Monthly Archives: July 2010

Abdullah the Butcher: ‘He’s a big ol’ man’

So pro wrestling legend Abdullah the Butcher is still inflicting pain in the squared circle — at the age of 73?

Apparently so, according to this terrific NYT profile of Abdullah (real name Larry Shreve), who portrays himself as “the Madman from The Sudan” but is actually Canadian. Of course.

Aside from moving a lot slower, Abdullah has hardly changed in his 50-year career. He’s still a giant, tipping the scales at 400-plus pounds. He still gouges opponents with his trademark fork, the ultimate pro wrestling “foreign object,” which always materializes from somewhere deep inside his costume. He still slices his forehead to bloody ribbons during a match, transforming his psychotic visage into a “crimson mask.” And he’s still, shall we say, entreprenuerial.

…  Abdullah explains what motivates him. “Money,” he says. Then, for emphasis: “Money.” …

When first approached for an interview, Abdullah demands payment. “Everything has a price,” he says. “I’ve got to make a living.”

On the night of his match, before an interview is mentioned, Abdullah’s first words are, “Where’s my money?” When reminded that he will receive no compensation, he points to a stack of autographed photographs that sell for $10 apiece and says, “Buy one of these.”

It gets better. Deep in the story, you discover that Abdullah’s entrepreneurial spirit also manifests itself in an Atlanta restaurant — Abdullah the Butcher House of Ribs & Chinese Food.  It’s everything you’d expect from a house of ribs and Chinese food named for a maniacal pro-wrestling heel.

This is a great country.


What do copy editors do, exactly?

A great answer to that question is supplied in this Q&A with Mary Norris, a copy editor with The New Yorker. I especially liked this bit:

Andy: What qualities make a person a good candidate for copy editing?

Mary: Self-doubt. It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance! It also helps to have read widely (and well), and to have noticed, while you’re at it, how words are spelled. Of course you have to be attentive to details—you have to be a bit of a nitpicker yet be constructive in your nit-picking. You have to love language. And not be too proud to run spell-check.

Lots of other great insights in the interview as well, so do read the whole thing. (Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.)

Obviously, Mary’s work differs radically from my own, even though we share the job title “copy editor.” For example, her week seems to consist of fine-tuning literary essays by celebrated authors during the eminently humane hours of 10-6.

In contrast, I’m pretty much shoveling copy non-stop from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.) I don’t necessarily mean “shoveling” in a bad way; after all, we are a daily newspaper and an around-the-clock website, so our “metabolism” (to steal a new-media buzzword I hate) is much faster than The New Yorker‘s. Online journalism will definitely get your adrenaline flowing, and I really do enjoy it. But sometimes I miss the days when I had the time to read a story twice, or more, to ensure near-perfection in every component. Those days, however, are never coming back, and I’ve made my peace with that.

Anyway, here’s how a typical workday shapes up for me. Try not to hyperventilate from the excitement.

Arrive at 3 p.m. Log on, scan the Lifeline Live entertainment-themed blog for things that need correcting, and jump in and make fixes. Perform a quick quality check of the wire stories that have been posted by our daytime Web producers. Scan the Life front for any glaring typos.

After about a half-hour of that, I dive into editing copy for the newspaper. Besides the usual fact-checking, grammar-fixing, headline-writing and page-proofing, this process now involves pre-formatting stories for Web posting — creating a URL, adding an SEO-friendly headline and writing a 140-character “brief” that, ideally, summarizes the story but differs from the lede.

As the pages are typeset, the stories automatically publish to the Web, thanks to the pre-formatting described above. But they still must be “enhanced.” Photos need to be attached, as well as links to other relevant content. “Enhancing” can be as simple as adding a picture, which takes maybe a minute, or as complex as turning a “charticle” into something that works online, which can take much, much longer.

There are frequent requests for the copy desk to edit online-only items — the text for stand-alone photo galleries or interactive pieces, for example. We handle those as they become available. Additionally, after the last daytime Web producer leaves around 7 p.m., I scan the wire for AP stories to publish to the website.

Finally, at the end of the night, I rearrange the Life front to highlight the fresh content that’s just been published. Recently, I’ve also been given the OK to craft the occasional blog post for Lifeline Live if any minor (or major) news breaks.

It’s a hectic job that’s changing constantly, and, yes, it’s often overwhelming. But copy editing is still deeply rewarding to me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else — even when the  job steers me into “unexpectedly absurd conversations.”

