Another video by me: John Haskell’s ‘Elephant Feelings’

I’ve always adored this John Haskell short story, and because I was in Croatia last week where the internet is super slow, I decided to make a video version of it!

Thanks a lot to my friend Stefan for doing the voiceover, and to Haskell himself for giving me permission to use his text.

Damn I wish I could write like this. Until then, the least I can do is share it with as many people as I can.

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The Zone

Originally published on The Billfold

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Soren Host is waiting in line to be shaken down.

He has finished his fieldwork for the week. He has a towel over one shoulder, a novel in one hand, bottles of water in a plastic bag.

Three teenagers have built an entrance to the beach, a scrapwood fence, a rope across it, an entrance fee to pass.

Soren’s first day in Nigeria, he got a pro bono briefing from the head of security for one of the companies setting up operations in the free trade zone. The first rule, he told Soren, is mind your own business. Keep your head down. You will see sudden outbursts of violence; ignore them; keep walking. Avoid traveling alone.

The second rule, he told Soren, is stay away from the area boys.

These are the area boys. They look around 15, wiry, grumpy like teenage employees the world over. They’re lined up in a row along the fence. Next to them, arm’s reach away, they’ve arranged a row of sticks and iron rods.

The Nigerian couple in front of Soren, used to this, weary of it, are haggling.

This is a public beach, they’re saying, you can’t just charge admission. The area boys don’t negotiate, really, they just wait for the couple to give in. Eventually they do, hand over a hundred or so naira, about a buck. The boys hand them an expired local bus pass as an entrance ticket—infuriating them even more—and wave them inside.

Soren is next in line.

‘Two dollars,’ one of the boys says.

Soren doesn’t look like the typical Dane, he’s short, compact, dark hair in his eyes. But it’s obvious he doesn’t live here.

‘I’ll pay it,’ Soren says, ‘but I want a receipt.’

The boy is silent. This is what the head of security told Soren to do: Pay bribes if you have to, but only pay them once.

‘I don’t want one of your buddies coming up to me later and charging me again,’ Soren says.

One of the other kids digs around in his pockets until he finds a scrap of paper and a pen. ‘Please this white men is pay’ he writes on the stub, signs it. Then, under the scribble, ‘No bouncing.’

‘Thanks,’ Soren says.

The boy doesn’t say anything, he just looks over Soren’s shoulder at the next customer.

 

The Nanjing Jiangning Economic and Technical Development Corporation describes Nigeria’s Lekki Peninsula as ‘an area one and a half times the size of Hong Kong, with a five-mile coastline of golden beach. On the peninsula the rainforest is always close, not far from the endless Atlantic.’

All of this is true, but it is not why they have come.

They are here to establish a free trade zone, a rectangle of low taxes, gleaming infrastructure, a port, an airport, a workforce that cannot douse their country’s development by going on strike or demanding higher wages.

The reference to Hong Kong is not a coincidence. The Chinese have leased a 157 square mile rectangle of land—about the size of Denver—on this peninsula for the next 99 years, the same length of time the British controlled the speck of China that worked its way up from poverty and now serves as a model for the rest of the country.

Nigeria shares the same vision for the zone, the same Sim City visual: Rows of factories, cranes pecking at shipping containers, worker housing, parks, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, a city in itself. All throbbing behind a perimeter fence, a rampart against the old ways, the Nigeria, around it.

This is why Soren is here too. He is spending five weeks on this moist strip of land, interviewing its companies, its investors, its workers. He is here to find out the realities of the Chinese and Nigerian aspirations, the sacrifices each will have to make to realize them.

Soren is staying in Eputu Town, halfway between Lagos and the zone. It’s only 25 miles from Lagos, but the drive takes three hours. At first the road is flanked by exclusive hotels, office buildings with oil company and Big Four logos on the sides, banks, gated communities, wetlands being filled with sand. Soon the buildings shrink, floor by floor, to shops, then shacks, then mangrove swamps, fishing villages dotting them.

Eputu is a village on the verge of becoming a suburb. The roads are dirt or mud, depending on the time of year, small stores on each side selling bananas, frozen chickens, instant noodles. The local bar, a frame of scrap wood topped with a sheet of corrugated iron, eight plastic chairs outside and four inside, serves hot pepper soup, plays music loud enough to drown out the generators.

Soren only met Solomon yesterday, but he offered Soren his spare room almost immediately. Mid-30s, muscular with a hipster beard, Solomon is a local fixer, last week he arranged meetings and locations for a French documentary crew. He lives on the top floor of a two-story bungalow. He lets Soren in through the front door, or what’s left of it. He ran through the glass panel a few nights ago dashing out to greet one of his neighbors.

It’s dark when Soren arrives, Solomon shows him inside by candlelight. The power is out at the moment. The utility company, NEPA, is officially the Nigerian Energy Production Administration, but he tells Soren everyone here calls it Never Expect Power Again.

