Getting the Good Stuff: Mark Haskell Smith’s Heart of Dankness

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Connoisseurship is hip right now. Not 100 feet from my apartment, there’s a coffee shop whose menu reads like a map — Colombia, Honduras, Rwanda — and every few months, I get together with some friends to taste different whiskeys (we’re not as insufferable as we sound). Hell, there are at least five restaurants I can thinkamsterdamtodayauc of in Los Angeles that serve artisanal sausages. For whatever reason – maybe it’s an extension of the hipster desire for obscurity and authenticity – but knowing what the good stuff is and where to get it has never been a bigger deal.

Perhaps that’s why Mark Haskell Smith’s Heart of Dankness so resonated with me. Smith ventures ADM-201 to Amsterdam to cover the Cannabis Cup, the world’s premiere marijuana expo, trade show, and competition. When sampling a particularly potent strain called John Sinclair (named for the manager of the proto-punk band MC5), Smith experiences a moment of epiphany, the words floating above his head in cartoon font — “This shit is dank.” And so begins a quest to get to the root of what, exactly, “dank” is.

I like my nonfiction to be both entertaining and edifying, and Dankness delivers both. Smith dives deep into the world of high-end cannabis, from the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam to the near-ubiquitous and semi-legal medical marijuana dispensaries of Los Angeles and Oakland to the clandestine grow sites of the Mexican Cartel. His experience as a novelist 300-206 serves him well, as he brings to life the many growers, vaporists, budtenders, breeders, and activists who make up the cannabis industry. We learn about the different effects 600-199 of sativa and indica, the two strands of pot that each produce very different highs. Indica, with its sledge-hammer heaviness, dominates the California market at the moment, while the light, cerebral high of sativa permeates the Dutch coffeeshop scene. We learn, too, about the landrace strains Buy Windows 10 product key of marijuana that seed companies keep in vaults. These genetically pure strains are “the primary colors” of the seed business, combined to make endless new 70-246 variations of weed, each with a slightly different flavor and feel. Smith is so adept at describing the strains that they almost become characters themselves, albeit characters with really great names like Super Lemon Haze, Kosher Kush, and Trainwreck.

If you want to know how the contemporary cannabis industry operates, Heart of Dankness is the book for you. But beyond that, Dankness is a great book for anyone with an inclination towards connoisseurship, because dankness, it seems, is at least in part about circumstances. The right thing at the right time in the right place with the people. A perfectly cooked egg might be considered dank if you ate at precisely the right time and place. Or an ice cold glass of your 700-039 favorite beer at the end of  the longest, hottest buy windows 10 key day of the year. Quality is a part of it, to be sure, but you can’t underestimate the situational 300-070 component. This, ultimately, is why the book holds great appeal beyond the world of Buy Windows 10 key marijuana aficionados. Take it from a guy who hates 400-351 reggae: I highly recommend picking up Heart of Dankness, whether you have a doctor’s recommendation or not.

Source Material: Breaking Down the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay

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If the publishing industry really does collapse, as some predict it will, it won’t be the big houses or the independent bookstores that will be most affected, it will be Hollywood. This year’s crop of Oscar contenders raises the question “Can there be a cinema without books?” I’m skeptical. Try to imagine this year’s Academy Awards without Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Moneyball or The Descendants or The Help or Hugo. Even Midnight in Paris couldn’t exist without Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Without books, Scott Rudin would have to have to find work as a dentist or something.
Of course nowhere is Hollywood’s literary addiction more apparent than the Adapted Screenplay category. This year’s crop of adaptations includes four movies adapted from books and one adapted from a play (The Ides of March). Since I haven’t seen live theater 70-417 since I went to my friend’s improv show a year or two ago, I can’t comment cheap windows 10 key on how faithful The Ides of March is to its source material. I can state with near certainty, though, that the guys who played the two leads on stage moncler nederland were not as good looking as Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. Call it a hunch.
This year’s crop of book-to-movie adaptations is a varied bunch. Moneyball (about which I’ve written before) delivered on some of the promise of Michael Lewis’ book, while managing to dramatize a business strategy. Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, famous for writing Schindler’s List and The West Wing, respectively, may have turned A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta into loveably portly stat-geek Peter Brand, but in doing so, they gave a bit of humanity 210-260 to the cold, hard pursuit of truth.
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I will admit to wondering whether another of the Adapted Screenplay nominees was even necessary. With its 1979 miniseries, the BBC so thoroughly and completely brought to life John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the cinematic adaptation felt superfluous. Could anyone possibly be George Smiley but Alec Guinness? But I have to admit I was entertained and enthralled as the two-and-a-half-hour spy drama played out on the big screen. Some of thismoncler dames was the stellar cast (I particularly enjoyed Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr), but the writers deserve kudos, as well. Packing a work as dense and detailed windowskeys as Tinker Tailor into a mere two hours-plus is no small feat, and yet screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan not only accomplished it, they did so with style. In their Tinker Tailor, Control is revealed to be an alcoholic old coot while erstwhile ladykiller Peter Guillam is cleverly reimagined as a homosexual. The most faithful adaption of the year it isn’t, but it might be the best executed.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is likely to win the Best Picture this year. I say this not because it was the best movie of the year, but rather because the Academy loves nothing more than patting itself on the back. What could be more congratulatory than celebrating a movie about the history of movies (especially French ones!). It’s down to this and The Artist, another movie about making movies, and I bet that most of the Academy voters spent the first few minutes of The Artist screeners messing with the settings on their TV to make sure the audio wasn’t screwed up. So the smart money is on Scorsese.

And finally there’s The Descendants. Much like Sideways, Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel was not widely read before Alexander Payne and his crew decided to adapt it for the screen. Also like Sideways, The Descendants is a story whose location plays as big a role as its protagonist. I’m starting to think that Payne picks his movies based on where he’d like to shoot. I imagine he and his wife in bed. She finishes a book and he asks “How was it?”

“Eh, not bad. I’ve read better.”

“Where’s it take place?” Alexander Payne asks.

“The South of France.”

Payne sits up and takes off his glasses. “Tell me more.”

I think this is the clear runner-up in the race, despite being a satisfying story with a fun cast. As for the book, I can’t say, as I’m not one of the few pre-Payne readers to have tried the novel.

So there you have it. This year’s best adapted screenplay nominations are again dominated by the literary world. That may change in the near future, though. In a sign that the movies don’t intend to get caught looking should the Random House building become a 30-story erotic massage parlor, they’ve already begun exploring another source for material, the board game industry. Battleship premieres this spring.

A Year in Reading: Patrick Brown

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I can’t put my finger on why I read so few books this year … Oh, fuck it, of course I can. I had a kid — my first — but I won’t blame this on him. Sure, I got a lot less sleep, but when I was awake, I played a lot of videogames windows 10 product key on my iPhone. I read a lot of articles on the internet. I wrote a lot of Tumblr posts. A whole, miserable baseball season happened. And occasionally pixelartshop they’d be showing one of the Oceans movies on TV and I’d watch half of it. And did I mention the videogames? I tried to read more. Really, I did. I started and abandoned no fewer than 20 books. I’d pick something up, read 150 pages, and then leave it to molder while I read something in The New Yorker (okay, on The New Yorker’s blog). Nothing could hold my interest long enough to propel 100-105 me to the end.

I’m proud of none of this, but I bring it up to emphasize how much of a joy it was to get Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron in the mail and to finish it the very next day. Here was the reading 648-244 experience I was looking for! I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I read it over breakfast, over lunch. I voluntarily took the bus to work (the bus!), just so I’d have extra time to read. It was the book that reminded me what a pleasure a great book can be.

Raab, born and raised in Cleveland, that most buy Windows 10 Professional product Key accursed of sports towns, has written not only the definitive book on LeBron James, but in my opinion, the greatest treatise on fandom since Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Raab follows LeBron through his final season in Cleveland, his ESPN-fueled ego-fest “The Decision,” and his first season with the Miami Heat. The results are a mellifluously written screed the likes of which I’ve never before encountered.

