The Surreal with the Fringe on Top--Why you should never believe anything you see, hear, or read on the Internet

"The shades are made from fish bladders. The dashboard--that's the dried skin of a dead cow. And those tassels atop us? Caterpillar spit. Ain't she a beauty?" In one of the opening numbers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Oklahoma!, Curly tries to persuade Laurey to go to the box social with him by promising to take her there “in the slickest gig ya ever seen” – the surrey with the fringe on top.

It’s a sweet ride. The wheels are yella, the upholstery’s brown, the dashboard’s genuine leather, with isinglass curtains you can roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather.

When I first heard about isinglass curtains during rehearsal for our high school’s rendition of Oklahoma!, I pictured an exotic, delicate roll-able crystal sheet. Turns out isinglass curtains are actually made from the dried swim bladders of fish like sturgeon or cod. Not as romantic, of course, but certainly nothing to fear.

Until now. Fish bladders are all over the news this week, striking fear into the hearts of beer drinkers everywhere. Why? Well, according to food blogger, Vani Hari, some beer brands “are trying to slowly poison us with cheap and harmful ingredients,” like fish bladders.

It’s great hype, resulting in breathless headlines and countless morning TV show appearances for Food Babe Vani Hari (who will show you how to avoid being poisoned by your food for a mere $17.99 a month).

The trouble is her claim about fish bladders in beer is alarmingly overblown … a fish story, if you will … and patently absurd.

Humans have been clarifying beer and wine with isinglass for centuries. They are among a group of substances known as “finings”—which includes egg whites, blood, milk and Irish moss for you vegetarians—that are used to remove organic compounds like yeast, sulfides, and proteins from beer to improve the clarity or to affect the taste and aroma of the final product. During the process, all these scary finings settle to the bottom of the cask and disposed of.

But you wouldn’t know it from the headlines that demand to know: “What’s in your beer? Fish bladder and anti-freeze ingredient?,” “What’s in that beer you’re drinking? Are brewers hiding something?,” and Vani’s own eyebrow-raiser: The Shocking Ingredients In Beer.

Vani certainly has a right to make bank by hyping imaginary dangers to a gullible public, and the media has a right to attract eyeballs with sensational headlines. But if you’re at all interested in learning the facts on any given issue, you owe it to yourself to dig just a little deeper before taking your place among the chorus of the easily misinformed.

Lessons from Zombie Boy: Heart-tugging campaigns--like beauty--are often only skin deep.

"Baby Jesus, please make Zombie Boy pretty like the rest of us so we can accept him as he should be, no matter what it does to his acting career."  After every outdoor recess my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Yaroschuk, would make us boys wash our hands in the boys’ room and then march single-file past her desk to show her that we got the job done right.

I, unfortunately, had inherited a mild skin condition that would flare up at the most inopportune times—like just before opening day of the 1969 Outdoor Recess Season.

This condition manifested itself as a crescent of very dry skin that ran from the base of my index fingers to the first knuckle of my thumbs. When that skin got dirty—which was always since it was attached to the hands of a nine-year-old boy—it stayed dirty. I couldn’t wash it away no matter how hard I scrubbed.

Mrs. Yaroschuk, even more unfortunately, did not know about this condition and demanded to know why I refused to wash my hands. When I tried to explain sotto voce—since, at this point, we had captured the collective attention of the entire class—she declared to the class that I was lying.

Then, in the middle of hand-inspection time, she grabbed my arm and dragged me into the boys’ room so she could “get that dirt off your hands myself, believe you me!”

She did try, I’ll give her that. But after about two or three minutes of rubbing my hands under hot tap water with coarse brown paper towels slathered in industrial-strength liquid soap, it dawned on her that I was telling the truth.

Today there are a number of products on the market that would prevent such humiliations (mine and Mrs. Yaroschuk’s). And one of those products—Dermablend—is currently taking its turn as an Internet darling with a contrived video campaign called “The Camo Confession,” created by Agence Tuxedo, an ad agency in Montreal.

