Internet Histories | 4 February
This Fortnight (and our first for 2013):
The art of the profile | Pickled in brine | Zapped to death, then back to life
The future of football | Oatmeal Pigs | DayZ |Why you never leave high school
Trojan horse magazine covers | Kendrick Lamar and the 21st century blues
a video worth of 'Hi Sallys' to Sally Conor
Awful profiles. They're like love letters, written by people who don't understand love or letters or what it means to know somebody else. Stephen Marche's profile of Megan Fox for Esquire is a terrific example. It's laughably bad, but you can't help but skim it with sick fascination, like watching a slow-motion replay of a five-car pileup. Don't do it. Vice have a good round-up here.
The symmetry of her face, up close, is genuinely shocking. The lip on the left curves exactly the same way as the lip on the right. The eyes match exactly. The brow is in perfect balance, like a problem of logic, like a visual labyrinth. It's not really even that beautiful. It's closer to the sublime, a force of nature, the patterns of waves crisscrossing a lake, snow avalanching down the side of a mountain, an elaborately camouflaged butterfly. What she is is flawless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with her.
I'm sorry. I"m so sorry. But here's a superb single-interview profile you should read: Adam Green on Apollo Robbins, the smoothest pickpocket in Vegas. It captures the magic of the art and the moment of the con while divulging the secrets of Robbins' trade, which aren't so much secrets as a heightened psychological acumen. He's honed his craft. Not only does he understand diversion, he understands people.
One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. “When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,” he said, showing me. “The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”
It's a fantastic read. As Green writes, "Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it's not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves."
Watch the man in action here (or as Fox so tragically declares, watch him "pull of famous tricks")
On the topic of profiles, David Remnick on the form and the issue of limited access to one's subject:
When meditating on writing, he talks frequently of disappointment, of failure, of missing the mark or chasing a subject forever beyond his grasp. But he has no patience for blaming uncooperative interviewees or logistical obstacles — particularly the increasingly thorny issue of access to famous people. “Speaking to the subject is the most overrated thing in journalism,” he says. “I’ve written profiles where you never even meet the person. Janet Flanner wrote an amazing profile of Adolf Hitler. I don’t think there was a lot of Hitler access!”
Access — having it or not having it, or what it takes to get it — may define a profile’s content, structure, or tone. While maintaining that access may not be necessary or even useful once obtained, Remnick dismisses journalists unwilling to work hard to get it. As he describes the profession, reporting often means “making the same phone call over and over and over again until you’re so irritating that the person you’re calling makes the calculation that it’s better to give you the time that you need rather than have to endure the constant assaults of your phone calls and emails.”
As an example of this tenacity, Remnick recalls the efforts of Seymour Hersh, “one of the greatest reporters I’ve ever known.” According to Remnick, Hersh “was working on the Watergate story. The New York Times needed to catch up with the Washington Post … it was killing them. He needed to get Charles Colson, one of the bad guys of Watergate, on the phone. How did he do that? He got to the office at eight a.m. — nobody gets to a newspaper at eight a.m. — and on a rotary phone, he called Chuck Colson’s home number every 15 minutes till seven p.m. Eight a.m. to seven p.m., every 15 minutes on a rotary-dial phone. … He got Chuck Colson, and there was the front page story.
Finally, thanks to Dan Rutledge for sharing this exchange between Russell Crowe and a fan:
The funniest thing I’ve ever read in the New Yorker was published this week. It's a short story about a man who gets trapped in a brine barrel in 1912 and is reanimated after 100 years to find a world gone mad.
One day, I wake up to the sound of yelling. It is Simon. He is kicking his foot against his desk, shouting profanities.
“Motherfucker!” he cries. “Fucking God-damned fuck!”
I jump up from couch and run down hall. It is clear Simon has experienced a tragedy—something monstrous, like the death of someone close. I get to his office and gently open door. Simon is sitting at his desk, shaking his head and muttering under his breath. His skin is pale and he is out of breath from screaming.
“Goddam Internet’s down,” he says. “Second time this morning.”
“What is internets?” I ask.
“It’s a thing on computers.”
“What is computers?”
