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The Conversation Has Never Been Wider

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

I am still listening to the excellent interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Ezra Klein Show, but I wanted to highlight this exchange right at the beginning of the interview because I think it’s relevant to a lot of our shared interests, especially if you’ve been online reading blogs or personal sites for 15, 20, or even 25 years:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.

[LAUGHING]

There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce it, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

Look, as someone who benefitted hugely from it, I miss the golden age of blogging as much as anyone — productive discussions in comment threads, the community alchemy of Flickr, Google Reader, cross-blog conversations, the Open Web, small pieces loosely joined, etc. etc. etc. — but over the past few years, I’ve felt a lot less nostalgia for it for exactly the reasons McMillan Cottom & Klein are talking about here. Make the Internet Great Again is, in many important ways, as short-sighted, futile, and limiting as, well, you know.

Make Everything Important

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

I enjoyed this interview with actor Mads Mikkelsen.

Q: Is there a life philosophy that you feel has carried you through your career?

A: My approach to what I do in my job — and it might even be the approach to my life — is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career. That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.

“All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” —Yoda, Empire Strikes Back. See also “I’ve Never Had a Goal”. (via @tadfriend)

Ted Chiang: Fears of Technology Are Fears of Capitalism

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2021

Writer Ted Chiang (author of the fantastic Exhalation) was recently a guest on the Ezra Klein Show. The conversation ranged widely — I enjoyed his thoughts on superheroes — but his comments on capitalism and technology seem particularly relevant right now. From the transcript:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off. It’s not that like all technology suddenly becomes benign in this world. But it’s like, in a world where we have really strong social safety nets, then you could maybe actually evaluate sort of the pros and cons of technology as a technology, as opposed to seeing it through how capitalism is going to use it against us. How are giant corporations going to use this to increase their profits at our expense?

And so, I feel like that is kind of the unexamined assumption in a lot of discussions about the inevitability of technological change and technologically-induced unemployment. Those are fundamentally about capitalism and the fact that we are sort of unable to question capitalism. We take it as an assumption that it will always exist and that we will never escape it. And that’s sort of the background radiation that we are all having to live with. But yeah, I’d like us to be able to separate an evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of technology from the framework of capitalism.

Echoing some of his other thoughts during the podcast, Chiang also wrote a piece for the New Yorker the other day about how the singularity will probably never come.

Life After Vaccination

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2021

I thought this interview with Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, was really good and useful in terms of calibrating expectations with regard to the “end” of the pandemic, vaccines, and variants. On the guidance that vaccinated people should be getting:

I think it is essential that we give guidance to people. And I think we should give guidance to people on what they can do safely once they are vaccinated. People say, “Can your behavior change?” My answer is: absolutely! That’s a major motivation for getting vaccinated. First of all, what’s very clear to me is vaccinated people hanging out with other vaccinated people is pretty darn close to normal. You don’t have to wear a mask. You can share a meal. The chance that a fully vaccinated person will transmit the virus to another fully vaccinated person who then will get sick and die … I mean, sure, people get struck by lightning, too. But you don’t make policy based on that. And we need to remind people that there is a huge benefit to getting vaccinated, which is that you are safe enough to do the things you love with other vaccinated people.

All the Sitcom References from WandaVision Explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2021

In this extensive video, The Take not only explains the themes and ending of WandaVision (spoilers, obvs) but walks through all of the sitcom tropes, references, and Easter eggs present in the show, from The Dick Van Dyke Show to the beeping Stark toaster commercial to Bewitched to Full House (Olsen sisters!) to The Office. Weirdly, they kinda glide right over perhaps my favorite trope referenced in the show: the recasting of the Pietro character a la Darrin in Bewitched and Aunt Viv in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The video pairs well with this interview with WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer.

The first thing was the notion of, how do you do this? How do you take sitcoms and combine them with Wanda and Vision who, up to this point in the M.C.U., were such self-serious characters and dramatic characters with so much sadness surrounding them. They weren’t funny. What’s the synthesis? I’m a big fan of “Lost,” and I was very inspired by shows like “Russian Doll,” “Forever” and “Homecoming.” I relished the opportunity of a slow burn. It seemed like an exciting, sneak-attack way to have a bit of a social commentary and a very large story of character and grief.

I thought how they constructed the entire show was really fantastic — I loved every minute of it.

The Table Saw That Won’t Cut Your Fingers Off

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2021

In a recent issue of the MachinePix newsletter, Kane Hsieh interviewed Dr. Steve Gass, the inventor of the SawStop, the table saw that automatically stops cutting when it detects human skin (therefore saving fingers and hands from being cut off). Before we get to that, you’ve probably seen the company’s hot dog demo but if you haven’t, check out these super slow-motion clips of the SawStop blades stopping in a matter of milliseconds after making contact:

The minuscule amount of damage to the hot dog is mind-blowing. Where did this demo idea come from? From the interview:

What was the first thing? It was probably a stationary blade with me just touching it with my finger. Once we started spinning the blade, I wasn’t too eager to do that test with my finger, so we just thought ‘what do we have that’s sort of finger like with similar electrical properties’ — hot dogs are similar, and I had one in the fridge, so I grabbed one and ran it into the blade. Sure enough, it worked.

There was a point where we had to know a hotdog was a good surrogate for a finger. You can imagine, we could do this demo at trade shows with a hot dog, but there’s always a smart-ass that says they don’t care about hot dogs, and wanted to see it with a finger. So before the first trade show I had to test it with my actual finger. Thankfully it worked!

And because what the saw is detecting is “the capacitance of the human body”, you have to be holding the hot dog in order for the demo to work.

