The Random Restaurant Tour (XXV)

At any given moment, there’s always a hot restaurant in town.  It’s the place that has gotten some favorable press, that has a certain distinctive buzz about it, that everyone is itching to try.  In Columbus, the restaurants don’t come any hotter than Service Bar, which has been getting great press — including a recent rave from no less than the New York Times.  Last week, Kish and I decided to check it out.

Service Bar is part of Middle West Spirits, located just off Fifth Avenue in the zone between the northern part of the Short North and the southern edge of the Ohio State campus area. It’s in a bright, fresh space, with room for a row of tables, a long common table, a private dining room, and a bar.  The wait staff is terrific — friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.  A fine wait staff is a pretty strong sign of fine dining to come.

When we were deciding on an appetizer, we looked down at the row of tables where we were sitting and every one — without exception — had ordered the “cheesy poofs.”  These are a mound of colossal pork rinds served with pimento cheese spread that you slather on.  Our waiter said they seem to be a favorite for patrons, so we gave them a try.  They were greasy and cheesy and good, but the order was just too much food for the two of us, and we wanted to save room for our entrees.

We both ordered the Mongolian glazed short rib for our entree, and here the meal really hit its stride.  The short rib was meaty and luscious, topped with an interesting assortment of mini cucumber slices and other items, and surrounded by dollops of a delectable sauce.  The challenge was to carefully assemble each forkful to feature meat, the different flavors and textures of the toppings, and a healthy dousing of the sauce, and when you successfully met the challenge the taste combination was incredible.  But to take the whole dish a step further, the meat was accompanied by three “bao knots” — moist, doughy, chewy morsels of bready delight that were a perfect complement to the meat.  I think I could probably eat a thousand bao knots and never think of the words “low carb” again.

After a main course like that, we had to get dessert, and went for the carrot cake with our after-dinner cup of decaf.  The cake was light and delectable, served with a schmeer of meringue, some crunchy items, and a delicately flavored ice cream.  It ended the meal with a bang, and was the kind of dessert where you find yourself surreptitiously scraping the plate multiple times just to get a final taste before you reluctantly allow your server to take it away.

Service Bar lived up to the hype, and then some.

Rethinking The American Home

The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece on the annual effort of the National Association of Home Builders to present its vision of the “New American Home.”  Since 1984, the NAHB has built a New American Home somewhere in the United States.  The underlying concept is that, in the process, the NAHB will try out the latest building and energy technologies, consider the functionality of different floor plans, and innovate with new materials.

dji_0028-editBut what’s happened is that the New American Home has gotten a lot bigger and a lot more elaborate.  The first New American Home was 1500 square feet, but since then the standard has changed considerably.  The 2018 version, pictured at right, is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight — 8! — bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage.  The 2019 version will be 8,000 square feet with an “inner sanctum lounge.”  Prior versions of the New American Home have included amenities like a waterfall off the master bedroom suite.

The article wonders whether the concept of the New American Home hasn’t gone off in the wrong direction.  Rather than going for increasingly elaborate McMansions out in the suburbs, why not focus on condos, or smaller houses in urban settings?  Why build “homes” that exceed 10,000 square feet and have 8 bathrooms when American families have grown smaller, not larger?   These are all good questions in my view.

For years, home ownership has been a core part of the American dream — but that doesn’t mean the home has to be some sprawling monstrosity on an acre and a half of property in a gated community.  When immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1800s they built neighborhoods like German Village, where I now live — a neighborhood right next to downtown Columbus, where the houses are small (ours is less than 2000 square feet) and are placed cheek by jowl with commercial buildings and apartments.  It’s a great community, and just about everything we need is within walking distance.  We love the convenience and the neighborhood feel.

I like living in a smaller space.  We don’t need 10,000 square feet to rattle around in, and I wouldn’t want to pay what it costs to get that amount of personal space, either.  I think it would be interesting if the NAHB revisited the New American Home concept and tried to develop homes that are smaller, less expensive, and closer to the downtown cores, and don’t contribute to still more suburban sprawl.  Wouldn’t home designers welcome a challenge to build homes that don’t require endless space, where creativity is needed to make use of every square foot?