It takes him long time, but eventually Simon is able to explain. A computer is a magical box that provides endless pleasure for free. Simon is used to constant access to this box—a never-ending flow of pleasures. When the box stops working—or even just briefly slows down—he becomes so enraged that he curses our God, the one who gave us life and brought us forth from Egypt.
“It’s Time Warner,” he tells me. “They’re the fucking worst.”
They’ve been a bit clever with the format, too; it was published online in four instalments, on consecutive weekdays, a nod to the golden age of literary serialisation in magazines, but with a modern twist. It’s hilarious, sweet, sad and razor sharp – satire at its best.
The changes were still unfamiliar to the rest of the band, and Worth had been about to lead them through the first verse, had just leaned forward to sing the opening lines—“Is it all over, I’m scanning the paper/for someone to replace her”—when a surge of electricity arced through his body, magnetizing the mic to his chest like a weak but obstinate missile, searing the first string and fret into his palm, and stopping his heart. He fell backward and crashed, already dying.
This piece, from 1995, is inexplicably posted as a note on Facebook. If you don’t have an account, I guess you might not be able to read it. It’s an old article of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s, and I’m posting it because i) it’s a pretty great essay, ii) about his brother, who was electrocuted to death and woke up - but different, at least for a while and iii) when I recently interviewed Steve Braunias he said he found JJS hugely overrated. But Sullivan wrote this when he was just 21, and I think that’s pretty dang impressive.
I've found that the older I get, the more I like sports. I don't know why. But I nurse a pretty full-blown obsession with Grand Slam tennis that has led me to discover the power and beauty of really good sports writing. My friend Thom writes with significant panache about football for the Daily Telegraph in the UK and this week published a piece for Vice on the future of football that is particularly illuminating not only of the state of the European game, but of global football culture and the sorts of economic imperatives that are shaping the business of professional sport right now. Especially interesting is the impact of the dominance of FC Barcelona and, in particular, the playing style of Lionel Messi. Who knew one man could have such an impact on the way a game is played by millions of people basically everywhere.
This week has also seen the departure of Hillary Clinton as the US Secretary of State, and what better way to mark her achievements in that job than to sift through a big photo gallery of her in each of the 112 countries she visited during her time in office? That hair. Those pant suits.
I finally got around to seeing Django Unchained this week, and while I enjoyed it, I felt like it wasn't paced as well as Tarantino's previous films. This could be partly due to the death of Sally Menke, the editor Tarantino used on many of his most critically acclaimed movies including Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. During the filming of Inglourious Basterds, Menke's final film with Tarantino, the cast and crew were asked to speak directly to her on film, so she wouldn't feel as lonely during the editing process. This digest of the best clips is worth watching for the contributions of Mike Myers alone - especially if your name also happens to be Sally.
Finally there's this, which is the clip Jack Donaghy tells Liz Lemon to watch in the final episode of 30 Rock. I just pray Tina Fey doesn't now retire and live off the millions she'll make from syndication.
2012 was the year I got back into PC gaming in a big way. I was (and am) mainly surfing the explosion of independent games that happened when broadband, digital delivery and online payment infrastructure properly collided for the first time. Minecraft set me off, but what really grabbed me by the love handles was DayZ, a rough-as-guts mod for the somewhat niche military simulator Arma 2.
Using a 225 square kilometre map of rolling north-eastern hills, forests and villages and Arma 2’s basic game engine, DayZ plonks the player into a zombie infestation. It arms him or her with a flashlight and says “good luck, try not to die too often.” Gameplay is a long series of dodging zombies, scavenging like dogs for food and guns and freaking the fuck out when you stumble across another player. The game is brutal and the clear antithesis of mainstream game design which tries to avoid frustrating the player too much. It’s also bloody good fun.
In one session I’d spawned back in to my base (just a tent in the hills) and cursed the skies when I realised my truck that I’d discovered was missing from its hiding place. A couple of days later I spawned in and found my truck in a clearing being tended to by another player. I didn’t fuck around. I fired at him from the safety of the trees, missing because I’d started sweating and near-hyperventilating. He or her jumped in the truck and started to drive it away. I calmed myself, leveled my Lee Enfield and sent some rounds through the windscreen. The truck rolled to a halt and my target’s body appeared in the grass next to the vehicle. My heart was pounding in my ears, I’d bloody killed him! I raced around the edge of the trees checking to see if he had any friends hiding. Finding nothing I sprinted over to the truck, took one last look at the treeline and got sniped in the head.