There’s a singular pleasure in reading a really good insult, and The Whore of Akron delivers that, again and again. Raab excels at excoriation, and James is hardly his only target. Take, for example, that arch villain of Cleveland sports, former Browns owner Art Modell. Every time his name appears in the book it is followed by an ever-changing string of invective, such as “may he be buried naked in a pigsty with a corncob wedged in every orifice.” But it’s James who bears the brunt of 210-060 this book. Raab takes pleasure in pointing out the many instances — on and off the court — that show LeBron to be at best a spoiled, immature kid, and at worst an egomaniac whose insecurities would make a teenage anorexic blush.

Of course, if you’re going to flay someone to the extent that Raab does, you’d better be ready to look within, as well. Raab is unflinchingly honest about his life as an addict, his divorce, his weight-gain, and his frankly 300-101 grotesque health issues (at one point, his feet swell so much that he must wrap them in bandages). And to be fair, there are moments when Raab crosses the line, writing about LeBron’s penis and wishing for James to suffer a serious injury. It’s his consistent honesty 200-355 that makes those moments seem not only forgivable but understandable — he’s just an ardent fan.

And it’s an odd time to be a fan. Sure you can watch any game you want on TV, and you can even get up close and quasi-personal with your favorite playersmoncler black friday on Twitter. But you’re also forced to watch as your favorite player weasels his way onto another team so he can play with the guy who owns the beach house next to his. You’ve had to endure labor SY0-401 battles in two of the three major American sports at a time when regular citizens are out in the streets protesting inequality. And you have to watch ESPN, probably the worst insult of them all. If ever there SK0-004 was a time for some anger, this is it. And The Whore of Akron is the angriest book on the shelf. Read it.

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The Joys and Compromises of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball

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It would be difficult to overstate the ambivalence I felt toward the looming release of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, the new movie about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Take whatever it is that’s important to you – knitting, perhaps, or mountain biking – and then imagine waiting for a feature windows10explained film about it. Would you be excited or nervous? Or a mix of both? Or would you simplymoncler black friday salebe dreading how Hollywood would manage to fuck up your passion? I’d wondered what an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball would be like ever since the film went into development…eight years ago. Would they be able to translate the plot, in so far as there is one, to the screen? Or would Moneyball be based on the book in the same way that Syriana was “inspired by” Robert Baer’s See No Evil, an adaptation in name only (So much so that Syriana was nominated for 300-206 Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars)?

By the time of the film’s release, I had overcome enough of my anxiety to be firmly in the excited camp. No matter how bad the movie was, at least I’d get to laugh at idiots like Joe Morgan for two hours, right? Before the screening, when my wife and I were standing 70-494 in the concessions line, she asked me what kind of Windows 10 Professional product Key sale candy I wanted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “We’re about to watch a movie about advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Get whatever you want.”

We weren’t, of course, about to watch a movie about sabrmetrics — the use of advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players and teams — and how the cash-strapped Oakland A’s used it to remain competitive with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees. A part of me knew that going in; such a movie fridaysboutiquewould bore 99.9 percent of the audience and probably infuriate the remaining tenth of a percent. No, the filmmakers ADM-201 had to do something to make a more cinematic story of Lewis’s 2003 book. The question was not would the movie differ from the book, but how.

Moneyball is the story of an idea. The thesis of the book is that major 300-208 league baseball teams had long ignored valuable statistical information about their players, relying instead on eye-witness evaluation by seasoned scouts. These scouts used observation and intuition to identify the best players (For example, one scout in the film claims a player is no good because his girlfriend isn’t attractive enough. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”). As one might expect from such an unscientific method, it produced variable results. One of the players traditional scouting misidentified as a future star was none other than Billy Beane, who fizzled out after a mediocre major league career. All of this led to an inefficient Windows 10 Professional product Key Oem sale market in baseball talent. Some players were radically undervalued, while others earned much more money than they deserved. Operating from a position of financial weakness, Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s bucked traditional scouting methods and employed deep statistical analysis to find the undervalued players they could afford.

To build a movie out of a book Windows 10 Professional OEM Key about an idea, the filmmakers made several important compromises. First, they decided to narrow the scope of their film to Billy Beane. Interlacing Beane’s backstory with the primary narrative of building a team from the scrap heap of unwanted players was a brilliant choice, as it provided a psychological motivation for his skepticism of traditional baseball scouting. From the very beginning, we see Beane’s doubt come to the fore. “If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit good?” he asks his scouts. “You keep giving me the same ‘good face’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans here.” He challenges Peter Brand (the stand-in for A’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his name to be used in the film): “Would you have drafted me in the first round?” It’s obvious what answer Beane’s hoping for, and when he gets it, an odd couple is created — the athletic Beane (played by demigod Brad Pitt) and the, well, not-so-athletic Brand (a not-yet-thin Jonah Hill). Beane plays Galileo — the lone voice of rationality in a world that worships superstition– and Hill is, I don’t know…Galileo’s assistant?

The pairing works because it plays to each actor’s strengths — Pitt’s arrogance is tempered by his sense of humor and creates a fairly convincing portrait of a man obsessed with being right. Hill, for his part, stammers and blinks his way through awkward scene after awkward scene, his 300-320 comedic timing stealing many of them. Good casting also helps the film eke every ounce of goodness out of the story of Scott Hatteberg, the one-time catcher whose career CISSP appears to be over after a freak nerve injury. Hatteberg, played by loveable oaf Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation), sees his career resurrected by Beane and Brand, who value his innate ability to do the single most important thing in baseball — get on base. Pratt isn’t given much screen-time to work with, but he makes the most of it, giving soul to a character who might have easily been overlooked.

The other major compromise the filmmakers settled on is significantly 700-039 less successful. A major reason for Oakland’s success in the early 2000s was their dominant starting pitching. Blessed with “The Big Three” — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito — three of the best pitchers in the game, Oakland was able to count on a solid performance from its starting pitching three out of every five games. For instance, during the 2002 season depicted in the film, the A’s got roughly 685 innings of all star-caliber 300-070 pitching from The Big Three alone, including 230 innings from Cy Young-winner and singer-songwriter Barry Zito (The late Cory Lidle was no slouch himself, contributing nearly 200 above-average innings, as well). Without these contributions, no number of walks would’ve mattered. Leaving these players out of the film is a bit like filming the New Testament and never mentioning that Jesus fellow.

And yet, the words “Hudson,” “Mulder,” and “Zito” are never uttered in the film. The only pitchers given any screen-time are relievers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Bradford, whose bizarre throwing motion was so off-putting it disguised his extraordinary abilities as a relief pitcher, is a central part of Lewis’s book. In the film, he gets a 10 second mention early in the film, and then a condescending scene that plays his religiosity for laughs. It seems that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to handle more stats, and so they chose simply to focus on the offensive side of things, and hammer home the mantra of “get on base.” This might very well have been necessary for storytelling’s sake, but it means providing a skewed version of events. Scott Hatteberg had a fine year, especially when judged against his salary, but his 136 games of 116 OPS+ play was hardly the reason Oakland challenged for the pennant in 2002. Ironically, Moneyball may have succumbed to the casual baseball fan’s long-standing bias in favor of offense and position players.

More troubling, in my opinion, is the lack of depth with which the film explores the various “moneyball” principles that Beane employs. It’s all well and good to talk about getting on base, but why? Why is it important to get on base? Sure, you score more runs, and yes, you burn out the other team’s pitching staff, but the real reason is that you simply aren’t making outs. As Beane says at one point, “Why bother attacking? There’s no clock in this game.” Outs are the clock in baseball, and if you don’t make them, you can live forever. Likewise, if your pitchers get people out, you don’t much care whether they are throwing 100 miles per hour or using a herky-jerky delivery to do so. The reason Chad Bradford, with his funky underhanded pitching motion, got batters out was because he made the batter hit the ball on the ground. It’s very difficult to hit the ball over the fence when you’re hitting it on the ground (In fact, it’s impossible). But you’d never know that from watching the movie. Moneyball gets at the why of Oakland’s success without ever really examining the how.

