Medical Magic

In the latest Eat This Podcast, Victoria Young talks about living with, and indeed enjoying, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet™. For those of you who don’t know it, this is a very restrictive diet that people claim can reduce the symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease and, with time, perhaps even cure the disease itself. Many doctors dismiss it out of hand. But just because a medical thing requires the use of initial caps and a TM symbol doesn’t automatically make it crazy. And just because many (most?) doctors dismiss it out of hand doesn’t make it sane.

People talk about mind and body as if they were separate things, but I’ve long been of the opinion that the mind (or at any rate the brain) is just another organ, and like all the other organs, it can affect other parts of the body. People also talk about psychosomatic illnesses as if they were somehow not “real” illnesses, but that’s scant comfort to someone suffering from, say, a phobia. The thing is, the brain (or mind) being a rather powerful organ, it often has an undue influence on the rest of the body. Placebos and nocebos work, of that there is no doubt. In the case of the SCD™, though, it seems unlikely that the effects of “forbidden” foods are mediated purely through the brain. There must, I feel, be a more direct effect on the guts, possibly, as its proponents claim, through the gut flora.

On gluten, though, I am not nearly so sure. Of course there are people for whom the consumption of gluten, even unwittingly, will trigger a reaction. But I do not believe that to be true of the vast numbers who have declared themselves gluten intolerant. I’m not saying they shouldn’t eat however they choose, identify however they wish, or any of that. In fact, I declare myself to be gluten-intolerant tolerant. But I am saying that the massive expansion of wheat bellies owes less to actual gluten intolerance than to other factors.

Michael Specter’s article Against the Grain in The New Yorker is not a bad starting place if you want to read more.

Deep, Deep Ruts

I am in a mess, and for a whole slew of different reasons. This afternoon, a few minutes ago, I recognised a definite warning sign. In pursuit of doing something new and different, I got completely stuck in how to do it instead of what to do. Classic prevarication. Figure out a way to make the process more efficient before I have even decided what the outcome of the process should be. So I spent the better part of an hour futzing around with Workflow on the iPhone to see whether I could send some information directly to a nascent bit of what. And why? Because simply emailing the information and then using that as the basis for a bit of what seemed clumsy. It isn’t.

Well, it is, but it will at least get the job done.

At least, it will if I let myself let it.

I Was a Human Mail Bot

Spam is hateful stuff. It clogs up my email inbox. I have to scan that inbox and deal with it. I have to scan my spambox in case something meaningful accidentally ended up there. Despite the best efforts of my mail service, spam is both a time waster and deeply annoying, not least because it forces me occasionally to dwell on human greed and gullibility.

Email newsletters are wonderful. The best of them alert me to things I want to know about and make it easy to decide whether to follow up. Some go too far, but I can always unsubscribe. And if you have things to communicate, email newsletters delivered to subscribers offer powerful insights about how people make use of what you send them. I often suggest to clients that a good email newsletter can be the cornerstone of their communications.

You can see where this is going.

For the past few days, I have been a human email bot, but one with a brain. It all started when a client gave me a spreadsheet of about 1700 contacts collected over the years and in different ways. “About” 1700 because there were duplicates and some of the spreadsheet cells contained more than one email address. No problem. I’ll just upload the list to my preferred mailing list manager1 and let them sort it out. Their list handling is, for the record, brilliant. But of course the mailing list manager doesn’t want to be branded as a spammer. So part of its brilliant list handling is to check the addresses against what is presumably a very, very large database of email addresses that for one reason or another are not functional, and at that, it politely told me to sod off. My list was going nowhere. It did, however, offer a very helpful set of suggestions, which boiled down to: use another sender to email everyone on the list offering them the opportunity to opt in and subscribe to the newsletter in question.2

OK. Makes sense. Of course, rather than spend days trying to figure out how to automate the process of creating about 1700 individually addressed but nevertheless identical emails I just created 17 chunks and pasted them into the Bcc field and clicked send. Bad idea.3 Now my mail service thought I was a spammer. They restrict ordinary accounts to no more than 100 emails an hour, and one email to 100 people hits that limit.

It wasn’t too bad, making 19 chunks (to allow myself some freedom to email as needed) and doing the old cut and paste shuffle, writing myself little notes as to when I could send out the next batch, waiting for the inevitable undelivered messages and hoovering up the offending email addresses into a new file. My brain decided to leave addresses with full mailboxes or out of office messages to survive. Of the 1700 I sent out, around 40% came back dead. That’s high, I reckon. And about 10% of the live emails have signed up. That’s also high, I reckon. And rather than human greed and gullibility, I thought about how hard it is actually to maintain a mailing list by hand, and about how glad I am not to have to be a human email bot more than is absolutely necessary.

The client is happy too. We now have a good solid foundation on which to build subscriptions.

  1. MailChimp, as it happens.

  2. I think I could also pay extra to have them do the filtering, but that wasn’t an option this time.

  3. And not just because some spam sieves look for lots of names in the Bcc as a trigger.

Life Support

With almost two years of regular podcasting under my belt now, three things emerge.

  1. I really enjoy doing this. I would like to do it more and better.
  2. Despite my love for the work, or perhaps because of it, a larger audience would be rewarding.
  3. In the engine room, things need to change.

The three are, of course, commingled.

Audience is in some respects the toughest nut to crack, not just for me but for almost all podcasters. A very few can launch a new show and watch it become an instant hit not only because it is of good quality but also because they already have a name and a reputation through conventional channels. Many more are part of a podcast network in which cross-promotion can direct an existing audience’s attention to new shows and new episodes. The vast majority of us, however, plough a lonely furrow, market ourselves as best we can and deal with the envy aroused by shows not nearly as good as our own that are doing much better than we are.

