Category Archives: Personal

Becoming a Journalist, Again

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When I was a kid, six or seven, I was convinced that there were cities on top of the clouds.

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I told all the other kids in the neighborhood, as if I had discovered this rather than made it up.

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“You guys know there’s whole downtowns up there, right?” I told them, looking up on an overcast day.

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“They’re clustered in Washington, DC. If you go there, sometimes you can see them from below.”

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I was the only kid in our neighborhood who had actually been to DC, and so considered an authority.

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The other kids believed me, told me they could see a skyscraper or a radio tower as they craned upwards. I nodded solemnly.

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I like to think that I have outgrown this, the ability to lie without realizing that I am. But I’m not sure I have.

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Two weeks ago, I quit my job in human rights to become a journalist.

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Or to re-become one, I guess.

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Last time I was worked in journalism it was 2003

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and I was a copy editor for msn.com.

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I came in every morning and I looked for spelling errors in stories about Paris Hilton’s nighttimes and broken links in weight loss listicles.

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On the really exciting days, I got to write a headline.

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I left after a year,

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moved to Denmark to do a silly, useless master’s degree,

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got an internship at a human rights NGO,

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then a real job,

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then another job, at another NGO, in another city.

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Before I knew it, human rights was something my European friends were referring to as my “background.”

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I took these photos in Ethiopia last year.

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I was there for a conference, some UN thing.

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To get in, you have to show your passport, get a little visitors badge.

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Waiting in line, a former colleague asked me why I moved to Denmark.

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I told her I was interested in the political system, I wanted to see how the happiest country in the world got that way.

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I have been telling other people, myself, that for years. And maybe it’s true. Or maybe it’s me lying without knowing it.

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Before I moved to Denmark I was living in my hometown, in my parents’ basement, hunting for typos in a cubicle all day.

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Maybe I moved to Denmark because anything—cold weather, high rent, rampant socialism—would have been an improvement.

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When people ask me why I got into human rights, I tell them it’s because I wanted to do something meaningful with my life,

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And I tell myself that it’s to make up for the insane luck that got me born where, when, to whom I did.

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But it’s also because I was living in a college town in Jutland and I wanted to move to Copenhagen for the summer. The internship paid, it would look good on my resumé.

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Today I am starting my new job in journalism because it is what I want to do, all I have ever wanted to do, and the jobs I have had where I do not learn anything or write anything during my days make me feel like I am wasting them.

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That is, for the first time in awhile, a “because” that feels true, that does not change depending on who I tell it to,

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That, finally, does not make me feel like I am describing cities on top of clouds.

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Filed under Journalism, Personal, Serious

Fitness, Marketing and the Search for Shortcuts

One of the weirdest things about my visit to the U.S. was all the comments I got on how I look. Once or twice a week, some random person would come up to me and ask me about my workout routine.

At the gym, 7 in the morning, this guy in his early 40s stops me as I’m leaving.

“Hey kid, I’ve got a question,” he says.

“Um, I’m 33…” I say.

“What do you do, or not do, to look like that?”

This happened other places too. A member of my rock climbing club invites me to dinner, asks me what—‘if anything’—I’m allowed to eat. A barista asks what diet I’m on, whether I do yoga. I order a drip coffee and he says ‘I guess you’re not allowed to drink Frappuccinos, huh?’

The first weird thing about these comments is that I’m not in very good shape. As I’ve chronicled here extensively, I don’t go to the gym with any kind of strategy or diligence. My eating habits are more Jurassic Park than Julia Child. Even with the dimmest of lighting, the generous-est of Instagram filters, I don’t even have one pack, much less six.

The second weird thing is how these compliments always came in the form of a question, as if I know something other people don’t. The guy at the gym that morning, he wanted to know exactly what my eating and exercise routine was, like there was some technique I had mastered or secret vegetable I was growing in my backyard. Even my friends, people I’ve known since I was 10, familiar with my indolence, my sitting-down tummyrolls, press me: “Come on, you’re drinking protein shakes, right?”

