For what’s right

In my limited forays into politics, I have in this space previously noted my support for Barack Obama (moreso in 2008 than 2012, but still) and my heartfelt support of gay rights and gay marriage and my frustration in this country’s resistance to its obviousness. So today is a particularly gratifying moment, as I can note that Barack Obama, too, supports gay marriage.
That this comes a day after North Carolina residents banned gay marriage in all its forms makes this news all the more enjoyable. Fifty years ago many Americans were against civil rights for African-Americans, too. As Dave Pell noted in his NextDraft newsletter today, “History’s march towards equal rights often feels inevitable, but it can really take a long time.” Yesterday we slowed down, and today we sped up again.
Next Saturday I am attending a wedding party for my gay friends Chris and Stuart, who are getting married at City Hall, because as New Yorkers they thankfully can do so. I couldn’t be happier for them, or more supportive of their right to be married. And I am glad that the President of the United States of America feels the same way.

Having one’s Facebook cake and eating it, too

Sean Bonner: Facebook makes me feel like a shitty friend.

Facebook made it easy. So now I have to wonder am I only staying in touch with those people because it requires absolutely zero effort on my part? What kind of a person does that make me? What does that say about how much I value their friendship?

Earlier this month I found out about a friend’s wife giving birth via Facebook, and only Facebook. It’s not the first time this has happened (indeed, not even the first time with this friend). And, to use Bonner’s turn of phrase, it made me feel kind of shitty.
Social media sites are wondrous things. I am in touch with more people in infinitely more ways than I ever expected. The problem lies with scale and distance, as the same interactions that feel immediate to the author can feel very different to the reader–both more and less intimate than originally intended, depending on the recipient. What Bronner and I are observing is less technological than sociological: replacing important real-life touchpoints with digital ones can be inherently, and inadvertently, disappointing.
Social interactions have myriad levels of nuance. Facebook is different from Twitter, for example. Email distribution lists remain popular alongside social networks (for my demographic, at least). And each type of action carries its own etiquette. Checking into the hospital on Foursquare and tweeting the delivery of a child can be fascinating and energizing and fun. Extreme example: Matt Haughey live-tweeted his vasectomy! But the same broadcast capabilities that bring levity to such things also defy conventional levels of friendship. When inner-circle, 20-years-of-history friends post the same birth notice to you as to 680 of their digital connections, that inner circle takes on a much flimsier feel. (Let the record show that in each case of “hey, I saw on Facebook that you’re a dad now,” I replied with a phone call.)
I rediscovered Bonner’s post because yesterday he quit Facebook altogether. I don’t think I’m in quite that drastic a frame of mind. My own Facebook usage is quite minimal: after all, if you’re concerned about privacy on Facebook, limiting what you tell Facebook goes a long way toward mitigating its pervasiveness. My profile there is no more robust than what you find about me on Twitter, LinkedIn, et al. with the exception of a handful of photos and some basic banter with my friends. My privacy settings are finely tuned. I can live with Facebook knowing and using that much about me.
And indeed, I almost need Facebook, because its wall has become many people’s primary mode of communication. I only log onto Facebook once a week or so, and when I’m gone for too long, I miss out on news of life-altering events. The privacy concerns are valid, sure, but many people have decided, however unwittingly, that they’re willing to live with the trade-offs of privacy and reach. And while I’d probably be fine not residing within the Facebook social graph, I don’t terribly want to dictate terms to my friends regarding how they keep in touch with me. So for now, they’ll post, I’ll call, and we’ll all go to bed happy.
Social media is an amazing tool. Even more so on one’s own terms.

Ten years

A confession: I’ve spent the past week two weeks willfully avoiding most September 11 commemorations. I certainly know why, although I have had a hard time putting it into words. Am I not ready to recollect? Do I find it too sad, too ugly? Does it feel too obvious to me?
Perhaps all of the above, or something else, subconscious and intangible, that drives me away from the past. Different things evoke different responses. I blithely skipped past The Economist’s coverage of the anniversary, but I can’t even bring myself to crack open the New York magazine special, and I have been noticeably averting my gaze whenever I spy the billowing smoke on its cover. A decade on, I am not at all inured to the visuals of the event–if anything, I have a more visceral reaction now, in remembrance, than when it actually happened and we all couldn’t stop looking.
My wife pointed out, rightly, that we as a society need to remember, to reflect, to refresh our memories, to celebrate the heroes and respect the innocent and the fallen. I had friends who experienced a far more dramatic 9/11 than I did, and friends who lost their lives.
Perhaps that’s where I am: I haven’t reflected because I haven’t forgotten. I can tell, in vivid detail, the story of that day and the entire week around it: where I was, what I did, how I felt, what I smelled. It was my reality and remains my experience. To that end, America’s insistent media saturation leading up to Sunday’s commemorations are invaluable: no one is being allowed to forget, just as I, and many others, already cannot.
Tomorrow is a somber and important day for all of us, however explicit our reflections may be. My thoughts are with those whose memories are far more painful than mine.

