October 11, 2016

In Loving Memory

A dear old friend of mine died today.

Beyond the obvious depressingness of that, I've also been depressed, since I found out, at how hard it's been coming up with a fitting way to commemorate him. It seems like all my ideas somehow revolve around posting something he wrote or did, or a photograph of him, or some other quote or image that captures what he meant to me. But never mind the difficulty in doing that for an eighty-five-year-old man who did all his best writing in private correspondence and avoided pictures and was so unique and encyclopaedic and indescribably good that some random internet epitaph could never do him justice anyway — he would have hated that sort of millennial social media dross. He liked depth. He saw the value in propriety, and tradition. Even in his most off-the-cuff emails, he wrote poetry in perfect meter if he thought the situation called for it. What would a stupid fucking GIF be to someone like that?

That's not to say he was a stubborn old fuddy-duddy. Sure, his emails had a lot of the same features as the ones you get from your grandparents — changing fonts, weird line breaks, that sort of thing — but he wasn't anti-change or anti-technology. He probably would have giggled at a lot of the GIFs I giggle at, too, come to that. He had a roomful of computers, and a digital camera he carried with him everywhere, and when his daughter got her PhD he exchanged half a dozen messages with me agonizing over the various different configurations of Windows and Mac computers he might buy her to mark the the occasion. (He even Googled reviews of them all, long before reviews likes that were easy to find on the internet, and certainly long before it ever occurred to me to do the same.)

But he also thought it was important to take time and care to express yourself clearly, to express yourself right, and I can't help feeling that so much of what I do to express myself these days wouldn't really meet his standards. I post pithy jokes on Facebook, and tweets that rely on so many levels of obscure pop-culture and twitterverse self-reference that even I look back sometimes and think, what the fuck was I going for there?

I use vulgarity too much as a shortcut for a certain kind of humorous tone.

I rush past words that I'm only 90% sure are correct instead of taking the time to look them up, even though the dictionary he bought me fifteen years ago is still sitting here on my desk, ready and willing. (Or I use lazy coinages like "depressingness" because, you know, dude, you understand what I'm going for, even though there's doubtless an existing word I could use that would do the trick much better.)

I use emoji. Emoji! Yeah, okay, show me all the research you like about how they actually increase intimacy between users and capture a lot of sophisticated meaning depending on their context. Send me a link to Buzzfeed's "Ten Best Famous Novels Retold In Emoji" if you think it will help. I get it. But don't tell me a smiling pile of poo is superior to a guy who takes the time to write you extemporaneous rhyming couplets just because he thinks you'll get a kick out of it.

Even when my cat died (and I loved that cat), my first reaction was to post a picture on Facebook accompanied by a reference to a TV show that was in turn referencing the cat's name, and a glib afterthought that we'd miss him. I only wrote the thoughtful blog post about it weeks later, and then only elsewhere and because I needed it for a publication credit. This is what the internet has reduced me to: shorthand and self-promotion.

Well not for you, Michael. You only get the blog post, and you only get it here, on my own blog, whose traffic, now that you're gone, has probably halved or disappeared altogether. I've tried to pay attention to language, like you always said I should, even though you won't be sending me an email in the morning to point out all my sloppy mistakes — but I've not tried too hard, either, because you always said I wrote best when I didn't. I've tried to express what you meant to me, not just in obnoxious, oblique ways but in clear, genuine, heartfelt ones too. And I know how much joy you took in describing yourself as my honorary godlessfather, so I won't make the twee suggestion that I hope you're appreciating all that with a smile, wherever you are. But I do hope that by some standard, somewhere, I've done good by you.

And now all that's been said, good grief,
Thank you, sir, and rest in peace.

July 13, 2016

In Which The Author Wonders How These People Find The Time To Actually Give A Shit About This Stuff

Top ten sentiments ACTUALLY expressed by REAL PEOPLE at my building's shared ownership residents' meeting this evening.

