Wednesday, June 23, 2010

D.C.

For the last 10 years, I've had to make the case for D.C. to both myself and to people I love. This site is not about making a case for D.C., though. It's about those of us who know we want to be here.

Right now I'm on my second attempt at putting down roots in Washington. Both times living here, I've ended up in relationships where the other person wanted to be living somewhere else.

I'll admit that D.C. might be a tough sell to someone who isn't from around here and is living in New York or San Francisco, the two cities it's gone head-to-head with in my relationships. For awhile, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay here either, after growing up in Potomac, Md. I spent college in St. Louis, Philadelphia and London. Then moved to New York after graduating.

I was in my early 30s and on my seventh (nonconsecutive) year of living in N.Y.C. when I began to seriously contemplate living in D.C. for the first time. This seemed like a big deal, at the time. Why would I ditch living in super-cool New York to head back to the place where I grew up? I was a writer and editor working in digital media. The market for that was much bigger in New York. All of my friends were in New York. Was I crazy to leave?

Maybe, but I felt stuck. And D.C. just felt better -- it felt less claustrophobic, more like home. I got an apartment in Dupont Circle just across the street from Visions theater and cafe (RIP). I was thrilled to live in a city but be able to have a car and open spaces. I loved going out to the 9:30 Club, Black Cat, ESL and other places but then being able to escape to the 'burbs, or to Great Falls, or to the Delmarva beaches, or to bike in Northern Virginia.

Then I met someone going to grad school in D.C. who hailed from Northern California.

Like many transplants to D.C. from other big cities, he was unhappy. It was so humid/freezing here, so full of lame food, so lacking in services and style. He loved me, but he didn't love D.C. He left for San Francisco. He asked me to join him, and I did excitedly, even though part of me felt as though I'd just gotten acquainted with D.C. and the last thing I wanted to do was leave.

I lived in San Francisco for three years. I experienced ethereal food and beautiful scenes, a lot of love and a lot of heartbreak. I missed D.C. desperately, much more than I expected to.

Now I live in Washington again. Like last time, I live in Dupont Circle. Unlike last time, I know where I want to be for good.

Is it wrong to put a city ahead of everything else? Ahead of love and career? My boyfriend lives in New York, and I would probably have better job prospects as a writer and sometime event planner in other cities. But D.C. is where I want to be. Why?

I could say it's because you can drive your car down Massachusetts Ave. with the breeze in your hair, embassies from all over the world whizzing by, and WHUR's Quiet Storm on the radio, but I'm not sure that really seals the deal for anyone but me. I could also say that there's a sort of perverse benefit you get from NOT being inundated by superlative and/or severely hyped experiences every day, as you might be in New York City or San Francisco, so that when you do discover a really good restaurant or a great little local store, you appreciate it that much more. Yeah, I know. Not that compelling.

Because of rooftop bars and sidewalk cafes. Because of Dupont Circle. Because of the White House. Because of the 9:30 Club, D.C. radio and go-go. Because of the Potomac River, Georgetown and the C&O Canal. Because of lightning bugs and thunderstorms and snowpocalypses. Because of U St. and Adams Morgan. Because of people who come here to make a difference. Because of my family and friends and Montgomery Mall (ok, that's in the 'burbs -- so is Great Falls and Eden Center). Because of wide avenues named after states and maddening traffic circles. Because of Amtrak Northeast Corridor. Because of those orange seats on the Metro. Because of all the reliable chain businesses and all the ones that aren't big chains (the great yoga studio down the street, the wonderful gelato places...).

So I'm back with D.C. now, hopefully for good. This blog's mission is to give you useful information about living and/or visiting. Maybe you will fall for it too, or maybe you already have and can share your discoveries with me.

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It's Let It Go Day.

According to one of the newsletters in my inbox, today is Let It Go Day. It's also National Pecan Sandy Day, but let's focus on the former.

One description I found says:

Free yourself from all negative thoughts and worries. Its time to let them go and allow the positive into your life in order to heal yourself.

That's kind of a tall order. I mean, there's a lot I need to let go, and one day isn't going to cut it. Still, it's a worthy idea. Here are some resentments I'm willing to let go of, right here and now:

vuvuzelas
Prince converting to Jehovah's Witness
lima beans
Pinkberry
"the social web"
Sarah Silverman
the new dent on my car
The Diet Coke in the free soda fountain at work being inexplicably undrinkable

Wait, I take back the Prince one. I think I need some more time with that. What are you going to let go?

