22 August 2012

In Support of Honest Cultural Criticism

Dwight Garner recently wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he makes "A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical." Mr. Garner laments the decline of honest literary criticism. He lambastes the "mass intellectual suicide" of dispensing with critics altogether. He rails against the intellectual dishonesty of the uncritical, "solicitous communalism" of the literary world on Twitter. He criticizes -- with insight and respect.

Mr. Garner could just as easily be railing against the decline of true criticism in any type of popular culture, especially among young adults. Cantankerous critical mainstays like Pitchfork and the AV Club keep chugging along, but most of what passes for criticism among the kids these days  looks more like the invective-laden meanness of Vice. In place of honest criticism, there seems to be a slow onslaught of clever blogs and scene sites with a surfeit of foaming at the mouth for mediocre, derivative cultural output.

There is a growing attitude among young adults that criticizing someone's favorite song is somehow offensive to the someone (and the song). We are left with friendly interviews that read like ad copy. We are fed too many concert recaps written by people who walked in the venue with their opinions set in stone. (Even my favorite source of new music, NPR Music, puts out positive stories about the carefully-selected music it shares -- criticism only by omission.) This attitude yields writing that declines to grapple with cultural signifiers and thereby fails to enlighten or challenge its audience.

Members of the Internet generation (precious flowers all) are sharing more and more original output through social media. If the kids have a hard time criticizing carefully cultivated cultural products, they will struggle mightily to criticize the work of a real person to their digital face. They will find it even harder to so with insight and respect. We should not, however, sink into blind adoration for the second-rate. We should not waste our time on junk when there is so much cultural content from across the world at our fingertips. Someone needs to call a spade a spade.

I have strong opinions about culture. I am not afraid to criticize the banal, the formulaic, and the dull. I will (generally) do so with respect and insight. But I am in the minority, and I get far too much scorn for making my opinions known. People sometimes dismiss me as too picky or too pretentious simply for voicing a different approach.

Honest criticism (in print or in conversation) means rolling up your sleeves and finding a way to engage productively with even the banal, the formulaic, and the dull. To Mr. Garner,
"[Criticism] means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do)."
Yes, books and music and film are supposed to be entertaining. They are also supposed to make you think. To broaden your perspective. To challenge you. Even if tastes are idiosyncratic -- and they are quite that -- I wonder why so many people like the narrow, the unthinking, the unchallenging. Perhaps there is not enough good criticism to direct them elsewhere.

20 August 2012

Millenials in the Workplace: How To Build a Better Office

Emily Matchar recently wrote in the Washington Post about "millennials" (those born between 1982 and 1999) in the American workplace. Ms. Matchar states that educated millennial are seeking "engaging, meaningful, flexible work that doesn’t take over their lives" and are willing to flit from job to job until they find it. She concludes that Generation Y will shake up the workplace with their desire for flexibility, perks, and respect despite their inexperience.

Does this song sounds familiar? It should. Media commentators and business analysts were singing | the | exact | same | tune about Generation X. Generation X-ers also wanted flexibility, feedback, and performance-based promotions. They wanted lots of vacation. And lots of respect. Why, then, has the workplace not been revolutionized? Why is the Economist publishing columns like "Generation Xhausted"?

Inertia is a powerful force. Habits within large companies and organizations change at a frozen molasses pace. Baby boomers still fill the majority of management posts, and may be slow to take on major changes. While some things have changed, the more "radical" perks of which Ms. Matchar writes (e.g., unlimited paid vacation) seem distant possibilities unless you are working in a social media start-up. But unless things continue to to change, organizations will have to endure millennials leaving for where the grass is greener.

