The Problem With Broad Editorials That Everyone Reads

July 16, 2012

As it is known to do, the New Yorks Times recently published an eloquent opinion piece. The topic was “the busy trap”. Those who run around lamenting (bragging) how much they have to do in their cluttered little days, the argument went, are more often than not just dealing with self-imposed schedules and would do themselves a favor if they recognized this and shut up about it and took the proper steps to create some Me Time.

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” writes Tim Kreider. (He, of course, makes an exception for people with three jobs fighting to make ends meet.)

This is the hammer meeting the nail and categorizing busyness as “a hedge against emptiness” no doubt gave a lot of folks a big fat pause and will make them hesitate before lamenting (bragging) in the future — and perhaps drop a few items from their schedule. It’s a point that probably resonated most on the coasts (and with Times readers) and, predictably, the piece caught fire on the wires, clogging Facebook, Twitter and inboxes, along with drawing hundreds comments on the article itself.

But in a lot of ways, I think that this actually doesn’t foster a healthy discussion, but hijacks it. The opinion pieces that go viral across the demographic matrix, as this piece did, cover the ideas everyone already ponders or discusses. They examine the obvious gears of society. It’s not like he made an argument on the nuances of the capital gains tax. He talked about work-life balance. Fairness, internet addiction, acknowledging death, cell phone etiquette, the beauty of life, all resonate for obvious reasons. When a writer finds the words (and soapbox) we’d always wanted, we want to propagate the message because we feel like we own a little part of the piece. Language — not recognition — had limited our expression and now someone unchained those words.

But how hard is it to see that someone’s — or your own — stress and “busyness” is self-induced? It’s an important topic, but what did we actually learn? Nothing new came to the table. Kreider argues something that any hard-working person knows and feels. He just does so extremely well and under the banner of the New York Times. So we read it and say, “Yes! Thank you, Grey Lady! To the Facebook-mobile!”

The greatest influence on someone is their peers. People change because of a friend’s advice or behavior. But when someone does not want to change their ways — as most of are wont to do — they’ll look for a loophole. And here’s the catch. With other op-eds with embedded personal advice, the next time you point out to a friend that their suffocating schedule is self-imposed, they’ll just roll their eyes and give a retort all too familiar with Times readers:

“Yeah, I read that article too.”

And the discussion ends. Your opinion has been sourced. Because its followed with an implicit,

“So be quiet. It’s not your opinion you’re preaching, it’s some other dude’s (– and I’m going to keep right on with my busy schedule).”


Trying Again: Firing Up Garling Files

June 22, 2012

Okay.

I’m going to fire up Garling Files again.

[Disclosure: I just had tea that I thought was decaf. It wasn't. There's a chance I'm wasting your time and I'll write a post like this one again in 7 months, apologizing that I broke your heart for not delivering, while you shake your head and mutter, "Didn't even notice, jerkoff."]

Yet I have been wanting to fire this sucker up again. I absolutely love writing for Wired but like any scribe, you start to get a hankering to write 413 words — and then publish those exact 413 words. That said, I’m going to steer clear of tech nitty gritty, unless there’s a bigger picture at play. Plenty of other stuff going on these days.

Also, it’s not going to work like last time where every Friday I have a crisp post or short story for you. The release cadence will change. Let’s just call it “erratic” for now. And unless I’ve got a real head of steam, posts will be shorter.

Alright. Less talk, more walk. You get the picture. See you in a post soon. Or in 7 months.

(PS: I’m also doing this so my most recent post — for the last 9 months — isn’t about Steve Jobs dying anymore.)


Why Wouldn’t We Care As Much If Bill Gates Had Died?

October 7, 2011

Sadness is probably the most fortified of our emotions. So my point here is not to adjust it in anyone. Like many, I was somewhat surprised by how Steve Jobs’ passing moved me. Yet, considering this country’s current mood towards powerful CEO’s, I did find the general outpouring a little strange. I don’t say this to tear down Steve Jobs, disrespect those who knew him or even make a statement about business ethics. I’m just pointing out that while we’re occupying Wall Street, we’re also holding iPhone vigils.

