Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

The Best iTunes U Courses and Why Teacher Quality Matters for Adults Too

In the endless debate over how to improve American schools, you often hear people bring up the issue of teacher quality. A good teacher can apparently give kids 1.5 years of learning in a school year, while a bad teacher can give as little as half a year. This is a profound effect, and people who know stuff about elementary education (i.e. not me) are working on ways to replace America’s crappy teachers with better ones.

I’m reminded of this all the time because over the last few years I’ve become totally obsessed with iTunes U (and, more recently, Coursera), and I listen to course lectures whenever I ride my bike, take a walk, wait in a line, use public transport, fly on an airplane or generally live my life. Courses are the best, they kill time just like a book, but leave your hands and eyes free to keep you from bumping into stuff. 

When I first started checking out these courses, I thought they would be a way to dive into topics I was already interested in. International development, European history, Seattle trivia. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that the subject matter was almost irrelevant to whether or not I enjoyed the course. The only thing that mattered, I eventually realized, was how good the lecturer was.

Topic after topic, I found my interest extinguished by bad lecturers. Meandering speeches, no notes, unclear structure, too many asides. My attention waned, then disappeared. After awhile I started to question if I was even into this shit. Am I only interested in European history because I had a good teacher at it in high school and I’ve been coasting on that ever since?

So then I started looking for courses with good teachers, subject matter be damned. One of the best ones I found is David Blight’s Civil War course. I know this is American Heresy, but the Civil War was never a topic I was particularly fascinated by. I’m not from a part of the country where its legacy is super-proximate; none of my family members were involved; the geography, demography, economics, they’re all a long time ago and far far away. Before Blight’s course, I thought of it like the Napoleonic Wars: Macro important, but micro-boring.

But it turns out I was totally wrong! Blight is such a fucking groupie for everyone, right and wrong, slave and white, victor and defeated, he tells you about each person and episode and argument like he’s just learned them. Every lecture has this ‘you’ll never guess what I found out today!’ tone, it’s infectious. I even ended up crying in one of them, about freed slaves; I was biking and I had to pull into the bus lane for a second til he was done.

I found other scorchingly good podcasts on game theory, economic history, the rise and fall of the second reich (not even the famous reich! That’s how good these lectures are!), even fucking stock valuationyou can barely stay awake to finish the name. They’re all, despite their diverse subject matter and dubious usefulness for everyday life, totally engrossing.

This is why I’m so dogmatically pro when it comes to technology and education. Everything is interesting if it’s presented the right way. If I had access to these-type lectures when I was in actual school, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through my 20s thinking that the Civil War was boring, that game theory was only for math geniuses, that the second reich … well, I probably would have known that there was a second reich.

I’m not making a political point. I have no idea how education is going to change in the next 5 years, much less 50. I just know that no matter how it does, I will be ready, somewhere, crying in a bus lane.

 

My Totally Subjective List of The Best iTunes U Courses Ever

 

Also: I’m kind of between courses at the moment, so if you know a good one, let me know in the comments!

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April 8, 2014 · 1:09 pm

Bleg: Any suggestions for a trip to Armenia?

I’m in Yerevan and Karabakh starting Saturday. Anyone been? Know awesome things to visit or see or do or eat? Let me know!

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My Parents Fled From Iran During the Revolution and All I Got Was This Stupid Slate Article

My folks!

I have an essay in Slate today about how my parents moved to Iran in 1978 to be Christian missionaries, then had to flee when the Revolution happened.

The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see if it was a foreigner or an Iranian.

The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.

The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the stewardesses opened champagne.

The date was January 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.

“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a stewardess looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”

Some stuff got cut from the story, so here’s some bonus anecdotes:

  • Lynne and Dave’s letters barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male hand-holding and cheek kissing (‘but there is apparently very little homosexuality’ she writes in one of her letters—ah, the ‘70s). They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! … How much is your rent?”
  • Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else. Even Lynne’s Farsi workbooks were mostly stories about the Shah, Iran’s bright future, the triumphs of 2,500-years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
  • Helen tells them about a German woman here, a housewife married to an Iranian. In November she was walking home from school with her children and found her house being ransacked by a mob. Somehow they had discovered that her landlords were Bahais. She drove to the compound, left her children with Helen and borrowed a chador. With the chador on, she went back to her own house to join the mob, to salvage whatever she could of her belongings. That night, she and her husband returned to the compound to stay a few nights until they found a new home. That was the last time Helen saw them.
  • One day last month Martin and Helen’s daughters left for school in the morning, got on the school bus the same as always. A few hours later, one of her daughters came home early and told Helen that the school was closed. Too many demonstrations, too much noise. Now the demonstrators were blocking the roads, and the school buses couldn’t get home. Helen had no way of getting ahold of her daughters, she could do nothing except wait. So she did, for hours, until they finally returned.

I want to thank my parents for spending so much time walking me through these episodes, and especially their friends Martin and Helen, who gave me a really vivid picture of their lives in Iran. It’s not always easy to have some random guy poking around in your past stripping it for anecdotes, and everyone I spoke to was patient with my questions and forgiving of my mistakes.

To get a better understanding of the political context and the experience of the Christian community in Iran before and during the Revolution, Martin and Helen recommended that I read Paul Hunt’s Inside Iran, and I did, and I recommend you do too!

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

Flematic

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I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
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There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
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I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
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Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
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Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
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I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
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Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
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But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
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It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
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Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
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Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
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I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
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‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
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‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Doing Development in Dhaka

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There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
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Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
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I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
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Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
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I always go jogging when I travel for work.
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Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
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There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
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Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
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No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
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Like, we all know how the post office works.
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And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
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But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
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What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
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Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
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Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
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The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
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I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
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Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
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I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
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This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
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Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
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Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
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I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
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One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
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Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
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That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
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And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
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Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
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Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
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Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
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And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
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Brand new tomorrow.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

An Interview With a Therapist Who Was Once Insane

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I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:

What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?

Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.

So sexual addiction is a real thing?

Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.

 

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Filed under Journalism, Personal, Serious

How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. [...]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

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Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Five Stories About Sports for People Who Hate Sports


martin vlach 1[4]

I’m on Longreads again

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Reading List: Journalism’s Most Fabulous Fabricators

I’m blogging for Longreads now

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