Blog Posts by Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News

  • Zen and the Art of Text Asset Submission

    Celebrating the practice of submitting text assets -- also known as "writing" -- in the digital age

    by Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

    The other day, for the first time, my boss asked me to “submit” a “text asset.”


    He meant an article. Or what, in the newspaper business, they used to call an “article,” where such things were “filed,” rather than “submitted.” Simultaneously, in the magazine business, the very same fistful of prose might be called a “piece”; there, you’d be asked to “turn in” the “piece,” as you would have turned in an essay in college. Indeed, as a humanities major, you “turned in” “essays” on things like Anita Hill or “The Real World,” in semi-conscious preparation for the happy day you’d be paid to do precisely this for Newsweek or Mirabella.

    That is the media world as I choose to recall it, anyway, when Michael Musto ruled the Village and The Village Voice; Janet Malcolm published psycho tone-poem masterpieces in The New Yorker; and Tom Junod wrote creepily grand profiles for GQ and Esquire.

    Now, working for all-digital media, I was being asked to submit a text

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  • Apptitude: The joys of e-Scrabble

    Virginia Heffernan had sworn off Scrabble. Now she's back in the game, thanks to a new app that makes the game civil again

    by Virginia Heffernan | @YahooTech

    The repressed returns in digital culture, as in life. I used to love Scrabble, the board game, but swore it off–-as I once swore off computers themselves--because I kept noticing someone else (or me) getting too freaky, avid and wild-eyed about winning.

    In pre-digital times, board games were kind of sickening like that: You’d dedicate a happy night to Monopoly or Risk or Scrabble only to flatten entirely the convivial atmosphere in which the game was proposed, and transform normal, chatty people into greedy winner-take-all jerks who could mistake getting North America or Park Place for a moral achievement.

    But I have happily picked up the online versions of these board games, and so far nothing sickening has happened. Maybe because the games are legion, so no one’s intelligence seems to hang perilously on the outcome of a single game. You set yourself up with Scrabble on the iPhone, say, and you instantly get a bunch of games going with Facebook

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  • Gimme shelter

    Apple's latest tax dodge is yet another chink in its once-shining armor

    by Virginia Heffernan

    Apple products are cute, simple and self-contained. You know what isn’t cute, simple and self-contained? The web of foreign tax shelters that Apple is accused of employing to avoid paying billions in taxes to the U.S. Government.

    A Congressional panel has charged that Apple, America’s one-time sweetheart, didn’t just somehow bounce to its perch as the world’s most profitable company on good nature and high intelligence. No—Apple, the investigators report, hid money, relied on a network of shady “subsidiaries” and deprived the nation of billions in tax revenue. Tim Cook, the company’s shucksy CEO, is now telling the Senate he’s downright teed off at the suggestion; the company, he says, breaks no laws, pays what it owes and remains as pure as the driven snow.

    Not paying taxes you owe is never good, and the story seems to be further exhausting a national resource that may be more precious to Apple than money: America’s stores of goodwill toward it. Not long ago,

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  • Physician, hack thyself

    Biohackers are gulping down Dave Asprey's Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast. What the heck is it?

    My friend Adam, an obstetrician, was getting married. It was the early 1990s. Beside his bride he beamed in the receiving line.

    “Congratulations, Adam! You look amazing!” I said, adding awkwardly: “Jeez, how’d you lose so much weight?”

    “The old-fashioned way,” the good doctor said. “Laxatives and speed.”

    Laxatives and speed. That was two decades ago. Over the years, while trudging the righteous road of kale and crunches, I’ve often recalled Adam’s can-do mantra. Laxatives and speed. The old-fashioned way. The hack that doctors know. Metamucil and Adderall. The hack that works.

    So maybe I was unconsciously vulnerable two weeks ago, while I was logging new habits on Lift, a retro good-girl app that encourages me to drink more water and call my mom. My heart unexpectedly revved when I noticed a new habit trending among users of the app. It wasn’t “do more cardio”—oh no. It had the ring of a big, fat health hack.

    There I saw it: Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast.

    Curiosity hit, then

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  • Remembering the titan

    Looking back on the career of Ray Harryhausen, the animation pioneer who breathed life into his characters

    Motion is not captured; it’s made. That’s the profound first maxim of studio animation—or it used to be, in the days of Ray Harryhausen, the peerless stop-motion man who died today at 92. Today, of course, there’s Pixar.

    Harryhausen made his name counterfeiting motion, making inanimate objects—mostly monster models—dance. In “Mighty Joe Young” (1948), Harryhausen somehow inspired a gorilla figure, in a hurtling truck, to spit playfully at his foes. In “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), Harryhausen’s masterwork, seven skeletons engaged in a swordfight. In “Clash of the Titans” (1981), Harryhausen created creatures so subtly alive that they could act alongside Laurence Olivier.

    When that last (British) film appeared, however, Harryhausen’s work was slighted as “old hat,” since R2D2 and C3PO were already on the scene in “Star Wars” (1977). That can’t have felt good—and Harryhausen retired from filmmaking then and there. Industrial Light and Magic did what it did, but it also sidelined some

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  • Does Google Now have a women problem?

