Saturday, May 22, 2004

Stuff You Might Want to Know

It’s time for me to try and tidy the bulging blog folder. Enjoy the thoughts and ideas of writers who are not me. I begin with a Q&A with Nick Denton (Gawker, Wonkette) in (May 20 2004):

Q. Why do so many people feel they need to have a blog? -

A. I don't think everyone needs to become a writer. We're going from a world where there were one million writers and nine million wannabe or frustrated writers - people who occasionally wrote "letters to the editor" or complaints to customer service departments. Now those nine million writers are publishing online. Most of the sites that they create are only going to be interesting to their friends and themselves. But new talent wins out, and talented writers are not going to have to go through the media organization mill to [get a chance to] express themselves after 20 years as a reporter when they finally get a picture and bylined column. It's almost impossible in print media for anyone who is young and feisty to express himself or herself. The only time, in traditional media, when you get to express yourself is when you're 60 and no longer have any opinions that speak to the person you once were. Blogs allow those types of writers to circumvent the usual journalistic training program. It allows them to have the voice they have when they're young, without having it knocked out of them.

From the June 2004 issue of Business 2.0, Greg Lindsay on Denton:

Denton learned from that debacle and embraced weblogs, which are the LEDs of the media firmament: They require almost no resources to run. His mini media empire, Gawker Media, has no offices, no proprietary technology, and no full-time employees, yet it can attract audiences big enough to generate ad revenue. Better still, the "content" is virtually free, since it consists of little more than snarky comments pointing to other sites (mostly newspapers and magazines) that do spend money or time creating content. It's so dumb, it works: Denton's blog model is leaner than a George Foreman turkey burger. And it's apparently already returning a modest profit -- with the potential to deliver substantially more within a few years.

From the Onion: Catholic Church Condemns Metrosexuality

In the seemingly endless Howell Raines article in the May 2004 issue of the Atlantic, there are a few paragraphs about Turner Catledge, who was appointed executive managing editor of the New York Times in 1951. This was my favourite:

In the face of staff opposition, Catledge insisted that a modern newspaper must have "a dual appeal," telling readers both what they need to know and what they would enjoy knowing. "First, it should be necessary to people who wanted to be well informed," he wrote. "It already was that. Second, it should be a paper people wanted to read, for pleasure as well as out of necessity." Too often, Catledge added, Times readers were forced to pick up the paper and say, "I'm going to read you, you son of a bitch, if it kills me!"

From a Guy Maddin interview in the Onion’s A/V Club (May 19, 2004):

I've been so lazy all my life. I used to literally lie on the couch, up until the age of 35, fearing that my bones were dissolving like sugar cubes, from disuse. So it feels good to finally stand on top of vanquished sloth, and actually impress some people as a hard worker.

Clive Thompson has written the first truly great article to appear in the Walrus about the economy of online games like EverQuest. Here is one of many great moments in the article:

Within months of Ultima Online's launch, in 1997, the game spiralled into a currency crisis. The developers woke up one morning to discover that the value of their gold currency was plummeting. Why? A handful of sneaky players had discovered a bug in the code that allowed them to artificially duplicate gold pieces (called "duping"). The economy had been hit by a counterfeiting ring. Inflation soared, and for weeks, players would log in each day to find their assets worth less and less.

Ultima programmers soon fixed the bug. But then they had a new problem: How do you drain all the excess gold out of the economy and bring prices back to normal? They hit upon the idea of creating a rare type of red hair dye and offering it for sale in small quantities. It had no real use, but, because it was rare, it became instantly popular and commanded an enormous price — which leached so much gold out of the system that inflation subsided. But the programmers had to meditate for hours on what possible side effects their "fix" might have

And, finally, George Packer in the May/June 2004 issue of Mother Jones, writing to let us know that blogs aren’t perfect tools of the politically minded:

