Friday, April 29, 2016

Eleven Great YouTube Channels You Should Watch

Used to be that a lot of people would read newspapers in bed in the morning when they had nowhere to be. Hemingway often did that in fact and in fiction. I've written the news off, though, but I enjoy waking up and watching what new things that daily vloggers have to say. Vloggers like Casey Neistat are more addictive than soap operas because their productions have drama, but they're real and believable.

So I thought you might like to know who I watch. My choices are personal: they cluster around a few centers: I like videos by expatriates, particularly in Asia. I like videos about food and travel (the two go together, as I will explain). And I like videos about alternative housing, among other topics that I anticipate needing to know about in the future. I like videos that make me laugh. And rather perversely compared to my other tastes, I enjoy the occasional cat video. These may not be your choice of topics, but they're a starting place from which you can gradually discover your own areas of interest and vloggers who talk about those topics in an interesting way. So this list is in no way meant to be comprehensive, but just a starting place for good YouTubing. Even if you're a long-time viewer, you might find a few new channels to interest you.

I'm also a fan of cinema, so I watch movie previews, but I don't expect YouTube videos to be outstanding cinematic productions. YouTube videos are typically made by someone who has something to say, and they say it with simple, inelegant equipment. Yet anyone who produces videos daily with even the crudest equipment gets better, and some people, like Casey Neistat, just seem to be natural born filmmakers.

Casey Neistat

Casey Neistat

Casey Neistat was already vlogging when he turned 34 last year, but on that birthday he committed himself to produce a short documentary film about his life every day. He already had a following that nobody would smirk at because he and his brother had done a season of films for HBO, and Casey and a friend had also made a film for Nike of himself using every conceivable conveyance and doing a lot of running in which he took a very active trip completely around the world in ten days. But shortly after he began daily vlogging, boosted by a handful of viral videos (Snowboarding with the NYPD, 13.6 million views; Bike Lanes, 16.4m; The Surprise in South Africa, 4.8m, among others), his following climbed logarithmically, to a million, then more quickly to two million. As of this writing it's at 2.8 million and headed fast to break the three million mark.

Those accomplishments alone are significant and possibly more than a lot of people do in a lifetime, but there are many more remarkable things about Casey. Here are ten of them:

