Monthly Archives: January 2009

Good news for people who love good news

When this blog-off began, PJ was a recently-unemployed ex-intern and I was an underemployed web writer and magazine intern. Then, yesterday, PJ announced that he had landed a probationary radio gig. And today, I landed respectable quasi-employment at a magazine. How different we are from a week ago! I can’t go into detail now, but this must be said: if PJ and I are any indication, blog-offs indirectly lead to employment. Cautious optimism for all.

So ends my final blog-off post. I leave you with a confession: I still haven’t heard Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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Computers from Sierra Leone

Last year, in one of my classes, we discussed witchcraft beliefs in Sierra Leone, where some hold that there exists an invisible city populated by cannibalistic elites who prey on ordinary people and enjoy the finest in luxury goods and technology. Our discussion focused on how closely the modern-day witch city mirrors popular perceptions of Westerners and corrupt local leaders – they hoard money, exploit the poor, and offer only the most rudimentary of technological advances while keeping the best for themselves. One of the examples of this, perhaps surprisingly, was the One Laptop Per Child program, which aims to provide children in the developing world with extremely basic computers – the critique being that the West is only willing to provide the barest trappings of laptop technology.

Walrus blogger Jon Evans has a good post on OLPC, turning its latest organizational woes into a broader critique of the idea itself. His best point:

Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone. Tiny villages in Africa have GSM coverage and cell-phone stalls run by local entrepeneurs. You can bank by phone from the Colombian jungle, or get market prices texted to you while fishing off the Indian coast. Mobile phones have permeated the developing world to such an amazing degree that it makes no sense to try and reproduce that existing cultural and technical infrastructure from scratch.

Also, for your amusement.

Finally, in response to my irrefutable charge that Vanderbilt is a sloppy, non-fact-checky “citizen journalist,” the accused writes:

Rather, I was simply referring to the fact that finding free internet in Montreal, let alone ANY URBAN CENTER, is ridiculously easy, and Nelles’ inability to do so may not be as valid an excuse as he made it out to be earlier in the week.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Vanderbilt would write something so classist, since he’s an elitist Eagle Scout from San Francisco. I was not in an “urban center” at the time. I was in my hometown, a place that could be reasonably described, if I may borrow phrasing without attribution, as “a hellhole. An absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn’t stand to spend a weekend there. It’s just an awful, awful sad place, filled with sad, desperate people with no ambition. Nobody, and I mean nobody, but me has ever come out of that place. It’s a genetic cesspool.” So no, I wasn’t able to run out the door, MacBook in hand, in search of some ironically-named wannabe Algonquin Round Table, you cheese-eating West Coast Democrat.

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Is Vanderbilt incompetent, or just lazy?

Production and Design editor Will Vanderbilt is on a crusade, in the whimsical style of a certain masked avenger best known for studiously avoiding eye contact with any former Daily editor he encounters. But considering Vanderbilt’s sloppy performance so far in documenting this blog-off, is it any surprise that his latest piece includes a substantial factual error?

Yesterday, Vanderbilt referred to me as “unemployed,” which is untrue, and therefore defamatory. Although he later made a reluctant correction, the sloppiness doesn’t end there. Vanderbilt implies today that, when I was unable to write a daily blog-off post earlier this week due to internet problems, I could have simply headed to one of Montreal’s many wireless cafes. But a simple fact-check would have revealed that I have not been in Montreal for over a month. A three-second Facebook search would have confirmed this, as would a quick discussion with one of Vanderbilt’s more professional colleagues, such as Max Halparin. Will Vanderbilt correct this glaring error? And what reforms will be put into place to avoid catastrophes like this in the future?

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Bidenmania

The sheer scale and spectacle of today’s inauguration made me uneasy, and Jay-Z’s ball performance was a big letdown, but here was a highlight: As the national anthem began, Joe Biden was taking a picture of the crowd for one of the Obama daughters. He turned to give her back her camera, then looked around absentmindedly, apparently completely unaware he was supposed to have his hand on his heart and sing along like a Real Patriot. After a few seconds, he realized what was up. Biden is ridiculous.

In more important news, one Will Vanderbilt has joined the blog-off fray with a handy chart and summary. This should probably win him the blog-off, since he apparently has plenty of free time and an Obamamaniac-esque devotion to his ex-non-hierarchical superiors.

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Of Gaza and Facebook, part II

Vogt fires back, both barrels blazing. He concedes a few points, but takes issue with my last one. PJ, I’ll respond to each of your final points individually.

Yes, it’s true that photography, writing, and film do not get us all the way to the experience of lived war. But a James Nachtwey, a Hannah Arendt, a Philip Gourevitch, or a George Orwell get us as a lot closer than a bunch of inane, trivilializing back-and-forth between undereducated Westerners.

Of course they do. I don’t think I implied absolute equivalency between status updates and more, uh, traditional forms of text. (Did I actually just write that sentence?) Obviously, there is more to an Arendt or Orwell work than to some Qassam count on my news feed. My point was only that it’s silly to damn the Facebook format simply because it can’t do justice to tragedy.

