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Web Hostess Live: The latest from the Web

Sep 19, 2013

A weekly chat about the best ways to kill time online. Our Web Hostess, Monica Hesse, sifts the Internet so you don't have to, searching for meaning, manners and the next great meme.

Afternoon, everyone, and thanks for stopping by. We'll get started at 2. Until then:

Today I wanted to post something that actually appeared on the Internet several weeks ago, and which I'd meant to post for a previous discussion that we ended up having to cancel.


The "something" is this suicide site, for lack of a better term, left behind by a Kansas City sportswriter who meticulously planned his own death for a year, launched the site, and took his own life. He wasn't depressed, he said, he just felt that 60 seemed like a good age to end his life.


For those of you who don't want to scroll through the whole site (it's extensive), here is a CNN article that recaps the major points.


I'm curious about the emotions that this site raises. Is it "appropriate?" Is it useful? Was leaving these extensive writings behind a helpful act, or a selfish one? What about when you consider that this is a man who dedicated his life to thoroughness -- who was responsible for developing the "efficiency index" used to rate basketball players?


We've talked recently about concepts of grief and death on the Internet and in other cultures. This seems to be an interesting and unusual way of using the Web to categorize your life for the loved ones you will be leaving behind.

I admit and I know I'm not alone, when you live in a place where there are a lot WiFi networks around and you log-in because it isn't password protected. I'm just wondering if that is actually a crime, even a crime that has next to no change of being brought on a charges for it? Guessing that it makes a difference which state or country you live in (I'm in Ontario right now),

Believe it or not, there have been a few cases of people being prosecuted for stealing other people's WiFi. Wired did a big explainer on it a few years ago.

I was about to say that if someone really didn't want your borrowing their WiFi, they would keep it password protected, so you shouldn't feel too bad. But by that token, I guess I wouldn't have the right to get angry if I left my door unlocked and someone wandered in to rummage through my refrigerator?

But I just got a text message thank you for giving a friend $100 as a wedding gift. I'm allowed to be outraged for 5 minutes at kids these days before I move on with my life, yes?

Just curious: if you had given them $50 for a gift, would you still be outraged? $25? i.e. I'm interested in whether your indignation is related to you feeling this would be an inappropriate acknowledgement of any gift, or whether its related to the feeling that $100 is a lot of money.

Did Martin Manley die to keep his memory alive through the web site he created? If he could not have created the web site, would he have still chosen to commit suicide? I don't have the answers. I just wonder.

Interesting question. As in, he didn't want to die without the knowledge that he would be remembered -- and if he didn't have the verification of being remembered, then he wouldn't have decided to die?

I saw that link a few weeks ago on Reddit, and one of the commenters posted something that haunted me: "I won't lie, I haven't made it to the far corners of the site, but my initial reaction to reading this is that I'm not reading a story about a man that died. I'm reading the auto-biography of a man that never lived."

Wow, that's an amazing quote. And there is an element of truth to that. I wonder how much of it had to do, again, with the fact that his life was dedicated to statistics and order. i.e. This is the story of a man's life. It's just a life that was much more focused on data and processing information than most people's would be.

I'm reminded of the play 'Night, Mother, in which a woman says goodbye to her mother before committing suicide because she wanted to "get off the ride." The mother was agonized, but the daughter felt that ending her life as she chose and when she chose was her right. I've always wondered where the line on that right is. Many people argue that a terminally ill person has the right to die as he or she chooses, but if that is the case, why does one have to be sick to earn that right? Incidentally, I don't know where I fall in this discussion. In this case, I feel that one thing that makes things difficult for people left behind after a suicide are the unanswered questions. If nothing else, these writings help eliminate the issue of the unknown.

'Night, Mother -- I haven't read that haunting play in years.

So I have an iphone. Should I race out to upgrade to iOS7 or wait for kinks to be ironed out? Do you have an iphone or droid? (Just curious)

I've got an iPhone. I haven't upgraded yet. A few colleagues have, and aren't so impressed, so I'm still deciding what my next move will be.