The whole interview is worth a read — like this bit about why big tool companies were not interested in licensing this feature: because they aren’t liable for the injuries caused by their products:

The fundamental question came down to economics. Almost a societal economic structure question. The CPSC says table saws result in about $4B in damage annually. The market for table saws is about $200-400M. This is a product that does almost 10x in damage as the market size. There’s a disconnect — these costs are borne by individuals, the medical system, workers comp — and not paid by the power tools company. Because of that, there’s not that much incentive to improve the safety of these tools. Societally if there was an opportunity to spend $5 to save $10, we’d want to do that. But in this chain there’s a break in people that can make those changes and people that are affected, so it’s not done.

Kids Talk About Gaming During the Pandemic

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2021

Concerned that recent articles like this one about screen time panic were not adequately capturing the perspective of the kids themselves, Anne Helen Petersen asked a group of parents and caregivers to conduct interviews with kids about gaming and screen time.

So I wanted to hear them talk about their own relationship to the games they play: what they like about it, when they like to play, how games make them feel, who they like to play with, and how they respond to anxiety about their gaming/screen time.

I pulled out a few quotes from the kids but the whole thing is worth a read.

When people say that screentime is bad, I want to say, hey, I want to be more social at the moment and it’s hard to do that right now and I can only do it with technology.

I feel annoyed and angry with the “too much time playing video games argument,” because people don’t really understand. They don’t play these games. They don’t have any experience themselves, and they’re judging what we do based on what they’ve heard or read. Gaming is so new that there’s no conclusive evidence yet to prove if it’s actually harmful. It feels like they’re just trying to control us and tell us what to do.

When adults say that kids play too many video games it makes me kinda angry and confused. We’re already stuck at home and it feels like they’re trying to cut us off from our friends even more. So it’s kinda annoying.

Honestly I don’t really worry about spending too much time game at all. I already spend almost all my time on there anyway and it doesn’t seem to have any negative side effects. Key word “seem.” People need to make sure they don’t get correlation and causation mixed together.

Like many other parents, we’ve been struggling mightily with games, devices, and screen time during the pandemic (although for us this is an issue that carried over from The Before Times). As Petersen says, this is a complicated challenge and I am sympathetic to both the arguments these kids make (which mirror what I’ve heard from my kids) and parental concerns about too much time on devices (the effects of which I’ve seen in my kids).

What we’ve done, imperfectly, is prioritize the social aspect of gaming time — playing with friends, gaming clubs, playing together in the living room — over manically grinding away for hours on end in a dark room. We try to meet them on their terms — ask them what they did today in Minecraft or Among Us, show real interest about their progress, etc. I empathize and commiserate when I can — I grew up playing video games and I still get a little too into them on my phone or iPad sometimes. But we also encourage them to get outside and move their bodies, find ways to connect with friends that don’t involve killing virtual people, and try to get them to recognize some of the worst effects of too much screen time (they do, if you catch them at the right moment about it). Keeping a good connection with your kids around gaming & screens is the key bit, I think. With that in hand, in theory it’s at least possible to keep kids and parents alike safe and sane during all of this.

Werner Herzog on Skateboarding

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2021

Werner Herzog doesn’t know anything about skateboarding. But suspecting the director was a kindred spirit, Ian Michna interviewed Herzog for skate mag Jenkem. My favorite bit is when Michna asks Herzog if he shot a skateboarding video, what music would he choose as a soundtrack:

What comes to mind first and foremost would be Russian Orthodox church choirs, something that creates this kind of strange feeling of space and sacrality — so what you are doing is special, bordering the sacred.

(via @mathowie)

Stream Hundreds of Hours of “Never-Before-Seen” Interviews in New ‘American Masters’ Archive

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2021

PBS TV series American Masters has been on the air since 1986, profiling prominent American cultural creators. Only a small fraction of the footage for the interviews they do makes it into the episodes, so they’ve created a digital archive of over 1000 hours of footage “from more than 1,000 original, never-before-seen, full, raw interviews”.

For four decades, we’ve asked: who has changed America? We’ve aired hundreds of carefully crafted programs that illuminate the stories of our cultural giants. But just a fraction of the interviews filmed for American Masters appear in the final films; nearly 96% of the footage never gets released. Now, the American Masters digital archive makes this rich catalog of interviews available to the public.

You can access the archive here. Many of them clock in between 20 and 40 minutes in length — like these interviews from Maya Angelou, David Bowie, Nan Goldin, and Betty White — but some are much longer, like Carol Burnett’s 3-hour 39-minute interview, Quincy Jones’ nearly 2-hour interview, and Steven Spielberg’s 1-hour 20-minute interview. What a treasure trove! (via @tedgioia)

The Gap Between Having Good Taste and Doing Good Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 24, 2020

I’ve shared this observation from Ira Glass about the gap between having good taste and doing good creative work before, but I ran across it the other day and thought it was worth highlighting again. Here’s a partial transcript (courtesy of James Clear):

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

The full interview from which the video above is excerpted can be found here. Notably, Glass’s advice matches that of this parable from Art & Fear.

Vanity Fair Interviews Billie Eilish for a Fourth Consecutive Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

For the fourth year in a row, Vanity Fair interviewed teen pop star Billie Eilish on where she is in her life, what she’s learned, where she sees herself in the future, how her work is progressing, and how her answers from previous years hold up. (Past interviews: 2019, 2018.) This year is obviously different because of the pandemic and hits differently because of it.

I still marvel that Vanity Fair embarked on this project with this particular person. They could have chosen any number of up-and-coming 2017 pop singer/songwriters and they got lucky with the one who went supernova and won multiple Grammys.

