December 6, 2013If you are a certain sort of person, one who gives the Internet close attention, you will have already read this. But if you are not, then you should: Gawker's Tom Scocca On Smarm. To the naked eye it's yet another contemplation of the ways that we interact with each other and how that has changed with the advent of digital, social media. But since I happen to agree with every word, it's much much more than that.&nbps; It's correct.
Without identifying and comprehending what they have in common, we have a dangerously incomplete understanding of the conditions we are living under.
Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I've accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues. They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets--the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.
What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?
It is reacting to smarm.
Smarm, as defined therein, is the forced politeness of current discourse, in which everything is the New Nice, and criticism is dismissed out of hand as negativity. It's a clean shot at the tone of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, and it's entirely deserved.
And it cites as the sources of smarm two things that I've actually been thinking of recently, Heidi Julavits' terrible essay from ten years ago decrying snark, and that kid from West Virginia Jedidiah Purdy who was briefly famous for calling for a new sincerity. Both of these irked me greatly at the time, and it is nice to see them fuel Scocca into proposing terms for the counter-insurgency, wherein claims that someone is being mean is a valid defense in an argument.
It is a stem-winder, so bring a sandwich. But it's also lucid and compelling, and you will stumble across many keepers that you will be tempted to share with your own personal social media friends.
Posted at 10:18 AM
December 5, 2013This is becoming somewhat of a subcategory of journalism, but here is another very excellent piece about the fresh hell of working at an Amazon "fulfillment center," this time in the United Kingdom. In case you are unaware of the meaning of that nasty bit of double-speak, fulfillment centers are actually the huge warehouses where legions of temp workers stuff items into boxes. It's what passes for employment these days.
Right now, in Swansea, four shifts will be working at least a 50-hour week, hand-picking and packing each item, or, as the Daily Mail put it in an article a few weeks ago, being "Amazon's elves" in the "21st-century Santa's grotto".
If Santa had a track record in paying his temporary elves the minimum wage while pushing them to the limits of the EU working time directive, and sacking them if they take three sick breaks in any three-month period, this would be an apt comparison.
Like that, right?
It's written by Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian, and it's a loping, personal work. There's plenty of reportage, but there's plenty of very sharp observation, and it's all keenly meshed together, a snapshot of the bleak future Naomi Klein described nearly fifteen years ago in No Logo.
I grew up in South Wales and saw first-hand how the 1980s recession slashed a brutal gash through everything, including my own extended family. I've always known that there's only a tissue-thin piece of luck between very different sorts of lives. But then my grandfather worked in a warehouse in Swansea. In my case, there really is only a tissue-thin piece of luck between me and an Amazon life. I have a lot of time to think about this during my 10½-hour day.
At the Neath working men's club down the road, one of the staff tells me that Amazon is "the employer of last resort". It's where you get a job if you can't get a job anywhere else. And it's this that's so heartbreaking. What did you do before, I ask people. And they say they're builders, hospitality managers, marketing graduates, IT technicians, carpenters, electricians. They owned their own businesses, and they were made redundant. Or the business went bust. Or they had a stroke. Or their contract ended. They are people who had skilled jobs, or professional jobs, or just better-paying jobs. And now they work for Amazon, earning the minimum wage, and most of them are grateful to have that.
And in the midst of the smoldering loss, there's an honest sense of wonder at the scale of Amazon's operations, which approach the level of beyond human apprehension.
It's a very fine bit of work.
Posted at 9:52 AM
December 3, 2013I was too busy Thanksgivinging last week to properly give thanks, as I try to do each year. So I'm a bit late, but aside from the normal things to be thankful for — family, friends, health, comic books — for 2013 I am thankful for the New York Times.
Oh, there's all sorts of reasons to pick on the NYT — David Brooks, losing Nate Silver, the cumulative style sections — but the paper is kicking all sorts of ass on its in depth features. (And by in-depth, we're talking three thousand words at the minimum, and up from there.)
Two Sundays ago, you get a story of domestic violence committed by police officers and then overlooked by their coworkers.
A week later, the Metro section has this heart-breaking look at one Queens man's effort to support his family on $7.25 an hour.
Yesterday we got the latest installment of the continuing story of Louis Scarcella, the Brooklyn detective who allegedly railroaded a armful of innocent men on murder raps. The NYT has been singularly running down this story for more than a year. This time around, it's two teens taking the fall in a very dubious murder case twenty-two years ago.
