Archive for the 'Asides' Category

Shock, horror! Being poor is bad for you

[link] Sunday, February 22nd, 2015


Who knew? The poor suffer more from worry, stress, pain, sadness and anger than the rich.

Advice to students

[link] Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Now here’s a fresh way to talk to your students — the way David Carr advised his students at Boston University:

I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade — work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.

Personal Standards

Don’t raise your hand in class. This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone. Respect the opinions of others.

This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.

If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.

I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you — I want to teach you.

Excuses: Don’t make them — they won’t work. Stories are supposed to be on the page, and while a spoken-word performance might explain everything, it will excuse nothing. The assignments for each week are due by start of class without exception unless specific arrangements have made based on an exceptional circumstance.

If you truly have a personal or family emergency, your welfare comes first. But nothing short of that will have any traction with me.

The Downton Abbey of bondage

[link] Saturday, February 14th, 2015

Lovely, scathing review by Anthony Lane, which contains the following choice extract:

Think of it as the “Downton Abbey” of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination. You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture. True, Dakota Johnson does her best, and her semi-stifled giggles suggest that, unlike James, she can see the funny side of all this nonsense. When Christian, alarmed by Ana’s maidenhood, considers “rectifying the situation,” she replies, “I’m a situation?” — a sharp rejoinder, although if I were her I’d be much more worried about the rectifying.

Great stuff! And no I haven’t read the book.

David Carr, RIP

[link] Friday, February 13th, 2015


David Carr, the New York Times Media reporter and columnist, is dead, at the age of 58. At the end of the paper’s obituary is this quote:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” Mr. Carr wrote at the conclusion of “The Night of the Gun,” “but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

The caper ended yesterday, when he collapsed suddenly in the office.

He was one of the best, wisest and nicest journalists I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I will miss his (croaky) voice, his integrity, his humanity. He had been to the edge of the abyss of drug dependency, and came back — to make the world a better and more intelligible place. May he rest in peace.

See him in action here:

LATER Jack Shafer wrote this on Politico:

In a business over-populated with characters, Carr projected an original persona that was one part shambling hipster, one part Tom Waits, a pinch of Jimmy Breslin, and a dollop of the Mad Hatter. A master interrogator, he used his guise the way an anglerfish uses the wriggling growth on its head to attract and then devour other fish. Interview subjects who paid attention to Carr’s jittery gestures and boho-lingo, thinking him a harmless eccentric, found afterwards that he’d picked their pockets for information.

Nobody seems to know when Carr became Carr, the enigma who spoke in an infectious code, not even Burl Gilyard, a Minnesota journalist of my acquaintance who met him in 1990 and later worked for him in 1993 at the alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader. Gilyard maintains that Carr was “always like that.” If you asked him how he was doing, he’d shoot back, “Workin’ hard, getting’ lucky.” Always ambitious and ever the ham, Carr had a way of bee-lining for the spotlight, even low-wattage ones like the one flung by this 1984 Minnesota public-access talk-show about local news—decades before becoming a New Yorker and a regular guest on Charlie Rose, BBC America, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, and other TV venues. From the beginning, he gave good soundbite, tossing off ad hoc paragraphs that lesser writers would have hoarded for a print piece later. He had that sort of confidence only a few writers possess: No matter how badly he abused her, the muse would always serve him.

And see also the collection of rememberances curated by Greg Marx in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Wolf Hall and the evolution of ‘civilised’ values

[link] Thursday, February 12th, 2015

I’ve been watching Peter Kosminsky’s terrific adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and thinking how much its portrayal of the Tudor court, with its intrigues, back-stabbing, arse-licking and capriciousness reminds me of British newspaper offices in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a good deal of callous savagery also, most of it discreetly off camera. This was an era, remember, when people were routinely tortured for their religious beliefs, and executed using a variety of technologies.

All part of Britain’s fabled ‘island story’, so beloved of Michael Gove. How nice, then, to see this observation in John Sutherland’s review of the third episode of the series:

This paper called the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh “a new depth of depravity”. One agrees. But, as Mantel chronicles, if you take the long view, it’s as British a depravity as roast beef. How much foundational cruelty does a proudly “liberal” civilisation such as ours require in forming itself? This is something explored in Mantel’s trilogy. “Quite a lot” would seem to be her answer.