Anonymous Obama Gets Some Ice Cream

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2020

Barack Obama’s A Promised Land comes out today and The Root’s Michael Harriot has a brief interview with Obama. The rest of the interview is meatier, but I like Harriott’s last question:

Q: You are a former president and you are unquestionably the predominant role model for a generation of Black people, both of which come with a certain amount of public scrutiny. But for one day, you get to be an anonymous, everyday American who can go anywhere you want and do anything. Describe that day.

A: You know, honestly, I’d just take a walk. Go to the grocery store. Go out to dinner with Michelle. Maybe get some ice cream. Around my second or third year in office, I’d have this recurring dream, maybe once every six months, where I’m walking down the street and head into a coffee shop or a bar or something and nobody recognizes me. It was great!

You can read the rest of his answer, including his thoughts on “the tyranny of selfie”. I watched the Pete Souza documentary The Way I See It the other day1 and the wildest scenes were the ones showing a young Obama on the Senate campaign trail just walking around with no one noticing or bothering him. He must miss those days for sure. But I bet it’s also fun to be able to get literally anyone you want on the phone in 30 seconds.

P.S. I haven’t read it myself yet, but I’ve heard from many folks that Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy conversation with Obama is worth checking out.

P.P.S. In their excellent 5-part series on Princess Diana, You’re Wrong About’s Michael Hobbes shared his theory that “fame is abuse” and I’ve been thinking about that in relation to every celebrity story I’ve read since.

  1. Pro tip: in the US it’s streaming for free on Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service.

Leta Powell Drake, Interviewer Extraordinaire

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2020

This clip of Leta Powell Drake interviewing 80s TV & movie stars like Tom Hanks, Telly Savalas, and Gene Hackman is incredible. She was obviously not intimidated by celebrity — leaning in closely to Hackman, she says: “You’ve done some brilliant pictures and you’ve done some stinkers.” And that’s not even her worst burn.

The clips were compiled from interviews that she did for the TV station KOLN/KGIN in Lincoln, NE when celebs would come through town to promote their latest thing. History Nebraska has a full archive of these interviews available on YouTube.

Here’s a video profile of Drake from 2014 and a recent profile. She’s in the Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame (alongside Johnny Carson, Tom Brokaw, and Dick Cavett), played a character called Kalamity Kate on TV for several years, and also won city championships in horseshoes, golf, and bowling. Wow. (via @jfrankensteiner)

An Interview with ‘Kottke Ride Home’ Host Jackson Bird

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2020

Last week, I told you about the launch of kottke.org’s new podcast, Kottke Ride Home. The podcast is a 15-minute show with smart news and info hosted by Jackson Bird. I recently “sat down” with Jackson to ask him some questions. In this (very) lightly edited interview, he talks about how the podcast comes together every weekday, provides some insider knowledge on TED Talks, suggests about how we might relate to Harry Potter given JK Rowling’s repeated airing of her anti-trans views, and shares some media suggestions like YouTube videos, podcasts, and movies.

Let’s start with something easy. What are you up to these days, apart from hosting the podcast?

Apart from the podcast, I make videos for my YouTube channel, which I’ve been doing in various capacities since 2007. These days my videos are mostly on LGBTQ+ topics, but sometimes I throw random things on a waffle iron to see what happens. I also co-host a podcast about masculinity with my friend Bo Méndez called Everything’s Bigger. Before the pandemic, I was a pub quiz host. Since bars aren’t opening for indoor activities anytime soon here in New York City, I’m glad to have the Kottke Ride Home to fill my thirst for random knowledge.

How do you go about deciding which stuff to feature on the podcast? What are you looking for? Do you have a system? Is it a gut feeling? How do you know something’s right? (This is something I struggle to explain when I get this question, so I’d love to hear your perspective.)

I have a huge RSS feed list and bookmark anything I see that could possibly be interesting for the podcast, but as far as narrowing it down for what makes the cut each day, that’s a bit tougher. I like to have a nice balance of different genres (i.e. not too much science or too much history in any one day) and try to keep most of it fairly topical, even if I dive into older, archival finds here and there. When we were first developing the show, Brian suggested that each day listeners should learn something new, hear something that makes them smile, and learn something they might share at a dinner party (remember dinner parties?). I still try to stick to that for the most part. I’m aware that some listeners might be more into pop culture and others into scientific discoveries and still others looking for weird cultural finds, design, uplifting stories, and more so I try to make sure there’s something that would keep people listening everyday even if they aren’t interested in every single story. Sometimes it also comes down to length. We try to keep Ride Home shows to 15 minutes, which means each segment is ideally 400-500 words. If I got really into a story and accidentally wrote 1000 words, then the other segments have to be a bit shorter and lighter that day so another long story might get pushed to the next day. I don’t get it perfect everyday. It really is an intricate dance and truly a lot of gut feelings.

Over the past decade, TED has grown into a huge cultural juggernaut. What was it like on the inside, being a TED Resident and doing a TED Talk?

It was really surreal. I still sometimes can’t believe that I was not only picked to be a TED Resident, but also that I actually worked out of TED’s global headquarters in Manhattan everyday for over three months. My fellow residents were all working on amazing projects like an app to locate land mines, a VR time capsule of Coney Island, and a documentary destigmatizing mental illness in communities of color, but just being inside the beating heart of TED was inspiring all on its own. There was always something happening and residents were invited to be a part of most of it — like the day Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s The Art of Deal, came to speak in TED’s in-house theater just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Or the day I turned around from my desk and realized the woman who had been working in the conference room behind me for two hours was Monica Lewinsky.

