Category Archives: Uncategorized

An open letter to Ticketfly, on the occasion of paying $8.75 in service charges for a $20 ticket

Dear Ticketfly,

As a music fan who has long been frustrated by Ticketmaster’s fees and service charges, I was glad to see this statement on your About page before I purchased a ticket recently:

[W]e’ve spent a lot of time examining what works in ticketing and what is downright absurd. We plan to get rid of all those hidden fees and we won’t charge you to print your ticket at home – after all it is your printer and paper!

So I have a few questions:

  • Why did buying a $20 ticket to the Julian Casablancas show at DC’s 9:30 Club require paying a $4.75 Service Fee and a $4 Order Processing fee? (Total cost: $28.75. Service charges’ percentage of total cost: 30 percent.)
  • Exactly what services does the $4.75 fee cover?
  • Why is there an order processing fee, when I ordered via your automated online system rather than speaking to a live ticketing agent? There is no order processing fee when I buy from other websites, whether the purchase is from the site proprietor (e.g. a ticket from, a book from or from a third party using the site as a middleman (e.g. an item from an Amazon Marketplace or Etsy seller). Why is Ticketfly different in this regard?
  • Why do you include the statement about hidden fees on your About page if you charge the same kind of hidden fees as Ticketmaster does?
  • Can you explain why these fees are not “downright absurd”?

Josh Korr

Bonsai trees are much cooler than Mr. Miyagi led me to believe

This is going to sound ignorant, but until today my knowledge of bonsai trees was based entirely on The Karate Kid.

If I had to guess, I’d have said a bonsai tree was some dwarf species or a bush that looks like a tiny tree. A little kitschy, no big whoop. But today Melanie and I went to the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and my ignorance was slightly diminished at the same time my mind was officially blown.

As any non-ignorant person (or Wikipedia reader) must have already known, bonsai (the Japanese term) or penjing (the Chinese term) refers to “the art of aesthetic miniaturization of trees, or of developing woody or semi-woody plants shaped as trees, by growing them in containers” (I would have used a more authoritative source’s definition, but I can’t find one on the American Bonsai Society’s website).

I guess the “semi-woody plants shaped as trees” part could be the “bush shaped like a tiny tree” that I had in mind. But most of the specimens at the Arboretum are literally miniature trees.

Walking through the exhibit is like walking through the forest sets of A Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. Except in this case, the trees aren’t painted models with popcorn for blossoms — they’re actually trees!

The other cool thing is that a bunch of the trees are 100 or more years old. One is from the mid 1600s! The age combined with the warped perspective makes the whole exhibit pretty dizzying.

Here are two examples from the Arboretum. But you don’t get the same vertiginous sense of scale unless you’re standing in front of them — or rather, over them.

Update: Here’s a photo that gives a better sense:

Josh and a bonsai

If you’re in the D.C. area and, like us, have overlooked the Arboretum because of all the higher-profile things to see in these parts, I highly recommend a visit. (The rest of the grounds are very pretty, too.)

Sidenote: Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Mr. Miyagi??? Wha?

Scientology’s Dear Leader complex

The “church” of Scientology reached a strange kind of mainstream success this decade. Sure, Tom Cruise’s summer of 2005 and indoctrination video might have raised some eyebrows. But Scientology’s reputation seems to have become “the wacky-but-harmless religion that Tom Cruise and John Travolta belong to.”

I’d chalk that up to a few factors: Star power and obsequious entertainment media. American culture’s general shift toward multiculturalism and, for the enlightened majority post-9/11, religious tolerance. A shrug-your-shoulders, post-modern “Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions” attitude among potential cynics. And, of course, the fruits of the group’s notoriously litigious/personally invasive stance toward pretty much anyone who had anything bad to say about Scientology in the ’80s and ’90s.

The St. Petersburg Times’ recent expose, on Scientology’s staff culture of intimidation and abuse allegedly driven by leader David Miscavige, won’t change all that. But if Scientology’s fortunes and reputation decline in the coming years, the paper’s stories recounting defectors’ accusations should mark a turning point.

The group had one possible strategy for persuasively rebutting the Times stories: deny everything. Instead, the hapless response turned into a classic emperor-has-no-clothes moment — the ostensibly matured Scientology revealed (or re-revealed) as a pitiful personality cult that no one should even consider taking seriously again.