Solomon introduces Soren to the neighbors. Downstairs is Mommy Loni and her six-month-old son, Uncle Loni. She shares the apartment with her husband, Olumide, and her sister, Toyin.

‘Come up here, you have to meet my friend!’ Solomon yells down the stairs. Toyin is the only one home, she comes up to say hi. Solomon invites her to sit down in Soren’s room, a mattress on the floor in the corner, a candle flickering in the center.

Almost immediately, Solomon announces he has to take a call and leaves Soren and Toyin alone in the room, sitting crosslegged across the candle from each other. Neither of them knows what to say.

‘Welcome,’ Toyin says. Soren nods. After a pause, she says it again. She is wearing her home-cloth, the Nigerian equivalent of sweat pants, but Soren cannot help but notice how beautiful she is. He thinks she must be 18, athletic, hair pulled into cornrows. Later he finds out she is 28, just two years younger than he is.

Over the next few days, Soren settles in. Whenever he has more than a few hours of electricity, he can expect to go without it for days afterward. Soren’s desk is a piece of plywood laid across two upturned paint buckets. He sits on the floor and types until his battery runs out, then reads World Bank reports and Nigerian novels by candlelight.

Nigeria already has eleven free zones in operation and another eleven under construction. The Lekki Free Trade Zone, whether you measure by square miles or investment, is the largest.

In February 2006, the agreement was signed and the partners officially founded the Lekki Free Zone Development Company, gave it the mandate to lease land, attract investors, get the zone up and running. The partners waited for Nigeria’s dry season, then started clearing vegetation, filling the damp parts of the peninsula with sand, laying the foundations firm enough to steady tall buildings.

The ambitions for the zone follow a familiar narrative: It will start with low-skilled manufacturing—clothes, shoes, the things Hong Kong, then Taiwan, now China, make for the rest of the world. Once the engine of development has been sufficiently revved, the zone will—in the parlance of the banks whose investment they are trying to attract— ‘move up the value chain’ to skilled labor, services, design, marketing.

Meanwhile, the zone will invite investors in natural gas and tourism, will build roads and resorts and worker housing, will establish itself as an example for the rest of the country, the continent.

Nigeria will supply the land and the people; China will supply the money. The Chinese partners have already pledged $263 million for the first phase, will eventually attract more than $1.1 billion. It is set to be the largest Chinese-funded free trade zone outside of China.

In exchange for their investment, the Chinese will not only get operating rights to the zone for 50 years, but a series of perks to ensure they get their money’s worth: A full federal, state and local tax exemption; one-stop permit approvals; customs- and tax-free imports of raw materials; a Zone-specific set of labor laws; prohibitions on unions and lock-outs for workers.

It is 2008, two years after the zone was established, and the peninsula is already humming with activity, criss-crossed with tractors, striped with roads. Soren has five weeks to find out what this means for the people arriving and, especially, the ones already here.

 

‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ The Nigerian fisherman is livid.

He is in his late 30s, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, savannah-patterned shirt, standard attire for residents of the fishing villages here on the peninsula. ‘Why are you measuring this land? You haven’t paid us any compensation! We’re not going to get anything, are we?’

The man he is shouting at is Mr. Zhang, a Chinese promoter of the zone. His job is to visit companies, bring them to the zone, convince them to put their money here.

Today Mr. Zhang is showing a group of Nigerian investors around the zone, he’s invited Soren to come along. This is vacant land, Mr. Zhang told them in the car, gesturing at the wetlands, the shrubs along the road. Almost as soon as he stopped the car to let the investors walk around the site, the villager appeared from a path through the bushes.

‘We’re still living here!’ he’s shouting. ‘We’re not leaving until we get compensation.’

‘The Lagos government is in charge of compensating you,’ Mr. Zhang tells him. ‘These investors,’ he gestures at the men with him, wearing suits on an 80 degree afternoon, carrying measuring tape and bulky cameras. One of them is peeing in the grass, ignoring the conversation six feet away. ‘They’re here to put money into this community. They’re going to create jobs.’

The villager has been fishing, farming, living here his whole life, he shouts at Mr. Zhang. These men are going to create jobs for other people. Meanwhile, he’ll be kicked off his land. What will he do then?

It’s been like this for two years now. In the early days, the paperwork stage, the communities living here petitioned the Lagos State government, federal ministries, pleaded with authorities not to forget them when the bulldozers came. At first, the government listened, held meetings, drew up strategies. Then … nothing. The ministries stopped responding. And then, the bulldozers came.

In 2007, villagers blocked the roads, kept Chinese equipment and workers from reaching the zone. It was the only way to get the government’s attention.

All the unrest made the Chinese investors antsy. With national elections just around the corner, the Nigerian government finally agreed to work on a memorandum of understanding with the communities living on the peninsula, to define who would get compensated for their land and their livelihoods, to devise formulas to determine how much they were worth.