Giving a TED Talk was massively intimidating. Having a TED Talk under your belt is a huge thing so I didn’t want to mess it up and blow the opportunity. I also knew that much of TED’s leadership would be watching from the audience. Part of what makes it so nerve-wracking is that it’s both a live performance and something filmed and shared in perpetuity. I’ve grown up doing both live performances and plenty of on-camera work, but rarely both at the same time — and certainly not for something that would have such a huge impact on my career. If you mess up in a live performance, you try to cover it somehow and keep going. It might not be your best night, but that’s okay because you feed off the audience and no one will ever see it again. If you mess up for a camera, you stop and start over. Because TED uses something like a dozen cameras all over the theater aimed at both you and the audience, we were instructed to use that latter method if we messed up, to stop and start over. With just one shot though, I still wanted to give my best performance for the audience so I just worked as hard as I could to not mess up. I must have practiced my talk close to a thousand times in the month leading up to actually giving it. That was a challenge in and of itself because it meant finishing the talk soon enough to get a month of practice in.

The process of writing, however, was really invigorating. We had a number of sessions with a speaking coach to help us craft our talks and hone our delivery. As someone who has been an independent creator for so long, it was really great to get so much feedback and spend so long making sure every single word had a purpose. TED Talks for residents are only six minutes, so every second has to count. As nervous as I was, I don’t think I could’ve done any better on the night, but I still never watch it back. I can’t stomach it. But it has been really nice to have one quick talk to point to as an example of my work and as a resource for people looking to learn more about transgender topics. If you watch on TED.com, there’s an extensive list of footnotes and further reading that I curated along with the video. TED staff thinks I may have broken a record for most extra resources added at the time.

You wrote a memoir that was published last September. Was writing a book something you’d always wanted to do?

Yeah, I always wanted to be a writer. I was “writing” stories on the family typewriter before I could spell any words. Growing up the only two things I cared about was writing and acting. I more or less quit acting when I went to college and between college papers and then copywriting for a nonprofit, I kind of lost any drive for creative writing for a while. The book kind of happened by accident. I set out to write a zine, something usually in the 3-10 page range, and ended up writing 75 pages. From there, I started thinking maybe I could expand the project into a memoir. I went back and forth for years on if I actually wanted to publish a memoir, but at the end of 2018 the opportunity presented itself and less than a year later I had published a book. It was a whirlwind and has been an awesome experience, but I can’t wait to write more books on a more normal timeline and which aren’t about me. I’ve got a picture book I’m working on, two young adult novels I’m trying to make headway on, and ideas for several other novels and works of creative nonfiction I’d love to one day write. And if Marvel ever let me write a Captain America novel, I’d be over the moon.

My kids and I are big Harry Potter fans. I read the entire series aloud to them, they’ve read all the books more times than I can keep track of, and they know an absurd amount of Potter trivia. The books have spurred & facilitated all kinds of conversations about the value of friendship, the acceptance of differences, and even the dangers of fascism. Their mom and I have told them about the statements that J.K. Rowling has made about trans people and how they differ from our views and seemingly from the inclusive messages in her own work. But I struggle about what guidance to offer them in how they should continue to relate to this entire world that she created that they love. You wrote about this separation of Potter & Rowling in the NY Times back in December before some of her most recent comments. Where are you on this these days?

I used to be the Communications Director for the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit that uses the power of story to mobilize fans towards social action. With over a hundred chapters all over the world, the HPA uses parallels from Harry Potter (and other books, comics, movies, etc.) as an entry point for teaching leadership skills and educating on particular issues and then taps into the inherent enthusiasm and organizing power of fans to effect real change in local communities and around the world. I didn’t write the book on how the Harry Potter series is saturated with inclusive and fairly progressive values, but I did write a peer-reviewed paper on it. So I’m extraordinarily familiar with how people have found solace and inspiration from the books as well as the amazing things fans have created around the books (from fanfiction and fan art to small businesses and an entire genre of music). Which is why I’m both completely nonplussed how the author of a series about unconditional love could have missed the message of her own books entirely and why I personally don’t care anymore. For me, the true magic of the series has always been what we’ve made of it ourselves, and what we’ve made from it. I know not everyone has deep and meaningful fandom experiences like I do to cling onto, especially young kids reading it for the time, but I do think we can separate the author from the art a little bit here. Authors being on social media and clinging ever steadfast to their opinions does make that a bit more challenging than in the past and, admittedly, I don’t think I’ll be able to stomach reading the books anytime soon without hearing her Twitter voice in my head, but I think there are ways to enjoy the books and acknowledge how her views may differ from your own. It’s a chance to interrogate our own biases and have a discussion about important topics. That said, for anyone for whom this was the last straw (because it was certainly not JK Rowling’s first offense), I completely understand. While Harry Potter will always hold a huge place in my heart and in the cultural consciousness of my generation, there are so many other amazing works out there by authors who live out their values and by trans people themselves.

And for anyone who has been a bit confused about the controversy surrounding JK Rowling, I highly recommend this extensively-researched video from YouTuber creators Jamie and Shaaba, a trans man and his fiancée. They’re doctoral researchers in England in the fields of transgender well-being and psychology so they know what they’re talking about. I also recommend this episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which discusses how fans can continue to be fans (or not) and gives several trans people (admittedly including myself) a chance to share how they’re feeling.

Ok, speed round. Are you a city person or country person? Or suburbs, I guess?

Country. I’ve reluctantly been in New York City for ten years and dreaming of moving to the country for at least five of them. I grew up in Texas so I’m used to more nature and wide open spaces than the urban jungle can in any way provide.

Optimist or pessimist?

Optimist, definitely.

What’s your favorite podcast (other than the one you host)?