Yesterday I volunteered for a class teaching computer basics and showed little old ladies how to search for funny cat videos on YouTube. My day job is so much less rewarding.

Where is this class and how can I see it?

I think it's stealing, and I also think it's a nearly-victimless crime -- the "victim" is usually a big corporation that charges too much in the first place -- and I have a really hard time working up any indignation about it. I don't even think I'd care, particularly, if someone were using mine as long as it didn't reduce my level of performance. (I do PW-protect, FWIW, so I'm pretty sure nobody is. And if they are and I could find them, then maybe they could remind me what the PW is.) I'd care more about the refrigerator, since its shelves are usually pretty sparse to begin with.

If I had to put money on it, I think most people would say they felt the same way that you did.

I've recently started reading again after a pretty long hiatus. I'm trying to fill in gaps in my reading history (I've leaned to sci-fi and some fantasy over the years). When I google for "must read" lists, it's overwhelming. Goodreads hasn't been terribly helpful because it suggests stuff similar to what I've already read while I'm trying to expand out form that. Do you or the chatters have any suggestions on figuring what to read next?

I'm going to throw this out to the chatters -- but is there any way we can narrow down your question? You say "fill in gaps." Does that mean you're looking to catch up on the classics? If that's the case, you could start out with the Modern Library Association's list of the 100 Greatest Novels, and work your way through until you found something that stuck. Or are you just looking to read more contemporary fiction that is outside of your prefered genre? If that's the case, you might do best visiting your local library, and asking what the staff is currently recommending, or would recommend for your reading habits.

And don't give up on algorithms like "What Should I Read Next?" When I tried typing in "Margaret Atwood," an author I like a lot, it spit back recommendations from some expected authors, like Jeannette Winterson, but also some unexpected ones, like Lewis Carroll. Something like that could help you branch out in baby steps.

Total fluff question, hope you don't mind. I was in England recently and was wondering your opinion on the following: To what extent does the presence of royalty/aristocracy create the conditions that allow their society to at least -seem- so much more orderly, polite, and clean than ours? Does the presence of the Queen somehow guarantee that most everyone will use their inside voices while inside, contribute to the upkeep of public gardens, and give up their seats on the train for old ladies? If not, then what does? I generally find monarchy to be fairly stupid but if it somehow magically creates the conditions that make England English, then I might have to revise my viewpoint. Full disclosure: I did not go to a soccer match.

I have no idea whether you could trace all of these behaviors to the presence of a monarch, but any society's idiosyncrasies are going to end up contributing to and shaping that society. Right? More than anything, I think a monarch probably provides a sense of cultural continuity and shared experience. The monarchy is an institution that remains steady for a much longer period of time than elected officials.

One reason not to: it may not be your neighbor, but someone trolling for people like you to access and steal your information, passwords, credit cards, etc.. You're pretty easy to track one you are on the network.

Pretty soon, stealing WiFi won't be an issue, I imagine, since we're getting to the place where nearly every public location provides it for free anyway. There are even entirely wireless towns. (And then there's this town, where WiFi IS ILLEGAL.)

I'd like the people that think like this to define "too much". Isn't the right amount what people will pay?

Well, simplistically, yeah. Not to have this devolve into an economics/sociology class, but: If a company charges $500 a month for wireless, maybe they can still make a profit, because enough wealthy people can still afford to buy it. So in that case, yes, people will pay it, and we might say that it is therefore the right amount. But -is- it the "right" amount, if it is cost prohibitive to large swathes of the population?


You see what I'm saying. You'd like people to define "too much." I'd like us also to define who "people" are (rich people? Median income people?) and what "right amount" means.

As the person who created the "The government has no right to know how boring I am" t-shirt, I wish to make an announcement.: I will be in D.C. tomorrow. Most people will wish to begin planning their evasive actions now. Yet, if anyone wants to meet a fellow "The government has no right to know how boring I am" t shirt wearer, I will gladly meet for coffee or Chunky Monkey ice cream or what not at Union Station, let's say around the area in front of Johnny Rocket's (I know, most of you call that the area around the liquor store) around 10:15 am tomorrow (Friday) unless of course you hear Amtrak is derailed or delayed or I miss my connection. I am coming in town for the National Book Festival, so if anyone wears their t-shirt there, maybe some like minded souls will run into each other there. If you wish to know a description of what I look like, I will be the one wearing a t shirt reading "The government has no right to know how boring I am."