And today's NYT goes deep on exploding emergency room costs — which I'll boil down for you as "$500 per stitch (removal extra)."
And that's just from recent memory. They're churning out three or four of these nuggets a week.
I may be gee-whizzing a bit here, but I grew up on largely Gannett newspapers, which barely had nine thousand words in the paper in toto, let alone in one story. And none of these stories are chasing breaking news, or stories about politics. Assigning reporters these deep-look stories is a huge investment in time and money, and the NYT is one of the bigger pulpits out there. It's evocative of the crusading part of journalism that you remember as a kid and don't see so much lately, hidden amongst all the listicles.
(And this is not to the exclusion of the good dailies out there. We all share the good work they do in our social media. But the NYT is my hometown paper, and the one I read in the morning. And it's better.)
So for the fact that the NYT is so committed, I am grateful.
Posted at 9:12 AM
December 2, 2013Tempted to say, "This is pretty much all you need to know about charter schools," but that would be a generalization that would be easy to poke a hole or two into. Instead, let's just call this the Elephant In The Room of the problem of charter schools:
Mr. de Blasio has contended that charter schools have been favored at the expense of traditional public schools, which serve the vast majority of students, and that locating charter and traditional schools in the same buildings has resulted in overcrowding. Mr. de Blasio has proposed that "well-resourced charter schools" should pay rent on a sliding scale. Some charter schools and their advocates have countered that charging rents could lead to teacher layoffs, program cuts and increased class sizes.
Or, in some cases, reduce shareholder value.
It is comical that these private ventures will bellyache that unless they receive favorable treatment then they will be forced to provide a poorer product. It's almost a threat: force us to pay for the things that all other non-governmental ventures pay for and then the kids get it.
Public education should not be a business. The competition of the free market will not provide for better educated kids. The competition of the free market will provide for the best possible way to make money of the purported education of kids.
Posted at 9:47 AM
November 27, 2013Listening to a little sports radio while walking the dog, I couldn't help but note that the most head-scratching promotion out there, even moreso than the effort to associate hummus with tailgating, is a seasonal campaign peddling Medieval Times as a destination for Thanksgiving.
Now Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays, but it's a big world out there. We've heard of the alternate holiday restaurant traditions, like hitting Chinatown for Christmas dinner, but, Medieval Times? Maybe the reluctance I'm having imagining that is that I have a hard time imagining going to Medieval Times on days that are not Thanksgiving.
Though after thinking about it, I realized that a story I would love to read is the Thanksgiving Day scene at Medieval Times. Happy families? Sad loners? Jousting fanatics? And it's something that I would happily report and write, but for the fact that Thanksgiving Day is a day I plan to spend with my friends and their families. I'm selfish!
But that would be fantastic. Or hell, not even Medieval Times, but the corner diner, a Pizza Hut, the truck stop. How do people Thanksgiving in public?
(And FWIW, found some people were are specifically aggrieved about a Thanksgiving at Medieval Times: the people who work there.)
Travel safe, everybody.
Posted at 9:53 AM
November 26, 2013This may be a bit provincial for you non-NYCers out there, but if you've noticed the troubling trend of writers turning in endless iterations of "Why I Left New York" pieces, or if you've wondered why some of the smart people of the Internet call our outgoing mayor Mayor Smaug, or even if you're, like me, a student of the slow degradation of all things, then you should give Hugo Lindgren's Riff for the mag he edits, the NYT Sunday Magazine, a good read.
I get the impression that Lindgren was born and raised here, whereas I only fled to here after a childhood in the suburbs, but it is pitch-perfect and I agree with every word, chock full of keepers. Problem stated:
The old easygoing Village ambience has been getting economically stimulated out of existence for decades, but it's going faster than ever now. Every time I walk across Eighth Street, I can't believe what has happened to it -- how one of downtown's last reliably funky and ramshackle shopping streets has been utterly neutered, scrubbed and wine-barred. My local diner on University Place shut down because it could no longer afford what was said to be a rent of 40 grand a month. It sat empty for months and months, though we don't suffer for dining convenience. There are now two Pret a Manger premade-sandwich joints in my area, as well as a 7-Eleven with rolling corn dogs in the window.
