Category Archives: Websites Can Be A Punch In The Gut

This article has everything I look for in an article

I grew up next to a funeral home in Easton, Maryland. At least once a week a white truck lumbered down the alley, pulled into our neighbor’s rear parking area, and left with mysterious boxes labeled BIOHAZARD and INFECTIOUS WASTE. Because I was a kid, I usually watched these proceedings from a tree limb or a swing or a bicycle seat, and I didn’t think too much about the cargo’s hazardous contents. But I was vaguely aware that the boxes issued directly from the garage that doubled as a mortuary, the place where the hearse delivered all the bodies. And I assumed that strange things happened in there that probably had to do with bloodletting. Eventually every dead body that arrived at my neighbor’s house was disassembled into the tidy corpse that would be displayed at the front of the home and the remains that would be shuttled out the back.

This Atlantic article by Saira Khan, “Smelling Death: On the Job with New York’s Crime-Scene Cleaners,” was so grim and unnerving that it brought back my whole childhood. (Kidding, Mom. Sort of.) For me, a red plastic bag full of carnage is like Proust’s petite madeleine. So I’m reading along, just savoring my heartwarming memories of the morgue next door disgorging body parts to men in hazmat suits, when I hit this passage:

Anything that gives personality to the dead affects crime-scene cleaners—things like a neatly folded jacket hanging over a chair, a Victoria’s Secret bag from a recent shopping trip, a pot of macaroni and cheese with the wooden spoon still in it. “It’s like someone literally hit the pause button on someone’s life,” says Baruchin. “It’s actually one of the most serene things you could see, a preserved moment in someone’s life, but when you think about the death part of it, it can get upsetting.”

Renner adds, “It can be very surreal, or freaky, kind of like a snapshot because you can actually picture what the person was doing right before they were killed or died.” Both men say they prefer to know as little as possible about the victims.

I guess I never thought about a crime scene as capturing a moment. Detectives do this with a specific objective in mind: they’re trying to decipher the etiology of a homicide. But when the body is gone and there’s only the immediate aftermath to contend with—those frozen objects all around—it’s tempting to imagine what the dead were doing, seeing, and generally experiencing at the moment their lives were cut short. Like right now I’m sitting at my desk with an empty bowl of watermelon (at least her last meal was one of her favorite foods), an empty glass of water (a shame that she was thirsty though), a to-do list with many open items (this delay on buying a bicycle helmet proves that she was courting death), and photos of my loved ones (man, she’s gonna miss them). Unfortunately one of the prostitutes living in the illegal strip club/brothel across the street has pointed a rifle through my window and shot me through the ears. Does this moment of dying represent me? Do these scattered, splattered objects on my desk tell a story? Can they communicate a life to a cleaning crew? If I just step away for a moment, can I ever come back?

Maybe we should treat all moments in time and objects in space with the delicacy and absorbing interest we’d grant those that belonged to the dead. I can hold up my sticky fork that once pierced a watermelon. What if this is my last fork? What do its little tines tell me about the life that I’ve lived? I can smile back at my nephew as he grins up at me from a photograph. Where did you come from, you little goof? And where are you going? I can contemplate the tree through my window before the prostitute’s bullet tears through its leaves. It would be nice to be a kid perched in that tree, heedless of the worlds that are drained from people when they die. These surroundings may not form a crime scene (yet—for now I’m still in the whore’s good graces), but they are worthy of attention. And it’s indeed criminal that one day they will all disappear.

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life. (Proust, Remembrance of Things Past)

Shitty things happening in Virginia and other internet broadcasts

Internet Hate/Love

The Village Voice foresees social media platforms that won’t invade user privacy:

But as the business press and slavering investors look on eagerly at Zuckerberg’s coronation, many believe that the seeds of Facebook’s downfall have already been sown. The company might have brought people together like never before, but exploitation is woven inextricably into its DNA. Facebook makes its money by commercializing personal information, watching its users, analyzing their behavior, and selling what it learns.

. . .

“I like to compare Facebook to communication in preschool,” [Sam] Boyer says. “The Facebook wall is an incredibly unsophisticated social space. People just spew stuff out. In adult social situations, we read cues, we create norms, we create rules that are there for the purpose of creating conversations that move us forward. That’s what we want to build.”