Of course, from the average moviegoer’s perspective, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The basic tenets of the sabrmetric philosophy are clearly presented in the film, and while it’s sometimes a bit broad, the movie does a remarkable job of dramatizing the concepts. The sins of the film – such as giving Beane too much credit for his strategy (Other GMs, including Sandy Alderson and even Branch Rickey, the legendary GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, studied statistics as part of their evaluation methods) –are often those of the book, as well (and I would argue that Pitt’s performance does more to show Beane’s arrogance than Lewis’s somewhat rose-colored portrait does). The major argument against Moneyball has always been that Beane failed to win the World Series (or any other post-season series, for that matter). This is where the film truly shines, in my opinion, as the drama is not so much whether the A’s will win the World Series, but whether Beane and Brand’s crazy idea will work.

The idea does work, as demonstrated in the chapter of the book called “The Speed of the Idea.” This chapter produced my favorite scene in the film. Beane, after a remarkable season, is summoned to Boston to meet with the new owner of the Red Sox, billionaire hedge fund manager John Henry. Henry is enamored with Beane’s strategies and wants to hire him. Oakland has offered Beane a new contract, though, one Beane would be happy to accept. Henry asks Beane why he even bothered to come to the meeting then. “Because you hired Bill James, for one thing,” he replies. James, the patron saint of statistical baseball study, had never had a job in the game before Henry decided to give him one; he was too hated. This gives Henry an excuse to explain to Beane that whenever a new idea threatens the status quo — whether that’s in government, business, or sports — those in power fight it tooth and nail. What choice do they have? Their livelihoods are at stake. “Anybody not out there right now remaking their team with your principles is done. They’re dinosaurs,” Henry says.

Watching this scene in the theater, I found myself thinking not of baseball, but of another spectacularly inefficient industry that’s close to my heart — the publishing business. For the past two centuries, publishers have relied primarily on that most ephemeral and unscientific of qualities, editors’ taste, to decide which books to spend their money on and which books to decline. Their results are not much better than the scouts Beane summarily dismisses in Moneyball (Though, presumably, with less chewing tobacco). In a recent Vanity Fair article about the publishing industry, Keith Gessen writes: “If it is the writer’s first book, and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (“comp titles”) and see how many copies those sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.” With that in mind, how long will it be before the Billy Beane of the publishing world finds a better way? After all, “We’re not selling jeans here.”

Selling jeans or not, if you pay to see a sports movie you expect to see some sweat. It’s telling that the most physical exertion we see is not on the field but in the weight room, as Billy Beane prefers to pump iron in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum rather than watch his team play. I found myself wondering at one point whether this was much of a sports movie at all. In the end, I decided it must be, since it looked a lot like Friday Night Lights — tortured close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork, sports talk radio overlays, silenced crowd shots, and Explosions in the Sky-esque soundtrack. If Hoosiers were remade today (Note to Hollywood: Don’t get any funny ideas.), it would look a lot like this.

In the end, Moneyball isn’t Syriana. In fact, it has more in common with another adaptation of recent years — The Social Network. Both are compelling dramas about recent history that are probably better considered fiction than nonfiction. Still, I must admit that I felt something special while watching Moneyball. True, it didn’t cover everything I wanted it to (There wasn’t, for instance, any mention of Beane’s Ahab-like quest to acquire Mexican on-base machine Erubiel Durazo, and there was apparently no time to work in a vignette about the great challenge trade of Billy Koch for Keith Foulke), but it was still a rare thrill to watch a movie about a subject I cared about and to see it rendered with love and humor. We should all be so lucky.

Staff Pick: Baseball Playbook

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When you have a child, you get a lot of stuff. There’s the baby stuff – the various transportation devices and accoutrements, the clothing, the books, and the toys (my favorite of these is a stuffed giraffe that plays a soothing African drum rhythm, peppered with the growls of, I guess, a lion. It’s comforting, despite the lion’s growl). Then there’s the stuff for you, the parent – my coworker got me a badly-needed bottle of bourbon; he knows me well. My father, on the other hand, brought me a book. Not a parenting book, mind you. My father was perfectly confident in my skills canada goose deutschland as a father; it was my ability to run a baseball team that he doubted. “You might have to coach Little League in a few years,” he told me, handing me a strange, plain windows 10 key Online book. My son was a week old. It would be at least two years before he would learn to throw a cut fastball (and probably another year or two before he had any real command of the pitch), but my father likes to plan ahead. He’d gotten 642-998 this book 70-417 from a colleague of his, one who used to scout for the Atlanta Braves and coached baseball at the college level, so the book came with an impressive recommendation.

Roughly the size of a chemistry textbook, Baseball Playbook (no article needed) is now one of the stranger books I own. It looks like a self-published book from the days when that meant cutting a deal with a printer and paying extra for a second 300-135 color of ink on the cover, an expense the publishers of Baseball Playbook declined to indulge. The only text on the jacket of the book is the title of the book and “by Ron Polk.” No publisher information, no ISBN, no blurbs. Ron Polk is a fan of simplicity. He was also the longtime head 300-360 coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs baseball team, and the book is published by the Mississippi State University Press (I discovered this information on the internet; there’s nothing at all in the book that states this).

Baseball Playbook is a complete guide to coaching a baseball team. It contains, among other things, a template for scheduling batting practice, a guide to developing offensive signs (you know, the ones the third base coach flashes to hitters and baserunners), a series of fundamental drills canada goose outlet designed to practice things like pick-off moves to first and second base, diving back to the base, and fielding bunts. There’s even a section dedicated to field maintenance. “For many years, calcinated clay has been the standard 312-50 material used for drying infields,” Polk writes. “However, recently a new product made from ground corn cobs called Diamond Dry has been marketed and promises to be a superior product.” It would not be an exaggeration to say buy Windows 10 Pro Key that you could build a baseball field with the instructions in this book.

If Baseball Playbook has a flaw, it’s that it sometimes dispenses some archaic advice. For instance, an early section of the book outlines a sample agreement between coaches and players regarding conduct. While drinking is to be strictly forbidden, “We will allow any player to chew tobacco on or off the playing field as long as it does not show grotesquely.” Don’t you hope your kid is on my Little League team?

By far the best part of the book, though, are the many different game play situations presented, complete with a diagram of what each player should do on the play. For instance, what is the second baseman supposed to do when a sure buy windows 10 key double to left-center field is hit with a runner at first base? The answer: “Once he reads the sure extra base hit to left center 210-065 field, he will be the back man for the shortstop on the tandom [sic] relay. In the tandom 210-260 relay, he will be responsible to communicate with the shortstop as to where the ball is to be thrown, if at all.” Now you know.

This section reminds me of Doyle Bronson’s Super System, a two-volume book that provides a hand-by-hand guide to nearly every conceivable poker scenario. In Baseball Playbook, there’s a chart that suggests defensive alignments based on the count – people tend to pull the ball more on hitter’s counts (more balls than strikes). It’s this completist streak, this idea that one might prepare for every play in a game, that draws me to the book. It reminds me of the obsession I’d developed in high school with chess, spending every spare moment thinking of the game, of openings. Later, I’d find a similar obsession with poker. Flipping through Baseball Playbook, it isn’t hard to propel myself into the future, to imagine myself as a Little League coach, running through the various possibilities of MA0-101 play in my head each night as I try, fruitlessly, to fall asleep. I’ll be the squinty, sun-leathered skipper of, I don’t know, the Nate’s Discount Tire Depot Padres.  We’ll always hit the cutoff man and never, ever, let our chewing tobacco show.

