consideration, it’s impossible to make any sweeping statements about the use or misuse of celebrity, the way entertainers are overcompensated for their talents, or even how individuals such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk have been elevated to celebrity status primarily for being rich. (They undoubtedly have other legitimate claims to fame, but they’re overshadowed in a culture that celebrates wealth before any other attribute.) And then there are the wealthy contributors to political campaigns, such as the Koch brothers, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson, just to name a few. It’s fair to say that every contributor wants some bang for their buck, but I daresay that political contributors (not strictly charity givers) expect a higher quotient of influence, or in terms more consistent with their thinking, a greater return on investment.

None of this takes into account the charitable work and political contributions stemming from corporations and unions, or indeed the umbrella corporations that exist solely to raise funds from the general public, taking a sizeable share in administrative fees before passing some portion onto the eventual beneficiary. Topical charities and scams also spring up in response to whatever is the latest natural disaster or atrocity. What’s the average citizen to do when the pittance they can donate pales in comparison to that offered by the 1% (which would be over 3 million people in the U.S. alone)? Or indeed how does one guard against being manipulated by scammers (including the burgeoning number of street panhandlers) and political candidates into throwing money at fundamentally insoluble problems? Are monetary gifts really the best way of demonstrating charity toward the needy? Answers to these questions are not forthcoming.

Update: Closure has been achieved on the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago. After 2 years of litigation blocking any building on his proposed site on the lakefront, George Lucas has decided to seek a site in California instead. Both sides had to put their idiotic PR spin on the result, but most people I know are relieved not to have George Lucas making inroads into Chicago architecture. Now if only we could turn back time and stop Donald Trump.

Acid Added

Posted: February 11, 2016 in Health, Taste
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I traveled to Europe recently, which I haven’t done in a couple decades, and was reminded immediately of a danger that tends to go unacknowledged: the reduction of foreign lands and peoples to a series of clichés or stereotypes. Tourist guides and websites reinforce the effect. This tendency may be forgivable with respect to food, considering that one has multiple meals per day, which thus occupy a significant portion of one’s time and attention abroad. My rediscovery of truly fresh-baked bread (given the superior European tradition of daily shopping for bakery goods, I suspect that propionic acid and sodium propionate used as preservatives in American bread and other baked goods was not present) called to mind a book recommended at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll) entitled Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. Although obvious perhaps in hindsight, it was surprising to learn (via book blurbs and recommendations) that demand for foods that could withstand transport times to combat troops without spoilage was a principal driver of innovation in food processing technologies, which have been further refined over the decades by Big Ag.

Here a good example: peeled and skinless tangerines and mandarin oranges used in salads are passed through steam or hot water at about 90ºC for 2–3 minutes to loosen the peel and make it easier to separate from the segments. Segments are then separated and the segmental membrane is removed by chemical treatment — meaning it’s dissolved in an acid solution, which is neutralized in turn with an alkaline solution. This is described in greater detail in expired U.S. Patent No. 4,294,861 entitled “Method of Separating and Taking Out Pulp from Citrus Fruits.” Here’s the abstract:

A method and an apparatus for processing citrus fruits into a drink, which is the juice of the fruits containing separate juice vesicles, or sacs, of the pulp, by cutting the fruits into pieces and directing jets of a fluid against the cut surfaces, thereby separating and forcing the pulp in the form of separate sacs away from the peel and segmental membrane of the fruit pieces.

Of course, citric acid is naturally occurring in, well, citrus fruits. (Citric acid also makes for a surprisingly potent cleaning agent.) But I find it more than a little ooky to treat foods in acid baths, or to add acids to ingested foods (is there another kind?) as preservatives. Admittedly, all sort of acids are present naturally in foods: malic acid in apples and cherries; tartaric acid in grapes, pineapples, potatoes, and carrots; acetic acid in vinegar; oxalic acid in cocoa and pepper; tannic acid in tea and coffee; and benzoic acid in cranberries, prunes, and plums. Less natural but wholly familiar to typical Murricans, corrosive phosphoric acid (also known as orthophosphoric acid) is used as an acidifying agent in soft drinks (which also contain relatively harmless carbonic acid) and jams to provide a tangy flavor. Otherwise, the syrup/sugar content alone would be enough to make one vomit. Fumaric acid is also used in noncarbonated soft drinks.

Maybe none of these rise to the level of universal acid that eats through everything, including stomach linings, or to sulfuric acid found in batteries (or more simply, battery acid). Still, our food is nonetheless suffused in acids, and the idea of adding more to bakery goods to make them shelf stable may account for why European bakery goods made for that day only are so far superior to most American bakery goods able to sit in one’s breadbox almost indefinitely. Cue the periodic newsbit about a McDonald’s meal allowed to sit out for some extended period of time (often years) without spoiling in the least.