One of Jobs’ first moves as CEO of Apple (the second time) was to abolish Apple’s charity programs. Even when he died, with a net worth of about $8 billion, he was still known for being tight-fisted. Then COO, now CEO, Tim Cook made over $59 million in 2010 and much of Apple’s senior management makes well over $10 million just in salary. Apple is the world’s richest company that doesn’t deal oil, and I don’t have to tell you that its products are slightly, shall we say, expensive. In any other industry, Apple and Jobs would be skewered for these practices.

To think of it another way, would we have shown such an outpouring for Jeff Bezos of Amazon or even Bill Gates. Obviously not. Bezos founded and navigated Amazon with the same steady ruthless vision everyone loved Jobs for. Gates has impacted – granted, arguably – the modern computing world as much as Jobs. Except image-wise, Gates sat in the front of the classroom, Jobs sat in the back.

In Steve Jobs’ own word’s, his “devices don’t change the world.” Yet Gates has set up one of the largest foundations in history whose stated goal is to do just that. And seems to be. Do we care less about Gates simply because his devices aren’t “cool” – and infuriate us sometimes?

Again, I’m not trying to adjust anyone’s sadness – just put it in perspective. Except for a couple of very touching stories, I honestly couldn’t put my finger on a pulse of the grief other than, “The guy who made my ridiculously slick phone/music player/computer just died.” If Jobs had ridden around the world tossing them out in town squares, this would make a little more sense. But you paid for that sucker. In fact, compared to their competitors, you really paid for that sucker. By most accounts, Jobs “wasn’t in it for the money” and by just eyeballing the guy, I believe that; he didn’t prance around on yachts or buy islands. But Apple shareholders sure were and the sole job of any CEO in America is to increase the company’s stock price. That’s why the board brought him back in. They knew he could do it. Call it vision, call it inspiration, call it dogged determination, Steve Jobs did that job better than any in history. But for all our capitalist leanings, that’s never been a reason to publicly mourn someone.

My first computer was a Apple IIGS. I practically had my first iPod installed in my eardrum. I’m going to get an iPhone 4S. I type this on a MacBook. I love Apple devices and I loved and was awe-struck by the way Jobs methodically changed computing. But yesterday, I finally had to stand back and ask myself whether if perhaps, almost unconsciously, the greatest product Steve Jobs ever marketed was himself.


Garling Files Update

August 26, 2011

As many of you know, I accepted a full time position at Wired.com last week. (I had been an occasional contributor before.) This was my first week on the job and it’s been great. I can’t internetly discuss what the position will entail yet. But Wired will be expanding into new areas of coverage and I’ll be one of the journalists helping lead that charge. The new site/blog/whatever you want to call it will launch in late September.

In other Garling news, that is way way cooler, I got to interview Joe Montana briefly earlier this week. Click here for that.

If you want to keep tabs on the other sports columns/interviews that I write/record, click here, then click “Become a Fan” next to my name. (You may have to sign up to the site) You’ll get an email each time I publish something.

Garling Files should be back in action next week. If you missed last week’s, click here.


The Reciprocity of Haight Street

August 19, 2011

[Note: This was a submission made to Longshot Magazine, a publication that gives writers 24 hours to write on one theme; in this case it was "debt". It was quite the mad rush of interviewing and writing. Here is a PDF version if you'd prefer to read it that way.]

“It’s all in the approach.” That’s what I think to myself as I walk up Haight Street. You can ask anybody just about any question if you approach it the right way. I’ve been blessed (or damned) with a dry, baritone voice so my questions always come across as slightly more direct than intended. That, and the almost inescapably poignant nature of the question, will be working against me. I have the habit of getting into friendly but boisterous debates with random people, like cab drivers, but have learned to smother the poignancy of a debate, like questioning their union’s motives, without drawing anger.

So why shouldn’t I be able to have a conversation on a tense subject with a homeless person? My curiosity is honest. I really want to know the answer.

I do my best to remember this as I pass throngs of tourists. They’ve come to the famed ground zero of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the hippie movement and Haight-Ashbury; a woman walks out of a store with a $30 tie-die shirt folded over her arm. Soon, through the crowd, I see a man with a clipboard moving from passerby to passerby. He approaches each person with a limp and his head low.

