Extratone

Extratone is an online magazine covering technology, music, culture, and media with an ongoing passion for New Culture and a duty to further its voices.

by David Blue

SoundCloud Tile

Last Tuesday, SoundCloud announced the release of onsite, automated mastering in cooperation with Dolby. The service will cost $4.99 per track for non-Pro Unlimited subscribers, who'll receive three free mastered tracks per month and $3.99 per track masters after that. After uploading a new track (less than 10 minutes in length,) users will see a small button labeled “Master Track,” which then takes them to a trimming interface that prompts them to select a 30-second, “high contrast” clip representing the dynamic extremes of the track, which is then locked in as the singular preview for the service. After “listening”/analyzing said clip, the user is brought to the mastering interface and prompted to select between four presets:

Thunder “Make car speakers rumble and club systems shake. This option will push your bass frequencies to the limit.”

Sunroof “Open up your mid and high frequencies and bring some life to your transients. This option is perfect for hip-hop and any other beat-focused genre.”

Aurora “Aiming for something ethereal, light and wavy? This option will infuse even the most experimental tracks with a new burst of color.”

Clear Sky “Brighten your mix, manage your dynamics and reign in your low end with this pop-focused mastering option.”

For a professional analysis of each preset (and extreme hair,) see MixbusTV's video.

I asked a number of music-related Discord servers if they'd tried the feature yet and Business Casual's answered the most comprehensively.

SoundCloud Mastering - Business Casual Discord

The general consensus from musicians and producers seems to be that SoundCloud misinvested its resources into the making of the feature. On the MixbusTV video, YouTube user Nelson Leeroy comments “Lot of uneducated aspiring artists will fall for it.... Sound Cloud should not be allowed to use the word mastering, it's misguiding, it's a scam.” A Twitter search for “SoundCloud Mastering” yields overwhelmingly critical commentary, including “SoundCloud Mastering is jus IG Filters for songs,” which – from what I've seen – I agree with completely.

I reached out to Dolby's media contact email address asking how long the two companies spent working on this service and about any future cooperative projects. Gentry Bennett, who described herself as “the PR lead for this launch,” responded 25 minutes later (prompt AF,) answering “the teams were working together for a couple years on this tool.”

#software #music

by Sierra Bryant

Is your dark sense of humor ruining your job?

Stressed Out

Abstract

In this paper, studies on the use and misuse of humor in fields of work that involve exposure to secondary traumatic stress will be analyzed. This will also look at the past mistakes of other studies in not defining the differences in types of humor in relation to their effects on both professionals and clients. Making the distinction between lighthearted and gallows humor can change the entire meaning of a study. This thesis analyzes and explains the results from multiple studies and also explain why this field requires more research before any solid conclusions can be made.

Keywords

gallows or negative humor, secondary traumatic stress, lighthearted or positive humor, successful humor

Many studies have been done on humor and its uses as a coping mechanism in the workplace. The majority of these studies conclude that humor in the workplace is beneficial. Few of them differentiate between positive and negative humor, though. Because of this there is more than one answer to the question of “is humor in the workplace good or bad?” Professionals in career fields that involve Secondary Traumatic Stress often use forms of humor as coping mechanisms. In this essay, multiple studies that touch on the subject of humor in these types of workplaces will be analyzed. Gallows humor and negative humor will be used interchangeably, as well as lighthearted humor and positive humor and the following topics will be addressed:

  1. Explaining Secondary Traumatic Stress
  2. The distinction between lighthearted, gallows, and successful humor
  3. Positive effects of humor in the workplace
  4. Negative effects of humor in the workplace
  5. Effects of humor on clients
  6. Alternate coping mechanisms
  7. Further research

Through analyzing these topics, it can be concluded that, while successful humor can be a very good coping skill in stressful work environments, gallows humor is not and has even been linked to negative effects on the individual’s physical and psychological wellbeing.

What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Professionals who often deal with traumatic events experience a lot of stress. This type of stress, when it is severe, is referred to as Secondary Traumatic Stress. Secondary Traumatic Stress is defined in the Psychiatric Times as, “indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event.” This means that individuals who assist others during traumatic events or hear recounts of traumatic events run the risk of developing Secondary Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress, or STS, are similar to the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which occurs in individuals who experience trauma first-hand. Professionals who deal with these kinds of issues include, but are not limited to: police officers, forensic nurses, firefighters, crime scene investigators, surgeons, therapists, and sex crime workers. In these professions, humor is often used to combat this stress or serve as a coping mechanism. The humor used as a coping mechanism in these careers can often be macabre due to the austere nature of their jobs. These professionals experience, secondhand, everything from serious injuries, to death, to the aftermath of sexual assaults and much more. These are not experiences that the average person goes through on a day to day basis. Because of this, it does take a toll on these professionals. This secondhand, or indirect, exposure to trauma can have huge emotional impacts on individuals and many believe humor can be used to combat this. In a study done on 133 human service professionals, ranging in age from 20 to 64, it was found that age, sex, and relationship status did not have much effect on Secondary Traumatic Stress levels. This means that anyone can be susceptible to developing Secondary Traumatic Stress in these career fields.

Different Types of Humor

In most contexts, humor is considered a positive aspect of communication while the darker side goes unmentioned. While humor can be used both in and outside of the workplace to lift spirits, this is not its only use. Humor was seen as an important staff skill by individuals involved in a study on Forensic Nurses, though timing and type were never clarified in the research that was analyzed. Humor can be intended for and perceived in many different ways. Humor can be seen as aggressive, rude, or sarcastic when at the expense of others. When used positively though, humor can be lighthearted and fun. It can also be used to express emotions like anger, frustration, and joy. While defining humor, Boes and Wormer point out that Freud thought of humor as “a coping mechanism that allows society to reduce tension by expressing… obscene impulses in a socially acceptable manner.” This statement implies that at one time gallows humor was believed to be tension-relieving and positive. Gallows humor refers to the dark sense of humor some develop while working in high stress career fields. It can be defined as “humor that makes fun of a life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations.” It is often used only amongst certain groups of workers because others are seen as “outsiders” who would not understand their sense of humor. Craun and Bourke also touch on this, stating that professionals who all work with sudden traumatic deaths feel comfortable using gallows humor amongst themselves but know better than to use it with other workers, such as those involved in clerical work. Because of this, the group that uses gallows humor knows to censor themselves around “outsiders.” Successful humor is defined as a mutually amusing communication. Both gallows and lighthearted humor can fall into this category depending on the situation but just because humor is successful does not mean it is positive.