So tough to choose just one podcast! I think I’ll go with One From The Vaults, hosted by Morgan M. Page. It’s a history podcast that focuses on one trans or gender nonconforming person from history each episode. Our history has been largely ignored so it’s really cool to learn about unknown or little mentioned individuals in great detail. As an honorable mention, WNYC’s Dear Hank and John always brings a smile to my face. Brothers (and authors/YouTube creators) Hank and John give dubious advice and update listeners on all the news related to Mars and third-tier English football team AFC Wimbledon.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A sidekick.

Favorite book, movie, or TV show?

I don’t know if I could ever choose a favorite book, but my favorite movie is hands down Back to the Future and my favorite TV show is a tie between Parks and Recreation and Downton Abbey.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Dr. Eric Selbin who taught my first year seminar at Southwestern University.

And finally, what question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never ask?

What’s your most-watched YouTube video?. (Answer.)
—-

Thanks Jackson, not only for taking the time but also for indulging my parenting question. You can listen to Jackson every weekday on Kottke Ride Home. And look for an episode of the podcast in the next few weeks where Jackson will subject me to similar but probably better questions.

Feeling Loved From a Distance

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2020

This is a great interview with Jia Tolentino in Interview magazine. Take for instance her answer to the question “What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?”:

That capitalist individualism has turned into a death cult; that the internet is a weak substitute for physical presence; that this country criminally undervalues its most important people and its most important forms of labor; that we’re incentivized through online mechanisms to value the representation of something (like justice) over the thing itself; that most of us hold more unknown potential, more negative capability, than we’re accustomed to accessing; that the material conditions of life in America are constructed and maintained by those best set up to exploit them; and that the way we live is not inevitable at all.

From later in the interview:1

I think the American obsession with symbolic freedom has to be traded for a desire for actual freedom: the freedom to get sick without knowing it could bankrupt you, the freedom for your peers to live life without fearing they’ll be killed by police. The dream of collective well-being has to outweigh, day-to-day, the dream of individual success.

And I’m struggling with quarantine in this way as well:

In quarantine I’ve been aware of the intellectual stagnation that comes when you stop physically seeking out and experiencing new things. There’s a loss that comes from not meeting strangers, not doing things just for the hell of doing them, not having everyday avenues of discovery and surprise.

Ok, one more thing and then I’ll just let you read the rest of it in peace:

People ought to seek out the genuine pleasure of decentering themselves, and read fiction and history alongside these popular anti-racist manuals, and not feel like they need to calibrate their precise degree of guilt and goodness all the time.

“The genuine pleasure of decentering themselves”. Yep.

  1. See also Pete Buttigieg’s progressive definition of freedom.

The USPS Introduces New Hip Hop Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2020

USPS Hip Hop Stamps

On July 1, the USPS is introducing a set of four stamps celebrating hip hop. The stamps were designed by Antonio Alcalá based on photographs by Cade Martin. In an interview with Steven Heller, Alcalá explained how he thought about the design process:

Hip Hop has a long and rich history, and from the start, I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent its totality in one set of stamps. But because it is such an important part of our nation’s art, and one of our most significant cultural contributions to the world, I knew we needed to at least begin representing it somehow. Hip Hop has four widely recognized key elements, or “pillars”: Rap, DJs, Graffiti, and B-boying (known more broadly as break-dancing). Using contemporary images that quickly and accurately depict the genres eased the burden of having to represent the many histories within the subject.

You can preorder the hip hop stamps on the USPS website.

How to Process Our Collective Global Trauma

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2020

Do you feel tired, scared, angry, sad or numb? Are you having trouble concentrating or sleeping? How about all of the above? Because of the events of the last few months — *gestures around at the pandemic, violence against Black people, climate change, global inequality, , etc. etc. etc.* — many people are experiencing trauma on an individual level as well as together on a collective level. Erin Biba interviewed psychologist Dr. Renée Lertzman, an expert on large scale trauma, about what we can do to address how we’re feeling in order to move past feeling like shit and become more useful to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The next really important piece is stabilizing ourselves with the bigger context. Really putting things in perspective that this is an event that is in fact legitimately destabilizing. It is stretching all of us in ways we haven’t anticipated and it’s important to have that context to make sense of what we’re experiencing and why. This is in fact, my brain is struggling to process what’s going on because it’s on a level that’s so beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before, so I’m struggling to even know how to be. Of course, I’m feeling this way, These are global events that are having all kinds of unexpected and traumatic impacts. How we live with that level of uncertainty is huge. Everyone is outside of their levels of tolerance right now.

“I’m struggling to even know how to be” is a really accurate summary of how I’ve been feeling recently. See also What To Do About Our Collective Pandemic Grief Before It Overwhelms Us and Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving.

A Powerful Lesson in Discrimination

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2020

Calling it one of their most requested videos, PBS’s Frontline has uploaded to YouTube their 1985 program on schoolteacher Jane Elliott’s powerful lesson in discrimination. The video shows how, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Elliott divided her third-grade class into those with blue eyes and those with non-blue eyes and then instructed the non-blue-eyed group to treat the blue-eyed group as inferior. The resulting behavior is fascinating, upsetting, and illuminating.

Elliott went on to become a noted antiracism activist and has done blue eyes/brown eyes workshops with groups of adults and teens. And she goes hard at them — see this video and this video for instance.

I’m trying to get the people who participate in this exercise the opportunity to find out how it feels like to be something other than white in this society. ‘Alright people, I’m Jane Elliott and I’m your resident bitch for the day and make no mistake about that, that is exactly what this is about.’ I do this in a mean, nasty way because racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ethnocentrism are mean and nasty.

I would also highly recommend watching this brief clip of a talk by Elliott. In less than a minute, she deftly skewers the idea that racial discrimination doesn’t exist in America and calls out White Americans’ complicity in allowing it to persist.

