Category Archives: Journalism

Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.


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Why Don’t Newspapers Take Unsolicited Submissions Seriously?


Originally posted on The Huffington Post

A telling paragraph in Michael Lewis’s review of ‘Why I Left Goldman Sachs’:

The author recounts how he spent most of the six months leading up to last March working at Goldman by day while writing up his deeply felt grievances against Goldman by night. When he finished he had a 1,500-word counterblast but no place to put it: he e-mailed it to the general address for blind submissions to the Times op-ed page. He heard nothing for a month, and so finally dug out the e-mail addresses of four Times editors, and sent his piece to all of them. The next morning the Times got in touch with him.

It’s great that ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs‘ eventually got noticed and published, but I can’t help thinking about all the other pieces submitted to that blind submissions address that weren’t.

A lot of people are sitting on fascinating stories about the places where they work, where they live, what’s happening in their lives. This is what journalists, what journalism, is supposed to be concerned with. But sometimes it seems like newspapers are only interested in great stories when their own reporters get to tell them.

Earlier today I read this New Yorker article about ‘slow journalism’, the kind produced by reporters who are embedded, walking a beat, just hanging out until something happens so fascinating the rest of the world needs to know about it. Newspapers don’t have the money for foreign bureaus anymore, the article laments, so now reporters have to parachute into financial reform, scientific debates, economic indicators, write it up and whoosh on to the next one.

In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.

That’s probably true, and probably sad. But I wonder if what it really means is that, in a world where anyone can write a blog post or take a photo or make a documentary, we need reporters less than we need harvesters. 

Thousands of people live in fascinating places, are experts in their fields, work in fucked-up and hilarious institutions. Many of these people can tell you their story, and why it matters, better than a reporter ever could.

I’m sure the New York Times gets all kinds of cranks sending them op-eds from curtained rooms, but I’m sure they also get thousands of  stories that are one editor away from fascinating, thousands of people who can’t tell a new story every week but have one great one they’re struggling to tell.

Newspapers are supposed to teach us what’s true in the world. Sometimes a professional reporter is the best person to do that. Sometimes not. I hope that, as journalism becomes whatever it’s becoming, it finds time not just to tell us stories, but to find them.


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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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The Only Thing You Need to Read About Guns in America


is Erik Larson’s ‘The Story of a Gun‘, from 1993.

He traces one small-scale school shooting (ew what a yucky phrase) back to the shooter, retailer, manufacturer and, ultimately,  culture that created it.

What’s most fascinating about the article is how it tracks the constituents we don’t often hear about. The company that manufactured the gun. The store that sold it.  The background check that asks would-be gun buyers ‘are you mentally ill?’ with a tick-box. The understaffed and overstretched regulators.

I’m sure—I hope!—a lot of  the specifics are out of date (Does the ATF have more than 400 inspectors by now?), but it’s a chilling demonstration of how gun manufacturers and sellers have gotten off the hook for America’s violence problem.

To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network.

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem.

Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.

If you were trying to reduce car-accident fatalities to zero, you’d definitely make driver’s license requirements stronger, obligate people to take more driving lessons, prove their eyesight, etc. But you’d also make sure every single car had airbags, you’d require manufacturers to prevent ignition unless seat belts were fastened, you’d make dealerships confirm that every car buyer knows how to drive. You’d also change the way you build roads, and how you patrol them.

I know gun manufacturers and retailers aren’t free from restrictions, aren’t entirely ignored in the debate over gun control. But reducing gun crime doesn’t mean you take the guns away from everybody who owns one. It means you prevent guns from being made, and from being sold, in the first place.

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The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo,

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly


“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune


“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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Literary Playlist: ‘The nameless sorrow one must feel when one exits the club realizing none of those breasts were for you’


I’ve been traveling for work this week, which means I finally had a chance to catch up on all my queued-up Instapapery.