When is Humor Good in Regards to Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Having a good sense of humor has long been seen as something that decreases depression, anxiety, and stress while increasing immunity to illness and enhancing moods. Positive humor can illicit positive responses, therefore having the potential to improve group processes in the workplace. Mesmer-Magnus, Glew, and Viswesvaran come to the conclusion in their meta-analysis that positive humor can build affinity, reduce burnout, increase workplace cohesion, and enhance coping effectiveness. Through analyzing the results of prior research, they were able to deduce that lighthearted humor was able to increase job performance and satisfaction, as well as, save money that would usually have been spent as a side-effect of employees being burned out. It can also be said from their research that positive humor in the workplace can be linked to better overall physical and mental health. So, it can be said that positive and lighthearted humor do correlate with positive effects. In Craun and Bourke’s qualitative study of 500 sex crime workers, they were able to show that lighthearted humor was used frequently by the Internet Crimes Against Children members through the use of several surveys. The use of lighthearted humor correlated with lower Secondary Traumatic Test scores and had more effect on the scores than social and coworker support.

A type of humor that usually has a positive impact on workers is “play on words” humor. Play on words humor can be considered as a type of lighthearted humor. In a study done on humor used in the emergency room, this type of humor was discussed. This kind of humor can be purposeful, or it can come from a Freudian slip. An example given by Wormer and Boes is of a doctor accidentally saying, “Just eat 'em and street 'em” rather than “Just treat 'em and street 'em.” Another example given was of a nickname made for a surgeon who often wore cowboy boots and was “very aggressive” during his procedures. It was always said out of his ear shot, but his staff called him the “cowboy surgeon.” This kind of humor is harmless and facilitates a sense of community amongst the coworkers in the emergency room.

Tension relieving nonsense was another form of lighthearted humor discussed in Wormer and Boes’ analysis of humor in the emergency room. They called it tension relieving nonsense because this kind of silly humor often results in laughter. Laughing can help relax muscles, relieve tightness, and aid in creating a sense of well-being. Wormer and Boes pass on a story told by a nurse administrator, named Alice Guy, that encompasses tension relieving humor, stating:

Hospital staff members were having a party when word came that a patient was on the roof threatening suicide. Guy was furious at this threat to their fun. Rushing to the roof and speaking without thinking, she ordered, 'Get off that roof! You're interrupting the party.’ The man did. The humor of the story was that despite the fact that others had tried for hours to get the man off the roof, he obeyed the one person who simply spoke her mind – and in doing so went beyond the bounds of good professionalism. This amusing story was shared at the hospital for years after.

There are many positive ways to use humor as a coping mechanism, but this does not mean that all ways of using humor for coping are good.

The Use of Gallows Humor

In their meta-analysis, Boes and Wormer suggest that gallows humor is a way of maintaining sanity in insane conditions; that it is an illogical response to a hopeless situation. This is where the research begins to clash, because while this may be partially true, others believe the results of Craun and Bourke’s study help clarify that even if gallows humor gives you a sense of relief, it is only temporary because in the long run the effects of its use are not positive. Boes and Wormer gave an example of an inmate on death row jokingly turning down a cigarette because he had quit the prior day. This is an example of gallows humor because, generally speaking, people stop smoking for health reasons. They do not want to get cancer, emphysema, or they want to live to see their grandchildren, etc. Because this inmate is on death row though, none of these things apply to them so the inmate is seen as using gallows humor to make light of the fact he may not be alive much longer. Another example they give is about an inmate on death row asking about when they are going to start a weight watchers program. Again, this is gallows humor because realistically, this person will not be alive very long, so their weight is not an actual concern. The humor is just being used as a coping mechanism to make light of the fact the inmate is on death row.

Watson has a similar concept of gallows humor as Freud. Watson is quoted in her qualitative research on gallows humor in the medical field saying, “blanket dismissals of gallows humor as unprofessional misunderstand or undervalue the psychological, social, cognitive, and linguistic ways that joking and laughing work.” Another source states that laughter can be used to help interrupt physiological stress responses because it increases exhalation and it eases muscle tension. Humor though, can exist as a separate entity than laughter and therefore does not correlate. Not to mention that in Craun and Bourke’s study, they found that the use of gallows humor correlated with higher Secondary Traumatic Stress scores and even had a higher effect on the scores than using denial as a coping skill did. Gallows humor was also linked to an increase in alcohol consumption in participants in the past year and reduced psychological wellness. Craun and Bourke point out previous studies imply that the use of gallows humor may be an indication of psychological distress in workers. These studies show that use and increasing use of gallows humor is an indicator that the professional is no longer compassionate enough to fulfil their job properly, as well as, the possibility that it is a red flag indicating that the individual is not coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress well.

Some researchers believe that using gallows humor as a coping mechanism is not a big deal. They believe that professionals in career fields where Secondary Traumatic Stress is experience should use whatever methods necessary to cope. One of these studies makes the claim that “The use of black humor among emergency services professionals would thus be seen as a form of stress release, relieving the professional of intolerable feelings of horror, helplessness, and anger, and this in turn would reduce psychic anxiety.” They also acknowledge, though, that using this kind of humor to cope could end up with adverse effects such as increasing anger. They use the old concept of superiority theory to support these claims. Superiority theory states that using humor at the expense of others helps raise our self-esteem and by blaming victims for the unfortunate things that happen to them. Individuals can convince themselves they would never be in a position to experience the same misfortune. In their examination, they use a quote from Wear and Colleagues to support their stance, citing “students enter the clinical world full of enthusiasm and optimism for what medicine can achieve and are met with obstacles of all sorts, including cynical faculty, uncooperative or unappreciative patients, and their own unanticipated emotional responses to the experience of hospital based medicine. Every day they encounter something that should be otherwise, and humor may be one way of managing the incongruencies.” While it can be seen that humor is important in the workplace as way of managing the day to day events, once again, this quote from this study does not point out what kind of humor they are discussing. The study itself may go into further detail, but what is provided in the examination by Regehr and Rowe does not.

Effects on Work Relationships and Clients

Humor can be used as a tool to bond with people. In the study on forensic nurses, they focused a part of their research on humor as a relational tool. They specified this as the use of humor with patients. The results were split, a good portion of the nurses said they believed humor helped with their patient relations while others stated that the use of humor in general was challenging the institutional order. They also stated that even the most well intended jokes can be misunderstood and taken the wrong way and that this possibility might make it less worth it to employ humor with patients, but correct use of humor could lead to a more relaxed patient. In another study of nurses, it was indicated that those who were experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress were more likely to be impersonal or angry with patients therefore reducing the quality of the patient and care taker interaction as well as colleague to colleague relationships. Another source reported acknowledging that using gallows humor with patients could dehumanize those who the jokes are about.

This open-ended result on the effects of humor on patients is just one of the many reasons more research needs to be done in this field. When patients use gallows humor, it is often seen as giving themselves power in a situation they are otherwise powerless in. While this is definitely one way to explain this phenomenon, it is possible that this could be interpreted in another way. The use of gallows humor as a coping mechanism may be a way of deflecting, preventing full acknowledgment of their emotional state. This room for interpretation is another reason why more research needs to be done in this field that distinguishes between lighthearted and gallows humor.

