Blogging a second year in review and… the news

Let’s flip the order of the title first: I’ve given up on the news (or, if you care about blogging and not the news, skip the next 500 words).

On June 8, the political news website Vox published a timeline “of all the ways Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus” and yes, the Trump administration has clearly failed to manage this current pandemic. But what about Vox and the rest of American news media? Digging through Vox’s archives in January:

January 26: “There are now five confirmed US coronavirus cases. Experts say it’s no cause for alarm

And this well-aged Tweet (since deleted) on January 31, the same day the Department of Health and Human Services declared the virus a public health emergency:

January 31: “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.

I mean, I shouldn’t laugh, but I am. How often do you see irony that strong in the real world?

I only pick on Vox because, by my estimation, they have had among the best coverage of the virus. While other major outlets continued to downplay the risk through February and early March, Vox stated the need for cautious preparation, escalating its language by the week:

February 14: “Why the coronavirus outbreak might be much bigger than we know

February 25: “’We are at a turning point’: The coronavirus outbreak is looking more like a pandemic

March 7: “Why scientists worry the coronavirus might be here to stay

Moreover, their articles lean on published medical studies, data analysis rather than anecdotes, and authoritative interviews with active researchers rather than political appointees. They reacted faster than other media outlets to changing conditions, they didn’t conflate coronavirus with a seasonal flu, and, most importantly, their journalists have shown the courage and humility to admit when they just don’t know:

April 18: “Why it’s so hard to see into the future of Covid-19

April 18: “The ‘experts’ don’t know everything. They can’t

But for all that, their reporting has still been unreliable. Why? To meet their motto of “Explain[ing] the News,” Vox diagnosed its own media failure, quoted in part:

“The truth is, there’s no good answer to this. You can be as diligent about your sourcing as possible and still get it wrong if the experts you talk to get it wrong.” [my emphasis]

So well into March, by which time the rest of the media caught up with the story, Vox continued to give now-apparently-bad advice like “Oh, and face masks? You can pass on them” because the expert CDC sources they relied on had not yet updated their guidelines. By the end of March, their reporting on masks became less ambivalent as new research emerged (or rather, science journalists began to read old research that they had neglected) and of course, by April, their opinion on masks flipped to an absolute affirmative. Vox can, and should, fault the Trump administration. However, their own response to the virus followed a similar timeline that deserves some scrutiny as well.

So, how does any of that relate to the second anniversary of an insignificant, individual blog?

I still don’t know, to be honest, but it feels relevant to the moment. From February 16 to May 8, I pretty much gave up on this site as the world kind of… let’s say, “teetered.” At first, some of that had to do with exhaustion at work and a tedious graduate school search process, but in general I just felt distracted and demotivated. One by one, I “cancelled” sources in my newsfeed until I had nothing left but bland wire services or close: AP, Reuters, BBC, Bloomberg, etc. … Now, I only allow myself one scan of the global headlines every morning and night because anything else makes me either angry or depressed.

Instead, I’ve gone hyper-local: I flip through my town’s tiny paper, get news from chats with family and neighbors, or hear it second-hand from friends on voice calls. I already refused to use Twitter and Facebook but I’ve also given up on reddit, online forums, most other blogs, and social media in general. None of it feels healthy; ironically, I refer to this old article from Vox:

[In the modern word,] Instead of struggling to gather information, we are inundated with a ceaseless flow of news, social media and questionable facts. … For many of us, generating and managing this information has become a full-time job, leaving little time for real-life, real-time interactions.

After my real job effectively ended due to the coronavirus lockdowns, my new job became a silly alternation between video game binges and news binges. It was awful. I’ve since moved away from that lifestyle to focus more on intentional activities like studying Japanese, exercising on my bike, or reading real books rather than internet rants. I’m having a much better time now, much of which I can attribute to avoiding the media.

But at the same time, my blog has also begun to attract more views than I sometimes feel comfortable with and, with them, my first wave of negative feedback (as I wrote last year, I suffer an “abject terror of criticism”). I’m happy with simple questions and fact-checks and even trolls (I remember one spam-filtered comment on my post about Porco Rosso to the effect of ‘You missed the part where the fascists were the good guys.’ I actually laughed so, good job). However, much of my more recent criticism has baffled me: why bother writing a comment, longer than the original post, so studded with links that the WordPress spam filter eats it? Or why write an essay on a perceived error in my logic against a post that declares, in the title, my intent to discuss impressionistic feelings — sad and boring? And most of all, why link me on social media just to say that me, or my post, is stupid?