Still, even after years of debate and conflict, only a handful of villages participated in the actual consultation. They had seen this play out too many times. They didn’t trust the Chinese, but they trusted their own government even less.

It wasn’t even six months after the MoU was signed that events corroborated their cynicism. The MoU with the Lekki Free Trade Zone Development Company said all villagers would be compensated for loss of land. The only problem was, to get the compensation, they had to prove the land was theirs. Almost no one on the peninsula had title deeds. Living and working on a piece of land, no matter how long they had done it, was not proof that they owned it. Without the piece of paper saying the land was theirs, it wasn’t.

The villagers and the government set up a committee to solve the problem, to divvy up payouts according to who used the land, not who technically owned it. Right after the committee was established, the government started circumventing it, paying village chiefs directly, drawing lines down the middle of communities, buying the land out from under villagers without telling them.

Once the side deals started, it was every villager for himself. Fishers and farmers started contacting the government directly, negotiating compensation, trying to get an offer before it got pulled off the table.

Soren is not sure how much of this Mr. Zhang knows.

This happens, he tells Soren, every time he visits the zone. The conversation is always the same: The villagers ask him when they will be paid for their trouble, their loss. Mr. Zhang tells them that he is sorry, that it is not his job, that he hopes it will be soon.

‘Why,’ he asks, ‘do they keep coming to us?’

 

Aside from the interviews, Soren doesn’t have much to do. Solomon is away a lot, arranging funeral rites for his mother, who passed away a year ago. The anniversary of a death in the family is a celebration in Nigeria. Solomon has made more than 400 invitations, spends most of his time in Eastern Nigeria, his hometown, hiring a band, renting a venue.

On the days when he interviews Chinese companies, Soren goes to Victoria Island, near Lagos, on public transport, a minibus heaving with office workers and manual laborers, a kid leaning out the sliding door, shouting its destination at every stop.

There’s no public transport to the zone, so on days when he interviews residents or local chiefs, Soren hires a taxi to get there. One afternoon, on the way home, three area boys jump in front of the taxi, armed with sticks. They stand around the car, two in the front and one at the back tire, threatening to let the air out while the driver haggles over the bribe.

But mostly, it is as boring as any other commute in any other city. Soren is home most days around three, spends the afternoon transcribing interviews, sprawled on his bed, reading about the country around him.

It is on one of these empty days that Toyin comes up to offer him lunch: Catfish, amala, spicy okra sauce. She shouts ‘Soren!’ through the hole in the door, reaches in to open it. These are just leftovers, she says, but tomorrow he can come downstairs and eat lunch with her family if he wants. Soren has been living on frozen mackerel, fried eggs, Indomie noodles—Nigerian Top Ramen, basically—and the occasional fruit the pastor next door drops off.

‘Don’t you want to eat with me?’ he says.

She tells him she hadn’t planned to, but she sits down as she says it.

She is, it turns out, a newcomer here, just like he is. She’s from Zaria, in the north, a city once known for its diversity, the university attracting students and professors from all over Nigeria, Africa, the world. She was used to seeing Indians and Europeans growing up, her Christian family attending street parties with Muslim neighbors..

These days, she tells him, the city is known for its strife. The first time the churches were burned down, Toyin was 7 or 8. She can’t remember if it was her mother who woke her up or the sounds outside. Her Muslim neighbors, the ones she had known all her life, scraping their knives on the pavement, shouting they would slaughter any Christians who stayed. She lept in military barracks for a few nights until it stopped. It did, and then years went by, and then it started again.

But that is not why she left. She left because she finished her English Literature degree and got a spot in a government program teaching English in Ede, just outside Lagos. She moved in with her sister and her husband here in Eputu when the program finished. They both leave early, Mommy Loni to open her shop along Eputu’s main road, Olumide to beat the traffic into Lagos. Toyin spends her days filling out job applications and taking care of her nephew, Uncle Loni.

After that, she starts waving to Soren every time she walks across the street to get water from the well, stops to sit with him on the porch on the way back. One Sunday she invites him to her church. She is an usher, she can’t sit with him, so she leaves him on the pew, bouncing his knee in time to the singing, the dancing, the trumpets. He grins at her, standing at the front, and she grins back.

They get used to seeing each other every day.

 

It’s a blinding weekday, and Soren is visiting a dormitory for Chinese workers on the zone. The building is an old warehouse, a skeleton of wood covered with iron. termites have chewed through most of the doors, some of them look like they’re being held up by the paint.

Soren’s guide, Mr. Zhang, tells Soren with pride that these are the simple, unsophisticated conditions of the Chinese workers here. At first they were disturbed by the bits of wood raining on them from the rafters while they slept, termite leftovers. Now they simply brush them off and roll over.

‘The only entertainment for the workers,’ he says in Chinese, ‘is a basketball.’

The workers have never met a white person who speaks Chinese before, and they are slightly baffled about what Soren is doing here and why he is asking them how they feel about this strange country they live in . Most of the workers are from rural China, they know what it is to be poor. They do not know, however, what it is like to be poor in this specific way, in this specific place.