  1. His life was going nowhere, and one day woke up and decided to U-turn out of the dead end. He rented a sofa in a friend's apartment that just happened to be a block from the World Trade Center on September 11. The video from that day is about fear and confusion. Now he lives a life that goes everywhere. He often travels in and out of the US, but he loves New York and calls it home.
  2. The guy has a Midas touch: he literally makes a living, a good living, doing what he wants to do and what he loves to do.
  3. Casey and his wife have family ties in Connecticut, Houston, and South Africa, so these recurring locations in the Niestat ouvre.
  4. People send him things. When he opens mail in his vlog, he has more packages than Father Christmas. He has a sweet tooth and people send him candy (but lately he has been trying to go cold turkey on the sugar addiction, and he's doing a juice cleanse). He gets cameras, microphones, Boosted Boards and Hoverboards (electric-powered skateboards) and electric unicycles, drones, and much more. For free. Tourism agencies of island nations fly him to their Caribbean resorts just so his legion of followers will see what it's like there. Companies send him their products in the hope that if fans see the well-respected YouTuber using their product in the video then they'll want to use it too. Product placement. For a long time Casey flew American Airlines almost exclusively, and AA reciprocated with access to very ritzy VIP lounges complete with showers, food, and drink, but AA suddenly backed away, and now he and JetBlue could be courting each other for the next Niestat choice in airlines.
  5. Casey is still very much Casey, which is one reason the fans who stop him to say hello on the street like him so much. Having achieved success with a rare flair and panache, and without selling out, he is an inspirational speaker. His advice to becoming a successful vlogger is simple: vlog every day (1 trick to 2.5 MILLION SUBSCRIBERS). His video on Losers and Closers is essential to understanding the secret to success, whether you want to be a YouTuber or an axle luber: you've got to commit and stay committed. As Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try." (By the way, almost without fail, Casey has great music soundtracks—I suspect he's worked out a deal with composers—but unfortunately the Losers and Closers soundtrack sounds like a two-dollar music box, but you can't win them all.)
  6. He's a great filmmaker. Critics say that the key to Akira Kurosawa's success lies in every shot composing an eye-pleasing picture. I don't know if Casey is a fan of Kurosawa, but his every shot contains strong visual interest, especially when roughly half the shots are made atop a Boosted Board weaving through New York City traffic while he holds the board's controller in one hand and the leg of a camera tripod as a selfie stick in the other.
  7. Now that he's mastered flying drones, the drone often runs alongside him or over his head at varying distances as he runs his Boosted Board on the sidewalks along the East River. That's a great effect, but it could not have been easy to master because again he's got the Boosted Board controller in one hand and the iPad-like drone controller in both hands, yet he's coordinating both his path and the flying camera's path through space. Indeed, the drone-borne camera often flies off into space, up and over the Brooklyn Bridge and peers into the heart of the Manhattan skyline. The camera lens makes love to the City. No filmmaker loves that City more than Casey Niestat or Woody Allen.
  8. Casey is a storyteller, and when he is in teaching mode, he says, Don't let the gear get in the way of the story. Most of his videos not only document a day, but they have an objective, some sort of story, tied up in their telling. The exceptions are when Casey decides to explain some principle like the Pareto Principle or Always Be Closing or how to be successful in the vlogging (or blogging) world.
  9. Casey is a family man. He has a teenage son named Owen by a woman he knew in his past life. Casey's success has allowed him to take Owen on a lot of his global excursions. Casey is married to Candice, and they have a baby who has spent the first year of her life highly visible in the first year of Casey's daily vlogs. We've seen her transform from tiny infant to a walking and active toddler who is on the verge of talking. She's already saying "Dada!" Candice owns her own business as well: Finn, a classy designer jewelry store in Manhattan.
  10. And a bit of Niestat trivia: for weeks now one of the monitors at his editing station has been playing the Godfather saga. Is there a message there? Or is Coppola his favorite director? Or is that just the way it is? With Casey, all of these are possible at the same time. (12 May 2016 Update: Casey says, "Somebody asked me why I have the Godfather I and the Godfather II on a permanent loop in here, and the reason why is that it's the greatest movie ever made and looking over and seeing it is a constant source of inspiration.")

Mark Wiens

Mark Wiens

"...having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world" (Herman Melville, Moby Dick).
Mark Wiens is American and has a Thai wife named Ying who brings a lot of charm and grace to his videos and who accompanies him at table and on the road. Ying often works the camera while Mark explains what they're eating, and Wiens's face blossoms with enthusiasm and heartfelt foodie passion as he gamely tries all sorts of exotic food all over Asia. Occasionally, from the kitchen of his Bangkok apartment, he shows us how to cook simple dishes, but most of the time they're on the road. Wien's Web site, Migrationology, complements his presence through his YouTube channel. Wiens gives a lot of information away for free on his site, but for sale there are some splendid guidebooks without which you shouldn't travel to Asia. I just bought a T-shirt to upgrade my long-term spiritual enthusiasm for all this food and travel with something more substantial.

Typically one of Wiens's excursions lasts a week or two and produces several daily videos, in which Mark and Ying eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at restaurants worth visiting if you should ever travel to the city in question, and ultimately he publishes a guidebook on Migrationology. Their trips have led them to Saigon, Singapare, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Seoul, and other no less exotic places. One excursion was to their home city, Bangkok: they left their apartment and spent two weeks in local hotels so they would experience Bangkok as travelers but with their keen insights—of locals, yes, but Wiens somehow takes that insight everywhere he goes. Recently the Jordanian Tourism Board flew him and Ying to Jordan, where they ate, visited Petra, and drank a LOT of delicious Arabic coffee. Wiens's unbridled enthusiasm for good food and what the world's many peoples have done to sanctify the daily task of feeding themselves cannot be overstressed. The video about eating beef in Kobe, Japan, provides one of the best examples.

Everyone eats, but few know how to eat as well as Mark Wiens. We travel not merely by the feel of our soles on terra firma but by the taste of food across our palates: we travel not merely by foot but by tongue. The great French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan equated language and culture, and man invented language first to speak about food. So eating becomes the most pure, direct, and visceral way to experience local language and transcend another culture. Nowhere is this more apparent in Wiens's work as in the the Jordanian trip, where even Wiens was on relatively new terrain and cuisine.