Continue reading

Sarah Palin and SNL’s cowardice

Tina Fey’s awesome Sarah Palin sketches have made Saturday Night Live worth watching this season, even as the show continues its overall post-Will Ferrell stagnation. (Digital shorts and an 80 percent brilliant cast don’t make up for the slavish adherence to a rigid, outdated sketch-comedy model.)

But if the real Palin appears on next week’s show — as has been rumored and now allegedly confirmed by the New York Post’s Cindy Adams — then Saturday Night Live will have proven its intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice once and for all.

When it comes to politics, SNL has always focused more on “cuddly caricature-making than worthy satire,” as Slate’s Troy Patterson wrote earlier this year. Patterson quotes Russel L. Peterson’s book Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke:

“The show’s political ‘characters’ are as one-dimensional and ‘lovable’ as any of the other catchphrase-spouting mannequins Lorne Michaels might hope to spin off onto the big screen (Jason Sudeikis as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Dick Cheney in—Night at the Roxbury II).”

This is somewhat defensible in normal times. It’s at best irresponsible in elections like this one. Here’s Peterson again, via Patterson:

“By avoiding issues in favor of personalities and by ‘balancing’ these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy.”

With Sarah Palin, SNL found a politician so shallow and farcical that personality-based satire was actually appropriate. The McCain campaign’s policy proposals deserve plenty of criticism, but the biggest problem with Palin isn’t her policies (or her abuse of power, or her serial lying). It’s that she’s absurdly unprepared for the vice presidency and apparently has little grasp of policy in the first place — that she’s a farce, as Andrew Sullivan put it. In this respect, SNL‘s take on Palin was spot-on: a fauxlksy, beauty-pageant contestant who thinks winks and ignorance are appropriate for a vice presidential candidate.

If Lorne Michaels gives Palin a cameo and SNL‘s writers don’t protest, they will be undermining their own criticism. A cameo would say “Hey, never mind those silly Tina Fey sketches! It’s not so bad that a vice presidential candidate is dangerously unprepared — if it were, we’d never have let her appear on the show!”

If SNL‘s writers and performers do this, they are apologists, not satirists.

If they shrug off their previous personality-based criticism but also won’t criticize the McCain campaign’s policy proposals or recent mob incitement, they simply have nothing to say. (Mocking McCain’s doddering mannerisms and making bogus Williams Ayers mentions, as they did in a debate sketch Thursday, does not count as satire, either.)

And if they put Palin on, they are cowards twice over. First, for mercilessly mocking her on national TV but pretending everything’s peachy when she comes on the show. Second, for not believing a single word they say.

So what’s it going to be, Saturday Night Live: Should we take you seriously, or are you just a big joke?

Why substance-free campaigns and journalism are bad for America

I’ve written before about annoyingly substance-free political journalism (and the substance-free politics on which it’s based). Here are two perfect articulations of why this kind of journalism and politics isn’t just annoying — it’s bad for America. First, from Andrew Sullivan:

We have war criminals as president and vice-president, and a constitution staggering after one serious terror attack. But the campaign is about whether Obama is like Paris Hilton.

The threat of Rove and his ilk is not that their petty, deceptive and irresistibly subjective tactics are evil in a petty, deceptive, childish kind of way. It’s that their venial sins distract from their mortal ones. It’s the mortal ones we have to be worried about. And the mortal ones that they are getting away with.

And from Ta-Nehisi Coates:

The housing market is collapsing, Iran is pursuing the bomb, climate change is peeking over the horizon–and we are discussing power-bars and Honest Tea. Look, all campaigns do their share of unfair attacks. And at the end of the day, it’s Obama’s job to come back with a devastating counter. He’s excelled at that all year. I expect him to do no less here. But–and I this will sound totally syrupy and naive–I really thought John McCain was a little better than this.

Jonathan Chait explains the political side of this state of affairs in his latest New Republic column:

In the late 1980s, the popular revolt against government that had bubbled up in the mid-’60s began to peter out, sapping the power of straightforward anti-government appeals. And, starting in 1992, Democrats ruthlessly purged nearly all their political liabilities by embracing anti-crime measures, welfare reform, and middle-class tax cuts, and, more recently, by abandoning gun control. What’s left is a political terrain generally favorable to Democrats, which has, in turn, forced Republicans to emphasize the personal virtue of their nominees.

