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Archive for September, 2014

Why is the governor picking on me?

Well, Gov. Pat McCrory’s not picking on me personally, but he says he wants journalists to go away. That’s already happening at a fast enough pace without any outside wishing.

“We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many,” McCrory said Thursday in Greensboro while announcing a plan to visit businesses in every county in the state to learn what skills high-demand industries need.

His line got laughs, the Triad Business Journal reported. He also mentioned lawyers as being too numerous.

“And journalists, did I say journalists?”

Yes, sir, you did. A real comedy machine, you are.

The Business Journal also quoted McCrory on the importance of raising the prestige of industries such as trucking, which incidentally is one of the Lenoir region’s higher-paying and faster-growing employment sectors.

“I’m very impressed with the people who can drive trucks and are qualified to drive trucks,” McCrory said. “I don’t know how you back it up, I don’t know how you go forward, I don’t know how you park it, I don’t know how you drive such long distances.”

I’m sure McCrory enjoys tweaking journalists because they so often catch him or his appointees saying or doing things he probably wishes could be said or done over again, but if not understanding how to do something is what it takes for him to hold a profession in high regard, then he needs to rethink his wish for there to be fewer journalists.

It was journalists from the McClatchy newspaper chain, including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, who recently uncovered what no one in state government had – that the construction industry has been improperly misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which not only robs those workers of benefits and protections but allows the companies to avoid payroll taxes. The journalists found that if the level of misclassification at only 64 government-backed housing developments they examined in North Carolina extends to the construction industry as a whole in this state, the state and federal government are losing $467 million a year in taxes, the newspapers reported.

You might think it’s a fine thing for businesses to avoid taxes wherever possible, but what this reporting found is illegal cheating. If you want your taxes cut, do it the legal way – buy a politician. Otherwise you are leaving tax obligations for the rest of society to pick up. Those avoided taxes include money that otherwise would help Social Security and Medicare stay solvent.

Journalists found that.

If it’s not difficult to find places where tax cheaters are blowing half-billion-dollar holes in the budget, why didn’t anyone else find that?

On the other hand, maybe McCrory wasn’t really knocking journalists. Before mentioning journalists, he said there are too many political science majors. Since McCrory himself has a degree in political science from Catawba College, maybe his speech actually was an expression of existential angst – to be, or not to be? – and his own yearning for a job that made him feel more fulfilled and less constantly under attack, perhaps tooling down the road in a big rig as little boys in the backs of SUVs passing on the highway make the tug-down gesture, the universal plea for a trucker to blast his horn.

No one criticizes a trucker when he blows his horn. Not even journalists.

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Gifts for the person who has everything?

Who conceived of an alcohol-smuggling device that doubles as a Wonderbra?

I now realize that if I watched morning TV talk shows, I might have seen Kathie Lee Gifford plug it on her show, but until a catalog arrived at the office this week I would not have believed such a thing as the Wine Rack existed. Inside of it are a couple of plastic bags for holding wine, and attached to them is a plastic tube so you can drink your (body-temperature) wine at “the movies, concerts, ball games – anywhere you can imagine,” the catalog says.

We get a lot of mail at the office that is addressed to people who haven’t worked here in many years. Last year there was one addressed to a man who hasn’t worked here since 1988.

Most of it is public-relations materials, but now and then a catalog comes, usually an office-supply catalog.

But this one was more of a lifestyle catalog. What kind of lifestyle it targets is a little hard to figure out. On the one hand, there are a lot of outdoor-living items, such as a mulcher, an electric chainsaw and some outdoor fireplaces. There are some kitchen items, like a pizza oven, a hot dog cooker and an egg cooker. There are things for the serious tailgater, such as an easy-traveling, three-basket deep fryer. There are hunting and fishing items, household storage items, picnic tables and patio heaters.

Then there is the Wine Rack – but that’s not all.

There is a gun for shooting flies. A gun. You load it with table salt, and allegedly when you fire at the fly, the salt crystals speed through the air like so much miniature buckshot.

There is a thing called a Beer Pager, a koozie for the forgetful drinker who keeps misplacing his beer. The koozie has an electronic base, and there is a companion button you keep in your pocket. When you can’t locate your beer, you pull out the button, press it, and the koozie’s base lights up and “unleashes a satisfying burp” so you can locate the beer – “even through walls!”

Don’t have time to go to a barbershop? There’s Robocut, essentially a vacuum cleaner attached to electric hair clippers. Just run it over your scalp and it will both trim your hair and suck up the clippings.

