Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Month: December, 2012

On Newtown

On Friday afternoon I was walking home with my daughter in a cold and heavy rain. On our left were the mossy tombs and crumbling ruins of the medieval church tower in our neighborhood; on our right, the splashing rush of an approaching car. As it passed I saw it was a hearse, and then I saw the grotesquely shrunken proportions of the coffin, and the toys placed amid the flowers. At this same time, a dreadful thing was happening in Connecticut.

It is cliché to say that having a child changes the way one reacts to events like these but it’s true. It’s not that parenthood automatically opens a greater capacity for empathy. All decent people feel sorrow at the news of a child’s death. My response now is far more selfish. Now that I can more clearly imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I cannot allow myself to imagine it at all. The sight of that small coffin halted my steps but the black town car behind it with the couple inside made me ill.

On Saturday Newtown was on the front page of every newspaper here. By Monday most had moved the story inside. The UK is not grieving in the way America is. The general response is that these killings are terribly sad and senseless and criminal, but that they are also the product of a culture that confoundingly accepts the possibility of such events.

It is illegal to own a handgun in Great Britain, a law that was adopted without much fuss in 1995 after a school shooting. In 2007, according to the Small Arms Survey, there were 41 firearm homicides in England and Wales; in the US, there were 9,146.

Do not interpret this as evidence of enlightenment on this side of the Atlantic. If the US media follows a pattern of righteous and invasively sentimental coverage in the wake of these disasters, the UK press relies on its own lazy clichés to shamelessly paint the US as a nation of gun-crazed zealots. I may want to hurl a shoe at the BBC reporter explaining with a straight face that “many Americans go to sleep with a gun beneath their pillow,” but I am only experiencing belatedly what residents of the Middle East and north Africa must feel when they watch Western reporters’ stand-ups from their cities. The news of yet another mass shooting in America lands here in much the way that reports of bombings in Gaza are received in the US. It’s sad, of course, but look at their history, and their culture. It’ll go on until they’re ready to do something about it. Shame, that.

I have my own feelings about America’s gun laws, but tragedies like this have a way of hijacking what should be sober debate with emotional tirades that burn out once sensation fades. I suspect that anything I’d write at the moment would only contribute to that. I just know that the headline of Sunday’s New York Times was “Children Were All Shot Multiple Times With Semi-Automatic” and that is barbaric.

It’s off the website now, but two days ago you could buy the same model of Bushmaster rifle the killer used in Newtown at Wal-Mart. Nineteen of 20 reviewers gave it five stars.



Stupid Reasons to Love the UK

When you’re living in a strange place, it’s all too easy to focus on what’s missing and what’s wrong. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when the holidays are close and family feels far and the weather turns icy and it’s pitch black at 4 p.m. like the place is run by goddam vampires.

Expats, everywhere, are famously good complainers. (I loved this list from Beijing writer Mitch Moxley about expats’ top complaints in China. I haven’t lived there, but I recognize the spirit.) Instead of indulging in whining or nostalgia, however, I’m trying a new mental exercise: conscious appreciation of all that is good about the United Kingdom.

Read more . . .

What I Think About the New Stanford Logo

Stanford University unveiled its redesigned online logo this week. Here’s what the new Stanford font looks like, compared to the font it replaced. A lot of people have criticized the redesign. I looked at it and was really disappointed. And then I remembered






and I was so ashamed that I cared about this for even more than a second that I had to squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head fast to rid myself of the memory.

A Google search for “new Stanford logo” yields 20.5 million results, because the correlation between people who care about the new Stanford logo and people who get things onto Google is high. (For fun I opened up a new window and searched “Sudan oil conflict,” and that got 12.7 million results, because people directly affected by “Sudan oil conflict” have other things to do.)

I don’t know how or why the new logo came about. I like to imagine John Cioffi was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall and said “I think I want to redesign the website” and John Hennessy looked up from Assassin’s Creed III and was like “sure” and six hours and three baskets of chicken strips later it was live.

That’s probably not how it happened. They probably paid more money than I have earned since graduation to a firm who gave a Draper-style presentation on why the curves of this new S are intrinsically better suited to a 21st century university. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not Comic Sans. It’s not the Graffiti Creator. It’s the word “Stanford,” in red, in letters marginally different from the last red “Stanford.”

This is a university whose whole identity is based on innovation. It is a place where people are daily engaged in the creation of artificial intelligence and robots and probably a bunch of other stuff in the CS department that goes straight to the Department of Defense. It’s a university whose students celebrate everything from shopping period to Wacky Walk as evidence of their iconoclasm. And everyone is acting like they just changed the lunch menu at the senior day center.

I didn’t like the new font. I didn’t like it because it’s not what was at the top of the page when I registered online for classes each quarter. I didn’t like it because it was slightly different from something I felt perfectly comfortable with and the world is changing in many other threatening ways that I can’t control. Then I read this post and by the time I was done scrolling to the bottom I had seen the logo enough times that it didn’t look new any more and I stopped caring.

People don’t like change. They really don’t. Even if it’s a really small change to something of minor significance in a place whose greatest asset they would otherwise swear was a willingness to accept change in all forms. It’s a font. It’s just a font. It’s. Just. A. Font. 

That’s all.



Leave My Pants Alone

I woke up in London not so long ago to find that right now, somewhere in Manhattan, there are Americans who think it’s okay to invite someone back to their flat for a shag, to ring a friend on his mobile, to say “cheers” when toasting nothing more than the successful purchase of a sandwich.

British slang in the US is a thing now, says the New York Times – and the BCC, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Without complaint or resistance, Americans are allowing Britishisms like “ginger” and “brilliant” and “rubbish” to plant their Union Jacks across the broad flat plains of our freedom-loving vernacular.

I don’t know who you self-hating Anglophiles are, but now might be a good time to quietly pull you aside and say kindly what your friends and family have been thinking ever since you started going “on holiday”: You sound like a bloody tosser. Please stop.

Read more . . .