Alternative Coping Skills

One study that does look into alternative ways for workers to deal with Secondary Traumatic Stress suggests using resilience and mindfulness as an alternative coping mechanism. This study defines resilience as a “buffer which protects individuals from adverse environmental influences and forces” and “the ability to bounce back from adversity, persevere through difficult times, and return to a state of internal equilibrium.” The other suggestion is mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined in their research as “an intentional state of awareness, mindfulness concerns the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, in a non-judgmental and accepting manner.” Mindfulness is very effective in reducing stress and increasing what Harker, Pidgeon, Klaassen, and King referred to as resilience. Unlike resilience though, mindfulness has an explanation as to how to reach it. Mindfulness can be practiced through multiple techniques which range from quietly meditating to playing active games and are generally done in 5-minute increments in therapeutic settings but can be done for as long as the individual or group needs outside of the therapeutic setting. Increased mindfulness was linked with an increase of psychological well-being and with a decrease in Secondary Traumatic Stress scores. They also found that “research investigating the beneficial effects of increased levels of mindfulness has reported improvements in distress tolerance, emotion regulation skills, and psychological flexibility. In order to conduct their study, they sampled a group of 133 human service professionals – mostly women – and gave them a series of questionnaires. The questionnaires they used were The Professional Quality of Life Scale, The General Well-Being Schedule, The Resilience Factor Inventory, and The Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory. The Quality of Life Scale has two subscales: one the measures exhaustion, frustration, anger, and depression symptoms and the other measures negative feelings brought on by work-related trauma and fear. Anxiety and depressive symptoms are assessed using the General Well-Being Schedule, along with overall psychological well-being. The Resilience Factor Inventory evaluates the individual’s level of resilience with 60 questions and The Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory evaluates the individual’s mindfulness using 14 questions.

The conclusions that these tests came to were that higher levels of resilience and mindfulness correlated with lower levels of Secondary Traumatic Stress. Mindfulness showed less effect on the levels while resilience showed much more. Mindfulness only made up for 1.77% of the variance and resilience made up 8.18% of the variance. The researchers did point out at the end, though, that the study was completely voluntary and therefore may have had skewed data. The way they framed the concern was that the employees who were experiencing the most Secondary Traumatic Stress may have been too emotionally fatigued to participate in the study and that this may have skewed the data. On top of this, they pointed out that self-report data can be unreliable due to the fact that people often show social desirability biases.

Because the symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress are so similar to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress, it could be said that treatments geared for PTSD may be effective in treating STS. One of these treatment paths are Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. “Cognitive behavioral therapies (CBTs) challenge the way individuals think and behave and are an effective intervention for treatment of PTSD.” One type of CBT is CPT, or Cognitive Processing Therapy. This is a therapy that was originally developed to treat rape victims. In CPT, the traumatic event is revisited in order to facilitate reshaping the negative world views created by the traumatic event. An example given is of someone being raped and developing a view that the world is not safe. In order to combat this the therapist would assist in changing this view from “the world isn’t safe” to “I can learn to protect myself in an unsafe world.” By doing this, the therapist can help lower the distress levels of the patient, as well as avoidance, which is a component of PTSD. CBT involves homework for patients as well to help generalize the skills being taught within the clinical setting.

Another treatment often used for PTSD is Prolonged Exposure Therapy. This is a behavioral therapy that “helps clients safely face frightening experiences and memories by recalling traumatic memories in a controlled fashion.” This process is done gradually in a controlled setting so as to not overwhelm the patient. It is believed that this process can help the patient assess their symptoms and reshape their feelings and thoughts about the event that caused them to develop PTSD. It can also help the patient to slowly begin regular functioning on a day to day basis.

Psychotropic medication can also be beneficial for PTSD patients. Some anti-depressants can help reduce the levels of depression, stemming from the traumatic event, in patients. There are many anti-depressants that are approved by the FDA to assist with PTSD symptoms. Anxiolytics, or antianxiety and antipanic medications, can be used to reduce stress and anxiety levels in individuals who have PTSD according to the Mayo Clinic. There are also medications such as Prazosin, an antihypertensive medication, that is not approved to treat PTSD by the FDA, but the Mayo Clinic believes could help keep nightmares at bay and combat insomnia.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, otherwise known as EMDR, is evidence based when it comes to its effectiveness in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. EMDR is a mixture of psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, and body-centered therapies. During this treatment, the therapist will use what is called “bilateral stimulation.” This means the client will work to process the traumatic event while the therapist uses “eye movements following hand, tactile or auditory cues.” During this process, the client goes back and forth between thinking of the traumatic event and focusing on the present moment. This is called “dual attention.”

Further Research

While it is true that research has identified positive links between humor and emotional states, very few people have made the distinction between lighthearted and gallows humor. Because of this, studies that primarily focus on positive humor are often used to justify gallows humor in the workplace as well because the distinction was never made between positive and negative humor. The connection Watson makes between gallows humor and laughter earlier in the paper is an example of this, as well as Boes’ and Wormer’s interpretation of what using gallows humor as a patient indicates. The misconception that all humor is connected with laughing and therefore positive is just that, a misconception. This flaw in humor studies means that there is still a significant amount of research needing to be done in this area. Studies should be done to clearly determine what the effects of positive and negative humor are separately. Studies need to be done on professional-client relationships and the use of gallows humor. These studies should focus on groups where only the professional uses gallows, only the patient uses gallows, both use gallows, and then neither use gallows. It may be very difficult to find these relationships naturally but if it could be done, it could be said that this would be a very effective way of gathering data on these types of social relationships. It can also be said that it would be beneficial for professionals who use gallows humor to be evaluated individually to see if there is a correlation with things such as depression and anxiety and the use of gallows humor because very few studies do. Another aspect that would be good to look into is whether or not there is a difference in the effects based on sex and gender. Although one of the studies previously discussed sex alone, the study was almost 80% women and therefore could be biased. Even though many do not believe there are many physiological differences between men and women, the ways life is experienced in our patriarchal society may possibly leave one sex or gender more vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress. In order to get past the self-report data bias, assessments in the future could be conducted using a psychiatrist or other assessment specific professional to administer the questionnaires in a format closer to how mental illnesses are assessed. A lot of these studies focused on correlation. This is an important factor, but future research should focus more on causation and include more factors that could be affecting the results of the experiments. Another beneficial thing to look into would be if certain therapies that show success with PTSD would show the same level of success with individuals experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress. Because PTSD and Secondary Traumatic Stress have very similar symptoms, it is likely that there is some overlap when it comes to coping and treatment after the fact.

While many studies conclude that humor in the workplace is positive, it can be seen from analyzing research that distinguishes between types of humor that gallows humor is not a healthy coping mechanism. In some cases, it can be an indicator that workers are no longer compassionate enough to work in their field and others that the worker is not managing their Secondary Traumatic Stress well. There is not a lot of research into alternative coping mechanisms to replace gallows humor, but it is possible that treatments and skills related to dealing with Post Traumatic Stress could be beneficial for people experiencing STS due to the fact that PTSD and STS share a lot of the same symptoms. This cannot be said with certainty though because there have not been many studies done on this. Mindfulness and resilience were shown to be helpful in handling STS though, and this is a step in the right direction to help professionals who experience indirect trauma on a fairly regular basis. It is important to further this research because a lot of these careers are necessary and helpful to the population even though they have adverse effects on the individuals doing the jobs.

