What Was the Author Photo?

An oddity of authorship.

New York City, February 9, 2016

weather review sky 020916★★ A shocking burst of cold wind met the children bustling out the lobby door. Thin snow clung here and there in the scars and joints of the sidewalk or on the arms of the scoop of a parked backhoe. Salt granules, still intact, whitened other sidewalk cracks. After midday, warm tones began imposing themselves on what had been unchanging gray. The clouds thinned to ivory in places, and then even on to blue. The glow of real sunlight appeared somewhere nearby. Gray strengthened again, but the expected new snow kept failing to appear.

The Mystery of the Thousand Missing Airbnbs

tumblr_mip5pjUyNT1rpm29co2_500A couple of months ago, Airbnb released a batch of anonymized data about its hosts in New York City in order to show that its community “is made up of hard working families in all five boroughs who, during a time of economic inequality, depend on home sharing as an economic lifeline” and to prove, once and for all, just how transparent it really was. The illusion of transparency dissolved with little scrutiny: The release of the data was highly controlled, designed to be nearly impossible to analyze in-depth, and architected in such a way to mask just how prolific Airbnb’s most active hosts were. But it’s maybe worse than that: According to Murray Cox of Inside Airbnb and technology writer Tom Slee, the data were effectively “photoshopped” before release: “Airbnb ensured a flattering picture by carrying out a one-time targeted purge of more than 1,000 listings” in New York City.

The key statistic in the Airbnb release, which contained “anonymized information about every active Airbnb listing in New York City as of November 17, 2015” was that—contrary to fears that the service was filled with sharelords renting out multiple apartments on the service, using precious housing stock to shelter European tourists for a profit instead of city residents who need a place to live—95 percent of its whole-home hosts shared only one listing. That number is crucial to the story that Airbnb has been telling ever more emphatically over the last year, which is that it is the vanguard of a “broader evolution in capitalism” that will save the working and middle classes from being pushed out of their homes by the forces of gentrification. And that story is more important in New York City than in most markets, because the majority of whole-home Airbnb listings—which make up some 57 percent of all Airbnb listings in New York City, according to Inside Airbnb—are straightforwardly illegal under New York State’s current short-term rental laws. (This is all discussed at length here.) That story, which rests in no small part on that number, is how Airbnb plans to legitimize itself in New York, where it faces a hostile regulatory environment.

Sandwich Condiments From Worst To Best

mustard16. Mayonnaise

15. Ranch Dressing

14. Aioli

13. Tzatziki

12. Hummus

11. BBQ Sauce

10. Ketchup

Nevermen, "Mr. Mistake"


Nevermen are TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Faith No More’s Mike Patton and Adam “Doseone” Drucker, and they have made what would be the soundtrack to an amazing Disney movie. Enjoy.

New York City, February 8, 2016

weather review sky 020816★★ The snow blew in a little late, filled the air fine and thick for a while, and then blew out: an ordinary and ineffectual bit of winter. The younger boy could walk to basketball in his sneakers. There was nothing of the spectacle left but new puddles. A man dragged an umbrella, its metal tip scraping the sidewalk. The wind grew suddenly colder; bare hands that had been fine started to hurt. New flakes flew, but not many.

Remember how the Internet used to be good? If you’re below a certain age you do not. Sorry. It must be awful to hear old people always going on about how the Internet once brought things other than pain, despair and a self-loathing so refined that its shame is only surpassed by the way the very idea of diving into the Internet’s bottomless well of sewage sickens you even as you leap, which you do each day despite of the vomitty feeling it inspires before, during and after. Just take my word for it, young people, there was a time when the Internet was a thing you were excited to be a part of. Every hour brought new delights and discoveries and led you to things you weren’t even aware that you were interested in. You never knew what would happen next, as opposed to now, when you know that whatever happens next it’s going to suck so bad you’ll want to cut yourself the second you turn away. And this is not just nostalgia or the rose-tinted memories of someone who can’t adapt to changing times or whatever, this is the objective truth: In contrast to the Internet of now, the Internet of a decade back was better, smarter, more interesting and also it didn’t make you want to die all the time. It didn’t make you hate yourself and everyone around you. It didn’t make you realize just how sick, sorry and stupid everyone is, and always so loud about it. You’re shaking your head at me because the very idea is inconceivable, but I was there. I saw it. It wasn’t the giant trench of anger and need that you dump all your GIFs into now. It was beautiful. But that was a long time ago. Ugh, what was my point? I do tend to ramble on. Oh, right, back on the old Internet, the good Internet, Rob Walker’s Letter from New Orleans was one of those great, fun surprises you took for granted whenever they showed up, because in those days you never dreamed that the amazing Internet you couldn’t wait to be a part of would wind up being a cyst deep inside the asshole of some demon’s buttocks that you would be forced to spend each day draining. Sorry, I got off track there again. Anyway, my point is, Rob Walker is back in New Orleans and he’s sent some new letters from there. Seeing as today is Mardi Gras, it’s probably as good a time as any to go read them. Enjoy!#

Carrier, Pigeon

12097344464_912cbedf0d_zIt’s natural to wonder how long the subsidies Amazon has so generously provided to our perpetually broke national postal system to deliver approximately forty percent of its packages will last, given that Amazon can’t help but to absorb the things that its partners do for it, whether it’s publishing books, producing TV shows, cranking out wipes, spinning HDMI cables, or transporting the items that its forty-six million (or more!) Prime members can’t stop ordering.