This, Mr. Zhang tells him, is how the investment will work. It’s not just money China is shipping over but its workers, its technology, its way of doing things. The investment comes as a bundle, wrapped in a chain link fence, a kit for establishing a small enclave of China in this sweltering outpost on the Atlantic.

Mr. Zhang tells Soren that Chinese workers are the opposite of Nigerians. They work hard all year for the reward of relaxation, a break for the New Year or the short summer holiday. For the Chinese, he says, the rule is ‘eat the bitter first.’

For Nigerians, he says, relaxation is the default, they must be forced to work as hard as the Chinese. He tells Soren about a group of Nigerian machine operators meeting Chinese workers doing the same job. When they saw how quickly the Chinese were working, they said it had to be magic.

To European ears, these sound like colonial observations, the kind Soren has seen in James Cook diaries, letters home from 19th century tropical pillages. The manager says things that sound familiar. Nigeria is rich in resources, removed from natural disasters, un-tormented by strict seasons. The land has not endowed its people with the mentality or fortitude to struggle their way out of poverty.

Without the burden of history, the Chinese are not careful in their characterizations, not self-conscious about what it sounds like to be saying them. It seems like they are discovering this continent for the first time.

Soren hears the same thing from the workers living in the dormitory. If we do not work, they tell him, we can’t afford clothes, we’ll freeze in the Chinese winter. If the Nigerians don’t work, they pick fruit from a tree and wait in the shade for the next day to come. They repeat rumors they have heard about Chinese workers being robbed at gunpoint, disappearing from the streets. They show off the frugality and simplicity of their living conditions, tell Soren their hopes of the modernizing influence their presence will have.

It turns out Mr. Zhang was wrong about the entertainment. Every week, on their one-day break from work, the Chinese workers stack benches and create a theatre in the dormitory and watch Chinese movies back to back. It is the only thing here, they tell that reminds them of their villages back home.

 

Soren knows he has to say something to Toyin before he leaves.

They are spending more time together. They eat lunch together, work and read in the same room in the afternoons. She doesn’t drink alcohol; he starts to find excuses not to join Solomon for after-dinner beers at the local bar or on his balcony. Soren asks her about her childhood in Nigeria, she about his in Denmark, each marveling at the other’s strangeness. It’s obvious he likes her—Toyin says she should start charging Soren every time she catches him staring at her over dinner—but her family is traditional, he’s not sure how this works here.

One night, with just a few days left in Nigeria, Soren and Solomon are on their way to see Femi Kuti in Lagos. Solomon spent much of the day calling drivers, trying to find one with a reliable car. He can’t have a breakdown in the neighborhoods they have to drive through to get there. As they’re leaving, Toyin stops Soren as he passes, says she needs to tell him something. Solomon insists they have to leave before it gets dark. Soren calls goodbye back to her and goes.

After the show, driving home, Solomon makes Soren lie on the floor in the back seat. He doesn’t want to be driving through Lagos at 11pm with a white face glowing out through the window. Soren lies on the floor, staring up, wondering what Toyin wanted to tell him.

Finally, just before he leaves for Denmark, he goes downstairs, they sit on the living room floor. He holds her hand, closes his eyes, tells her that he likes her, that he wants to see her again, more, differently. He finally opens his eyes when she squeezes his hand so hard it hurts.

She tells him she feels the same way. Of course she does. But she’s only known him a month, she’s not sure how real this is, that she’ll even see him again. She says this has to be goodbye. Soren drives to the airport alone.

Toyin was right and so was Soren. Life got in the way. Right after he gets back to Denmark, Soren is posted to Beijing for eight months, his Nigeria project put on hold.

In China, Soren talks to Toyin over Skype almost every day. A year after his fieldwork, he comes back to Nigeria. Toyin couldn’t find work in Lagos, so she moved to Ibadan, five hours inland, to get a postgraduate diploma, to wait out the job market there.

When Soren visits she has more time for him than he expected. First, the teachers are on strike for weeks. Then, a flood washes away the bridge Toyin walks over to get to the university. Eventually, some area boys build a new one, charge a toll to cross it.

Soren goes with her to campus, sits at the library, writes and reads about the zone. Since he left, it has maintained its anthill momentum, added rows of factories, a power plant, water treatment, canals dug into the swamps. The port, the deepest in West Africa, is set to open in 2017.

Soren still has the scrap of paper, the one with ‘please this white man is pay’ on it, in their home in Aarhus, Denmark. They got married in 2009. They’re thinking about moving, with their two daughters, Aimi and Anke, to China next year.

He still teases her about the night they met, repeats at her ‘welcome … welcome’ over and over again.

 

 

 

 

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‘It is obvious that people here are poor. It is less obvious that someone made them that way.’

So I made a video with some thoughts I had during my recent work-trip to Uganda.

