Category Archives: Random

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

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

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

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

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The Zone

Originally published on The Billfold

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Soren Host is waiting in line to be shaken down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soren is next in line.

‘Two dollars,’ one of the boys says.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks,’ Soren says.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They get used to seeing each other every day.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully the title of this animation sounds familiar!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m on a podcast!

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

Here’s the link, I start at 13.40…

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Follow-up to my ‘development can’t work’ story: Two ideas to make it better

Here’s a little addendum to my story in The New Republic: Two development ideas I’m (cautiously) excited about.

The more I look at development, the more I think the age of the game-changer is over. Sixty percent of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries; only 14 percent of them are in fragile of conflict-prone ones. The countries still getting aid are getting less and less of it. Charles Kenny, who wrote an entire book about how much better the developing world is now than it used to be, points out that in the 1990s, 40 percent of aid-receiving countries relied on donations for more than one-tenth of their budgets. Now, that’s below 30 percent, and dropping.

Not that we should ignore the Afghanistans and Burundis of the world, but by 2030, up to 41 countries are going to move into the middle-income bracket. Increasingly, their challenge, as ours, will be the distribution of resources, not the creation of them. The development technologies of the future aren’t going to be boreholes and school buildings. They’re going to be labor inspectors, census bureaus, government administrators, state pensions: All the boring stuff that makes our own countries function.

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The Scottish Highlands, Junk Food and Structuralism

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Couple weekends ago I was in the Scottish Highlands.
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Scotland is known, at least among me, for its unexplainably high rates of obesity and alcoholism. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was to see if the liquids and solids environment was really so extreme.
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This is basically vacation as confirmation bias. In the last 10 years I’ve become a weirdly dogmatic structuralist.
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When I moved to Europe I weighed 1.5 times as much as I do now. I lost 60 pounds my first year here and never put it back on again.
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It’s not that I magically had the willpower to eat better and exercise more. It’s that a Mountain Dew in Denmark costs four dollars, a Big Mac Extra Value Meal costs fifteen, a monthly bus pass costs — well, I never even checked. More than biking.
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Not drinking pop, learning how to cook, cycling everywhere, they weren’t signs of some new Euro-fortitude. They were just my habits adjusting to my circumstances.
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I went to a lot of grocery stores when I was in Scotland. Here’s a mini-mart in a working-class (or at least working class-looking?) neighborhood of Inverness.
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It’s what you’d expect. Shelf after shelf of worryingly cheap alcohol and snacks.
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Flanking a meagre little corner with actual groceries.
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‘Does anyone ever buy the bananas?’ I asked the manager.
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‘Nah,’ she said. ‘We usually just throw them out.’
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It wasn’t just the prices in Denmark that made me change my habits. All of my friends cooked their meals most nights, ate out reluctantly, biked everywhere. And looked amazing. Being surrounded by beautiful skyscraper Teutons, it turns out, is powerful motivation to skip seconds.
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Sometimes I wonder if constantly looking for structural explanations means I don’t believe in personal responsibility. A skinny Dane isn’t more virtuous or hardworking or sophisticated than an overweight Scot, goes my brain. He’s just choosing among the options available.
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‘If you’re fat it’s because you eat too much,’ my Danish friends would say when I brought this up. ‘Just stop eating so much. It’s that simple.’
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And it is. And it also isn’t.
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Sometimes I feel like some sort of left-wing caricature for thinking this way: it’s not your fault you’re fat, it’s your country’s fault.
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And shit, I probably am, in more ways than just this.
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But there’s being right and there’s being nice. Sometimes choosing between the available options means paying attention to one, and completely ignoring the other.

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Apartheid: The Sci-Fi Dystopia That Actually Happened

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I have no idea how much Apartheid is taught these days, but American schoolkids need to know this shit:

Black townships in ‘white’ South Africa were kept as unattractive as possible. Few urban amenities were ever provided. Black businessmen were prevented by government restrictions from expanding their enterprises there. No African was allowed to carry on more than one business. Businesses were confined to providing ‘daily essential necessities’, like wood, coal, milk, and vegetables. No banks or clothing stores or supermarkets were permitted. Restrictions were even placed on dry-cleaners, garages, and petrol stations. Nor were Africans allowed to establish companies or partnerships in urban areas, or to construct their own buildings. These had to be leased from the local authority. Black housing was rudimentary, consisting of rows of identical ‘matchbox’ houses. Only a small proportion had electricity or adequate plumbing. Overcrowding was commonplace. In Soweto, the main black urban area serving Johannesburg, the average number of people living in each ‘matchbox’ house in 1970 was thirteen.