In order to stress the importance of the researching more into the effects, gallows humor has in these professionals, it may be beneficial to explain why it is important to care for the mental health of these workers. Some helping fields get a lot of attention from the public and are more valued because of it, such as firefighters, surgeons, and police officers. If it could be explained why mental health workers are so important or why nurses and sex crime workers are so important, it may bring people’s awareness to them and the issues they face from working such stressful jobs. Many people don’t think about how much of a toll being in helping field takes on you but without these professionals so many people would go uncared for and untreated. Many of these workers are behind the scenes doing jobs most people would not want to do and risking their own physical and psychological well-being for others, and they deserve to have concrete answers as to how they can help protect themselves from the side effects of their jobs.

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#culture

by David Blue

Looking back on the Extratone Reading List

Three Years of Good Reads - The Extratone Reading List

Since the beginning of Extratone, I've done my best to consolidate important reads of my own into our publicly-available reading list channel on Discord, which has also served as a place for others to share their favorite links as well. Using the Discord chat exporter, I've created an HTML file of the channel's entire history as of today (4-6-2020).

I'll be posting some of my all-time favorites from the past few years in this Twitter thread.

by David Blue

C̸ ̵O̷ ̴N̵ ̶T̸ ̵A̵ ̴C̶ ̵T̴ is my best (and only, really) recent contribution of worth and I guarantee you will gain something from listening.

On Apple Music

On SoundCloud

On Spotify. http://bit.ly/dbtouched

On YouTube Music

On Tidal.

On Pandora.

#music

by David Blue

Originally released in 2014 on Visual Disturbances, now reissued for the first time since. Presented to you with 2 bonus tracks, one cut from the original album and one produced shortly after its release.

Preorder Gray Data Deluxxx now on Bandcamp.

#music

by David Blue

Counterfeit record Mannequin Challenge proves to be a lively, heartfelt reflection for cassettehype lovers.

In a surprising turn of events, an anonymous actor uploaded, metatagged, and published a fabulous futuredisco tape this evening on the official Bandcamp page owned by the KEATs-affiliated Groove Guru using stolen credentials. SAINT PEPSI (now Skyler Spence) himself revealed the breach on Twitter just before the end of workday on the coast, disclaiming “SOMEONE HACKED THE SAINT PEPSI BANDCAMP AND PUT UP A NEW ALBUM! NOT ME.”

At press time, it is unknown how long the account's security has remained compromised, nor how long the release will remain live. The investigative process so far has been hindered severely by effects voluminous playback of the work itself has had on staff in our newsroom.

Skyler Spence has been often (quite-cringely) credited by music journalists and bloggers as their introduction to vaporwave, which was hilarious in the moment, yes, but in fact represents one of the first puncture events into mainstream music media discourse for the precious Twitter and generally net-born community of truly boundary-pushing electronic musicians for whom this magazine was created.

Saint Pepsi is in many ways the apotheosis of blog disco, this wave of young musicians poring over the internet for samples of classic smooth electro-funk from 1980-84 to turn, via Ableton, into new works of nostalgic yet somehow future-perfect art. –”New band of the week: Saint Pepsi” | The Guardian

Like its attributed creator, Mannequin Challenge is very special and far more substantial than we've come to expect from the futurefunk sound: it's imbued through and through with real sentiment – and why shouldn't it be? In reflection, the role of cultural ambassadorship is as surreal (read: absurd) as it is spectacular.

If you'd told me that Pepsico had discovered SAINT PEPSI and threatened him with copyright law in the years post-high school when I was first introduced to the like purveyors of the sound, I would've heard it as a hypothetical (and died laughing.) However, the shit did occur in 2015: in a hilarious internet micro-controversy, SAINT PEPSI really was pressured – under the threat of legal action, one assumes – to change his name. (My own little experience confirmed that Pepsi had no patience for contemporary humor.) As an ancient relic of a American brand punished him, though, another no-less-surprising one – none other than GQ Fucking Magazine – would celebrate him as “Pop Music's New Disco Whiz Kid.”

I don't know the whole story, but I'm comfortable declaring in the now: Mannequin Challenge represents a sincerely touching gift for those of us who've been listening. Or that is... It certainly would were it not the product of digital hijacking and therefore completely inattributable, legally, to SAINT PEPSI.


Favorite track: “Mr. Wonderful, pt. 2” (Bonus track requiring download/purchase on Bandcamp)

#music

Shife Sphere

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by David Blue

'Metamorphosis' - Blank Banshee

Perhaps nearest and dearest of all to the hearts of more casual, Twitter-bound vaporwave fans, Canadian-sourced Blank Banshee has apparently been distinctly Offline as of late. When Bandcamp's Simon Chandler interviewed them about their last full release – MEGA – in 2016, he asked “will we have to wait another three years until the next Blank Banshee release?” Banshee replied with a definitive “no,” and they were technically correct – it's 2 years, 9 months later and Metamorphosis has been on Bandcamp for two whole weeks.

Considering the lack of results my queries for reviews of the thing have returned so far, I thought it prudent to make you aware of its existence. I'm not even remotely qualified to assess vaporwave records, but if you have some thoughts you'd like to publish, I'd love it if you dropped me a line.

#music #news

by David Blue

Surface Laptop 2

Assuming Jesus Christ is in your thoughts this evening before yet another anniversary of his birth, I am infinitely astonished by the truth in what I’m about to suppose with you. If the Son of God was living today, most of us have agreed for a long time now that he’d use marijuana recreationally – big fuckin whoop. I think it’s far more interesting and appropriate (we all know his birthday was wholly reconfigured into a consumerist holiday long ago) to speculate on how he’d behave after finding himself inadvertently in the market for a new laptop within the ~$1000 range (following a stubbed toe whilst walking on water incident, perhaps.) Surely, it would not be entirely holy for him to opt in to the Foxconn-complicit world of Apple, Incorporated, nor the openly-blasphemous one created and exuberantly grown by Google LLC, and I’m afraid he’d be too much of an End User idiot to integrate any of the sparse Linux-dedicated hardware available. In May of 2017, however, Billy Gates’ old Microsoft finally released “the laptop we’ve always wanted them to make,” but could its recent update be truly worthy of our Lourde and Saviour? Or your newly-enrolled offspring? Should you sprint downstairs and swap out the new MacBook Air you just bought?