I never get comments like this when I’m in Europe. Ever. The obvious reason for this is because I’m closer to the median BMI there, plus so many standard deviations below the median height that no one even notices what kind of shape I’m in. But I’m convinced there’s something else going on too: Europeans aren’t marketed to as much as Americans.

I have no, like, data-data on this, but after living on both continents, I really notice how much more intermingled fitness and commerce are in the United States. In Copenhagen, everyone you see cycling has a modest, slightly rusted old bike. Men ride upright on ladybikes, women roll to work wearing jeans and high heels. In the U.S. it’s all titanium frames, spandex, shoes with those little clips on the toe. In Berlin, jogging is something you do in old sweatpants. In the U.S., it’s an activity that requires moisture-wicking pants and barefoot shoes.

It’s like this with diet too. Americans have entire categories of foods that Europeans don’t. Omega 3 energy bars, creatine powder, recovery drinks. Somehow we went straight from making these up to believing it was impossible to be in shape without them.

This, I feel like, is where the ‘what do you do, man?’ from baristas and fellow gymmers comes from. People think there’s a trick, a shortcut, a specific thing I’m eating or drinking or doing that keeps me (relatively) height-weight proportionate. Like I’m gonna say ‘asparagus water!’ and that will unlock the secret for everyone else.

That’s what marketing has sold us: Not a specific product, but the idea that there’s one we’re missing. Our bodies are set up to respond to our habits, the decisions we make 80 percent of the time. The economy, however, is set up to sell us something new every day, to feed us ‘superfoods‘, to sign us up for Crossfit, to tell us again and again that fit people don’t have better genes or routines, but make better purchases.

Like I said, I’m not in good enough shape to give out food or fitness advice, but what I told the Americans who asked me about my workout regime the last few weeks was that I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and do something exercisey that I like every day.

“Shit,” the guy at the gym said that morning. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

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Filed under America, Food, Personal, Serious, Travel

‘Tell me something interesting about yourself’: A gay dating app experiment

Six weeks ago, I changed my Grindr status to “Instead of ‘hey’, feel free to start by telling me something interesting about yourself!”

I got, shall we say, a variety of responses.

Some of them shared a little

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Some of them shared a lot

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Some of them were educational

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Some of them wanted to get the icebreaker out of the way

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Some of them diversified their portfolio

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Some of them seem like we would be friends

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Some of them went to Oberlin

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Some of them could write a great blog

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Some of them got meta

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Some of them were having a stroke

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Some of them taught me about my own shortcomings

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Some of them have busy Christmases

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Some of them needed a hug and hot cocoa

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Some of them spoke in intriguing metaphors

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Some of them had MBAs

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Some of them sent dick pics

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Some of them did better on their second attempt

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Some of them required follow-ups

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Some of them misunderstood the assignment

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Some of them would have made fascinating conversation partners

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Some of them humblebragged

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Some of them confirmed negative stereotypes

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Some of them read their horoscope every morning

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One of them, at least, was husband material

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Filed under America, Gay, Personal

‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’

Warehouse in Kampala. Photo by me!

I’ve been working on this article, in my head at least, since probably 2007, when I started working in CSR, consulting companies on how to reduce their human rights impacts. The conclusion I came to, that everyone in my field seems to come to eventually, was that companies don’t matter. What matters is the environments where they operate.

One little story that didn’t make it into the article:

Here’s a World Bank profile of a Vietnamese Nike factory. In 1997, 84 percent of workers had nose and throat infections, mostly from failing to wear masks when they were working at dyeing stations. Nike, scrambling to respond to the decade-long boycott campaign against it, started delivering worker training, posting hazardous-material info in the break rooms, issuing a monthly health newsletter. By 1998, infections were down to 20 percent.

Huge success story, right? Well … hmmm. The same investigation found that managers were dumping wastewater in the local river, transferring the health risks to the entire population downstream. When the case came to light, they hired the son of the local Communist Party chairman to negotiate the terms of the settlement. The company was never punished.

In that story is everything that consumer boycotts have achieved. It’s not nothing that the factory improved its health and safety practices. In another study, a Cambodian manager grumbled to investigators that “Nike is so much stricter about everything.” Props to Nike, seriously.