Noted. I'll be at the book festival on Saturday afternoon. I'll wave if I see you.

That was a great piece. Thanks for writing it.

The piece is this one, and I'm so glad you read it, especially all the way to the end.

Why do businesses/cities/etc. continue to offer wireless when more and more people have smartphones? I don't have a smartphone, so I'm happy it still exists, but the fear that they'll take away the wifi is real to me.

I think you'll always be safe in places like coffee shops or libraries, since people are generally visithing those places with laptops, planning to work, rather than with their smart phones, planning to sit and fiddle.

Do you read non-fiction as well as fiction? If not, that could be a good expansion suggestion for you. Start with someone entertaining about history, like Sarah Vowell.

Seconded. Or Erik Larson. I've never met anybody who didn't like "Devil in the White City," which is a historical nonfiction book that manages to be about a serial killer, early 20th century medicine, and the Worlds Fair all at once.

I'm looking for both classics and more contemporary stuff. I'm also trying not to limit myself to fiction only. Thanks for the 100 Greatest Novels list. There is definitely some stuff on that list I need to catch up on.

Oh, then the previous poster was exactly on target!

I generally believe you have the right to end your own life, but I'm troubled by a case study from college. Man was severely burned over 90% of his body, in total agony, in the hospital for months getting grafts and attempting treatment, with regular "baths" in chemicals to stop infections, screaming in pain. He wanted to be allowed to go home and die. Everyone in my class voted to let him. Fast forward 5 years, and he's married, happy, scarred but glad to be alive. So I think it should be allowed, but with a waiting period and treatment or something. I don't know. If this guy planned it for a year, he probably thought it through, but who's to say a daily pill wouldn't have made him want more out of life?

What a chilling and morally confusing story.

I want to raise enough money through Kickstarter to fly to North Korea to film a music video of my tuba solo. How do my chances look?

Not good.

Don't give up hope. I am deeply embarrassed by my handling of wedding gift thank-yous. 10 years later, I an very prompt with my hand-written thank you notes.

What if you wrote letters, now, to all of the people you were embarrassed to have snubbed 10 years ago with the wedding gifts? What if we all did that?

There was a girl that I was mean to once (and it was a very short period of time, five days) when I was 10, and I still think sometimes about writing her a note that said something like, "Hey, remember when I was a jerk, like 20 years ago? I feel really bad about that, still."

Things like Facebook make these interactions totally possible. How do we feel about belated apologies?

Remember, corporations are people, too. If people steal their WiFi, they may become depressed and suicidal. We need to cheer corporations with more tax breaks.

Oh, you.

To follow up on that quote, and why it struck me so much: I work in publishing, and every now and then, we'll receive an unsolicited autobiography from someone who shouldn't be trying to publish one. It's usually an middle-aged or elderly businessman who's lived a good and honest life, but one that would be completely uninteresting to read about unless you're a blood relation or close friend. Chapters about clever ideas implemented in the office, about small-town volunteering and awards ceremonies, about funny things said by children, about fairly conventional and uneventful love affairs. It always breaks my heart a bit, because there's such a naked, burning desire to say, "I AM IMPORTANT! I am unique! I have lived!", a universal human need to be the curators of our own life stories. Just see the elaborate narratives unfolding on Facebook with the yoga guru, the world traveler, the wise mommy, the stand-up comedian. We all see ourselves as the hero of an elaborate unfolding tale, and want others to recognize that role. There's something that breaks when we lose the thread of that story, or when the tapestry we're weaving inside our minds isn't visible to the outside world at all. With this man, I think that he knew that his story was a tiny and unappreciated one, but through the act of suicide, he could give it a stunning, dramatic climax that would strike countless strangers as meaningful. Not an uncommon motive for it, but always horribly tragic. Come to think of it, I don't know if you're familiar with Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story," but that play basically hinges on the same idea.

