Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

New York City, September 30, 2014

★★ Gray clouds stood behind grayer clouds in a jumbled assortment. A horse carriage rolled by below the pediatrician's office window, and then an open-topped bus, the upper deck completely empty. Here and there the brooding looseness of the clouds admitted some blue: an long opening over New Jersey, a weak spot in the cover high above and beyond Lower Manhattan. One raindrop landed, and only the one. Over time, the irregularities diminished; the day stayed dark and chilly. Even to the end, there was a brighter if not blue patch in the west—briefly edged in pink at sundown. The night air was cool enough for open windows. 


All the Lines from the "Interstellar" Trailer, Except with Exclamation Marks

McConaughey: We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars! Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt!

[Unidentified]: Go for main engines start! T-minus ten!

Caine: We must confront the reality that nothing in our solar system can help us!

[Unidentified]: Nine!

McConaughey: I've got kids, professor! How long would I be gone!

[Unidentified]: Eight!

Caine: I'm asking you to trust me!

[Unidentified]: Seven!

McConaughey: Murph! You have to talk to me Murph!

[Unidentified]: Six!!

McConaughey: We need to fix this before I go!

Foy: You have no idea when you're coming back!

[Unidentified]: Five! Main engine start!!

Hathaway: Couldn't you have told her you were going to save the world!

McConaughey: No!

[Unidentified]: Four!!



The Confusing Origins of David Letterman's Top Ten List

letterman_toptenThe following excerpt reprinted with permission from Brian Abrams's new book AND NOW…An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman," 1982-1983, which is currently available to purchase at Amazon Kindle Singles.

By the summer of 1985, head writer Steve O’Donnell was no longer scouring for new personnel to come up with remote concepts and “Viewer Mail” pieces. (Monologue material stayed plentiful, as staffer Gerry Mulligan continued to oversee that part of the show.) Including co-creators Merrill Markoe and David Letterman, 13 individuals populated the writers’ room, and submissions from prospective writers continued to stack high on O’Donnell’s desk. An unassuming 23-year-old Tufts University grad named Rob Burnett wangled an internship in the talent department. And, at 30 Rock, the days of finding bored New Yorkers to fill up Studio 6A’s 200 or so seats at 5 p.m. tapings were ancient history.

But of all of Late Night’s much adored ironic obsessions that transformed comedy forever and enabled a generation of writers and comedians to flourish, there is one recurring bit that to this day has multiple writers claiming credit for its creation: The “Top Ten.” READ MORE


Eight Voicemails from My Grandmother, Who Is Very Upset About the Apparent Death of My Career

deadmehThis weekend marked the end of the the New York Times Magazine's Meh List, a feature for which I have been the chief columnist for the last two years. Writing The Meh List takes up approximately five minutes of my week. (My real job is as the magazine's digital editor.) But The Meh List is in print. The Meh List has my byline. Therefore, for the purposes of my ninety-year-old grandmother, The Meh List was my job. When I told her last week during our family's Rosh Hashanah gathering that the Meh List was about to end, she waited until we had parted ways to unload her concern onto my mother. "No more Meh List?" Grammy asked her. "Then how will her bosses be able to be judge how well Sam is doing her job?"

As a farewell to The Meh List, here are eight voicemails from my grandmother about my Big Important Job that is no more, to be published on a medium that she does not understand and does not care to.

March 30, 2013, when I handed over the reins to someone who cares about the Mets for our annual Mehts List

Hi Sam, it's your Grammy. The magazine has meh, but it doesn't have Sam. I'm sure you know that. But you didn't tell me. So tell me what it means. That's it. Bye. Anything connected with my Sam I need to know. Bye. Love.



A group of young people return from a week in a remote and disconnected cabin only to find their home city in chaos. Ebola has arrived, and it has gone airborne. Panic and grief overtake these old friends, who don't know what to do. One suggests hiding in her apartment, a converted loft with steel doors, sealed windows, and some canned food. Another offers up his uncle's home in the countryside. One friend, who had been silent since that first abandoned toll booth, interrupts. "We must find him. He can't think we've forgotten."