On and after September 11, the Internet was both a lifeline and an outlet for me. My blog posts from 9/11 through the 23rd are available in a single-read archive, and I invite my readers to explore them. For historical accuracy, the girlfriend cited in the posts is now my wife; we have long since moved out of Union Square to the Upper West Side, where we will be spending a quiet 9/11/11 at home.
In 2001 I also published my friend Adam Oestreich’s first-hand account of the attacks, which remains a compelling read. At this time of year it is always the most popular page on this website. (Adam, it can be noted, now works in midtown.)

Obama’s grand miss

Regular readers of this space know that Ideapad rarely touches on politics. But Drew Westen’s What Happened to Obama? in the New York Times Sunday Review is a must-read. It’s a compelling, gut-wrenching and accurate exposition on how Barack Obama failed at a terrific, and important, opportunity to shape the nation’s future.

With [Obama’s] deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken [“the arc of history”, Obama’s paraphrasing of Dr. Martin Luther King] and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation. … The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit.

What social media really means

I keep coming back to Brad Graham’s passing—three times since I first found out yesterday—and I keep getting a pit in my chest thinking about it.
I know Brad for one lone, random reason: he had a weblog in the 1990s, and so did I. Back then the blogosphere (a term Brad coined, by the way) was small enough that people could track it on a single webpage. Early bloggers were united by spirit: we were exploring a new medium, and we were very comfortably aligned with one another, despite our diverse interests.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my connections to the old-school crowd are not as strong as they could—should—have been, mostly because I never got around to dining with my crowd at SXSW. I know lots of people from the early days, and they know me, but I see my old friend Anil Dash refer to these same people as his best friends and I realize I missed a moment.
Brad, though? Brad was your friend. Instantly and permanently. Smiles, embraces, forever remembered and fondly recalled. After our first meeting in New York, I became part of his hug-shaped social circle, and would regularly receive invites to meet him for a drink when he found himself in my city. This is how he treated everyone, and why my community is mourning him especially deeply.
Brad embodied the power of social media, long before it had such a name. Consider: brought together by technology and little else (check out the text in that first-meeting link) I became a longtime friend of a man a thousand miles away. His death is giving me recurrent waves of sadness, even though I hadn’t seen him in several years. And I’m sharing my emotions with hundreds of people around the country, some of whom knew him well and others who never even met him in person.
Leave it to Brad Graham to remind us how powerful and touching this medium can be. We’ll miss you, Brad. I know I already do.

Plus, there’d be butts strewn in the grass

A history of baseball and chewing tobacco in Slate. How things change (emphasis added):

The sudden decline of former batting champion and career .308 hitter Michael “King” Kelly–he
hit just .189 in 1892 and was only able to play 78 games–was attributed
to his longtime habit of smoking while patrolling the outfield.

Never mind the chaw. Can you imagine Johnny Damon, chilling out in left field, with a cigarette dangling from his lip? How does a guy shag flies while smoking?

Startling U.S. healthcare statistics

I really don’t know what to make of the healthcare political arguments as they happen, but I am firmly in the system-needs-fixing camp. Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times clarifies why.

The data he cites is so startling, it bears repeating. According to recent surveys by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

  • the United States ranks 31st in life expectancy, tied with Kuwait and Chile
  • the U.S. ranks 37th in infant mortality and 34th in maternal mortality–an American woman is 11 times as likely to die in childbirth as a woman in Ireland
  • a child in the United States is two-and-a-half times as likely to die by age 5 as in Singapore or Sweden
  • an African-American in New Orleans has a shorter life expectancy than the average person in Vietnam or Honduras
  • Americans take 10 percent fewer drugs than citizens in other countries–but pay 118 percent more per pill that they do take

Read the entire piece for more detail and context. (Bullet points above are quotes from the editorial.)

Trainspotter

Rail travel on aiaio, the business blog.
I am a big fan of trains, apparently dating back to my childhood, when I’d get unreasonably excited about commuter trains passing overhead (whether this was my own obsession or something prompted by my mother, I am unsure). I still enjoy getting around New York by subway–most mornings, anyway–and have happily explored transit systems in scattered cities around the world.
Taking the Acela this year has been a great discovery. It showcases America’s potential in high-speed rail and the many advantages that come with it. Unfortunately, it also shows the shortcomings: the breakdowns, the slow top speeds, the inexplicably bumpy ride.
The more we can get ourselves to adopt, and appreciate, trains the better our environment will be. I will continue to take trains whenever they’re a viable option. And, yeah, getting excited when they go by. I still do that.