Nothing says nowhere quite like a 7-Eleven. Except maybe a Jamba Juice.
And of course you could classify this as another Gen X-er bemoaning the fact that things change. Criticism anticipated:
If this is sounding like yet another lament about how the great island of Manhattan has been reduced to a soulless playground for investment bankers and multinational franchisers, well, it's kind of unavoidable, isn't it? Even some bankers feel this way. They didn't move here from Shaker Heights to live in a shopping mall, either.
But it's not all so bleak. Lindgren gets around to some silver linings, maybe a ray of hope (and not a ray of hope that we're going back to 1992, as we all know there are certain laws of time and space that prevail in that situation).
Think of it as a very resolute Why I Did Not Leave New York.
Posted at 9:46 AM
November 23, 2013As much as I'm sure everyone enjoyed twenty-five word posts that consisted of pretty much "I'm on a jury" and nothing else, I'm happy/sad to announce that the freakin' jury I was on, for nine business days, came to verdict at the absolutely last moment yesterday.
And as the verdict came in, that means that I'm actually free to speak to you about the details of the trial. It was a rape trial, so you can imagine the giggles in that, and I was an alternate juror, which meant that I sat in the box for the entirety of the trial and then was separated from the rest of the jury when we hit deliberations on Wednesday. Then it was total crushing boredom, as we alternates were similarly not allowed to leave a room concurrently with the jury. It was a long time to dodge small talk.
The verdict was not guilty of rape, but guilty of sexual assault and menacing. And it's a good thing I was an alternate, because I believe the People did not meet the reasonable doubt standard on any count, so we'd probably have been deliberating for another week or more.
It was a fascinating (if draining) process, and I recommend it to all you fellow Students of the World.
So now I have to remember how to be a normal person again.
Posted at 2:50 PM
November 21, 2013So the jury is in deliberations, and as one of the alternates, I sit in a separate room, which I cannot leave at all during the day. If the jury agrees, I could be out today. But if the jury has trouble agreeing, which seems likely, this could be my foreseeable future.
To which I say, urgh.
Posted at 7:47 AM
November 19, 2013Up til now "jury duty" would conjure up a quick two day, harmless vacation from work, a chance to get to hang in downtown Brooklyn.
But as I am now on Day Six of being on an actual jury, it's becoming a bit surreal. It's this weird fugue state, some in-between place. Not complaining! But my knowledge of current affairs ends somewhere a week ago. (Except for Rob Ford news. Can't miss that!)
And that is exactly all I have time to write, and I am off to the courthouse.
Posted at 7:57 AM
November 14, 2013So I posted that quick thought yesterday and dashed off to the Supreme Court of Kings County, thinking that day two of jury duty would be the final day of jury duty and today would be back to normal. And by 11am I'm the 20th person of a prospective jury pool, with seven jurors already picked. I'm skating, right? Not the case.
By the afternoon, I'm hearing opening arguments.
It's a fascinating case, and a fascinating process. I guess there's a lot of it I can't really talk about until it's all over, but one thing I do know is that my media diet will be drastically curtailed.
We're scheduled to go at least for a week, so in the intervening please forgive me if this turns into a jury blog.
One thing I'm pretty sure I can share: the view from the 19th floor of the Supreme Court building is tremendous.
Posted at 7:47 AM
November 13, 2013It is not so easy to find the time to post here during jury duty.
But, on the bright side, I'm on jury duty. Heh.
Posted at 8:30 AM
November 10, 2013This one got lost during my initial week of serving as a juror for the State of New York.
It's sort of rote that Walmart does not have a net positive effect on the communities it invades. No matter how much a grateful citizenry likes paying forty cents less for a pack of toilet paper, it puts the mom-and-pops out of business, and turns the small towns into derelict, unvisited ghost towns, so what used to be Mayberry (or some other icon of how towns used to be) turns into some dystopic oxycontin nightmare.
But as Charles Montgomery points out in Salon, that is not the only way that Walmart is bad:
Minicozzi has since found the same spatial conditions in cities all over the United States. Even low-rise, mixed-use buildings of two or three stories--the kind you see on an old-style, small-town main street--bring in ten times the revenue per acre as that of an average big-box development. What's stunning is that, thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result? Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue.