I slow my gait.

“ ‘Scuse me young man, can you spare some change for the homeless?”

“Sure. You mind if I ask a few questions too?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says, almost stately.

His name is Mark. I notice that Mark’s left eye doesn’t open. There are other scars across his face, but no swelling or open wounds. Just divots from a tough life. I ask him about the program outlined on his clipboard; he gives me the breakdown of how my five dollars just funded a week’s worth of meals for someone; not to mention, it netted him $1.20. I ask him how long he’s been homeless and he proudly tells me that he’s been “on the street” for three years now.

“Do you drink?” I ask.

“Sure I like a drink now and then; I won’t lie. What, you don’t?” Mark doesn’t get angry, but he’s certainly heard the question before.

We talk about his shelter and donations, and finally I wind around to my question. “So, in your own words, Mark”—I’d decided on this preamble to soften the directness— “Why should people give you their money?”

A moment passes.

Through one eye, Mark sizes me up and decides I’ve asked a simple question. He taps his clipboard. “You helping someone, man. Why you think?” He nods across the street. Three rosy-cheeked teenagers sit on the sidewalk; one smokes a joint as another asks a passerby for spare change. “Them boys, like that, they ruin it for the rest of us. Ruin it. I’m trying to make something happen. I wear a tie every day. I don’t know what they doin’.”

We talk a moment longer and soon I say goodbye; almost before we’re done shaking hands Mark shows a Japanese couple his clipboard and asks if they can spare change for the homeless. They decline. I realize that I didn’t think to ask how many five-dollar donations he gets in a day; and in turn, how many $1.20 commissions he pockets.

~

When I’d left for Haight Street that evening, my girlfriend had told me to “be careful.” Though, I wasn’t worried. Haight Street is crawling with policemen and most of the homeless, unless they are too far out, keep the peace. They occasionally yell something obscene but usually just ask passerbys for money. That’s really it.

But the fact that the question of “why should I”—without “Get a job!” underneath—should induce a tense moment, perturbs me. Most anyone I know would look at me tentatively if I told them what I was doing. A trap seems to ensnare us into believing discussing homelessness is inherently haughty. If you live a reasonably comfortable life, how you can you ask questions of, in any way, someone sleeping in an ally without coming off as judgmental—even if you are truly curios? We’ve instituted a standard where you’re supposed to fork over the money, if you so choose, and keep moving. But someone is asking for money; why shouldn’t I request honest reasoning? Asking “why” is the one question we should always be allowed to pose; it’s the root of getting a handle on what’s around us.

I go less than a block before coming upon a girl sitting against a stoop. A big bull terrier, reminiscent of Spud McKenzie, lays next to here.

“Spare change,” she asks me.

She takes my dollar with a hand inked in letters of a strange alphabet; I can see the end of a tattoo sleeve on her right arm. With the deftness of a magician, she makes the bill disappear within the folds of her jacket.

“Mind if I ask you something?” I say.

She shrugs and asks, “spare change?” of someone behind me.

Her name is Maggie and her dog is Chance; Maggie took ownership of her about a year ago. I wonder, to myself, if the United States is the only country so wealthy that homeless people can often care for dogs.

“How long you been here?”

“Where?”

“On the—”

“Spare change?” she asks a passerby over my shoulder. “On the streets? Three years.”

A passing suspicion warns me that this is a standard reply, but I chalk it up to coincidence. “What were you doing before you—”

“Hi Paul,” Maggie says sweetly; girlie echoes drift through the weeds of her smoky voice.

Paul cannot weigh more than a hundred pounds. His denim jacket and pants are covered in buttons with ironic slogans. “H-hi, hi M-Maggie,” he says and they discuss an upcoming festival nearby and the free food. Paul shifts as he talks, as if he had bad blisters on both feet. His jaw is soft, if not deteriorating. He takes no interest in me.

“He local as well?” I ask after he moves on.

“Yeah, he usually stays just— Spare change?” The passerby gestures helplessly at his pockets and keeps walking and Maggie asks someone else.

“How many people pass by in a day?” I ask, nodding with a little friendly contempt at the guy who’d claimed empty pockets.