IMPORTANT CONTEXT FOR NON-BRITISH READERS: In Britain, as in most places, and especially in London, there is a shortage of affordable housing. This shortage affects both the very poor, who can't even pay private market rent, and the middle-class, who can afford rent but have little hope of buying property. To solve both problems, the government legislated a class of housing called "shared ownership," whereby middle-class people can buy a portion of a home and pay heavily subsidised rent on the other portion. The catch is that these shared ownership homes are usually only given planning permission if they are built into new developments that also include social housing for the very poor. The result is "mixed-tenure" buildings like mine where the middle-class share with both the very poor and often, in cases where the building also offers private rent and private ownership apartments, the moderately rich—the idea being that the richer residents effectively subsidise the poorer ones, while the melting pot of so many people from different backgrounds living in close proximity fosters mutual understanding and greater social cohesion.

That idea, at least if tonight's meeting was anything to go by, is rather seriously over-optimistic. END CONTEXT.

And so, without further ado:

10. "I paid a lot of money for my parking space, and you're just giving them away to disabled people for free?"

9. "Who's responsible for the roof of the new 24-hour gym opening next door? Because my window looks out over it and I've noticed a lot of debris collecting up there already."

8. "I'm a public school teacher and I'm all in favour of inclusion and I don't want to sound like an elitist twat and I voted 'In' and all that, but if I'd known there were going to be so many social housing units in the building I would never have bought here. We're all new homeowners and I think I speak for the whole room when I say that frankly it's been a disappointing experience."

7. "I think the 24-hour gym will make the building safer, because it will be manned all the... Sorry, "manned" is a terrible word to use, isn't it? It will be staffed by people all the time."

6. "I know we've established that the people on the lower floors can't let their kids ride bikes around the common outdoor area... But my kid can, right? He's only little." (*NB ADDITIONAL CONTEXT: the social housing is on floors one to six, the shared ownership housing on floors seven and eight.)

5. "Somebody keeps leaving cotton buds in the stairwell."

4. "Is it safe to leave my bike in the bike storage locker? Do the social housing units have access to that?"

3. "I mean, that is just horrendous. I'm genuinely offended. How can anyone not recycle?"

2. "Can we get some kid-friendly signs in the bin storage room? Because a lot of the social housing families get their kids to take out the rubbish and they leave it in the wrong place."

1. [Collective gasp of delight at rumour that a coffee shop will be opening downstairs.]

I didn't make up a word of this folks. Not. A. Word.

June 26, 2016

It's Fine, We're Already Making More Whine Than Europe

Dear sore losers,

1. You do not value diversity and condemn marginalization and exclusion above all else, because ever since the result you have been acting like people who think differently from you (i.e. Leave voters) are ruining the country. That is by definition marginalization.

2. The younger generation was not defrauded, or screwed over by their parents and grandparents. Younger people were half as likely to vote in the last general election, despite the unambiguous promise of an EU referendum if the Conservatives were elected. We screwed over ourselves a year ago when we let that happen.

3. It doesn't matter if a petition for a new referendum gets 1 million signatures or 2 million or even 18 million (i.e. more than the number of Leave voters). That is not how elections work. You ask the country once and then accept the outcome. In this case, the outcome was that more people wanted to leave. I cannot stress that enough. This was a democratic decision by the eligible voting population. Just because you don't agree doesn't mean you get a do-over. This is why older people think millennials have a sense of entitlement.

4. All Leave voters are not bigots, idiots, trolls, etc. Most of them just aren't happy with the status quo and are using the enfranchisement granted them by our democratic system of government to try and change the status quo. The complete failure of remain voters to understand that (a) not everyone has a cosmopolitan life in London, (b) not everyone wants a cosmopolitan life in London and (c) the above doesn't make someone an ogre, is part of the reason the leave campaign had so much traction.

5. Leaving the EU is not an irreparable disaster for the country. If you could stop complaining about having lost and start talking about how to ensure an out Britain will continue to reflect the cosmopolitan values you care about so much, a lot of things won't have to change at all.


June 24, 2016

Your Brexit Questions Answered

After Britain's vote to leave the EU, some members of the public are understandably worried about the consequences for their day-to-day lives. This guide covers some of the most frequently asked questions. 