But perhaps my favorite item is the Off-Road Commode. It’s a camouflage toilet seat that attaches to a trailer hitch, which makes a lot of sense for camping. Dig a hole, back up the truck to it and you have an instant latrine.

But be careful. As the catalog notes, “Not for use when vehicle is in motion.”

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Sometimes I just want a big, heavy stick to hit people in the head with. I’d call it my “You didn’t invent this” stick.

I would use it when I heard some (usually younger) person lamenting some condition of humankind that strikes him as a revelation, as though he found the New World, when all he really is doing is describing to you the exact same thing you went through a decade or two earlier – because everyone goes through it.

I felt a need for such a stick when reading what a couple of people who have worked in online media companies recently had to say about how the Internet has really gone downhill since back in the day when it was a simply fabulous way to get information.

“I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast,” David Sessions wrote in an essay in late August on Patrolmag.com that reads like the lament of a late-career curmudgeon (and I won’t even get started on the issue of whether you can describe seven years as a career). “… By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints.”

In an interview in May at a conference called New York Ideas, Choire Sicha – who all of five long years ago co-founded The Awl, a popular current-events and culture blog – was less specific about his “early” Internet use, but the implication of all he said was that once upon a time, the Internet did nothing but bring untold riches of powerful writing to his digital doorstep. There was no end of interesting things to read.

Alas, no more.

“I do not read a lot of things anymore,” Sicha said. “A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that.”

Sessions felt no better, but there’s a funny thing about his description of so much that is wrong with the Internet:

“Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether (or) not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of ‘content’ gushing out of your feeds.”

You could take that description and swap most of it out with what people said back in the ‘80s and ’90s about pack journalism and the push for short news stories and splashy graphics in American newspapers, especially those owned by Gannett or any others influenced by USA Today, which itself was influenced by how information was presented on television.

It takes a narrow scope to believe that some Golden Age of Reading began on the Internet, or that the evolution or devolution of reading habits didn’t begin until the past five years instead of, if you could go back and ask your great-great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, or further back yet.

What Sicha and Sessions said was true, but in a larger sense it has always been true, and there is an old saying for it: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

You didn’t invent this experience, I want to yell at them, though I would also point out that each of them had a hand in inventing the current, digital incarnation of the handbasket. Neither of them appears to recognize this.

Sessions, in fact, seems to need a double-whack with a stick.

“I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his lament about how unsettled he is by changes in how people use Internet media, “so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade.”

Let’s be clear about this: The media platforms being discussed here may be different, but the unsettled nature of change is eternal and recognizes no boundaries, whether physical or digital. Before the unsettling change of digital news came the unsettling change of the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable TV news, which came after the unsettling change of the country’s once-dominant afternoon newspapers either switching to morning delivery or going out of business after losing out to morning papers, which coincided with the disappearance of two-newspaper cities, none of which were the first of the unsettling changes.

The problem isn’t that, as Sicha said and Sessions echoed, “something’s wrong” with the Internet. There is something wrong, though: humans. We are the reason we can’t have nice things.

Afternoon papers went away because people’s schedules changed, and morning papers then seemed more convenient. People’s schedules kept changing, and print circulation began declining for decades before the Internet arrived because even morning papers eventually came to be seen by some as not convenient – there was no time to read anymore, and the pile of unread papers was both a bother and a reminder that once upon a time there was a thing called leisure that involved reading. When the Internet came along, and especially when it moved onto phones, that became more convenient still. But what many people have decided they want that mobile Internet for is time-wasting, mindless crap to fill the minutes-long gaps in their day or to relieve their stress, something to distract them, not something to make them think, so that’s the kind of thing that becomes profitable.

“People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking,” Sicha said. “So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there.”

And this isn’t the first time that happened. In the early days of television, some thought that TV would be the way to bring fine arts to the masses. Go to your TV now and find an opera or Broadway play. I’ll wait.

Think the Internet will get better someday? In 1961, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow called television programming a “vast wasteland” – and that was four years before “My Mother the Car.” Television had yet to sink to the era of the Kardashians and “Fear Factor.”

“Something’s wrong”? Only us. We say we want to eat healthy vegetables, but we’ll go for the candy when no one is looking. Seeing that, the folks who make money off what we like will constantly pivot. If you see something you like, buy it, or tomorrow it may be gone.

“The only thing that is constant is change,” a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote about 2,500 years ago, probably right after someone complained that reading on papyrus just doesn’t deliver the same tactile pleasure as reading from a leather scroll.

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