From an entirely valid perspective, an observer might declare my last two months of 2018 to be an outright shameful period defined by hypocrisy and traitorous betrayals. After finally taking the time to explore the full narrative surrounding Linux and the bloody tale of Microsoft’s cruel genocidal destruction of countless creative software projects throughout computing’s adolescence (see: “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish,”) I eventually declared myself “100% Open Source” and began outlining an essay designed primarily to express that Linux is finally ready to be the operating system of the people without succumbing immediately to the brand of cybercrackpot illegitimacy associated with the L-word in the minds of the general public so readily thanks to decades of misinformed, condescending neckbeards. Such a feat would require entire new planes of cultural awareness and dialectal delicacy, yet certainly result in zero personal reward from even the best possible outcome, yet I proceeded to ponder the subject very deliberately all the way through October because I genuinely believed in a new democratized future of computing. 2018 had been my Grand Awakening to the idyllic possibilities of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) across the whole applied spectrum from office suites to social networks, yet – as two thousand eighteen comes to an end – I’ve managed to find myself among the most jaded, soul-sapped tech community I have yet encountered: Microsoft Administrators.

Complimenting this Linux-laden culture in which I was not so long ago deeply embedded was a confused and frustrated outlook regarding what I felt were excessive and completely idiotic sacrifices across the industry’s hardware design to the greedy, gluttonous god of Lightness. It seemed only reasonable to Myself As Consumer that the entire buying public should exclusively seek designs prioritizing greatest possible performance and battery life, even from portable computers and smartphones, so I assumed my perspective on this updated iteration of Microsoft's most laptopy Surface laptop – which exists in large part to compete directly with Apple's beloved (and just-updated) MacBook Air – wouldn't be at all useful. However, a few weeks ago, my employer prompted me with a sweet sweet ultimatum: for the sake of a tax break, I want to spend ~$1000 on a laptop for you as soon as possible. Yes, I know I should consider myself a very fortunate man – this wasn't even the first time I'd been surprised with the “hey, I want to buy you a laptop but it has to be today” experience, and may even be considered a sort of sequel to my Tales of Whirlwind Manic Consumerism, but it’s ultimately one of the most idiotic strategies to achieve a major purchase decision and completely inadvisable for anyone on a budget. Still I was indeed thankful to be put in a nearly-identical situation of Consumer Electronic haste, and have come to be especially appreciative of the specific time I was approached as such: just one week after Microsoft launched the Surface Laptop 2.

Considering the vast majority of its users are trapped inside my television, there’s no harm in covering the Surface brand with our virtual palm for a moment. If you’ll indulge me so, you’ll notice that Microsoft has actually delivered unto us The Laptop II – as in, the sequel... the successor to every other laptop computer yet conceived... but does this one machine truly represent the second coming of the Notebook Christ? Naturally, it would be a bit zealous to stand behind this extreme statement with 100% sincerity, but there truly are certain elements of this Personal Computing product's execution which do indeed will its user to expect and/or desire from others in coming years. As I've stated before, I also simply cannot help but be jazzed by such bravado from the mouths of even a company with as crooked and hateful history as Microsoft's. (Note: no other technology company has actually achieved what Microsoft historically has in this regard, and hopefully none ever will again.)

I must be honest: it hasn't yet been two months and I've already scuffed and perhaps even stained the beautiful maroon alcantara surrounding my machine’s touchable body, but it’s occurred to me that I might draw upon the vast library of automotive interior tutorials available on YouTube – and even purchase some of the alcantara care-specific products they recommend – in order to really maintain the exterior of the Laptop II. After all, alcantara was undeniably car culture’s material first. I should also confess that objectively, the Surface Laptop II is the best-suited computer for my personal uses that I’ve ever owned or used for any length of time. Subjectively, I don’t think all of the hardware design touches that make it so – like its keyboard layout, divine 3:2 aspect ratio, and particular I/O complement – have yet had the chance to seduce my emotional brain into truly loving it as much as I certainly should by any reasonable measure. For my own sake, I hope I’m able to fall in child-like infatuation with its magic, but in the interim, I believe the coldness of my heart should hopefully preserve any useful commentary I might have to add. Though this is undoubtedly the most timely review of a hardware product I’ve ever published, I’d still ask that you indulge my perspective suggesting the importance of considering it part of a package with its operating system, considering that the whole of tech media would’ve unanimously declared it the year’s “best laptop” were Apple’s aging, but still widely-adored MacOS absent from the frame.

I've tested a bunch of laptops this year, running the spectrum of 2-in-1s, Chromebooks, MacBooks, gaming laptops, etc. Everyone's needs are going to be different, which is why there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all for laptops. But enthusiasts’ laptops aside, I strongly feel the Surface Laptop 2 is the best laptop of the year. And by that I mean the best laptop for most folks' needs.

With as much humility as possible, I must add that I myself am anything but “most folks,” yet my experience so far with the product has been one of astonishing compatibility and battery life. Using recommended power settings, the Surface Laptop 2 endured four hours and twenty-two minutes of a workload it wasn’t particularly designed for including heavy web browsing, image manipulation, brief audio/video capture with OBS, and moderate subsequent editing in Audacity and OpenShot. Dan Seifert – Vox Media’s “only Windows user” – reported “about seven hours” of Microsoft’s claimed 14.5, but frankly, I don’t know what any of y’all are doin – I’m just thankful this machine is a better marathoner than any other I can recall owning. While we’re on the subject, I consider Microsoft’s inclusion of a magnetically-attached power cable and unassuming auxiliary USB charging port on the attached power supply to be personal godsends – further evidence, even, that the Surface Laptop 2 was actually designed to be nice to use. For the sake of those readers actually in the market for a new laptop who’ve somehow found themselves here, though, Raymond Wong’s review for Mashable is the most thorough offering you’ll find – it’s quoted front and center on Microsoft’s web page for the Laptop II, even – but it’s important to mention that his critical comparative perspective predates the late launch of its ultimate competitor, the new MacBook Air. Rather pitifully, however, his colleague’s “good, but not great” resolution suggests that Apple failed to challenge Microsoft’s relatively moderate update enough to warrant any revision, and that Mashable as a publication stands by my new laptop’s Best of the Year title, for whatever it may or may not be worth to you.

If the new MacBook Air came in at the same price as the old one, it would be a steal. Sure, you pay for the privilege of being able to use macOS on the Apple ecosystem. But in years past that also meant access to cutting-edge features and design. As pretty as the MacBook Air is, there's nothing that innovative about it. In today's Apple, it seems, privilege amounts to just staying current.

You won’t find many others who regularly invest editorial merit in publishing 2500+ word laptop reviews anymore, which I’d concede is plenty reasonable in the Surface Laptop’s case, at least. Perhaps your first point of comparative entry should be a barely-dated conversation between Kara Swisher, Lauren Goode, and Dan Seifert on Too Embarrassed to Ask regarding the original’s odds of truly competing in the “premium laptop” segment (if you’d prefer to hear from those who struggle to take it seriously, that is.) Assuming the original product direction of the Surface line still stands, Microsoft doesn’t actually intend to sell at high volume, especially when it comes to this runt of the marque, which does not hesitate to omit itself from the popular discourse of the moment surrounding tablets as the future of all computing to which all of its siblings have contributed so much. Though I shall always remember my dearest Libel (the special edition Spectre x360 with which I built most of Extratone) with great respect and deep fondness – I think it’s even worth mounting on some sort of plinth – the significantly-cheaper Laptop II has already demonstrated true value in its “premium” segment bragging rights with far superior materials and build quality. If you’re looking for the prettiest possible slice of magnesium lightness but aren’t the sort to have followed the story of Microsoft’s first venture into personal computer production since it began in the last year of the Mayan calendar, it’s worth your while to read Joshua Topolsky’s projections of the project’s impact on the popular narrative surrounding Microsoft from history’s freshest possible perspective: the eve of the first Surface tablet’s launch.

