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Why does American radio suck so much?

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Every time I start driving to get to work, I get progressively angrier. Thankfully, this time my new job’s only 25 minutes away, but that’s 25 minutes of either radio or audiobooks. I love both audiobooks and public radio, and would highly recommend both to anyone doing a commute, but sometimes I get tired of  NPR gently telling me that global warming, racism,  ISIS and gluten-intolerance are all my fault,  and I  just want to listen to music.

The problem with American music stations is they SUCK. There is no other word for it. Which is why, when I’m at home, I usually listen to European radio. But it seems unfair that the American listening public is subjected to the same 20-not even 40-songs over and over again, and even those songs are all the same.

Every day as I drive, I wonder in rage, not about measles outbreaks or genetically-modified vegetables, but why the hell the American public is ok with shitty radio.

I did a little digging, and aside from the fact that the American music industry is completely messed up, I was surprised to find that I’m the key demographic for this bullshit:

The Top40 format is generally targeted toward Women 18-34 years old. So, if you don’t fit into that life-group, you’re not likely to be interested in a lot of the music we play on those stations. Of course, Top 40 attempts to reach a broader audience as well including Men and most target teens/college students at night….Women 18-34 are our bread and butter there.

These women are generally very busy. Often they’re trying to balance career, kids, appointments, etc. They’re in the car a lot but for relatively short periods of time. In order to keep their interest, we try to keep things very fast paced content-wise. We’re also doing our best to make sure that as soon as they turn on our station, they’re going to hear a very popular hit song. We don’t waste time with a lot of “filler” on these stations. Thus, most of the music you’ll hear is relatively new – released within the last two years or so. The DJs keep their breaks quick. We know we don’t have a lot of time to reel in these women.

So basically I am listening to the music that’s targeted directly to me.  And I have to say I hate it, for the exact same reasons that Jia Tolentino rages against it in this Hairpin piece on the newest terrible American song, “Rude”:

The first time I heard “Rude” I thought it was a 1-800-411-PAIN ad, because Detroit radio is currently running one that sounds sort of like a more palatable version of “Rude.” The next couple of times I had the sort of physical reaction I associate with suddenly coming in contact with bees; before my mind could process what was happening, I pawed at my radio dial quickly, ahhh, get it away!

Get it away from me, and by it I mean mindless American radio. I suppose I could subscribe to Pandora or Spotify or play Grooveshark mobile, but that defies the whole point of this rant which is that I’m a music snob and all 50 million or howevermany 18-34 women there are should listen to the stuff I listen to, which is all this stuff. Get on it, radio stations.

NPR, if you’re listening, maybe you can throw some of this in between alarmist reports of ebola or farming bluefin tuna. Or better yet, instead of.

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Don’t pageclick on this

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In the pre-industrial age, the most valuable commodity was time. Would you have enough time to plant a harvest? Were there enough hours in the day before the sun set and the candles needed to be lit?  People spent days and years making things-watches, dresses, meals, cathedrals. John Donne wrote whole poems about how the sun decided the day.

 BUSY old fool, unruly Sun, 
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ? 
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ? 
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide 
        Late school-boys and sour prentices, 
    Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride, 
    Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime, 
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time. 

In the YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU CLICK THIS LINK age, despite what millions of frantic lifehack articles tell us, we have enough time to do everything we want. We only don’t because we make our own lives harder by filling them with modern fluff (soccer practice for kids (paywall) and networking for adults are two that come to mind ) because we need to monopolize the time we’re not using to seem busier and more valuable.

Idleness has always been a negative trait. If you weren’t planting fields, it meant you wouldn’t eat. But we can get food whenever we want, so today’s idleness in the Western world is superficial, and because we are scared of death.  We need to be occupied by whatever we deem most important to us not because it’s essential for life, but because of our ego.

Today’s most valuable commodity is attention. Seth Godin, who writes some gimmicky stuff but also some gems,  wrote recently, “There’s a gold rush for attention going on. We are all in the media business.”  I’ve written before about how much I hate the current shape of the mainstream media, an issue that impacts most people who live on the internet and let the internet shape their world views.

A couple weeks ago at WordCamp Philly, I talked for 45 minutes about how SEO, Twitter, and Buzzfeed are ruining good quality writing, and that if you really care about writing well, you should be writing consistently good content about things you care about because you’re passionate about them, not because you want to whore yourself out for pageclicks.