"Who?" asks the woman with the loft. "We don't have time!" By now even the sirens have gone quiet.

The friend looks at his feet, shakes his head, and then holds up his phone.

"The one who told me to calm down."


The "Times" Opinion Curse

A scene from June:

On June 10, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Mark Thompson and Andrew Rosenthal, along with New York Times Op-Ed columnists Charles M. Blow, David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof and Joe Nocera, celebrated the launch of NYT Opinion, the new stand-alone Opinion subscription and mobile app, at NeueHouse in New York City.

Other notable attendees: Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lorne Michaels, professional basketball player Jason Collins, Katie Couric, Savannah Guthrie, Charlie Rose, Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, Mia Farrow, “Orange Is the New Black” creator Piper Kerman, and Barbara Walters.

This was not just a huge party for a new app. It was an enormous vote of confidence in the New York Times opinion franchise, which the institution reveres and protects at all costs.

Now, a story dated October 1st:

Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Thompson said that even with the cutbacks — 100 positions comprise about 7.5 percent of the newsroom staff — The Times would continue to expand and invest heavily in initiatives that supported its growth strategy, like digital technology, audience development and mobile offerings.

But they also said they had decided to wind down NYT Opinion because it had not drawn a substantial audience. And while praising NYT Now, a new app aimed at younger readers, they said that as a lower-priced subscription offer, it had not proved as popular as they had hoped.

As it "winds down" the Opinion app has a total of 85 ratings in the App Store—just six for the most recent version—and a handful of reviews, most of which fall into the categories of "mysteriously positive and design-focused" and "somewhat annoyed." According to an internal memo from Arthur Sulzberger and Mark Thompson, "it hasn’t attracted the kind of new audience it would need to be truly scalable."

Framing this as a "scalability" issue makes it sound like a tech problem, an app problem, or an internet problem. That's not what this was—NYT Opinion was an interesting piece of software run by talented people but built around an opinion franchise that finished accumulating new fans a decade ago—a franchise whose leader reports directly to Art Sulzberger, not executive editor Dean Baquet. It was a four-month test of the draw of the Times star opinion writers on their own, without the benefit of context or momentum or years of reader habit and loyalty. The results were clear, just as they were in 2007 when readers refused to pay for* Times Select: Given the opportunity to pay six dollars a month for greater access to Thomas Friedman, Charles M. Blow, David Brooks, Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, Gail Collins, Ross Douthat, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristof and Joe Nocera, people with smartphones resolutely did not. The continued existence of the Opinion app would have been an embarrassment to the paper's biggest names and therefore it had to die.

The revamped Opinion section of the website will live, which makes some sense: It's buoyed by aggressive commissioned essays, often written by well-scouted first-time contributors, that do well on the open internet but that sit and wilt in an app. They're pieces that are only loosely associated with the Times and its staff; the types of things that people don't seek out so much as come across. And it's sad about Now, which is great. It's less irritating and noisy than Twitter and only a little less immediate. It never really runs out of material, because it doesn't mind linking out. It's better than any of the other single-site news apps, the primary NYT app included.

Anyway: "They are all experiments, which we are determined to treat as such: to learn, pivot and, where necessary, make prompt decisions about them," the internal death notice says. Deep newsroom cuts, 100 people. Pivot.

* Michael Roston of the Times points out that before it was discontinued, Times Select had accumulated 227k subscribers for its archive/paywall product. Perhaps "refused to pay" is strong; people paid, just not enough of them to be more valuable than ad dollars lost to the paywall.