Music: "Let It Go"

I would have linked to Prince's "Letitgo" for my customary song endnote, but he won't let anything survive on YouTube, which is another thing I am not going to let go today.

Actually, maybe this post isn't over. I like the idea of Holding On to It Day a lot better. Here's what else I am not going to let go.

beets
2001
RCN billing
priority parking spaces for anyone who isn't disabled
select comments made to me in 7th grade
strict vegan
people who talk in the Quiet Car
my commute
certain veins
hipsters

I think I just let go of the pressure to achieve inner peace by letting things go.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Points of Contention: Smart Phone.

I'm having a little trouble letting things go today, so I'm going to write about this here and hope this post helps me let it go, like a little red balloon of rage, floating slowly away in the sky.

One of the sites I work with posted a story about smart phones. I am going to write a headline promoting this story. My employer generally follows (pretends to follow, actually) AP Style. AP Style for smart phones is two words. The story in question used smartphones. The following exchange ensued with the site's editor.

Me
Hi [editor],

This is a little annoying, but we follow AP style on [the homepage] and AP dictates that smart phone be two words instead of one. Can you do a search and replace on that for this post? Not a huge deal but it would make sense to be consistent.

Editor
"Smart phone" is an outdated spelling. AP needs to update. If I stick with the current, accepted (though not by AP standards) spelling, will you be forced to NOT run the piece?

I don't think I've ever pushed back on a single request [from your team], but this one would make us look like an uninformed outlet, with all due respect.

Wow. I hadn't encountered this level of passion from this editor on anything. I also hadn't encountered this level of passion from anyone on AP style. It was as if I'd asked that we start saying World Wide Web instead of Web or something.

Me
I'm just going by AP's latest style guidelines for social media, which were released this month. AP style is pretty current and accepted by most news outlets, but ok.

http://mashable.com/2010/06/02/ap-social-media-guidelines/

Editor
AOL Tech uses "smartphone," and so does Google --
http://www.google.com/#hl=en&safe=off&q=smart+phone

-- and I think I'd prefer to stay with their usage.

Google is a search engine and does not have its own stylebook, as far as I know. I was dying to make this point, and also note that Apple and various other manufacturers used smart phone in the very results link he sent, but instead I forced myself to hit the close button on the e-mail and not reply.

What's ironic here is, I don't actually care which style gets used. I don't have a smart phone, I don't often type the words smart phone, and if there are people in the world who want to type smartphone instead, I say hello, friend to the compound word, nice to meet ya. I just happen to like AP Style and editorial consistency. And I happen to dislike poor reasoning. That's all.

Please weigh in on this or any other matter of AP style that has you particularly incensed or delighted.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Uncomfortable Moments Is Now Uncomfortable Moments.

Lately I've become obsessed with looking for domain names for businesses that I may or may not ever start. The exact nature of these searches is confidential, but I can tell you that slacktionary.com is available.

This is what happens when you read an article about some 9-year-old kid who is making money on the Intertubes selling pencil tops, of all things. Pencil tops! Well if she can sell pencil tops, what kind of crazy shit can I sell? Let me see... hrmm... how did I get on this results page for slacktionary?

Finally, it occurred to me to search for uncomfortablemoments.com. I seem to remember this URL being taken when I first started this blog a few years ago, but now it is mine. All mine. So feel free to bookmark it as you see fit.

Fittingly, I experienced an uncomfortable moment in the process of procuring this domain name. I went through Register.com, which I can't recommend.

I was so excited at having successfully registered uncomfortablemoments.com and redirected it to my blog that I completely failed to notice the honking banner ad that Register.com unceremoniously plunked at the bottom of my site. It was gently pointed out to me in an IM from someone I shared the site with: "That's cool! That banner ad..." Huh?

What the hell. I called Register.com. A lot of tranferring to different reps occurred. Finally I was informed that if I wanted the ad to go away, I'd have to pony up for "premium web forwarding," to the tune of $50 a year for three years -- but I could get the third year free if I signed up. I said no.