I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our black citizens — if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.

[Nobody stands.]

You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand. Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.

Freedom for some is not freedom.

Update: Alisha Haridasani Gupta recently interviewed Elliott for the NY Times. In it, she reveals that she doesn’t do her workshops anymore because people are increasingly close-minded.

I’ve been doing the exercise with adults for about 35 years. But in the last few years, I’ve only been doing speeches about it because we now live in a situation where people turn off immediately if they think they’re going to learn something counter to their beliefs, and I don’t want to be threatened with death anymore. I’m tired of receiving death threats.

The Joy of Werner Herzog

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2020

I missed this David Marchese interview of Werner Herzog back in March but was happy to run across it today — it is the perfect lunchtime read.

When you pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a car accident, did you know it was him? Yes, although he was upside down in this car, squished between airbags that had deployed and wildly trying to light a cigarette.

That could be an image from one of your films. I knew he must not light his cigarette, because there was gasoline dripping and he would have perished in a fireball. So I tried to be clearly commandeering to him and tell him not to. But I was worried that if you gave him a command, he would strike his lighter even harder. So I managed to snatch the cigarette lighter from his hand. Then it became completely clear that it was Joaquin. But I didn’t want to speak to him after. I saw he wanted to come over and thank me. I just drove off.

Herzog talking about his time making The Mandalorian:

What about baby Yoda? Did you think baby Yoda was cute? No, not cute. It was a phenomenal achievement of sculpting mechanically. When I saw this, it was so convincing, it was so unique. And then the producers talked about, Shouldn’t we have a fallback version with green screen and have it be completely digitally created? I said to them: It would be cowardly. You are the trailblazers. Show the world what you can do.

See also 24 Pieces of Life Advice from Werner Herzog, including “Take revenge if need be” and “Carry bolt cutters everywhere”.

What To Do About Our Collective Pandemic Grief Before It Overwhelms Us

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2020

For That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, HBR’s Scott Berinato interviewed David Kessler, who he calls “the world’s foremost expert on grief”, about what we’re collectively feeling as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?

Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

HBR: You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?

Kessler: Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

And what can we start to do about our grief?

Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.

Kessler recently came out with a new book called Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

I wrote a bit about grief a couple years back in this post How Do You Help a Grieving Friend?

One of the odd things about getting older (and hopefully wiser) is that you stop chuckling at cliches and start to acknowledge their deep truths. A recent example of this for me is “the only way out is through”. As Devine notes, in this video and her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK, there’s no shortcut for dealing with pain…you have to go through it to move past it.

See also a collection of resources for dealing with death compiled by Chrysanthe last year. (via laura olin)

Update: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving by novelist R.O. Kwon:

Other people who couldn’t stay home were going to work every day — many without the option, the privilege, of doing otherwise — while here I was, home, and I couldn’t, of all things, write. Yes, there’s a pandemic, and yes, I felt by turns anxious, furious, and terrified, but it’s 2020 in America, and I’ve felt quite anxious, furious and terrified for a while. The inability to work, though, was new.

But then it occurred to me, as I ate another astringent chip, that this lassitude, the trouble focusing, the sleep difficulties, my exhaustion: Oh yes, I thought, I remember this. I was grieving. I was grieving in early March, I’m still grieving now, and chances are, you are, too.

(via @_chrysanthe)

A 1929 Interview with a 103-Year-Old Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2020

The Great Span was Alger Hiss’s term for the personal links of living humans across large periods of time. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shook hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy, linking the Revolutionary War with the Vietnam War. This interview with 103-year-old Galusha Cole filmed in 1929 is another instance of this phenomenon:

This was part of a series of interviews with the elderly on the cusp of the Great Depression. Cole was born in 18261 during the administration of John Quincy Adams, was alive at the same time as Ludwig van Beethoven, and lived just long enough to be captured in voice and picture on film.

  1. Although this page on Find a Grave claims that Cole was actually only 92 at the time of the interview. Which would be interesting vis a vis his proclamation that he doesn’t have any vices.

The Long Life and Fun Times of Roger Angell

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2020

This interview with living legend Roger Angell, whose writing first appeared in the New Yorker in 1944 and is still writing for them at the age of 99, is full of gems like this one, when he interview Benny Goodman as a high schooler:

Then in high school, at Pomfret, I tried out for the school newspaper, and one of the first people I interviewed was Benny Goodman. I was fourteen or fifteen, and I went to the Madhattan Room, at the Hotel Pennsylvania, where he was playing, and one of the people there was S.J. Perelman, a young humor writer my mother knew, and he knew Benny Goodman.

I asked Benny Goodman if I could interview him, and he said, “Come to my hotel room tomorrow, at one in the afternoon.” So I went up at one and rang his bell and rang it and rang it, and then he came to the door wearing his jockey shorts and his eyeglasses, very sleepy. I’d woken him up. My lede on the story was “Great bandleaders get to sleep late.”

And this one, about Joseph Mitchell:

The thing about Joe Mitchell is that he knew everything. No subject escaped him, from James Joyce to horse breeding, backcountry life, culture. A.J. Liebling, his close friend and colleague, resented this. So one day Liebling is wandering around Sixth Avenue — it still had the elevated track — and there was a little taxidermy shop under the subway, and he goes in and finds a little set of bones. The owner says, “These are very interesting. They’re the bones of a young male opossum, which has a bone in its penis.” Liebling buys this collection of bones for six dollars and brings it over to the office wrapped up in a paper bag. Mitchell is typing. Liebling knocks on the door, comes in, unwraps the package, and puts it on the table. Mitchell looks at it and says, “Pecker bone of a young male opossum — anything you want to know about that?”