Congolese dandies and condescension

The person who tweeted this  amazing photo gallery of a fashion-conscious Congolese subculture wonders whether these dandies are an example of  “Western influence at its worst.”


Really? Snazzy suits represent the West at its worst? Or is the problem the conspicuous consumerism that contrasts so starkly with the grinding poverty? Or maybe it’s the eternal enemy, “Western cultural imperialism,” which has brainwashed a new set of victims to reject their simpler yet more virtuous modes of dressing? (I know. I’m reading a lot into a tweet.)

Whatever the reason, I think she’s wrong. To me, these impoverished Africans, with their incongruous elegance,  might represent what’s best about “Western influence” — audacious individualism. They’re asserting the right to make their personal world special, and they look pretty fantastic doing it.

Furthermore, they’ve reached halfway around the world,  snatched away an aspect of another culture and merged it into their own — and what’s wrong with that? In a way, they’re not dissimilar from Vampire Weekend, whose music mimics Congolese soukous. Yet something tells me that VW, being pretty much the pinnacle of Stuff White People Like, isn’t going to be dubbed an example of “Congolese influence at its worst” by the Internet’s cultural curators.

And that’s how it should be. We need more snatching and mimicking. As far as I’m concerned, all things of value created by human beings anywhere are the birthright of all people everywhere.

The condescending idea that these style-conscious men are betraying some static standard of “authenticity” really represents the West at its worst. You get the sense that the author would have been happier if they were photographed wearing rags and pounding cassava.

Then again, maybe she just didn’t like the clothes.

Blog post mentions Gene Weingarten

Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post column mourning the demise of old-school headline writing and mocking the machinations of search-engine optimization gets a lot right, starting with the hilarious, SEO-spoofing headline (“Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga”). But I think it also gets some things wrong.

Weingarten’s right, of course, that headlines written for the Web are frequently less interesting than those that go into the paper. They’re also much easier to find, and in an online world utterly dominated by search engines, if you can’t be found, you might as well not exist. Sad but true.

But where is the rule that forbids clever wordplay from hanging out with easily searchable key words?

Weingarten cites a Post headline about Conan O’Brien that read “Better never than late” in print but became “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno” on the Web.

Obviously, that’s SEO overkill. But perhaps something like this might have worked: “Better never than late: Conan O’Brien won’t drop ‘Tonight Show’ slot for Jay Leno.” Or this: “Better never than late: Conan won’t drop ‘Tonight Show’ slot for Leno.” (Googlers would probably enter “Conan” and “Leno” instead of their full names.)

I understand Weingarten’s angst about the industry, and I appreciate the humor he uses to express it. Much like him, I often yearn for that simpler time when all we had to do was “get the paper out.” But those days are vanishing and will never return, and I’d rather spend my energy trying to figure out how to merge the craft of journalism’s past with the dynamism of its future.

Open letter to a barista

Dear blissed-out, beardy hipster working the counter at my local coffee shop:

You know that incessant patter you spring on every customer in your annoying, sing-song voice? It’s not engaging. It’s not cute. It doesn’t even rise to the level of quirky.

It’s more like a weird, pansexual come-on.

Please get that fixed.



P.S.: You have a fantaaaastic, amaaaazing day, too!!!!!!

Everything’s going to be OK — maybe

Talk of impending doom threatens to overwhelm us these days. If that’s not bad enough, a lot of people seem to be cheering it on.

The  economy? We’re heading for another Great Depression, and it’s payback for our greed. The environment? We’re drowning in our own poisons, and probably deserve to. The government? We’re on the road to serfdom, theocracy, fascism, communism, anarchy (choose one, depending on the day of the week). The world’s population? It’s either too big to sustain, which means Soylent Green is on the menu, or it’s going to slowly die off in a couple of generations, which means entire societies could become extinct.

So in a world that’s falling apart, it’s nice to know that people like Matt Ridley still exist. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist, and here’s the thesis of this intriguing book:

Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout.

Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous. In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.

I really want to read this book (this one, too), if only to arm myself with rejoinders to fans of gloom-and-doomers like James Howard Kunstler. (Though at least in the area of urban planning, Joel Kotkin is doing a fine job with that.) The progress-haters have been proven wrong in the past. Let’s hope they’re proven wrong again.

Otherwise, you might as well just dig a hole, sit down in it and wait to die.

Of course, Kunstler and his ilk would probably prefer it that way. After all, self-dug one-person holes are local, sustainable and have a small carbon footprint.