Radical perks may not be necessary to build a millennial-friendly workplace. But they are often easier than creating a good office. Instead, I offer seven difficult ways to build a better office.
  1. No culture of overworking. I want to be challenged. I will go the extra mile when necessary. But I do not want to be beat down with a 12-hour, soul-sucking slog five (or six!) times a week. You cannot possibly have a fire drill every day unless you are a fire fighter. Please hire more people instead of overworking your staff. I would rather earn less to work a shorter week.
  2. Flexible work times and work. You do not need me to be at work at 6:45 a.m. every day. I would much prefer to arrive there at a time that works better for me -- say, 9:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.. If there is an early meeting, I will go. If I have to stay late to finish up, I will stay. Please let me work from my home regularly as well. That way I do not have to change out of my pajamas. 
  3. Flexibility about human capital. Keep giving me interesting work. If you do not have any, lend me to the office next door for a short-term project or two. Organizations' budgets should allow for cross-unit cost-sharing; this will enable managers to share employees rather than firing (or running short-handed) when the work-stream shifts. [Small organizations may be less well-equipped to handle this.] 
  4. No turf wars and no bad bosses. Stop fighting over work-streams with the neighboring office. Do not let personalities and hang-ups get in the way of doing good work. Stop promoting people who are incompetent -- I do not care who he knew if he cannot manage his way out of a shoe box. Start collaborating more; share your good idea rather than hiding it. I will start by sharing my idea: no turf wars and no bad bosses.
  5. Vacations without guilt. I like to travel. I like to save my vacation time up for two- to four-week trips. I will ask in advance so you can plan around me. Please do not make me feel guilty for having a holiday. Also, please give me more vacation time; I will be more productive when I can take a day off every now and then without needing to be sick.
  6. Break down hierarchies. I have great ideas. Do not ignore my insight because I am young. I have ambitions. If I am doing excellent work, do not expect me to wait and wait and wait for a promotion or a leap in responsibilities. I am impatient. Show me that the organization is responding, or I may leap elsewhere. Did I mention that I am impatient? I am impatient.
  7. Dress code only when it counts. I enjoy wearing suits, but not everyone does. If there is no big meeting, we do not have to be dressed as old-time bellhops. Do not stress about it as long as people look presentable. 
Like many other millennials, I want to enjoy work. I want to solve interesting problems, collaborate with intelligent people, and do good things. I just do not want to have to suffer rigidity, long hours, bad leadership, and unproductive in-fighting to do it. Are my needs self-indulgent? Perhaps, but -- as the kids say -- you only live once.

17 August 2012

Elections and Music: Paul Ryan's Rage (Against The Machine) Problem

Representative Paul Ryan, the young, conservative firebrand, is all over the news in the United States. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, seemed to see in himself a personality deficit that was estranging him from voters. He chose Rep. Ryan to energize his flagging campaign -- and the socially and fiscally conservative Republican base.

The campaign has wasted no time in playing up Rep. Ryan's personality surplus. The campaign has been feeding to the story-hungry media the little details about Rep. Ryan designed to scream "young, hip, and mildly attractive (but in a safe way, unlike that scalawag Obama)": former Catholic altar boy; former prom king; works out really hard; go-getter; hometown hero; and big fan of the hard rock band Rage Against The Machine. He's just like you, Generations X and Y and Z -- he likes dangerous hard rock (and small government)!

Careful observers, however, may note slight differences between Rep. Ryan's political views and the political views expressed by Rage Against The Machine (RATM). In general, RATM is as far left as Rep. Ryan is far right. For example:

Noting this contrast, RATM guitarist Tom Morello, never a shy violet about politics, went so far as to write a hilariously scathing opinion piece for Rolling Stone, entitled "Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against."

American politicians have often abused pop culture touchstones in their electoral battles. Indeed, the Republican party has a rich history (pun intended), which CNN has captured, of seeking to co-opt pop/rock culture from musicians who are not terribly happy about being co-opted. The shining example is Ronald Reagan's campaign choosing Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" as the theme song for President Reagan's 1984 reelection walk-in-the-park. Mr. Springsteen was one of the biggest rock stars in the country, so it seemed wise to associate his clout with President Reagan's image. The Reagan campaign, however, neglected to review the song's lyrics, which describe in haunting, resonant detail how the United States government had failed its Vietnam War veterans (and other citizens). The campaign also forgot to ask Mr. Springsteen, who later publicly requested that the campaign stop using his song. Perhaps they should have simply returned to the old American practice of writing original campaign songs instead.