The constellation of opinion called the blogosphere consists, like the stars themselves, partly of gases. This is what makes blogs addictive — that is, both pleasurable and destructive: They're so easy to consume, and so endlessly available. Their second-by-second proliferation means that far more is written than needs to be said about any one thing. To change metaphors for a moment (and to deepen the shame), I gorge myself on these hundreds of pieces of commentary like so much candy into a bloated — yet nervous, sugar-jangled — stupor. Those hours of out-of-body drift leave me with few, if any, tangible thoughts. Blog prose is written in headline form to imitate informal speech, with short emphatic sentences and frequent use of boldface and italics. The entries, sometimes updated hourly, are little spasms of assertion, usually too brief for an argument ever to stand a chance of developing layers of meaning or ramifying into qualification and complication. There's a constant sense that someone (almost always the blogger) is winning and someone else is losing. Everything that happens in the blogosphere — every point, rebuttal, gloat, jeer, or "fisk" (dismemberment of a piece of text with close analytical reading) — is a knockout punch. A curious thing about this rarefied world is that bloggers are almost unfailingly contemptuous toward everyone except one another. They are also nearly without exception men (this form of combat seems too naked for more than a very few women). I imagine them in neat blue shirts, the glow from the screen reflected in their glasses as they sit up at 3:48 a.m. triumphantly tapping out their third rejoinder to the WaPo's press commentary on Tim Russert's on-air recap of the Wisconsin primary

Saturday, May 15, 2004

I Wanna Live Like Patio People / I Want To Do Whatever Patio People Do

Nothing encapsulates the Toronto patio obsession better than the following squib by Chris Nuttall-Smith, from today’s Globe and Mail:


What does $150 get you in Toronto? Dinner and drinks at Susur if you leave without tipping, or 50 Polish sausage dogs (condiments and heartburn are free). It'll also, apparently, get you a sun-drenched patio table at the Black Bull on Queen West on the first decent day of the year.

It was a gorgeous afternoon on the kind of spring day when you overhear office-dwellers vow, "I hope I get a sunburn." Ahead of me, a sextet of starched-and-polished (and pallid) types were pining for a place in the sun.

They could have waited 40 more minutes, as I did. Instead, they pooled a stack of tens and twenties and marched it to their chosen table. The rest of the line watched, amazed. The table accepted.

One of the guys in the group, flush from the conquest, offered to let "the pretty one" stay. "We'll give another $50!" (She did not stay.) One hundred and fifty dollars will get you the table, but this particular table came with just five chairs.

So a guy from the group tried taking an empty seat from nearby. "No way, man," somebody said. "That'll cost you $50."

Friday, May 14, 2004

Oh No

I have written for Toronto Life for many years, so I speak from first-hand experience when I say that their commitment to editorial quality is second-to-none. As John MacFarlane noted in his May 2004 editor’s note, they take their fact checking very seriously – to the tune of $100,000 last year. They treat writers well, and there’s a good reason they get buckets of nominations each year at the NMAF.

And so, as someone who not only writes for magazines, but occasionally edits them, my stomach actually lurched when I saw that something had gone horribly wrong in the current (June 2004) issue of Toronto Life. On page 72, it appears as though the wrong quark page has been printed. How do I know? First of all, it says June 2000 at the bottom. But more noticeably, a series of words and phrases are underlined, one word is bolded for no reason, and, worst of all, this:

Tanenbaum’s swerve [word choice?] proved less impressive set against Ken Thompson’s $250-million.

Since I’m a subscriber, I can only hope that the error was caught before the magazine reached the newsstands. (I think there’s a lag time between subscriber copies being mailed out and the mag hitting the stores, but I could be totally wrong.) My guess is the error was made by the printer, because the final proofing at Toronto Life is pretty airtight.

I offer my sincere condolences and I hope this bizarre mistake causes them minimal embarrassment.

* * *

Now, onto maximum embarrassment. It’s still early in the year, but I would like to cast my vote for the Worst Column of 2004. It’s in today’s Globe and Mail, in the real-estate section. Ladies and gentleman, it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to introduce Michelle Osborne, and her column The First Timer. Take it away Ms. Osborne:

Life without luxury lettuce

There is no Boston lettuce at the grocery store.