The Times’ Anonymous Op-Ed

In case you’ve missed it, the New York Times decided to publish an anonymous op-ed piece from a “senior official” within the Trump Administration.  Basically, the anonymous writer wants us to know that although he — and, according to him, others working in the executive branch — consider President Trump to be incredibly impulsive, erratic, unprincipled, uncivil, unwise, and prone to rants, the “senior official” and others who share his views are working behind the scenes to thwart the parts of the President’s agenda that they think are ill-advised and not in the country’s best interests.

person-place-thing-episode-31-melissa-harris-perry0The “senior official” says he’s not part of the so-called “deep state,” but is instead part of the “steady state.”  He says he and other like-minded members of the Trump Administration “will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”  I suppose the “senior official” thinks such statements are supposed to be reassuring to those of us who didn’t vote for the President and oppose his policies, but I wonder:  is it really better that unelected individuals, clad in anonymity, are making important, behind-the-scenes decisions based on their own personal views of what they think is best?  President Trump — or for that matter, President Obama, President Bush, and any other President — clearly is answerable to voters, his political opponents, and the news media for his decisions, actions, and policies; anonymous “senior officials” who are supposedly steering policy aren’t.  When you think about it, the hubris of the “senior official” is pretty breathtaking, and his anonymity and lack of accountability aren’t reassuring, they’re alarming.

The Times explained its decision to publish the op-ed as follows:  “The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”  The key part of that description, from my perspective, is that the senior official’s job would be jeopardized if he were identified as the anonymous op-ed writer.  No kidding!  And, if it were any other President we were talking about, wouldn’t everyone recognize that of course the President should have the ability to fire someone who confesses to being part of an organized resistance and acting to routinely undermine his decisions?

The Times introduction, quoted above, says publishing an anonymous op-ed is a “rare step.”  I’d be interested in knowing whether it has ever been done before.  Allowing people to express their opinions anonymously in the pages of the New York Times is like allowing internet commentators with screen names to take over the op-ed page itself.  As a journalistic matter, wouldn’t it be better to make the “senior official” an anonymous source and take any newsworthy information he provided and work it into a news story, as has been done for decades, rather than giving him a platform to voice his opinions because the Times thinks they “deliver an important perspective”?

I hope we are not setting a dangerous precedent here.

Useful Advice From The Gray Lady

The New York Times — known to those in the journalism world as the Gray Lady because of the traditional gray appearance of the columns of newsprint on its pages — has won Pulitzer Prizes galore for its investigative reporting and is viewed by many as the newspaper of record.  But it also routinely provides useful tips about health, food, and how people should live their lives.

chinese-red-headed-centipede-ecdb2c89-5e3f-4880-8280-44a581ebc4e-resize-750Consider this recent article, where the headline reads:  “Maybe You Were Thinking About Eating Raw Centipedes.  Don’t.”   The article is accompanied by an alarming close-up photograph of as Asian red-headed centipede, which the Times caption curiously describes as “looking delicious.”

Really?  I know that those of us here in the Midwest probably aren’t in on the latest culinary trends, but are people in New York really feeling the urge to gobble down creepy, chitinous creatures in their raw form?  In case you’re feeling so tempted, the Times urges you to restrain yourself — not because live centipedes in fact have a venomous bite, but because eating raw centipedes can cause the diner to become infected by rat lungworms that lodge in the brain.  After two residents of Guangzhou, China were infected after eating wild-caught centipedes purchased at a farmers’ market, researchers went back to the market and found that many of the centipedes for sale were teeming with lungworm larvae.  No doubt that adds to their delectable flavor.  Incidentally, the Times points out, you’re at risk of lungworms it you’re eating raw slugs or snails, too.

So, you’re going to have to limit your centipede consumption to centipedes that have been dried, reduced to powder, or soaked in alcohol.  Now that we’ve got that straight, we can go ahead with our daily lives.