The Best Time I Was a Teenage Ayn Rand Worshipper

59196414938983decb7b6cc288f0401dWe all make mistakes. It’s a platitude offered by well-meaning adults when they need a limp defense for an inexcusable action; like Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage to her high school sweetheart, or pretty much anything that’s ever appeared on Amanda Bynes’ Twitter. But I believe in forgiveness above all else, because I harbor an equally disturbing secret: I was a teenage Ayn Rand worshipper. READ MORE


Today in forbear shaming:

Marris describes most of Redzepi’s recipes as similarly ‘exotic, oceanic, deep-woodsy, and uncookable’. Serving something as simple as ‘silken fresh cheese and crispy beech leaves’ requires pickling beech leaves in a vacuum pack with apple balsamic vinegar for at least a month…. one wonders what our remote ancestors would think of this culinary fad.

I don't know, what would they think of this essay? What would they think of the computer you made them read it on? Or did you go back in time to show it to them? In which case: Are your arms and legs fading away? Are you disappearing from family photos? "Our remote ancestors" would see the entire modern world as a threat and probably attempt to either escape or destroy it, I think is the answer. Or they might just say, "wow, nice, look at all this food." As far as demonstrations of absolute dominion over the world and its history, voluntarily eating bark ranks as pretty harmless.


New York City, September 29, 2014

weather review sky 092914★★★ The sun came straight along the cross street, hit the mirrored tower, and came back barely diminished, putting a blinding two-way glow on everything. The subway platform was warm enough to raise a sweat, if one was in a hurry and the next train was not. The clouds had been subtly lovely at dawn, then opened up, and now, downtown, closed again. A damp, pearly Hong Kong light lay on everything. Though the day, the brightness through the window right behind the new office seat slowly failed, till it was time to dig into the tastefully recessed wiring pocket and figure out where to plug in the desk lamp. Outside the clouds had gone over to heavy gray, with ugly yellow tinges to the east and west. The air was warm and thick. Sunset was a diffuse and featureless orange-pink glow that spread evenly far up the clouds, then smoothly receding and fading down to purple.


Cloud Nothings, "Now Hear In"

From Here And Nowhere Else, which came out in April, a video for the album's most energetic track—one of the few that might have fit in on the very fun and very catchy self-titled album, from 2011, which has apparently been reassessed as the product of an "introductory phase" that should now be "eradicated." RUDE.


Where Should We Bury the Dead Racist Literary Giants?


H.P. Lovecraft is widely acclaimed as one of the great masters of horror. He created the Cthulhu mythos, a pantheon of hideous eldritch deities lurking outside of time that occasionally peep through into our reality to wreak havoc and drive men mad, is credited with inventing weird fantasy; and was a major influence on everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore. He was also, like many authors of the early twentieth century, really racist.

In a famous letter from a stay in Brooklyn during the nineteen twenties, Lovecraft described the ethnic diversity around him in the same language he used to describe nightmare horrors:

"The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities."

Lovecraft isn't talking about monsters or demons there; he's referring to non-white people, whom he sees as "infesting worms" "pithecanthropoid and amoebal." He expresses similar sentiments in the poem below, which doesn't seem to have been published, but which he apparently sent to friends: READ MORE


Louis C.K.'s 'Dianetics': Inside His Weird and Wild Three-Hour Radio Show

louisckTwenty-six minutes into a three-hour advice show Louis C.K. hosted in 2007, a guy named Blake calls up. Blake says he’s driving solo from Dallas to Oklahoma City that night and wants to know if Louie is going to just keep fucking around, or if he actually has anything good planned. At the end of the three hours Blake calls again, about to arrive in Oklahoma City, and says it’s been an “amazing ride.” I want to argue that Blake is being an understating piece of shit here, because this show is like…well…it’s like… REALLY amazing! It’s like the most Louis C.K.-y thing ever, and on top of that: it’s good. And beyond that, falling where it does in his career, it acts as a near-perfect summation of what makes Louie so unique. Let's call it Louis C.K.'s Dianetics.

What the hell am I talking about? Good question. There’s a block of programming on SiriusXM satellite radio Saturday nights 8-11pm that they use to test out shows that might then be moved to different time slots. Usually a few people host them together, and usually they have a strong idea for what the show will be about beforehand. Louis C.K. agreed to host one night in 2007, but he had neither of those things. I actually couldn’t find the exact date, but he talks about getting his first iPhone that day and then sitting on a park bench trying to figure it out all afternoon rather than preparing anything for the radio show.