I have a knot in my stomach putting this kind of shit online. Another white guy, in another African country, broadcasting another set of un-earned conclusions. The whole point I’m trying to make in the video is that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but maybe that means I should have just not talked at all.

Anyway, now it’s out there, embarrassing but irrevocable, just like the rest of the internet. Next time, I’ll try making one of these I don’t feel the need to apologize for.

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The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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Every Year, 13,000 People Die of AIDS in America. Fewer than 1,000 Die in Europe. What Gives?

Hopefully the title of this animation sounds familiar!

Yep, so I made a little explainer video based on that article I wrote for the New Republic last May. Apologies for, well, basically everything. The pipsqueak voiceover, the muddled visuals, the inconsistent 3D, they’re the best I could do.

I don’t know why I love making these so much. The process is so slow, the rewards so incremental, compared to writing. Presenting information visually is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than writing it, but I have so much less practice! I’ve been telling people stuff my whole life. Showing them, I’ve been at it less than a year.

There’s no physics inside a computer. Objects don’t have weight, they don’t know the others are there. An object can be in one place, then 1/24th of a second later (or 1/30th or 1/60th or 1/1000th, it’s up to me!) a completely different one, in a different color, with a different shape. When Hiccup rides Toothless in the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, they’re not really touching, not in any recognizable physical sense, the animators have just placed them, lit them, put effects on them, that trick us into thinking they are.

What I like about this is that it’s exactly the same as every other art form. George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men aren’t any realer than Hiccup and Toothless. Lennie can be tall and fat on one page, then, on the next, bright purple, female, with tentacles and the flu. Writing, painting, animating, whatever, they’re all equally unlimited. The hard part in animation is making objects look like they have weight, mass, purpose. The hard part in writing is the same: We have to care where these objects are placed, where they go, how they bump into each other.

I’m sounding grandiose now. I don’t mean to compare myself to real animators, real writers. Everything I’ve done has been riding on the dragon (sorry) of reality, a story that’s already happened, the relationships between the objects established, arranged to be retold. All I’m saying is, when you think of the sheer fucking blankness of a unwritten novel, an undrawn animation, it’s amazing people can make us feel anything bumping these silly little objects, characters, into each other.

Anyway, shut up, Mike, it’s just a stupid little animation. I hope people enjoy this! It’s an issue I became totally obsessed with when I was writing my story, and it deserves to have more, smarter people obsessed with it. I tried really hard to treat this video, these unbearable statistics, with the respect they deserve. There’s a tendency for these animations to appear cute and light, and I’m genuinely sorry if any of this comes off as inconsiderate.

I want to especially thank Forrest Gray, who let me use his beautiful song ‘Sunset’ for the music bed. He also Also Dan Deacon, who in addition to being broadly awesome, releases the stems of his songs on Soundcloud under Creative Commons so people like me can use them. Thanks guys!

And of course, a huge (re-)thanks to all the brilliant and kind epidemiologists who let me interview them for my story.

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Should journalists care how their stories are shared?

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The latest episode of NPR’s Invisibilia is about Daniel Kish, the famous ‘blind dude who can ride a bicycle‘.

How does he do it? It’s all in the clicks. Kish uses echolocation—yes, just like a bat—to feel the contours of his environment. According to the episode, neurologists are discovering that blind people’s brains are capable of way more ‘vision’ than we once thought they were.

That’s all super fascinating. What’s a bit troubling is the way the story is framed. Invisibilia packages Kish’s story as a fable about expectations. For most blind people, we expect them to be helpless, to be led around by the arm. For Daniel, his mother expected him to take care of himself. As early as five, he was climbing trees and barreling down hills on his bike. In this telling, it was the expectation, not the neurology, that allowed him to be so much more capable than other blind people.

Kish is—again, according to the episode—part of a growing movement among blind people to teach kids echolocation and independence much earlier. There’s a scene (do podcasts have scenes?) where Kish forces a blind kid, convinced he’s incapable, who almost never leaves the house, to climb a tree, 40 feet up, literally the blind leading the blind. The kid resists, then climbs, then falls, then gets up and tries again. Kish expects him to climb, to see, and eventually, he does both.

You can see what’s heartwarming, what’s enlightening, about all this. A blind woman describes how echolocation allowed her to ‘let go of the arm’, to go places without her husband leading her. Kish leads a group of blind people on long hikes each year, along ravines, with nothing but canes and clicks to guide them.

Once I was done learning and thinking (and, at one point, crying—that woman and the arm!) I started to find it really troubling. Not the episode itself—like everything on NPR, it’s professional, meticulously researched, you feel smarter for having heard it—but how, I fear, it will be retold.

The show includes dozens of caveats. Many blind people have other disabilities that make it difficult to gain more independence. Echolocation is really hard to learn as an adult. Even once they learn to ‘see’ through echolocation, blind people are still significantly disabled, will still require assistance, will still do things more slowly and more carefully. One of the hosts of the show, her dad is blind, she rejects the idea that all he’s missing is someone to berate him into climbing a tree.