Columbus (Surprisingly?) Makes The First Cut

I’ve written before about Amazon’s announcement to build a second headquarters facility somewhere in North America, and the efforts of cities like Columbus and San Antonio to attract the river of Amazon cash that would flow with the building of the giant company’s second HQ.  In all, Amazon received 238 proposals from cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico that wanted to be considered in the selection process.

downtown-columbusYesterday, Amazon announced the list of the locations that will be 20 finalists, and lo and behold, Columbus made the list.  San Antonio, alas, did not.

According to the New York Times, the selection of Columbus (as well as Nashville) to be among the 20 finalists was a “surprise.”  The Times contrasted the Columbus “surprise” with cities that were “widely expected to make the cut,” like Boston, Denver, and Dallas, “hip centers like Miami and Austin, Tex.,” and Los Angeles and New York, as “centers of the tech industry.”  Some people in Columbus were irked by the “surprise” reactions, which seem to have a lot more to do with our city’s historic “cowtown” image rather than the reality of the modern Columbus.  One Columbus publication, 614, chastised the Times for reflecting “regional snobbery” to “take a big poo on our small victory.

According to the Times article:  “The process will now shift into a new phase, with Amazon representatives communicating more directly with the finalist cities as they prepare to select a winner later this year — and perhaps with cities being even more outspoken about why they should be chosen. Emissaries from Amazon are expected to visit the finalist locations in person.”

It will be nice to have the Amazon emissaries come to Columbus to see for themselves what our fair city has to offer and hear about why it would be an excellent choice for “HQ2,” with its anticipated $5 billion in investments and 50,000 high-paying jobs.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll experience “surprise” when they stop by — or maybe they already know that Columbus is a great place, and that’s why we made the list of finalists in the first place.

Crossword Morning

It’s another grey winter day in Columbus.  I woke up early and started puttering around the house.  I picked up the German Village Gazette, our local weekly newspaper, saw it included the New York Times Magazine crossword, and thought: this is a perfect day to tackle a crossword puzzle.

I used to do crosswords from time to time — often on planes, if the people who sat in the seat before me hadn’t already marked up the in-flight magazine in the seat pocket — but it’s been years since I’ve dusted off the mental thesaurus and given it a go.  In the Webner clan, however, crosswords are a long and storied tradition.  Dad was a big crossword fan, always doing them with a back felt-tipped pen, and Aunt Corinne is an ace.  She would particularly like this one, because the unifying theme is grammar, and that’s her bread and butter.

If you haven’t done a crossword in a while, getting the knack again takes some time, but I got a few words and acronyms at the bottom of the puzzle, and it started to come easier.  Once I figured out the puns for the theme — i.e., “Santa’s nieces and nephews” = “relative clauses” — it came easier, and an enjoyable hour later I was done, and set my pen down with satisfaction.

The experts say crosswords and other mental puzzles help to keep the brain synapses sharp, and I think it’s true.  There’s a strong pun element to crosswords, of course, but the clues also often make you think of the world and the words in a different, slightly off-kilter way.  A three-letter word for “Bull’s urging”?  Red, perhaps?  Nope!  It’s a Wall Street “bull” that we’re supposed to think of, and the correct answer is “buy.”

Sometimes, thinking of things in a different way is a useful exercise.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016 (III)

This morning Kish sent me a link to the New York Times “Christmas Cookie Plate” — their listing of Christmas cookie recipes from the Times Cooking section.  It’s the kind of thoughtful gesture that makes her the best wife ever.

The Christmas Cookie Plate offers an impressive array of cookie recipes, but one in particular caught my eye.  I’m a sucker for spice cookies and have been making Dutch Spice cookies ever since I started doing holiday baking years ago.  The recipe below for Grammy’s Spice cookies, though, includes a lot of spice — plus heavy cream and Irish whiskey in the icing.  I’m guessing that Grammy’s house was pretty festive.

