P094: Two Ideas, One Mind

Another terrorist attack. Another outpouring of grief, rage, ignorance, humanity. Another reminder to step away from the keyboard, away from the phone, and tell someone you love them. And of course: another wave of tone-policing Tweets and Facebook posts chastising us all for not dealing with this modern world correctly.

The flavor of the day is the idea that everybody cares about Paris but nobody cares about the bombings in Beirut. Max Fisher takes this notion to task with a thoughtful piece on how the American media covers foreign tragedy. Fisher puts forth the idea that the reporting is there but the audience is not:

“I still hold out hope that it’s possible to get readers interested. And I have been trying over and over in the five years since to get readers engaged with these stories. Incidents of mass violence in the world are, I believe, desperately important for readers to know. Not just so that readers can offer sympathy to the victims, but so that they may better understand what’s happening in the world and thus can better and more actively participate in whatever role they have to play as voters and global citizens. But unless the victims are either children or Christian, I have never really succeeded in getting readers to care about such bombings that happen outside of the Western world.”

It is my hope that the Internet’s function as the everyman’s printing press will be remembered with the same reverence as Gutenberg’s machine. The democratization of the means of production is undoubtably a good thing for our culture, and as a progressive person, I’m naturally inclined to believe that social norms will trend towards equality.

But of course we have a two thousands years of histories being written by the winner to disprove this notion. That’s what reporting is: writing history. And it’s not just reporting that we’re talking about – it’s also the crap that people like you and me jettison out into the world every day that shapes our collective narrative. You don’t have to look any further than the Library of Congress to see proof of this.

Two ideas, one mind

I’ve been enamored lately with an idea put forth most gracefully by musician, podcaster and internet person John Roderick: the belief that there’s value in holding two opposing ideas in your head at once. It’s almost certainly true that whatever “the mainstream media” is these days cares more about terror attacks in “white” countries than “brown” countries. It’s also almost certainly true that the barrier for accurate, diversely-sourced information has never, even been so low and it’s the reader’s duty to get the whole story.

These ideas don’t have to cancel each other out. Even if one is more objectively true, the ability to (in John’s word) :try on ideas like sport-coats” is so helpful when it comes to understanding the situation holistically.

Teach the controversy

Now, I don’t want this to sound like seeing both sides of an issue is some sort of revolutionary concept – it’s a thing that we’ve been taught to do since forever. But the media landscape is such that we can have news feeds so perfectly calibrated to our own pre-existing worldview that we never are even presented with challenging positions. The impulse to retweet something that seems true, that strikes a chord, risks turning even the most open minds into party-line ditto-heads.

Take your time. Think for yourself. And if nothing else, at least remember that your hasty ejaculate might end up in the Library of Congress.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P093: Your Think Piece Can Wait

Months of escalating tensions in and around the University of Missouri came to a head this week with the resignation of President Tom Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, while threats of violence surface on the dumpster fire that is YikYak. What’s happening at Mizzou is a rapidly developing situation with a complicated back story. If you are looking for the opportunity to jump in with your hot take, maybe sit back for a few and listen. Listen to the @ConcernedStudent1950 twitter account and then check out the hashtag to see tweets advocating strength, safety and equality from the movement interspersed with the most vile racist filth imaginable. It might be uncomfortable for those of us who don’t deal with that type of thing every day, but it’s reality for so many. Listen to these students, these people, these stories. You’ll have plenty of time to write your think piece later. Just listen.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P092: Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Might Lose

Last Friday, ESPN shut down Grantland, the sports and pop-culture site founded by Bill Simmons, former star for the network and editor-in-chief of the site up until his splashy termination this May. Lots of people were mad and/or angry – check out Monday’s Today in Tabs for the full rundown – but to me the most interesting piece was Chris Cillizza on Why Grantland Mattered to Journalism. Cillizza makes the case that Grantland was “an ambitious leap into the future of journalism” for two reasons:

  1. They were less focused on reporting the “what” of a story, focusing instead on the “so what” or the “what now,” and
  2. They didn’t restrict their writers to particular beats, allowing them to stretch beyond their ostensible areas of expertise.

Sound familiar? Whenever someone asks me why a guy who makes websites for an ad agency is going deep on glance journalism, independent media, domestic terrorism and soccer, I tell them that I’m making an ambitious leap into the future of journalism.

All kidding aside, Grantland and its writers was a huge influence on this publication and it will be dearly missed. The hole left is huge and for any one person or publication to try and fill it is madness. But Cillizza notes with some optimism:

“I — and I think lots of other people — tend to look for thinkers, reporters and tweeters whose sensibility is original. Who they work for is less important to me than how they go about doing their jobs and what they produce. I love Justin Bank when he tweets about the future of digital journalism but I also love it when he tweets about pro wrestling. In fact, I love that he tweets about journalism and pro wrestling.”