Omnivore urges us to “Think of the Internet,” especially its corrosive effect on our sex lives:

In offering her rules [for how to manage a romantic relationship], “Rose” was introducing a theme that would emerge time and time again as I spoke to other students who also told me that using Facebook could lead to a break-up. Several students said that they had deactivated their Facebook accounts either to preserve their romantic relationships or to make future relationships possible. . . . [T]hey believed that Facebook transformed them into anxious, jealous, and monitoring selves that they did not want to be. After disconnecting from Facebook, they felt they shed these unwanted selves. Facebook was constantly providing information about their identity and others’ identity that they believed should be a basis for relationships, and yet was too vague to determine the actions which should accompany this information.

The New York Times encourages my solitary confinement. You are always welcome in my apartment, just not in a physical sense. I am not accepting corporeal visitors (nor cats) at this time.

New communications technologies make living alone a social experience, so being home alone does not feel involuntary or like solitary confinement. The person alone at home can digitally navigate through a world of people, information and ideas. Internet use does not seem to cut people off from real friendships and connections.

Speaking of hermitic caves, this is probably my next career move:

. . . I invented a simple scientific protocol. I put a team at the entrance of the cave. I decided I would call them when I woke up, when I ate, and just before I went to sleep. My team didn’t have the right to call me, so that I wouldn’t have any idea what time it was on the outside. Without knowing it, I had created the field of human chronobiology.

Non-scandals and Society

W magazine covers Swedish nannies and America’s most expensive mansion in “Revenge of the Billion Dollar Divorcee”:

“I’m the most insecure person you could ever run into in your entire life,” [Suzanne Saperstein] says, taking a sip of white wine. “When I’m watching a football game and the players get into a huddle, I think they’re talking about me. They’re saying, ‘Oh, God. Did you see that dress? That hair?’”

Gawker tries and fails to make a scandal, unless the scandal is how frumpy we William & Mary girls can be on school days. From the comments section:

A few years back Sam Kashner wrote an article about his exploits with half the W&M student body. His book was such hilarious bullshit and the details didn’t make sense to anyone who’s ever even been there. He claimed that there were scantily dressed young coeds hanging around campus trying to seduce him everywhere he went; most W&M students wear leggings/skinny jeans, baggy sweatshirts, and fake Uggs during winter and shorts, baggy t-shirts, and flip-flops in the summer. For some bizarre reason they all have Middleton hair or attempt Middleton hair but otherwise you’d never see a group of people who gave less of a fuck about appearences.

Books and Authors

Amazon’s new imprint is the bete noire of the publishing world:

Established authors, for the most part, do fine selling through online bookstores. It’s new authors who lose out if browsing in bookstores becomes a thing of the past. Advances for unproven and non-bestselling authors have already plummeted, by all accounts. Literary diversity is at risk.

Six creative writing teachers defend their calling:

In law school, students analyze past cases, construct arguments, and write opinions, so that eventually they can do these things well enough to practice law. Could they do this outside of law school? Yes, but law school facilitates the process, and the law professor offers guiding thoughts along the way. Writing instruction is no different. The goal is to offer the occasional guiding thought or idea, the craft lesson, a few instructive models, and the occasional critical nudge, while all the time encouraging the student to practice writing, practice revising, and practice, practice, practice as a means to improvement. It works.

Simone de Beauvoir gets naked.

Ben Marcus gets interviewed:

Up until this book, I wrote in a very, very laborious way. Maybe 100, 200 words a day, not that I ever counted. I was interested in the sentence as a work of art, as a piece of sculpture, as something that was a kind of technology to open up huge feelings in people. I still love and believe in that as a pursuit. Some of my favorite writers do that.

But I think maybe I felt disgusted with all of my own limitations and wanted to try to outsmart them, or sneak around the kinds of things I had been doing to exhaustion and to boredom. So, one of the big things I could change without changing anything — meaning an adjustment I could make that would not necessarily impact my actual aesthetic in anyway — was to write quickly and not necessarily give a shit if I wrote really functional, almost deliberately bland, language. Like, “Denny got up out of his chair and left the room,” or, “He got a cup out of the cupboard.” These were the kinds of things that in the past I would just fucking agonize over.