  • This is the shortest of the bunch, a plea for an integrated approach to HIV in the African-American community.
  • Here’s a copy editor talking about how being professionally correct can ruin the experience of reading. When I was a copy editor, I used to tell people it was like being a bouncer at a strip club.
  • In the same vein, here’s a fact-checker talking about how, just because your facts are correct doesn’t mean you’ve said something true: ‘Essayistic truth is both factual and beyond simple assemblages of facts.’
  • I discovered this Wells Tower guy last week through his Romney takedown, and I’ve been plowing through his other work—sellin’ weed! Hangin’ out with porn stars!—nonstop since.
  • My friend Paloma wrote a great article about our shared professional subject.
  • Here’s a fascinating primer on why it’s so hard to fight diseases on a grand scale these days.
  • Speaking of health, here’s the life story of a very specific, very lucrative medical device and, somewhere in between, a description of why the US healthcare sector is so dysfunctional.
  • I’m hella gonna read this book about why people in totalitarian states don’t resist them.
  • The history of Kraft Mac & Cheese!
  • A profile of the guy who ‘made’ Justin Bieber. It’s a good article and everything, but considering that every other pop act ever has sued their manager, I’m afraid we’re gonna look back in 10 years and see this as a kind of ‘before we really knew’ article.
  • This piece on a Las Vegas megaclub had me alternating between ‘god it’s dire!’ and ‘I want in!’ This may have been intentional on the part of the author.

So anyway, not all of these are perfect, but they are, I can assure you, demonstrably more entertaining than Brussels and The Hague.

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Gender Equality Means You Have to Go To The Gym


So Richard Cohen has this column about the new James Bond movie where he sort of bafflingly laments how buff Daniel Craig is:

Contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning.

[…] Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles.

Cohen gets some ‘expert quotes go here’ material:

“There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatry professor, recently told the New York Times. He said the portrayal of men in what amounts to the Bond image is now “dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago.” That same Times story reported that 40 percent of middle and high school boys work out with the purpose of “increasing muscle mass.”

First of all, when it comes to an increasing supply of fit, good-looking males, I am staunchly in favor.

Not for the reasons you’d think, though. I actually see the increasing prevalence of good-looking males—and the corresponding pressure to resemble them—as a consequence of feminism. The more egalitarian your society is, the less women need to rely on men for status or livelihood. A woman is not impressed by your Ferrari if she drives one herself. Stripped of the traditional condo-and-cufflinks status symbols, men have to resort to the last asset they have—their looks.

My only evidence for this, alas, is anecdotal. After five years in Denmark, I was convinced the primary reason Danish men spend so much time tanning, gymming and hair-producting was because it’s all they have. Danish women have jobs, education, professional status, financial stability, what do they need yours for?

Inequality of good-lookingness between the genders has become a kind of proxy index I use when I travel. Anytime I walk around a country  full of  stylish, beautiful woman and schlubby, hairy-backed men, I fear for its Gender Inequality Index score.

Part of me almost agrees with Cohen’s lament. There is something meritocratic about your attractiveness being based on your confidence, you status, your character. In America, he softly moans, hard work will not just propel you out of your class, but out of your league. For men of his generation, each of Daniel Craig’s jumping pectorals represents something lost, a new bar to hurdle.

So that’s part of my response. But the rest of it is me making a wanking motion and a ‘pfffft’ sound. Living in a country that’s becoming more equal, where other people’s desires are as important as your own, means you no longer get to choose the criteria by which you will be judged. For two millennia, women have been living in a world ruled by men. Nothing makes men angrier than realizing that might not always be the case.

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Gay People Have Crushes Too

This article about a married 50-something dude looking up his second-grade crush is adorable, but I can’t help wondering how it would play out if the object of his affection was male.

I had dude-crushes at the rate of nearly one per year from daycare til middle school (OK, grad school). Some of them turned out to be gay, some of them didn’t. Some I still know, some I don’t. Some I’ve told, some I haven’t.

Everyone knows juvenile crushes are harmless. They say more about giver than the getter, and it should be flattering to know you exist in some neuronal nook of a forgotten acquaintance.

Still, I’d be nervous calling up the dudes I spent elementary and middle school pining over (and terrified of). Even 20 years later, even in 2012, I feel like straight guys wouldn’t find it cute and complimentary, but deceptive and threatening, like I’d stolen something from them.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid. Maybe its worth a shot! Does anyone have an e-mail address for Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

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In the middle of an article on longevity, a ringing endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. […]

Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same.