Grammy’s Spice Cookies

Ingredients:  2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened (some of which is used for cookies, and some for icing); 1 cup sugar; 1/4 cup molasses; 1 large egg; 2 cups all-purpose flour; 2 teaspoons baking soda; 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger; 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves; 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt; 3 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar; 1 teaspoon vanilla extract; 3 tablespoons heavy cream or milk (add more as needed); 1 to 2 tablespoons Irish whiskey (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick liners.  Using an electric mixer, beat 12 tablespoons butter with the sugar, molasses and egg until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Slowly beat in flour, baking soda, spices and salt.  Shape dough into walnut-size balls and place 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake until firm, about 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool on wire racks.

To make the icing, slowy beat remaining butter (4 tablespoons) butter with confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Beat in vanilla and enough cream or milk, and whiskey if using, to make a spreadable frosting. Use on fully cooled cookies.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016 (II)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016

Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

The Times And The Transcripts

The New York Times has published an editorial calling upon Hillary Clinton to release the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs.  It’s a good editorial and I’m glad they’ve done it, because maybe now she will finally do the right thing and release them.

This is a simple matter of transparency, which is one of those words that politicians like Hillary Clinton like to throw around, but don’t really mean.  When large Wall Street financial institutions are a political issue — and they are — and one of the leading presidential candidates has given three speeches to one of those institutions for a grand total of $675,000, transparency demands that that candidate release the transcripts of what they said.  It’s not a tough question, and the answer should be obvious.

27CclintonBHillary Clinton’s response is that we should trust her when she says she’ll be tough on Wall Street, and that she’ll release her transcripts if every other candidate, Republican and Democrat, releases the transcripts of every speech they’ve ever given for money.  That’s not exactly a leadership position, is it?   And Clinton apparently doesn’t recognize that one way you build trust is through transparency.  If Clinton released the transcripts and they showed nothing but her observations about international affairs, it wouldn’t undercut her attempt to convince voters that she will be a vigorous fighter against Wall Street excesses.  Of course, the apparent problem is that she said something more to the Goldman Sachs people — and that something more is what voters should be entitled to see.

Hillary Clinton seems to think that she is getting unfairly singled out.  I’m not aware of any other candidate who received so much money for so few speeches, or who, with their spouse, has amassed millions of dollars in personal wealth largely from giving speeches.  It raises questions that are unique to Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton.  The fact that Hillary Clinton isn’t willing to answer those questions tells us something about her secretiveness and her character, and it’s not positive.

 

Small Talk, Big Talk

The New York Times recently published an interesting article pleading for an end to “small talk.”  Written by a man who is dealing with the end of an important relationship and a plunge back into the dating world, it tells of an experience in Costa Rica that convinced him that we should focus more on “big talk,” and his successful experiments in doing so on first dates and, most recently, in the workplace.

The thrust of the article is that small talk — talking about your commute, or the weather, or the local sports team — is a meaningless time-waster, and everyone knows it.  Why not move directly to the big stuff, and really learn something important about the person you are talking to?  So the writer has taken to asking first date questions like “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” and “What place most inspired you and why?” and, during a business trip, asking a new colleague “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”

Businessteam at a meetingIf this is a new trend in social interaction in America, I’m glad I’m happily married.  I’m also glad I don’t work with this guy.

I happen to think that small talk serves an extremely useful social purpose.  Some people are eager to share intimate details about their lives with the world at large, and no doubt would welcome intrusive personal questions from somebody they just met, but most of us don’t.  If I were on a business trip with a brand new colleague and they asked me a question about how I fell in love with my wife, I would find such a question incredibly presumptuous and off-putting, and I wouldn’t answer it.  Sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to decide whether a workplace colleague will end up a close personal friend.  And it’s hard for me to believe that at least some women who were asked “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” on a first date wouldn’t groan inwardly, question whether they’ve been hooked up with a creepy potential stalker, and head for the exits as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Small talk allows you to get to know a person before you decide whether to broach weightier topics.  Sure, the substance of the small talk might be meaningless, but the nature of the small talk can tell you a lot about the person across the table.  Does the person have a sense of humor?  Does the person seem thoughtful or thoughtless, smart or dumb, well-mannered or crude?  Is the person so self-absorbed and egotistical that they end up talking entirely about himself?