But you see this with almost all of these company efforts: The gains inside the factories are dwarfed by the impacts outside of them. Colluding with political officials, poisoning local communities, these are exactly the kinds of things that audits can’t find, that companies can’t fix, that consumers can’t keep track of.

A few months ago I made that video about Uganda. In 2007, the Industrial Court, the place where workers go to file complaints, lost its mandate. It wasn’t renewed until this year. That means that for eight years, labour inspectors couldn’t levy fines against companies that were breaking the law. Workers couldn’t take their bosses to court for failing to pay back wages. I see this again and again in the developing countries I go to for work: Institutions are there on paper, but absent in practice.

Another little point that that didn’t make it into the article:

Sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either. One of the reasons India’s garment sector is so informal, so exploitative, is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. In China, it’s 15 percent, boosted by government loans, grants, more than a decade of cajoling its factories to move up the value chain.

India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”

If we’re going to solve sweatshops, we need to consider why they are there, why they endure. We need to stop trying to vote with our wallets, and start voting with our votes.

Thanks to everyone I interviewed for this article! All of the ideas in it, especially the smart ones, are not mine, they’re all taken from the work of researchers and inspectors and CSR folks who have thought about and done this a lot longer than I have. I’m gonna write some follow-up posts highlighting their work.

Also, I have the best editors. As you can tell from the un-edited snips above, I need them!

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

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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Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious

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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Filed under Personal

Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition

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There’s this parable that economists always tell.

Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.

‘That’ll be $100,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s $1,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s $99.’

Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.

Here’s what we know so far:

In 2012, Zakaria blatantly yoinked a Jill Lepore (love her!) paragraph in an article he wrote about gun control. He got busted and he apologized.

Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.

Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.

Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:

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He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.

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Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).

So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.

Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software

The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.

Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.

But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.

The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:

Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”

Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.

I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.

All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.

Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.

When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.

Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.

That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.

I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’

Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.

Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh

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Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious

‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’

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That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.

 

photo by the wonderful Guy Billout

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Filed under America, Essays, Personal, Serious, Work

I’m Animating Now!

I watch a lot of explainer videos online and I enjoy them and I decided that this summer I would try making one. Here’s my first attempt, on the history of the European flag:

The main thing I took away from this process is that this shit is so fun. Learning new software is like learning a new language, only without any of the rote memorization. There’s a weird thrill in making something like this that feels like discovery, and I sort of get why nerds talk about computer programming as a kind of literacy.

Making a computer do what you want it to requires a totally different way of thinking that you’re used to deploying in real life. People respond to what you mean, not necessarily what you say. They fill in the blanks, they remember past conversations you had, they draw upon their knowledge of who you are to understand the message you’re trying to convey. Computers are simultaneously very smart and very stupid, and they do exactly what you tell them to. Learning how to tell a computer something—I want an object. I want it to be blue. I want it to move across the screen.—is like learning how to wiggle a giant key into a little tiny lock, and that’s what makes it both invigorating and infuriating.

I’m not totally happy with the final result. The voiceover sounds janky, it goes too fast and there are some sections that are utterly unintelligible. If you work with After Effects or Audacity or Illustrator and can give me any comments on how to improve for my next try, I’d (seriously!) really appreciate it. But if you just want to watch a somewhat entertaining, occasionally baffling eight-minute video on the origins of the European flag—have at it.

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I’m in the New Republic Again!

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This time talking a bit more about my trip to Dhaka:

I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.

Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.

This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.

Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.

It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050.

Of the 23 “megacities” identified by the United Nations, only five are in high-income countries, places with the infrastructure (physical, political, economic, you name it) to deal with the increasing queues of cars snarling up the roads. Mexico City adds two cars to its roads for every person it adds to its population. In India, the ratio is three to one.

Dhaka, the world’s densest and fastest-growing city by some measures, and its twentieth-largest by population, is a case study in how this problem got so bad—and why it’s so difficult to solve.

I realize that it’s problematic for a rich white foreigner to visit somewhere for a short period of time, then come back and start making sweeping generalizations about it. I hope this doesn’t come off gawking, like ‘look how fucked up poor countries are!’