In his biographical notes, Wiens says he was born in Phoenix, but spent his first year of school in Albertville, France. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence, but Anthony Bourdain also spent part of his childhood in France, so I can't help wondering if a childhood in France introduces youth to fearless and adventurous eating. Wiens spent three years being home-schooled while living with his parents in the jungles of the Congo before attending an international school in Nairobi, Kenya. I know from teaching at an international school in India that this sort of education opens one to cultural diversity and a profound curiosity about the world, so it's quite appropriate that Wiens majored in Global Studies at Arizona State University.

After graduating in 2008, "with few plans," Wiens wandered about South America, hiked the chilly, wind-sheered mountains of Patagonia, and considered teaching English, but that turned out not to be his path. A year later he returned to Arizona to attend his sister's wedding, and that was when he was inspired to establish Migrationology and to begin blogging. Rather like Casey Neistat's 34th birthday commitment to blog daily, Wiens committed himself to Migrationology. "With no plans other than to eat as much as I could" and to blog, he bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok.

He explored Southeast Asia for six months and spent all his money. He signed one last contract to teach English, but the commitment he made in that year was never to teach again but to live off the Internet, eat, travel, and earn some money.

"It wasn’t easy," Wiens says, and it took three years of staring at the computer screen until cross-eyed, scrimping, and saving before he was making enough to support anyone other than himself. Wiens shares his secrets in a video, How I make money while traveling the world (and eating), and also published these tips as a blog at Migrationology.

Then he met Ying, "the most amazing girl in the world," and they married in July 2013. All in all, Wiens and Ying live life like an artwork in progress, and what a delight that they share this with us through almost daily videos.

Angel Wong's Kitchen

Angel Wong

I've only been watching Angel Wong a short time, but she's charmingly telegenic with an innately wholesome image. She's a natural teacher who explains food in its cultural context and provides clear, step-by-step instructions on how to cook each dish in a way that makes even me, generally a klutz in the kitchen, feel ready to take on anything from wontons to boba tea, and she even explains how to make the bobas (tapioca balls) that make tea boba-ly. She's been producing YouTube videos for two years. Wong balances her videos between Taiwanese cooking and Asian culture, so they are both culinary and anthropological, and sometimes her recipes come from other parts of Asia as well. For example, the matcha tea ritual, called chado in Japanese, she says, is Japanese. She is especially partial to tea and has numerous videos on how to prepare it and serve it, from Taiwanese Milk Tea, which she professes is her favorite, to Starbucks-style green tea frappuccino. Despite all these wonderful approaches to tea, her channel's recipes cover every corner of the table. So from soup all the way to dessert, you could start with classic wonton soup, serve green onion pancakes and mapo tofu alongside popcorn chicken with basil as the entrée,  and wow everyone with almond cookies for dessert. The possibilities for menus with her recipe-rich channel seem endless.

With 78,000 followers and growing rapidly, Wong was acknowledged by YouTube as a "NextUp Winner," one of a promising new class of creators upon whom YouTube "bestows funding, training, and mentoring." This year, says YouTube, 360 total winners were chosen near the Creator Spaces in New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Toronto, and Mumbai. Wong had just returned from a trip to Taiwan, from where she regaled us with lots of Instagram and Twitter pictures of some of the most enticing street food I've seen anywhere, and somehow during a vacation she also managed to tape and edit a few YouTube videos as well. She made it back just in time to immerse herself in serious training at YouTube's Los Angeles Creator Space.

Ryosuke and Grace Mineta

Grace Mineta and her husband Ryosuke's YouTube channel and Web site create a huge Web festival celebrating the couple's creativity. Their videos fall into two major groupings: those that document their life, especially Grace's "A Day in the Life" videos (a personal favorite); and those that offer advice on a topic about which they are particularly qualified to give advice like 5 Things to Think about BEFORE an International Marriage and 4 Things to know BEFORE marrying a Foreigner.