And that last point is an important one.  People who immediately ask questions about “big talk” topics clearly want to share their own deeply personal experiences; they no doubt ask the pointed questions with the expectation that they will get the same question in return and then launch into their own stories.  There’s a fair amount of conceit in that; the lives of complete strangers just aren’t that compelling.  Small talk prevents me from being awkwardly inundated by the intimate affairs and feelings of people I don’t know.

I come down strongly in favor of small talk.

Boots On The Trail

Hey, have you heard about Marco Rubio’s “cute boots”?  What, you haven’t?  What’s wrong, don’t you read the New York Times?

rubio20bootsBecause the NYT is featuring three — count ’em, three — articles on Marco Rubio’s boots.  One bears the headline Marco Rubio’s Shiny Boots Stir Up the Presidential Race.  Another, by the “Times Insider,” is headlined Marco Rubio’s ‘Cute Boots’ and Other Campaign Issues.  And the third, by “First Draft,” is headlined Marco Rubio Reacts to Those Boots That Were Made for Talking.   Hey, I get it — that’s a play on the Nancy Sinatra anthem, These Boots Are Made for Walking!  Pretty clever!

And in case you haven’t had enough of Marco Rubio’s boots (I use his full name because apparently the NYT style manual requires that headlines bear a candidate’s full name when the subject of the article is footwear) from those three testaments to quality journalism by the publication that has pretensions of being America’s Newspaper of Record, you can run a Google search and find articles where the other Republican candidates are razzing Rubio for the coverage his boots have received.

As for the boots themselves — well, they’re boots.  To my untrained eye, they look vaguely like Beatle boots, rather than cowboy boots.  And in any case, who gives a flying fig about boots?  With the Middle East teetering on the brink, North Korea just claiming that it exploded a hydrogen bomb, and the stock market suffering through its worst start to a year ever, the New York Times thinks Rubio’s boots are worth three articles?  Have I somehow been transferred to an alternative universe?

If you’re wondering why America’s newspapers are struggling and losing circulation, look no further.

Mr., Ms., Or Mx.?

Recently the New York Times used the honorific “Mx.” — pronounced “mix” — at the request of one of the subjects of an article.  “Mx.” is a gender-neutral title, and thus some transgender people, or people who would rather not be assigned a gender at all, prefer it to references like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”

The Times‘ use of Mx. caused many of the current and former journalists among us — those who have had to worry about complying with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or the local paper’s version thereof — to wonder whether we’re on the verge of a change in how we treat courtesy titles.  The Times‘ associate masthead editor for standards says, “not so fast!”  In a piece about the issue, he says that “Mx.” isn’t in the stylebook — yet — but that the issue is an evolving one and the Times likely will change with the times.  (Pun intended.)  The article adds:  “In this as in other areas of language and usage, The Times is not looking to lead the way, set the rules or break new ground. Our hope is to reflect accepted, standard usage among educated readers.”

309863-53677-mr-mxyzptlkIs adding “Mx.” to the honorific mix (pun also intended) a big deal?  Nah.  I’m old enough to remember when newspapers added “Ms.” to the then-existing line-up of “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Miss,” after women understandably objected that using titles that reflected marital status in news articles was somewhat silly.  Some wags made dire predictions about breakdowns in social order, but “Ms.” entered the lexicon and the republic survived — and now, does any newspaper ever use “Miss” to refer to an adult woman anymore?