I’m amazed when I travel for work how not-different the problems of developing countries are from our own, how the solutions we propose for their cities (‘build more roads y’all!’) would be considered simplistic and utopian in our own. I hope a little of that comes through. Or at least that I conveyed how incredible the traffic in Dhaka is. Because that shit is bonkers.

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Is It Even Fair to Compare AIDS Between Countries?

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The methodology section got cut from my New Republic article, so I pulled it out into its own little blog post.

The first thing you notice about HIV statistics is how slippery they are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS surveillance says there were 46,268 diagnoses of HIV in 2010. The online Atlas provided by the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS says there were 46,043.

It’s the same in Europe. Each country reports its own HIV statistics independently, then they’re gathered and re-reported by the European Centers for Disease Control. The Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s equivalent of the CDC) says 3,034 people were infected with HIV in Germany in 2008. The ECDC says it was 2,850.

Last year at the Smithsonian, I saw this documentary on exoplanets. Rocks in other solar systems don’t emit light, so the only way we can detect them is their tiny pull on the light waves coming from faraway stars. I was—am!—totally stunned at how we can see something so remote, so invisible, with our meager little tools on our provincial little planet.

I had a bit of the same are you fucking kidding me wonder talking to scientists about how they track the AIDS virus, and I could have easily gone another like 2,000 words on methodology alone. Public health is one of those achievements of modern civilization that gets (deserved) credit for stuff like eradicating smallpox and preventing cholera, but we should also give snaps to all the work that goes into just tracking and reporting diseases, just knowing what’s out there.

The data isn’t always available for every country, and it’s not perfectly comparable across them, but I’m glad someone out there is looking at all these little points of light, waiting for one of them to wobble.

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What Did We Learn from the Whole Donald Sterling Thing?

 

There’s this old friend of mine from Seattle who only contacts me like three times a year. Not to say how she is or to ask what I’m up to or to show me her pregnant selfies or whatever, but to tell me what I should be mad about. ‘A state senator compared homosexuality to alcoholism!’ ‘A soccer star told a journalist he doesn’t want his son to grow up gay!’ ‘A sitcom star established a foundation to defend same-sex marriage!’

They’re always like this, variations on ‘someone you’ve never heard of has beliefs you don’t agree with’, and I never know how to respond. I think I’m the only gay person she knows, and she’s sending me these dispatches in a spirit of solidarity and lets-make-it-betterness. But what should I actually do with this information? I guess I could boycott the companies or the states or the sitcoms where these un-agreed-with beliefs are coming from, but … I dunno, do I have to? It seems like kind of a big commitment to only buy stuff from people whose social beliefs I agree with. Do I have to like ask the guy who brews my flat white how he feels about transgender pronouns?

Which is why I don’t really know how I feel about the whole Donald Sterling episode. Obviously about the man himself I feel sheesh what a dick. But I’m still sort of amazed at how much time and energy we all spent reacting to this one guy’s dickishness. Now that some of the foam has subsided, I’ve decided that I think the following things:

