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December 6, 2013

the ebb of the smarm

If 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 by mrbrent at 10:18 AM

December 5, 2013

amazon: the employer of last resort

This 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 by mrbrent at 9:52 AM

December 3, 2013

thank you new york times

I 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 by mrbrent at 9:12 AM

December 2, 2013

today in charter schools

Tempted 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 by mrbrent at 9:47 AM