Homo homini rodentius est

50 Years On the Road

Jack Kerouac didn’t make it to 50 — he died in 1969 at the age of 47 from a gastric hemorrhage following decades of alcohol abuse. Wednesday September 5th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. I wonder if he’d be happy that after all these years the book is not only still in print, but selling 100,000 copies a year. Maybe not, considering that by the end of his life he’d turned his back on a lot of the passions of his youth. Drunk, bitter and lonely, he ended up being the antithesis of the free-wheeling angelheaded hipster he’d aspired to be once — cloistered away in his mother’s bungalow with a bottle, about as far from the open road as he could get.

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Beauty and the Beast

Self-ordained digital media gurus like Scott Karp of [Publishing 2.0] and [Matthew Ingram] have built a cottage industry proclaiming the coming death of analog media. So blinkered are they by their all-or-nothing worldview they fail to see how some old line media brands are leveraging their strengths into the new media landscape. The best recent example is [ShopVogue.tv], a pretty brilliant brand extension that Condé Nast has cooked up for Vogue. In hindsight of course it looks like a no-brainer — create a portal that allows current (and soon to be) Vogue readers to go behind the glossy pages of the classic fashion magazine and get additional content, including behind-the-scenes video of glam fashion shoots, as well as the ability to purchase the products featured in large-format glorious color in the magazine. Brand extension and a new revenue stream to boot — the definition of synergy.

But hindsight is overrated — the moral here is that it may take awhile for established businesses to respond to the potential of a new channel but, over time, those with the content and the capital will carry the day. That advertisers are hot for the idea is evidenced by the record-breaking number of ad pages Vogue sold for the September issue: 727! The enormous issue weighs in at 4 pounds. That’s old media heft that new media prognosticators ignore at peril to their fragile reputations.

Condé Nast isn’t alone in coming up with digital strategies — Hearst, jumping early on the mobile media bandwagon, is in the process of [rolling out nine mobile sites] to complement some of their most popular magazine brands. This is a strategy that many magazines could adopt — adding an interactive component that allows readers to engage the magazine they are reading with one hand while they turn the pages with the other. What do you know, looks like the reports of the death of analog media were a bit premature.

And while we’re on the subject of beauty, I had to comment on the death of Leona Helmsley and something remarkable that happened yesterday. It isn’t often that one looks to the venerable Washington Post to get a Gawkerish dose of snarky vitriol, but that’s exactly what they served up to mark the death of “The Queen of Mean”. The surprisingly hilarious piece by Larry McShane, entitled [Leona’s Final Property Has a Great View], refers to her final resting place at the lyrically named Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York. Referring to Leona (nee Lena Rosenthol) as “a hardhearted harpy with a hair-trigger temper”, McShane shows that she played to type right to the end — getting into trouble with local officials when she had the family crypt moved from its former home in the Bronx after “the tomb with a view” had that view occluded by a public mortuary (gasp!). Still trading up in real estate right to the bitter end. Say what you like about the old bitch, but that’s integrity.

Made in China: What Price Profit?

Just like Santa’s workshop! Except these elves work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week and earn 30 cents an hour.

This post is a follow up to [The New Gilded Age].

The Guardian has [a chilling article], written by the author of [The Real Toy Story] — an exposé of the Chinese toy manufacturing industry — that details just how sordid are the conditions that give rise to the kinds of product recalls that American toy companies have experienced recently. The article’s author, Eric Clark, details the advantages of moving toy production to China for American companies, like Mattel, that have their eyes forever focused on the bottom line: plentiful cheap labor, elimination of plant overhead and ability to negotiate lowered production costs on new products, which reduces further their competitive risks. But his description of conditions for Chinese workers reads like something out of our own dark industrial past:

The workers, mostly young women, shuffle from building to building. They could be on their way to school – if they did not appear so exhausted from working most of their waking hours. They have traveled in by bus from rural areas up to three days journey away – part of the biggest movement of people in human history. Shifts can last 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week – unlawful, but not uncommon in the peak toymaking season. Inside the fetid dormitories, their only living space, and often packed illegally with as many as 22 to a room, they collapse into curtained-off bunks. At lunch breaks, thousands of them in uniform, ID cards dangling on ribbons, pour onto the streets.