And so, every four years, we have a Democratic candidate campaigning on health care, the minimum wage, education, Medicare, or Social Security, and a Republican candidate campaigning on themes like Trust, Courage, and so forth.

Why journalists play along with this game is another matter.

UPDATE: Michael Grunwald pushed back against this nonsense in a good Time column Monday, and Obama himself had a pretty good rejoinder at a town hall meeting (hat tip: The Plank):

You can’t say [Psbpsbpsb] in the newspaper

I know newspapers like to “protect” readers from “coarselanguage (i.e. language real-life people actually speak in their real lives), but I had no idea that you couldn’t say “nuts” (i.e. “balls”, e.g. “Those are balls”) in the newspaper.

Well, apparently you can’t! Even if Jesse Jackson says he wants to “cut [Barack Obama’s] nuts off”! At least not if you’re the New York Times.

Jeffrey Goldberg says what needs to be said:

What we have then is a story about a controversy concerning Jesse Jackson’s words that refuses to print the most relevant word. Even though I’m a member of the MSM, I sometimes see why people might go elsewhere for news. At least bloggers believe that their readers are emotionally equipped to handle the presence of the word “nuts” in a sentence.

Gawker has a fun roundup of previous words the Times has avoided, and wonders if there are any “examples of the Times censoring ‘doody’ or ‘wiener’.”

I see that the Washington Post also avoided the horrible word. Kudos to the L.A. Times for having the balls to print “nuts.”

(Incidentally, I’m glad to see that the Barry Louis Polisar song that inspired this post’s title is available for download at Amazon’s MP3 store.)

In which I return and go linkblogging

So it turns out that moving to a new city tends to take time away from blogging. Who knew?

Over the past few weeks I’ve traded sunny Florida for tornado-filled (maybe) Washington D.C. and the familiarity of daily newspaper journalism for the unpredictable excitement of journalism startups. And while there seems to be a distinct lack of manatees here, living in the city is already awesome. (Anyone else have a pastry chef for a neighbor?)

But the blogging hiatus can’t last forever, so I’m going to ease back into things with some good old linkblogging. Here are some good stories I’ve been reading lately:

  • Whilst responding to two worthreading posts by Megan McArdle about why journalism is healthy even if newspapers aren’t, Doug Fisher makes an interesting point that I’ve never heard before: that one of modern newspapers’ main functions has been to “aggregate social costs.” Fisher writes:

The Colonial and even the Civil War-era press had been an unruly thing, prone to vicious attack. The practical matter, however, was that it was largely impractical to sue individual small publishers for sullying your reputation. The resources were not there

As the newspaper and its news organization evolved, they also developed the necessary deep pockets to right social wrongs their journalists might cause.

The rise of the large media company also provided a central place for legal action, promoting efficiency. In return, it made an implicit social contract (too often violated, but still) that it would strive to meet a certain level of professionalism, both to society (by providing a legal and managerial collar around unruly journalists, for instance) and to the journalists (by providing a living wage and decent benefits, ease of production and distribution, and a certain modicum of legal protection in most cases).

  • In previous posts I’ve wondered why newspapers don’t try to take on Craigslist’s free classifieds. Bob Wyman (also via Doug Fisher) argues that doing so at this point would be the equivalent of trying to start a small internet service provider to take on Comcast and Verizon. In other words, that ship has sailed and taken newspapers’ ad revenue with it.
  • At Hitsville, Bill Wyman (not to be confused with Bob Wyman or that Bill Wyman) makes the case that there’s still such a thing as selling out — and that rock musicians shouldn’t do it. Discuss.
  • I hope to one day win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. And with these tips from recent winner Patrick House, I hope to soon enter for the first time and be just not-funny enough to achieve my dream.
  • The New Yorker and the New Republic have simultaneous stories about the revolt against terrorism by former al-Qaida members and other former jihadis, include influential figures whose past writings provided ideological and religious justifications for Islamic terrorism. The New Yorker story is one of Lawrence Wright’s deeply reported tours de force (see here for another); the New Republic piece, by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, is more of a reported essay (as is TNR’s wont). Both are must reads for anyone interested in the future of the Middle East — and the future in general.
  • Steven Pinker has a terrific New Republic essay on the danger and idiocy of conservative fearmongering about bioethics.