Google+ Won’t Replace Facebook. And That’s OK

Posted on November 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Two weeks ago, Slate‘s influential tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote that Google+ is dead, or will be soon. Tellingly, the subtitle of his post was that Google+ “had a chance to compete with Facebook” but can’t, anymore.

To me, this comparison misses the point. Google+ and Facebook serve different functions within the social networking sphere and cater to different types of users. Facebook is the ideal platform for people to communicate personal updates with their family and friends, if for no other reason than everyone’s family and friends are already using Facebook. For these people there’s no reason to leave Facebook for Google+- as in real life, people want to be at a party where all their friends are.

Google+, on the other hand, has evolved into a site for people who like sharing content over the web. Scanning my G+ page right now, just about everything on there is a link, video, cartoon, followed by comments. For me, as an inveterate sharer, I find that G+ has a far higher percentage of material that I find interesting. Yet Facebook remains the go-to place for gossip, news, and scuttlebutt about people I actually know.

Over time, I expect these differences will sharpen. People won’t leave Facebook for G+, but the “sharers” will gradually view Google’s network as a better platform for exchanging links, content, and ideas. For the people who don’t feel the need to share at all, they’ll simply keep using Facebook as before.  Analyzing the two services as if they were identical I think fails to recognize how they each cater to a separate group of people.…

Occupy Wall Street Revisited

Posted on November 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

I’m getting sick of Occupy Wall Street. I loved it when it started, because it represented a genuine populist movement with social democratic values. Now, OWS seems to have evolved into a semi-permanent encampment of angry, confused kids who don’t know what to do other than to agitate. Also, the complaints that Mayor Bloomberg’s move against them somehow violates their “First Amendment Rights” strikes me as pathetic and sad. Essentially, the OWS people feel they have the right to occupy a park indefinitely without threat of eviction. Never mind that other members of the so-called 99%  might wish to use the park themselves. This, folks, is how people turn into conservatives.

I’m not a conservative and don’t intend ever to become one, and that’s what frustrates me most about Occupy Wall Street. At its inception the movement represented a populist claim against income inequality, lax government regulation of the finance industry, and other legitimate issues. Now, what does OWS stand for? Rather than honing its message through a platform, the movement has instead taken on all types of grievances, ranging from random social issues to the general hatred of the police. By trying to stand for everything, OWS now stands for nothing.

Within a year of its birth, the Tea Party was a major force on the American political scene, sponsoring candidates for office and establishing a caucus in both the House and the Senate. Occupy Wall Street had that potential, but now it’s being squandered under the false banner of “inclusiveness”. The result? A legitimate, promising political movement will again be shunted to the sidelines, while the idiotic Tea Party marches on.


Italy is Not Going to Die

Posted on November 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

David Gilmour, apparently in between solos on “Comfortably Numb”*, writes that Italy’s fractured history makes it little surprise that it’s falling apart now.

I’m not sure whether this article offends me more as an Italian-American or as a graduate student in international affairs. Yes, Italy was once comprised of many different states. So was Germany. Yes, Italy was once the home of many different languages. So was- and is- present-day Indonesia. Italy has a strong north-south divide. Guess what? So does the United States. And, to a lesser extent, China.

This isn’t to say Italy doesn’t have problems, of course. But nobody was suggesting that the country “was barely real to begin with” prior to this most recent economic crisis.

As someone who has lived in Italy, speaks Italian, and met very many Italian people, I can assure Gilmour that the Italian sense of national identity has far stronger expressions than simply soccer. The entire nation takes pride in the country’s cultural heritage, which includes some of the world’s most magnificent art and literature as well as scientific accomplishments. Not only Romans take pride in Michelangelo, or Florentines the David, or Venetians the canals and St. Mark’s Square. I once made the mistake of suggesting to an Italian that pizza came from Chicago. It didn’t go over well.

Italians from the north are certainly critical of their southern siblings, with “the North works for the South” being a popular refrain. Yet I’ve heard far worse from Americans regarding our own Southerners, who unlike their Italian counterparts once actually did try to form a union and secede from the country.  It isn’t at all unusual for a New Yorker to vilify the Mississippi “personhood” initiative but still hold William Faulkner and ante-bellum architecture in high regard. Similarly, Italians from the north often speak fondly of the rugged beauty of the mezzogiorno even in the same breath as denouncing the Mafia.