Political campaigns tread on thin ice when they seek to import "real person" pop culture credibility. Even if RATM may be Rep. Ryan's favorite band, he would been better off simply remaining quiet. (If he had to pick someone, he should have instead chosen new, hip conservative band Madison Rising.)

15 August 2012

Idiot's Recipe: Acorn Sqash Dessert

Acorn squash is nutritious, delicious, and makes the perfect dessert. Acorn squash is one of my favorite parts of winter. Even if you are an idiot, you can succeed at making an amazing Idiot's Acorn Squash Dessert. Except if you are in Cape Town and no one seems to have it anywhere. Wistfully I share with you my dead-easy recipe, which I have written to emulate how I would have liked recipes to read when I first started cooking:
Idiot's Acorn Squash Dessert (serves 2)
one (1) acorn squash
two lumps of brown sugar
some aluminum foil
some vegetable oil
some butter or else olive oil
a baking sheet

1. Obtain squash from farmer's market, store, or other squash-obtaining location. Pick out a good one. You will know which one to pick for it will call your name. Hold them up to your ear one by one. Do you hear it? If not, find one that is not too light; not too big; and both green and orange in color. Call its name. It will answer. (Note: This may involve an exchange of money, so bring your wallet or other money-conveyance mechanism.)

2. Regard squash quizzically. Marvel at its compact deliciousness. Ponder how it might have been the ball for a very strange ancient sport. Invent this sport. Play this sport. Be careful not to drop the squash -- at least not on the cat. Again.

3. Set your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or 200 Celsius. Choose one. If your oven measures temperature in kelvin, you may be in the science lab; go home and start your cooking there. (Speaking of ovens -- you do have an oven, right? I know, I know -- I did not list it in the ingredients section, so you might not have thought to pick one up at the store. In a pinch, visit a neighbor's house and borrow their oven.)

4. Cut the squash in half. This ordinarily requires the use of a sharp knife and the application of a modicum of force. Take appropriate safety precautions (e.g., safety goggles; chain-mail gloves; and finding someone else to do it).

5. Remove seeds from squash. Place them in a bowl. Blindfold a young cousin. Tell him you are growing alien organs in your spare time for fun and profit. Stick his hand in the bowl. Share the amusement with the entire family.

6. Coat the cleaned squash halves with some vegetable oil. The insides of the squash. The fleshy bit. Not the outside. You do not want to eat that. Okay, fine, I will speak for myself on that one.

7. Place squash halves cut side down on the aluminum foil. Place this foil on your baking sheet. (What is that? You say you do not have a baking sheet? But I listed it in the ingred-- okay, fine, fine. Just triple up on the foil and proceed.) 
[Pro-tip: Aluminum foil may be sold as "aluminium foil" in the UK and former British colonies. Do not be fooled -- it is still aluminum foil. In other countries, you are probably not going to get very far on the squash-buying thing anyway so I will not bother translating those for you.

8. The oven should be hot by now, unless you forgot to turn it on. (If you forgot to turn, repeat step 4. But do not accidentally get so caught up in following the steps that you cut the squash into quarters and perhaps even remove seeds that do not exist.) Put the baking sheet (or triple-layered foil) into the oven.

9. Let things sit for thirty (30) minutes. Take a quick nap during this time (set an alarm!) or prepare the rest of your dinner, which I assume you will be heating up in the microwave.

10. Check on the squash. Do not be scared. It is not that hard to do. Please calm down. I will tell you exactly what to look for. Remove the baking sheet/foil/squash combo from the oven, preferably using oven mitts or a folded towel or a high tolerance for pain. Take a fork (you do have a fork, right? I did not list that in the ingredients section either.) and stick in the squash flesh. If the fork goes all the way through with relative ease, move on to step 11. If not, put the sheet/foil/squash back in the oven. (Alternately, lose your cool and forget the whole thing.)