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

rant on/

This is the time of year when media pundits pause to look back and consider the previous year, typically compiling unasked-for “best of” lists to recap what everyone may have experienced — at least if one is absorbed by entertainment media. My interest in such nonsense is passive at best, dismissive at worst. Further, more and more lists are weighed and compiled by self-appointed and guileless fanboys and -girls, some of whom are surprisingly knowledgeable (sign of a misspent youth?) and insightful yet almost uniformly lack a sufficiently longitudinal view necessary to form circumspect and expert opinions. The analogy would be to seek wisdom from a 20- or 30-something in advance of its acquisition. Sure, people can be “wise beyond their years,” which usually means free of the normal illusions of youth without yet having become a jaded, cynical curmudgeon — post-ironic hipster is still available — but a real, valuable, historical perspective takes more than just 2-3 decades to form.

For instance, whenever I bring up media theory to a youngster (from my point of reckoning), usually someone who has scarcely known the world without 24/7/365 access to all things electronic, he or she simply cannot conceive what it means to be without that tether/pacifier/security blanket smothering them. It doesn’t feel like smothering because no other information environment has ever been experienced (excepting perhaps in early childhood, but even that’s not guaranteed). Even a brief hiatus from the information blitzkrieg, a two-week vacation, say, doesn’t suffice. Rather, only someone olde enough to remember when it simply wasn’t there — at least in the personal, isolating, handheld sense — can know what it was like. I certainly remember when thought was free to wander, invent, and synthesize without pressure to incorporate a continuous stream of incoming electronic stimuli, most of which amounts to ephemera and marketing. I also remember when people weren’t constantly walled in by their screens and feeds, when life experience was more social, shared, and real rather than private, personal, and virtual. And so that’s why when I’m away from the radio, TV, computer, etc. (because I purposely and pointedly carry none of it with me), I’m less a mark than the typical media-saturated fool face-planted in a phone or tablet for the lures, lies, cons, and swindles that have become commonplace in late-stage capitalism.

Looking back in another sense, I can’t help but to feel a little exasperated by the splendid reviews of the life in music led by Pierre Boulez, who died this past week. Never heard of him? Well, that just goes to show how far classical music has fallen from favor that even a titan such as he makes utterly no impression on the general public, only specialists in a field that garners almost no attention anymore. Yet I defy anyone not to know who Kim Kardashian is. Here’s the bigger problem: despite being about as favorably disposed toward classical music as it is possible to be, I have to admit that no one I know (including quite a few musicians) would be able to hum or whistle or sing a recognizable tune by Boulez. He simply doesn’t pass the whistle test. But John Williams (of Star Wars fame) certainly does. Nor indeed would anyone put on a recording of one of Boulez’s works to listen to. Not even his work as a conductor is all that compelling, either live or on disc (I’ve experienced plenty of both). As one looks back on the life of Pierre Boulez, as one is wont to do upon his passing, how can it be that such prodigious talent as he possessed could be of so little relevance?

Consider these two examples flip sides of the same coin. One enjoys widespread subscription but is base (opinions differ); the other is obscure but (arguably) refined. Put differently, one is pedestrian, the other admirable. Or over a lifetime, one is placebo (or worse), the other fulfilling. Looking back upon my own efforts and experiences in life, I would much rather be overlooked or forgotten than be petty and (in)famous. Yet mass media conspires to make us all into nodes on a network with goals decidedly other than human respectability or fulfillment. So let me repeat the challenge question of this blog: are you climbing or descending?

rant off/

Only one day away from the premiere of the new Star Wars film (in case it had escaped your notice), I must admit that I did not purchase advance tickets, nor will I likely see the film until some time in early 2016. (As a result, I rather expect to suffer from spoiler exposure, not that it matters much to me.) I have several reasons, but a happenstance conversation today caused me to consider that I may have made to wrong decision to defer.

Over time, I’ve grown numb to media hype, and I tend to be overwhelmed by large, anonymizing crowds and audiences. Smaller, more intimate settings have greater appeal to me. However, I can’t deny the irresistible emotional current that enlivens a truly engaged audience. Sports are perhaps the most sure-fire way of being swept into the crowd’s energy, though I’ve been witness to plenty of lifeless events, too, where players and fans are both merely putting in appearances or marking time. Live musical performance runs a similar gamut between transcendent and lifeless experience. The former is infrequent to rare, while the latter has been my assessment of the modern concert-going experience, and one’s experience is not improved by cranking up the volume to unbearable levels. Political rallies and activism offer further points of entry into the mob mind.