Compare that with this [excerpt from a letter] I found from a young woman who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, writing about her working conditions in early 20th century New York:

The day’s work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 p.m. every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. At this point it is worth recording the generocity (sic) of the Triangle Waist Co. by giving us a piece of apple pie for supper instead of additional pay! Working men and women of today who receive time and one half and at times double time for overtime will find it difficult to understand and to believe that the workers of those days were evidently willing to accept such conditions of labor without protest. However, the answer is quite simple — we were not organized and we knew that individual protest amounted to the loss of one’s job. No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs — there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had. Therefore, we were, due to our ignorance and poverty, helpless against the power of the exploiters… As you will note, the days were long and the wages low — my starting wage was just one dollar and a half a week — a long week — consisting more often than not, of seven days. Especially was this true during the season, which in those days were longer than they are now. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating — “if you don’t come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday”!

Truly, the sins of the past are upon us again. Instead of providing incentives to Chinese manufacturers to improve the lot of the young women who produce our toys (which might require returning more profits to the producers), or moving production back home (which would entail even further reduction in profit) American companies are more than willing to exploit conditions that would be illegal in their own country in order to maintain their margins. According to Clark, of the $10 retail cost of a Barbie doll produced in China, only 35 cents goes back to the people who produced it. Eager to cut their own costs and improve productivity, is it any wonder that Chinese subcontractors cut corners?

This opens up a dilemma for American consumers: the toys under the Christmas tree are tainted — if not literally with lead paint, than figuratively with support of an unjust labor market. How much would consumers be willing to spend — in the form of higher-priced domestically-produced goods, for example — to put pressure on the toy industry to change its ways?

The House around the Corner

Halfway down the block on the North side of 14th Street in Manhattan stands a house that holds a quiet and singular place in the history of American letters. The house at 317 West 14th street, now one of the few remaining privately-owned guest houses left in the city, was once the home of George Kirk, a friend of the horror writer [H. P. Lovecraft]. In the early 1920’s, Lovecraft used his friend’s home as the setting for one of his most compelling stories, [Cool Air]. The story concerns the unfortunate fate of a mysterious lodger who depends desperately on mechanical contrivances to forestall a horrifying fate that threatens him from the sweltering intensity of a New York City summer just outside his windows.

I live right around the corner from this house and the fact that I am so close to it is a special instance of serendipity. Like many bright odd boys I fell in love with Lovecraft’s work at just the point in adolescence when I was starting to become aware of the darker side of life — of the discordance that existed between the world of my boyhood faith and a world “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson wrote. Lovecraft, a misanthropic depressive homosexual, was in many ways the perfect introduction to the imaginative defense against disillusion. His magisterial pantheon of cosmic horrors that threatened humanity both from the limits of space and time as well as our own corrupt bodies was an emotional boot camp for facing down terror. That his work does not travel well into adulthood (the prose is overheated, often embarrassing; the characters cartoonish) matters not a whit. Lovecraft was himself emotionally stunted, caught in a perpetual adolescence on the verge of becoming until his early death from cancer. It makes perfect sense that he is the literary patron saint of bright odd boys.

UPDATE 8/20: In honor of Lovecraft’s birthday, another of his short masterpieces: [The Music of Erich Zann]

The New Gilded Age

When I wrote about the [bad domestic effects] that a globalized economy can have on our lives, I wasn’t thinking directly of threats to health — but that’s exactly what the recent recalls of Chinese products sold in this country force us to face. Tainted toothpaste is one thing, but it’s almost unimaginable that after all these years, we are actually again dealing with the threat of lead exposure in children’s products — thanks to the greedy bastards at Mattel. Today Mattel CEO Robert Eckert [apologized] for the danger his company introduced into American households by blaming it on a bad subcontract. Whew! Don’t worry Mom, it was just a bad subcontractor — you know how that can be.

It’s amazing to watch the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — when companies operated with practically no oversight or regulation — playing out all over again thanks to “globalization”. Businesses flock to nations without labor unions or meaningful regulations to manufacture their products at a fraction of the cost it would be in an industrialized nation with responsible policies in place and then pocket the (huge) savings. While, no doubt, crossing their fingers and muttering a prayer skyward in hopes that they don’t end up harming customers back home. Mattel’s prayers weren’t answered today — but maybe ours were. Maybe this incredible fiasco will finally force craven politicians to start demanding meaningful safeguards on outsourced manufacturing or even — shock — institute significant levies and penalties on companies that play fast and loose with our safety. Who knows — the risk of such costs might actually convince American businesses to keep their manufacturing in America.

UPDATE 8/15: Bad news about Chinese manufacturing is [good news] for the few remaining made-in-America toy companies.

UPDATE 8/19: A new post that details the moral cost to us all of current toy industry standards, [Made in China: What Price Profit?]

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