Billie Eilish Interviewed by AI Bot

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2020

Collaborating with the team at Conde Nast Entertainment and Vogue, my pal Nicole He trained an AI program to interview music superstar Billie Eilish. Here are a few of the questions:

Who consumed so much of your power in one go?
How much of the world is out of date?
Have you ever seen the ending?

This is a little bit brilliant. The questions are childlike in a way, like something a bright five-year-old would ask a grownup, perceptive and nonsensical (or even Dr. Seussical) at the same time. As He says:

What I really loved hearing Billie say was that human interviewers often ask the same questions over and over, and she appreciated that the AI questions don’t have an agenda in the same way, they’re not trying to get anything from her.

I wonder if there’s something that human interviewers can learn from AI-generated questions — maybe using them as a jumping off point for their own questions or asking more surprising or abstract questions or adapting the mentality of the childlike mind.

See also Watching Teen Superstar Billie Eilish Growing Up.

Dozens of Classic Interviews from The Dick Cavett Show

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2020

Open Culture’s Josh Jones takes us on a tour of the amazing YouTube channel for The Dick Cavett Show. The show ran from 1968 well into the 80s and Cavett was known for having on big name guests and getting them to talk about important and interesting topics, making the show a more serious older sibling to The Tonight Show. Jones says Cavett “had a way of making everyone around him comfortable enough to reveal just a little more than they might otherwise”.

The show’s YouTube channel contains dozens and dozens of interview clips, including Marlon Brando talking about rejecting his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather:

Some of the other videos feature John Lennon on why The Beatles ended, Jimi Hendrix talking about performing at Woodstock, Orson Welles recounting a dinner with Adolf Hitler, Janis Joplin’s final TV interview, Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, and David Crosby fresh off of their appearances at Woodstock, Robin Williams on depression, and Carly Simon talks about stage fright. Check out the post at Open Culture for more or cross-reference this Wikipedia list of the show’s most memorable moments with the YouTube videos.

Watching Teen Superstar Billie Eilish Growing Up

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2019

It is an understatement to say that a lot has happened to Billie Eilish in the past three years. She has gone from being a well-regarded but little-known singer/songwriter to being Grammy-nominated and one of the biggest young stars in the world. For the third year in a row, Vanity Fair sat down with Eilish to ask her about her life and career, what being famous is like, and how she views her past selves.

As I said last year, the video is fascinating to watch, like a teen celeb version of the 7 Up film series. She seems much happier and more confident — “I want to stay happy. That’s a big goal for me.” It will be interesting next year to see how this bit ages:

I like being famous. It’s very weird and it’s very cool.

(via @fimoculous)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge Answers

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

The Guardian got a bunch of writers and performers — folks like Olivia Colman, Roxane Gay, Nigella Lawson, and Victoria Beckham — to ask the delightful Phoebe Waller-Bridge a bunch of questions and the whole thing is delightful because she is, as I said earlier, delightful.

Lucy Prebble, playwright: How many really good works do you think a writer has in them?

PWB: I’m going to say infinite for the sake of my own professional optimism, but I don’t think there’s a rule. I do think there are only so many things you can pull out of the bones of you … and they are usually the good ones. I don’t have a number for you. Fuck it, six.

Jack Thorne, playwright: Did you ever consider an ending where the Priest — I refuse to call him Hot Priest — said yes?

PWB: May I clarify that I never scripted him as Hot Priest! That was the good work of the internet meeting Andrew Scott’s impossibly intense charisma. There was an idea for an alternative ending, but I’ll never say what it was…

Anne Enright, novelist: Is it better to be fucked up by religion than by life? And why is damage so sexy?

PWB: If I was going to choose, I’d rather be fucked up by religion. At least that is something I could feasibly escape and still be breathing.

Damage is indicative of vulnerability, which I think always feels a little dangerous. It is evidence that a person can feel deeply, that they can be open … then that delicious wall goes up and we just want to scramble over it and save (and feel) the person. It’s irresistible. I also think damage is a glimpse of something honest, and that’s always attractive.

National Geographic Asked Women from Around the World About Their Breakthroughs and Challenges

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2019

As part of their Nov 2019 issue focusing on women, National Geographic asked a group of women six questions:

What Is the Most Important Challenge That Women Face Today?
What Is the Greatest Hurdle You’ve Overcome?
What Was Your Breakthrough Moment?
What Needs to Change in the Next 10 Years?
What Is Your Greatest Strength?
What Advice Would You Give Young Women Today?

The interviewees include Jacinda Ardern, Melinda Gates, Roxane Gay, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Goodall, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When asked about the most important challenge facing women today, the answer was almost universally “lack of equality” (although Laura Bush turned it into an opportunity to worry about boys being left behind educationally in the US). Here’s Jane Goodall’s answer:

In so many developing countries, women have no freedom. In poor communities families tend to provide money to educate boys over girls. In many cultures women have no access to family planning, have numerous children, and are solely responsible for their care. For these reasons not only women but children — and thus our future — will suffer.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote this about her breakthrough moment as a student in Nigeria:

It was when I was nine years old, in the third grade, and I remember this very clearly. My teacher had said that the child with the best results on the test that she gave would be the prefect. So I got the best result — and then she said, ‘Oh, I forgot to mention, it has to be a boy.’ I just thought, Why? It would make sense to have said the class prefect has to be the child with the best grades or the child with some sort of useful skill. But the idea that this position of prestige and power in the classroom was reserved for somebody by an accident of being born a particular sex — that was just strange. So my sense of righteous indignation flared up, and I said to my teacher, ‘That makes no sense.’ That was the first time that I spoke up about sexism. It didn’t work, but it was the moment for me that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

Oprah Winfrey on what she perceives to be her greatest strength:

No question, it’s connection to other people. You know, I’ve interviewed rapists and murderers and child molesters and all kinds of people who have done terrible things — but I can put myself in the space of where they are in that moment and meet them where they are. So my ability to connect to where you are in that moment — not to the thing that supposedly defines you — that’s one of my great strengths. I think that had I had the love, the attention, the family surroundings that would have nurtured and supported me in the way that I thought I needed, I wouldn’t have it. I think that this connection and yearning to know the heart of other people came from my own sense of loneliness, my own sense of wanting to be understood and know that whatever I’m feeling, somebody else has felt it too.