The show that night does start out with him kind of fucking around and insulting callers, even at one point lapsing into doing material (“Newscasters saying 'the n-word' is just white people getting away with saying the n-word.”) READ MORE


The New Ethnic Media

Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Paula Deen's rapid and basically unfettered comeback, after her brief banishment from public life:

An investment in Paula Deen conveys a deep understanding of America’s political temperature and where we’re headed: that Paula’s comeback isn’t about forgiveness — it’s about standing her ground…

First, there’s the digital network. Then there’s the 20-city tour of a cooking show with the whole Deen family; according to the venues I checked, which were large, the tour sold quite well. She’s out there reminding everyone that she still exists, that she just won’t be subject to the same scrutiny and censorship she once was. She’s gone rogue, she has, and nobody will tell what she can’t say ever again. One man on the boat was not a particular fan of hers even just a year before, but when he heard that Food Network had dropped her, he canceled his Food Network magazine subscription, bought a Cooking with Paula Deen one, and joined her on the cruise, because if you can’t say what you’re thinking, what good is a democracy?

Compare with Sarah Palin's online video network:

The Sarah Palin Channel, which went live on Sunday, bills itself as a “direct connection” for the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate with her supporters, bypassing media filters.

Palin says she oversees all content posted to the channel. This will include her own political commentary. Other features for subscribers include the ability to submit questions to Palin and participate with her in online video chats, she says in an online announcement.

Membership is set at $9.95 per month or $99.95 for a year. Active-duty military personal can subscribe for free.

That last writeup came from the website of The Blaze, which is attached to the video network that kicked off this whole trend—a network that has grown significantly:

[Glenn Beck is] convinced his future is in producing mainstream entertainment — and if broadened appeal is the goal, there are worse tactics than recalibrating your persona from conservative pit bull to loving labrador.

Of course, Beck continues to drive and echo the popular narratives of conservative talk radio: In recent weeks, he has accused Obama of “legimitizing Jihad,” declared a “race war” in America, and tossed around the word “communist” with just as much gusto and frequency as ever. But whereas two years ago Beck was on the forefront of the right-wing conversation — introducing new villains, crafting new story lines, and making headlines with envelope-pushing rhetoric — now he often runs through the talking points like items on a to-do list before moving on to enthusiastic descriptions of his latest project, and feel-good interviews.

These outlets share a basic form—online video network—and depend on relatively steep subscription fees (the comparison that always gets used is "more than Netflix"). They are fundamentally oppositional: to the mainstream media; to political correctness; to godlessness but also a very particular formulation of uptightness. They are nostalgic for a time when certain people could say certain things without worrying about controversy or shame—they feel like public speech is a minefield, so they've made theirs a little more private. Among friends, almost. They long for a wholesome past that they feel has been lost. They are not especially cynical. They are, in effect, a white ethnic media, writing and publishing and broadcasting and performing about the experience of American whiteness as understood by people who genuinely feel that whites are becoming a marginalized minority. Race is not addressed directly in these networks' contents or containers—identity establishment is left to "urban"-style euphemisms and the projection of a sensibility that is neither explicitly nor assertively white, just inherently white, familiar to whites, deemed important or compelling or novel because it is no longer the norm elsewhere. On this point, they might not be wrong: The "mainstream media," as they would call it—the default, the center—has reliably expressed white identity for as long as it's existed. The success of these networks is a sign—a small lagging indicator, maybe—that this is coming to an end.


Don't Forget These 7 Items While Traveling


Brought to you by KLM Airlines

Those "if only I just remembered to pack that" moments are the worst. Along with bad hair days, horrible cell phone reception areas, and warm salads. To help you avoid that soul-crushing feeling of ‘shoulda-woulda-coulda’, here's a handy list to check off when packing your bag for your next flight.