11. Place squash halves flesh side-up back on the foil/sheet. Put a generous dab of butter (or a tsp or so of olive oil) in each half. Rub it around with your hands to coat the flesh. (Ouch! I should have told you to use a spoon to rub it, but I was feeling vindictive after we went through all the yelling about checking on the squash. I know that is not the right answer. But I have feelings too. Fine. Be angry. I will just wait here while the squash gets cold. Okay then.) 

12. Put a lump of brown sugar in each half. Rub it around -- yes, with a spoon this time -- until it gets melty. (Yes, melty is a technical cooking term. What would you know anyway?!)

13. Place squash back in oven, using the foil and/or baking sheet in the manner that you have used it throughout the recipe. (No, not as a funny hat!) Bake for a few minutes. What is that? How many is a few? A few is a few is a few. Okay, 3.72 minutes exactly. Or else it will explode.

14. Remove from oven. Eat, preferably using a spoon.

15. Recoil in pain because you did not let the squash cool down. Drink cold water while you let the squash cool down.

16. Eat again, this time with great gusto and excessive "yum"-type noise-making.

[ Next time on "Idiot's Recipe": oh, let's just eat out. ]

14 August 2012

Nostalgia for the Bad Old Days: The National Party and Beyond

Ivo Vegter wrote a compelling opinion piece for today's Daily Maverick that deflates "The Myth of the Competent Apartheid Government." In the midst of the post-freedom struggles of the African National Congress (ANC) with crony capitalism and corruption, some (mostly white) South Africans have started looking back with nostalgia to the bad old National Party (NP) days as not quite so bad. Mr. Vegter points out that the NP was even worse (and more than just a bit racist):
The ANC of today is no more corrupt than the old NP. It is not less competent, no matter how different it might appear to whites who only noticed their own preferential treatment under apartheid, but now live as equals with their fellow South Africans. It is not more inefficient, either. The only difference is that the ANC’s problem is 10 times larger: it promised to provide a better life for all, not just some.
The NP economic dream only felt dreamy for the 10% who benefited. Protectionism and other unwise state meddling in the market created a giant patronage machine for the whites -- and hurt economic growth. The economy, Mr. Vegter asserts, suffered greatly compared to what a free (and educated and efficiently run) South Africa could have yielded. Heavy-handed economic planning resulted in a loss -- and a loss is precisely what post-apartheid South Africa is headed for under the ANC, warns Mr. Vegter. (His brief solutions ring a bit hollow and libertarian, but you might be hollow and libertarian yourself after thinking too much about the NP and ANC governments.)

In South Africa, whites are not the only ones nostalgic for the apartheid era. A recent study by Leslie Bank and Clifford Mabhena, "Bring Back Kaiser Matanzima: Communal Land, Traditional Leaders, and the Politics of Nostalgia" (2011), examined the nostalgia exhibited by many rural blacks in the Transkei for the rule of Kaiser Matanzima. Bank and Mabhena cite Kaiser Matanzima as "the ultimate apartheid sell-out and despot," but recognize the powerful sense of security created by his patronage system; the greater ability of men to find work as migrant laborers; and other socio-cultural factors. The people of the Transkei get more (budget constraint-wise) under the ANC when you look at schools, roads, clinics, and government grants. Nevertheless, many still think that life was better under Kaiser Matanzima because the ANC is linked with an erosion of community life and agriculture. Bank and Mabhena conclude that "the politics of nostalgia is essentially a response to social exclusion and the difficulties people face in connecting with the state and to each other."

Nostalgia for the bad old days is hardly unique to South Africa. It seems to pop up wherever there are big serious governmental changes that result in big serious economic and/or social upheaval. Look at Serbia after Milosevic, Russia under Yeltsin, or interwar Germany. The list will only grow as the Arab Spring turns to economic winter: Egypt after Mubarak; Libya after Gaddafi; and Tunisia after Ben Ali. Once the mooring of authoritarianism (or patronage) rots away, the state no longer provides certainty. The people (or privileged groups) lose their sense of security. When faced with the present pain of tough economic times or bad new governments, the people seem to forget about the pain of yesteryear.