1. Can I still eat hummus? Yes. 

2. Can Scotland qualify for Euro 2020 now? Absolutely not.

3. Oh shit. Is my cleaner an EU citizen? Probably.

4. Is this how Nazi Germany started? No. They had better sausages, for one thing.

5. Can I still get shitfaced and trash my Ibiza/Mallorca/Cyprus/Alicante hotel room? Yes, but it will cost more and you might need to pay for travel insurance if you still want your stomach pumped afterwards.

6. Is Donald Trump king of England now? No.

7. When are they going to let David Dimbleby go to bed? Hopefully soon. 

8. What if other countries now hold their own referenda? At least we'll have a lot of good pun opportunities.

9. Can I sweepingly write off the 17 million people who voted leave as stupid bigots who won't even try to be inclusive or sympathetic? Sure, if you like irony!

10. Are you totally sure about the hummus thing? Yes.  

April 10, 2016

Meanwhile, In The Ivies

Today I would like to take my quarterly break from Total Blog Silence to talk about this story from The Harvard Crimson: Berries Sour Debate Over UC Funding
On Sunday, Freshman Class Committee Treasurer Scott Xiao ’19 introduced legislation to appropriate $850 to Harvard University Dining Services for a “Berry Brain Break” on Tuesday, as part of this week’s Freshman Health Project. The legislation proposed funding an assortment of strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries to feed about 400 students.

“Our constituents say they want to see berries at our enhanced brain break,” Xiao said.
I'm sorry, a "Brain Break"? Way to bury the lede. The headline for this whole story should really be "Harvard students find way to make even snacking sound fucking lame."

But apparently not all on the Undergraduate Council were convinced that spending two thirds of one credit hour of undergraduate tuition on some berries was such a good idea.
Oak Yard representative Olu Oisaghie ’19 called such an allotment “irresponsible.”

Leverett House representative Jullian A. Duran ’18 said “there are definitely other foods that are healthy that don’t cost $850.”

“This didn’t feel like the best appropriation of money,” Oak Yard representative Nicholas D. Boucher ’19 said at the meeting, explaining his opposition to the berry bill when the Freshman Class Committee debated it.
To be honest, I feel like the real headline here should be: "Harvard doesn't already serve berries to students." Like, really? What kind of place can charge $63,000 per year per student and then turn around with a straight face and say "ooooooh, berries? IDK, seems kind of pricey." At $15,000 per student in room and board each year, they should have berries pouring from faucets all over campus on demand.
Some representatives pointed to survey results that indicated that berries were popular among freshmen and argued that the committee still had close to $2,000 in its budget remaining for the rest of the school year.

Others, however, were not sold on the alleged popularity of berries.

“I hear people talking about how a lot of their constituents are so excited to have berries at brain break. I’m not sure we have the same constituents,” Oisaghie said.

Speaking of making even snacking sound lame, how about we wrap up this debate with pretty much the nerdiest Harvard kid quote we can find?
Winthrop House representative Vimal S. Konduri ’17, a Crimson news editor, said that “technically, there are berries at every brain break, because botanically, bananas are berries.”
*slow clap*

Anyway, spoiler alert, the student council ultimately voted in favour of the berry spending bill, only to have the School of Public Health step in and offer to pick up the tab anyway. And in the event:
Hundreds of freshmen crowded Annenberg Hall to enjoy an assortment of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries during Tuesday’s Brain Break, but some...
...were left with just sour grapes.

“There were a bunch of people who took two bowls so that they could get as many berries as they could,” Catherine Y. Zhang ’19 said. “I’m pretty sure there were some people who brought tupperware.” [...] Though the event was scheduled to last from 9:15 p.m. to 11:15 p.m., all the berries had been consumed by 9:40. [...]

“I wish there was a more sustainable solution for students to get berries as opposed to one day for one hour,” Deepika S. Kurup ’19 said.
I mean, seriously, how expensive can it possibly be to buy a couple of punnets of strawberries every now and then? You'd think these kids had never seen a piece of fruit before.

Finally, the interview scoop that every journalist reporting on a story like this dreams of getting:
Katie C. BERRY ’19 was one of many students who arrived after all of the berries had disappeared, and said she was “devastated.”

“I was looking forward to having some berries, but there was nothing for me," Berry said.
I take it back. This is really what I'd call...

...berrying the lede.