In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation. […]

The big aha for me, having studied populations of the long-lived for nearly a decade, is how the factors that encourage longevity reinforce one another over the long term. For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices. There’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay. If there’s anything close to a secret, it’s silver buckshot.

Exactly this! People on this little Greek island aren’t morally or genetically superior, they’re just surrounded by an environment that systematically, comprehensively, ubiquitously encourages healthy behaviors. In the rest of the west, our environment does the exact opposite.

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An Appealing Metaphor for Innovation

Kevin Carey, in the middle of an article about how Silicon Valley is upending higher education, has a supergreat metaphor:

So he walks over to the whiteboard that makes up the entire wall of the conference room and deftly sketches out the inner workings of a rocket engine, showing what happens when thousands of gallons of rocket fuel are sprayed into a chamber of fire, thus igniting and creating fantastic amount of force, the eddies and whorls of which need to be predicted and calculated in minute, down-to-the-millisecond detail, so that the force can be directed down through the closed chamber in which the initial combustion occurs and out the bottom of the rocket in the form of enough thrust to take something the size and weight of, say, a telecommunications satellite, up and away from the gravitational bonds of our planet.[…]

The real holy grail is a more efficient use of fuel to create thrust. The amount of thrust needed to liberate X amount of weight from the Earth’s gravity well is a brute math problem. It’s inescapable. And, crucially, as Scott explains it, when the rocket is sitting on the launching pad, most of the weight is fuel.

Most of the weight is fuel. […]

Because when most of the weight is fuel, Scott explains, a reduction in the amount of fuel you need to create thrust increases the payload weight you can move from Earth into orbit along a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear, one-to-one thing. The less fuel you need, the less fuel you need. It’s exponential.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read it three days ago, which probably means it’s true in some way. It’s a good article!

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If You’re Gonna Kill Your Wife, Don’t Be Weird Afterwards

Here’s a pretty shocking story from Texas about a guy who was convicted of murder, absent any evidence, basically because he acted weird after his wife was killed:

His stoicism and his apparent lack of sentimentality for Christine only fed [his next door neighbor] Elizabeth’s anxiety. She was astonished to see him two days after Christine’s funeral using a Weed Eater to cut down the marigolds at the end of his driveway, which she knew Christine had planted over his objections. […]

After a friend who worked in construction cleaned and repainted the master bedroom, Michael resumed sleeping there, on the water bed where Christine was killed.

These things seem callous because they go against the narrative of what you’re supposed to act like after your wife gets killed. You hear this in rape trials sometimes too, like ‘if the rape was so traumatic, why did you go to work the next day?’

It’s weird that we talk and think like this. How you behave after being the victim of a crime doesn’t indicate its severity. I’d love to talk to some cops about how people react to these kinds of crimes. There’s probably a surprisingly wide range, and ‘typical’ reactions probably encompass all kinds of behaviors you wouldn’t expect . People are different, and having a loved one murdered is such an extreme event that you could never foresee how you would react. Maybe you’d cry for days, maybe you’d go to Blockbuster and rent Lord of the Rings. Maybe you’d want to go to work, maybe you’d never work again. It’s not productive that our culture has a narrative for how one should behave in such a horrifying scenario.

When Michael himself took the stand on the fifth day of the trial, he calmly and steadily answered the questions that were posed to him, but he did not betray the sense of personal devastation that might have moved the twelve people who would render a verdict.

“During this whole ordeal, he never fell apart,” [his lawyer] Allison told me. “He wanted people to see him as strong. And I think in the end, that very trait worked against him.” Jurors were put off by his perceived woodenness on the stand. [The jury foreman] explained, “I would have been screaming, 
‘I could never have done this! I love my wife!’ ”

[Another juror] was not persuaded by his testimony either. “He just did not come off as genuine, because there was no emotion there,” she said.