The disadvantages under which the African population laboured in the ‘white’ economy were legion. Africans were barred by law from skilled work, from forming registered unions, and from taking strike action. In industrial disputes, armed police were often called in by white employers to deal with the workforce. If Africans lost their job, they faced the possibility of deportation. A considerable proportion of the workforce received wages which fell short of providing the costs of family subsistence: An employers’ organisation, the Associated Chambers of Commerce, calculated in 1970 that the average industrial wage was 30 per cent below the minimum monthly budget needed for a Soweto family of five.

That’s a clip from Martin Meredith’s ‘The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence‘. And above that, a photo I took when I was in South Africa for work a few years ago.

I’m not sure why I’m so interested in South Africa, why I feel so strongly that this country’s history should be known and discussed more, why this shit gives me a double-gravity feeling in my stomach unlike anywhere else.

In college I got super into this political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls’s big thing was that we should organize our societies as if we were doing so from scratch, like we couldn’t decide how or to whom we would be born into them. You might be the child of a poor Jamaican single mother or a hipster trust fund brat or an AIDS orphan. You might be tall or short or dumb or smart or have an alcoholic father or Down’s Syndrome or anger management problems. If you could enter a society with any of these challenges, goes his idea, you would design it so that they did not become your fate.

South Africa is the 20th century’s most extreme example of this principle applied in exactly the opposite way it was intended: If you were deliberately trying to disenfranchise an ethnic group, to make it impossible for them to achieve wealth or stability or well-being, how would you do it? You would start by denying them housing and medical care and political representation. You’d restrict their movement, keep them uneducated, erect un-jumpable hurdles to prosperity. You’d rig the rules so that no matter how hard they tried, they were breaking them.

By this point we’ve all read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. It’s basically a biography of all the structures, from slavery to sharecropping to segregation, that prevented African-Americans from fully participating in America’s rise to become the world’s wealthiest country.

I’m not trying to be all ‘America practiced Apartheid too!’ The circumstances in both countries are unique, and arguments based on analogies, as Coates himself has pointed out, are usually meant to inflame, not to teach.

But why I think Apartheid should be regarded as a more important benchmark in the 20th century is that these structures, the ones facilitating prosperity or preventing it, exist in every society. It’s the deliberation with which they were established, as well as their outcome, that are extreme in the South African case, but every country’s state apparatus falls along the same spectrum, whether we admit it or not. I feel like Coates’s article, academic books like Why Nations Fail (with its talk of ‘extractive institutions’) and even problematic gen-pop shit like ‘check your privilege’ hashtags, represent a growing acknowledgement that this is the case.

One of the reasons we watch science fiction is to watch our societies exaggerated back at us. Sometimes we can do that without having to make anything up.

 

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I’m on NPR!

Today I’m on NPR’s ‘Snap Judgment’ talking about the time my co-worker died and what it did to our workplace afterwards.

I wrote about it for The Billfold last year, and someone at NPR saw it and they asked me if I could convert it into a monologue and I don’t really know what that means and so I read what I wrote into a microphone and now it’s on the radio. (And, um, no that’s not me in the photo.)

These are what I learned and think about this experience:

Recording takes ages. The 10 or so minutes you hear on the podcast took four and a half hours to record. I stood in a phone-booth-size room lined with padding and read my script into a microphone over and over and over. I did it sitting, standing, far from the microphone, close to it, loud, whispering, everything. Whenever my stomach gargled or I scratched myself or my shoelace-nub dragged along the floor, we had to redo the line because the mic picked it up.

Acting is hella hard, you guys. Every time I finished reading the script out loud, I got notes from the producer: ‘Do it again, but this time act like it’s really funny.’ ‘We need you to sound numb, but also in the moment.’ ‘Try it as Edward Norton in Fight Club.’

It’s super hard to keep all this in mind while still remembering to read at about 65 percent of your normal speaking speed, sticking word-for-word to your script and standing absolutely still so the microphone can’t hear any of your rustles.

So yeah, most of the reason it took so long was my rank amateurishness. ‘Can’t you guys fix this with Auto-Tune?’ I kept asking. And this was a script that I wrote. Describing something that actually happened to me. If I had this much trouble making it sound convincing, how are there people who can inhabit shit like ‘If I bleat when I speak, it’s because I’ve just been fleeced‘ or ‘They run as if the very whips of their masters are behind them‘?

I am not sure I should have done this. Writing is, by definition, at a distance from its subjects. Even in present tense, it’s still told by an omnipotent narrator, still filtered through one person’s voice and perspective.