Shitty Things Happening in Virginia

Our legislature has some notably alarming ideas about women’s health. After a thorough reading of the Virginia Code, Waldo Jaquith points out that under the new personhood law, “Fetuses may be put to work on the family farm, perform domestic work, or volunteer for the rescue squad.” (§ 40.1-79.01) If only to keep these fetuses from stealing our jobs, you can sign a petition here.

Lastly, the trial of former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely is about to enter its third week. A few blocks uphill from my apartment, stricken families gather together in a courthouse while impersonal satellites beam updates to the rest of the nation. My mother learned how to use Twitter so she could follow the daily courtroom feeds. I also find that it’s difficult not to be voyeuristic during this trial, especially since my little sister and two of my brothers played lacrosse in college. But of course all this outside interest accomplishes nothing. No matter what the jury’s verdict, the ultimate case remains: this afternoon an adored young woman is to be found not at home with her family or hanging out with her new boyfriend or goofing off on the playing field, but rather on a Wikipedia page entitled ‘”Murder of Yeardley Love.” And George Huguely, whose name will always be associated with his dead lover’s, will have to live with that. And both sets of parents will continue to bear the weight of the tragedy.

In which my husband solves the newspaper publishing crisis

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the future of journalism residing in “hyperlocal” news. Hyperlocal news steps in where the doomsday scenario leaves off: Newspapers fire experienced writers, writers have no place to go, newspapers die out, the end is nigh. Yet we still crave news that is streamlined and directly relevant to our lives. So instead of scavenging a national paper on its deathbed, we might read a blog written by an out-of-work reporter who lives down the street, a meaningful voice that in turn aggregates other meaningful voices.

This is where Darren Hoyt comes in. He and Ben Gillbanks, an English colleague, just launched Dispatch, a WordPress blog theme for writers and journalists. An add-on to the Mimbo Pro WP theme, Dispatch gives any journalist with $20* an online platform that looks and feels like a professional newspaper or magazine website. So with minimal effort and financial commitment, you can launch a respectable blog for posting pictures and stories of your tour in Afghanistan or your cat or whatever. God, my husband is on the cutting edge.

Tech Dirt tells us why hyperlocal news makes sense, and, by extension, why you should be interested in Dispatch:

The technological and economic constraints of newsprint meant that the whole process had to be done by full-time employees and carefully coordinated by a single, monolithic organization. But the Internet makes possible a much more decentralized model, in which lots of different people, most of them volunteers, participate in the process of gathering and filtering the news. Rather than a handful of professional reporters writing stories and an even smaller number of professional editors deciding which ones get printed, we’re moving toward a world that Clay Shirky calls publish, then filter: anyone can write any story they want, and the stories that get the most attention are determined after publication by decentralized, community-driven processes like Digg, del.icio.us, and the blogosphere.

Other tech people weigh in on hyperlocal news here and here and here.

In my own hyperlocal news, I want to punch that word “blogosphere” in the gut. And then make sweet love to it.

Here’s a “for instance”: Your wife needs a new website ASAP so she can compete with the New York literati! You just created an awesome website! What’s your next move?

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

*Keep in mind that Dispatch is an add-on to Mimbo Pro, which costs $79. Still, that totals $100 for a website with amazing functionality and versatility that you might otherwise pay a designer thousands of dollars to develop for you. I feel like I am one step away from an infomercial right now.

Web 2.0 and all my extra brainage

This is a profoundly geeky thing to blog about, but perhaps it will widen my fan base to include online gamers and Wikipedians, my most neglected demographic.

Web 2.0 guru Clay Shirky recently published a book entitled Here Comes Everybody. I am dying to read this book due to the persuasive strength of “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,” a talk the author gave at a nerd conference last week.

Shirky believes that modern society functions with a massive cognitive surplus, a surplus we primarily devote to drinking liquor and watching TV. But recently Web 2.0 – the gospel of society’s consuming, producing, and sharing information instead of just idly absorbing it – has engaged this cognitive surplus in a more worthwhile way. Now people can devote millions of hours to debating the planetary integrity of Pluto on the internet, whereas 15 years ago those same hours would have been spent on sitcom reruns.

This, believe it or not, is progress. Information is becoming more inclusive than exclusive, more interactive than inactive, more loving sex partner than life-size blow-up doll. But we can still lament the ’90s brain drain of thousands of MTV hours, time that I could have passed blogging, or that you could have passed reading and commenting on my blog.