Solutions exist. Marketing – once one overcomes the whole self-promotion anathema thing – is just a question of making people aware of something that they might find interesting. Provided that I can deliver on that promise with some regularity, casual listeners may turn into an actual audience. And the more of them there are, the more often someone will recommend the show to a friend. Then too, the more people who listen, the more likely some of them will respond to plaintive requests to rate and review the show on iTunes, still apparently one of the most effective ways to bring it to people’s attention. Audience, then, can snowball in a virtuous circle.

Opportunities for networks and cross-promotion are harder to manage. While I wait for the surely inevitable email from Gimlet Media or Radiotopia, I continue to think about some kind of curated platform that would allow people to discover potentially interesting podcasts. At the moment, thinking about it is all I can manage. If I ever manage to go full time, however, this discovery channel will be second on my to-do list.

And the whole point of all this marketing and abhorrent self-promotion is to reach the point where enough listeners place sufficient value on what they’re hearing to enable me to devote more time to it. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t actually need all that much cash to live a reasonable life. And that’s another virtuous circle, where being able to spend more time ought to result in a better product that will encourage more support.

Adoption matters

So, how about support? Around six months ago I joined Flattr, which simplifies to some extent the business of doling out micro-payments to content you value. I like it and I use it, but the truth is that in the greater scheme of things, it does not seem to be making that much of an impression. The thing is, you have to sign up both to give and to receive Flattrs, and that is quite definitely a barrier. Many people who have been Flattrd either don’t know or don’t care and have never bothered to collect the money they have earned. I’ve no idea how much unclaimed cash Flattr is sitting on, and have not been able to find out, but I bet it is a tidy sum. Even if creators don’t want it for themselves, they could always use their earnings to Flattr others who might welcome it, adding to the general expectation that consumers will reward good content and creators can expect rewards for creating it.

Patreon offers a different model of support. Flattr is largely about individual things, although it does offer a way to subscribe by ensuring that a content creator receives a single, regular Flattr – a micro-payment – each month. Patreon is all about subscription, a commitment to give someone so much per month or per episode. The amount you pledge is variable, and you can cancel at any point. A lot of people and companies on Patreon use a tiered support mechanism whereby the more you pay, the more you get, from undying gratitude and love to your name inscribed in gold on a granite monument. Well, I made that last one up, but you get the picture. And people also promise to do certain things if they reach certain amounts. Hit $100 a month and I will buy a new microphone; hit $7500 and I’ll go full time, that sort of thing.

So far, I have not yet joined Patreon in search of support, mostly because I cannot think of anything valuable I could usefully offer higher-paying patrons, and that kind of incentive does seem to be ubiquitous on Patreon. Undying gratitude and love for $1 a month can hardly be more undying for $100 a month. Maybe that would be a selling point in and of itself. You give me as much money as you think I’m worth, and I’ll give you as much gratitude and love as I think you’re worth.

Nah.

There’s actually room for both models. The internet needs something like Flattr so that people can spontaneously reward things they come across. And it needs Patreon so that we can offer long-term support to people who consistently produce things we value. Actually, maybe that’s something Flattr could do relatively easily: tell you when you have Flattrd a particular creator more than, say, five times in a month. Then set up a somewhat larger regular payment, if you wish.

There is clearly a lot of scope for Flattr and Patreon and others to be used as ways to give people who make things our continuing support (as opposed to the one-off hit of crowdfunding). The real need, though, is for a sea change in attitude. That’s why adoption matters.

P.s.
In the engine room, the primary change needed is better to understand and make use of the RSS feed. This is the stream of information that alerts iTunes to new episodes and that enables people to receive the show in the pod catcher of their choice. This last is important partly because iTunes is not exactly a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out stuff. It would be nice if the RSS feed delivered brief notes rather than, or as well as, the full text of an entry on the website. That would enable the summary that appears with iTunes to be more enticing while the show notes could be more comprehensive and useful. I’m pretty sure that this would not be difficult, although it is currently beyond me. Access to better information about listeners and how they listen would be useful too.

P.p.s. This post was actually written on 16 January, but my incompetence prevented me from publishing it. In the meantime I caught up with Dave Slusher’s Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for January 12 2015, which discusses many of the same issues. I’d link to it, but it’s borken. You can try from here.

Beyond Poppyseeds

Poppyseeds can be a nightmare for anyone subject to random drug tests. This much I knew, having researched the topic for my poppyseed cake recipe. I never imagined, though, that food could be more than just a little soporific. ABC Radio in Australia hauled Fuschia Dunlop before a microphone to enliven a discussion about the latest news about Chinese cooking. She reminisced:

As the afternoon went on we just got more and more relaxed until everyone just felt drowsy. We all went and fell asleep on beds and sofas and I can still remember having this absolutely blissful sleep. When I woke up I went back into the kitchen and I noticed that there were poppy heads bobbing around in the broth.

ABC’s story contains the usual warnings about innocent people failing drug tests, but I found it more interesting for a couple of other points.

First, although banned in 2008, it is still possible to get opiated grub at small, family run restaurants, “thanks to a lack of health and safety oversight”.

Then there’s the question you know they just had to ask:

What does it taste like?

‘Under the assault of Szechuan pepper and chillies and black beans and all the other ingredients you wouldn’t notice it,’ says Dunlop.

‘It’s just another spice, but with a rather interesting effect.’

Uh-huh.

And finally, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I failed to point out that the photo accompanying the audio file, while definitely a poppy is definitely not an opium poppy.

Follow me on App.net Subscribe on App.net