Speaking something out loud is different: You have to decide how you’re going to sound when you describe something, not just the words you use. You have to give a voice, an actual voice, to all of your characters. They can sound like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless or they can be Condoleezza Rice, it’s up to you.

When I wrote this, I thought it was a story about how much of an asshole I am (everything I write is at least 60 percent that). How I tried to make my coworker’s death about me, how I failed to form any connection with my colleagues afterwards, how I let a chance for personal connection go by.

Reading it out loud, speaking about and as the people who were there, I’m afraid it becomes a story about how I’m less of an asshole than they were. That is unfair. And listening to it now, I fear I am not a good enough writer or speaker to have made it not that.

Ironic detachment is easy. I genuinely struggle with this. I don’t mean as a writer, but like as a colleague and a friend and a person. It’s easy to be numb, remote, to hide behind sarcasm, to deadpan the details. It’s harder to try. To make people real. To assume the best of them. To refrain from comparing my insides to their outsides.

I don’t know, I’ve been reading a lot of Gabe Delahaye lately. He has this post from a few weeks ago about the New York Times article where they interviewed people who spotted Philip Seymour Hoffman in the days before his death. Not friends or family, just random people who saw him at a restaurant or Starbucks or whatever. The whole story is just quotes from these people about how haggard and tired he looked.

OH DID IT? DID A HEROIN ADDICT’S SKIN LOOK BAD IN THE DAYS BEFORE HE OVERDOSED ON HEROIN?

[…]

If I have a point—and I am not sure that I do—it is that we do not have to give a quote to the New York Times just because they asked us for a quote. We do not have to write a Tweet just because we are waiting in line for the bathroom. We can spend entire days in silence if we so choose. You can keep your mouth shut. It is possible.

Standing still, reading your own words over and over again into a microphone, it makes you think about how you’re saying them. Once it’s finished,  once you’ve decided, you’re left with the question of why.

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The Story You Should Read Before You Donate to International Development

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On September 24, 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah that he was donating $100 million to the Newark Public School system. Zuckerberg wasn’t from Newark, he had no particular connection to the city. But he had become convinced—by the city’s great need, as well as its charismatic mayor—that his donation could have real impact there.

Schooled’, Dale Russakoff’s brilliant New Yorker story, describes what happened next:

More than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day.

I’ve been working in international development for eight years now. It took me at least the first two to realize that money is not enough. Newark had a huge donation, passionate leaders, engaged parents, principals begging for more autonomy, teachers willing to compromise, a whole nation of expertise to draw from. And yet the reform effort stalled.

Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson [the district superintendent] announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”

School employees’ unions, community leaders, and parents decried the budget cuts, the layoffs, and the announcement of more school closings. Anderson’s management style didn’t help. At the annual budget hearing, when the school advisory board pressed for details about which positions and services were being eliminated in schools, her representatives said the information wasn’t available. Anderson’s budget underestimated the cost of the redundant teachers by half.

The board voted down her budget and soon afterward gave a vote of no confidence—unanimously, in both cases, but without effect, given their advisory status.

You can read this as a story of city leaders trying to circumvent basic principles of democracy and public participation to implement their own technocratic regime. Or you can read it as a story of entrenched interests protecting their own jobs and salaries and ideologies at the expense of educating children. Either way, it should make all of us careful about these sort of one-big-push reforms, the idea that all it takes to fix a broken system is a big fat stimulus and the political will for a reboot.

It’s not fair to blame Anderson or Zuckerberg or Cory Booker or Chris Christie. Laughing at their failure is understandable, our first instinct, but it’s only useful if it’s our first step toward learning from it. It sounds as if everyone involved—the teachers, the principals, the parents, the money—was genuinely dedicated to fixing the schools. It is depressing that all that, still, wasn’t enough.

Depressinger still is that this is a story that takes place in a developed country, with a functioning government, with the background already painted onto the canvas. If we can’t fix our own failing schools, what chance do we have of fixing them in countries without all that?

I haven’t spent enough time in developing countries to know them like I know my own, but what I’ve seen so far is that every society, rich and poor, contains intolerable failures, has already marshaled its own forces to fix and defend them. I do not know what it is that they need to solve their problems, but I fear it may be more than what we can offer.

One idea—microfinance, child sponsorship, LifeStraw, GiveDirectly—is not going to solve the problems of Zimbabwe or Peru or Papua New Guinea or any more than $100 million is going to solve the problems of the Newark public school system. I don’t want to say that international development doesn’t need your money, because it does. But more than that, it needs your patience.

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