I begged people who were starting blogs not to care about making money, to write good, interesting things, and that, possibly,  money might follow. I told them to write about how they grew their tomato plants or about the house they built for their cats, or about how they lived in Germany ten years ago. As long as they were interested in the topic, their sincere interest would shine through, and eventually, others would pick up on it.  At the end of my talk, a man raised his hand and asked, “But you can make money off blogs, right?”

Pageviews are ruining the way we understand and process news, the same way that live CNN feeds ruined it 20 years ago.

Readers’ interests are to get as much of the story as possible, from different perspectives, written by people who truly care about reporting. The business side of the magazine is interested in pushing out sensational, stupid stories, the kind I see in my Facebook feed every morning, with increasing regularity, now that Ukraine and Israel/Gaza are heating up.  The more comments and shares a post gets, the better it is. The more people click on it, even better.

By the way, the best things so far I have read on Ukraine and Gaza in the English-speaking Internet don’t come from traditionally mainstream sites. Here’s Ukraine, and here’s Gaza.

I’m posting a specific example, not to pick on people who have posted it (at least two or three in my timeline, either because they agree or disagree with it…I have no idea, I didn’t click on it), but because this exemplifies exactly the type of shit I’m angry about. Sensational image, misleading headline, all encouraging you to CLICK CLICK CLICK.

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These are fun to flip through on the train or in minutes you have spare time, but really all they do is stress you out, make you angrier, and worst of all,  lead to colossal misunderstandings of how the world works. I have to read at least five different sources to corroborate Israeli and Palestinian claims, and not because the issue is so complicated, which it is, but because journalists are plain lazy and editors need pageclicks faster and faster.

As a news consumer, I am just plain exhausted. I refuse to click on anything from BuzzFeed, Upworthy, or any of those stupid viral sites.

We are only solving this problem very slowly. The latest solution has been to start a hipster data journalism site. As of last count, I know of at least four: The Upshot from the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and the Washington Post just launched one last week whose name I can’t remember because I don’t care. These sites try, but they don’t do much better. For example, Nate Silver is currently writing about burritos.

The only solution is to write good shit, to hire people who genuinely care about writing good shit, and most importantly, make money doing that. Oh, and don’t forget getting people to read your content.   It takes time to build up credibility, too.

There’s no way around these things, and that’s why it’s so hard. Building a good media source could take just as long, maybe, as building a cathedral or growing a tree.

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I can never go back to real life

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When my classes end for the summer, I always quip to people that I’m on summer vacation because the only thing I’ll have to do now is go to work 9-5, and then have five blissful hours of freedom in the evenings.

I’ll think to myself that it’s not a true vacation unless you’re doing absolutely nothing, like you used to do in the summer before school started, but then I remember back to my summers in middle and high school. They were filled with summer work: English books to read, history essays to write, current events to synthesize.

We would get the work on the last day of school, or during the first hazy days in July, a package would come in the mail, the dreaded assignments. No matter how I tried to finish them ahead of time, there I would be, the last couple weeks of August, frantically writing, terrified I wouldn’t get an A and be off to a bad start with my new teacher.

This past summer semester was my hardest one in school  yet: I started a new job almost exactly at the same time as three classes started, and I signed myself up to give at talk at Philly WordCamp in the middle of the month. As a result, my June was hell.

These days, I truly am doing nothing.  Or, I’m only do things that aren’t annoying: as you can tell, I’m not blogging, I haven’t picked up my novel since last week.

I have no commitments other than to my friends and family.

I come home, maybe make some dinner, maybe eat some watermelon. Maybe Mr. B and I go for a nice long walk around the neighborhood, maybe we watch some bad Russian tv.  Maybe I eat a popsicle.

My calendar is clear of any school/teaching/tech obligations until late August.

I lay on the couch and read books. I’ve already finished The Luminaries and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I start long, thoughtful, angry, poignant blog posts and don’t finish them.  I start short tweets that have jokes and don’t tweet them.

Sometimes I get manicures.

Sometimes I just open the windows and smell the sweet grass Mr. B is mowing.

I have never been this unbusy in my entire life.

And it’s scary how good it feels.

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Purim in Moscow

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Purim is one of those American Jewish experiences that most Russian Jews missed out on growing up in America. That’s what I always thought, at least, until Anat sent me an email that she was making a documentary about her experiences with purimspiels, Purim plays that retold the story of Esther,  in the Soviet Union.