“I dunno. Lots.”

“Let me ask you, in your own words, why should people—”

“Hi Seven Trees! Long time no see, man!” The girlie echoes are back in her voice. Seven Trees has the shakes in both hands and struggles to steady a backpack. I decide I’ve worn out my welcome and say goodbye to Maggie. She doesn’t look at me as I leave. Part of me wonders if Mark would claim Maggie is ruining it for him too.

~

I try to talk to a few more people: Eye contact hinges on the financial request; I donate a dollar; then my timer counts down from ten seconds before I’m being ignored. Money is my icebreaker, but it doesn’t get me anything after. My hopes of an honest, non-contemptuous approach to gain mileage and a few moments of honest discourse begin to seem hollow.

Appropriately, ironically, at the next block I meet Be Serious. (He got tired of “the name the government gave” him.) His just arrived in San Francisco from Seattle and tells me further questions cost a dollar. I donate enough that I’m given leniency to ask a few extras. He is older and with the leather face of man that’s slept on a lot of sidewalks.

“So let me ask you, Be Serious,” I say when I think I’m on my last question before having to pay again. “Why should people give you money?”

He doesn’t flinch; Be Serious is raising money to buy a bag of pot for a dying friend. “Man’s never had a good joint in his life!” The reason he made his way down to the Bay Area is for the San Francisco Homeward Bound Program. Provided they have some proof of friends or family at the destination, the program provides the homeless with a bus ticket out of town. Be Serious plans to visit his childhood friend in Philadelphia and deliver the green goods. Then he plans to “put two crystals on my parent’s graves.” Why crystals? “Just because. One on each.”

I give him a couple extra dollars, shake his hand and decide I don’t care if he’s lying. I’m unsure what Mark would think about Be Serious’s story.

~

A kid in broken jeans and a black hoodie whispers, “Nuggets, shrooms, LSD,” as he passes me. I don’t acknowledge. The crowds, as I reach the west end of Haight Street near Golden Gate Park are starting to thicken and such clandestine narcotic offers are coming more frequently.

I duck into one of my favorite bookstores for a quick break, browsing blurbs and scanning chapters. I eventually notice Andrew Moore’s coffee table book in the corner, Detroit Disassembled.

Rich photographs of broken warehouses, abandoned gymnasiums, collapsing factories and displaced residents of Highland Park and Detroit’s East Side in front of their boarded homes fill the pages. I turn the book over: $50 even.

~

I need to break a ten if I’m going to keep talking to people. I walk a block, past a man laying on the sidewalk listening to the Giants game on a handheld radio, and into an empty convenience store. Wheel of Fortune is on an old 14-inch television overhead as I approach the register. “Can’t access the cash unless you buy something,” the counterman says. I know this isn’t true, but grab a Cadbury egg and pay. As I’m putting my change away, the man with the Giants game on the handheld, who’d been laying on the sidewalk, sets a drink on the counter.

“I’ll get his too,” I say, hoping for an opportunity to strike up a conversation. He glances at me, then he turns away.

The counterman looks at him with disdain. “This nice man bought your drink. And you will not say anything—Jamie?” As the counterman bags the can, what I thought was just an energy drink displays “12 ABV” near the rim.

“Last week…we had a bag and it had nine thousand in it…and nine thousand,” Jamie says, his hand shaking as he grabs the drink. He limps past me with his radio and continues muttering “nine thousand.” Sounds like the Giants are going into extra innings.

I exit behind Jamie and start wondering what frustrates me more; that I just purchased alcohol for a derelict; that I won’t get a coherent moment to talk to him; or that, all in all, my question of “Why should someone give you money?” is starting to seem stupidly “N/A.” The thought of no tangible answer to “why” begins to gnaw at me; there must be something, a general feeling. Even people like Mark, who are working to make their money, and those like Maggie who are simply asking for it, must have some cohesive thread to their reasoning. Their day consists of extracting a perceived societal debt; what ties it together?