I assumed the player had a friend in the trees, but I’ve since realised that the game has a mechanic whereby if you’re shot there’s a chance you can lose consciousness for about twenty or so seconds. I’d simply tagged him and, failing to check the body, he’d come to and (justly) put a bullet in the back of my head. By that point I was shitting bricks.
It’s been a good while since any media wound me up like DayZ (apart from the scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys stare down their doom while being slowly fed into an incinerator). Almost every DayZ addict has a few stories like this and they’re being written down by the community in a huge communal campfire sort of way, both on the main game website and elsewhere. Hell, I’d been led to DayZ in the first place by this evocative write up from Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun. People have also been putting videos on youtube. My favourite being the video from the top of the post of a player being tricked into fighting in a death arena. Trust me, it’s funnier than it sounds.
The mod has over one million players and it’s made the developers of Arma 2, Bohemia Interactive, a lot of money (you need the original game to play the mod). The bloke behind DayZ happens to be a New Zealander working for Bohemia who created the mod on his off days. Dean’s become something of a rockstar appearing at numerous industry events and giving tons of interviews with online gaming media. He’s also deeply involved with the community, constantly getting feedback on features for a forthcoming stand alone version of DayZ and often debating with fans on the forums or Reddit. He even made an impromptu visit to the online live stream of a gamer and answered her questions for three hours.
The stand alone version of DayZ is due out sometime this year. Dean and his team are currently hammering away at it at Bohemia’s HQ in Prague. The developer’s blog can be found here. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to get back to bleeding out in the middle of a field somewhere.
In case you missed it (not on the Internet, and so lost to history), January's North And South cover story is a tremendous bit of sleight of hand that hopefully sold a few more copies of the mag than usual. Metro is no stranger to using lists, trivia and tabloidism to sneak very good journalism, Trojan-horse like, onto the coffee tables of the nation, but I admire North And South's actual guile. 'SPECIAL REAL ESTATE ISSUE,” it cries on its cover, echoing every full-glossy spread to ever fall out of the Herald and roughly every third Listener. But the article proper asks some pretty demanding questions of print media – who, let's not forget, make significant advertising revenue from the real estate industry – of the banking sector's role in sustaining the housing bubble, and of our politicians for sitting on their hands in the face of a looming intergenerational crisis.
I won't say too much about it apart from that it's an exercise in how to write engagingly and accessibly on a matter that tends to be heavy both on jargon and hype. I went in as someone who doesn't see themselves owning a home in the next ten years and found it gripping. I came out totally galvanised (“this is fucked!”), and as someone who doesn't see themselves owning a home in the next twenty.
For NYMag, Joe Hagan dispatched this story just before Christmas about a week spent on an annual Republican Party cruise just after November's mauling electoral defeat. There are myriad ways of coping with loss, sure, but Hagan witnesses nothing less than a full on simultaneous Kubler-Ross freakout, with every stage on show at once. Unfortunately that doesn't mean there's a whole lot of closure. Bargaining and anger are slated as ideological weakness; meanwhile, we get a whole lot of denial, anger, depression and uncomfortable forced reckonings.
Rasmussen blasted the assembled Republicans with one crushing statistic after another. The exit poll data, he said, “create a negative brand image of the Republican Party as a party that only cares about white people.”
The audience murmured unhappily.
And that image is hurting among the youth,” he continued. “It is hurting across the culture. It is something that has to be addressed across the party. It has to be addressed. You can’t just wish it away.”
Reed expanded on the theme. “You can’t run and win a national election in an electorate that is becoming decreasingly white and increasingly minority and lose 80 percent of the minority vote,” he said. “That math just doesn’t add up.”
Rasmussen offered some friendly advice about approaching minorities. “You show them that you really care, you talk to them as grown-ups on a range of issues, you get them involved,” he suggested, “and you accept the fact that it’s a long-term investment. And you accept that you can learn as much from them as you can teach them.”
This was harsh medicine to reluctant patients, and afterward some of them made their discomfort known. “That depressed me!” one woman said. To my right, a man snapped, “That’s bullshit!”