1) Photocopies of your passport, ID and credit cards. In the event that your bag is stolen or lost, keeping photocopies of your essential ID's and cards stashed elsewhere will help make the recovery process a lot faster.

2) Snacks. Don't be THAT person who spends $10 on a bag of chips on the airport. Bringing some nutritional reinforcement will help you avoid that "hangry" feeling. (hungry + angry…get it?)

3) Phone charger. How hopeless is that feeling when you see that you're in the red on your smartphone and you don't have your charger anywhere near you? Avoid missing important calls and texts by packing your charger in your carry-on. There are outlets all over the airport to help juice up your smartphone.

4) Travel pillow. Avoid drooling on the passenger next to you by bringing a comfortable neck pillow that lets you catch up on your ZZZ's in a socially acceptable manner.

5) Sweater or sweatshirt. If you tend to get cold easily, don't forget to pack a sweater or sweatshirt in your carry-on so you can have a line of defense against your co-passenger's AC-blasting habits.

6) Sunglasses. These are probably one of the top forgotten items when traveling, so make sure to pack your sunnies, especially if you want to snooze during a daytime flight.

7) Headphones. You'll want to give yourself an award for remembering headphones when you hear a baby start to cry somewhere on the flight. Goodbye adolescent screaming, hello Beyoncé.

At KLM Airlines, we have your back as a traveler. KLM offers a unique Lost & Found service at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. A dedicated team is now on a mission to return items, found by cabin crew on board or by KLM airport staff, to their legitimate owners — as soon as possible. Very often the Lost & Found team is able to surprise passengers by returning their personal belongings before they have even missed them. Despite the challenge of locating the owner, first results show that over 80% of the found items can now be reunited with their owners.

To show how far the Lost & Found team and their tail-wagging secret weapon go, check out this video below.


The Anthem of the Working Stiff

I don't know what men are made of, though a song I love begins: "Some people say a man is made out of mud." Perhaps the dust of Eden got wet with the kiss of the Lord and made mud, and from that Adam was made, but that's not what Tennessee Ernie Ford meant when he sang "a poor man's made out of muscle and blood."

"Sixteen Tons" is the anthem of the working stiff. Ford didn't write the song and he wasn't the first to record it, but his version from 1955 has worked its way into the assembly-line-addled ears and labor-worn hearts of workers ever since. Whatever a man is actually made of, saying he's made of "muscle and blood and skin and bones, a mind that's weak a back that's strong" is acknowledging that's what the world has made him into, and that righteous lament is why the song's still so popular.

I thought of "Sixteen Tons" the other day while listening to Lorde's "Royals." READ MORE


Carry That Weight: The Revival of Feminist Performance Art

Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight began nearly five weeks ago. Throughout the performance the artist Emma Sulkowicz, a 22 year-old Columbia University senior, will carry a boxy blue mattress everywhere she goes on campus. Weighing in at fifty pounds, the mattress stands in for the mattress on which she was raped by a fellow student. Sulkowicz’s work is profoundly simple: a young woman visually manifests the psychological weight of the crime committed on her body and demands recognition of that burden. Carry That Weight is a purely visual performance, one so piercing it resists language.

Like most performance art, Sulkowicz’s piece has clearly defined parameters, what she terms “rules of engagement.” They are: the performance will last until her rapist has left campus. The mattress will only be carried on campus. She cannot ask for help, but can accept it once it is offered. Once a person helps her carry the mattress, they enter into “the space of performance.” By quite literally bringing the site of the crime (in this case an ostensibly “safe” domestic space) into public sight, Sulkowicz’s performance relocates its subject in between the shifting grounds of public and private, personal and political.

Carry That Weight implies that within the discourse surrounding rape, the separation of these categories are meaningless. The public and private cannot be separated. The discourse of rape inhabits the public, private, personal, and political simultaneously. Carry That Weight’s poignant acknowledgment makes Sulkowicz’s performance one of the most salient pieces of feminist performance art produced in recent memory.