Staff Pick: FreeDarko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

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The best sportswriting rises above reportage or even analysis and becomes criticism. What other word is there for what Bill James writes? Here is the beginning of an essay James wrote about Ty Cobb from his legendary book The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
One photograph of [Cobb] with which I am particularly taken shows him posing with Christy Mathewson in the dugout before the third game of the 1911 World Series.  Mathewson, as always, looks poised and confident, staring out toward right field.  Cobb is peeking out the corner of his eye at some unseen distraction — another photographer, probably — but what makes the photograph remarkable is that, to begin with, Cobb is wearing a suit that doesn’t look as if it could possibly have fit any of his relatives.  Cobb was a big man (he is usually listed at 6′2,” 180) yet his suit has got to be four sizes too large for him — it is hard to believe that a reputable haberdasher would have let him leave the store with it.  He is holding what looks like an expensive overcoat, and he appears to be dragging it on the ground.  His hat is jaunty and his smile is decidedly nervous.  He looks frankly a little bit crazy.

There was such a contradiction in that dugout.  Cobb was then a five-time American League batting champion, with more or less seven seasons under his belt–and yet he was also a twenty-four-year-old hick from Nowhere, Georgia, a little in awe of Matty, of the photographers, of the crowd.  He had no weapons, at that moment, to defend himself against his inadequacies–no spikes, no bat, no glove.  He was so crude that he must have felt that whenever they took those things from him, his shortcomings glowed like hot iron.  And whenever he saw them glowing, he got angry.  You can see it in his face, I think, that if he could just put on a uniform and go out on the field it would be such a relief to him, out where manners and taste and style were all defined by bases gained and bases lost.  And everyone else, for a change, would have to apologize to him.
James turned to numbers to explain baseball not because he was a statistician, but rather because the numbers laid bare the truth in the game. Who was better than whom, who should’ve been recognized and who was overhyped. To find truth — and in so doing, beauty — in the game is the height of sportswriting, a genre usually mired somewhere between tawdry gossip and vitriolic hyperbole.

In their new book on the history of basketball, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the authors of the blog FreeDarko rise to the occasion and produce a work of literature that happens to be about the NBA. Writing under pseudonyms like Bethlehem Shoals and Dr. Lawyer IndianChief, the FreeDarko authors dive into the history of the sport — its characters, movements, champions, and failures. In the process, they produce some incredible writing on race, politics, and — dare I say it — the human experience.

Take, for example, their essay on Bill Russell, the indomitable center of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s. Russell, the consummate winner to most, was also a man full of yearning to be something beyond a mere athlete. This manifest itself in many ways, not all of them pleasant:
On principle, Russell refused to sign autographs, and at one point took to sending out a glossy photograph of himself emblazoned with a favorite observation of his: “We learn to make a shell for ourselves when we are young and then spend the rest of our lives hoping for someone to reach inside and touch us. Just touch us—anything more than that would be too much for us to bear.” Instead of engaging in a simple transaction, Russell held forth on the human condition, and, perhaps, his own limitations as a public figure — all of which, to many fans, just made him look like more of an asshole.
It’s stories like that one, excavated from the game’s history and woven into thoughtful, even poetic essays, that make the book so riveting for fans of the game. But there’s much for the casual fan (or even the non-sports fan, as well). Among the stronger pieces in the book is Dr. Lawyer IndianChief’s treatise on sneaker deals, branding, and the cult of personality of 1990s basketball. His examination of the marketing campaign that Nike put together for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway — featuring a Chris Rock-voiced puppet named L’il Penny (“At the height of their fame, the puppet wrote a book, with a foreword by his older brother, the NBA star.”) — draws on a literary reference to make its point:
Penny was a tabula rasa until Nike gave him a character, masking his actual lack of personality…Penny was a great basketball player on his own, and he was a celebrity because all NBA players are. But he owed his phenomenon to Nike. The branding of Penny Hardaway was a bit like Don DeLillo’s “Most Photographed Barn in America.” Penny was a cultural figure, elevated above other All-Stars, because…he was a cultural figure. And it was Nike that made it so. The puppet said it all.
Alongside these essays are entertaining asides (“The Jazz-o-Meter” rates the “jazzyness” of various NBA decades, a list of Bill Walton’s top ten quotes as a broadcaster, a list of people and entities who have been called “The Michael Jordan of something,” such as “Puget Sound: The Michael Jordan of Ecosystems,” etc.) and many illustrations. A two-page spread of the best hairstyles of the 70s is particularly delightful. Indeed, the entire book is a pleasure to hold and to look at, its glossy pages inviting the reader to flip through, stopping at an infographic here or a quote there. Try picking it up and see if you can stop yourself from reading a bit.

Though the book doesn’t, I think, make many new arguments regarding player evaluation — a crucial difference between FreeDarko and Bill James — it still reveals many new layers of the NBA fan experience, aspects of play and of culture that I had never considered. It does what a great history (though “undisputed” might be, well, disputed) ought to do, placing each team, each player in its proper context and using the benefit of the present to find that truth and with it, beauty, that James also sought. That they do it with such style and wit is what makes this such a wonderful book.

Report from the Future of Reading: The Books in Browsers Conference

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Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital.

The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today.

Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore.

If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds.

In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first:
[B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.
But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying.

Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry.

Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three:  formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton).

This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text?

Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers — that much seems self-evident — but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks.

Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter.

Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers.

While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt.

Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan.

Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a “box brigade” to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books.

This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.

Gratuitous: How Sexism Threatens to Undermine the Internet

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In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains why personal blogs and social networking sites can sometimes confound us.  He argues that before the internet, it was easy to tell what was a broadcast and what was a private message.  A television show was a broadcast — a message meant for a large audience of people, a public message.  A telephone call, on the other hand, was a private message, meant for one other person.  On the internet, though, the difference between the two kinds of media is much smaller.  Is a personal blog a public or a private communication?  Is it meant for mass consumption by thousands or millions of people?  Not typically, and yet it can be read, theoretically, by billions.

This blurring of the two types of media is so difficult to grasp that it’s produced its own near-ubiquitous straw man argument, which blogger Jason Kottke calls “the breakfast question.” It comes up whenever anyone writes about social media:  “Why would I care what you ate for breakfast that morning?” Shirky’s rebuttal to this is succinct:
“It’s simple.  They’re not talking to you.  We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us.  The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read.
I’ve been thinking about this particular idea a lot lately as it applies to Tumblr. For those who are unfamiliar with Tumblr, it’s a blogging platform that categorizes posts into one form or another — text, photo, chat, audio, video.  It allows you to put out small bursts of content, which then goes into a feed.  People can follow you, just as they can on Twitter, and they can “like” your posts and re-blog them.  Tumblr offers a combination of Twitter’s viral capabilities with a more customizable experience that allows for a tremendous level of personal expression.

I’m something of a Tumblr addict.  It is the first thing I check in the morning — before my email, before my Facebook page, but after I have some coffee (Some addictions are more powerful than others).  What I love about it is the social interaction.  I follow a large number of personal blogs that post funnier, more creative versions of “Here’s what I had for breakfast.”  (I was following a blog that was, literally, about what people ate for breakfast, but I dropped it.  I guess they weren’t talking to me.)  I also follow a bunch of themed blogs –The New Yorker Tumblr, for instance.  They don’t interact much with me, and that’s fine.  They’re kind of like highly focused magazines, and I enjoy them accordingly.

But if that’s all Tumblr was, I don’t think it would be quite so important to me. It’s the community that makes it special.  Checking my Tumblr feed is like checking in with my friends, even if these “friends” are people I know very little about and will possibly never meet in real life. I met most of these people through friends of friends or via the social discovery that re-blogging affords. I somehow stumbled into their worlds, and they were interesting enough to make me want to come back. I interact with enough of them that I can pretty clearly say that when they post something, it is intended for me.  I’m part of their small group, and I have no qualms about that.