Grace is the author of three comic books—or so she modestly calls them: the one I have, Confessions of a Texan in Tokyo, is more like a novel rendered partly in comic strips and partly in text, and though it is spirited and written in good humor, it is anything but trivial or silly as comic books tend to be. Here runs a rich current of feeling, love, intelligence, and of life lived such that every day brings a wondrous new adventure (hence, I suspect, the Day-in-the-Life videos). One heartwarming thread common to many of the expats living in Japan (Grace and Rachel share this) is their love for their adopted country and how thrilled they are when that country—or someone from that country—returns their affection.

Grace and Ryosuke provide yet another example of how, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, one can indeed begin to make a living online. As I recall from one of their videos, Ryosuke did have a traditional job outside the home, while Grace stayed home, did some freelance writing, wrote her comic books, and took care of the YouTube stuff. Making films for YouTube is not trivial. Although videos have the casual appearance of home movies, they look easier than they are (try it if you don't believe me). Just like a Hollywood movie, a YouTube video must go through stages of pre-production, production, and post-production, and Grace was taking up the slack there while Ryosuke worked. She has said that it took her close to three years before she built up a reasonable income. Moving out of Tokyo to a smaller town in Japan also helped their financial situation. Ryosuke wasn't happy with his job outside the home, so he has now joined Grace in their cottage industry.
More lately Grace and Ryosuke have visited her academic parents in Ghana, and Ryo went on a "bro trip" with friends to Hawaii, so their videos sometimes take us into a completely new cultural contexts.

Rachel and Jun
Jun & Rachel

Rachel and Jun are another internationally married couple living in Japan, yet they are quite different from Grace and Ryosuke, so having them both on this list is anything but redundant. I wouldn't be too far off target to say that the difference between Grace and Rachel and, hence, the difference between their videos and narrative styles, is the difference between introversion and extroversion. Rachel loves fashion and will sometimes buy (or be given by shops?) a whole bunch of new clothes, which she delights in putting on for the camera to make a little fashion show for her female audience.

Rachel is also the Gertrude Stein of the expat YouTubers in Japan. She's infinitely prettier than the Grand Dame of Paris ever was, but like Stein she is connected and catalytic. She seems to know them all, and she often shares her venue with another YouTuber, which is a great way to discover other people in that corner of the world that you might want to follow. For example, here she is with Martina of Simon and Martina (see below).

Jun is an accomplished chef, and his recent edible sushi sculptures that look like koi have gotten a lot of press. Together they have been doing some wonderful videos about travel in Japan, in which they strive for a more objective and professional approach, like mini-documentaries about place, as opposed to the usual first-person and intensely personal style of vlogging. The Water City is a personal favorite out of this series, and the Japanese Capsule Hotel shared details I've been curious about since I read Neuromancer.

The Talking Kitty Cat

Sylvester the talking cat

Sylvester is a talking cat with an attitude that duplicates how many real cats act, think, and, well, talk. I mentioned the talking cat in a Google+ post once, and someone corrected me and said that cats can't talk, but I fired back that I'd seen the cat talking in the video with my own eyes.

In this household of verbal felines there is also an extraordinary dog named Shelby. This big old black Labrador does not know how to talk, so the resident human and video producer Steve Cash has engineered a special electronic collar with a speaker suspended from it that allows us to hear Shelby's thoughts. The dog tends to select and fixate on one or two words in the conversation and to move no further: "BACON?!"

Sylvester's co-star, Gibson, had a much more softspoken personality than curmudgeonly Sylvester, and he was often cowed by Sylvester's bullying. Yet sadly, in the last video, What No One Saw Coming, the Talking Kitty channel owner and creative force made a surprise appearance to tell us that Gibson had died during production of this video, but not before his mate had dropped a litter of tiny Gibson-like kittens. This tragic twist in an otherwise comic series spawned numerous fan tributes like this one by Nicholas Coulter.

