(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

This is, as nearly as I can tell, the 5,000th (Roughly) Daily post (4,505 blog posts, preceded by 495 email-only pieces). On this numerologically-significant occasion, my deep thanks to readers past and present. It seems appropriate to devote this post to the impulse that has powered (Roughly) Daily from the start, curiosity– free-range curiosity…

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity.” (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out)…

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me… social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.

On top of the social pressure from people online, there’s technological pressure too — from recommendation systems trying to juke our attention… Medium’s algorithm has deduced that … I’m a nerd. They are correct! I am. The other major social networks, like Twitter or YouTube, offer me the same geek-heavy recommendations when I log in. And hey, they’re not wrong either; I really do like these subjects.

But … I’m also interested in so many other things that are far outside these narrow lanes. I am, for example, a Canadian who’s deeply into Canadian art, and a musician who spends a lot of time thinking about composition and gear and lyric-writing and production and guitar pedals, and a father who thinks a lot about the culture my kids show me, and I have a super-snobby fanboy love of the 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

You’re the same way; you contain your own Whitmanian multitudes, your pockets of woolly-eyed obsession. We all do.

But our truly quirky dimensions are never really grasped by these recommendation algorithms. They have all the dullness of a Demographics 101 curriculum; they sketch our personalities with the crudity of crime-scene chalk-outlines. They’re not wrong about us; but they’re woefully incomplete. This is why I always get a slightly flattened feeling when I behold my feed, robotically unloading boxes of content from the same monotonous conveyor-belt of recommendations, catered to some imaginary marketing version of my identity. It’s like checking my reflection in the mirror and seeing stock-photo imagery.

The other problem with big-tech recommendation systems is they’re designed by people who are convinced that “popularity” and “recency” equal “valuable”. They figure that if they sample the last 15 milliseconds of the global zeitgeist and identify what’s floated to the top of that quantum foam, I’ll care about it. Hey, a thing happened and people are talking about it, here’s the #hashtag!

And again … they’re sometimes right! I am often intrigued to know the big debates of the day, like Oscar Wilde peering into his daily gazette. But I’d also like to stumble over arguments yet more arcane, and material that will never be the subject of a massive online conversation because only a small group of oddballs care about it.

You’re the same way too, I bet. We’re all weird in different ways, but we’re all weird.

Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins— i.e. how their remorseless lust for “engagement” leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s interesting. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

That’s why I so enjoy the concept of “rewilding”… For me, it’s meant slowly — over the last few years — building up a big, rangy collection of RSS feeds, that let me check up on hundreds of electic blogs and publications and people. (I use Feedly.) I’ve also started using Fraidycat, a niftily quixotic feed-reader that lets you sort sources into buckets by “how often should I check this source”, which is a cool heuristic; some people/sites you want to check every day, and others, twice a year.

Other times I spend an hour or two simply prospecting — I pick a subject almost at random, then check to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. (There usually is, running on free warez like phpBB). Then I’ll just trawl through the forum, to find out what does this community care about? It’s like a psychogeographic walk of the mind.

Another awesome technology for rewilding my attention, I’ve found, is the good old-fashioned paper book. I go to a bookstore, pick up something where it’s not immediately obvious why it’d appeal to me, then flip around to see if anything catches my eye. (This works online, too, via the wonderful universe of pre-1923, freely-accessible ebooks and publications at the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books. Pre-WWI material is often super odd and thought-provoking.)…

Step away from algorithmic feeds. In praise of free-range curiosity: “Rewilding your attention,” from Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99).

See also “Before Truth: Curiosity, Negative Capability, Humility, ” from Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson)

* “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”

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As we revel in rabbit holes, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers

220px-Will_Rogers_1922

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“Public radio is alive and kicking, it always has been”*…

(From left) Renee Chaney, visitor Louisa Parker, Linda Wertheimer and Kris Mortensen, in the first All Things Considered studio in 1972

Public radio in the U.S. dates back to the birth of the medium, with the up-cropping of community and educational stations across the nation. But it was in 1961, with the backing of the Ford Foundation, the the first real national public radio network, devoted to distributing programming, was formed– The National Educational Radio Network.

Then, in 1970 (after the passage of the the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NERN was replaced by National Public Radio, which aired its first broadcast on April 20, 1971, covering Senate hearings on the ongoing Vietnam War.

But the NPR we know was born a couple of weeks later, 50 years ago today, when it broadcast its first original production…

NPR as we now know it began with the May 3, 1971, debut of All Things Considered, in an episode covering, among other items: an anti-war protest, barbers shaving women’s legs (due to “the decline in business with today’s popularity of long hairstyles in men”), and addiction.

The Morning News

Hear that inaugural outing– an aural time capsule– here.

* Harold Brodkey

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As we tune in, we might recall that today is World Press Freedom Day, observed to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists in Windhoek in 1991.

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“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable… On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”*…

Avviso from Antwerp dated 26 Dec 1663

The birth of commercial journalism: from Andrew Pettegree‘s wonderful The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself. (Via Rafat Ali)

* “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” – Stewart Brand, in conversation with Steve Wozniak at the 1984 Hackers Conference

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As we muse on the news, we might recall that it was on this date in 1944 that Harry S. McAlpin made history when he became the first African American journalist admitted to a White House press conference.

