Uber Forever

Numbers are boring, except when they’re not, like when Uber, a five-year-old company that has accumulated over a billion-and-a-half dollars in investment capital and is worth eighteen billion dollars, stands to raise another billion and double in value from six months ago, to between thirty-five and forty billion dollars. This, Bloomberg helpfully points out, puts Uber at “about 1.5 times the capitalization of microblogging service Twitter Inc. and at about the same size as Salesforce.com Inc., Delta Airlines Inc. and Kraft Foods Group Inc.”

Though both Uber and Delta are in the people-moving business—Delta being the world’s busiest airline, with over a hundred and twenty million passengers last year—it would seem to make more sense to put Uber in the context of cars: Bloomberg also notes that Hertz, the largest rental car company in the U.S., has a market capitalization of $11.3 billion, while the entire U.S. taxi business generates some eleven billion dollars a year.

The Shopping Games

Eat Spinach, Not Kale

Recently, the general public, especially younger people in the cities, have begun to embrace strong flavors previously thought of as icky, like bitterness, fermentation, funk, fat and umami, which are now all prized flavors. This is good. But Americans, as always, are unable to do anything in moderation, and, hypnotized by the constant racket of food television, food blogs, restaurant blogs, and have-you-tried-this, insist that if strong flavors can be good, then even stronger flavors must be better. This is why we can’t have a hoppy IPA; we have to have the hoppiest quadruple-IPA science can concoct. We can’t have a normal bowl of chili; we have to bump up the savory flavor with umami-heavy ingredients like marmite, soy sauce, and anchovies, and who cares if those flavors work together? And we can’t use spinach anymore, because there are greens that are stronger and more bitter, and thus better, like kale. Eating spinach is something your parents would do. Eating kale—stringy, bitter, aggressive kale—is the mark of an adventurous, flavor-forward connoisseur.

Intern Deluxe: The Rise of New Media Fellowships

My first unpaid media internship was in the summer of 2010. Like most college students, previous semesters spent whiffing on applications made landing one feel like a reward, regardless of pay—I’d move to New York and even have the chance to write (mostly) professionally. The “unpaid” part always loomed, but my friends and I made it work through varying levels of cost-cutting and couch-crashing. Besides, we were all believers in that age-old internship axiom: As stressful as working for free was, we’d be getting the experience and exposure needed to compete for real, paid jobs. The problem with “climbing up to minimum wage” as an employment strategy never really crossed our minds.

Unpaid internships, long a due-paying rite of passage for college students, became entrenched as a stopgap solution for employers with spots to fill but without the money to properly fill them.  This was (and is) very bad. In cases where full-time work was carried out under the auspices of internship programs, it was also illegal. And, as the ways that many unpaid internships violated labor laws became common knowledge, former interns began taking their employers to court.  The earliest lawsuits, filed around late 2011, challenged the argument that interns weren’t technically employees and didn’t qualify for protections like minimum wage because they were getting educational or professional benefits by being in the office.  After a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures was illegally using unpaid interns on the movie Black Swan in June 2013—the first major ruling against unpaid internships—a wave of lawsuits followed against media companies like Conde Nast, NBC Universal and Gawker Media. (A similar case against the Hearst Corporation, filed in 2012, is currently under appeal.)

The media industry adapted swiftly: Slate began paying its interns in December 2013; Conde Nast shuttered its intern program entirely; and the Times ended its sub-minimum wage internships in March. But other high-profile employers have turned to a new way to temporarily employ students or recent grads: fellowships.

Texts to My Super

These are real text messages to Alex, the super of my totally normal building. He’s great.

Hey Alex, we have a small leak under the sink! Can you come check it out when you get a chance?

— September 29, 2013

Hey Alex there is a REALLY weird chemical smell in the apt… Not gas, more like paint or plastic? It is too strong to stay here. Can you check it out tomorrow??

— December 4, 2013

Did you get a chance to check out that weird smell yet? I have not been back yet and I am worried about the apt exploding

— December 5, 2013

Perfume Genius’s Tacoma Sadcore

I once drove Bea Arthur to a radio interview in my Honda Civic, and reveled in the fact that I had her (good) ear for forty-five minutes. She didn’t appreciate it when I asked if she had been part of vaudeville; apparently my years were way off.

I opted out of personally driving the celebrity I was interviewing this time, a musician who some would argue is just as gender-confounding as Ms. Arthur. I selected an UberBlack (that’s their “high-end sedan”) to drive me and Mike Hadreas AKA Perfume Genius, to the Chateau Marmont, the most cliché celebrity interview spot in Los Angeles. Something about placing an unassuming homegrown artist like Hadreas in that absurd environment appealed to me. It didn’t fit Hadreas, but it might one day. Last week, he made his first appearance on Letterman, performing his hit single “Queen,” which Slate named the gay anthem of the year. (I also had him make a Grindr profile, above.)

Hadreas asked if we would see Lana Del Rey at the Chateau; she had just played at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery two nights earlier. I mentioned that Del Rey’s music has been referred to as “Hollywood Sadcore,” which one MTV journalist described as “what you get when you cross a woman who looks like a ’60s Playboy bunny with a song that sounds a little bit like Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Games’ sung through a PJ Harvey/Lykke Li filter…” How might one describe Hadreas? Perhaps what you get when cross a man who looks like a boy who dresses like a female executive with songs that sound like longing, despair, and, most recently, power. That’s Perfume Genius’s Tacoma Sadcore.