This whole post of yours is so poignant and meaningful, I'm going to print it out and keep it.


I think there's a good lesson in there, about how to treat other people: Remember that everyone wants to be the hero of a great narrative. And there's a lot of humanity in that concept. Since we're talking about plays anyway, it's why "Death of a Salesman" is still being performed, all those years later. Because we find heartwrenching the idea that our lives are ordinary, and they come to ends.

So my husband read that book and really enjoys Erik Larson's writing. But he kept noticing how often the word suffused was used. He wanted to start a drinking game.

Every writer has a word or phrase or seven that they can't get away from, that they rely too much on. They're aware of it, and can't stop. Do a poll, you'll see.

I don't know if this would qualify as rounding out your gaps, but I love "Good Omens", a very funny book about armageddon. Or are you looking for something more "War and Peace"ish?

Even people looking for "War and Peace" are going to need a brain break every now and then.

Speaking of, everyone go look at this chart depicting the 20 stages of reading.

I guess I sounded crankier than I meant to, I really wasn't "outraged". Good point on whether the dollar amount matters. Should gratitude correlate with the effort of the gift (hand-knit a hat special for someone vs. find an extra one in your closet) or is it just the thought that counts? Is giving someone $100 more effort than giving them $25? I guess it depends. Sorry to answer your question with a question :)

Miss Manners -- I think it was Miss Manners, I could be wrong -- has suggested wordings for how gift recipients are supposed to respond to cash gifts of various amounts. For example, a gift of $10 is "thoughtful," $20 is "kind," $100 is "generous," etc.


I used to think that was kind of irritating (isn't "generous" in the eye of the giver? Two Silver Coins, people!), but now I see that thanking someone for a $10 gift by calling it "generous" might come across as mocking.

Unless we're talking about an apology for something major, they can be kind of insulting. Apologies in general are good, but let's not assume that the things we've done wrong still affect the victims at the same magnitude they do us.

True. It's akin to assuming that you are the hero in their life, as well as your own.

Um, you've met me. He tells a great story but he needs an editor to smack him upside the head when he writes stuff like "He was the janissary of a dead vernacular" or "the gas jets hissed softly like mildly distraught cats." Sarah Vowell is much more entertaining without showing off.

Man. It is really too bad that we are all only allowed to read only one historic writer: Sarah Vowell or Erik Larson.

That autobiography post is amazing. Just, whoa.

Especially this: "There's something that breaks when we lose the thread of that story, or when the tapestry we're weaving inside our minds isn't visible to the outside world at all."


We really have the best chatters here.

During high school I tried to steal someone's boyfriend. Years later, she found me on facebook and sent me a really nasty message about how I had done her wrong. I sent her a heartfelt apology for my actions (I really did feel bad about it) and she accepted my apology. We are facebook friends now, but maybe not real life friends.

I'm sort of stunned that she would go out of her way to send that nasty message, but glad that it all turned out well.

No. Other European countries have nice public gardens and polite manners, without having monarchs.

True, but a lot of European countries still do have monarchs (Norway, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Monaco), even if they're mostly just figurheads.

You should visit Germany next, they make England look like a nightmarish dystopia in terms of rigid order and standards for behavior. If you violate ONE small rule - and as an American, I always inadvertently was doing so when I visited Berlin - they WILL let you know, and scold you. I'm pretty sure that intentionally dropping something on the ground would get you beaten to death by all grandmothers within a 5-mile radius. What you saw in England was a cultural emphasis on the community over the individual. In England, everybody is taught to work for the greater good - "do it for England!" - and the idea of a queen who sits above all else, like in an anthill, is part and parcel of that. Remember, we Americans are the ones who intentionally REJECTED that, who said, "No, we want to choose our own ruler and go off into the frontier and live off the land in a log cabin, shooting deer in the woods." Order and politeness are niceties that we choose to follow of our own accord, but to REQUIRE it of us would be perceived as an infringement on our rights. Pay attention to the global comedians who joke at how Americans are so obsessed with the buzzwords of "FREEDOM! LIBERTY! USA!", because that really is how they see us. Our country was founded on the principle of "Nobody can tell ME how to behave."