Carry That Weight has a revival quality, renewing a 1960s tone of radical consciousness-raising: defiantly political, resistant to silence, and deconstructive of cultural definitions of rape. And since Sulkowicz’s performance has easily been one of the most discussed artworks of the year, I want to revisit some of the women who have tread in ugly discourse of rape culture; to return to a long artistic project that, like Sulkowicz, sought to dissect aspects of that culture and expose vernaculars of terror. READ MORE


Uber Optics


As communities are heading back to school, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the educators who are also our Uber partner drivers. Whether it’s an afternoon shift or a summertime gig, partnering with Uber provides teachers with the flexibility and opportunity they need to continue creating a foundation of excellence for students across the country.

Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve.

Teachers are among the most dedicated, passionate and hardworking professionals – a few of the qualities that make the best Uber partner drivers. Throughout the year, we’ll continue to invest in providing opportunities for educators in cities around the world – recognizing the need for more income options on their own terms.

This post on Uber's blog almost feels like a parody. Surely, no modern, wealthy society—say, one in which an app-powered "your own private driver" service might thrive—would force professional, full-time teachers to also drive cars in order to make a living, nor would anyone celebrate that it was happening. Certainly you wouldn't expect corporations to rush to attach themselves to the phenomenon. And yet. Something, something, teachers, free markets, living wages, man. READ MORE


Inherent Vice, Awkward Mood

If the options for an Inherent Vice movie were Joaquin Phoenix reciting Pynchon's best lines in a grave tone OR Joaquin Phoenix slipping in and out of mania while falling down a lot, physically, this seems to have been the right choice. It's just barely apparent in the trailer, but here is something that I'm curious to see in practice: Robert Elswit, longtime Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, is listed as the movie's cinematographer. Elswit's all BIG SKIES and SYMMETRY and LINGERING SHOTS and MUSCULAR ACTION. There's not a whole lot of comedy in his credits! And certainly nothing quite like this: "It’s a stoner detective film so overstuffed with visual gags and gimmicks that the filmmaker said he was inspired by slapstick spoofs like 'Top Secret!' and 'Airplane!'"


New York City, September 28, 2014

★★★★ Stepping out into the late morning air was like settling into a bath that had been waiting for a while—an enfolding, relaxing tepidness, not at all hot. Clouds softened the shadows on the playground. Children bored with chalking the concrete camel tried chalking other children's faces. The sun that got through was warm on bare ankles. The lid of the exhaust stack on a pony-sized Parks Department garbage truck clanged rhythmically with a sound of toy cymbals. By the afternoon, when there was no reason not to go to the playground again, the light had sharpened, but a haze still glimmered around the low-flying airplanes. The breeze was cooling, though it was barely strong enough to stir the dangling flags a little back and forth. Day's end brought wild pinks flaring one either side of the glass apartment tower, but the seven-year-old, unmoved, declared it a normal sunset.


That audience-measuring company Chartbeat has "gained accreditation from the Media Rating Council for attention-based measurement of both content and advertising" is important to advertisers and therefore to all the people whose work and internet time-wasting activities depend on them. This metric, the apparent next metric, after page views and "uniques," is perhaps harder to trick but still easy to optimize for, especially if you're one of the new formless internet publishers—a relatively straightforward video, a quiz, or some as-of-yet unknown demanding media object that can hold you still, if not keep you truly engaged, will, in time terms, usually beat out a written story that takes a long time to produce and read. People are already hashing this part out.

What they're not yet hashing out what this means for another type of company: The read-later apps. So let's start: Instapaper, Pocket, Readability, Longform—the apps that take links and make them into clean little ad-free phone pamphlets that you can read on a plane—have been criticized, celebrated, but mostly tolerated. They help people read your work, which is encouraging; they also, at some point in the copy/clean process, at least give you a click, which is what you, or your editor, or your publisher, ultimately needs. Now, imagine a world in which "attention minutes" or some such measurement is how your employers measure the success of your work—a world in which its measurable value is connected to the time people spend with it. In that world, read-later apps, as they function now—giving you a click, but siphoning all of your time—are theft. Well?