Lisa, on the other hand, is a different matter.  Lisa is a college student at a large university in the Midwest (and Lisa is not her name; I don’t know whether she would want a bunch of book nerds suddenly reading her posts or not, so I’m not going to link to her blog here, either).  She seems pretty smart, and she blogs about her love life, her schoolwork, her friends, and all of the other things that matter to her.  I find Lisa’s life very interesting, and her blog is great. But I haven’t completely settled the “is she talking to me” question.  While Lisa follows me back, we don’t interact with each other. She uses Tumblr in a very social way, she isn’t really part of the crowd of people whom I otherwise follow. And I find this somewhat troubling.

At this point, I need to lay a few things on the table. First, I don’t have a lot of close friends. My wife has several friends with whom she speaks on a regular basis. They talk about the things that are happening in their lives and how they feel about them. I don’t have that. I’m a social person, and there are certainly people I love to have dinner with, meet at a party, etc., but ever since college that kind of close friendship has eluded me. And I think I’m okay with that, for the most part. But you could certainly argue that I use Tumblr to fill some void in my life, as pathetic as that might sound.

Also, Lisa is very attractive.  And Tumblr has a way of encouraging people’s vanity. On Wednesdays, for example, there’s a tradition of posting a photo of yourself; this is known as Gratuitous Picture of Yourself Wednesday (GPOYW). This has the effect of sexualizing a lot of Tumblr blogs, to the point that my wife, Edan, hated it for months and months after I joined because she felt like every woman on it focused so much of her attention on her sexuality. I think she’s probably right, though that was largely about who I was following (I used to run with a bad crowd, man). So let me just clear this up for you: I’m not following Lisa because she’s hot or because I’m a perv.  Let’s be honest, if I wanted to look at 20 year-old girls, there are other places to do it; this is the internet we’re talking about. Also, Edan, now on Tumblr, follows Lisa, too.  We talk about her posts with each other.  “She needs to dump that guy; he’s bad news. He won’t even hold her hand!” Edan will say.  “He’s a college kid. What do you expect?” I’ll reply.

While I can’t deny that gender plays a role here, that’s not all there is to it. I like following her because, for whatever reason, her narrative is compelling.  Following her blog is somewhat akin to watching a reality TV show (Not one of the ones where they try to out-dance each other or diet for money, but one that just follows someone’s daily life). She’s my Jersey Shore.

But of course, Lisa isn’t a reality TV character, she’s a real person. Yes, I know Snooki is real, too, but celebrities are different.  The fact that Lisa could walk the streets of every city in the world with complete anonymity makes her situation fundamentally different from, well, The Situation’s.  There are different laws governing pictures of celebrities and real people. Celebrities belong to us — the public — in ways that private citizens do not. And treating real people, regular people, the same way we treat celebrities, is problematic. And let’s not forget that Snooki and her ilk are paid to be in the public eye and to put up with all that entails.

A few weeks ago, I went to an performance exhibition by my friend, the artist Charlie White. It was called Casting Call, and according to its website it was meant to further explore “White’s ongoing interest in the complexities of the American teen as cultural icon, image, and national idea.” For the exhibition, an art gallery was converted into two rooms, each separated from the other by a pane of glass.  On one side of the room was a casting call for teen girls exemplifying “the All American California girl” — blonde hair, tan skin, etc. — between the ages of 13 and 16. White and his crew interviewed the models, took a mug shot-style photograph of them, and then brought in the next girl. On the other side of the glass, an audience — mostly art students and hipsters — watched. Our friend Stephanie, White’s partner, pointed out that everyone on our side of the glass was brunette (except, it must be pointed out, Edan) while all of the models were, of course, blonde. White and his crew discussed each girl, both amongst themselves and with the girl, as well, but we could hear none of it. We were left to interpret the scene for ourselves. “Oh, look, they’re letting that girl look at the photo. They must really like her,” I said. “Yeah, either that or they could tell she was upset, and wanted to reassure her she did a good job.”

A seemingly never-ending stream of girls came through the door. What fascinated me most about the entire exhibition is how quickly we could objectify the girls. I don’t mean objectify them in the way that it’s commonly used — to turn them into sex objects — though there was certainly a tinge of the erotic about the event; by objectify, I mean to make them into something not quite human, and in turn, to talk about them as though they were things rather than people. “She’s too old.” “I like that one, in the leopard-print shorts. She’s my favorite.” “Look at how weird her hair is. Why does she look like that?” It was how we talk about people when they’re on television, but these people were merely a few feet away. The pane of glass, and the contrast between the brightly lit casting room and the dim audience space, was enough distance to effectively dehumanize these girls. There were other factors at work, such as the blonde California girl’s status as marketing conceit and sexual totem, but I think a big reason we all felt free to dissect and dismiss these girls is because they couldn’t really see us. We were, more or less, anonymous. It was especially unsettling to turn around after watching for a few minutes and see one of the girls who had been in the call standing just behind us. How long had she been there, the girl in the leopard print shorts? And how did she suddenly become so real?

The internet is such a tricky place now that anonymity actually needs to be explained and defined. There are actually a couple of flavors of anonymity on the web, and each of them comes with different issues. The first kind of anonymity is the one most of us are familiar with online, the anonymous user or commenter. This user is indistinguishable from the other anonymous commenters, and they can occasionally make some useful contributions. Anonymity can allow people to be more playful than they would be normally, maybe a little bit sexier, a little bit funnier.  But they can also just be thugs. This type of anonymous user crops up on nearly every blog post, and while they occasionally voice a particularly controversial opinion, they are usually there only to spew bile and throw insults at the author of the post. In the comments of this site, I once joked that “anonymous” is always such a badass (To which Max replied, “I’d like a t-shirt that says “Anonymous: Internet Badass.””). There’s a reason why some sites disable anonymous commenting of this kind; having no identity carries no threat of consequences. Even if others ridicule your ideas and effectively send you back to your cave with your tail between your legs, nobody knows who “you” are, so you can return the next day to fight again.

There’s a second, more nuanced type of anonymity that is possibly more prevalent than simple anonymous commenting, and that’s the disguise of the pseudonym.  Every message board has its trolls, those who enjoy causing trouble, dissenting from the norm, and generally putting others down. I’ve yet to encounter a community online that doesn’t have at least one of these people. They are rarely truly anonymous, since most message boards, social sites, and other internet communities typically require a user name. Instead, these users hide behind a moniker — sometimes employing the same user name on multiple sites. Having some sort of identity does create some consequences. Users can be banned from sites, ostracized, or otherwise punished for their behavior.

Often, though, this type of user can simply change his name.  This is another form of what Jaron Lanier, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, calls “transient anonymity:”
People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean. Buyers and sellers on eBay are a little more civil, despite occasional disappointments, such as encounters with flakiness and fraud. Based on those data,  you could conclude that it isn’t exactly anonymity, but transient anonymity, coupled with a lack of consequences, that brings out online idiocy.
On Tumblr, most people interact via their blogs which necessarily have a name attached to them. This insures that people will be generally civil. It is also an opt-in system, where you have to choose who to follow, which I think adds to the welcoming feel of the platform. It takes a while to build up a following and to create a blog you can be proud of; why throw that all away by being a creep or a jerk?  The value of the blogs themselves creates an added buffer against what Lanier calls “Drive-by anonymity.”

But there’s another element of Tumblr that I’ve seen cause some very disturbing encounters. Each Tumblr comes with the ability to enable a feature that allows others to ask you a question. It can also be used as a de facto messaging system. The user can then decide whether they want to post an answer to your question or delete it. The trouble starts when the user enables anonymous questions. Some people choose to leave anonymous questions enabled because it can lead to some very interesting content. For instance, if the user wrote a brave post about a disease they had, someone might leave an anonymous note about that, not wanting to reveal that they too have the disease. A more shallow but still amusing use is the frequent comment “I have a crush on you” or “I think you’re beautiful,” etc.

