Ride Share Profiles II

E.

10 October 2017, UberX.

E. drives a shiny, new looking, red Toyota Camry. I only know the make of the car, because I remember reading it off the Google maps page with my UberX ride information. It’s weird to realize that I can see the route suggested by the app displayed on my own screen while this stranger drives to pick me up. I find myself critiquing the algorithm, because I have my own ingrained routes which offer themselves automatically when I register someone’s location.

He’s not quite my father’s age, but nevertheless, he reminds me that the sharing economy is not, as promised, a source of income for young workers looking to make some extra cash, but a source of income for people of all ages.

It’s nearly eleven in the morning, and he’s driving me to work in downtown Providence. I missed the bus and figured this is what the so-called “sharing economy” was made for: using someone’s side gig to get to my own side gig.

I ask him how he’s doing and he’s cheerful. His radio is tuned to 95.5 FM, which used to be WBRU – Brown University’s student radio station – but was recently sold and now broadcasts Christian rock music. I wonder if it’s a hold over, or if it’s a recent addition to his radio presets.

It turns out he’s from Puerto Rico. He tells me he still has family there, his mother and his brother. I ask how they’re doing and he says they’re fine. The house is made of concrete and withstood the weather, they have water from the ground, and his brother had bought a large generator. They have water and power, so they’re alright, he says. The only problem is food; the supermarkets are only letting people in 10 at a time to avoid mayhem and to ensure that people only take a few of the things they need, rather than everything. If you need batteries, you can only take two packets.

He asks me if I’m going to work, I say that I am, and that I usually take the bus, except that I missed it this morning. He tells me about how he took the bus once, in 1991 with his kids and said “never again.” The next year, 1992, he got a car. I mention that the bus is always crazy, always somebody having some problem on the bus. (The two bus lines which run near my house run between two transit centers and one runs between hospitals. A large portion of the regular riders are people who make use of the city’s human services – you see a lot of colorful characters, and hear a lot of interesting stories.)

E. tells me that he used to ride the train when he lived in New York. Always there were people who would get into fights and cause trouble. If a seat opened up, you’d have to deal with other people who wanted to sit there, regardless that you’d both been waiting for it. He’d often let other people take it, he says, he doesn’t know if the person who was sitting there was sick. Better to avoid the fight and the uncertain cleanliness. He’d wait for the seat to get cold, he says.

I ask him about living in New York; how long did he live there?

He went in 1977, three months before the Blizzard of ’77. He never forgot it, he says. At the time, he’d been living in an illegal basement apartment. There was no door leading to a hallway on the inside, only a door to the outside. When the snow piled up, there was no way for them to get out. The landlady didn’t want to call the cops or the fire department because the apartment itself was illegal. They were stuck there for days, eventually, she did call the fire department. When they showed up, they cut a hole in the floor of the kitchen and pulled everyone out. No more basements apartments after that, he said.

He asked me about my parents, I said that both of my parents had been born here, in Providence, but that my mother’s family was Greek, and my father’s father was Puerto Rican, but grew up in New York, and my father’s mother was from Ohio. So you have Puerto Rican blood, he asks. Yes, I say. But you’ve never been there? No, I tell him, but I’d really like to go sometime.

He tells me that July is the best month to visit Puerto Rico. Every day is a carnival. One day they’ll close one street, the next they’ll close another. It’s the best month to go on vacation. He always tells people to visit Puerto Rico in July. Wait for them to get everything back to normal, and go on vacation in July. I tell him I’ll do that.

I really hope I’ll have the chance to do so.

2016.11.28 : pipe dreams

Thanksgiving is come and gone. 

It has been hard not to think of William S. Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Prayer, especially the last line:

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal
of the last and greatest
of human dreams.

(Content Warning for the poem: racial slurs, anti-gay slurs. Un-varnished representations of America.) 


I read some good bits of advice for weathering the new political climate, both are making the rounds, but a little extra time spent on them won’t be wasted:

Annalisa Merelli’s piece for Quartz, regarding what the US body politic and the US media can learn from Italy’s experiences with Silvio Berlusconi. Namely, that fighting the man does little good, because as Trump has said: All publicity is good publicity. (And the man is a reality TV star, he surely knows what he’s talking about.) We need to refocus away from a critique of his personal or moral foibles and failures, and re-engage with what matters. That means it’s time to (finally) talk policy. 

The other is from Nic Dawes, appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review and made the rounds, at least in the arenas I’m familiar with (it’s all algorithmic and doubtlessly intended to keep me deep in my comfort zone). Dawes is concerned with preparing American journalists for a level of hostility and restricted access they have never encountered before. The freedom of the Press and, more importantly, the importance of the Press is something that has been taken for granted in this country, and ostensibly enshrined in our founding document. It has weathered difficult times and difficult moments before, but never has it faced the total rejection and defamation that is being put forth by the President-elect and his political entourage. 


On the matter of the press, part of me despairs. The calcification of the federal government was at least periodically tempered by the actions of the Press (though not with anything near the level of effectiveness that was necessary). Without any voices playing even nominally playing the role of dissenting opinion or considered criticism, I fear we face a necrotic rather than a merely ailing infrastructure of governance. 


Most of all, fear is what keeps me up at night. If this shock, this pain, this anger continues as it is, and fear sets in long term, we will be lost. The forces of power need us divided and overwhelmed. We must imagine new ways of being, and living, and speaking that will allow us to push back against those instincts to circle the wagons and protect our own. 

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Supergirl lately, but it seems like this moment––when things are dark and bleak and uncertain––is when we must hold out our hands and try and help each other stand. 