Whomever eventually assumes the reins of the Italian government will have a lot of work to do. But to suggest that Italy’s current problems mean it isn’t somehow as “real” as other countries is asinine and beneath FP’s usual standards.

*Yes, I know it’s not that David Gilmour.…

Another Preachy Post about Smoking

Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

The Atlantic Wire comments on the latest statistics regarding smokers:

 A few days after a federal judge delayed disgusting new warning labels from being plastered on cigarette boxes (which, by the way, may not work that well), a CDC research report finds that in 2010, 69 percent of smokers want to quit, but 6 percent do. And, even though smokers have indicated they’d like to kick the habit, as The Wall Street Journal reported, it doesn’t look like many were being that proactive

As long-time readers know, I was a heavy cigarette smoker for several years until quitting three years ago, so I can claim authority on this subject. First, way more than 69 percent of smokers want to quit. The number is closer to 99 percent, if smokers were being honest. I suppose there are a handful of smokers who truly, sincerely, enjoy it and don’t want to quit. But I’ve never met one. And having lived in China, I’ve known a lot of smokers. It’s difficult for a smoker to say publicly that he wants to quit, since doing so is a tacit acknowledgment of fear, weakness, and submission. Being proud individuals, smokers would rather give off the impression that they’re fully in control. Even when everyone can see that they’re not.

Also, the line that smokers wanting to quit weren’t being “proactive” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how nicotine addiction works. Most people believe that quitting smoking requires tremendous effort, when in fact it requires none at all. Most smokers try to quit through the sheer force of willpower, and correspondingly most smokers fail. That’s because willpower doesn’t have anything to do with it. I should know, as I tried unsuccessfully to quit through willpower many, many times.

For smokers reading this who would like help in quitting, I cannot recommend Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking highly enough. Smokers who do quit successfully do so through Carr’s methods whether they know it or not. I do not exaggerate when I say that it was the best personal decision I have ever made.

And thus ends a rare preachy post. Stay tuned for additional programming…


The Virtue of Brains

Posted on November 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

James Fallows on Rick Perry’s embarrassing brain fart:

Running for national office is different from any other live public-performance feat. The range of issues on which you have to say something — and can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing — is astonishingly large. You’re going to be asked, in the course of a day, about Syria, and No Child Left Behind, and nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and North Korean and Iranian nukes, and ethanol, and flat-tax plans plus capital-gains schemes, and Afghanistan counterinsurgency strategies, and the European Central Bank, and what have you. I spend my life learning about public issues, but half of the items a presidential candidate is asked about I could barely formulate an answer on. And for a real candidate, a foot placed even slightly amiss on any of these issues can cause lots of headaches.

This is why it’s typically a good idea that the president possesses an extraordinary level of intelligence. While there are certainly very intelligent people who do not speak well (and a few silver-tongued mediocrities), there tends to be a correlation between knowing what you’re talking about and saying it well. Bill Clinton is an example. Say what you will about the man’s performance in office or in (ahem) his personal life, but he possesses the extraordinary gift of articulating coherent positions on a wide range of complex issues. President Obama, too, has that gift.  President Bush, to say the least, did not.

The only two among the Republican field who possess that gift in any capacity are the two Mormons, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. The latter has no chance. The former is likely nominee, but in the current GOP climate he is succeeding in spite of his oratorical smoothness, not because of it. The raison d’etre of the Perry, Bachmann, and Cain campaigns is that they strike more conservatives as authentic than the wooden, blue blood Romney. And part of that authenticity, frankly, is a lack of brains.

That being said, Perry’s gaffe was so bad that I don’t see how he can survive it.  Watching his performance, I was struck by its similarity to old Saturday Night Live satire and scenes from the film Bulworth. President Bush might not have been a good speaker, but he at least gave an impression that he was taking his candidacy seriously. With Perry you wonder whether someone slipped him a Quaalude before the debate and slapped him on the back.

How lucky is Romney, by the way? His opponents in this competition include a complete, unmitigated dunce (Perry), a serial pervert transparently orienting his campaign around a book tour (Cain), a man with about as much charisma as a beige shower curtain (Gingrich), a man who infamously waxed lyrically about bestiality (Santorum), a woman who is as crazy as a box of spiders (Bachmann), a cranky old coot raving about fiat money (Paul), and a seemingly decent man who disqualified himself simply by choosing to work for the Great Satan Obama (Huntsman).