  • These episodes have a cycle to them, and this one has basically ended, but let’s take a second to remember just how big a deal this was for like two weeks there. In Zimbabwe I was watching CNN International in my hotel room and they interrupted some documentary on African entrepreneurs to go live to the NBA Commissioner’s press conference.
  • We all know this is how the media works; I’m not going to pretend to be all shock-horror that we don’t subsist on a news diet exclusively composed of kidnapped Nigerian girls and Syrian civil war victims. Maybe we should be focusing more on instances of racism in our own country, maybe this is how it gets solved, I don’t know.
  • But man, in the eye of the shitstorm, it was hard not to notice that Sterling got away with being racist for decades (denying housing to black people, treating his black employees terribly). We only went for our torches and pitchforks when he said something racist. I’m all for witch-hunts when prominent figures use their influence nefariously, but we need ways to find better witches.
  • There’s also this weird thing where the shitty stuff he said wasn’t at a podium or some Rich People Event or in his official capacity as a sports owner or businessman, but in a private conversation, with his girlfriend, when he had no idea he was being recorded. I don’t want to be all ‘Sterling is the real victim here!’ Like I said, the dude sucks. But we are rocketing toward a society where we have the technology to record each other all the time, and we need to take brace positions for that shit.
  • I was talking to a friend of mine the the other day who works at a speech recognition software company. I asked him how long it will be until our phones can record every conversation we have all day and send us a transcript every night, with stats about our word use, suggestions for follow-ups (‘John said he’s starting a new job on Monday. Ask him how it went!’), calendar reminders; Her without the romance. He said about two years.
  • That’s probably optimistic, but I, as a person, am not ready for a society in which I’m being recorded all the time, where everything I say out loud becomes a searchable, Dewey decimaled record of my opinions and commitments. I don’t know that we, as a society, are either.
  • But back to Sterling. Obviously what he said and thinks and did regarding race is deeply wrong. But even before this imagined panopticon future comes to pass, maybe we should think about what we do with and during these little outrage cycles. Twitter already feels like it’s about 50 percent ‘here is something you should be offended by!’ There are a million Donald Sterlings in the world. The next time some CEO announces or tweets or tells his girlfriend something we find repugnant, how much time should we spend chasing it down? What is a proportionate punishment for these statements and beliefs? Are the -isms the only sins for which we should demand penance? If Justin Bieber tells his Facebook followers tomorrow that he opposes the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, is that an unfollowable offense?
  • Look, I am a member of a secular liberal society. I like our values, I think they are worth defending, I think people should be shamed and fired and lose business for violating them. I also, however, like my time and my energy and my attention, and sometimes I want to save them for things that make me happy. I am glad that someone is calling out Donald Sterling and Rush Limbaugh and that lady who made that mean joke on Twitter, but I’m not convinced that it needs to be me, that I have to jump into the pig pile whenever I hear something that, if a friend said it, they wouldn’t be anymore.
  • Maybe that makes me part of the problem. Maybe failing to participate in the internet’s perpetual Intolerance Watch means that I am myself intolerant. Maybe I should be the next one pilloried on Twitter. Maybe I deserve it.

Last week, two friends of mine were turned down for an apartment in Berlin because they’re gay. ‘I’m a family man’, the owner told them, ‘and I want to sell my apartment to someone who will start a family there.’

This is obviously bullshit on a number of levels, least of which the fact that they’re actually starting adoption proceedings as soon as they buy an apartment.

‘Tweet that fucker’s name!’ I said, livid.

‘What’s the point?’ they said. ‘He’s allowed to. Homosexuality isn’t a protected ground for discrimination in services in Germany. It’s his house; he can sell it to whomever he wants. The law’s the problem, not this one guy.’

So I’m not publishing this dude’s name. But am going to tell my old friend in Seattle about it.

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Why I Show Drafts to My Sources

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I majored in journalism. I worked at the student newspaper at my community college and then my real one, then did internships at two daily newspapers. Then I gave it up, I moved to Europe, I went to grad school and I ended up working at NGOs for the next eight years.

Since 2012 I’ve been sort of doing journalism again. Nothing serious, just little essays about stupid shit I did as a teenager or a friend of mine who was briefly a prostitute. Lately I’ve been getting slightly more ambitious, writing about foreign countries I visit for work and, this one time, how HIV is way worse in the US than in Europe.

If it’s not already obvious that I’m an amateur from my essays, it certainly is from the methods by which I produce them. I interview people too long, ask them stupid questions, forget to call them ‘doctor’, bug them with too many follow-ups. And I also, the biggest sin of all, send them drafts of my essays for comments before they’re published.

This is highly un-standard operating procedure. In journalism school the rule was, you could check direct quotesi.e. the stuff in quote marks, not paraphraseswith your sources, and you could fact-check your numbers with them, but giving them actual excerpts from your story would compromise the independent, objective role of journalism.

The reasons behind this rule are obvious. Can you imagine an investigative reporter writing an exposé of a corrupt governor and checking it with him beforehand? Journalism is supposed to, like the old saying says, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Giving a source advance warning of your story, a chance to revoke their quotes or edit your conclusions before it’s published, profoundly undermines that role.