For every one such comment, there are dozens of vile, offensive comments, meant to do little other than demean the author of the blog and make them feel worse about themselves and their lives. For instance, I follow a woman who posts lots of photos of art, gorgeous film stills, great music, and, yes, sometimes pictures of herself. One day she put up the poster for the film The Girlfriend Experience, about a prostitute who spends the night with her clients, going to dinner or a movie before having sex for money.  A day or two later, an anonymous person sent this message to her: “You look like you could give a pretty good “girlfriend experience.” How about it? Ever given any thought to doing something like that?”  My response to this post was, simply put, rage. I posted a response along the lines of “The rest of us are trying to have a civilization over here. Take that elsewhere.” I was enraged that this person had used this feature of the blog to suggest that the blogger would make a good prostitute. Keep in mind that the author of this blog didn’t have to make this public. I assume she did so (without comment) to shame the jerk who asked the question. But it’s worth noting that there was no guarantee of attention from anyone beyond this one particular blogger. He did this solely to mess with, belittle, and intimidate the author of the blog. And he did so with impunity.

He wasn’t alone. Every day, without fail, another person I follow posts a comment or question that an anonymous user asked them. These questions range from the classically juvenile (“I’m masturbating to you right now.” “Take ur shirt off!”) to more pointed personal assaults (“What’s it like coping with your obvious addiction to sleeping pills?” “You post a lot of photos of yourself because your looks are the only thing you have going for you.” “You’re an obnoxious bitch who probably has no friends.”). Not coincidentally, every one of these questions showed up on a blog written by a woman.  So far, three bloggers that I follow have had to abandon their old online identities when creepy people began harassing them online. All of them were women.

Why are women treated differently than men online? I suppose the greater question is why they are still treated differently everywhere — online or otherwise — but since this post is about the web, I will focus on that. Surely there’s the garden variety sexism that permeates most of our culture, where women’s opinions are discounted or denigrated, and where the female form is used to sell everything from liquor to football.  But I think there is something else at work online, and in many ways, it’s related to the strange feeling of watching all of those girls wait to have their pictures taken, as well as my conflicted feelings about enjoying college girl Lisa’s blog so much.

In her groundbreaking work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey posits that Hollywood cinema always casts the audience in the role of the masculine spectator.  The camera, therefore, becomes the male gaze, and the women on screen the passive objects of its gaze:
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrative.”
She argues that simply looking is a pleasurable experience, and the cinema affords this pleasure by providing an atmosphere in which men are free to look at women, for as long as they please and with clear intent. She says, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” On the internet, this seems to be compounded. We’re free to look with impunity, and in some cases, we are free to anonymously harass, as well.  Of course, it is sometimes pleasurable to be looked at, as well. While the internet indulges both of these impulses — to look at and to be looked at — it seems clear to me that we have once again forced the women more often into the latter role. Despite the great leveling effect that the web has had on the media — it’s given a voice to millions of people who would otherwise largely be silent — we are still creating a system of “sexual imbalance,” in Mulvey’s terms.  This is most acute where the female image actually appears — on fashion blogs, personal blogging platforms like Tumblr, and of course pornography — but it is present, more or less, throughout the net. In fact, I’ve often found that what provokes the anonymous assaults, more often than not, are not pictures of women but arguments made by them. This suggests that the harassment is a form of maintaining the male dominance; that it possibly (and maybe often does) come from other women is irrelevant.

The key difference between the films that Mulvey dissects in her essay and the personal blogs I’m talking about is agency. The films were made by men — men called the shots (literally) and wrote the stories that cast women in the passive roles. Obviously a personal blogger decides what to post on her blog. But while this difference is worth noting, it doesn’t seem to matter much in terms of the audience’s reaction. In fact, the blogger’s agency frequently becomes a weapon for the blogger’s critics. “Well, if she doesn’t want to be called a slut, maybe she shouldn’t post such provocative photos.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the “She was asking for it” argument?

Which brings me back to the problem of Lisa. Feeling as I do about the internet, and the role gender is fast coming to play in it, I feel implicated by her blog (through no fault of her own). Part of this comes from the hazy status of intent. Does she want me read her blog? Strangely, not long after I began this essay, someone asked her if she was comfortable with so many strangers following her daily life. She responded that she didn’t care; if they wanted to read about her and look at pictures of her, that was fine. This should have absolved me of my guilt, but it didn’t. I keep coming back to Mulvey’s argument: Am I deriving pleasure from looking at Lisa? I am. But I also post photos of myself, thereby enjoying the pleasure of being looked at. Still, no one has ever responded to an image of me with an anonymous note saying, “You look fat” or “Nice beard, asshole.” Only women have to put up with that. And that is shameful. (It’s worth noting that the hot film of the moment, The Social Network, would have us believe that social networking, at its base, is about checking out girls and stalking ex-girlfriends. It’s why the stuff was invented, to let men objectify women from a safe distance.)

And that’s what weighs on me as I follow Lisa’s blog. I’m aware of the voyeuristic aspect of following the blog of a much younger woman, but at the same time, I feel a sort of odd friendship with Lisa. If she weren’t following me back and I were merely reading her posts, as many no doubt do, in total anonymity, I think that would be different. Perhaps following back is all the recognition I need to feel like Lisa is talking to me. And it’s pretty clear from reading my blog who I am: I’m Patrick, I’m in my 30s, I live in LA, and I’m married. On the internet, being yourself is no small thing.

A year ago, I read one of those rare profound utterances that Twitter produces from time to time. It came from comedian Lindsay Katai: “The Internet: Where Ladies Promote Their Boyfriends’ Endeavors. Conversely, the Internet: Where Men Make Every Pretense of Appearing Single.” This rang true to me then, and I’ve thought of it frequently while reading Tumblr, where identities are formed one post at a time over weeks and months. The posts I most look forward to reading are the posts about people’s lives — the petty failures at work, the little strange thing they observed on the bus, a photo of themselves having fun.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. This is the pleasure of online life, it seems to me. It’s the reason, more than any fancy coding or user interface, that Facebook is so successful. We want to know each other, to see what’s happening in other people’s lives. We want, in short, to read each other’s stories. But that kind of world — one that values openness and honesty — can’t exist if half of its participants have to be constantly vigilant lest they be verbally assaulted, harassed, or worse. If we, as a culture, don’t do something to combat this, then we stand to lose more than just updates about meals and photos of pets. Like it or not, we are all going to have to live more and more of our lives online. I would hope that we could make that place better than the one we now call “real life” — a place where people are free to be themselves, yes, but also where they are free to decide what that means for themselves, without fear of humiliation or intimidation. That’s a place I’d like to call home.

(Image 1: Crazy staircase at the KPMG Building in Munich, image from 72213316@N00’s photostream

Images 2 & 3: courtesy Charlie White)

Comparing Apples to BMWs: What Does it Mean to be a “Best Bookstore” Anyway?

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Flavorwire’s list of the Top Ten Bookstores in the US was not supposed to piss me off, but that’s exactly what it did. It was supposed to be the sort of article you read and then forget about until someone else runs it again next year. Instead, being the disagreeable sort, I found myself dwelling on the thing and, well, getting pissed off.

The list angered me for several reasons.  For one thing, it began with the obligatory opening gambit, “Bookstores are dying.” This is the default commentary-of-the-moment regarding bookstores (independent or otherwise).  It follows from the idea that bookstores, like record stores, will be a thing of the past before you have time to finish Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  Of course, this line of reasoning assumes that books are just like CDs and that record stores are, indeed, gone. Though neither of these statements is true, I will concede that bookstores are somewhat imperiled at the moment.