I think if I was a lawyer I’d be endlessly frustrated at having to subtly manipulate jurors into believing what is true. Sometimes people don’t want to show their inner devastation to a creaking room full of strangers. Murderers can fake grief, and non-murderers can be stoic. This isn’t rocket science, Texas.

I read stories like this and I’m like ‘jury trials are the worst we have to stop them!’ This poor guy was convicted of murder based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence and some weak CSI shit just because the prosecution was able to convince 12 people that he was an asshole. Most people who kill people are assholes, so it must have been him.

It’s the kind of story that is meant to fuel outrage among its readers. But from what little I know about the criminal justice system, lots of crimes don’t have clear motives. And in many cases, circumstantial evidence and a convincing narrative are the only things that put genuinely guilty people behind bars. There’s a whole spectrum between an open and shut case and a true whodunit, and things like the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, rumors and past behavior is often the only thing investigators have.

So I guess what I’m saying is, there are probably a number of policies that would make American’s criminal justice much better. But I’m going to refrain from having an opinion on any particular one. This shit is complicated, and there are people who do it every day. I hope they’re reading this too.

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Why Doesn’t Britain Do Longform?

America has dozens of magazines that print long, investigative narrative feature stories: Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s, Mother Jones, the New Yorker, I could go on.

Yet Britain, from what I can tell, doesn’t have any. The London Review of Books publishes longform, and some of the Sunday papers have magazines, but the features are mostly celebrity profiles/interviews and long reviews. The FT and the Guardian both publish promiscuously, but little in the 3,000-5,000 word range.

Are there cultural or economic reasons for this? Or are tons of great stories actually getting published I’m just missing them?

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Filed under Journalism, United Kingdom

Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

From New York Magazine’s writeup of Jonah Lehrer’s rise (blogger, writer, TED talker) and fall (fabulist, fraud, quote-maker-upper), and what it means for journalism:

Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

Lehrer was the poster boy of the recent rise of ‘academia lite’ publishing, where journalists aggregate and retell a body of scientific knowledge for a popular audience. For better (Daniel Kahneman) or worse (David Brooks), readers need narratives, publishers need content, academics need publicity, these aren’t going anywhere.

The process of fact-checking these books has come under scrutiny lately, and Lehrer is just the most recent case of a journalist misinterpreting (deliberately, accidentally, who cares) the results of academic studies to fit their own manufactured narrative.

My understanding of the publishing industry is that publishers lose money on basically 99 percent of the books they publish every year, and get into the black on just a few blockbusters. Publishers say they can’t fact-check all the books they print. I’m not all that sympathetic to this (‘it would be super hard’ is rarely a convincing defense for a multinational corporation), but more books rather than fewer is a good thing, and the reality is that publishers aren’t gonna put a New Yorker-style confirmation apparatus in place overnight.

I feel like a first step toward more accuracy in publishing is for authors to be much more accountable to their sources. Lehrer is basically accused of coming up with a conclusion first, then arranging his quotes and sources to confirm it. From what I know from my (brief) experience as an actual journalist, this is pretty standard practice. You hear about a story, you read a bit, you write it up, and you leave spaces with tags like quote from Yankees fan goes here or need Census data for this paragraph to fill in later. Good journalists will, obviously, change the story if their facts contradict their conclusions, but the actual methodology is fairly widespread.

The problem with this approach is that it conceives of sources as Mad Libs generators. You need a quote from someone, you call them up, you get them to talk til they say something that will fill the hole, you hang up. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

This maybe makes sense for political journalism, where sources have an incentive to make themselves look good. If you’re interviewing them about some aspect of their job performance as a public official, they might try to spin you in a particular way if they know what you’re writing. Fine.

But science journalism is different. In the kinds of books and articles Lehrer was writing, his sources’ incentives were aligned with his own. Scientists want their work to reach a mass audience, and for articles to portray their results accurately.

I mean, check this out:

If Lehrer was misusing science, why didn’t more scientists speak up? When I reached out to them, a couple did complain to me, but many responded with shrugs. They didn’t expect anything better. Mark Beeman, who questioned that “needle in the haystack” quote, was fairly typical: Lehrer’s simplifications were “nothing that hasn’t happened to me in many other newspaper stories.”