The entire tablet was designed in-house by Microsoft's teams, and if you believe what was said in the presentation yesterday, design and functionality in hardware has suddenly become a big deal in Redmond. That's a big shift, and it's an important one. The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to make a break with its history — a history of hardware partnerships which relied on companies like Dell, HP, or Acer to actually bring its products to market. That may burn partners in the short term, but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story.

A pungent stigma festered from Microsoft’s history of inadequate and inelegant public relations (especially compared to its greatest longtime rival) has remained in relentlessly obvious orbit around every “significant” Windows and Office update for so long that its status quo has grown into a truly inhibitive force for all parties involved. Topolsky is unquestionably a compromising favorite of mine, but it’s hard not to decry then-CEO Steve Ballmer’s failure to comprehend Josh’s day-after insight in the whole three months that passed before his Seattle Times interview in September, 2012. Ultimately, The Big M is either incapable of understanding any alternative utopic Visions of Computing to its own, or simply overwrought with the same counteraspirational carelessness its culture has always depended upon. In analytical terms regarding Ballmer’s utilization of the forum’s opportunity to finally tell the fucking story, at least, the timidity of a term like “pre-eminent software” as a viably bright new beacon in contrast with “people would say we were a software company” (emphasis mine) – as if Steve-O himself doesn’t even have the power to publicly describe his company’s function as its #1 man – combined at the apex of what was almost impressively-negligent behavior.

I think when you look forward, our core capability will be software, (but) you'll probably think of us more as a devices-and-services company. Which is a little different. Software powers devices and software powers these cloud services, but it's a different form of delivery...

Don’t make the same mistake I did and wear yourself out trying to extract the meaning from these three sentences – there’s none to be found. Ultimately, whatever opportunity the Surface project could have provided for Microsoft’s identity has been vastly overshadowed by its success as last resort supercatalyst to restore any sense of dignity and pride within the hardware companies who produce the vehicles. In Fall 2017, The Register quoted industry gossip regarding the company’s new CEO Satya Nadella and his intent to “exit the product line” because “overall they are not making money [and] it doesn’t make sense for them to be in this business,” but newcomers to this conversation should know that no subsequent reporting has corroborated anything but a sustaining future of the line, though the measurable rate of innovation in Microsoft’s products continues to leave much to be desired. Now that you’ve heard from the experts, though, allow me to expand our lens a bit and examine what the Surface Laptop 2’s existence suggests as per The Present & Future of Computing.

The Clam Clan

In case I’ve yet to mention it, all of my tech writing is in substantial debt to my much-older and child-oriented siblings for providing 8 nieces and nephews over the course of 11 years – if not for any reason but the perspective offered by the slightest observation of their day-to-day lives. In this profoundly bizarre and historic technological sprint our species is experiencing, the differences in their respective relationships with consumer tech as they’ve grown up are fascinatingly… disturbingly significant. My eldest niece Abby was born four years after myself in 1998, and her younger sister Amber just quite three years later in 2001. All three of us are Aquarians who went to the same public schools (aside from 2 exceptions on my part,) and the two sisters have been close, significant influences on each other all their lives, yet the way Abby and I use and think about computers differs significantly from Amber’s. Our first real PCs introduced an important social and intellectual vehicle to our pre-teen lives, and both of us still “live on” our machines as young adults. For us and many others from this short-lived microgeneration of ours, budget laptops like the Dell Inspirion 2200 (which served as the first “real computer” for both of us) introduced the internet and Being Online as a State of Being with AIM groups, MySpace, and Yahoo! chain mails before smartphones and tablets were capable of doing so.

Amber prefers to use her iPhone for most everything and regards her computer as a tool for work – it’s booted up and down exclusively for that purpose, which is significantly healthier than the habit Abby, myself, and many of my Online friends developed: we left our computers running and Logged On all the time because we were otherwise unreachable. We learned from origin to depend on them for 100% of our computing tasks – from streaming Pandora to playing Flash games within six billion open browser tabs – which likely explains both our ADD and its resulting influence on the ease with which our personal computers can distract us. As a Journalism student and professional photographer, Abby uses the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, and [Insane Blogger] David Blue has spent years looking for an alternative, becoming the first and only iPhone user to make extensive use of its Bluetooth keyboard support in the process, but both of us are entirely uninterested in the rest of the industry’s insistence on convertibles, removable keyboards, or ‘professional’ tablets. I wish the Linux community was finally ready to drop the elitist pretenses plaguing its nerdy history; I wish I could finally tell someone like Abby that a machine like the System76 Galago Pro could slot itself into her workflow without losing her time or compatibility – that the reputation surrounding Linux People had finally lost most of its validity and her desire to learn more about computing as a young woman and Power User would be met with respectful and worthwhile conversation from their end. Unfortunately, I’ve still found some of the Old Guard to be elitist, socially behind, and juvenilely possessive, as if computing was still the niche interest from their 1980s and 90s childhoods. Though this conversation certainly warrants its own essay in the future, I’ll just express now that it’s a real shame some folks don’t realize the entire point of making great things is ultimately to give them to the world.

The opportunity I’ve had in the past year to finally get my Linux distro frenzy over with and out of my system managed to both radicalize and democratize my understanding of MacOS, Windows, and Linux as they are in the present. While I had nothing better to do, fiddling with Ubuntu Studio and Linux Mint to the extent I did throughout Spring and Summer led me to further appreciate the value of keyboard shortcuts, gave me my first real proficiency with a command line, helped globalize my comprehension of my own technological privilege, reacquainted me in a huge way with both the true history of software and my own personal past as an experimental test tube baby of Microsoft’s, and helped to answer a lot of questions I’d worried over for years about why software seemed like it simply couldn’t improve anymore. While it’s true that important open source projects like ElementaryOS continue to sprout from the Linus Extended Universe and the growing Open Source community on Mastodon is filled with brilliant, helpful, unpretentious, and remarkably curious enthusiasts (probably because many of those I’ve interacted with so far are non-cis and/or non-white,) little ole me was able to stumble upon some totally unnecessary and excruciatingly ignorant sociopolitical commentary by way of the white, middle-age host and his undoubtedly-white and staunchly libertarian caller on a live broadcast of the Ask Noah Show. (It’s not as if I haven’t said ignorant and very ugly things too, but I wasn’t a forty-something father on a semi-professional talk show representing an entire community.)