While Amazon’s interest in claiming the last mile of delivery is no secret—with the swarm of delivery drones that it constantly tells us is looming just over a slight technical and regulatory horizon, and the fleet of AmazonFresh delivery trucks and same-day couriers patrolling city streets—Bloomberg reports that Amazon is moving forward with project “Dragon Boat” (what a delightfully problematic codename!), a “global delivery network that controls the flow of goods from factories in China and India to customer doorsteps in Atlanta, New York and London”:

Amazon’s plan would culminate with the launch of a new venture called “Global Supply Chain by Amazon,” as soon as this year, the documents said. The new business will locate Amazon at the center of a logistics industry that involves not just shippers like FedEx and UPS but also legions of middlemen who handle cargo and paperwork associated with transnational trade. Amazon wants to bypass these brokers, amassing inventory from thousands of merchants around the world and then buying space on trucks, planes and ships at reduced rates. Merchants will be able to book cargo space online or via mobile devices, creating what Amazon described as a “one click-ship for seamless international trade and shipping.” … Amazon will partner with third-party carriers to build the global enterprise and then gradually squeeze them out once the business reaches sufficient volume and Amazon learns enough to run it on its own, the documents said.

Amazon potentially one day turning off the spigot of money that helps keep the USPS solvent is, in some sense, one of the more minor eventual outcomes of it building and controlling a complete, end-to-end, factory-to-doorstep global logistics and supply chain—FedEx and UPS have far more to worry about—but it is one of the more clear examples of the plausible negative consequences of funding-starved public infrastructure being underwritten and then slowly captured by a private company. (I mean, if you think that a USPS potentially diminished by the eventual loss of Amazon’s business is a negative thing. Maybe you don’t! One man’s public infrastructure is another man’s waste of tax dollars that could be better put to use unlocking latent value through the machinery of the startup economy, and besides, if we even have mail after decade or so, carriers would just be replaced by drones anyway, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter that much after all.)



Photo by Elvert Barnes

Music For Mardi Gras


If you’re in New Orleans right now you’re drunk and have been for the last few days. If you’re anywhere else you’re figuring out how soon you can drink and what you’ll listen to while you do it. I can’t answer the first part for you but here’s some help with the second.

Aberdeen, Maryland, to New York City, February 7, 2016

weather review sky 020716★★★ Gray squirrels flowed over grayish ground under a gray sky. The children were playing at their video game in real life, gathering the many fallen sticks into their inventory. From the shed, they obtained a full-sized mattock and began mining at the soft ground with it, flipping over scraps of the moss carpet. A sneaker pressed into a surviving snowbank left light caramel-colored marks as the tread yielded its mud. Elsewhere in the old snow were crushed bits of berry the color of fresh gore—no matching berries were in sight—and dull blue clusters of berries fallen from the climbing vines, the insides of the latter a mere grapey green. Out of the trees and on the open highway, there was a limit to the gray, a gap in the southwest, streaked with dull oranges and blues. Miles passed and the colors intensified. Faint but immense pink forms coiled across the sky ahead. The light from behind grew more and more lurid till it was as red as the taillights in the side mirror. People were out on the city sidewalks in their parkas, cold but not (to the eye) miserable.

What Was the Author Photo?

Last fall, the New York Times published a review of a new book, Changing the Subject, by the essayist Sven Birkerts. The review was forgettable. The author photo that ran alongside it was not—blindfold me right now, and I’d be able to recall it for you in every hypnotizing detail. The way Birkerts approaches the lens, his arms upraised, his unzipped jacket opening around him like a magician’s cape. The hesitant set of his lips, tacking up at one corner into a half-smile. The dense carpet of hair that looks as if it would bend a comb. The autumnal aura evoked by the leafless trees. And above all, the blur of the hands, which suggest momentum and unpretentiousness on the part of the shooter and her subject—the day is too precious to waste on two takes.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the photo. An inordinate amount, really. (I even had a strange dream about it, where I was cast in Birkerts’ place, and the jacket was actually a wing suit.) Its anomalousness shook me: If the vast majority of author photos fit into one of a handful of standard poses—the Fist-on-Chin (conveying thoughtfulness), the Stare-Out-Window (inner depth), the Icy Stare (strength), the Hearty Laugh (confidence!), etc.— here was an author photo that threw centuries of literary convention in our face. Here was a man who was not even fully dressed in his author photo.