But of course the episode’s reservations are not what you take away from it. What you learn is, ‘blind people have the ability to see’ and ‘our expectations are making blind people helpless.’ That’s what you’re going to repeat to your friends when you talk about it. If anything from this episode travels, it will be those two ideas, caveat-less.

It reminds me a bit of the 10,000 hours thing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the idea that most of the people we consider as having ‘inborn talent’—Tiger Woods, Mozart, Bobby Fischer—have in fact worked incredibly hard to refine and develop it. No one just picks up a tennis racquet and is suddenly John McEnroe, not even John McEnroe. Being good at something, no matter your inherent coordination or musicality, means practicing and practicing and practicing.

In its original conception, it’s a pretty small point, a slight tweak to our understanding of talent and practice, far from a revolution in it. Yet all the caveats in Gladwell’s original article, the deliberate smallness of his argument, the concept of 10,000 hours has traveled without them. People have written responses—and a whole book!—arguing that yes, some people are born better at things than other people, that no, you will not become Mozart at something just because you practice it a lot. That’s not a response to the Gladwell expressed—he’s said he agrees, that his 2008 self would have too—but the version of it that traveled, the one we all retold to each other.

I wonder if journalists think about this, the inevitability of it, as they’re doing their work. Caveat all you want, many people will still conclude from that NPR episode that you should never help another blind person across the street, that the ones who can’t by themselves are constrained by their own un-adventurousness, not their physical limitations.

This is entry like 10,000 in my ongoing journalism is hard stomachache. Should NPR not have made this episode just because it will be distorted when we all truncate and tweet it? Fuck no, it was great, I’m super glad I heard it. Should they have included more caveats, been even more reserved in their conclusions? Meh, who wants to listen to an episode that’s all preamble and meta-discussion and asides? Kish’s story is gripping; the tellers of it can’t restrain themselves just because their listeners might draw the wrong lessons from it.

Maybe I’m not making an argument about them, maybe I’m making one about us. I don’t have any blind friends or family members. I don’t know anything about neurology or echolocation or tree climbing. I’m profoundly un-educated on every single issue contained in this podcast. What makes this kind of journalism so great, and so troubling, is that it makes me forget that.

Photo by the wonderful Luise Schröder!

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Lifehack: Stop Fucking Lifehacking

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I’m not very good at going to the gym. I never do the same thing twice, I don’t keep track of how much weight I’m lifting or how many times. I go three days in a row, then skip three. I go longer when I’m listening to a good podcast, shorter when I’m not. If I didn’t sleep well the night before I half-ass the entire endeavour, yawning, tweeting, lifting the lightest possible weight the shortest possible distance.

Sometimes I get into these self-improvement frenzies where I look up what I’m, like, supposed to be doing at the gym. I should use free weights. But never on the same day as cardio. And body weight exercises are better anyway. I should stretch when I arrive—no, afterwards—oh wait, I should never stretch. I should go for an hour. I should go shorter, but more intensely.

I implement these little exercise hacks, tell myself I’m optimizing my time. I stick with them for a few days, a week, before I drift back to my routine of doing what I feel like, changing every day.

I’ve been doing this informal survey at the gym the last few months: When I see someone in super-good shape, I go up to them and ask what they do here, how often they come, what they lift and lower, how many times.

So far (and yes, I realize this is completely un-scientific), they’re pretty diverse. Some of them just do body-weight shit, some of them just free weights or machines or they mix all three. Some do cardio, some don’t, some stretch, some don’t, some do hella reps, some do few.

The only real theme to emerge from these conversations is that the dudes who are in good shape, who seem to be winning the aesthetic Olympics, they come a lot. Of the maybe 20 or so dudes I’ve talked to about this over the last six months, most of them come five or six times a week, and they stay at least an hour, some of them two, each time. Within that, it’s pretty diverse what they’re doing, but they all have that in common. That, and the six-packs.

And this is kind of what I’ve concluded about the gym, about this sort of health-and-wellness lifehacking in general: It doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you do it regularly. I have managed to go to the gym about three times a week for the last three years. Would I be, I dunno, 12 percent buffer if I was more diligent about what I do there? Lift more, sweat more, concentrate more, focus on feel the burn rather than contemplate the podcast? Sure!

But if I had done all that, I doubt I would have gone as regularly. I have a crazy-short attention span. Doing the same thing over and over, focusing on how Sisyphean it is rather than distracting myself from it, that’s never going to work for me.

It’s the same with food. Probably twice a week I throw a sweet potato or two in the oven, come back an hour later, grate down whatever cheese I have in the fridge and eat it, skin and all. The other day I was in another hackfrenzy and I looked up the best way to roast sweet potatoes. There it was on Food Lab: They taste better the longer they stay between 135 and 170 degrees.

So I did it, I quartered them, submerged them in hot water for an hour, then baked them for another hour. And were they better? Definitely! Am I going to start doing them this way every time? Fuuuuuuck no.