Viewing films in a movie theater is usually a better experience than watching on the TV at home. I’ve only been in theaters a handful of times this year, which has been consistently underwhelming in terms of both film quality and audience response. In fact, given the static nature of cinema, performers have no possibility of interacting with the audience vibe as with live theater, comedy, and music. However, given that I habitually avoid opening night crowds, I just might be shortchanging myself. I was told today that the long lines and breathless anticipation tend to bond audiences together, who typically cheer and applaud at the mere appearance onscreen of familiar and/or beloved characters. Basically, pent-up emotion is purged into the room, which may not possible once opening weekend has passed.

Unfortunately, the most hotly anticipated films these days are superhero blockbusters, which appeal especially to adolescents and adult fanboys still hopped up on hormones. Older, wiser, been-there-done-that adults like me may suffer from a lack of childlike wonder or suspension of disbelief, succumbing instead to jadedness and lethargy. So as we approach the new year, I make the resolution to attend an opening night showing just to see if there is something I’ve been missing out on.

A little more content lite (even though my complaint is unavoidable). Saw on Motherboard a report on a first-person, Web-based shopping game about Black Friday zombie mall shoppers. You can play here. It’s pure kitsch but does reinforce the deplorable behaviors of sale-crazed shoppers swarming over each other to get at goodies (especially cheap electronics), sometimes coming to blows. Videos of 2015 Black Friday brawls appeared almost immediately.

We apparently learn nothing year-over-year as we reenact our ritual feeding frenzy, lasting all the way through New Year’s Eve. (I never go out on Black Friday.) I might have guessed that big box retailers face diminishing returns with store displays torn apart, disgruntled shoppers, traumatized employees, and the additional cost of rent-a-cops to herd the masses and maintain order (which obviously doesn’t work in many instances). Yet my e-mail inbox keeps loading up with promotions and advertisements, even a day later. The video game in particular reminds me of Joe Bageant’s great line: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

The video below came to my attention recently, which shows a respectable celebrity, violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman, being dicked around in an interview he probably undertook in good faith. My commentary follows.

Publicized pranks and gotchas are by no means rare. Some are good-natured and quite funny, but one convention of the prank is to unmask it pretty quickly. In the aftermath, the target typically either laughs if off, leaves without comment, or less often, storms out in disgust. Andy Kaufman as “Tony Clifton” was probably among the first to sustain a prank well past the point of discomfort, never unmasking himself. Others have since gotten in on the antics, though results are probably not any worse dickishness (dickery?) than Kaufman’s.

Fake interviews by comedians posing as news people are familiar to viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff The Colbert Report (its run now completed). Zack Galifianakis does the same schtick in Between Two Ferns. It always surprises me when targets fall into the trap, exposing themselves as clueless ideologues willing to be hoisted with their own petards. However, Colbert in particular balanced his arch Republican stage persona with an unmistakable respect for his interview subject, which was at times inspired. Correspondents from The Daily Show are frequently pretty funny, but they almost never convey any respect for the subjects of the interview. Nick Canellakis (shown above) apparently has a whole series of interviews with classical musicians where he feigns idiocy and insult. Whereas some interview subjects are media savvy enough to get the joke and play along, I find this attempt at humor tasteless and unbearable.

Further afield, New Media Rockstars features a burgeoning list of media hosts who typically operate cheaply over the Web via YouTube, supported by an array of social media. At least one, Screen Junkies (the only one I watch), has recently blown into an entire suite of shows. I won’t accuse them all of being talentless hacks or dicking people around for pointless yuks, but I often pause to wonder what makes the shows worth producing beyond the hosts’ embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of comics, cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc. They’re fanboys (and girls) who have leveraged their misspent youth and eternal adolescence to gush and gripe about their passions. Admittedly, this may not be so different from sports fanatics (especially human statisticians), opera geeks, and nerds of others stripes.

Throwaway media may have unintentionally smuggled in tasteless shenanigans such as those by Nick Canellakis. Various comedians (unnamed) have similarly offered humorless discomfort as entertainment. Reality TV shows explored this area a while back, which I called trainwreck television. Cheaply produced video served over the Web has unleashed a barrage of dreck in all these categories. Some shows may eventually find their footing and become worthwhile. In the meantime, I anticipate seeing plenty more self-anointed media hosts dicking around celebrities and audiences alike.