If people forget why the bad old days were so bad, however, they risk ending up with a future that is even worse: look at what happened to post-1933 Germany and Russia under Putin. (Serbia is doing relatively okay so far.) South Africa should take care to avoid distorting the past, or all of the socio-political baggage will stand in the way of the right path forward.

10 August 2012

South African English: Now, Now, NOW

As Nelson Mandela once allegedly said, "if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." I am going for the jugular with this week’s South African English post.

Americans often have a knack for being overly precise about time and timeliness, especially in business situations. As every career-advancement-for-dummies book tells you, "if you are early, you are on time; if you are on time, you are late." South Africans have a much different sense of time and timeliness that comes to bear in a bewildering way: "now" does not actually mean "now."

I brought my car into the mechanic the other month. They promised to send a driver to take me to the garage to pick up my car, which proved to be easier said than done:
Mechanic: Our driver is leaving now.
Me: Great. I will go out on the street and wait.

[thirty minutes pass]
 Me: Where is the driver? I have been waiting for some time.
Mechanic: He will be there just now.
Me: You said he was leaving thirty minutes ago?!
Mechanic: He left just now.

[twenty minutes pass]
 Mechanic: The driver got lost and came back to the garage. He is leaving again now now.
The driver has yet to arrive. I have been on foot and bicycle ever since. But I learned valuable lessons about time and urgency.

"Now now" conveys urgency. It means “right now at this very moment.” In practice, however, it tells you to lay off the urgency, bru, and that you will get my attention when I please.
Waitron: I will bring the menu now now.
[ Translation: I might come back in 5 minutes. I might not! Only time will tell. I hope you are not particularly hungry. ]
"Just now" conveys mild hurry. (For you foodies out there, mild hurry is a type of traditional Cape Malay hurry. It is rich in flavor but not too hot. Takes forever to make though.) It means "in a moment" or "a moment ago." In practice, it tells you to chill out, boss, relax, you can have a seat, I have other things to do.
Friend: I parked the car just now. I will be at the club just now.
[ Translation: I am still at home in my pajamas.]
"Now" conveys deliberateness. It means "sometime soon." In practice, it tells you to go take a hike, no, really, do it, you will enjoy the fresh air, I will not be acting any time soon, plus the weather is fickle here in winter so you must enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.
Business colleague: I will call you back now.
[ Translation: You are low on my list of things to do. If I do not get to you in the next hour, I will go on leave for a week, but I will not mention this. You will have to find that out on your own. ]
These grapes will become wine now.

"Later" is not used in practice. If it were, I imagine it would mean "when Hades freezes over." In practice, it would tell you where you can stick it.
Capetonian Acquaintance: I hate to cancel our dinner plans tonight but my goldfish is sick. We must reschedule later. I swear on my mother’s grave.
[ Translation: I do not like you. I never should have agreed to have dinner with you, but I was too polite to turn the invitation down. I would rather sit at home alone. Also, I do not have a goldfish and my mother is alive and well. ]
"Eventually" is also not used in practice, but South African politicians must begin incorporating it in their rhetoric to improve transparency:
Politician: We will stamp out corruption in South Africa eventually. 
[ Translation: Keep up those service delivery protests. ]

I have practiced my South African language on time and timeliness over the past few weeks. I am getting to be quite the professional. Here, look: I made fun of Capetonian standoffishness just now. I will finish writing this blog post now now and will publish it just now. I will read your comments now, think about them later, and respond to them eventually.

09 August 2012

Things I’ve Learned While Looking For Work In South Africa

(originally published by The Billfold under the pseudonym Alex Okay)
I am 30 years old. I have a no-nonsense Master’s degree in economic development and five years of full-time, well-compensated work experience in my field. I have excellent transferable skills—reading, writing, arithmetic—and sparkling references. But I have spent the last six months in a strange country, scratching and clawing for something to do while eagerly awaiting a deus ex machina to vanquish my unemployment roadblock: getting legal permission to work.

Read the rest here.