Half the reason I eat so much vegetable these days is because I’ve figured out the easy ones to cook (It’s not just sweet potatoes: Cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, basically any vegetable, douse that shit in olive oil and salt, bake for an hour, blanket with cheese and go to town). If I really tried to make this optimal—the two hour cooking time, the extra dirty pot, the chopping—I wouldn’t do it as much.

And this is what I’m constantly battling in myself, this idea that I’m not being optimal enough. It’s not enough to go to the gym, I have to squeeze every calorie, every protein fiber, out of my time there. I get the guilties about not doing Zero Inbox, or Crossfit, or being paleo enough. It’s not good enough to eat sweet potatoes with grated cheese on them, I have to eat less cheese, Maillard the shit out of those starches.

I’m trying to be OK with this, to stop trying to hack my habits to perfection. I have a friend who lost a bunch of weight a few summers ago by eating steamed chicken breasts and broccoli soup for like two months. And it worked! If I saw him in the gym at the end of that summer, I totally would have interviewed him. Problem was, the minute he started eating like a person again, he went right back to his old weight. That might have been the ‘perfect’ diet for losing weight, but it wasn’t the perfect diet for sticking with long-term, which is the only metric that means anything.

I stopped judging people at the gym a long time ago. If you’re the kind of person who can only talk yourself into getting exercise if you’re going to sit on the stationary bike and read a romance novel, barely get your heart rate up and leave after 30 minutes, go for it. I sound like I’m being passive-aggressive, but seriously, good for you. I have the attention span of a tiny rodent. If you have the one of a large reptile, and you love doing the same thing every time, 60 reps with each weight, the same on both sides, genuinely: Well done, son.

I am sure that there are articles in Men’s Health and on the Well blog and from your friends on Facebook that will tell you you’re doing it wrong. And I guess you, like me, probably are. But if that’s the routine you can stick to, that’s how you’re going to do this three times a week for the rest of your life, that is fine, that is enough, that is what ‘working’ means. And sometimes, I think it’s working for me too. As long as no one ever makes me give up cheese.

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I’m on a podcast!

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Slate’s The Gist interviewed me about my development article!

Here’s the link, I start at 13.40…

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Rolling Stone, Serial and the Advantages of Uncertainty

Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time—which I read when I was 13 and remember as vividly as other kids remember To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever—has a whole chapter about how one of the keys to persuasion is admitting the weaknesses in your own case. Spence was a celebri-lawyer in the 1990s, he defended Imelda Marcos, and the example he uses in the book is a dude who got hit by a car crossing the street.

The guy was ruined-drunk at the time, and the prosecutor planned to use this information against him at trial. Instead, Spence, his lawyer, not only admitted that his client was drunk in his opening statement, but made it the center of his case. Who’s more deserving of the protection of the law than someone in a vulnerable, confused physical state? Spence won.

The more I think about the Rolling Stone case, the more I think the critical error wasn’t that the reporter failed to check out the details of the rape survivor’s story (though she should have), but that she didn’t tell us the weaknesses in it herself.

In other words, I wonder if we’d still be having this scandal if the RS article included a big fat caveat, if it admitted the limitations of this kind of reporting up front, something like

Look, we didn’t contact the people accused of rape in this story because Jackie didn’t want us to. Given the sensitivity of rape accusations and how traumatized she already is, we didn’t want to re-victimize her by potentially exposing her to more abuse by her rapists. Furthermore, we weren’t able to confirm some details of her account. Regardless, it is not up to us to investigate whether or not she was raped. That is the job of her university, and they have failed spectacularly.

I’m speaking from a counterfactual here, so of course I have no real argument that this would have made a difference. But one thing I’ve realized in the last few years is that when you learn a piece of information can be as important as the information itself.

This is (to make a totally inappropriate transition) I think what makes Serial so great and so popular. The host isn’t playing us clips and going ‘Look! He’s innocent! This is a travesty!’ She gives us the evidence from the prosecution, from the defendant, and goes ‘all of this could mean something … or not. Maybe he’s a misunderstood young man. Or maybe he’s a sociopath!’ She isn’t trying to simplify her case, she’s deliberately admitting the complexities and inconsistencies in it. And by doing so, she not only maintains the mystery of what happened, but of what kind of show we’re listening to. She’s bringing us into the reporting process with her, and giving us some of its power.

What’s happening now is that other reporters are re-doing the Rolling Stone article themselves, interviewing the accused rapist and other people who were there. We’re essentially re-investigating the case, en masse, in real time, and in public. There’s a good reason the justice system does not work this way—one, it is shitty, and two, it results in false certitude, each reporter defending their own source as the ‘credible’ one. Here we are focusing on the events of one particular night in September 2012. Meanwhile, the overall point of the story, namely that universities do not take rape claims seriously, regardless of their veracity, has been lost.