Essentially, I was quite frustrated and disappointed to find that Linux is still let down most by its own community, but the operating system itself is still much further along on its way to becoming a real alternative for the average user than mainstream tech journalism would have you believe. However, in my case, finally taking the time to really learn about Open Source computing also helped me understand (surprisingly) why Apple and its environment continue to be the best and most popular choice for professional applications. Linux Mint gave me tremendous power in enabling me to alter, specify, and redesign the most minute details of its interface, but I couldn’t have foreseen how all-consuming such power would be for someone like myself. In retrospect, I’ve realized that I ended up spending more time perfecting my custom LibreOffice Writer shortcuts than I did actually writing – I somehow found myself in a mind state which justified unironically creating a shortcut for the Shortcuts menu. Though I swore I’d never succumb to the bewildering hobby of collecting and exploring different Linux Distributions, it took no time at all for me to fill a folder with disc images of the installers for almost a dozen different interpretations of the operating system after I’d made the simple concession to myself that I’ll just try Ubuntu, that’s all. The most profound realization from all this (arguably otherwise wasted) time: for a user like me, a walled garden is actually the best place to be productive because apparently, I don’t have the self-control to keep myself from running away and/or fixating on completely unproductive tasks without its boundaries. I think this phenomenon is perhaps the worst culprit in the persistence of the aforementioned divide between “computer people” and everyone else who simply uses computers, as I’m sure any one of the latter could tell you after all of five minutes with a Linus type.

The most comprehensive and somewhat-urgent revision to illustrate the significance of this contrast from my perspective regards the exceptional iOS/MacOS markdown-based notetaking app Bear. Frankly, my own “Word Processing Methodology” essay from June has already become problematically out of date (and therefore embarrassing) in terms of my own knowledge of the segment and its history. Though I promised the conversation was “done,” I’ve continued to explore further into word processing’s history as well as its current state. “I had a go at Bear’s free iOS experience and saw little functional difference from DayOne,” the old, negligent, cursory David Blue noted, but if I’d simply been willing to cough up a bit more time and just $1.49 a month for Bear Pro, I’d have spared myself such shame and realized that the hype around this app really is 100% justified. Bear is the most beautiful iOS app I’ve ever seen, but I’m now also fully qualified to declare it the most effective execution of “distraction-free” writing software to come along in the past 25 years. Developer Shiny Frog’s secret is their perfect balance between capability and simplicity. It turns out, Daily Content Lord Casey Newton’s word on this matter really was worth more than mine, not to mention more succinct: “Bear may look simple, but there’s power underneath the surface.”

Those longtime Linux and Windows diehards who’ve tolerated me thus far, listen up: MacOS may be ancient, neglected, and full of incongruencies, but its single-minded methodology paired with Apple’s iCloud really does make it the most effective and elegant environment for most people to simply get shit done. It’s clear that many of you have realized the importance of simplicity for compact and/or educational distributions, but let me just add that the democratization of Linux provides a gargantuan development opportunity to make something that beats MacOS at its own game without starting from such a shitty premise and all of its resulting compromises – all without detracting from any other technically-minded distributions whatsoever. That is the magic of The Distro, remember?! If you’ve existed in a similar state of confusion to that of my entire adult life regarding the appeal of Apple products – despite having once been an extensive OSX user, myself – you’re very welcome for the insight. Instead of paying me for the profound self-improvement I’ve just provided, try prioritizing this newfound knowledge the next time you talk to your MacBook Pro-loving friend about their workflow. If you’re like myself, you’ll find their arguments have magically transformed from the bewildering bullshit they’ve always seemed to be into challenges for future competing operating systems to surpass Apple’s old bitch and excel in because MacOS and even its much-younger iOS counterpart – as well as the billions of people who depend on them – desperately need real competition in order to maintain their viability, much less become what products of the world’s wealthiest company should be.

Yes, the manner in which these operating systems are perceived really is an important discussion prompted by a product as insignificant as the Surface Laptop 2 because as you read, the industry is bracing for another paradigm shift in computing, which many believe (preposterously, I might add) could be as significant and disruptive as 2007’s introduction of the iPhone. This machine of Microsoft’s and its “new” MacBook Air counterpart could potentially be the last designs to carry us to a computing future where the tried-and-true clamshell design is forgone entirely by the mainstream, but Apple’s release of this year’s new iPad Pro prompted even the most Cupertino-loving tech commentators to respond with genuine discord along with a few long-overdue shouts of “are you crazy?!” I’m very proud of The Verge’s Nilay Patel, in particular, for so eloquently deconstructing its usability for all but the very wealthy. “It is impossible to look at a device this powerful and expensive and not expect it to replace a laptop for day-to-day work,” he reminds us in the introduction to his full review of the updated product, along with a beautifully transient sentiment which I think we all needed to hear again: “I don’t think people should adapt to their computers. Computers should adapt to people.” Even something as consumerist and bourgeois as the introduction of another pricepoint-burgeoning Apple hardware flagship can turn a simple tablet review into a much-needed manifesto for a user-centric way forward for the industry, which is itself worthy of celebratory encouragement.

I’ve favored The Verge and its cast long past the point of excess throughout the span of my work about technology, but Nilay’s review and its accompanying episode of The Vergecast are truly special and profound gems of content that shouldn’t be passed up. Apparently – as the Editor-in-Chief immediately insists as the episode begins – his “ongoing theory” that “the more important you are, the less actually important work you do, and the more likely you are to be an iPad user” roused anger from “that whole class of [billionaires,]” but the experiences behind his argument actually suggest that Apple’s own favorite child of late – into which it has begun investing and thereby implicitly sponsoring over its much older brother as the ultimate heir of the majority’s future computing – has unequivocally failed to do its part in growing the iPad Pro into the “laptop replacement” we’d all heard so much about. Of iOS 12’s performance as an operating system beneath true work-related tasks, he exasperates “you have to spend all of your time figuring out how to do stuff instead of doing stuff,” which I couldn’t help but hear as echoes of my own late Linux lamentations. As thankful as I am to have finally achieved enlightenment of the Planet Apple, I’m afraid I was pitifully late: its very natural laws underwent their most brutal tests of the 21st century this past year. Now that I’ve finally come to adore the elegant effectiveness of a new generation of iOS apps like Bear, I’m faced with yet another of the episode’s statements of weight: “I think it’s time to stop pretending that the future of computing looks like Apple’s restrictions.” On the opposing end of the line, the world’s first trillion-dollar company’s other major product release of 2018 managed to disappoint even the most fanatical fans of its original operating system’s best-selling platform with an insultingly mediocre update to the MacBook Air marque upon which it once so fondly doted.

My best friend’s parents bought her the original Surface tablet when she enrolled in art school, and her frustration with its lackluster keyboard (among others) leads MacOS alternative-seeking users like us to wish Microsoft had started with a traditional design like the Surface Laptop first. Perhaps Apple and Microsoft’s emphasis on their tablets is nothing but a bit premature for the most current crop of users, and the rest of my nieces and nephews will expand upon an entirely different methodology of usership when they receive their freshman computer. Those elders of us who still take the Clamshell form seriously and love printing our documents are apparently facing a future industry saturated with products we can’t believe in, but it’s up to you to decide if this issue is worth expending your energy in advocacy for either camp. With my 120+ word per minute proficiency with physical keyboards, I for one have been completely bewildered by the iPad as anything but an indulgence for reading text on the web, and I’m pleased as punch with my Surface Laptop 2. Even if it proves to be the last new computer I’ll ever own to come as optimized for my use, I’m just grateful and astonished it happens to be the best yet.