Okay, maybe there are fewer bookstores in existence now than there were ten or twenty years ago, but to say that bookstores are dying is an oversimplification.  It’s not so much that they’re all dying, but that a certain kind of bookstore is on its way out. The closure of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a superstore, for instance, represents the shifting tide in the book retail world.  That store opened in 1995, and as we all know by now, a lot has changed in the media business since then.  The days of requiring a 60,000 square foot storefront to sell books are coming to an end, if they aren’t already over.  Make no mistake, the B&N closure was an epoch-defining one, even if it was a rent hike that made it happen.

The superstore made a lot of sense in the pre-internet era.  In order to offer the largest possible selection, you needed a lot of space.  Initially, independent stores like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and The Tattered Cover in Denver opened huge storefronts carrying tens of thousands of titles.  The chain stores – especially Barnes & Noble – mimicked the open space, the big comfy chairs, and the air of bookish intellect of these stores. They took the concept of the superstore national, and in the process, they leveraged their size, scale, and efficiency to secure favorable deals from distributors.  In short, they were able to sell books for less, which enabled them to sell more books.

But Amazon and the rest of the ecommerce stores made the issue of selection and scale largely moot.  How do you compete with a store that claims to offer every book in print?  Still, having a physical location with a lot of books was valuable; if someone wanted the book that day, these stores were there for them, and they offered a large enough selection to satisfy all but the most esoteric needs.  But what would happen to these stores if the need for the physical book were suddenly removed?  With the rising popularity of ebooks – set to consume anywhere from 15% to 50% of the book market in the next five years, depending on who you believe – we are about to find out the answer to that question.

Barnes & Noble and Borders both know first-hand what it’s like to be suddenly left with a product that no one needs.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, both dedicated significant floor space to CDs and DVDs.  The book industry even had a term for this – “sidelines,” a term they later revised to the much catchier “non-book products.” But digitization and the internet came quickly for CDs, gutting that business in just a few years.  As broadband speeds increase, streaming video will eventually kill off the DVD, as well.  In response, the big stores turned to products that couldn’t be so easily digitized.  Almost every big store now has a cafe, creating a “third place” where people could congregate and discuss the books and periodicals they’ve purchased.  Many stores have converted an area into a permanent events section, giving them a seating capacity that rivals some small theaters and attracting big name authors for readings and parties. A few weeks ago, Borders announced it will be selling custom-made teddy bears in its stores.  But despite their best efforts, the large stores face a daunting and dismal future.

Hence the elegiac mood of the Flavorwire piece, and its imploring “buy some books, you lousy ingrates” call to action.  Another pet peeve of mine is when people consider their local independent bookstore a charity. Unless your store is a non-profit, it should succeed or fail based on how well it does as a business, not because of noblesse oblige on the part of your municipality. Allowing people to treat your for-profit business like a charity can have some unwanted side-effects. I’ve worked for stores that would occasionally charge admission to a reading.  Typically, the price was purchasing a copy of the book, which seemed perfectly reasonable to me – you’re there to see the author, you buy the book, the store makes some money, the author makes some money, everybody wins!  But all too often, people would look at me as if I’d just told them air was no longer free.  “You shouldn’t be charging for these events,” they’d say. “They’re good for the community.” In other words, they were looking for an evening of free entertainment. Well, this isn’t the library, ma’am. We have to pay the bills somehow.

But despite all of this, there are some reasons to be excited about bookstores.  The Flavorwire article came to my attention because of the efforts of two New York City independent bookstores – Housing Works and McNally-Jackson – who had posted the article to their Tumblr blogs.  Housing Works pointed out that most of the best indie bookstores in New York had opened in the last ten years, not closed.  They were talking about Greenlight Bookstore, WORD, McNally-Jackson, Idlewild, Powerhouse, and Desert Island.  In Los Angeles, where we’ve had some substantial bookstore attrition in recent years, several new stores have opened, including Metropolis, Family, Stories, The Secret Headquarters, and the Brentwood Diesel store.  On top of that, Vroman’s Bookstore, my former employer, was doing enough business to buy fellow LA indie outpost Book Soup (also a former employer) and Skylight Bookstore expanded, annexing a neighboring storefront.

These stores are succeeding not because they are the biggest stores, but because they are the right stores for their areas.  We’re seeing a resurgence of the neighborhood bookstore, something many had considered dead in the heyday of the super stores.  Technology has actually leveled the playing field between big stores and small stores; anyone with enough capital and the space for a large copy machine can have a Book Espresso Machine, giving them access to hundreds of thousands of titles, as well as custom-printed books. And web applications like Foursquare and Facebook Locations don’t discriminate between businesses based on size; anybody with a good hook can lure people to their store and capitalize.

Which brings me to the second thing I hated about the Flavorwire piece:  What does it mean to say “These are the best bookstores,” after all? Any list that includes Powell’s, The Strand (a store that sells mostly remainders and used books), and Secret Headquarters is comparing apples to BMWs to gym memberships.  Making a list like this is akin to asking, “What’s the best place to buy food in Los Angeles?” and then listing Whole Foods, The Cheese Store of Silver Lake, and Animal as your answer.  Sure they all sell prosciutto, but that’s more or less where the similarities end.

Please don’t think the stores on Flavorwire’s list aren’t great – they are – but the stores they chose reveal the futility of the whole process.  What makes a “great bookstore” and what do the stores on the list have in common with one another, other than that they all sell books?  The truth is, I can teach you to write a “Best Bookstore” list right now.  Nearly every “Best Bookstore” list pulls five or six stores from the following list of venerable indies:  Powell’s, Tattered Cover, Vroman’s, Book People (in Austin, TX), Elliott Bay (Seattle, WA), and Books and Books (South Florida, the Cayman Islands & now Long Island).  Those are the remaining indie super stores, and they rightly deserve praise, but there are so many tremendous smaller stores that are equally deserving of recognition.  There are too many, in fact, to make a list (Believe me, I tried).  And what makes so many of these stores incredible, what many of the chain stores could never mimic, is the staff.  A better list might be one that names the top 10 booksellers in America (I could take a crack at that:  Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Emily Pullen from Skylight, Michele Filgate from Riverrun, Rachel Fershleiser from Housing Works…Well, I could go on).

In the end, it’s irrelevant, as the only bookstore that anybody cares about is the one near them, the one whose staff knows their tastes, the one that hosts your favorite author when he or she comes to town.  For some of you, that’s no doubt a chain store.  I grew up outside Syracuse, NY, and I will absolutely shed a tear the day the Borders in the Carousel Center Mall closes, as it was place I remember visiting when I was in high school and just discovering the pleasure of reading.  The rest of the stores, though – the big, nationally known bookstores – exist for you, unless you live around the corner from one of them, more as monuments than as businesses.  They’re kind of like those iconic bars and restaurants that people make a point of stopping at every time they’re in New York or LA – they’re the McSorley’s or the Musso & Frank’s or the Rendezvous of bookstores. If they went away, you’d read about it in the paper.  It would be an “important moment,” but its impact on your life would be minimal unless they are your store. It’s the proverbial store around the corner that you care about, and if that store continues to serve you well, I think it will survive.  If it doesn’t, well, hopefully someone will put it on some sort of “best of” list before it goes.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate the fact that my local bookstore is still kicking.  Maybe you should do the same.

(Image: Abbey Bookstore image from poisonbabyfood’s photostream)

The Millions Interview: Natasha Vargas-Cooper


I’ve never been a great fortune teller.  For instance, I had the Dodgers and the Tigers in the World Series this year, and I was sure — sure! — that Avatar would win Best Picture at last year’s Oscars.  But when it comes to spotting great book ideas, I’m Nostradamus.  Or, at least I was when it came to Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America.  Just a day or two into the life of her now-hugely popular Footnotes of Mad Men blog — a blog that unpacks the historical and cultural trappings of the popular AMC show Mad Men —  I predicted it would “have a book deal by the end of Season 3.” And it did.

