Brian Lam: What I Read
Brian Lam, founder of gadget review site The Wirecutter, on his pared down media diet. "I try not to open Twitter too often. Some editors, I don't know how they're getting any work done."
How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a conversation with Brian Lam, founder of the beloved gadget review site The Wirecutter, which recently launched a home goods expansion site The Sweethome, and the former editor of Gizmodo.
I am probably the least informed person in our industry, by choice. When I wake up, I open the email app called Mailbox, which has this thing with gestures that you can use to clean up junk. You can very quickly swipe right to archive, to the left to put into a list. It's cool. Emails that aren't time sensitive I'll just snooze them for later in the day, tomorrow, or next week, so I am just left with stuff starred for action.
Then I get up. Maybe I'll surf—I usually wake up around 6 a.m. so I can do that. Sooner or later I get to my computer and I head to my inbox. But before that I go to Twitter and I see if there is anything going on. I'm basically just seeing if there is some major news thing. Three swipes going down Twitter on the iPhone and you'll know if there's a Boston Marathon level thing happening. Otherwise, 95 percent of the day what's happening in the news I find completely irrelevant. I just don't give a shit.
I try not to open Twitter too often. Some editors, I don't know how they're getting any work done. On the other hand, there are the magazine feature writers who only tweet when they have to promote a story. Alexis Madrigal [of The Atlantic] is good. He's a good combination of dropping links and curating and conversational stuff. Mat Honan [of Wired] is one of my good friends but I will go on record saying he is horrible on Twitter, he is always trolling people. Sam Biddle [the new Valleywag] is atrocious on Twitter. He is like emotionally vomiting. Nicholas Jackson [of Pacific Standard] is the worst person on Twitter that I still can't unfollow. He just gets drunk and talks about the media.
I usually check The New York Times, for which I have a full digital subscription. I usually do that on my iPad. On Twitter, I'm just starring stuff for later, usually for night-time, and I'm also putting stuff into Pocket. Generally if it's not news and it's an interesting longform article it goes straight to Pocket and I read that twice a week or three times a week. I'll grab stuff from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Popular Science, and GQ. I also subscribe to Outside, Esquire, New York, National Geographic, and Cook's Illustrated on my iPad.
I read Matt Buchanan [of The New Yorker] and Alexis Madrigal pretty regularly. I usually look more for information than I do prose, but they have really beautiful ways of describing something. I should also admit that even though I've subscribed to The New Yorker for five years I've read probably about 2 percent of what they put out. That's kind of the beauty of it: To have something that's not optimized for the masses, that's not a Michael Bay version of a magazine article.
I just like getting away from blogs almost entirely—any place with a clicking agenda. I just know they're trying to make noise to make traffic. I don't want to use up my time getting involved in that. The same thing goes almost for some newspapers. I really don't like the The Wall Street Journal. I feel like there is a lot of CEO worship, a lot of consumerism, and capitalist thinking. I've never met a WSJ reporter that I like personally. I'll go ahead and throw out any chance of WSJ jobs right now. The Awl and The Hairpin have a way of tickling your mind. That's integrity: When you give up money to do what you think is right. That's the only test for editorial integrity.
I don't subscribe to much in print because I don't really stay in one place. I moved from this house in California, where I thought I would maybe be in a position to start a family. My whole life blew up. So I ended up being this single guy, dating really not seriously, in a huge house for one person. It was just too much. I moved to Hawaii and got a small place. I got rid of almost all my gadgets: I just have a WiFi router, a computer, an iPhone, and I have a camera for underwater.
I even got rid of 80 percent of my print books and kept the ones I really care about. I have a print subscription for the Explorers Club Journal. It's just like people going places and doing field science. I also subscribe to The Surfer's Journal. It's an amazing, not really ad supported, really expensive subscription. Surf trade magazines are pretty much the worst thing in the world. But this is all travel-based and not surf profiles and contests. It's like: "Get lost in Mexico and have your car break down and be stranded and hitchhike to California" kind of stories, which have no commercial value at all. I also get Honolulu Magazine, because I just moved here and I have no friends so I have to know what's going on.
I don't have any media diet from 9 to 5. I turn off Twitter and I don't answer emails except in bulk. I try to do all my emails once or twice a day. Right now I have 400 messages that are starred. I won't get to a lot of them for another day or two.
As far as my own professional work, I need to know if new gadgets are coming out. I don't read gadget blogs and reviews sites, I have someone do that for me. There is this old computer website that is so fucking amazing if you're getting into the hardcore computer shit. It's called AnandTech, it's super high quality. Then there is Ars Technica—my first editor used to work at Ars, so I've got Ars DNA. The Verge is doing a good job; Engadget is doing a good job. I think Gizmodo had a bunch of kids writing their reviews. But it's getting better because the kids are getting older. That was hard to watch, so I don't watch it.
Here's a really fucking weird secret: Consumer Reports, America's Test Kitchen, and Cook's Illustrated are amazing. If they did a tech site, it would be fucking unreal. They would probably beat everyone. They do a much better job about telling the journey they go on to figure out stuff. I really, really worship those guys. Consumer Reports has been really fascinating. Often we do research on existing data out there. What we find is Consumer Reports has the best stuff—but not from reading their articles. When you go talk to them they'll tell you some crazy shit.
I work pretty late because I take a break in the middle of the day for a couple of hours. I work back up after dinner and I use this app called f.lux. The screen on your computer is a blue-ish tint that approximates sunlight and keeps you up. F.lux turns the hue of your screen more like a candle, or a halogen light bulb. You can feel it not keeping your eyes as perked up so your computer won't keep you up. When I use it I actually have an easier time falling asleep.
Then from there I usually grab an iPad and play a couple of rounds of Letter Press and then I'll read some magazine or I'll watch a movie on my iPad, once in awhile. I don't have cable. I don't have a TV. I'm just getting a projector for movies. I don't even watch that many movies because the more time you use watching the less time you have to create.
I broke up with a girl I've been really in love with lately, it was mutual. Whenever that happens I start reading a lot of old philosophy books. I'm reading Siddartha by Hermann Hesse; I'm reading this crazy book Art of Being. It's really gnarly. I'm also reading the Decoding the Heavens, Ship of Gold, which is about treasure, and the Ted Kaczynski book, Technological Slavery. You can kind of see what he's getting at when you read it.
The other weirdo thing I do is I'm obsessively checking surf cameras and surf reports. There's always a monitor of what the beach looks like propped up. Surf conditions change really quickly, like within 20 minutes. The wind, the tide, and the swell all have to coincide and the wind can change the quickest. The wind is, like, very fickle.