Montgomery focuses on the story of Asheville, NC, a city that has focused on the redevelopment of the downtown areas. It's a fascinating read, and a strike against Walmart that for once does not revolve around its insanely greedy business and labor practices. In the sense that Walmart uses acres and acres of land, removed from already developed areas, the costs of expanding infrastructure and the revenue for the municipality per square foot just don't compare with other kinds of development.
In other words, Walmart isn't just a bad actor, it is intrinsically bad.
Posted at 1:18 PM
November 9, 2013I don't really know the context of this. I stumbled upon it because of a tweet that was RTed by someone I don't really know that well. But my curiosity was piqued, and I'm glad that I read it.
It's a post on a personal blog (remember those?) eviscerating a carelessly thought-out claim that there's no such thing as American poverty from some dude I had to look up (oh, a founder of Vice, quelle surprise). It's long and thoughtful and well-researched and well worth the five minutes you'll spend with it.
And it got me to thinking, not about the poverty question, because you and I both know that if someone claims that there's no such thing as American poverty that person is either an idiot or works for the Heritage Foundation (or both!), but rather about How We Write Now. Remember, I guess is was ten years ago, when the Internet of public writing consisted mostly of personal blogs, hundreds of them, speaking their minds, talking to each other, incessantly? Remember when we thought that was the future, a tessellation of privately owned weblogs, micropublishing pushing its way to the surface?
Well, we were wrong, of course, as a bunch of Silicon Valley/Alley found a way to monetize that. Oh, there are a few personal blogs left (Hi!), but now that thing you're reacting to more than likely came from an Internet magazine, or "social media," in which the content driving the value of is given for free, or even newer sites like Medium, where anyone can pretend that they're a columnist. There's still the chance out there to write and have everyone read it, and you don't have to pay the five dollars a month to keep your own site up, but what it really is is a Demi-Gilded Age. The same vocal population that wanted to get their words out has the same opportunity to do so that they had ten years ago, but now they are digital serfs, increasing shareholder value.
There's not much to do about it but look back wistfully, I guess. But thank you, Elizabeth Stoker, for writing that lovely piece.
Posted at 8:44 AM
November 8, 2013Two weeks ago there was a man sitting on the curb in front of my office. He was hunched over in what I took to be the default pose of the second decade of the 21st Century. — thumbing his handheld device, or watching some content on his iPad. This was not the case on second inspection.
Actually, he was sobbing. Quietly, imperceptibly rocking back and forth.
The elevator took a while, as it always does. It was the middle of the afternoon, and my block is chock in the middle of the now-trendy West Chelsea art district, Pace Gallery right across the street. The man was well-dressed, but he had no backpack or briefcase or messenger bag, none of the signifiers of the NYC man-on-the-go. He was alone, dispossessed for whatever reason of normal accoutrement, crying.
The elevator came and I looked back at him. Maybe he'd stood up, went on his way? Maybe I should actually stop and ask him if he was okay? Maybe I should give that dude a hug?
I didn't, of course. He was still hunched over, heaving sobs, and I stepped onto the elevator and punched my button. We like to think we're the hero of our story, but we don't always live up to that.
I deeply regret that I did not do the right thing, for two reasons. First, don't we all like to think that we do the right thing when forced? And second, sometimes the guy sobbing on the street is you.
Posted at 10:14 AM
November 5, 2013I understand that Russell Brand told you not to vote. It was not very circumspect of him. My rationale this morning was that, well, I didn't see any revolution on the street in front of the polling station, so until such time as such revolution obviates the need for voting, I'm voting.
And let me congratulate the City of New York for again providing a frighteningly unpleasant and incompetent voting experience. Run by obviously unqualified volunteers who bicker with each other like five year-olds and employing an utterly mystifying voting process that was clearly developed by some "private-public partnership" and made someone very wealthy. But I'm sure it's no better anywhere else. God, now that I think of it, if Voter ID is going to do anything it's going to make the whole process two to three times longer.
But vote I did. It's how the system votes.
"But the system doesn't work that well," you respond. Fair point. I think we all feel that there is a dearth of choice between candidates and that the whole thing has a strong whiff of oligarchy or one of those other -garchies. In this case, spend your morning coffee reading the always stalwart Joe Nocera suggesting six ways to ameliorate the situation, including one that may well cause you to raise your eyebrows or otherwise indicate mild surprise.
Posted at 9:22 AM