I agree with this so hard but my practical side knows that there’s no money in that, at least not today. Indie media exists primarily as a series of modern experiments in patronage and it has pretty much always been that way. Lots of money with no strings attached is the time-tested recipe for unfettered creative output and you don’t have to think any harder than daydreaming as you drive past a Powerball billboard on your way to work to know that’s true.

Was Grantland ahead of its time? Undoubtably – and when ESPN got tired playing Sugar Daddy to their ungrateful prodigy, the balance of power shifted and Grantland was gone. But when recounting this tale to future generations, let’s not forget that Grantland showed us what a modern media property can be: smart, funny, wide-ranging and clear-eyed. Today, Grantland is reduced to a bunch of words on a screen, but who knows what tomorrow might bring?

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P091: You Can Go Home Again, It’ll Just Be Worse Than You Remember

I took a trip this past weekend to Kirksville, Missouri with Jen and Sam just to see what all had changed in the 13+ years since our graduation. For those unfamiliar with the upper midwest, it’s safe to say that Kirksville is something less than a booming metropolis. It’s an old, poor town in the middle of nowhere that just happens to host a highly regarded liberal arts university.

The contrast between the town and the school is stark: ramshackle rental houses, empty lots and abandoned buildings surround the pristine brick-glass-and-ivy campus on all sides. Students pursue the life of the mind in freshly renovated, architecturally significant temples to learning just a few miles from persistent standing water in the always-packed parking lot of the town Walmart. Only the school’s reputation as a great value (shoutout to smart kids from modest means) keeps this from being a full on haves-and-have-nots type narrative.

I look back on my college experience with great fondness: I learned so much about the world and about myself. I met and fell in love with the woman who would become my wife. I made great friends, read great books and partied waaay too much. But after seeing Kirksville again, there’s part of me that wonders if my rose-tinted recollections didn’t spill over into my objective remembrance of what day-to-day life in that town was actually like back at the turn of the millennium.

A Shoebox of Blurry Memories

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the accuracy of memory and the value of nostalgia and this trip played right into that maudlin sensibility. Now, I’m certainly not the first person to put forth the idea that trying to relive your youth is a fool’s errand but I think we might be starting to see a subtle shift in the way we experience the past.

I’ve always been very interested in documenting my life – my dad’s a photographer and that came naturally to me as well. When I was in college I had a really awesome Kodak Advantix C650 camera and I shot as much as I could afford, what with the cost of film and processing and all. I’ve got a few photo albums and a couple shoeboxes full of photos from those years and while I do treasure those memories, reliving that time involves:

  1. Trying to remember just where in the hell the photo albums are,
  2. Flipping through them to find the right one,
  3. Being subtly disappointed about how that shot is out of focus or that person had her eyes closed or whatever.

On the other hand: my cousin, a sophomore at Truman, has an amazing camera in his pocket at all times, can shoot dozens of photos of a scene, pick the best one, clean it up, put it on Facebook in 10 seconds, tag all his friends so they know the photo is there and back the whole thing up to the cloud indefinitely. If nostalgia is the pain from an old wound, the ubiquitous accessibility and high fidelity of modern memory making will ensure that those wounds never heal. What does that mean for us as a society? Only time will tell. But if I could short the college-town tourism industry, I would.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P090: Beef in the Time of Medium

I.

Way back in August, the New York Times called out Amazon for being a dystopian place to work. Based on hundreds of interviews but also a litany of anonymous anecdotes, the piece painted an unflattering portrait of Amazon as a relentless and uncaring workplace. Two months later, Amazon’s Jay Carney responded via a post on Medium. The Times’ Executive Editor Dean Basquet fired back immediately, also on Medium.

II.

Way back in early October, Deadspin’s Greg Howard unleashed a scathing indictment of ESPN and Jason Whitlock’s ongoing failure to launch The Undefeated, the so-called “black Grantland.” It was the culmination of a series of articles peeling apart the onion that was Whitlock’s tenure at the site-to-be. Last week, Whitlock responded on his personal Tumblr and then OH MY GOD THERE’S BLOOD EVERYWHERE.

III.

It’s tempting to try and fit these two stories into a tired old-media v. new-media storyline but do the facts support it? Sure, maybe there’s something petty about the Times taking potshots at Amazon because they can’t go after the Washington Post directly but why on a third party site? The only thing old-media about that is the half-hearted faux-distance that posting to Medium gives the Times and Amazon. On the other hand, you have Whitlock going off on his own Tumblr while Howard claps back on his Kinja, the world’s only publishing platform more inscrutable than Medium. It’s a mess!

IV.