I’d say I don’t get it but I do: it’s the same thing I did while idle, chasing outrage to extinguish a bout of boredom or anxiety or anger or whatever else. I know much of what I write is imperfect and maybe even bad and deserves criticism, like I just criticized Vox. Though — I don’t know how to say this without sounding rudely dismissive of my critics – this place doesn’t matter. I often think about Montaigne’s famous address to the reader before his Essays:

You have here, Reader, a book … which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private … one. [trans. Screech]

Scholars reaching back at least to Rousseau have wondered if Montaigne lies here, if he hid a public motivation for political advancement. But for me, this is merely a hobby to pass the time. I’ve always said as much on my “About” page. I’m a pseudonymous internet commentator vain-glorified by the extra couple hours I took to ask WordPress make a website for me. The separation between this internet persona and my real life means that I can neither extract substantial benefit nor assume serious risk from the site (unless like, someone doxes me. Please don’t). In other words, I’m just another online weirdo whispering into the cacophony of our modern information overload. I can only have as much effect on you as you choose to permit me because, though my viewership has increased rapidly, I’m still only pulling on the order of 10 views a day across almost 100 posts (or 0.1 per post per day!). Continuing through to the end of Montaigne’s address:

I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design. … And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.

Vox interviews real experts. They are sometimes wrong and their failure ricochets across the world. But here, like Montaigne, I claim no expertise on any subject except that of myself – my emotions, my judgements, and my interests (vanity of vanities!!!). I am neither a journalist nor an academic, as some have accused me. If I am bad, or if I offend, leave me forgotten, like the million other inferior essayists who have imitated Montaigne since he invented the form. I mean, back up, and look at the top of this page. I am named “Oncasteve” and this place “Everything is Marshmallows” for goodness sake! I write non-grammatically about stupid anime, have a stupid profile picture of marshmallows, and include a stupid oxymoron or non-sequitur in my tagline every week. Why take me seriously?

And then there’s the pragmatic matter of internet usage and mental health that I discussed before, where I might give my critics some advice: if I outrage you, why not just move on?

Why make yourself miserable?

For my anniversary last year, I answered six “best of” and “worst of” questions about anime, books, and this blog itself, plus a seventh about my plans for the coming year. I have done the same below:

My Favorite Anime of the Year?

The question is harder to answer this year simply because I watched less anime or else watched them with Japanese subtitles, limiting my comprehension (but boosting my language skills!). I can say that I liked Machikado Mazoku, though I don’t have much to say about it. Past simple enjoyment, Beastars probably wins for quality even if I’ve reserved most of my judgement on it because the first season ends with much of the plot unresolved.

My Least Favorite Anime of the Year?

I vaguely disliked Magia Record despite wanting to love it (blown expectations?). I couldn’t even bring myself to write anything except for a sarcastic account of its hair colors. It was just so… dull. Like so many gacha-adaptation anime, it lost itself in far too many characters, to the detriment of its lead cast. Like sure, yes, I understand that being Meguca is suffering. But that doesn’t really make magical girls unique, does it?

My Favorite Book?

I’ve been reconnecting with old Roman poets that I haven’t read since I wasted 7 years of secondary school studying Latin (so far Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius… though I’m told I should read less of them now) and I’ve been re-reading Cioran (who I definitely shouldn’t be reading, at all, given the current zeitgeist). Otherwise, I’ve focused more on working through Japanese language textbooks and reading dull academic histories of the country to fill the quarantine time.

If I had to choose something though, I really liked A.E. Stalling’s translation of Lucretius’s Epicurean epic De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) because it’s just so fancy. Stalling fixes the old Roman poetry to English rhyming couplets to make the whole poem light and fun and fluffy (I’m sure to the horror of a Latin grammarian). But then the couplets become double-fun because Lucretius is often savage to his intellectual rivals and can become quite dark while laying out his sometimes-tedious, always-primitive science. But the Epicureans were also the OG hedonists, so Lucretius emphasizes beauty to justify his brand of wacky cosmogony. As he addresses his patron Memmius:

As I seek the right words and the right poetry to light

Brilliant lanterns for your mind, so that at last you might

Peer deep into the recesses of things once recondite.