To be fair, it wasn’t hard to call.  Vargas-Cooper was already a rising star in the online world.  Her smart and moving series on the Jesse James Hollywood murder trial was one of the highlights of the early days of The Awl, the kind of smart reportage/memoir hybrid that demanded attention and rightly got it.  Her signature prose style — exuberant, tough, and daring — started popping up all over the place, from Gawker to The Daily Beast.  By the time the news broke that she had a book deal, the only surprise I felt was that it hadn’t happened sooner.  The book that came from Footnotes of Mad Men — Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America —  a gorgeous paperback full of slick, glossy reproductions of photos and advertisements from the era, is out now.   It is, as its blog predecessor was, a worthy companion to what many would call the best show currently airing on television.

The Millions: Take me back to the beginning.  You’re watching the show, you’re already blogging and writing about all sorts of things for The Awl, for your own site.  What made you say “I have to write about this show.  This needs to be a blog.”?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I think, too often I have the thought, “this needs to be a blog.”  I was at a very bleak phase of my mid-twenties. During the summer of last year, I had a number of losses dealt to me in rapid succession, and in order to stave off constant wallowing, I started to rewatch the show.  Its mood and details had me enveloped; I wanted them all in one place and I wanted to walk around in them, so naturally comes the thought: “this needs to be a blog.”

TM: And what made you realize it could be a book?

NVC: Mainly the call from HarperCollins that asked if I’d like to make this into a book. Originally, I thought I would just continue writing the blog as is and the book would be a collection of the writing but that notion got junked pretty quickly. The blog has a purposefully ephemeral quality to it. The book is all original writing conceived with the idea that these arguments need to be lasting (but not boring).

TM: The book is broken into sections by theme – the ad business, style, sex – and it strikes me as a particularly genius way of organizing it, since it allows you to address each issue within its context both on the show and in the time period.  But it’s not how the blog is structured.  How did you come upon that?  Was there ever another structure in mind?

NVC: My first structure laid out the book geographically.

Manhattan (Sterling Cooper, advertising, professional life, men);
Brooklyn (the life of working girls, Peggy’s problems, scenes from the steno pool);
Ossining (Betty’s world, the domestic sphere, anything having to do with the kids, the lives of suburbanites);
Out There (the world at large, Kennedy, Los Angeles, Hilton).

That’s actually how I wrote the book, by trying to culturally map these places. I turned in that version and we decided it was a little too esoteric and indirect.

TM: That’s kind of brilliant, though, as the locations are so much a part of the fabric not just of the show, but of the time, as well.  The opening section of the finished book gives an impressively broad overview of the advertising industry, circa 1960.  In other interviews, you’ve mentioned research at CalArts, but it’s clear you also did a lot of reading.  Who wrote the best of the ad memoirs?  Where should people go next if they want to know more about that business at that time?

NVC: George Lois, the art director of Doyle Dane Bernach who worked on the Volkswagen campaign and went on to create most of the modern logos that are burned into our brains, as well as Esquire’s most iconic covers, has the best autobiographies because he’s really dishy while never giving up his tough guy style. You get all the swagger and war stories, but also a sense of how exciting it was to be a part of the creative revolution in advertising. David Ogilvy’s books [Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions of an Advertising Man] are also my favorites because he’s so austere and witty. Ruthless even.

TM: Another section of the book that I connected with is the chapter on Don Draper and his trip to California.  A special circle of hell is reserved for East Coast film/TV people who move to LA to work in the industry and then make movies/TV that show LA completely inaccurately (Paging Greenberg).  I thought Mad Men showed a pretty nuanced version of California — the hedonism of the wealthy in Palm Springs, the working class enclaves like Long Beach and San Pedro.  Do you see California returning to the show in future seasons?

NVC: I hope so! Every time Don heads to the bungalow in Long Beach I go over the moon. Southern California should play a role in future episodes because more than any other city/region in the country, Southern California embodied all of the ideals that came to define the late 1960’s and beyond: youthful, informal, image-driven, ahistorical; a golden land of consumers.

TM: Let’s talk about Don Draper.  I think he’s an interesting character, but he’s also impenetrable, and the show sometimes seems to want to do nothing but revel in his darkness.  I get that he’s a sexy man (I understand the Jon Hamm fascination more than the Draper one), but what is it about him that makes him so compelling to so many people?  Myself, I’m a Pete Campbell man.  (You can imagine Pete Campbell saying that, if it helps.)

NVC: Yeah, well, Pete Campbell is a pretty extraordinarily conceived character; I like him when he’s at his most wolfish. Don Draper is appealing because he’s an existential hero, an alpha male, and sophisticated without being snotty. Don is faced with all the dilemmas of modern life, and all the achingly human ones. I think the tension between conforming to what your family wants from you and participating in some kind of social harmony with those close to you versus hoisting the black flag, going into full tilt nihilism, denying yourself nothing, pouring all your energies into trying to create something with vitality while the void looms is a conflict that exists in many of us. I think the way we see Don deal with those dueling impulses is enthralling. Pure drama, in the Greek sense.

TM: What do you make of the critiques leveled against the show, specifically those that Mark Greif presents in his piece in the London Review of Books – that the show doesn’t actually present any moments of advertising genius (Don’s “It’s Toasted” slogan had been in use since 1917, for instance), that the characters mostly lack dimension, and that the writers luxuriate in all the things we can’t do anymore (snap the secretaries’ bras and pound bourbon in the boardroom)?  Any truth to that?

NVC: Ugh, gross! First of all I’m suspicious, actually, downright hostile to any critique that starts from the premise of a swindle; that the popularity of certain cultural objects coming from some kind of bamboozlement of its fans and that we need members of The Academy, like Greif, to parse the lie, is a bore. Also, while it might be a kicky-thrill for wall-eyed Brooklynites to revel in the un-PC nature of Sterling Cooper, I think it’s much less about back patting and thinking “Look how far we’ve come!” and more about wish fulfillment. That’s where the real kick comes from, a desire to fuck, drink, smoke, and behave badly with impunity. To the point about uninspired advertising: wrong!  You are dealing with inherently banal products, nylons, cigarettes, cameras, hairspray; what’s incredible about the show is the allure Draper and Co inject into them, even tag lines that we’ve heard before are refreshed by the narrative Don develops behind them and all the psychological reasoning that goes into that narrative. Also, Don coming up with a brilliant pitch for every product for every episode would turn the show into some NBC primetime gimmick. I point to Don’s Kodak pitch as evidence of high art and Greif’s wrongness.

TM: Give me three predictions for the show (not counting your call that baby Gene is done for, as I suspect you might be right about that).

NVC: Don and Betty will hatefuck at some point this season.  Sally Draper is going to mirror the social upheaval by being totally out of control. I see arson, adolescent lesbian — general terror.  I think one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to bail because those boutique, scrappy shops had a very short lifespan. I see a Campbell vs. Sterling showdown.  One of those guys will walk and be a rival. Maybe even Don?

TM: Will the blog continue for as long as the show does?

NVC: I think so. It still remains an impulse, to watch the show and catalogue.

TM: What do you think of the blog-to-book phenomenon?  While I don’t think it’s right for every blog (My personal blog never, ever needs to be printed and bound), I think this project was a perfect fit for it, and I think it makes sense as a business move.  There’s a built-in audience there (and doubly so in this case, because of the people who love the show who might not know about your book).

NVC: What I find puzzling about the blog to book phenomenon is that the focus has been on user generated sites when there are thousands of blogs that feature original content and commentary from a single author or a group of them.  The appeal of user-generated content is that it’s constant, instant, and evolving. These are elements that are the opposite of what books offer.  I think there’s plenty of room for all sorts of books; the way they are conceived is beside the point.  Nevertheless, I would like to see a book from Ivy Style or This Recording or David Bry’s Public Apology column from The Awl those are endlessly more fascinating than a collection of aloof hipster pictures with sarcastic captions.