Cats Life TV

Hatch and Mac are the stars of Cats Life TV, where the cats do not talk either Japanese or English, and out of a characteristically Japanese shyness or a universal need for privacy, we never see the channel owner's face. What we do see are two charming cats that love to be petted by their human, who loves to pet them. This channel is about pure cat love. The channel has a modest but impressive following (by YouTube standards) of over 8000 followers, and her videos typically receive 1500 to 2000 views, though this video starring Tuxedo cat Hatch has had 107,143 views. The Japanese do not have a monopoly on loving cats, but they perhaps love them more than anyone else. There are cat stores that sell every imaginable cat accessory—clothing, toys, catnip—and if we take Rachel and Jun's video about cat adoption at face value, it's probably easier to adopt children than cats in Japan. Japan also has cat cafés, a concept which is slowly reaching the US, and even a cat island. Homeless cats often have visitors who pet them and build shelters for them.

Shonduras (Shaun McBride)

Shonduras is the online moniker of Shaun McBride who remains something of an enigma to me probably because I am older and otherwise outside his general demographics. To me, he is an amalgam of a hundred paradoxes: he has long hair and a scraggly beard and lives the life of a boy in which all the world is an obstacle course for a skateboard or a parkour artist; yet he clearly loves his wife and baby and is a great husband and father, and he provides for his family well. Despite the hair and would-be beard, his only vice is cereal. I thought for a while that he was an X Games athlete because he's better than anyone else in his world on boards, skis, or even makeshift snow vehicles that he puts together for fun like the refrigerator bobsled (others in this maladaptive snow mobility series are worth watching: a scooter with skateboard trucks; a hoverboard with skateboard wheels; skiing on a bike; snowboarding on an ironing board; snowboarding on a waterski; skating on an "open" [for business] sign; etc.). But then I read that his fame emerged not from any sort of extreme neo-athletics, but from Snapchat, which is famous for putting anyone over 30 in a state of cognitive dissonance. But the income theory gets even murkier: there's a part of his house that he calls the Space Station that holds, like a small Internet café, a dozen computers, and one to three guys, depending upon the video, who seem to be either working there or sleeping there. On the wall he has mounted cereal dispensers for anyone who needs a Lucky Stars fix. Yet out of this fog emerges the happy face and positive attitude of Shonduras, who seems to have no disparaging language in his vocabulary, who sees something happy in just about everything, and whose videos are always titled "Best Day Ever #XX," where XX is the episode number. I suppose I'm left out in the cold like Bob Dylan's Mr Jones, but people pay to have Shonduras come spread his positivity in their corner of the world, and he spends a good chunk of time traveling—maybe not as much as Casey Neistat, who is a friend of Shonduras, but a lot. I fear I will always be thoroughly mystified by what I'm watching, but I'm pretty well hooked. It's like watching a cross between Hot Dog ... the Movie and Lost.

Simon and Martina
Martina and SImon

Simon and Martina spent seven years in Korea, and they moved recently to Japan and brought their following of over a million viewers with them. On camera they have share a dynamic that reminds me of the exchange between radio personalities on one of those really good and funny radio shows that you listen to in your car on the way to work in the morning. Well, OK, maybe they're not that funny, but they are also informative, and information presented with humor ranks high in my book. I ask myself, what would early-morning radio talent be doing wandering around East Asia, and my theory is that the rapport of their public pesonae isn't rooted in radio but in teaching English as a Foreign Language, which is how most foreigners come to Japan and Korea. If you're going to survive as a teacher, you have to be entertaining, and they were in Korea for seven years—that's like 28 in teacher years. Simon sometimes wears a T-shirt that says, "I'm more interesting on the Internet," and I understand that completely. On the Internet he gets to do the persona and the rapport with Martina: it might not quite be the real them, but it's the wonderfully entertaining them for their vlog.

I started watching them because I was eager to get someone else's insights into the country where I lived for two years. So I came to them for the country but stayed for the humor, the information, and all the wonderful things they were telling me about Korea, much of which I hadn't noticed myself even though I was no stay-at-home stick-in-mud. Suddenly they uprooted themselves and moved to Japan, which is great because now they're going to tell me about Japan with that Buddhist virtue called the Beginner's Mind. And it will be funny. 