So I get why the rule exists. But not all journalism is political analysis or corruption investigations or public-figure profiles. In the last few years, the rise of ‘explainers’ (Ezra Klein, Nate Silver) and the general trend toward narrative-izing academic findings  (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, TED Talks) have demonstrated the utilityand the demandfor works of journalism that see their sources as collaborators rather than antagonists.

Me, I’m paralyzed-scared of getting anything factually wrong in my essays. As I mentioned the other day, for my HIV piece I read probably 150 documents and interviewed like 18 people. Many of these people and documents didn’t agree with each other, or emphasized different historical or demographic factors as the key to explaining the higher rates of HIV deaths in the United States (‘It’s the health care system!’ one of them would say. ‘The health care system doesn’t matter!’ says another ).

Weighing that up, then cinching it into a few thousand words, then trying to make it readable for people who are less obsessed with this topic than I am, there’s no way to do that without leaving some conclusions and explanations on the side of the road. The only way to make sure I got my conclusions right was to share them with the people who provided the basis on which I made them.

So I sent my essay to six of my sources. Everyone got back to me. All of them had comments and corrections, all of them were reasonable, and all of their changes got included in the essay before it ran.

Most of the corrections were related to terminology. ‘Your story says there were 15,500 people diagnosed with HIV in 2010,’ one of my sources wrote. ‘What you mean is infections, not diagnoses.’ That’s actually a pretty important distinction, and the kind that traditional magazine fact-checkers might not notice.

I also let them alter their direct quotes. I was a bit nervous about this, since In journalism school they taught us that anything in quote marks is sacrosanct.  ‘I have you on tape with this exact wording,’ is what they told us to say when sources backtracked on their interviews. ‘You knew you were talking to a journalist.’

But what’s the point? Like the others, the changes in quotes they suggested were grammar and terminology and clarification, not self-preservation. One of my sources told me that when you’re on Medicaid it’s difficult to move ‘from one place to another’. She wanted me to change it to ‘from one state to another’.  Should I have stood on principle on not changing the quote? Her suggestion is more accurate than what I had originally anyway.

Knowing I was going to send a draft of my article to my sources made me write it differently, made me work harder to fairly summarize what they said. It’s possible to get all your facts and your quotes correct and your conclusions wrong; having expert eyes on the full content, the tone and the structure and the corny jokes, made me think harder about what I was actually saying, not just the numbers I was using to say it.

There’s also the issue of courtesy. Academics, authors, people who work at AIDS clinics, they’re busy; the ones I spoke to spent unbelievable amounts of time, one-on-one, walking me through the basics of the field in which they are experts, my own little Socratic seminar. They sent me their academic work and their data and their annual reports, knowing that I was going to quote and paraphrase them without a chaperone. I paid them nothing for this, not even the guarantee of being name-checked in my article. The least I can doas a person, if not as a journalist—is to show them in advance how I will represent them, give them a chance to correct what I got wrong or over-condensed.

I’m not arguing that every single piece of journalism should be checked with the subject of it. I was talking with a magazine editor the other day about this, and he said ‘whenever you write a profile of someone, they end up hating you. That’s how it works.’ No one wants to read a piece of propaganda, or be fed conclusions that have been vetted and authorized by the people they are concluding about. Fair enough.

But the ethical prohibition on sharing drafts of stories with sources comes from the assumed un-alignment of interests between the journalist and subject. The subject of a profile or a political story or business news has an interest in putting out a particular version of themselvesthe hero, the victim, the striver, the successful startup, whatever. The journalist has an interest in telling the truth, or at least in finding the angle that’s going to get their story read and shared and talked about.

But in the case of explainers and science journalism and (some types of) feature stories, the interests of the journalist and the subject are aligned. Both want to bring the truth to a complex subject. Both want to bring attention to a field or a finding that was previously unknown. Both want to frame the narrative in a way that will get the general public interested. The bestselling Freakonomics was written through collaboration between a journalist and an academic. The documentary Food, Inc was created with the oversight of two of the subjects (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) interviewed in it. I think that adds to the credibility of the finished works, rather than diminishing them.