Where did I say no one should be allowed to read an author whose style I don't like? You said everyone likes Larson, I answered that I don't.

Whoa, horsey. Having a bad day? (I was teasing).

"Death of an Adjunct," about an elderly part-time college instructor who died in poverty. It's gone viral in just a day, been picked up by CJR, HuffPost, Chronicle of Higher Ed, Inside Higher Ed, etc.  (comment numbers are off the wall).

I can't wait to read it, thanks.

If I thought a texted thank you (or email or whatever) was truly sincere, I would be happy with it. Truly, sincerely happy. If I thought that using text or whatever medium was to make the chore of thanking me a little less onerous, I'd be disgruntled too. You can decide which one applies here. (It's also worth realizing how little good being disgruntled is going to do you in the long run, though. Better for your own mental health to just assume that it was done that way to make sure you were thanked as quickly as possible since your gift meant so much to them.)

Posting, and I like this distinction.

I appreciate the article because it left me so conflicted -- I felt like I wanted to help them, but at the same time, it's such a crazy idea that likely won't lead to anything more than some short-term viral fame. Why is the answer to how to get out in our society through music, sports or --now-- YouTube?

That's really what drew me to the story. It's weird, but it's sad. They're naive, but not dumb. You don't know whether you want them to succeed, because their goal for "success" sounds so tenuous and crazy.

The person working in publishing could be a writer... That IS a very powerful paragraph. It is so true that people want to feel they've made a difference or left a mark, and for others to recognize that. It is precisely when individuals feel unappreciated that problems occur - whether in relationships, careers or in one's self-worth.

The person working in publishing probably -is- a writer. Or a behind-the-scenes person who helps make writers you love even better.

That's the premise of "Last Tango in Halifax," where a Yorkshire widower discovers that 60 years ago when they were all 16, his future wife deliberately failed to deliver a note to him from a girl he liked, who's now a widow. The widower (played by the superb Sir Derek Jacobi) and the widow find one another on Facebook, fall in love all over again, and as of last Sunday's episode have announced their engagement. Also, episode 1 had a hilarious car chase scene involving the two elders and the thief who stole the man's car.


HOW DARE Yes. Sorry. I am having a bad day. That's a major reason I'm sitting here at the computer with you. You & Ms. Petri make my week.

You know what you need? Something pumpkin-flavored. I have noticed this week that everyone has rolled out their pumpkin-flavored breads/donuts/coffees/chais. You need something pumpkin-flavored, and a nice chair, and a diverting book or television show.

Do any of them cost their subjects as much money as the British ones, do, though? I'm thinking of the cost-benefit ratio here.

Probably not. Then again, Elizabeth is technically the monarch for not only Great Britain, but also Canada, Australia, etc. Those royals have got to do a lot of traveling to keep up.

I wonder if this need is why memoirs like Julie & Julia and Eat, Pray, Love simultaneously inspire such love and such hate. Some people want to believe that a life story can be worthy of sharing even if the subject didn't eradicate polio or fly the Enola Gay, and others think that the fact that a book was published about someone with normal human flaws and achievements is somehow an insult to people without those flaws, or different accomplishments.

Publishing is such a weird field. Success depends on talent, yes, but also on timing, and packaging, and good ideas, and engaging personalities. My old colleague Libby Copeland wrote a funny piece for Slate several years back about how besieged publishing houses had become by proposals from 30-something-women who said they had versions of "Eat, Pray, Love." (Sweep, Snack, Flirt? Bathe, Walk, Chat? Dance, Sing, Fall?)

Thanks. I have a scone (a real one, not a U.S.-type one) and the chair and today's New York Times crossword puzzle.

Well, now. You're halfway there.

Not Modern Library Association, just Modern Library (part of Random House). Maybe you got it mixed up with the American Library Association? Also, Columbian Exposition, not World's Fair.

Thank you for trailing behind me, sweeping up crumbs.