In my head, I see two parallel planes. They slide past one another with a single contact point; the coefficient of friction is “sure, here you go” or a helpless shrug towards the pockets. That’s it. The interaction is binary and the reasoning, on either side of the plane is irrelevant; “why” is irrelevant, both for receiving—and giving. The transaction just happens or it doesn’t—and as often happens when something is boiled to the bones, it takes on the aura, not of hippies and homeless, but something far more brutally survivalist.

~

The end of Haight Street, perhaps perfectly, is capped with a Whole Foods and a McDonalds on either side. A woman with a cashmere sweater and knee-high leather boots, walks her German Sheppard into the Whole Foods parking lot. She ties him up near a sign that advertises Coho salmon at $8.99 per pound and heads inside. I debate getting something myself, but instead cross over to McDonalds’ side of the street.

The questions from those sitting on the ground has changed now, noticeably. What had been a low rumbling of drug offers is now a full symphony. They make it abundantly clear exactly why people should give them their money.

“Buds, Nuggets, Shrooms, LSD, Medication?”

Everyone is making eye contact. Everyone is up front, in your face, not shy. Young girls, who look they’re breaking daddy’s heart, stand nearby watching the exchanges. I overhear one aggravated dealer say to another, “Come to San Francisco and see it all. If they don’t like it, they can go back where they fucking came from!”

I’ve strayed from where I want to be, the areas not crowded with drug dealers, and begin back down Haight Street.

“Find what you’re looking for, man?”

I realize that the aggravated dealer, with his nuanced anti-tourist stance, was talking about me; now he’s talking to me.

“Yeah, thank you,” I say.

“Okay, have a nice evening.” His tone says fuck you.

I wish him a nice evening as well.

~

I see Maggie again; she’s moved, likely having been told to vacate the stoop she was in front of. A second dog has come over to play with Chance and Maggie is feeding it. “Hey Maggie,” I say.

She stares back at me without a hint of recognition. I smile, and still nothing from Maggie.

I soon see Jamie, still with Giants on the radio and my drink in hand. He paces back and forth, aimlessly, in front of a store that sells t-shirts advertising “Darth Vader for President” and other such ironic slogans.

I send my eyes downward and begin walking swiftly, avoiding any and all interactions.

“Excuse me, do you have a moment for Planned Parenthood?” a girl with a clipboard asks sweetly.

I look up, startled, “Sure” and ask reactively, “Why should people give you money?”

She flinches at my directness. “We’re out to raise money, because the Congress is passing new laws that will shut down clinics. So we want to stop it. Minnesota has had twenty-seven of twenty-eight…”

I listen to her blankly until she finishes. “So how do I donate?” I ask.

She folds over the pamphlets on her clipboard and reveals a gigantic payment form with home address, email and credit card information. “You’d start by filling—”

“Can I just give you some money?”

“Sorry, we can’t accept cash.”

“Really?”

“No. We need to capture your information with this form.”

“I’ll do it online when I get home.”

“Okay, have a nice day.”


The Catch-22 of Online Identity

August 5, 2011

Google and Facebook have made waves with their policies on online identity: essentially, one person should have one identity. My name is “Caleb Garling” on Facebook and Google and that’s the extent to which I should be allowed to be “present” on Facebook and Google. Sure, I can register new ID’s with different email addresses but IP detection and switching recognition technology is getting good enough, along with comparing the friends and activities of the profiles, that social networks can suspend the more suspect account, or both, quite quickly. One person gets one online presence is the growing rule.

That makes a lot of sense, on some level. First, it keeps data in order. When someone says Facebook has 750 million users, you automatically think 750 million people (humans) are using Facebook. But really, 50 million of them could have two profiles. And that’s just at the marketing level; when you get into the revenue engine of these companies—targeted advertisements—it becomes imperative that they have a clear view of exactly who someone is. They don’t want obsessed-with-online-gaming-You and everyday-You living separate lives.

Also, this keeps people more accountable for what they say and do. Many large media and news websites have been requiring a Facebook, Twitter or Google login to comment on articles. If you want to say something, it’s going to be tied back to your bigger persona; you can’t hide behind the wall of a false account. As an Internet writer, I can tell you that I’ve received “feedback” from readers that I don’t necessarily appreciate—and there is a predictable correlation between viciousness and traceability of identity. The real world doesn’t usually work like that; if you want to get nasty, expect eye contact or at least to sign your name on a letter.