I didn’t share my HIV story with all of my sources. The CDC, who graciously provided me with Excel after Excel of estimates and back-calculations, and was generally lovely to work with, all they got was the figures from the story and an outline of my general points. Even I’m savvy enough to know that they have interests beyond the accuracy of the story.

Sometimes I think about this old Yogi Berra quote, about his relationship to the press: ‘You shouldn’t have printed what I said. You should have printed what I meant.’  (See, this is why you shouldn’t use direct quotes from memory. I can’t find it on Google. It might not have been Berra, and was probably phrased differently. Anyway!)

I remember reading it on a 365 Dumb Quotes calendar we kept on the kitchen table as a kid. These days, it doesn’t seem so dumb.

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Filed under Journalism, Personal, Random, Serious

Why Journalism is Expensive

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Right, so I have this story in The New Republic about how and why the HIV epidemic was so much more severe in the United States than Western Europe. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just me listing the higher prevalence, incidence and death rates between countries and giving some (pretty speculative) reasons for them. Standard statistical explainer-type stuff.

Except that this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, and I spent the whole time researching and writing it absolutely stunned at how much work it was, and the bottomless amount of time it sucked out of my life for the last two months.

One thing I always knew, but didn’t like know-know, about journalism is how much time you spend just getting people to talk to you. One of the tropes of these kinds of stories is saying ‘I called up [name of incredibly prominent and busy researcher or author] to ask him about this’. If you ever listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, that’s always how they introduce their sources—‘I called up Ben Bernanke to talk about why my change gets lost in the dryer’ or whatever.

I now realize that those three words—‘I called up’—are a synonym for ‘I wrote an introductory e-mail to the media relations department describing my project and my publication, then spoke to them on the phone, then submitted a list of questions, then scheduled the call two weeks in advance, then had the call, then sent them the quotes to approve.’

And those are just the times when you get to the right person. The more typical response to one of these ‘can I talk to you about your work?’ e-mails is ‘this isn’t in my field of expertise, try my colleague’. Then the colleague goes ‘oh I actually don’t work on that anymore, try this former colleague’, but then their contact info is out of date and on and on and on.

And this is all totally understandable. Journalists have nothing whatsoever to offer their sources. People literally talk to me out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re busy, they’re doing much more important work than talking to me on my little Skype-machine. Large organizations like the WHO and the CDC have staff members divided into very specific subject areas—that’s how professional organizations work! The only one with an overview of the research on a particular topic is the department head, and he (understandably) does not feel like giving over a significant portion of his day to some random voice on the other end of the telephone.

Gmail tells me I sent 57 requests for interviews or data since February. I downloaded 170 academic articles, popular publications and NGO reports (not that I like read them all or whatever, but still). I had 18 in-person or phone interviews, lasting anywhere from 1.5 hours (thanks Dr. Sabin!) to 20 minutes (Chris Beyrer talked to me from a hotel room in Geneva at 8 in the morning, getting ready to chair a meeting at the WHO).

And that’s just the main sources. The data-hunting, the interview prep and transcription, the actual writing—you open your laptop on a Saturday morning, crack your knuckles and before you know it it’s dark outside.

I’m not saying this because I want to brag about how much work I did (on the contrary, I could—should!—have done way more), I’m saying it because these stories are all around us now, and no one seems to be making any money off of them, and one of the reasons they aren’t is because the work that goes into them is invisible.

In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal talks how, when they were making Ben-Hur, their funder almost backed out when he realized they would be shooting more than three hours of film. Film was super expensive at the time, and the funder, some George Soros type, figured, well, it’s a three-hour movie, so three hours of film ought to do it. When they told him they would need hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of film for all the extra takes, he freaked out: ‘What do you need all this film for if you’re just gonna throw it away?!’

Journalism has the same problem. What you get—4,000 words summarizing some historical and epidemiological stuff most people already know—is totally out of proportion to what it costs to make it. Part of the reason my piece was so ‘expensive’, to be fair, is that I’m an amateur. I spent days tunneling down into statistical rabbit holes that petered out, some of my interview subjects didn’t turn out to be all that relevant, I polished and re-polished sections of the article that eventually got cut. But no matter how good you are at this, a three-hour movie is always going to require more than three hours of film. 