As the Times’ style piece points out, unlike “Mr.” and “Mrs.” — and “Ms.” which was a cross of “Mrs.” and “Miss” — “Mx.” is not an abbreviation of an accepted English term.  In a way, this is a liberating development.  Why should we forever be saddled with stodgy references that gained currency during Victorian times?  In fact, why shouldn’t we be able to use honorifics that have no reference to gender at all and instead more precisely suit our immediate mood and current position in the world?  As the Times noted, some think we should move to even more ambiguous honorifics, like “xe” or “ze” — but even if you stick with terms that start with “m,” and therefore will more likely be recognized as an honorific, you’ve got a big choice.

Consider some of these options to select from:

Mo. — When you’ve just converted on a third-and-long

Me. — When you’re feeling self-centered

Max. — When you’re feeling on top of the world

Mud. — When you’ve just done something incredibly embarrassing

Mem. — When you’re a white collar worker

Mug. — When you’re in the mood for a frosty adult beverage

Mxyzptlk. — When you’re a powerful and mischievous being from the Fifth Dimension here to torment Superman for entertainment.

There’s a lot of options to throw into the mix.

 

Clickbait

It’s obvious that ad revenue on some free websites is tied to “clicks” — how many times people tap their mouse to access a story.  It’s one way for the website to account for its traffic and provide data to advertisers who want to know how many people are seeing their banners and pop-up ads.  Not surprisingly, many websites are set up to maximize clicks.  That’s why you often need to click “next page” to read an entire article, for example.

The most irritating aspect of the click-counting emphasis, however, are the articles that clearly are “clickbait.”  You’ve seen them featured on the websites you visit, cluttering things up like unsightly litter on the side of a highway:  where are members of the cast of an old TV show now, what “jaw-dropping” dresses got worn to a recent awards show, which celebrities have killed a person (number 8 will shock you!), what “weird trick” will allow you to immediately lose 20 pounds or secure your retirement, and on and on.  You’ve probably gotten to the point that you don’t even notice them anymore on the websites you visit.

What’s discouraging about the “clickbait” phenomenon, however, is that even more high-end internet content providers seem to be unable to resist publishing their own form of clickbait.  Those are articles that clearly are designed to stoke controversy and provoke criticism, in hopes that the articles will be linked and discussed on other websites.  They’ll gladly accept harsh bashings if a few more clicks come their way.

Even as august a publication as the New York Times isn’t immune from the lure of clickbait.  Recently the Times published an article called “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man” that can only be viewed as high-end clickbait.  It’s a silly piece that lists grossly implausible attributes of “modern men” — such as that they not only buy shoes for their wives, but will know their wife’s shoe size and which women’s shoe brands run large or small — and it’s gotten creamed all over the internet.  But I’m guessing that it’s been one of the biggest click-producers that the Times has published recently, and that will make the Times, and its advertisers, happy.  (I’m not going to link to it because the last thing I want to do is reward the publication of any more clickbait.)

It’s sad, really, to see publications like the Times stoop to the level of clickbait.  It makes me wonder what kind of long-term impact the internet is going to have on the quality of journalism in America.

About Hillary’s E-Mail

Should we care about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email address when she served as Secretary of State?

On Monday the New York Times broke the story that, during her four years as Secretary of State, Clinton never had an official State Department email address and instead exclusively used a personal address to conduct official business.  As a result, her emails were not maintained on governmental servers, which may have violated the Federal Records Act.  The Times reported that her aides later went through her emails and decided which ones to give to the State Department.

Following up on the story, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Clinton’s private email address traced back to a personal computer server at her home in New York.  The House Committee investigating the attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya has now subpoenaed her emails, and Clinton said last night that she has asked the State Department to review the emails that her aides provided to the department and release them to the public.  Clinton’s defenders say there is no evidence that she acted with ill intent, and note that other politicians have used personal email accounts.

So, should we care about this incident?  I think we should, for three reasons.  First, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect high-ranking public officials like the U.S. Secretary of State to comply with federal law.  I don’t buy the “other people did it too” defense, and saying Clinton wasn’t a conscious lawbreaker is about as lame a justification as you can concoct.  Is the fact that the senior member of the President’s Cabinet apparently was unaware of basic rules of federal record-keeping really helpful to her?  Was she ignorant of and non-compliant with other rules set by federal law, too?