But is this sort of accountability really like real life? That you—YOU—exist online in one form, in one presence.

I’m not so sure that it is.

We may have one body, one brain, one set of eyes, ears and a single piehole, but I bet you don’t act the same at work as you do when you’re sharing a late-night bottle of wine with friends. I bet you pull back or unleash your politics depending on the company. I bet you don’t act the same in a job interview as you do on a road trip with your siblings.

Obviously.

People act differently by situation. So why should the Internet hold you hostage to a singular persona? Simply because we are a singular person? I’m not so sure if the mind and the body are that intricately linked.


Airbnb Is Latest Victim in Internet’s Quest to Rid the World of Personal Responsibility

August 2, 2011

Airbnb is a website designed to pair people searching for a vacation home with prospective vacation homes and owners, not unlike VRBO or even Craigslist. In case you’ve not heard by now (or do not track Bay Area drama, like 99.9% of the world), in June a woman named “EJ” rented her home via Airbnb to a psycho. While EJ was away and the psycho stayed at her place, they corresponded a few times; all was fine, the plants were being watered, the floors swept, etc. Nothing to worry about.

Turns out, the whole time, this psycho was destroying EJ’s home, smashing walls, tearing up couches, stealing things, you name it. Like I said, a psycho.

Like any Bay Area resident, EJ blogged about it and since then, the Internet-o-sphere has taken up her crusade. The psycho has since been arrested.

But what really caught fire on the wires was putting the screws to Airbnb: Not only had they responded slowly to EJ’s claims, but they should have been better about preventing the situation in the first place. Since then the CEO has written a letter to EJ and their entire customer base noting Airbnb dropped the ball, will be instituting far more protective measures and will now insure each rented house for up to $50,000 (which surely won’t be abused in the future).

Typically, I try to hedge my opinions; there are few absolute truths on this planet, but in this case, I’ll say it: That is bullshit. Airbnb is no more responsible than the phone company that supported EJ and this psycho’s communications, than the email servers that carried their messages, than the car company that made a car that transported this psycho to EJ’s home, than the grade school teachers that taught this psycho to “play nice.”

You know who is responsible for the destruction of EJ’s home? The psycho. And you know who is responsible for dealing with it? EJ. It’s that simple.

Sure, Airbnb should turn over all information to the police—which they did—and of course its nice to have a company on your side in these cases, but the notion that they are at fault is ridiculous. The argument of “Well, people should feel safe renting their home!” is bogus as well. Renting your home is not a right; it a luxury—like being able to camp or walk the city streets on a dark night. I don’t blame the National Park Service if a bear eats me; I don’t blame the cops if I get mugged. I put myself in that situation; it’s on the bear, the mugger and me.

There are bad people in this world. They’re going to slip past security now and then. And that’s just the way it works. If you choose to rent your home to someone, you’re taking a risk. Airbnb had measures in place that kept out 99 percent of the psychos, if you don’t like the potential danger of that remaining one percent, don’t rent your home. Airbnb makes claims to set you up with vacation homes. That is their stated job; they never purported to vouch for the integrity of everyone on their site. This is the Internet; is it a newsflash to anyone that there are bad people using it?

People are hot coffee. Most times delicious, but you do get burned occasionally.

Often at the hands of hyper-communication, I can’t help but notice that empathy becomes the enemy of responsibility. When we’re faced with strife, we call friends for advice—and if we’re honest, to hopefully hear, “It’s not your fault.” Sometimes this is correct and sometimes it isn’t. That the Internet took up torches and pitchforks (against a corporation!) in EJ’s case does not make her right. It simply indicates that there are plenty of people with torches and pitchforks that wouldn’t take responsibility in the same situation. These crowds reach such a critical mass that the idea that they’re wrong simply becomes impossible because so many people are in the crowd in the first place.

This is no different than the same idiots that can’t acknowledge we evolved from monkeys or that the globe is, regardless of reason, getting warmer. We gravitate towards beliefs which line up with our preconceived view of the world and make us feel safest. And no likes to believe that they’re at fault when the shit hits the fan.