It was my first dose of reality, a confirmation that we had actually moved to a different place, one that was devoid of my beloved leafy green vegetable. A perfectly innocent trip to the grocery store for salad ingredients had left me wondering if we had made the right choice by leaving our downtown lifestyle for the residential Danforth and Woodbine area.

After all, we were used to our usual Saturday routine -- finishing our lattes before heading to St. Lawrence Market to get the basic fresh ingredients, and a few specialty items we needed for a dinner party or particularly challenging culinary experiment. At the market we were surrounded by people like us. It was like church for yuppies.

Near our new two-storey, brick and frame home, there is no market, but we are very close to a grocery store and a butcher. Which is lucky, unless you are used to having one of the city's best markets within walking distance.

I tried to remain undaunted. I knew deep down that we would be making certain sacrifices for the luxury of having a detached home away from the downtown bustle, and I was willing to compromise. After settling for mesclun mix, we loaded up our groceries into our cart and continued our errands in our new neighbourhood.

We have the basics, including several banks, a couple of pubs, coffee chains and dollar stores. Street kids and hotdog carts have been replaced by strollers and dogs on leashes. Exactly what you want in what our real estate agent calls a "developing" neighbourhood.

By now, my caffeine addiction was nagging me enough to settle for the budget coffee at one of the local chains. I tentatively entered, expecting the seedy, downtown shop I usually avoided. Instead, I found a smattering of normal-looking people and a bright, clean counter. I walked up to the server, expecting a tired grunt as a form of acknowledgment.

"Hi there," the pleasant server said with a smile. "What can I get for you?"

Shocked, I almost forgot to order. The service almost made up for the less-than-spectacular coffee. Almost.

The butcher was next on our hit list. We had found a small, inconspicuous shop driving by a few weeks earlier. Our hope was that it would measure up to the market, or just maybe, the butcher who specialized in meat from naturally fed and raised animals and from whom we got steaks for special occasions.

It was a glorious sight. Friendly patrons were chatting with the owners, and marvelling at the cannolis sitting on the cooler, which contained numerous deli meats. We looked around to see tasty cuts of lamb, chicken and beef, along with various European-style cheeses. I knew we had found a gem with this shop when I spotted the imported balsamic vinegar and Italian espresso.

The lust died, however, once we got to the cash register. The bill for two steaks and two chicken breasts was the same as what we paid at the specialty butcher downtown, but they didn't come from naturally fed or raised animals.

Feeling a little defeated, Tim suggested we grab a bottle of wine before heading home. On foot, we were out of luck. Either we'd have to drive to the nearest LCBO, or settle for beer with our sirloins.

We opted for the latter and drove just a few blocks away -- too far to walk but a little too close to drive, it seemed -- and picked up a cabernet sauvignon for our dinner that evening.

There are some things I just can't sacrifice

I imagine her neighbours reading this column, grabbing the Frankenstein pitchforks and torches and chasing her snotty St. Lawrence ass right back from whence it came. I humbly request the Danforth residents association to give ‘er a good solid jab on my behalf.

And on a more serious note, I have been noticing this kind of nauseating expression of classist claptrap and entitlement more and more often in Toronto. Maybe it was always there and I found a way to ignore it, but lately, it’s becoming more and more in my face. For awhile now, I’ve been wanting to mention this article by Graeme Zielinksi that ran in the The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (February 28, 2004):

National media: Meet the Heartland

About five years ago, during my first weeks working at The Washington Post, the paper ran a front-page story in which, in the first paragraph, they misspelled Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous.

I asked an old friend who worked at the paper how this could have happened, since the story had, conservatively, been vetted by no fewer than eight sets of eyes.

His one-word response, "Ivy," as in the Ivy League schools from which many of the staff matriculated and where, presumably, Schlitz was not as in high demand as it had been at, say, a Machinists Hall in Cudahy.