Anat is an Israeli filmmaker who was born in Moscow. Her family was 9 when they left the Soviet Union. Before that in the late 1980s, they were part of a tight Jewish student group in Moscow, and somehow got the idea that they should be putting on these plays for friends, family and kids.

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I was thunderstruck by the idea that this happened. First, religion was completely verboten in the Soviet Union, and anyone caught in religious  situations would immediately go to jail. Granted, this was close to the fall of the Soviet Union, but still. Second, I didn’t realize there were Jews in the Soviet Union who knew anything about being Jewish, or about the story of Purim. Third, I have no idea how anyone was able to buy a camera, let alone keep the film for that long, in the Soviet Union.

The documentary Anat made about these secret spiels, interspersed with interviews with her parents and other participants now living in Israel, is touching, and, for me, reflects an entirely different universe from the Soviet Union I knew.

I watched it a couple times, still in disbelief, emotional.

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Here’s the trailer, and the whole documentary (~15 min) is available online for $1 if you’re interested.

 

 

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I’m tired of apps

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Every morning, I wake up by scrolling through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. It’s probably the most unhealthy thing I do to myself all day.  As I scroll through, about 1/10th of the content at any given time is ads, and 90% of those ads are for apps.

90% of Hacker News is now not interesting stories but people begging other people to check out their app.

Every tech-related mailing list I’m on is full of people proud to announce the launch of their web app and you can download it if you’re on iOS.

Marc Andreessen wrote that software is eating the world, which being in IT, I don’t mind. It should. Software only makes peoples’ lives easier on different levels, allowing people to work on other problems that aren’t so routine and repeatable.  And, people as the middle layer between machines will never go away.

But I think the real problem is that crappy apps are eating the world. Because we’ve reached peak app development, with apps that also prototype and design apps, and because of the slim chance of hitting it rich,  it’s extraordinarily easy to think of innovation just as churning out apps.

But I live in technology, and even I’m tired and oversaturated with apps.  I don’t want the opportunity to “integrate my Android calendars on three different levels.” I don’t want a social app that combines my Twitter and Facebook experience into something locally-enhanced. I don’t want an app that’s the same version of the site I access in the browser. I don’t want an ecommerce app that connects me to the latest fashions. I don’t need real-time analytics on my ad conversions.  I don’t want Fruit Ninja.

While apps and their walled gardens are taking over the world, all the best parts of the internet that made no money are slowly vanishing. Television Without Pity, which had the best recaps and reviews written by skillful writers, was bought by NBC Universal. It’s still up for now, but who knows what they’ll do with the archives?  One of my friends is getting married, so I was going to send her a link to Indiebrides, a site for women who didn’t want to plan their wedding by the book and which was instrumental to me in helping me to figure out there were women like me who didn’t freak out about white tulle, and made me feel less alone when I was planning my wedding in 2008. That site, full of hundreds of useful, thoughtful people,  is now gone, replaced by HuffPo filler.

I want technology that will help me think. Actually, I don’t even want technology. I want technology to tell me how to put down the technology and connect to people. I want technology to come help teach me to plant a garden. No, I don’t want a gardening app. I want a person who knows how to grow tomatoes. I want to talk to writers, real writers, not writers who want me to CLICK THROUGH TO READ MORE. I want to talk to doctors. I want to meet people near me, but I don’t want a geolocation service to do it.  I want to be at the beach and have no desire to take any pictures or look at anyone else’s.

The strange, weird world of the internet I knew as it was growing is gone.  When I was 12, I checked out a book from the library called the Internet Yellow Pages by Harley Hahn (obviously no longer in existence.) It listed thousands of the best sites in existence that year, and aside from describing them, he also wrote little essays about what it was like being in medical school, the time he wrote to Isaac Asimov and got a response, and hundreds of other small anecdotes that, today, form my understanding of not only the internet, but American society and also gave hundreds of tips that I won’t forget. One story that he wrote was when he was worried he wouldn’t know enough organic chemistry to pass the class, and Asimov, I believe, wrote back to him and said, “If you have a good enough library at your disposal, you can teach yourself anything. I have.” That’s always stuck in my mind.

I’m tired of apps, monetization, SEO, real-time, optimization, social. I’m tired of the Internet trying to monetize from me.   I want to talk to real people and read real good stuff that’s not clickbait.  But I don’t know what comes next. Maybe just going outside.