Second, where were Clinton’s aides and other State Department officials and federal officials in all of this?  When they started to get email from her personal email address, didn’t they raise the issue of her non-compliance with federal law — or all they all blissfully ignorant of the Federal Records Act, too?  Are federal employees simply not trained in straightforward administrative requirements of federal law, or were they afraid to raise the issue of Clinton’s non-compliance because they worried about the reaction?

Third, the rules set by the Federal Records Act are important, and aren’t just another set of inexplicable red-tape requirements in the byzantine mass of federal regulations.  Storage of all communications by federal employees in federal departments means that records of those communications will be archived and readily available in the event the activities of the employee are investigated.  The employee won’t get to pick and choose which records will be accessible and thereby tailor the story to make themselves look good.

More importantly, in this world of constant data breaches, storage of official email on personal servers is asking for trouble.  Perhaps the Clintons have the most well-staffed, advanced IT section in the world constantly safeguarding their personal server from attack, but I’d rather trust the federal government to keep the Secretary of State’s confidential communications with the President and foreign leaders secure from the hackers.  Are we really confident that malignant foreign governments didn’t plant malware in the Clinton server and obtain real-time access to her communications?  Clinton’s decision to conduct official business on a personal email account strikes me as both naive and extremely reckless — which aren’t exactly qualities I’m looking for in a presidential candidate.

Naked In The Ivy League

For decades, thousands of male and female students at some of America’s most prestigious institutions, in the Ivy League and among the Seven Sisters, were routinely required to strip down and have their nude photos taken.  Why?

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum tells the fascinating story in a long, but riveting, New York Times piece that is almost 20 years old, but new to me.  Rosenbaum himself was a student at Yale who had to undergo the bizarre ritual during the 1960s.  He appeared at a Yale gymnasium, was required to completely disrobe, had metal pins attached to his vertebrae with adhesive, and then was photographed.  Everybody had to have their “posture photos” taken, and students whose posture was deemed unacceptable had to take a remedial posture class where they presumably walked around rooms balancing books on their heads.  Similar photos were taken at schools like Vassar and Wellesley, and urban legends circulated among the Ivy Leaguers about purportedly stolen posture photo collections of young coeds being available on the black market.

But the real story runs deeper than posture and pranks and has a disturbing element.  In reality, the photographs were also part of an anthropological study undertaken to explore theories that contended that study of the human physique, through measurement and analysis of ratios, could reveal intelligence, moral worth, and other characteristics.  It was a branch of eugenics that apparently was scientifically accepted for a time, with its own scientific-sounding names for character components — “ectomorphs” for thin and nervous people, “endomorphs” for the tubby, and “mesomorphs” for the Charles Atlases among us.  Under the theory, each person purportedly had some mixture of the three components that was genetically determined and described by a three-digit code, and those components controlled your character.  The “science” was married to concepts of posture and propriety, accepted by many educational institutions as a progressive, scientific step forward, and the result was thousands of mystified, often humiliated students at elite schools being required to troop before cameras and have their nude photos taken, to be studied by practitioners of a pseudoscience.

The concept that your body shape determines the content of your character seems ludicrous now, as bizarre and unscientific as Nazi “master race” theories, phrenology, or medieval notions that good health required periodic bleedings.  The concept no doubt would have seemed ludicrous to many of the unfortunate students who were forced to shed their clothing — but of course they weren’t told.  They did it because the institution told them to do so and because everyone else did it.  No one questioned authority, and for decades no one at any of those lofty institutions asked whether there was any true scientific basis for the practice or raised any moral or ethical qualms about the “posture photos.”

The students weren’t the only ones exposed by the “posture photos” and their true back story; the schools and the scientific community were as well.  We should all think of “posture photos” the next time an institution tells us to shut up and follow along on a course that seems absurd, that the science is settled and can’t be questioned, and that because everyone else has done it we should, too.