I halfway expected to end this piece with some pithy bit about how at least Greg Howard is writing on his own platform but the more I think about it, those distinctions are disappearing. It might be relevant today to declare Medium the winner in the Times / Amazon battle but if you have Jay Carney and Dean Basquet writing anywhere it’s going to be compelling. That’s not to say that platform anxiety isn’t a productive way to spend your time, rather that for a creator looking to find the audience, the what you’re saying is probably more important than the where.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P089: I Love the Smell of Stunt-Lit in the Morning

Had an actual conversation yesterday about PCKWCK, a serialized novel being written in real-time by Joshua Cohen – the author of that one book I’ve been meaning to read. The discussion was primarily focused on the unbearable anxiety that must be at play when the author sits down to rewrite Dickens while getting live feedback from lit geeks, many of whom want to see him fail because literary backlash culture (see also: Franzen, Jonathan).

I was going to try and spin that story into an issue of this newsletter (possible themes: stunt lit, self doubt, the endless sea of content) but in performing the most basic research for the piece, I:

I’ve talked about procrastination before but the fact that I can’t crank out 500 words on PCKWCK might not be entirely due to my personal productivity problems. The asynchronous nature of email makes it difficult to rally readers to connect with a time-bounded event. Example: if you have terrible sleep habits (cough) you might get this email soon after it is sent, click through to PCKWCK, see nothing much happening and bounce, never to return. And that sucks because if you’ve read this far, you’re at least somewhat interested in modern stunt-lit.

So if the ephemeral nature of the writing-in-public experience is what people came to see, your best experience (now that you know this is happening) would be to follow @theuselesspress on Twitter and get notified when Cohen sits down to write. If this all sounds really difficult, it’s because PCKWCK is performance art and nobody (in 2015 at least) seems to be that interested in making performance art easily accessible to the masses.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P088: I Want To Be Forgotten and I Don’t Want To Be Reminded

Watching a YouTube video of The Strokes at ACL Fest got me thinking about a short piece I wrote after being blown away by their first SNL performance in 2002.[1] Just as I was typing out the story about how I lost hundreds of old blog posts from not having Good Backups, a scary thought occurred: “Hey I bet it’s in The Wayback Machine.” And of course most of it was and oh my God my writing was (is?) the absolute worst. Bonus points to anybody out there masochistic enough to try and find that stuff.

A couple weeks ago I touched on the memory of machines and how they have to be coerced into modeling the imperfections of the human mind. Like a typical human, I forgot that The Wayback Machine is an unintentionally perfect example of this: the staggering goal of archiving the web mixed with very real resource constraints necessarily forms gaps in the archive. For an archivist, these gaps are excruciating but they breathe life into a machine.

There’s a great New Yorker piece from earlier this year about The Internet Archive (which includes the Wayback Machine) that is just loaded with anecdotes like this one:

In 2006, David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that Google was democratizing the world, because “making more information available to more people” was providing “the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power.” Seven years later, Britain’s Conservative Party scrubbed from its Web site ten years’ worth of Tory speeches, including that one. Last year, BuzzFeed deleted more than four thousand of its staff writers’ early posts, apparently because, as time passed, they looked stupider and stupider. Social media, public records, junk: in the end, everything goes.

These anecdotes are individual data points that combine over the course of 6000+ words to paint a picture of a digital archive. But even an article of this length, with this detail, leaves much to the imagination. For example, nowhere in that article was the physical scent of the archive documented. To many this is a trivial point, but there’s 36 million web pages out there that would suggest otherwise. So if the smell of the Internet Archive is deemed unimportant, the question becomes: what is important?

It’s a question of resolution, in multiple senses of the word. How granular can you be when describing the Internet Archive, or more broadly, when describing the Internet as a whole? And if you choose to make a high-resolution copy, do you have the will and the resources to see that through to the end? The decision to include a page, a site or an entire top-level domain in the Archive is just as valid as the decision whether or not to comment on the smell of the building. These decisions, in aggregate, determine the fidelity of a copy and it is these decisions – more than even the actions being recorded – that will form our collective recollection. In summary, always be nice to librarians.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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[1] Man. Just watched that performance again and it is still so, so, so great.

P087: Just Write Down The Rules Already

Papelbon chokes Harper

Fig. 1: Jonathan Papelbon, the closer for the Washington Nationals, physically assaulting Bryce Harper, the team’s best player. (gif credit: Yahoo Sports Tumblr)

Baseball, like all physical manifestations of The Patriarchy, is built upon a byzantine system of unwritten rules. This weekend saw those rules broken – a perceived diss, a lack of hustle – and so Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper in the middle of a baseball game. Former MLB pitcher Dirk Hayhurst nails it in a piece for Vice Sports:

“Oddly, while baseball’s social norms are about as clear as mud, one thing is crystal: baseball is full of fragile narcissists who justify a great deal of their behavior by citing sources that don’t exist. They rationalize their foolish behavior as customary or, worse, crucial to the development of a younger generation. The system that makes Jonathan Papelbon a narcissistic borderline fascist is the same system that encourages Bryce Harper to be a narcissistic egomaniac.”