Great writers are better able to capture inhumanity and devastation than most, so it’s unfair to compare Eichmann in Jerusalem or 1984 to a status update. In fact, it’s unfair to compare 1984 to anything that’s not a great work of literature. A lot of writing is bad, and bad writing cheapens human tragedy, through sentimentality and exaggeration and whatever else. We know that great writing is better than expressing yourself via news feed, but is sub-par reportage somehow innately superior to a status update? I’m not so sure. Though we’re immune to it by now, there is something viscerally inhumane about packing death counts into headlines and punchy ledes, but that’s what journalists do. We’re uncomfortable doing the same thing on Facebook – admittedly, I’m uncomfortable doing the same on Facebook – but this feeling needs to be interrogated.

They also demand that we engage the history of these places and weigh the stakes in these conflicts in a serious way. At the very least, I feel like they’d consider it misguided to reduce something as terrible and complex as this conflict into deaths v. rockets status-updates.

I think my above point, about good writing v. bad writing, also applies to the first sentence here. As for the second point, we could always email Gourevitch and Nachtwey to see what they think. But I’d like to think Arendt, for one, would be on my side. PJ brings up Arendt’s banality of evil – and what’s more banal than social networking? What’s more banally evil than a military launching a war and ending it on a political timetable? Facebook’s crudeness is fitting. The deaths of innocent Gazans have already been so cheapened by political calculation that a status update has little to add.

Drew, I suspect you probably agree with me, but are just using that big brain of yours to argue another side. Am I reading you right, Nelles?

I’m not sure what I think. Beyond a campus setting – where Facebook is powerful because it’s all students think about – I’ve always been suspicious of social-networking-as-activism. As I watched a fruitless Israel-Palestine back-and-forth crop up on my news feed, I posted a snarky Gaza status of my own. But, I think, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, and it comes apart under scrutiny. You’re right that this is partly a thought exercise, but I think I might have convinced myself.

Finally, I can’t believe we’ve burned up all this server time arguing about Facebook. I guess I started it. What a world.

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Of Gaza and Facebook

This is supposed to be a blog-off, but the only real back-and-forth between PJ and me has been flirtatious sniping. (Sarah says we have a special relationship. Yoo-hoo!) So how about a conversation?

A little while back, PJ’s Facebook status was something to the effect of: “PJ can’t wait for the Middle East conflict to be solved through Facebook status updates.” (That wasn’t the exact wording, but he has since deleted it, presumably because he risked alienating all his friends who had dumb Gaza-related statuses.) Everyone rails on political-engagement-via-Facebook, but I’m not sure PJ’s sarcasm was so well-placed.

There is undeniably something cheap-feeling about Facebook activism; it seems like you’re doing something, though you’re not really doing anything. The problem is that it’s hard to quantify the effect of any political action you can name. The chance of any one vote deciding an election is near zero, so why vote at all? The same can be said for street demonstrations, letter-writing, and so on – the chance of a single contribution making a difference is a longshot. And yet, we still do these things, and sometimes, en masse, they get results.

Facebook is a political tool like any other, albeit one that knows everything about you and records your personal information to sell to advertisers. “Drew Nelles reports: In 24 days 1312 Palestinians killed by Israel including 417 children & 108 women, 5340 injured. Donate your status http://apps.facebook.com/supportgaza” feels undeniably inappropriate, because it’s reducing a vast tragedy to an online vanity plate. But it’s really not considerably different from any other form of passive activism – it’s just a bit more novel. Facebook is still, relatively, new.

There’s no way Facebook can truly convey carnage and misery. Few things can. Not even photography, or writing, or film – nothing does justice to firsthand experience. But maybe that’s the last thing we should worry about. Israel started and ended the Gaza war on a purely political timetable. The inanity of a status update can’t compare to the crassness of bloodthirsty political leadership.

So, what do you think, PJ? And Sarah, Leah, Dave, Kelly, and anyone else in the peanut gallery? (Dave and Kelly: you guys have commented on PJ’s weblog, but not mine. What gives?)

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The view from up here

Canadians like Barack Obama, but not his plans. That seems an awfully apt wrap-up of the man’s whole public persona; he is charming enough, eloquent when reading from a script, victorious in a way that is symbolically, if not practically, meaningful, but also quick to reverse himself and sell his supporters short in the name of mending fences.

The Canadian obsession with Barack Obama has never made much sense, and with the inauguration a day away, it still doesn’t. On the Canadian political spectrum, Obama is neither a Liberal nor a social democrat. (No word yet on how he feels about Quebec sovereignty.) He is a conservative – make that a Conservative. He roughly aligns with the Conservative Party on most major issues, and even leans to the right of Stephen Harper on a few. Health care, gay marriage, and economic regulation come to mind, but chief among these is Afghanistan.

When Obama first announced his opposition to the Iraq war, he declared that he does not oppose all wars. (Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Rahm Emanuel, apparently, don’t oppose any.) But Iraq and Afghanistan are the same, though one was launched at a time of political invincibility for its architects. So the wise political hawk entrenches the occupation of the latter at the expense of the former. He trades one violent adventure for another.

A majority of Canadians oppose military participation in Kandahar in one form or another. Canadian troops will largely leave the province, by political and popular consensus, in 2011 – not soon enough, but an improvement on some endless engagement. Yet, in a way unique to this country’s relationship with the US, Canadians are envious of our neighbour’s political leadership. It may be no wonder that Jack Layton postured as an Obama-like change agent in the last election, but it’s also no wonder that even the lifeless Stephane Dion managed a few good digs at that idea. We like Obama – just not his policies.

[Note: My internet wasn’t working last night, so I wasn’t able to fill my contest quota. I’ll post something else tonight to make up for it, okay, PJ?]

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