Romney is doubtlessly intelligent enough to handle the job, but if he wins, he’ll be beholden to a political party that views stupidity as a virtue.  Perhaps when he debates Obama next year, he’ll take a page from the Perry playbook and start flubbing his lines.



Posted on November 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 5 comments

Every city in China that has foreigners has an foreigners bar. Many have more than one- Beijing and Shanghai, of course, have hundreds. In Kunming there are several. Even in Fuzhou there were always a few.

In Lianyungang there was just one, and it was called Robert’s. Now, Robert’s was only a bar in the strict sense that it accepted money in exchange for alcohol. There wasn’t really any atmosphere to speak of. The food was putrid. The service could be best described as laissez-faire. Yet it was the bar- the only bar- that I went to during my first five months in Lianyungang. It was a second home and a refuge.

I arrived in Lianyungang in the fall of 2004, six months out of college. I was 23 and couldn’t speak a word of Chinese. The other residents of my building were either a generation older or not, for whatever reason, very social. I was desperate to connect with people my age.

I received a tip from a colleague that there was indeed a group of youngsters in town, and that they congregated at a watering hole called Robert’s. He suggested I go and find it.  But the first few times I attempted to find the bar, during my second week in the city, I failed miserably. I would take walks to the center of town each afternoon, scouring the landscape for the bar, and find nothing. Of course, I couldn’t ask anyone for directions due to the language barrier. Was it possible that Robert’s didn’t actually exist? Was it just a state of mind?

Then, one day, I found it. I took a left turn at a junction where I had previously gone right, and came across a non-descript building with adorned with a large mural of Bob Marley. In Lianyungang,  a fairly typical Chinese city with bathroom tile apartment blocks and excessive neon, Bob definitely stood out.

I walked in and took a seat at an empty booth. The only other customers were three young Chinese guys and a pretty brunette. As I sat, she jumped up from her booth and wandered over to me. “Is there something you’d like?,” she asked in heavily accented English. I scanned the menu and checked my watch. It was 4:30, and even in my addled 23-year old brain, I subscribed to the notion that respectable people didn’t drink before 5. I ordered a coffee.

The girl, whom I would later find out was a 20-year old Russian named Olga, gave an uneasy look at one of the Chinese guys. She spoke to him in Mandarin, and he looked confused.  This was not a good sign. But, he marched into the kitchen anyway. “OK,” she said, “he make it for you”. And so he did.

Ten minutes later, he presented to me the worst coffee I have ever had in my life.

But it didn’t matter. I had found Robert’s, the Mecca, the locus of all my hopes and dreams. I was delighted.

A few days later I returned to Robert’s in the evening and found a crowd of foreigners gathered. This was it! My people! I walked in, expecting to be hazed like a fraternity pledge, but instead found that the assembled patrons took more interest in me than I did in them.

Think of it this way: imagine that you’re at a bar with six of your friends. Sounds great, right? Now imagine that your six friends are the only people that you’ll ever hang out with at bars. Still OK, but after awhile you’re bound to get sick of them. After all, most people have more than six friends for a reason.

Now imagine that you have six people you hang out with at bars, but they’re not your best friends. They’re not even necessarily your peers. In effect, they’re six completely random people, a cross-section of ages and nationalities and personalities and quirks. If you’re a reasonably outgoing and social person, you’re probably going to like at least three of the people. The others you might dislike or merely tolerate. But it doesn’t matter. Those are the six you have. You’ll do anything to be on friendly terms with them, because the only other alternative is isolation and silence. So when a new person comes along- the seventh!- it’s easy to see why the other six get excited.

Though there were slightly more than six foreigners in Lianyungang, this was the basic dynamic of the city’s “bar scene”. Throughout the year, a person would stop into Robert’s and announce with genuine excitement that they had spotted a new foreigner on the street, or had a new colleague at their school. (We were all English teachers, the only gig in town). And so Robert’s would resemble a big game of sardines, a game of waiting for the new guy or girl to come and chlorinate our little pool.