Maybe book publishers can’t independently verify every single fact in every single book. But they can certainly call five or ten of their authors’ main sources, show them some chapters, and ask them if their work is being fairly represented. If Lehrer knew that his work would be shown to people he interviewed and the authors of studies he cited, he would have  been much less likely to distort their findings.

Yes, this approach has problems. Maybe the sources are dicks, and they don’t want a journalist broadcasting their results. Maybe they’re crazy-academic, and they don’t want their work published unless it’s drowning in jargon and caveats.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe they want to help make sure their work is fairly represented. Maybe they want to contribute additional information that could clarify it.

Either way, I fail to see how contacting an author’s sources—and being transparent with readers about it—would be worse than the current model, in which sources are interviewed and then discarded, and play no instrumental role in how their words and their work is represented. Sources shouldn’t necessarily have the right to approve everything that’s written about their work, but they should at least be consulted.

Authors and journalists that see true stories and correct information, rather than dazzling writing, as their primary constituents, should be arguing for this themselves.

Ultimately, I think Lehrer’s real sin was not believing in his own skill as a writer. If his work had focused on how there isn’t a simple explanation for complex phenomena, how much we don’t know about intuition, how evidence doesn’t clarify the world around us, he might still have ended up famous. And maybe, he could even have ended up right.


Filed under America, Books, Journalism

If 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes You More Creative, What Does 20,000 Do?

The idea that talent isn’t inborn, that you have to practice something constantly and deliberately for 10,000 hours before you master it, makes intuitive sense. It’s especially appealing for the arts. Mozart wasn’t a prodigy, the theory goes, he just crammed in 10,000 hours of practice before his 19th birthday. Nearly every filmmaker, artist and writer talks about having a passion for their medium astonishingly early in life (M. Night Shyamalan and PT Anderson, for example, were both making  movies when they were still eating peanut butter out of the jar).

Again, this makes sense. The arts have technical and craft-like aspects, and you gotta master the tools before you use them to make something that’s never existed before.

But I’m interested in what happens after you’ve done your 10,000 hours, and you keep practicing. Why do artists peak and decline?

I can see how physical or technical skills (sports, surgery) would continue to develop until they are hindered by the body’s decreasing ability to put them to use. Michael Jordan may have decades more skill than LeBron James, but the 49-year-old body simply won’t collaborate with the brain the same way as a 27-year-old’s will.

But creativity is different. You don’t need physical skill to be a writer, painter, composer or singer. So why do so many of our best examples of the 10,000 hour rule show such marked decline in the quality of their output as they get older?

Last week I read a couple reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book, ‘Back to Blood’:

Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude.

Wolfe is 81, and an absolute skyscraper in the world of journalism. He invented, or at least perfected, the art of longform feature reporting, and every month GQ and Vanity Fair print ripples of his voice and perspective. Yet as he’s gotten older,  his output has (OK, arguably) become repetitive and extravagant, less a man examining the world around him than a man staring at his own infinite reflection in a bathroom mirror.

This week I’ve also been listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ basically on repeat, since it just got rereleased. It’s self-evidently the best thing ever, and Simon has (again, arguably) never made anything that holds up so well since.

Across the creative spectrum, artists generally produce works of decreasing interest as they get older. From Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood to Claude Monet, artistic output tends to peak—sometimes early, sometimes late—then steadily decline. It’s as if, like an aging body, an aging brain no longer has the strength to throw as many spears through the fog.

I wonder if creativity, perhaps distinctly from sports or technical skills, is a kind of multiplication. It only manifests when talent breeds with inspiration, desire for risk, engagement with the outside world. Maybe it’s not the talent that diminishes, but the appetite for novelty.

Or maybe it doesn’t diminish at all. Maybe Tom Wolfe and Paul Simon are actually producing better and better work, they’re just becoming increasingly nuanced and complex as their talent develops, and are no longer embraced by the ‘tl;dr’ heathen mainstream. Their best years weren’t a creative peak so much as an extended overlap with the tastes and desires of the masses, and now they’ve diverged.