How the Republican Party got to where it is fascinated me starting with last year's primaries circus and culminated in reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. I've just started Geoffrey Kabaservice's Rule And Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party and it's a fine insight into just how toxic the American two-party political system has become, not through hard circumstance but through the premediated deconstruction of the American consensus by what, in any other state, would be considered extremists. Check out the e-book, maybe.
Also in NYMag; I'm certainly not the first to share it about, but Jennifer Senior's Why You Never Truly Leave High School is a heartrending conflagration of anecdote, neuroscience, and sociology. It's no revelation that traumatic teenage incidents like severe bullying leave psychological scars well into adulthood; what Senior's research for the article suggests is that virtually no one emerges unscathed.
In the past couple of decades, studies across the social sciences have been designed around this new orientation. It has long been known, for instance, that male earning potential correlates rather bluntly with height. But it was only in 2004 that a trio of economists thought to burrow a little deeper and discovered, based on a sample of thousands of white men in the U.S. and Britain, that it wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16.) Eight years later, Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers, observed something similar about adults of a normal weight: They are far more likely to have higher self-esteem if they were a normal weight, rather than overweight or obese, in late adolescence (Carr was using sample data that tracked weight at age 21, but she notes that heavy 21-year-olds were also likely to be heavy in high school). Robert Crosnoe, a University of Texas sociologist, will be publishing a monograph with a colleague this year that shows attractiveness in high school has lingering effects, too, even fifteen years later. “It predicted a greater likelihood of marrying,” says Crosnoe, “better earning potential, better mental health.” This finding reminds me of something a friend was told years ago by Frances Lear, head of the eponymous, now defunct magazine for women: “The difference between you and me is that I knew in high school I was beautiful.”
Other choice observations are the particular trials and tribulations of high school are a modern phenomenon (once upon a time not too long ago, most of us were getting ready to be mommies or working at a factory at 15 rather than being hothoused in the same buildings and classrooms by dint of being the same age) but also that all of us are ultimately undergoing a bewildering cognitive step-change that limits our ability to identify friend or foe (which is why there's lots of “I thought you were my best friend” heartbreak, or even the “I thought you hated me!” shared bonding of the 10-year reunion). All I would have liked to see otherwise was a look at the solutions. I find the idea that puberty has to suck because neuroscience says so a pretty fatalistic one; there's a followup article in this somewhere about what works best for teens on a practical basis and what doesn't, and how we can mitigate such a fraught time to create relatively happy and healthy adults later on.
In the Los Angeles Review Of Books, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah finally gives Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City the thinkpiece it deserves. It’s a mammoth undertaking that factors the young rapper into a lineage alongside Eldridge Cleaver, Tupac and the philosophy of pre-war blues. It also raises challenging questions about the American fascination for blank-slate redemption and reinvention and how, post-Obama, this has highlighted a class schism within black literature. Much has been made of Lamar’s diligent compromise between the bathos of conscious rap and problematic gangsta excess, but this puts it on better terms than anyone else, acknowledging that the album’s imperfect and bloated but making the case for while it’s still so vital:
Kendrick Lamar is close enough to Watts in proximity to understand its despair, close enough to the civil disobedience of the 1992 riots to understand their rage, to understand that there is no exit. He is young enough to idolize the golden age of hip-hop, innocent enough to engage in shameless hero worship, a fan enough to put Mary J. Blige and MC Eiht on his album. But he is also old enough to know that nobody followed Tupac’s body to the morgue. That a bullet fractured one of Tupac’s fingers, fingers often used to so brazenly flip off the world. Lamar is wise enough to know that, in hip-hop, the jig is up on a lot of things (overstated capitalism, the battering of women), and he isn’t flashy — he calls himself the black hippie. His abundance is his talent. And yet, because of his murdered uncle, his fretful grandmother, and the gang-raped girl whose voice he occupies in the same way De La Soul did Millie’s, Lamar is not just a wandering preacher in town to be angry at the locals and their chaos. Nor is he salaciously telling their stories, hoping to give people an angry crime fantasy so that he can bait and hook anyone who is susceptible. It is not that Lamar’s album is perfect, either. At times it is uneven: the song with Drake is annoyingly schmaltzy. But Kendrick Lamar has made a third way, and by the end of his album, one cannot help but feel excited for him.