Bad coffee was just one of the way Robert’s fell short of an ideal bar. The beer were often only cold when they days were cold, owing to poor and irregular refrigerating. The food was best left safely in the kitchen. The bartenders couldn’t really tend bar, meaning that we often had to go and mix our own drinks. One night in November the electricity suddenly cut out. It didn’t come back on for days. Undeterred, like hurricane survivors, we huddled in the darkness and continued our ritualistic imbibing.

Chinese expat bars tend to foster uninhibited behavior, and Robert’s was no exception. A group of French engineers would come and on occasion dress up like women and form conga lines. Sexual acts in the bathrooms were not uncommon. Neither were random flashes of nudity. Robert’s kept no hours, no regulations, and no restrictions. We were in complete control of the music, the atmosphere, and the drinks. One night, the lone bartender on duty simply fell asleep at his post while we continued on partying. Everyone placed their money in a neat pile next to his head. It might seem strange that he would trust us to that extent, but he knew we had nowhere else to go.

Sometime in January Robert’s shut down. Nobody knew anything, but there were rumors that the bar would be knocked down. Sure enough, a week or so later, Robert’s and all the other buildings on its block had been reduced to giant piles of rubble.  Even the Bob Marley mural was gone.  Later, when I learned more about China,  I discovered that such occurrences were extremely common throughout the country. But for the moment, Robert’s demise struck me as a great tragedy.

But- like the Chinese people themselves- the redoubtable foreigners of Lianyungang quickly colonized a new, better bar some three blocks away. Within a week, sipping on lukewarm beer and shouting over the din of bad karaoke warbling, we had forgotten that Robert’s had even existed.

Well, almost.




An Open Letter to US Airways

Posted on November 7th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Dear US Airways,

I realize that these are not the salad days for the airline industry. Rising fuel prices and lessened consumer demand mean that profit margins are smaller than ever, and in a competitive market each airline must do what it can to cut costs and attract customers.

I realize that the days when you could expect a solid (if unspectacular) meal, a blanket, a pillow, and other perks for free are long gone. I realize that the only thing that matters is that price on the website when I, the consumer, search for flights. I realize that brand loyalty is as quaint a concept these days as bipartisanship in Congress.

Yet even with these caveats, I found your performance on my red-eye flight to be most disappointing. First, there’s the matter of the emergency row seats. Now, as a tall person facing an overnight flight I was quite happy to purchase one of them for a bit of extra leg room. $36 is a little steep, but facing the prospect of being wedged between two slobs in a middle seat I did not hesitate in the slightest to take it. When the transaction was finished, I figured that we had reached a win-win solution. I, the tall passenger, got the leg room. You, the airline, got extra money.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that my seat wasn’t in the emergency row but rather behind it. My 30 years on this planet have taught me that a row, in the singular, consists of items placed next to each other. If there are seats placed behind others, the row ceases to be a row but rather rows, in the plural. Or, put another way, columns. Now, there’s a reason that airplanes don’t have emergency rows, or emergency columns. It wouldn’t be efficient in the event of, you know, an emergency.

When I tried to point this out to the steward, a small man who resembled a jowlier version of George Stephanopolous, he cheerfully pointed out that I still had “access to” the emergency exit. While I appreciated his enthusiasm, I think he rather missed the point. Being close to the emergency exit in and of itself isn’t much of a privilege. In fact, it’s a responsibility, as the steward so earnestly warned us. Why anyone would pay extra to assume an extra responsibility is beyond me.

Had the steward admitted that the “emergency row” bait and switch was really just another example of your petty, de-humanizing business model,  I would have respected his honesty. Instead, his brainwashed explanation for why I should feel grateful for my marked-up seat made me hate you even more. I can only conclude that there is something rotten in the state of US Airways, an infection that has spread from the top of the corporation to the lowliest foot soldiers on the front lines. My fury only simmered further after your gate “attendants” twice gave me the wrong departure gate on the connecting flight, nearly causing me to miss my connection to New York.

US Airways, you know as well as I that the Earth is littered with the carcasses of dead airlines. TWA. Pan-Am. Valujet. If  I request anything for Christmas- other than one of those portable electronic devices you tell me I’m not allowed to use – it is that you too meet the heavy hand of bankruptcy. Failing that, I suppose I’ll be secure in my knowledge that I’ll never have to fly with you again.