Everything an online social network should be

Congratulations to the brains behind the presumably fake Frrvrr.com.

Frrvrr uses cutting-edge technology to identify topics you might be interested in based on your browsing history, public records, health records, email activity, legal filings, and web profiles. Frrvrr then directs you to those topics and connects you with similar-minded people.

It’s enough to strike fear into the heart of every web surfer.

When you sign up, Frrvrr’s AvaTroll Accelerator™ will download itself onto your desktop and begin cataloguing your web history, or “webtory,” from the past eight months. Once it gathers all of your information, it creates a personalized avatar of you based on the snapshot of you gleaned from web usage and sites visited.

No one wants to look into that mirror. Frrvrr is the absurd conclusion to the booming personalization business. Technology will know you better than you know yourself. You’re not surprising anyone with your love for awfulplasticsurgery.com. That love was mapped out years ago when your web surfing algorithm incorporated your encrypted medical records. And incidentally, we think you’re gay.

It’s the miracle of life!

Egg to chicken. AKA breakfast to dinner in five seconds.

So gross, and yet so amazing. Is that you, God, all covered in mucus and hair?

Irena Sendler

I wish there was an appropriate segue here between my post about the vagina clown car and this post about a 97-year-old Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children from the concentration camps during World War II. But there’s not and there never will be, and that’s just how life is.

Mrs. Sendler, code name “Jolanta,” smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the last three months before its liquidation. She found a home for each child. Each was given a new name and a new identity as a Christian. Others were saving Jewish children, too, but many of those children were saved only in body; tragically, they disappeared from the Jewish people. Irena did all she could to ensure that “her children” would have a future as part of their own people.

Incidentally, Mrs. Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, but lost out to Al Gore. I would hate to be on the prize selection committee and have to make those tough choices, but it would probably make me feel a lot better about humanity to read all those outstanding CVs.

Family histories of childhood friends

This morning I caught this moving story on NPR about an archaeological dig taking place on a former slave plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, not far from the town where I used to live. Thousands of slaves inhabited Wye House Farm across the Chesapeake Bay from the 1650s onward. Many of the Maryland slaves joined the Union Army during the Civil War and then came back to the old plantation to farm their own parcels of land and to build their own churches and schools. Today, ancestors of the slaveholders and ancestors of the slaves live down the road from each other. They are all watching the archaeological dig with great interest.

Harriet Lowery, a local resident and descendant of Wye House slaves, wholeheartedly supports the dig. She says (and the written quote doesn’t do her words  justice – you have to listen to the broadcast):

It’s very hard for us to find out our roots a lot of times and so to see something so real – to hear about something so real – gave me a sense of pride…it gave me a feeling of being in touch with my ancestors.

NPR journalist John Ydstie writes that:

Lowery has been tracing her family history in the area, hoping to find some small consolation that the lives of her ancestors contained some joy.

In his memoirs, Douglass recounts the killing of a slave named Demby — likely one of Lowery’s ancestors — by an overseer at Wye House Farm named Gore. Douglass wrote that Gore whipped Demby, who ran to the river to soothe his wounds. He refused to come out, and Gore shot him.

Lowery says she was deeply touched by a few small beads and pieces of pottery excavated on the Long Green and brought to St. Stephens for display.

“It was amazing to me that they had a necklace or earring. And there was one particular bowl … it reminded me of a bowl my mother had,” Lowery said. “It’s comforting to me to know at least there were some peaceful times.”

You can read more Maryland slave narratives here.

Plastic in our oceans, plastic in our bodies

When will American industrialists realize that they have created a chemical Molotov cocktail? If people don’t care about the environment, they can at least care about their gay babies and their back fat.

“Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated—and it’s a very small amount—every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” [Captain Charles] Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon: Even when plastic is broken down to a single molecule, it remains too tough for biodegradation.

Controversial websites I want to launch

1. Website that makes the correlation between multi-vitamins and acne.

2. Website about how our contaminated water supply is making babies gay.

3. www.eatingpiewithcelebrities.com – Photoshopped pictures of me binge-eating with famous people.

Those are the only ones I have been wanting to launch for a while now. Lengthening the list would just be being facetious.