State cruelty has different values, and different expressions of itself, over time. Michel Foucault has taught us that. Videotaped beheading is currently regarded as “vile”; in Henry VIII’s day, beheading was, on occasion, a privilege for the blue-blooded when condemned. Since the charge against him was treason, More should, by law, have suffered that most horrible of punishments – hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was commuted by the king. More’s noble head was lopped off in one clean stroke. He was dead before he felt the cut. “A moment’s pain,” he tells Cromwell. Aristocratic euthanasia. “Master” Bainham was less lucky.*

[James Bainham was burned alive as a heretic after being tortured by More.]

Inequality is a feature, not a bug of neoliberalism (contd.)

[link] Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Even the masters of the neoliberal universe are beginning to fret about this, as Seumas Milne reports:

The billionaires and corporate oligarchs meeting in Davos this week are getting worried about inequality. It might be hard to stomach that the overlords of a system that has delivered the widest global economic gulf in human history should be handwringing about the consequences of their own actions.

But even the architects of the crisis-ridden international economic order are starting to see the dangers. It’s not just the maverick hedge-funder George Soros, who likes to describe himself as a class traitor. Paul Polman, Unilever chief executive, frets about the “capitalist threat to capitalism”. Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, fears capitalism might indeed carry Marx’s “seeds of its own destruction” and warns that something needs to be done.

The scale of the crisis has been laid out for them by the charity Oxfam. Just 80 individuals now have the same net wealth as 3.5 billion people – half the entire global population. Last year, the best-off 1% owned 48% of the world’s wealth, up from 44% five years ago. On current trends, the richest 1% will have pocketed more than the other 99% put together next year. The 0.1% have been doing even better, quadrupling their share of US income since the 1980s.

What they’re really worried about, of course, is that the hoi-polloi might finally tumble to what’s been going on. Democracy has a slow-burning fuse, but in some places, notably Greece, it’s beginning to fizz.

“Escalating inequality”, continues Milne,

has also been a crucial factor in the economic crisis of the past seven years, squeezing demand and fuelling the credit boom. We don’t just know that from the research of the French economist Thomas Piketty or the British authors of the social study The Spirit Level. After years of promoting Washington orthodoxy, even the western-dominated OECD and IMF argue that the widening income and wealth gap has been key to the slow growth of the past two neoliberal decades. The British economy would have been almost 10% larger if inequality hadn’t mushroomed. Now the richest are using austerity to help themselves to an even larger share of the cake.

But there is one area of the world where this grim cycle doesn’t appear to operate:

The big exception to the tide of inequality in recent years has been Latin America. Progressive governments across the region turned their back on a disastrous economic model, took back resources from corporate control and slashed inequality. The numbers living on less than $2 a day have fallen from 108 million to 53 million in little over a decade. China, which also rejected much of the neoliberal catechism, has seen sharply rising inequality at home but also lifted more people out of poverty than the rest of the world combined, offsetting the growing global income gap.

And the implication of all this? The economic system doesn’t have to produce inequality. It’s just one version of it that does. So we need a change in the system. And for that we need a new politics. The big question is when will it arrive? And will the current intensification of ‘security’ stop it in its tracks?

The world’s archivist

[link] Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Seb Schmoller pointed me to this lovely New Yorker essay by Jill Lepore about Brewster Kahle and his astonishing Internet Archive project. Lepore’s piece is well worth reading in full, but you can get a flavour of it from this clip from a BBC film made by Alan Yentob.

The multitasking illusion

[link] Monday, January 19th, 2015

When asked to describe myself I often say that I’m a multi-tasker with a faulty algorithm. (To which Quentin once responded, “Don’t worry: we can always have you re-flashed”.). But it’s true, alas.

So it’s comforting to read this:

Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.


And you thought algorithms were boring?

[link] Friday, January 16th, 2015

See the quick-sort algorithm performed by Hungarian folk dancers.

From a fascinating essay by Christian Sandvig.

Reminds me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. HT to Seb Schmoller, who spotted it..

Canine Wisdom

[link] Thursday, January 8th, 2015

I love the New Yorker dog cartoons. (Remember the 1993 one of one mutt explaining to another that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”?)

I’ve just come on another classic. Two dogs are walking past a picket fence. One is saying: “It’s always ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, ‘Heel’ — never ‘Think’, ‘Innovate’, ‘Be Yourself’.”

Which reminds me, perversely, of a New Yorker cat joke. A man, about to go out through his front door, is pointing to a litter-tray and saying to his cat, “Don’t you dare think outside of the box”.