    Yahoo's Virginia Heffernan wonders about the priorities of Google's "personalized" app

    by Virginia Heffernan

    I’m trying to forgive Google. When I took a broad-daylight photo of a small stretch of land known locally as the skyline of downtown New York City, I expected the skyscrapers to ring a bell with Google Goggles, the visual-search engine. But Goggles came up blank.

    “Goggles didn’t recognize anything,” said Google.

    My intention really is not to hold the myopia of Google Goggles, a feature of the Google app, against Google Now, another and more fully-fledged feature of the same app, which arrived on iOS in a recent update.

    Both do, however, suffer from a kind of myopia, and an inability to recognize their users' actual daily needs.

    Google Now, which has gotten high praise from early adopters, who happen to be mostly men in this case, is styled as a source of the exact information you want when you want it. There’s weather at dawn and traffic at commute hour; stocks at market close and open; friends’ birthdays and pending deliveries and flight status and appointments

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  • Happy 10th, iTunes

    You don’t have to pay 99 cents to watch the music videos Yahoo News commissioned for your birthday

    by Virginia Heffernan

    Ten years ago, Apple first cut the ribbon on the iTunes Store, unleashing a cocksure new approach to copyright, to pricing, to retail—and eventually to music itself. That was April 28, 2003; U2’s “Stuck in a Moment” and Beck’s "Sea Change" were the day’s top-selling single and album.

    The music business didn’t know what hit it; the very next year, the once-mighty Tower Records declared bankruptcy.

    Old-timers will recall that before iTunes, CDs could be found at chaotic and dingy Tower and HMV superstores. If you were hip, you ventured into the digital gray markets of Napster and LimeWire. Acquiring music—which no longer involved the romance of small record stores—had become unsavory business in the 1990s. You were either overpaying for CDs that had to be loaded onto a computer, or you were cheating artists and everybody by torrenting tracks of dubious origin.

    Then came the ever-lighter iPod and iTunes, its sparkling outfitter. Those silhouette ads, with the white

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  • Play that funky #music

    How Twitter's new music app can help you discover your new favorite artist

    by Virginia Heffernan

    A sweeping new free app from Twitter, Twitter #music, styles itself as a “music-discovery app.” Even though “discovery” is tech-world jargon these days, the word is promising in this context. It means that Twitter—which in seven years has both exploded in popularity and suffered a slow-mo identity crisis—has decisively found a purpose.

    Twitter #music manages to crystallize what’s great about Twitter, and justify, for now, the faith that 200 million users have in it.

    So: Why “discovery”? Before I tell you about the intriguing but imperfect #music app—just download it; it’s free for the iPhone and on the Web—I’m going to spell out at some length why that word elegantly gets to the heart of an existential question: What is the Internet?

    It starts with an anecdote. Not long ago, I was talking to a programmer at Google who kept referring to “Google queries.”

    “Don’t you mean Google ‘searches’?” I asked.

    He meant queries.

    At Google, he explained, they now see users as

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  • My first computer

    by Virginia Heffernan

    Picture your first computer. I can see mine. Clunky gray-beige box, the size of a person in child’s pose.

    It was a Zenith Z-19. No disk drive. No hard drive. No working brain. An empty vessel, rather, for onrushing data, which it erratically sucked up through the phone lines. I’d jam the receiver of our family phone into a coupler, which coupled that “dumb” terminal with a rhino-sized mainframe, which in turn shook and rattled and heaved in a glass cage two miles away at the local college. The year was 1979.

    Your first computer, or so I have been hypothesizing, determines your entire approach to digital life. It sets your course. If you lose the straight path on the Internet—if OKCupid breaks your heart, or Pandora doesn’t surface your favorite songs—you can remind yourself of what you’re doing in the Internet wilderness by simply picturing your first computer. Then find your prime directive in that.

    Me, in my first computer I saw a game. I know I

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  • You will hate this article

    Yahoo’s Virginia Heffernan confronts her commenters: "No matter what I write, you will think I'm an idiot"

    by Virginia Heffernan

    Hey y’all, the comments on this piece are going to be vicious.

    They’re gonna say I’m an idiot, that I have brain damage, that this article is drivel and pap. No matter what I write! You’ll wonder, if you read the commentary, how I can even take such razor-sharp insults. At the same time, you might be amused: someone might opine that my writing is to good writing as McRibs are to barbecue.

    Then maybe someone else will gallantly jump to my defense and say he’d be willing to rape me anyway, even though I’m an idiot.

    Poor me. It won’t matter what I write about or what insight I bring to it -- I’ll always be, alas, an idiot, and often not even a rapeable one. Instead, I’m someone who got the job because she must be married to the boss, someone who can’t write her way out of a paper bag.

    The paradox of working hard to be a writer—I spent 12 years on an English Ph.D. and have worked 15 years writing columns, while also learning formal proofreading, fact-checking and the

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