The entire article is great but don’t be so foolish as to think this is merely A Baseball Problem. The visibility and violence of a clubhouse culture clash makes for a lively news cycle, but the challenges of building an effective team are universal:

  • Attracting and retaining the best talent
  • Helping new teammates perform at the highest level
  • Setting an meeting realistic expectations
  • Finding triumph in the face of adversity

Organizations of all stripes have been facing these challenges since we realized it was easier to hunt a mammoth with two people than one. If the Nationals haven’t put this all down on paper, maybe they should (cough, The Cardinal Way, cough), but in at the end of the day, all the policies in the world can’t keep a psycho like Papelbon from going off the deep end. And yes, Papelbon was given a slap on the wrist, but let’s be real: if he was the superstar in the fight, this would have been swept under the rug faster that you can say Github.

Organizations can’t protect us from each other, or ourselves, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Employee handbooks, codes of conduct, progressive recruiting practices: these are the building blocks of a rewarding work experience. Write down the rules, resolve grievances sooner rather than later and for pete’s sake, keep your hands off the other guy’s neck.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P086: On Modern Marginalia


If you’re still here for the 86th issue of this newsletter / blog / personal improvement project, it’s a safe bet that you are not especially averse to marginalia expressed in the form of hyperlinks scattered randomly about. As a self-described enthusiast, it’s frequently the case that I’ve gathered more information than I can cram into a single email. Sometimes funny, sometimes informative, sometimes downright sadistic, I view these links as a director’s commentary to the main narrative – a way for the interested or bored to dive deeper, should they so choose. And 9.7% of the time, a reader will make that choice, generally to the detriment of their productivity.

So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I tucked into Evan Kindley’s fantastic treatise on the overlap of literary and lyrical annotation, “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Kindley grafts a history of Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice onto an explainer of Genius, all the while teasing out the role that annotation plays in modern (aka geek) culture. If that sounds like a lot to keep in your head, relax – Kindley’s annotations are frequent and insightful, and they use the Genius annotation system to boot (just like the web version of this issue, hint hint). Besides, the dude writes sentences like this:

“Some might describe Humpty’s patronizing, pompous tone as mansplaining (or maybe, given the source, “eggsplaining”). But plenty of readers will understand the urge to provide definitions and interpretations as well as Alice’s desire to hear them.”

I’d say that urge is certainly alive and well, at least in this little corner of the internet.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P085: Historian or Hoarder?

I.

Dave Winer is someone who knows a thing or two about Big Ideas: he’s the inventor of RSS, the very first podcaster and one of the earliest bloggers. A tireless advocate for the independent publisher, Winer has also had a long-running fixation on what he calls the future-safe web:

“The concern is that the record we’re creating is fragile and ephemeral, so that to historians of the future, the period of innovation where we moved our intellectual presence from physical to electronic media will be a blank spot, with almost none of it persisting. If, for example, this website were to persist, you would be able to read these words, at their permanent address, many years into the future.”

If Dave Winer wants to get the web to a place where future-safety is a possibility, at least on an opt-in basis, he’ll do it. His track record has proven that much, at least.

II.

And now here’s an article from February about people who delete their tweets after a few days. Author Robin Sloan is quoted as such:

“I have to admit that I cannot remember, with perfect clarity, the moment I decided I was going to be a tweet deleter,” he says. “I assume I was taking a spin back through old tweets and decided, ehh, this is not a great contribution to the historical record.”

The 140 character limit of a tweet naturally encourages brevity and occasionally informality in discourse. There’s way less gravitas compared to a Medium post and an infinite amount less than, say, walking up and nailing your blog post to the door of a church. Turns out: the life span of a post on Fusion is at least seven months.

III.

If you could record your whole life, would you do it? Would you go back and relive those moments? Would you painstakingly maintain ever-expanding data structures to accommodate the flow of data? Is the archive valuable to you or your family or historians or (more likely) as a data point in a massive aggregate for advertisers? Conversely, if you could wash it all away, would you? No more #tbt, no more nostalgia, no regrets.

Computers are really, really good at remembering things and have been for a long time. But as technology has evolved, we have gone from merely using computers to inhabiting them. The idea that your online presence is distinct from your real-world identity is laughable to the average American 16 year old. So while it’s natural for humanity to see the computer age as an opportunity to get a do-over for the Library of Alexandria, it also makes sense to have our online interactions more closely model our day-to-day.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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