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away

Not by rays of the sun nor by the brilliant beams of day,

But by observing Nature and her laws. [Book 1, trans. Stalling]

That’s a sick way to convince a lit-kid to like science. And Lucretius and Stalling deliver! For example, during an explanation of the idea that Nature recycles its atoms in a continuous churn of rebirth:

Hence we see happy cities all abloom with girls and boys,

And the trills of fledgling birds fill up the leafing woods with noise,

And herds and flocks, made sluggish with their fat, lay down their bulk

In rich pastures, their heavy udders oozing with white milk,

And lambs go frolicking across young grass on wobbly legs –

Their new-born noggins tipsy on milk drunk straight from the kegs! [Book 1]

That’s so much fun!

From Japan, I liked too much to mention. But I’ll choose two contrasting diaries: the classical-era Sarashina Nikki in fiction, which I wrote about here, and Pacific War-era Diary of Darkness in non-fiction, here.

My Least Favorite Book?

I added this category last year because I hate, hate, hated, the novel Ready Player One. But this year, I haven’t read anything that bad so — nothing here, thankfully. Like I wrote above, I’ve tried to avoid intentional outrage.

My Favorite Post?

Any of my 100% joke posts, which have kind of taken over this place as I’ve had less time to write. However, I’m an especially big fan of unfairly damning a piece via excessive quotation of its own absurd verbosity so… this one.

My Least Favorite Post?

I worked hard on this one but don’t like to think about it because 1) it was my most successful with over 1000 views now and 2) I don’t like sharing about myself.

What’s Next?

Dunno! I’m starting graduate school, then (hopefully, if society survives) teaching again. Maybe I’ll have time, maybe I won’t. I do very much like blogging though. Back to Montaigne, if the subject of a blog is the self, I think that self is best investigated in relation to other disparate things:

This too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement. Suppose something subtle springs up as I write … subsequently, chance may make what I wrote clearer than the noon-day sun: it will be my former hesitations which then astonish me. [“On a ready or hesitant delivery.” trans. Screech]

I guess then I’ll keep bouncing ideas around at random, like Lucretius’s atoms, and see what I find out.

4 thoughts on “Blogging a second year in review and… the news

  1. I’ve wondered when to and when not to reply on the internet ever since the early 2000s. I still haven’t got it figured out. I don’t have a blog myself, so I have no experience from the other side to help out. I’d say I’m an internet nomad, but I really don’t reply to many blogs, so I’m probably more of an interent limpet (I thrive below the water line and dry up when blogs go belly-up).

    I’ve read and enjoyed your posts, and that’s probably going to continue. I’ve also been known to write replies longer than the blog posts (though not with many links, since I’m lazy) in the past, so if an old habit resurfaces… (Not much danger of that recently, since I’m pretty exhausted.)

    I’ve been finishing video games I couldn’t finish years ago, and in one case (Ar no Surge) thinking: “this is awesome, I should have finished it,” and “now I remember why I didn’t,” in short succession.

    I liked Magia Record a little more than you and will watch the continuation. I did like Demon Girl Next Door better. I can’t really say what I shows I enjoyed the most, because I can never remember what aired when.

    I’m at much reduced work again, because Corona cases have gone down, but the numbers are hard to interpret if you don’t know what people count (and that tended to change every now and then, and is definitely different internationally). I wouldn’t want to be a politician right now; you can’t do right. You can do wrong, though, because the one thing we do know is that – left unchecked – it overwhelms the healthcare system in place. There were some interesting news during the lockdown: more wildlife sightings, fewer motorvehicle fatalities. And really, I haven’t gotten this much sleep in years: more free time and less noise. Personally, I actually profited a lot from the pandemic. (I do worry about people who suddenly drop off the internet, though, so – if only for that reason – it’s reassuring to see a post every now and then.)

    Liked by 1 person

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