The rep made another offer, pretending to do some searching for a better deal. He could give me three years for $50. "I don't feel like this is something I should have to pay for at all," I said. The rep did a whole song and dance about how he's really not allowed to give me premium forwarding for free, but he would see what he could do. Finally, he took the ad off.

Meanwhile, I tried to search for information on what I was entitled to and what I could get elsewhere, and was astonished by the lack of good results on Google. The domain name was mine. Register.com wasn't hosting it. Shouldn't I be able to administer it as I saw fit, without ads? I felt mildly appalled to be so at a loss in this realm.

Has anyone else had experience with this? Insights welcome.

Music: "You"

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Welcome to the Content Factory.



Recently, I came across a Craigslist ad "seeking writers for a series of web- based healthcare question and answer sets (Q&As)."

For each question, the company needed a long and short answer, plus 5-10 keywords. The pay for this work would be $5 per question and answer set.

$5 per question? Hardly seems worth the work, does it? But the ad helpfully pointed out that after churning out enough of these, you'd get so fast that you'd be able to do up to 5 an hour. If you think of it that way, that's $25 an hour, which is at least -- well -- inoffensive as pay goes, isn't it?

I thought about it a little more. Thanks to some recent health issues, my natural curiosity and a tendency to imagine doomsday scenarios, I'm usually on MayoClinic.com many times a day anyway. Why not make a little extra money doing it? I'd learn a few things, too.

So I applied, writing two sample questions (a $10 value) as requested. It was interesting doing the research, and I thought I did a pretty good job.

A few days later, I got two form e-mails from the company. One was a link to an extranet with a contract for me to sign. The other was a W9 form. I guess that meant I'd been hired?

I signed the contract electronically and then waited, thinking I'd follow up on the e-mails if I didn't get any assignments. A few days went by.

On Monday afternoon, I got an e-mail.

Good Afternoon,

Over the weekend you received an e-mail that gave you instructions on how to proceed in freelancing for the Q&A writing project. That e-mail gave you an initial, 3 Q&A writing assignment that was due this morning. As of right now, I have not received your assignment in the database.

Please let me know when we can be expecting your 3 Q&A sample. Or, if you no longer intend to write for this project, please indicate that as well.

Thank you,
L_________

Wow. Not only had I been hired, I was already screwing up the job! That was fast.

I had no idea what this person was talking about, so I went through my inbox in search of clues. Nothing there. Then I checked my spam folder. Here it was! My assignment, sent on Saturday at 12:24 PM, with a deadline of Monday at 9:00 AM.

The implication here is that if you've given up your right to a reasonable fee for writing about serious medical topics, you've given up your right to a weekend as well.

I wrote back to L___, explaining the spam issue and the fact that I was not inclined to turn around deadline assignments on weekends. We agreed to a new weekday deadline for my maiden three questions. My topic: Atypical Neuralgia. Great!

Except: My search for "atypical neuralgia" turned up some confusing results. Nearly all were for trigeminal neuralgia. And what is trigeminal neuralgia, you ask? Well, I can tell you, because that's one of the answer sets I wrote.

Trigeminal neuralgia is a pain condition affecting the trigeminal nerve, which transmits sensory messages from the face to the brain. The condition causes short, stabbing bursts of pain in the lower part of the face, including the gums, teeth and lips. The pain is usually triggered by touch or an activity such as brushing the teeth.

I couldn't find more than a line or two on the topic of atypical trigeminal neuralgia among the Company's "approved sources." I figured it would be better to turn in something accurate, so I changed "atypical" to "trigeminal" and turned in my work with a note to the editor about the issue.

The scope of the work, of course, was more meticulous and time-consuming than the ad had implied. In addition to the two answers and the keywords, they required meta descriptions (which could NOT be the same as the other text) and two sources listed in MLA style for each question. I figured that if I really worked at it, I'd ultimately be able to do four of these (or $20) per hour -- maybe.

L____ wrote back promptly with feedback on my three first tries, saying I did a "good job overall," but my word change was a big no-no. "Atypical neuralgia IS your topic," she insisted, lack of sources be damned. The Company's advice: "Use the basic information about trigeminal neuralgia for most of your background information (after all, since it's a form of the disease, it should be accurate) and then add the information about what makes atypical neuralgia different from the regular version."