#hardware #microsoft #future

by David Blue

Tump

Ten percent of the United States' adult population cannot functionally read or write (conservatively) despite the exponential increase of required reading in the average American's day-to-day life thus far in the 21stcentury. For written American media, especially, one would assume that a financial and social incentive for maximum literacy in the populace should present a straightforward justification for intense widespread coverage of this particular disparity, yet most related coverage in mainstream national magazines and newspapers is alarmingly sparse and often requires a less-than-socially-conscious context (e.g. a for-profit startup) to actually appear in news feeds. From the most wholesome assumption of the industry's general values — that it holds “newsworthiness” above all — we must assume that it does not generally consider American illiteracy “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” as we examine the intermittent discourse surrounding the issue that does achieve publication.

In late October, the American business and technology magazine Fast Company covered the recent successes of the “for-profit social enterprise” Cell-Ed, noting that “a huge portion of the American labor force is illiterate,” which it described as “a hidden epidemic.” The article's author, Rick Wartzman, mentions foremost that Cell-Ed's userbase is largely “foreign-born” and expected to eclipse one million in number by the end of 2019. Demographically, the magazine's readership is predominantly middle to upper-class, who are the least affected social groups by a significant margin as per illiteracy's strong correlative relationship with poverty. These factors combine to limit any real social consequences from such an article.

In direct contrast with the professional, market-minded perspective of modern business magazine, even niche independent publications from the opposite end of the media spectrum often trivialize, belittle, or generally mishandle the issue. In a 500-word “Editorial” written by The Editor Eric Black of the Baptist Standard — a small evangelical news website describing itself as “Baptist voices speaking to the challenges of today's world” — he points to a global increase in “illiterate people,” as he so comfortably brands them. Such language is inevitably counter-productive and potentially insensitive: to the eyes and ears of activists, educators, and the general public, such a term unnecessarily lends toward a restricted perspective of those people who have been left behind by the institution of read and written language in one manner or another and portrays them as a great vague collection of lingual lepers bearing their own distinct, inexorable, wordless ethnicity which inevitably bars them from the freedoms allowed by the Editor's learned capacity, including the ability to actually read his words of affliction. Simply put, he has dangerously oversimplified the issue.

To once again assume the best and infer that Black had a specific purpose in publishing his ill-supported opinion beyond continuity's sake of his weekly Editorials, it appears to be the promotion of a local Texan literacy “ministry” called Literacy Connexus, though no further specifics about the project are provided beyond “helping churches develop literacy programs for their communities, provide training and resources to overcome illiteracy,” which is virtually identical to the introductory copy on the organization's homepage.

So far, we've examined coverage only in special interest media, but what about legacy news organizations with the largest readerships in the United States? Despite oblivious use of the same ledes, a newspaper like The Washington Post can wield vast influence over the broadest possible readership and the public editorial trust. In November 2016, veteran reporter Valerie Strauss published “Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis” for Answer Sheet — her weekly newsletter designed to function as “a school survival guide for parents (and everyone else), from education policy to psychology” — which represents the most substantial discussion of American illiteracy in topical, widely-visible media (i.e. presence in a succinct search engine query.) She briefly introduces the issue with a bulleted list of illiteracy's consequences on modern society and the individual cited from a Canadian literacy foundation before turning the stage over to Lecester Johnson, CEO of the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Washington D.C.

Johnson presents a passionate and well-informed exploration of the state of the literacy battle from the perspective of a full-time, locally on-the-ground advocate. Her op-ed's introduction includes the most essential observations and statistics throughout, noting “the children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school,” before setting upon a detailed examination of current and relevant organizations working toward solutions. Of course, it's largely centered upon her own organization, which she claims has “helped more than 6000 adults rebuild their education and job opportunities since 1985.”

It's significant that an institution as deeply embedded across the American political spectrum as The Washington Post address the issue of American illiteracy, and both Johnson and Strauss are certainly qualified voices for the undertaking, but when we examine this particular article, it's important we consider the context of the Answer Sheet newsletter and its intended audience. Though it's no challenge to pitch the importance of reading and writing to parents and professional educators, the most alarming and destructive issue at hand is the educational disparity between their adult peers. “There's a literacy problem in the capitol, but I'm not talking about young people who can't read. Many adults — perhaps even parents sitting next to you at back to school night — don't possess academic skills,” notes Johnson with her very first paragraph. However, considering the nature of parenthood, the audience primarily consuming these words are undoubtedly preoccupied with juvenile issues, specifically, and we can assume their capacity to empathize with their fellow working adults who could benefit from literacy education is actually lessened from that of childless readers of the same age as a result. “Despite the magnitude of the adult literacy crisis, most of those needing to make up lost ground are pushed toward traditional classroom settings—even though many of these people can't possibly follow through because of cost or work schedules or other obstacles,” she attests.

Perhaps more than any other American city, Detroit has been struggling with a serious illiteracy problem. According to a profile of the Beyond Basics program (which was adapted from an embedded video broadcast) on their local ABC affiliate's website, forty-seven percent of adult Detroiters cannot read, but even companies like General Motors — who donated \$250,000 to the Beyond Basics program earlier in mid-October — are getting involved. The article quotes Elijah Craft, a young man who was “reading at a first-grade level as a senior at Detroit's Central High School.” “Craft would rare venture from home for fear he would get lost because he could not read street signs,” reports WXYZ anchor Carolyn Clifford. She frames the narrative around a reference to the 2009 film The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock: “here, you might call this story 'The Detroit Side.'” For local television news, this reference to popular culture likely strengthened the story's power ensnare viewers' emotional attention when it was aired, and even in this written accompaniment, it proves an effective — if a bit crude — analogy. The broadcast of Mr. Craft's interview also depicts his own deep emotional investment in reading when he begins to shed tears, which is not entirely communicated in the written article.

When the American news media discusses American illiteracy, it's almost always in secondary or tertiary form: either by way of a short post for a weekly education newsletter, an ultra-low-distribution niche editorial column, or a personality profile of a local activist. Perhaps the fundamental obstacle in the face of increasing the discourse surrounding this issue is that its resolutions will require — perhaps more than any other social issue in this country — advocacy by those who can read on behalf of those who cannot because of how sensitive and isolated many of them feel. When voices of advocates like Lecester Johnson are uplifted by major organizations like The Washington Post, the sociological weight of the illiteracy issue can be very powerful. In quoting former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, she sums up for its extensive audience what the facts should ultimately mean to them: 32 million of Eric Black's so-called “illiterate people” in the United States of America have been and continue to be deprived of their “human right” to functional literacy.

#literacy #media #class #future

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