Even though he was admitted to the press conference, McAlpin and other Black reporters still faced racism by press committees that controlled credentials for Congress and the White House.

Time Magazine reported in 1944: “For the first time, a Negro newsman was admitted last week to the President’s regular press conference, granted credentials … [to] Harry McAlpin of the Atlanta Daily World (circ. 23,000) and the Negro Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

“Reporter McAlpin went into the conference without having been accepted by the Congressional Galleries’ standing committee or by the White House Correspondents’ Association, which ordinarily pass upon an applicant before credentials are issued. No Negro has ever received their approval…

McAlpin was among the founders of The Capital Press Club, because in the 1940s the White House Correspondents’ Association and the National Press Club practiced racial segregation, barring African American journalists from membership…

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 8, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Just remember, turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page”*…

The remarkable Robert Caro– the author of The Power Broker (a biography of Robert Moses) and the four (of five planned) volumes on the life and work of Lyndon Johnson– has won nearly every literary honor, among them the Pulitzer Prize for biography (twice); the National Book Critics Circle Award (three times); the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and the National Humanities Medal, (given to him in 2010 by a big fan, President Barack Obama). He is even a “living landmark,” according to the New York Landmarks Conservancy. So his archives and papers are sure to be a treasure trove…

Early last year the New-York Historical Society arranged to acquire Mr. Caro’s substantial archives, including the files for his Johnson masterwork and for “The Power Broker,” which examined how one unelected official, Robert Moses, used his political wiles to reshape the New York metropolitan region.

But as Ms. Bach, a curator for the society, would learn, the Caro records extend much deeper into the past — back to when he was a young newspaper reporter — revealing hints of the compassionate rigor that would one day earn the writer international acclaim…

So much of Mr. Caro’s research never made the page. For example, he interviewed all the key aides to Fiorello La Guardia, who served as New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945. Yet only a minuscule fraction of that research appeared in “The Power Broker.”

This is one reason he wanted the archives to be accessible to the public. The unpublished materials extend well beyond Moses and Johnson to encompass much of American life over the last century, from the streets of New York City to the rutted roads of the Texas Hill Country — to the marbled halls of the United States Senate.

“Years of observation,” he said, by which he meant more than a half-century…

Robert Caro’s notes and files move into an archive: “What We Found in Robert Caro’s Yellowed Files.”

* Robert Caro, quoting an early mentor, Alan Hathway (managing editor at Newsday, Caro’s first reporting gig)

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As we do the work, we might send thoroughly-researched birthday greetings to Samuel Hopkins Adams; he was born on this date in 1871. A investigative journalist, he began his career at the New York Sun, then McClure’s (where he was a colleague of fellow muckrackers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. But it was at Collier‘s that he had his biggest impact– probably most notably his expose on patent medicines, a series of 11 articles that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Adams also wrote fiction. His most popular work in his own time was Revelry (1926), based on the scandals of the Harding administration. (He followed it with Incredible Era [1939], a biography of Harding.) But perhaps his most enduring piece of fiction was the magazine story “Night Bus” (1933), which became the basis for the marvelous 1934 film It Happened One Night. A man of many enthusiasms, he also wrote other biographies, (largely historical) non-fiction, and even “risque” novels…

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“Exorbitant privilege”*…

Economic history books will commemorate the era we currently live in as the second wave of financial globalization, following the first wave during the Classical Gold Standard period. Our era is characterized by an unprecedented expansion of global financial flows. Partly, these flows form the counterpart to global value chains and the globalization of trade in goods and services. In the last few decades, however, they have been increasingly decoupled from the real sector. The financial infrastructure that enables this expansion is the international monetary system…

In its current shape, [the international monetary system] has a hierarchical structure with the US-Dollar (USD) at the top and various other monetary areas forming a multilayered periphery to it. A key feature of the system is the creation of USD offshore – a feature that in the 1950s and 60s developed in co-evolution with the Bretton Woods System and in the 1970s replaced it. Since the 2007–9 Financial Crisis, this ‘Offshore US-Dollar System’ has been backstopped by the Federal Reserve’s network of swap lines which are extended to other key central banks. This systemic evolution may continue in the decades to come, but other systemic arrangements are possible as well and have historical precedents. This article discusses four trajectories that would lead to different setups of the international monetary system by 2040, taking into account how its hierarchical structure and the role of offshore credit money creation may evolve. In addition to a continuation of USD hegemony, we present the emergence of competing monetary blocs, the formation of an international monetary federation and the disintegration into an international monetary anarchy…

Americans tend to take the global primacy of the U.S. Dollar for granted (indeed, often complaining about the current account imbalances to which huge quantities of off-shore dollars lead). But there’s no mistaking that this system has been been hugely advantageous to the U.S. Yet, as Steffen Murau (@steffenmurau) explains, it may not last: “The evolution of the Offshore US-Dollar System: past, present and four possible futures.”

See also Mernau’s “International Monetary System” (from whence, the image above), and Ben Bernanke’s “The dollar’s international role: An ‘exorbitant privilege’?

* Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (then the French Minister of Finance; later French President), referring to the benefit that accrues to the U.S. as a result of the U.S. Dollar being the world’s reserve currency

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As we count our blessings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly completed her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg’s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York World‘s correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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