Or maybe—I hate this option—aging simply wears out the mind as profoundly as it does the body. The brain becomes so unmalleable as it ages that it can’t make intellectual jump shots anymore. Tom Wolfe today is unable to write a great novel just like Sandy Koufax is unable to pitch a no-hitter. The brain and the body are both exhausted, just one is more visible than the other.

Or maybe I’m full of shit! And thousands of works have come screaming forth from their creators’ autumnal decades, I just haven’t noticed. Maybe Mozart and Cobain and Hendrix, had they lived, would have produced peak after peak, their talent aging like Italian cheese.

Like all broad human phenomena, though, I’m firstly interested in how it applies to me. I don’t think I’ve done anything for 10,000 hours, much less 20,000. I’d better get started! As my body begins its earthward descent, I want to make sure I reach a few highs in case it takes my brain with it.


Filed under Books, Journalism, Personal, Serious

Nobody Knows What News Is

You know how in high school dance troupes, all the dancers are sort of looking at each other to see what to do next? They’re not confident enough in the moves to go through them straight-on, so you catch them looking out of the corner of their eye at the rest of the troupe to guide them through the routine.

This is basically how modern journalism works. I was reminded of this reading Walter Kirn’s dispatch from the Democratic National Convention:

They predict with assurance that [Michelle Obama’s] speech will be deemed a success, and I guess they ought to know because they’re the ones who will start the deeming process. Which, in fact, has already begun. And which, in fact, turns out just the way they said it would, which I learn when I finally get back to my room and turn on cable TV.

What I thought I was seeing clearly, through my own eyes—a wandering, vaporous, contrived display of middle-brow sentimentality and word-goo—I entirely misinterpreted, apparently. Or everyone else misinterpreted it, perhaps, which comes to the same thing.

Every newsroom I ever worked in had TVs on the wall showing CNN, the sound off, day and night. Every once in awhile a conversation with a colleague or editor would instantly veer as the newsroom, en masse, attended to the Breaking News banner.

‘Hey, we should get lunch at that Italian oh my god they found Laci Peterson’s body!’ your colleague shrieks, sprinting to his desk.

I didn’t work as a journalist very long (That ‘every’ up there? It’s two. Two newsrooms.), but what struck me then and since is that no one seemed to know what actually constituted news. Murders, accidents, disasters happen every day. Some of them produce great stories, or affect how we live, or change how we understand the world. Others are just remainders of calculations we’ve already made.

Here’s Kirn again:

It’s not just a journalistic challenge, either. It’s the challenge we all face as modern political animals, caught in the feedback loops and logic mazes that come of trying to know the truth, our own truth—the truth worth casting our one and only vote for—when we don’t even know where to look, or through whose eyes.

Why is this murder, this hurricane, this bridge collapse news? It’s easier when someone else has already decided. You look at the other dancers so you don’t have to learn the routine yourself.


Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Work

What’s the Opposite of Precocious?

I am a sophomore at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington. I have friends from all walks of life and believe that I would be perfect for your panel. I do not play any sports, although I had a brief stint with the lacrosse team my freshman year. I am a big fan of the entertainment industry. I have very diverse tastes in TV, movies, books, theater, and music. I cannot say no to quality entertainment, whatever the genre. I am obsessed and fascinated by pop culture, and I love reading the newspaper and magazines.

That’s the beginning of an essay I wrote in 1997. I was 15, and applying to be a ‘teen correspondent’ at USA Today.

The world of teenagers is very different from how it was in the fifties and sixties. Most males are concerned only with sex and drugs. Females seem mostly concerned about how to avoid them.

Of course, there are the few lonely souls who dare to be different, but they are labeled as ‘weirdos’ or ‘faggots’ and are generally ignored. To be popular and successful as a teenager, one must be willing to conform to what the media and their peers tell them.

The only thing more incredible than the thudding artlessness of these passages is that fact that I got the job. Based solely on the ‘strength’ of this essay, I was one of USA Today’s go-to teens for more than two years. Shit’s still on my resume.