The premise is clever: A beautiful person sits before a camera, tells you something wonderful about herself, and then makes her “confession” by wiping the Dermablend foundation from her face and revealing a striking skin condition. It’s fascinating, really, when you see that these “normal” people are actually suffering from rather extreme skin conditions caused by things like lupus, severe acne, and vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes the loss of skin color in patches.

The reveal, and each person’s story, makes a powerful case for why some people feel strongly that they need to use Dermablend when they’re out in public, and why—were it not for our reactions—they really wouldn’t have to.

Real feel-good stuff … until you meet Rico. Rico, you see, suffers from … well, let’s let him tell his story.

“Many people would say that I’m different just because of my skin, but I don’t feel that way. In many ways, I’m just the same as anyone else. I am accepted by a lot of people who are … who are different, and in the same position as I am.

“No matter what you’re faced with in life, always feel proud of who you are, for what you are and not to let others’ judgments get in your way. Today, I feel proud. I did what I had to do. And look at me now.”

Yes, Rico is suffering from … tattoos. Hideous, debilitating tattoos that he presumably paid people to etch over his entire body. But did he let that self-inflicted affliction slow him down? Quite the contrary! Rick “Rico” Genest, aka Zombie Boy, is a DJ, an actor, and a model … not in spite of his skin condition, but because of it.

God bless him.

According to Agence Tuxedo, “Above all, you wear a Tuxedo to make an impression.” Well, guys, the impression I hget from that video is Rico in a tuxedo T-shirt, because it says, “I want to be pitiable, but I’m here to party.”


Today's lesson: How to turn a one-cycle news story into an international kerfluffle

"I tired to get them to stop fighting, but they wouldn't listen to me, Mrs. Cleaver." "Stow it, Eddie." After a long and grueling international business trip, John came home to find his two sons, Izzy and Peel-o, stockpiling water balloons and mud balls on opposite sides of the driveway ... again.

Determined to put an end to this silliness once and for all, he sat them down, one on each knee, and said, "Hey, look at me ... both of you. Now I know exactly what you guys are going through. In fact, I understand your conflict even better than you do. Heck, your old man was once young and full of piss and vinegar just like you.

"But here's the thing, this fighting has got to stop. The neighbors are starting to talk, and your mother is just about at the end of her rope. So I want you two to shake hands and promise never to fight again.

"OK, you don't have to shake on it. Just promise me you'll both be on your best behavior from now on. Now run off and play nice like good little soldiers."

Just as John was out of earshot, Izzy says to himself, "Who the hell died and made him king? He doesn't know diddly-squat about what I'm going through. I wish he'd go on a business trip and never come home!"

Unfortunately Izzy spoke a bit too loudly and his mom heard every word. And boy, was she mad. She blasted open the screen door, marched up to her sons, and screamed, "Your remarks, Izzy, if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that Dad is doing to support your security needs. Dad has been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for you."

As you can imagine, everyone in the neighborhood heard the commotion and it was all that anyone talked about for days.

Of course, that was just a reenactment for demonstration purposes. Here's what really happened--from the Washington Post:

The State Department responded with unusual sharpness Tuesday to remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who characterized Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s efforts to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.”

In remarks that Yaalon’s office later said he believed were off the record, he reportedly told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Kerry “cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” A security plan for Israel drawn up by retired U.S. Gen. John Allen as part of Kerry’s peace proposals “is not worth the paper it’s written on,” the paper quoted Yaalon as saying.

“The only thing that can ‘save us,’ ” Yaalon said, “is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with Kerry on a visit to the Vatican, said the remarks, “if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs.” Adding that Kerry, Allen and others “have been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for Israel,” Psaki said.

Lesson: Keep the high horse in the barn until you really need it. Because that nag almost always makes news.

Twitter Rage in the Twitter Age: How intoxicating anonymity can derail your career

"No, John, you may NOT use 'I got kissed by a priest' as one of your sins. Do I make myself clear?