I wrote something earlier this year about how what got Jonah Lehrer in trouble, what makes Malcolm Gladwell so (occasionally) infuriating is this failure, to bring us into the process, to share the knots in their stories and their doubts in themselves to untangle them.

I don’t want to pile on Erdeley. She’s probably having the worst week of her life, and her sin—promoting a false anecdote to illustrate a real problem—is understandable, if not defensible. I just wish she would have shared it with us herself.

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Being a Journalist is Scary

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Like everybody else this week, I read the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, how women who were raped there had their complaints minimized and ignored.

On the content of the article itself, there’s little to say that isn’t obvious: The crimes are horrific, the university’s response was appalling, the systems for preventing and adjudicating rape claims are pathetic. It’s self-evident that all of that should be fixed.

But as I read it, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the tremendous power of journalists, and how scared I am that I am now sort of one of them.

The first power of journalism is highlighting. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, chose the University of Virginia, from all the colleges across the country, to investigate. Maybe UVA has the biggest rape problem in the nation and maybe it doesn’t. But by pulling out this one university for scrutiny, everyone who read that story, me included, has the impression that it’s the fucking worst ever and has to be stopped.

The second power is condensing. I’m sure Erdely spent weeks at the school. She must have interviewed dozens of people, heard hundreds of stories. She has chosen, as a journalist, as a person, which of those to retell.

There’s a part in the story where she quotes a letter from the fraternity where the rape happened, responding to her investigation.

UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”

I’m sure the letter was longer than that. Maybe Erdely sent him 10 points for clarification and he responded to each one in turn. Maybe he detailed the history of the fraternity’s response to sexual assault, how it has changed over time. Erdely quoted the part that was relevant and moved on.

The third power of journalism is conclusion. The way the facts are presented, how they are ordered and described, Erdely has done this in a way that makes ugh these fucking people the only sensible response.

I do not believe that Erdely has wielded these powers irresponsibly. She has taken an important issue and presented it grippingly and urgently. I trust that she has fairly summarized the e-mail from the fraternity president, that she investigated the veracity of the claims made against it.

I’m not even making an argument here, just an observation: The power that she, this one person, holds is profound. Rolling Stone reports, rather gleefully, that the governor of Virginia has issued a statement in response to the story. The university has suspended all its fraternities, amid protests from (justifiably!) livid students.

The J-school cliché is that journalism is supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. That appears to be what happened in this case. Erdely could have told a similar story (I fear) about many universities across the United States, but she didn’t, she chose this one. And, in so doing, afflicted it.

But what are the mechanisms to prevent journalists from afflicting the afflicted? From choosing their targets unwisely? From condensing ungenerously? Rolling Stone has every incentive to play up its stories, to megaphone the ways it changes the world from which they are drawn. This is what journalism is supposed to do, what journalists are always telling us is its primary virtue, the one making up for all of its vices—its celebrity news, its comic strips, its listicles.

Rolling Stone, every magazine, has no mandate to provide proportionality, only entertainment. And outrage, like humor, like crossword puzzles, is one of its forms.

Except in extreme cases—libel, fabrication—the only accountability mechanism for journalists is their own story. Erdely didn’t quote that e-mail from the fraternity president (I assume) because it was long, it was boring, it wasn’t in her voice. She didn’t include all the stories she heard from her other interviews because they would have been detours from her primary narrative.

We condense, we highlight, we conclude, as people who want to tell a story in its shortest and interestingest form. This process is, by nature, intrasparent and autocratic. We’ll never know everything lost from Erdely’s story due to her cuts, nor the criteria she used to make them. We share her conclusions, but we easily forget that it was she who fed us the information on which to make them.

Shit, I sound like I’m criticizing her, don’t I. I’m really not. These are just the structures she works in. The same ones that, I guess, I do now too.

I read Erdely’s article the same week that something I wrote for The New Republic got a lot of attention. People have e-mailed me to thank me, to ask me to give them advice and interviews and speeches and join their organisations. I’m happy that something I wrote has been enjoyed by other people across the internet, but I am also nervous. These powers wielded by Erdely, by journalists everywhere, now they are mine. I am not confident that I am ready for them.

I’ve already talked about my own unworthiness here, how I try to make my summaries transparent, my judgements accountable to those upon whom I make them. I could have been more of a dick in my article, I tell myself, could have condensed less charitably, could have wrung the evidence for my own perspective more tightly. Maybe you already think I have.

The reason I am scared is that there would have been no punishment for doing so. A slightly boringer story, maybe, a polemic, something that could have been titled ‘the case for’. As a reader, that incentive is enough. As a writer, sometimes I fear that it is not.

Update: Oh man, so this non-argument of mine just got pretty darn concrete. I’m going to leave the text as it is—I’m too lazy to change it and no one reads this blog anyway!—but it looks like Erdely’s story is less a hypothetical parable about the powers of journalism than an instance of this power improperly applied. Me making this all about my own fears and insecurities still applies. 

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