Check out that amazingly optimistic parenthetical comment. Sure, many of the things I'd written for the larger disorder could have applied to the atypical version. But the symptoms and treatment are significantly different, and all the "approved sources" called it Type 2 trigeminal neuralgia, not "atypical." I felt uneasy about writing ultimately 20 answers on something that didn't have more than a few sentences of differentiating information from a trusted source, and wasn't even referred to by the same name.

But hey, why get stuck on these finer points? After all, it's only health information. It's only pain, suffering, money, loved ones, losses, survival. Why get technical?

I was also told to watch my wording on the above answer. The Company wanted us to be very careful about not plagiarizing, perhaps because we were doing the next best thing to plagiarizing, which is lifting information from very few sources and rewriting it so that this lifting was not too apparent. I was told that I had retained too many of the original words ("stabbing," "lower part of the face") when I rewrote the source material.

"For example," the editor wrote, "instead of your second sentence, you could say 'The primary marker of this condition is the severe facial pain it causes, which occurs in brief but intense spurts.' In this way, the structure of the sentence is completely different and original."

In other words, I needed to spend more time on making my sentences less clear, in order to make it more clear that we were not plagiarizing.

None of this had to be a dealbreaker for me. I could easily have gone with "atypical neuralgia" as directed, made my sentences more convoluted, and continued with the assignment.

Instead I thanked them for the opportunity and took my leave. I received no reply to my withdrawal message.

Eventually, those 20 questions on atypical neuralgia will get written. And when some 55-year-old woman suffering from excruciating pain in her face wants help figuring out what the hell is going on, she'll have one more search link to sift through for the same (or less) information. And the Company will have served one more ad.

I don't think those editors at the Company are bad people. They are just editorial people lucky enough to get a staff spot with benefits at one of the content factories, and it's their job to make sure that the less lucky information laborers give them the best possible search-friendly content in the least possible time at the least possible expense to the Company.

And if my financial situation were more precarious, I would have had to think a lot harder about declining further work with the Company. Judging by the Company's lack of response when I "quit," plenty of people are willing to take my place on the content assembly line, making text widgets for an unknown audience for an unseen content machine, working for supervisors they will never meet.

We are all just part of the general trend toward producing more words with less substance for less pay. The idea makes sense -- in some ways, it's like the long tail as applied to media rather than retailing. But does it really serve anyone? Anyone at all?

Ironically, this approach gets tied in with attempts to "save" journalism. But I believe (or, I hope) that the news business may eventually evolve the way the music business did in the wake of its original revenue source being completely razed by online file sharing. The novelty of being able to get free music wore off (at least, for me) after so many stalled downloads, bogus files and spyware. The consistency, ease and quality of iTunes made it feel worth paying for most stuff. Less hassle. Could media just be in its Napster phase?

There's a ton of free content out there -- hey look, I'm writing some right now -- but how much of it is actually worth anything to you? Would you pay for stories if it meant that they were created by people who are invested in giving you well-written, quality information? Maybe you would. But maybe we've irrevocably crossed a line. As long as people are willing to click on text that someone was paid a mere $5 or $10 to write, the virus of mediocrity will keep spreading.

Music: "Hell Bent"

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Passages.

Humans achieve their peak in different ways. But whoever you are, once you're over the summit, it's downhill all the way. Nothing anyone can do about it. And the worst of it is, you never know where that peak is. You think you're still going strong, when suddenly you've crossed the great divide. No one can tell. Some people peak at twelve, then lead rather uneventful lives from then on. Some carry on until they die; some die at their peak. Poets and composers have lived like furies, pushing themselves to such a pitch they're gone by thirty. Then there are those like Picasso, who kept breaking ground until well past eighty.

And what about me?

My peak? Would I even have one? I hardly had had anything you could call a life. A few ripples. Some rises and falls. But that's it. Almost nothing. Nothing born of nothing. I'd loved and been loved, but I had nothing to show. It was a singularly plain, featureless landscape. I felt like I was in a video game. A surrogate Pacman, crunching blindly through a labyrinth of dotted lines. The only certainty was my death.

No promises you're gonna be happy, the Sheep Man had said. So you gotta dance. Dance so it all keeps spinning.

-- Haruki Murakami

Music: "Dance Dance Dance"