It is a fascinating paradox of human nature that we would gladly hold open a tavern door for the person we just tried to kill in a moment of blinding road rage on our way to that tavern.

A lot of our rage behind the wheel is attributed to the anonymity that we enjoy in our cars—that and the fact that this jackhole has been driving 55 in the left lane with his blinker on for the last two miles and I swear to God if I ever get in front of him …

But I digress.

Social media is having much the same effect on our frontal lobes, allowing us to engage in behavior so unsociable that we wouldn’t even confess it to our priest.*

* Another quick digression. Before Monsignor Bulman excommunicated my mom from St. Mary’s for having the gall to find herself divorced(!) from her philandering husband, she used to help us make up sins on the way to confession. It was only a two-mile ride so there was a lot of frantic horse trading in the back of our station wagon.

“I don’t want ‘hitting.’ I didn’t hit anybody!”

“OK, I’ll take ‘hitting,’ Mary Beth. But you gotta take ‘being disrespectful’ and ‘skipping your prayers.’ ”

“But I didn’t skip my prayers.”

“Fine. We’ll give that to Marnie. She needs some more sins anyway. But then you gotta take ‘not sharing.’”

“But I always share!”

And although we never said it out loud, we all knew that making up sins to confess to the priest definitely qualified as one of the sins we should fess up to.

The most recent example of unsocial media that resulted in “career Twittercide” involves one Jofi Joseph, aka @natsecwonk, who was an Obama political appointee to the National Security Council. Protected by the anonymity of his Twitter account, Joseph engaged in a self-described “series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments” for more than two years.

When he was finally outed as the culprit in a sting orchestrated by White House officials, he was promptly fired, an administrative action that was confirmed by White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Not a good day for Jofi. Not good at all.

So what can we learn from this, kids? Right. If you need to make snarky comments about your co-workers, your boss, or your employer, don’t do it online, especially if you're a presidential appointee to the freakin' NSC. If you must complain, do it the old-fashioned way—in drunken slurs slumped over your your seventh Jameson’s neat in your favorite neighborhood tavern.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one Honda” and other gems from the Overreaching Files

"Thanks for taking the wheel. My ovaries are killing me." Cleric Sheikh Lohaidan recently cautioned Saudi women about the dangers of driving while female, specifically that driving “automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” which can cause “clinical problems” in children.

Based on that logic, we can safely assume that Sheik Lohaidan’s mom was a long-haul trucker.

The trouble with overreaching—which most of us learned when we kept making that face but it didn’t get stuck that way—is that once you’re proved wrong you not only lose the argument, you lose your credibility.

Here are just two examples of magnificent political overreaching in the past few weeks:

Cruz Control—Led by Joe-McCarthy-impersonator Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Lala Land), a merry band of Tea Party Republicans shut down the US government in an effort to de-fund “Obamacare” ... despite the fact that the bill was approved by Congress, signed into law by the president, and upheld by a conservative Supreme Court.

Victims of our own success—The White House, meanwhile, tried valiantly to convince us that the web-based infrastructure of the Obamacare juggernaut collapsed under the weight of all the praise we heaped on it. When they pivoted to the “glitch” excuse, comparing their minor bump in the road to the glitches in Apple’s new operating system, even traditional Team Obama supporters called shenanigans.

  • “Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it. I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t.”  — President Barack Obama, Oct. 1
  • “If Apple launched a major new product that functioned as badly as Obamacare’s online insurance marketplace, the tech world would be calling for Tim Cook’s head.” — Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas in The Washington Post Wonkblog, Oct. 4
  • “We’re going to do a challenge. I’m going to try and download every movie ever made and you are going to try to sign up for Obamacare — and we’ll see which happens first.” — Jon Stewart to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on "The Daily Show," Oct. 7
  • The Obama Administration may be heading for a “credibility death spiral” if they can’t fix the crippling problems afflicting the program, according to CBS News Political Director John Dickerson.