Archive for December, 2012

annals of consumerism 2012

25 December 2012

My closest friend from college hosts an annual Christmas party that culminates in a present exchange game known as the Yankee Swap [1]. Players get cards and in order of the cards, choose a gift, unwrap it, and then possibly trade it. The game engineers among us, who run the exchange, look forward to the Yankee Swap so they can design ever more intricate trading rules. Kids of all ages look forward to the Yankee Swap because you get a present that is a surprise but also partially controllable, and you can see who likes and wants the present you’re giving. Anyway, you get a present! I look forward to the Yankee Swap as a consumer barometer. What does my geek peer group and its children aged 7 to 25 consider to be a good generic present with a $20 budget?

This year’s choices:

Food related
– Libbey Nova black wine glasses
– Metal spaghetti serving ladle set
– Cheese board shaped like a wine bottle
– Small slate cheese presentation board with three parers
– Popsicle making set
– Pizza cone set (really forms for cone-shaped calzones)
– Cookie and cupcake decorating set; T-shirt shaped cookie cutter
– Star Trek Next Generation Pez [2]

Geek gear
– HP wireless multimedia keyboard
– Dry erase board with markers
– Weather station
– Bright blue earphones, charging adapter that plugs into a car cigarette lighter [3], mini/micro USB cord, stylus
– 8-gigabyte USB stick shaped like a dragon
– Lantern using 30 LEDs
– 15-in-one combined tool bag and utility sack
– Ultimate Hammer Utility Tool
– L.L.Bean travel alarm clock with LED backlight

Media and playthings
– Two books on preserves, Pickling and Put ‘Em Up
– Vegan recipe book, something about greens,
packaged with The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
– Book: Cooks Magazine Science of Good Cooking
– Books: Chronicles of the Crusades, People of the Second Crusade, Holy Warriors of the Crusades
– Book: How to Be Canadian
– Book: The Private Eye Annual 2012
– Puzzles: Hexus the color connecting puzzler, Tangrams for one or two players or teams
– Logic puzzle: Find Your Way Gnome
– Jigsaw puzzle: abstract Alaskan art via the Peabody Essex Museum
– Game: Mancala
– Robin Hood tarot deck signed by the artist

Clothing:
– Panda hat
– T-shirt: We Built This City On Rocks And Wheat (ref Settlers of Catan)

The T-shirt was easily the most admired gift, with people going to the Lonely Dinosaur website afterward to check out their other slogans. I brought the Private Eye annual, which isn’t available in the U.S. and I thought would appeal to Onion fans. Nobody had time to read it in the trading and it went home with one of the youngest kids, which may not have been the best match. I took home How to Be Canadian, enlarging my collection of books about nationalism and citizenship while successfully avoiding the cheese platters, as I already have a slate cheese platter from the swap before last.

Now begins the quest to find the perfect present for next year’s swap. As the wrapping on one of the gifts said: Have a satisfactory non-denominational capitalist winter gift-giving season.

[1] Traditionally a Yankee Swap is an exchange of junk you’re trying to get rid of. Once someone thought that was what we meant and brought some old baskets; they found an appreciative home but she was slightly embarrassed.

[2] Star Trek Next Generation Pez may or may not have violated of the no-food rule, introduced after the year when half the gifts were chocolate. Relatedly, I once participated in a swap in Finland where the half-dozen gifts included three six-packs (actually twelve-packs) and a set of coasters. There’s usually no alcohol in the big Massachusetts swap, because of the kids and the fact we’re drinking less as we get older.

[3] Why aren’t they calling them something else yet? I’ve never seen them used to light cigarettes, not even when I was a child of smokers.

time and news

22 December 2012

I abused the backdate function of WordPress quite a lot on my old blog and I intend to continue. That is, the date on a post is not necessarily the day I pushed the “send” button, but more likely the day I took the notes for the post or started writing. It’s part of shedding the addiction to speed, which I believe we need to do.

Years ago I wrote a story about the Xavier Society for the Blind in New York City, which produced Catholic books on tape. It also printed a weekly Braille summary of the New York Times for the deaf-blind. The subscribers were reading week-old news, which seems like an oxymoron but isn’t really. Browsing those dot-punched folios for them would have been the equivalent of reading a randomly aged newspaper for me – something I often do for the pleasure of accumulating knowledge or feeling time travel by. Any news that hasn’t been falsified by later events is still current and anything that has is historical data.

At the other extreme, I worked for a wire service that pushes the limits of speed writing, trying to get everything out in seconds or minutes for the the financial markets, perhaps the only sector that can act on any bit of news immediately [1]. Now everyone can play that game with blogs and Twitter, the headline desk of the Internet. Everybody gets to race the clock and there’s no central desk to set a newsworthiness bar or prevent duplication of labor. The editorial function is transferred to the overloaded reader.

Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying explores the consequences of speed mania and channel multiplication for journalism, via tales of hoodwinking topic-hungry bloggers to write about trends fabricated by marketers to boost brands (sometimes through reverse psychology). It’s difficult to bring myself to cite it because he claims authorship of many such hoaxes, constructing himself as the ultimate unreliable source. Yet the rubbish story examples ring true with wild goose chases I’ve watched on the tech blogs. If your skepticism is flagging about what you read on Wikipedia and other brand-name information websites (“Oh what the hell, it’s probably true”), this will restore it.

Holiday is at his most credible when describing the economics of the blog market and the pressure on writers to post, which he compares to the competition of the 19th-century penny press (he calls it “yellow press”) when news became available to mass audiences and writers were paid by volume. Against that noise, the New York Times deliberately carved out a niche for itself in thoroughly reported, verified and thoughtful, if slower, news coverage – meeting this goal better in some decades than others, I can say after surveying its entire print run in my PhD thesis. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of spirit we need now.

[1] Except for public safety, traffic and weather, it’s hard to think of news that the average citizen can use right away. At the same time, publishing a first take as soon as verified is the best practice in order to counter prior restraint and keep the reflexes sharp. That’s true even in a monopoly market and I’m not arguing with it; but I am arguing for taking more time to research, fact-check and contextualize, and letting opinion and features simmer a while longer.