07 August 2012

Pop Gems: Papas Fritas

Papas Fritas - Papas Fritas (1995) / Helioself (1997)

Three non-ironic scruffs present simple, unadulterated pop with an appreciation for Sixties and Seventies sunshine – with cheesiness relatively restrained (unless you watch the videos). The songs come off a little light sometimes, but they deploy masterful repetition and surprisingly tight arrangements. It helps that the band is not afraid to write a killer bass line or to toss off a feedback-drenched solo when necessary. I am enjoying their sunshine on this cold Cape Town evening.

"Afterall" from Papas Fritas
"Hey Hey You Say" from Helioself

"Holiday" from Papas Fritas

Buy music by Papas Fritas on Amazon or iTunes

06 August 2012

Things You Should Know About "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America"

Mark Manson, who strikes me as a bit of a cut-rate Tim Ferriss (who is another story for another time), writes one of those blogs that seems designed to inspire you to share his material on social media. Not to say it is completely without merit, but there are only so many self-important, semi-funny, self-promoting blogs I can take -- besides my own, of course.

Several weeks ago Mr. Manson shared a post on "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America" He puts for some interesting (if semi-funny and self-important) ideas therein, but I take a different view on the first three assertions:
(1) Few people are impressed by Americans
(2) Few people hate us or care too much about America
(3) We think everyone looks up to America
Overall, Mr. Manson discounts the strength of the "soft power" of American culture and the American dream, and downplays the extent to which American politics affects the rest of the world.

People around the world may not be impressed with Americans themselves, but many are awfully enamored of American popular music, movies, and television. Similarly, people may not "look up to" the United States, but many of them (especially in poorer countries) desire the economic opportunities that they perceive exist in the United States. 

Overall, I think the world is watching America more than ever, thanks to globalized news. In my own travels, I have found that educated foreigners are often highly plugged into U.S. politics. Sure, the rural poor are not necessarily following the Republican primaries, but educated urbanites around the globe probably know more about Mitt Romney than I do. They are watching because what happens in U.S. politics -- especially who wins the Presidential elections -- affects the rest of the world so much.

But you probably knew all of that already.

02 August 2012

Good Writing: Growing up Black in Mississippi

Kiese Laymon's essay, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance," is a compelling, heartbreaking slice of life about growing up as a black male in Mississippi. The essay is not about gun control, but instead lays out deliberately and infuriatingly through autobiography how racism, violence, and guns mingle in the Southern American / African-American psyche to create a culture in which violent death is too common.

01 August 2012

Inflicting Hated Music on Loved Ones

Music is powerful in dividing and uniting families. NPR's All Things Considered recently aired a piece about a woman whose hatred for Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" (a song that her father loved) played an important role in father-daughter bonding. I have a similar if less compelling tale, but in reverse: it was I doing the inflicting. 

When I was prepubescent, I listened to a lot of what was then classified as "oldies" music: saccharine white-bread pop from 1952-1966; early, non-funky Motown R&B; Phil Spector's kiddie symphonies; and less-daring Beatles songs. On long, suburban drives, my mother would be serenaded by a curated selection of her own teenage follies. If I had been in her shoes, I would not have been able to take it. 

My mother persisted, except when confronted with one particular sonic nemesis: Neil Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie".

Mr. Diamond's facial expressions are priceless.

Neil Diamond was responsible for some of the worst '70s pop with some of the most unfortunate staying power. His songs are teased-hair, wink-and-a-smile, over-orchestrated kitsch. They insult you with lyrical stupidity and playground-chant catchiness. "Sweet Caroline" enjoyed a recent renaissance of bro-comedy popularity largely because it is insipid pap best sung along to under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol.

"Cracklin' Rosie" is hardly Neil's worst -- that would probably go to "I Am, I Said" -- but the lyrics are horrid and meaningless. And vaguely mysogynistic. And, by gum, they get stuck in your head. To torment my loving mother I used to call the local "oldies" radio station to request that they play "Cracklin' Rosie." I would ask them to dedicate it to her. She would howl with indignation as I would sing with the chorus: "Cracklin' Rose, you're a store bought woman..." Ultimately, we could laugh together at how horrible the song was before the radio would be brusquely switched off.