Simon and Martina rank just behind Mark Wiens on this list for knowing how to eat. I don't mean that I value gluttony as a virtue. I mean that eating is something we all have to do, and it is better done if it is sanctified by carefully and lovingly prepared food and appreciated that way as well. Eating is necessary to live. Eating well, appreciating the art in cookery, celebrates life. Coincidentally, Simon and Martina did a video about shabu shabu just as I was learning about it here in the states. Now I can't wait to go to this nearby restaurant, though here in Texas shabu shabu is a menu item in a more general hot pot restaurant. Now I haven't had any of this yet, but I have had hot pot in Hong Kong vicariously with Mark Wiens, so I'm sure it's good, and I've had shabu shabu vicariously with Martina and Simon, but I worry that a hot pot restaurant that doesn't specialize in shabu shabu won't do it as well. By the way, Martina explains that shabu shabu in Japan means swish as in the swish and flick that Hermione Granger masters when learning to levitate a feather in Harry Potter's first.

Kinoshita Yuka
Kinoshita Yuka

Kinoshita Yuka is a Japanese vlogger who usually includes English subtitles with her videos. The premise behind Yuka's videos are that she is going to eat a massive quantity of some particular kind of food, and she is going to do it with gusto. She's no amateur walking around with a selfie-stick: her videos are professionally produced with a staff that includes even the subtitle writer, and she has a camera presence that suggests professional training. One night she tackles 3 kilograms of pizza, and another night two jars of cookie butter with 18 slices of Texas toast at an estimated 6336 kcal, which is enough calories for a man twice her size for two days. As a novelty that's interesting to drop in on, and she's got a perky stage presence and a contagious zeal for food, and although the video treats all this as something amazing and a little funny, I am sometimes haunted by the guilty feeling of being a voyeur upon someone's eating disorder. I don't know eating disorders well enough to say, but if she doesn't run to the bathroom to throw all this up in a classic case of bulimia, is it still an eating disorder? She's coming out with two or three of these videos every week. Nevertheless her enthusiasm is addictive, and her personality is charming and funny.


Mimei is, I think, from New Zealand, but she speaks fluent Japanese and far better English than most Americans. She has at least two channels: Mimei Land, in which she speaks primarily English, and Mimei, in which she speaks mostly Japanese. However, each channel provides subtitles that make the videos accessible to both Japanese- and English-speaking audiences. 

I've enjoyed the videos I've watched so far, but I haven't watched enough yet to call myself a fan (though I'm fast becoming one). She is obviously culturally and linguistically an expert Japanophile. 

After reading my first draft, she wrote me to say that she will have to think about how she gave me the impression that she's so focused on shopping, and I'm sure that my mistake originates with being new to her channels and making judgments with too little data. 

Still not using rocket science, the only overt visit to a shop that I find on the first page among dozens of videos is Inside a Japanese MEGA Convenience Store!, which is really fun and interesting. There is a bookstore within this store with manga and comics (which apparently are not quite the same thing) as well as novels and non-fiction. There is food in three states: food ready to eat; food that will be ready to eat with minimal preparation, usually a brief zap in the microwave; and food that you will probably want to cook. 

Like many expats who walk through the looking glass, Mimei enjoys the moments of going out for simple things like having a cup of cappucino or seeing The Last of the Cherry Blossoms (what I can't figure out is why, one fruit-gestation period after sakura, we don't see people in Japan walking around and eating lots of cherries).

The Short List

There are just so many YouTubers that one can write about in an evening, but I don't want to end without mentioning these vloggers whom I'm watching but, because I'm relatively new to them, I don't have that much to say about them yet. They all deserve a fuller write-up and a position alongside everyone above—well that gives me something to do in the follow-up. I'm on the lookout for new talent to watch, so the list expands and contracts constantly. (NOTE: the drawing of this list was monitored by independent if not objective observers who certify that no rocket science was employed in the making of this blog.)

  • Bangkok Fatty is a friend of Mark Wiens in Bangkok. He's trying his hand at blogging, and I've just tuned in to see what he can do. Actually, I note that he has 110 videos on his channel, so he can't be that new to it.
  • CollegeHumor is an ensemble humor group, the Saturday Night Live of YouTube, usually doing satirical skits on current events and social issues. Some of these are home runs of hilarity. The What If Google Was a Guy videos are viral screams with 28 million views apiece.
  • Kirsten Dirksen makes videos about "simple living, self-sufficiency, small (and tiny) homes, backyard gardens (and livestock), alternative transport, DIY, craftsmanship and philosophies of life," all of which interest me profoundly, so I'll likely stick with her.

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