You live in Washington State but you chose to record Too Bright in Bristol, England. You also love British musicians like Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. What is it about Britain?

Shot Through the Heart

Last Thursday night, the governor of New York State and the mayor of New York City announced that the first case of Ebola had been diagnosed at Bellevue Hospital. The man—a doctor who had recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa—had fallen ill that morning, after a night of bowling in Williamsburg, they said. I live in Greenpoint, less than a mile away from the bowling alley he had been in just twenty-four hours earlier.

Hearing this struck fear in my heart. Not because I thought there was any real risk of me getting Ebola: I trusted the information the CDC reported, that Ebola can only be contracted from a person with active symptoms, and even in cases of a very sick person coming in casual contact with me, it would be relatively hard to contract Ebola. I am a fairly pragmatic person, capable of talking myself through the logical ends of various what-if scenarios. I have faith in modern medicine.

The fear wasn’t about me, though: It was for my nine-month-old daughter. The what-if scenarios, though only momentary, were extreme. For just one second, it seemed absolutely certain to me that she would somehow, devastatingly skirt the odds and come down with Ebola.

A thing I have learned about myself-as-parent: When my child is involved, it takes some extra arguing with my brain for rationality to prevail.

Bonfire of the Inanities

Courtesy NYPL

The story arrived in November of 1992—more than a year after the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” premiered on MTV’s “120 Minutes.” It was nine months after the Toronto Star asked: “Why is Seattle the rock capital of the world?” It was two months after the St. Petersburg Times told everyone’s grandparents that “the scene is dead.” That’s the moment that the New York Times finally went big on grunge—a trend that reporter Rick Marin called “a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon.”

In “Grunge: A Success Story,” Marin summed it all up:

This generation of greasy Caucasian youths in ripped jeans, untucked flannel and stomping boots spent their formative years watching television, inhaling beer or pot, listening to old Black Sabbath albums and dreaming of the day they would trade in their air guitars for the real thing, so that they, too, could become famous rock-and-roll heroes.

But the real absurdity, Marin suggested, lay in the fact that the entire “trend” of grunge was a fabrication, and he carefully unpacked the ways in which the media had built up the story of a trend.

A Plug for the Leek

Pity the poor onion. It is ubiquitous but always in the background, a key but supporting player in nearly every savory dish. It is the bassist of the food world: without onion, food tastes tinny and lacking, but nobody really wants to eat it by alone. This is a mistake, because the onion and all its allium relatives have a flexibility that few other vegetables have: a texture that can be either crisp or luxuriously soft, a flavor that can range from pointedly savory to sugary sweet, and an unusual physical structure that can be molded into whatever shape the cook desires. Of the alliums, my favorite, an underused sandy gem of the vegetable kingdom, is the leek.

Leeks aren’t fantastically popular here, but they should be, because their flavor and texture are like a refined, grown-up version of regular onions. Their individual leaves are thin and delicate, almost like noodles, and they can be used to add onion flavor to dishes that would often simply end up tasting like onion if a typical yellow or red onion was used. That’s why they’re often used with mild primary ingredients like potatoes and eggs; they augment rather than overpower. But they have abilities far beyond the supplemental.

Leeks are ridiculously hardy plants; their season is actually just beginning now, and some say their flavor will actually peak sometime in January, when most other plants, like most New Yorkers, have given up and are just Seamlessing falafel every other night. Leeks also grow in an interesting and very artificial way; though they look like stems, the part we eat is actually a tightly curled bunch of leaves, kind of like brussels sprouts. When they grow, to cope with the garbage winter weather they love so much, the part of the leek exposed to the elements becomes tough and hard and inedible—so farmers have to actually keep topping it with soil, leaving only an inch or two of leaf exposed to the air, in order to maximize the amount of leek that remains underground, pale white and delicious. Interesting, right? Bring that cool fun fact up at your next party.

The Internet’s Invisible Sin-Eaters

In this month’s Wired, Adrian Chen visits the Philippines to speak with professional content moderators—the people who scrub all the dick pics and beheadings from the world’s biggest sites before they reach users’ eyes. It’s job that, he says, “might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites.” Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario focusing on commercial content moderation, is quoted in the piece. They caught up over chat.

AC: One thing I would have liked to include in my piece was how you got interested in studying content moderation.

SR: Well, it’s a pretty simple story. I was perusing the NYT one day and there was a very small story in the Tech section about workers in rural Iowa who were doing this content screening job. They were doing it for low wages, essentially as contractors in a call center in a place that, a couple generations ago, was populated by family farms. I call it “Farm Aid Country.” I say this as a born and raised Wisconsinite, from right next door.

So this was a pretty small piece, but it really hit me. The workers at this call center, and others like it, were looking at very troubling user-generated content (UGC) day in and day out. It was taking a toll on them psychologically, in some cases. I should say that I’ve been online for a long time (over twenty years) and, at the time I read this, was working on my Ph.D. in digital information studies. I was surrounded at all times by really smart internet geeks and scholars. So I started asking my peers and professors, “Hey, have you ever heard of this practice?” To my surprise, no one—no one-had.

This was in the summer of 2010. Right there, I knew that it wasn’t simple coincidence that no one had heard of it. It was clear to me that this was a very unglamorous and unpleasant aspect of the social media industries and no one involved was likely in a rush to discuss it. As I interrogated my colleagues, I realized that many of them, once they were given over to think about it at all, immediately assumed that moderation tasks of UGC must be automated. In other words, “Don’t computers/machines/robots do that?”