The essay is one of hundreds of files my parents excavated  from my old hard drive and sent to me a few years ago. They all have the original names, but I’m starting to think I should just label them Cringe_1, Cringe_2 and onward to mortifying infinity. There’s one called ‘White_Racial_Identity.doc’ that I’m thinking about deleting without opening.

In this age of single parents and families in which both parents are working, the role of mother and father begin to mean less and less. Oftentimes parents would like to be home with their kids, but can’t, because they have to work a double shift so the aforementioned children can keep ordering pizzas and watching cable.

It only gets worse from there.

Maybe the worst thing about modern technology isn’t the triviality, or the ubiquitousness, but the permanence. If this essay wasn’t saved on a 15-year-old hard drive, I never would have read it again. I could have lived the rest of my life believing, on the rare occasions when I recall this period, that it was good , that I expressed something true, that I was worthy of pontificating upward from hotel room doorsteps for two years. This essay would have remained, undisturbed, a worthwhile general rather than an embarrassing particular.

We forget the extent to which we construct our childhood from input more diverse than its actual events. History, movies, retold stories, aborted friendships, it all gets folded into the way you think you had it when you were a kid. These pictures and texts from my childhood seem like some sort of alternate reality to my ‘real’ upbringing, the one I keep in my head. It’s easy to forget that it’s actually the other way around.


Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious

The Plural of Anecdote

I want to agree with this study because it confirms my pre-existing biases, but am I really supposed to ignore this paragraph?

The study’s 21 participants, 18 to 40 years old, initially lost 10% to 15% of their body weight during a three-month diet that contained about 45% of total calories from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 25% from protein.

… So this experiment basically took three groups of seven people, put them on a diet, and recorded what happened. I know that controlled laboratory studies on weight loss are difficult and expensive, but an n this small isn’t science, it’s a reality show.

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Filed under America, Food, Journalism

Literary Playlist: ‘I know a better truth than his’

I wish educational institutions had twice as many graduations, just so we’d get more commencement speeches. This one makes you want to become a doctor. And this one makes you feel guilty for not graduating harder.

The internet is basically one big Deadwood

Insecurity is really good at making people funny.

Wait, so the KKK is growing increasingly irrelevant? I can’t imagine why.

Maybe Ayn Rand was right and the IRS should be replaced by golden retrievers and set on fire.

Online classes great and free and might change the world.

Saying that politics are genetic misunderstands politics, genetics and are.

This article’s entire premise about why Facebook will fail and drag the whole Web down with it rests on the observation that companies have been overpaying for advertisements for the last 100 years.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Literary Playlist: ‘We’re all higher than the lowest things we’ve ever done’

The only thing humans like better than socializing is making up rules about who and how we’re allowed to do it.

‘Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on solitary confinement like we look back on the burning of witches.’

‘My father remembers what he wore at just about every important moment in his life’

The fall and fall of Sears

Restructuring a flailing manufacturing company begins with vacuuming.

New Yorker readers need to be thoroughly reassured that the person entertaining them with parlor tricks is a scholar. 

Speaking of solitary confinement, 47 people live on a rapey little island in the middle of nowhere.

This one-page blog post changed my thinking about human behavior more than any of the pop-economist books that have come out in the last five years combined.

Europe is fucked, part 47,135

Someone needs to write a book about how this came about.

Big Food isn’t the same as Big Tobacco. Except that they sort of are.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Literary Playlist: ‘We are more than our headscarves and our hymens’

America does austerity bigger than those European pussies.

Just when we all agreed that political candidates don’t matter, Mitt Romney had to come along and fuck everything up.

Chronically underfunded government institutions mean that for anything to happen, you have to wait for a hero to come along.

Latin American presidents want to end the drug war!

‘Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone’

While economists and policymakers desperately search for ways to ‘upscale’ poverty alleviation, the academics are increasingly discovering that it can’t be done.

Every generation devises a narrative for why it suffers from depression.

Juveniles shouldn’t be held to the same moral standard for criminal behavior as adults. Unless, of course, a governor decides they should.

Now that the US has de facto lost the ability to raise taxes, states are courting casinos so they can suck on that sin-tax teet.

What it’s like to be a woman in the Middle East.

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Filed under Journalism