WMUA: Famous Economist Thomas Piketty visits UMass

Persistence pays off. By being the most annoying reporter at the annual Phillip L Gamble memorial lecture at UMass, where French economist Thomas Piketty spoke on his book Capital in the Twenty First Century, I got to ask the first question at the press gaggle, post-talk. I had prepped about five questions, in the hopes of getting to ask more of them, but a small mob formed around the man (who looked quite tired, he had flown in the day of, and was leaving the next day at 7AM), and I didn’t manage it. But I have to say, first question for a world famous economist is not bad for student media, especially given the reception we usually get.

Mr. Piketty’s book is quite substantial, it is nearly 700 pages, including the Notes, index, and other appendices. I did not manage to read the whole thing before the lecture, but I supplemented what reading I had done with every single review and criticism and adulation of the book I could find.

It’s rare for an economics book to make the kind of splash Piketty’s made. Many people have, rightfully I believe, attributed the source of some of his success to the fact that the decade of research of his book were prescient for the current curiosity and frustration with the distribution of capital.

Bragging rights. Photo cred: Dan Moreno.
Bragging rights. Photo cred: Dan Moreno.

But Piketty’s book, unlike much of the conversation surrounding the “1%” at the moment, focusses less on income inequality, or the difference between what the top is earning versus what everyone else is earning in the same interval, and focusses instead on wealth inequality. The main thrust of his argument (r > g) is that the rate of wealth accumulation is greater than the rate of growth, and so capital will move towards the top of society over time, because their money is growing faster than anyone else can save theirs.

His book has gotten a lot of heat, particularly from more traditional schools of economic thought. The most vicious was one in the Financial Times, which one can only read with an FT.com subscription, which Piketty responded to on the Huffington Post.

What stuck out to me most, however, in his talk was his focus on the lack of real data on wealth. Because we do not tax it, the way we do income, we don’t have a solid understanding of how much money or value (not all wealth is money, some of it is resources, such as land, oil, etc) is actually there. There is no national or international collection of that data. He joked more than once during the lecture, that part of the reason for his suggestion of a global wealth tax is to help create that data.

We can’t hope to talk about that which we know nothing about. Things that haven’t been measured, can’t be truly debated or discussed. (This is a question I will be returning to in the future.)

I think if I could go back and ask one more question, I would like to know how he feels being compared to Karl Marx.

Short Stop: the Ethics of the Promotional Interview

Another year, another set of thorny ethical questions to contend with.

Specifically, at what point does journalism turn into semi-independent PR?

One of the staples of any news-source relationship, be it the politician, the special-interest group, or the business, is the interview. Interviews rarely happen unless someone is trying to sell something. That something could be a new product, a new policy direction, or an event. When trying to avoid the tacit support of a particular view or party or product or person that comes with hosting them on your website/podcast/radio show/newspaper/op-ed page, is it the number of questions one asks? The kinds of questions? Do you need to treat polarized situations differently from more apolitical ones?

This year we’ve seen an increase in the number of people approaching us to come on to our news show and talk about their events.
On the one hand, I’m gratified, because if people are approaching us to come on our show, it must mean that we’ve started making an impact in terms of visibility. We’ve become a place you actually seek out to get a message to the people out in the world.
On the other hand, I’m perturbed by the notion that we are simply a platform to promote yourself on. Intellectually, I understand that that is what many people, when representing an organization or a specific interest, view the media as. Emotionally, I end up feeling cornered by the idea that our good name can be sullied and our ethical bearing compromised by people who are looking to promote their own interests.

The ethics of the situation are particularly clear, on the untried and somewhat microscopic level of the University because my fellow students have not yet become PR masters. They are clever enough to approach us to get pre-event coverage. But they are not clever enough to phrase their desire for publicity as an opportunity for my organization to get a scoop, or break a story.

They ask me, “Can we come on to your show and give a short blurb about our event tomorrow.” To which I am forced to reply, “No, you cannot. But you may come onto my show and have my anchors ask you questions, at which point we will allow you to inform our listeners about your up-coming event.”

So I’ve taken to phrasing that last bit, where they get to talk about their own stuff in terms of, “You approached us…” carefully wording it to allow our listeners the knowledge that this is, in a sense, a contrived media moment. We didn’t get paid, we are not endorsing them, but we will allow them airtime.

So far, I haven’t said a flat-out no to anyone. I think the really thorny ethical question will appear if ever I am approached by a group whose position I believe to be lacking in some kind of merit and am forced to ask should I air these people at all?.

Building the “Personal Brand” — On Internships

“You want to contribute to their brand. You like the work you’re doing, you believe it is worthy of your time and effort, and you wish to support it with your labor. [… I]t can very easily feel as if you are simply handing over the fruits of your labor and maintaining little-to-no ownership of them, thus undermining your own brand by giving your work away.”

There is a tension between the “personal brand” and the brand of the larger entity one works for.

It is especially true for interns. The intern has essentially agreed to work for free to “pad their resume” or, in other words, build their personal brand.

For people of certain skill-sets, the “personal brand” is less important. If you’re an engineer, or a student of another applied science, you can present lab work and other concrete examples of work you have done or participated in, and be judged on that (often you already have been, if a study is published and peer-reviewed).

But those who fall into a more “artisinal” category (designers, journalists, artists), people whose work is both becoming excessively commodified (“oh anyone can write/throw a webpage together/et. al.”), need a portfolio that clearly displays their skills to acquire work. With these areas becoming increasingly free-lance, it is even more critical.

Continue reading “Building the “Personal Brand” — On Internships”