The idea of success for those guys seems to mean "anything better than this". The problem is that a 9-5 job with a living wage seems to them like just as much of a long shot as getting famous. If I had to pick, I'd dream of a long shot at being famous.

Yes, that was Peso's point. I told him, you know, some people are going to ask why you don't go to college, or get a steady job. And he gave me a withering look, and said that those options seemed just as unrealistic.

Did you read where, now that Wills has left the RAF, the two dogs that guarded him have been euthanized? I can't believe they couldn't have demobilized them and found them appropriate homes.

I did not read this. If true, I am appalled. (What, were they afraid the dogs would share the future king's secrets with their new owners?)

I HATE pumpkin flavor. It's always odd this time of year, everyone posting how happy they are about pumpkin lattes, etc., and just being like, "Ew."

Don't worry. Cranberry/Peppermint season is just around the corner. Do you like either of those?

I think in a lot of ways, that site could be very helpful for his friends and family; it's a way of assuring them that they couldn't have stopped this. It lays out the reasons why. (I had a friend in college commit suicide, and I still remember her mother crying "Why did she do this?" to one of the friends who found her.) At the same time, it's devastating. I can't imagine being close to someone who comes across as happy and satisfied who then does this. The intricacy is astounding.

It is astounding. It comes across as though he found a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in making this his final project. It's also quite selfish, for him to mention family members by name, and detail his feelings about them, in a format in which they had no venue for recourse.

Anne Tyler wrote a book called The Beginner's Goodbye. The main character owns and runs a vanity press and publishes books for some of the very reasons named by the autobiography poster.

Anne Tyler is the master of books about people with odd, endearing professions.

Much as I hate the idea of a thank-you text for a wedding present, I would prefer such a text as long as it made clear what the gift was and how it was going to be used. I once got an engraved generic "Thank you for your gift" card from a bride & groom who were old enough to know better (and old enough not to need any of the stuff they registered for).


Thanks for that chart. Spot on. I've got little ones at stages 2 and 5. I like to think I've made it to the end :)


For those in need of a book to accompany a pumpkin-flavored beverage, I suggest something by David Sedaris. I would recommend his latest, "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls." Comforting, funny, strange, and not in the least demanding.

It's no "Me Talk Pretty One Day," but it will do.

Good call. I LOVE mint flavors.

Let me blow your mind. The next time you are in a restaurant that give out those red and white starlight mints at the end of the meal, take a few home. Make a hot beverage. Any hot beverage -- hot chocolate, coffee, tea. Put said mint at the bottom of your cup and let it melt. Magic.

I was interested in the story, but I thought the writing/editing needed some work. Like the written equivalent of someone talking who has just run up 10 flights of stairs - breathless and a little unorganized.

Oh, I agree. But I could overlook it.

A friend of mine - not a close friend, but one who was part of a large group who occasionally got together for a beer - committed suicide last week. He was 68, and our understanding is that there were serious health issues involved. No children or spouse, but plenty of friends. I'm saddened by his passing, but respect his decision to go out on his own timetable. What makes me angry is that he didn't take proper care of his cat, one that he adopted as a stray five years ago and loved and doted on. He took it to a no-kill shelter, which was full, and then took it to another shelter. Poor kitty freaked out - she had been abandoned by him and put into jail - and hissed and howled and was aggressive towards anyone who came near. The shelter decided after two days that she had behavioral issues that couldn't be changed, and put her down. Two hours lager, friends of my friend finally tracked down the shelter (they had focused on no-kill shelters) only to be told they were too late. If only my friend had boarded the cat at the vet, or had his normal pet-sitter take care of her, or even left her in the apartment with a week's supply of food and water, Molly would still be alive and taken care of today, instead of being a truly innocent victim.

I'm sorry for your loss, and I hope your friend found some peace.

Whatever you do, if you read Alexandra Petri's current column, do NOT watch the linked video against Obamacare. You have been warned.

Thank you.

All right. It looks like it's past two, so I'm signing off. As usual, a weird, poignant and occasionally brilliant chat.


See you all next week.

In This Chat
Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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