Beyond bad news: There’s more to the story of Yahoo, Twitter, and Volkswagen

It’s the mid-90s, and I’m visiting a colleague’s house after work. He has an account with an Internet service provider; I don’t, and he has offered to show me what’s out there. So he fires up his computer, and we chat over the hiss, squawk, and chime of two modems flirting by phone. Once they’ve mated, they fall silent, and we turn our attention to the Netscape Navigator web browser. My pal has already discovered and bookmarked a number of sites on the World Wide Web that interest him. He shows me a few, and then I, impatient for a broader view, ask him if there’s a directory of some kind, like the ever-growing lists of computerized bulletin-board systems. How do you find a new place to go on the web, if you don’t know about it ahead of time? Simple, he says, taking us to a page with the excitable name “Yahoo!” at the top. The whole thing is simply a handcrafted list of other websites, organized into categories—just what we want.

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More negative thinking about honors, awards, and prizes

Yesterday, I briefly questioned the purpose of awards along the way to praising a particular nominee for a particular acting laurel. I didn’t have the time, and still don’t, to go into the overall issue, but Christopher Hitchens did some of the work in a December 1992 column for Vanity Fair. A few illustrative extracts from his commentary, which is mainly concerned with awards for books but which applies more broadly:

  • “The constantly burgeoning awards racket…is the importation of show-biz values as the ruling values everywhere.”
  • The proliferation of prizes is “a kind of extended essay in the cultivation of self-esteem and positive reinforcement, as envisaged by Lewis Carroll in the ‘Caucus-race’ of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Dodo roundly declares that ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”
  • “The unstoppably inflating awards business exists to reward sponsors, to pacify egos, to generate sales, and to puff reputations.”
  • “In the atmosphere created by the prize cult, it is forgotten that a canon of literature is made up of works and books, not of ribbons and awards.”

In the light of these remarks, it’s peculiarly ironic that earlier this year a prize named after Hitchens was established. The announcement that this new prize was being launched stirred up some discussion. Was it actually bestowed upon someone? I never heard. If I were writing in the guise of a responsible journalist, I would find out and report, but that would only defuse my point. One of the presumed intentions of an award is to cut through the clutter, yet the awards racket has generated its own clutter, and it joins the very thing it hopes to hold itself apart from, namely, the profusion of consumable artifacts that some early-modern critics termed the culture industry.

A view from the World Trade Center, 2/23/15

Late-afternoon sun and sky, as seen from the Vanity Fair offices on the 41st floor of One World Trade Center. One World Financial Center is the domed building. Ellis Island is at bottom center, with the Statue of Liberty to its left. (Tech note: Though the image was shot at ISO 80, it shows noise, which I take to be the result of the iPhone 4 sensor.)

Late-afternoon sun and sky, as seen from the Vanity Fair offices on the 41st floor of One World Trade Center. One World Financial Center is the domed building. Ellis Island is at bottom center, with the Statue of Liberty to its left. (Tech note: Though the image was shot at ISO 80, it shows noise, which I take to be the result of the iPhone 4 sensor.)

The original image can be viewed on Flickr.

Recent picture: a view from One World Trade Center

In one of those essays he called “mythologiques, Roland Barthes remarked of the Eiffel Tower that it’s both an object to be seen and a place from which to see. That struck me when I read it as incontestable, yet somehow surprising, far from obvious. Taken in its entirety, his essay imparts a distinction to the Eiffel Tower that remains unsurpassed. The Burj Khalifa, for example, undoubtedly dominates its landscape, yet hardly anyone, upon hearing its name, will immediately think of its image, much less the city in which it stands. But the dual quality of landmark and viewpoint that Barthes found in the Eiffel Tower also inheres in a number of other structures (which is obvious), among them the building in Lower Manhattan officially called One World Trade Center.

I recently began working in 1WTC, as a freelancer for Vanity Fair magazine, and like many of my Condé Nast colleagues I’ve been acknowledging its value as a vantage point by taking pictures through the windows. VF’s previous quarters, on the 22nd floor of a building in Times Square, originally offered rather impressive views, but over time these were mostly cut off as other skyscrapers rose around ours: the Ernst and Young building at 5 Times Square, for instance, and the Bank of America Tower, which rather spoiled the privileged view out the windows of the editors’ row. We’re now higher up, on the 41st floor, and we have fewer obstacles, and everything we can see from there is, for now, fresh. Whereas I often forgot at 4 Times Square that the Empire State Building was visible—though mostly from offices that weren’t normally accessible, such as those of editor-in-chief Graydon Carter—I can now see it out the window behind my desk, and I often look its way, imaginatively hoping to see King Kong clambering up its side or a dirigible mooring at the top.

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America’s Nutcracker, England’s panto

A couple of late notes about Christmas-season performance traditions:

In the United States, the winter holidays bring to many communities a staging of The Nutcracker. The tradition is relatively new here, essentially launched by George Balanchine in 1954, but the ballet itself originated in imperial Russia. The transplant makes a kind of sense; in our capitalist democracy, we’re all royals—Lorde notwithstanding—deserving of an emperor’s entertainment. Laura Jacobs told the tale lovingly in an article for the January 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, which is online here. Sticklers for historical details should note remarks in the online comments about two antecedents in America to Balanchine’s staging.

In Great Britain, the Christmas pantomime is the thing and has been for ages. The Economist’s Bagehot columnist attended one after two decades away and filed a report, touching on the history of the panto and some recent developments, such as the casting of recognizable names ranging from Linda Gray, of Dallas, to Sir Ian McKellen.