Zach Galifianakis’ Brief Stint at Saturday Night Live

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2019

In this clip from a longer conversation in the Off Camera interview series, Zach Galifianakis talks about his brief two-week stint on Saturday Night Live and how he felt when a sketch he wrote totally bombed at the cast table read.

Here are all 10 clips of the interview. See also Robert Downey Jr. recounting his year-long SNL career.

Interviewing Ira Glass

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 19, 2019

ira_glass.jpg

One of the troubles with interviewing Ira Glass is that Ira Glass has a lot of thoughts about interviews.

Claudia Dreifus: When we first discussed doing this, you asked if I had heard a recent Terry Gross interview with Howard Stern. Why was that?

Ira Glass: Because it was an interviewer interviewing an interviewer. It was interesting to hear him appreciate her moves. He also clearly had no idea who she is. He admitted, “I sort of looked you up last night.” Whereas I know Terry has been listening for years.

To be clear: he’s an excellent interviewer. Part of the pleasure was hearing these two iconic radio voices talking to each other. Stern clearly admired the interview she was doing. She did such a good job of pointing him to things, being appropriately critical of the way that he talks about women, but also being appropriately admiring.

If I were to interview him, I’d feel intimidated.

Really?

Yeah. He’s a bossy sort of presence. I don’t like interviewing famous people. They make me nervous. I’ve always tried to avoid interviewing famous people.

Is that because they are usually over-interviewed or because they arrive at an interview with impenetrable masks?

All of these things.

It’s just more difficult. To get them to say anything real, you have to find an angle on their experience that will open them up. And there are things famous people want to keep private, things they’re tired of talking about, things they’ve told so many times that they have no interest in telling them again—but will tell again in exactly the same words they’ve used in the past…

Can I go back to something? And feel free to edit this any way you like. I’m already editing this interview in my head because I’m a crazy person and can’t stop myself. This idea of not wanting to interview famous people, that’s one of the things that led to the work I’m doing today. I knew in my twenties, while at NPR, that the thing I wanted to do was document regular people’s lives. The question then was, “How do you do that?”

It is weird to me that Ira Glass in his sixties. (He just turned 60 in March.) All this time, Ira Glass was less than a year younger than Prince.

Ira Glass has a lot of thoughts about podcasts that he doesn’t seem ready to share. You can see it, he kind of schtums up and falls back on generalities and a few broad compliments. I don’t know. Maybe that’s all he’s got, maybe that’s all we can have.

Ira Glass says he borrowed and borrows a lot from Roland Barthes’ S/Z when trying to get interviewees to structure a story, but I don’t really see it. This line made me laugh though.

At college, we were assigned Barthes’s S/Z , which made me understand what I could do in radio.

Really? How did the French semiotician help shape your journalism? Frankly, a lot of people find semiotics to be…

—this incredibly pretentious literary theory that takes as its thesis that narrative is part of the general conspiracy of language to imprison us in our place in society. I ignored that.

Ira Glass should find more ways to tell stories about what working in radio was like in the seventies. There’s something there. He doesn’t catch it all.

The Forgotten Power of Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2019

David Remnick recently interviewed Robert Caro and if you’ve read Caro’s book, Working, or the New Yorker article based on the book, there’s not much new here, but this exchange at the end is worth highlighting:

Remnick: We are living in a political moment, and when you watch the current President it seems that one of the saving graces is that, for all his erratic thinking, insulting thinking, his insults directed at minority groups — and, well, practically everyone — that he’s not that good at the exercise of power. He won the election, but if he had Johnsonian capacities in terms of the exercise of power, we might be even in deeper trouble than we already are.

Caro: Well, I think that that’s correct. And I think, [what] you say about Johnson, what does it mean to [be like] Johnson? You say, well, he wins election over Barry Goldwater, in 1964, by this tremendous majority. So the next morning he’s on the phone — or the morning after, he’s still hoarse the day of the election — calling the House Majority Leader and saying, “You know, the only thing that can hold this up here is the Rules Committee. Now is the moment to change the Rules Committee. Here’s how to do it.” And in the next couple of months he passes Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the voting-rights bill… I’m forgetting the rest of it. The most amazing — he could seize a moment because of this political genius that he has, and change, really, the face of America. It’s hard to remember a day when there wasn’t Medicare or Medicaid.

Remnick: You write in “Working” that there is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power. But there’s also great good that can come out of it. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this, you write. Why have we forgotten it?

Caro: You ask very good questions. I think we’ve forgotten it because we’ve had too many Presidents who don’t use political power — you say, what are things that change people’s lives? In the last century, Social Security, Medicare-like, right now I’m working on a section that, you could say, if I wanted to call it this, is what it was like to be old and sick in America before Medicare. And as I’m doing this I’m thinking, People aren’t even going to be able to imagine this. What was it like to be old in America before Social Security? People can’t imagine it. The power of government to do good for people is immense. And I think we have forgotten that power.