I've whined about this before and been promptly slapped down by my betters in places like the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. The "working-class hero" stuff goes only so far in some quarters, since it oftentimes is personal and oftentimes is inconvenient. But I'm fed up since, as I saw recently covering the primary, the problem is getting worse and the stakes are getting higher.

Questions are not being asked. Meanings are not being interpreted. Certain neighborhoods are not being visited. Certain lives are not being explored in a meaningful way. And, through the prosecution of basic journalism, agendas are being set that do not reflect the way the other half, without the bulging 401ks, lives.

For instance, how many people on air or in print came from families that had walked a picket line? How many know how to bait a hook or gut a deer? (I'm bad at both.) How many have felt the economic insecurity that stalks the working poor? (And I'm not talking about the few weeks at college on the Ramen noodles diet.)

How many have had real experience with the criminal justice system, who have had home visits from social workers, who have scrambled to call the probation office, who know the awful taste of government cheese?

The second article ran on December 8 of 2002 in the LA Times, and was written by David Shaw:

Journalists losing touch with the man on the street

In an era when network anchors in tailor-made suits sign multimillion-dollar contracts, and some of their talking-head, syndicated columnist colleagues earn more from one speech than the average American earns in an entire year, it may be difficult to imagine, but journalism in this country was, until relatively recently, a largely blue-collar craft.

As recently as 1971, only 58% of newspaper journalists had college degrees; now 89% have degrees, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But only 15.5% of the total population age 25 and older have finished college.

The median annual salary for "experienced reporters" working at newspapers with more than 250,000 daily circulation -- the 40 largest papers in the country -- was about $56,000 last year, according to a newspaper industry study. Pay for "senior reporters" -- and for top reporters and editors at the largest of these papers -- is substantially more. But median income for all U.S. workers over 15 is about $31,500.

In other words, many big-city journalists -- especially those who set the agenda for what gets covered in the rest of the media -- have moved away from much of the largely middle- and working-class audience they purport to serve. At best, they're out of touch. At worst, they've become elitists

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Misplaced (Canada) Trust

I always read about this sort of stupidity happening to other people, which is sort of how I like it. But today, Canada Trust, my bank of choice since I was in short pants, sent me my monthly line of credit statement. Turns out I owe $.01, or one single penny. I’m going to guess that the envelope + one page printout + postage = a total cost of far more than one cent. What are you thinking, Canada Trust? Is this why service fees are so high? Huh?

Even Revenue Canada won’t dispatch the goon squad for $2 or less, and I think MasterCard has a somewhat similar policy.

Since I'm a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules, I’m going to risk my credit rating and not pay the monies owing. I might even fold up the invoice, tuck it in my wallet, and show it to a teller the next time I find myself forced to deal with an actual human being at my bank branch, something that happens less and less often as the years go by.

And that’s, my, er, one cent’s worth. I promise to finally discuss my good close personal friend Noah Richler by week’s end.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

A Jumble and Tumble of Information

In a Washington Post story (March 20, 2004), Peter Carlson writes about the surprising life of Ping-Pong players, including Barney Reed, who tested positive for steroids in 2002: "I can beat most Americans with my shoe," Reed told Sports Illustrated by phone from Taiwan, where he spent his exile in training. "It's not a joke. I've beaten many people with a sandal."

This is a comedy bit from the late Bill Hicks, found on BoingBoing :

They lie about marijuana. Tell you pot-smoking makes you unmotivated. Lie! When you're high, you can do everything you normally do, just as well. You just realize that it's not worth the fucking effort. There is a difference.

And a fantastic little squib in this week’s eye:

Leah McLaren's April 24 column in the Globe poses an interesting paradox. Since all of Toronto has long known that once something is written about in The Globe and Mail, it's over, what does it mean when Leah writes her "The Drake is, like, so over" column? Is the Drake being over now over? Can we all go back? Had we stopping going yet? And if we did go back, would we have to talk to McLaren? Our heads could explode pondering such questions.