That, the extra footage, the outtakes and the failed experiments, can be reduced, but they’ll never be eliminated. And eventually, someone will have to agree to pay for them.

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I’m in a magazine!

article_inset_hobbs_514No, like a magazine-magazine. People will be reading me during takeoff and landing and in dental offices for days, son

So I’m getting AIDS tested the other day in Berlin. I’m sitting in the waiting room and feeling like a Bad Gay, because I’ve lived here for three years and this is my first time getting tested. I’m surrounded by all these scared-straight brochures about HIV and AIDS in Germany. Prevalence rates, treatment options, prevention methods, names and addresses of support groups. “Since the start of the epidemic,” one of them says, “more than 27,000 people have died of AIDS in Germany.”

Wait, that sounds triumphantly low for a country of 80 million people. I pull out my phone and check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, which tells me that, in the United States, 636,000 people have died since the epidemic began. That’s 23 times higher than Germany, for a country with four times the population.

This makes no sense. Germany has big cities, it has gay men and sex workers and drug users, it has all the same temptations for them to be uncareful that the United States does. How could so many fewer people have died?

Maybe it’s a fluke. I visit the Public Health England website and it says 21,000 people have died of AIDS there in total. If the rates were the same as the United States, it would be 128,000.

The further down the Google-hole I go, the more mind-boggling the numbers get. Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS has claimed more people in New York City than in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined.

The next day I start asking epidemiologists about this divergence. The first thing they tell me is that it is real, even accounting for differences in methodology. Scan the columns on the stats sheets—incidence, prevalence, deaths—and you find the United States with a two-digit lead going right back to the start of the epidemic. Still now, no matter how much we’ve learned about how to prevent and treat AIDS, the United States loses more than 15,000 people to it each year. Germany and the United Kingdom lose fewer than 800.

The second thing they tell me is why.

My editor at TNR was great—cool about the fact that I’ve never done this before, patient with my rank amateurishness and constant ‘you can’t cut that no please don’t!’ tantrums. I only know one way to write a sentence (Refer to self, item list. Refer to self, item list.), and he taught me at least like two new ones. The fact-checker was super nice, too. I got a lot of stuff wrong (C. Everett Koop is with a K?), and she had a way of pointing that out that didn’t make me feel like I was an idiot. Even though I sort of am. So thanks guys!

Before I even sent it to TNR, I got comments on it from friends and family. So Ian, Nathan, Lane, Alison, Mom, Dad: Thanks for being the people who told me that it wasn’t ready for the rest of the world yet.

And most importantly, I need to thank all of the epidemiologists and researchers and authors I talked to for the story. I interviewed about 18 people, some of them for more than an hour, and everyone was, without exception, patient and gracious and charming and fascinating, and I hope I’ve done justice to the great work they put into producing the information I’m stealing and paraphrasing.

I don’t do this for a living, so being published anywhere, anyhow, is really special for me. That someone would take the time to put something I wrote on actual pages, to ensure that I get my facts and my words right, to help and hope that I get better at this, it’s  just, wow.

I’ll be posting some outtakes and further thoughts on the process and the article in the next few days. But for now, I’m going to take like six minutes to just sit here and feel super lucky that I got to do this. Then I’m going to start working on the next one.

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Thoughts About the Politics of Zimbabwe Over Pictures of Its Scenery

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I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

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I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

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Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

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But so is visiting its capital.

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I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

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Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

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Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

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The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

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In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

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Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

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The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

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There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

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I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

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He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

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You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

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And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

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I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

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‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

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‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

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‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

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‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

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Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
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This is Armenia.
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This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
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I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
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Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
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Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
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Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
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Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
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After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
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To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
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To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
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So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
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But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
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You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
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The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
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A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
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On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
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Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
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Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
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The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
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The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
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factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
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Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
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I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
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The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
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This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
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Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
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It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
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Not until I can see myself in it.

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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!

11 Comments

April 8, 2014 · 1:09 pm

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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