irony, journalism

You should check it out.

An exchange I spotted this morning on Twitter:

Good luck finding a copy.

Spotted this morning on Twitter:

Storified by Tim Lesle · Wed, Aug 15 2012 18:38:28

The best ideas come to me when I’m in the showerLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E there’s science behind this.G Ryin G
@GRyin for real? Cause that’s when I think the mostLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E this author, Jonah Lehrer explains it it his book "Imagine: How Creativity Works". you should check it out.G Ryin G
@GRyin yeah I am just cause u said that cause I never think of nothing super dope unless I’m in the showerLIL E

Good luck finding a copy. Jonah Lehrer’s book seems not exactly available. I suppose you could get it at your library, but it might be a while. At my library, at least, there are 50 holds on it.

screenshot showing there are 50 holds on the Imagine book according to the San Francisco library website

And while the media are aflutter over Lehrer and his fact problems, how long does that story take to spread into the wider population? Does it?

In any case, I don’t think the shower point has been discredited.

anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.

environment, irony

The McDonough Reappraisal

Conversations I’ve had about my work on the Huangbaiyu story almost always include a moment of surprise. In a conversation with a Los Angeles Times technology reporter last winter, for example, I explained the story of the failed attempt to create an eco-village in rural China, and the reporter interrupted me: “Have you ever heard of Bill McDonough? He’s got a lot of really good ideas.”

I explained to her that it was McDonough who inspired and led the effort, putting his name, his philosophy, and his staff to work on the project. She was surprised. It usually takes people a couple of seconds to work through the cognitive dissonance between all the star-studded adulation that surrounds McDonough and the reality that the Huangbaiyu project, at least, is a failure by its own standards.

A couple of months after publishing the piece, I was contacted by Fast Company about working on something related. There was some contractual stuff with Dwell that kept me from moving on this, but staff writer Danielle Sacks went ahead. And she did a remarkable job.

In the new Fast Company, you can read her take-down of McDonough, a sometimes sympathetic corrective to the perception of how he works and what it is, exactly, that he does. The section on Huangbaiyu is a point-by-point reiteration of my report, which was greatly informed by Shannon May’s research. Since this is my own humble blog, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that I’m the one who discovered that Huangbaiyu had been scrubbed from McDonough’s site, one of the fruits of my investigation. [Update: Shannon and I each discovered this independently.]

It should be noted that I had a few conversations about my story in which the people with whom I talked expressed no surprise whatsoever that the project failed, or that McDonough was involved. As a result, I had been keeping tabs on some of McDonough’s questionable endeavors, and a couple made it into her piece. The story is called Green Guru Gone Wrong.

irony, politics

The Oswald Cobblepot School of Debate

A forward link landed in my e-mail yesterday. It led me to a 13-second lark trying to portray John McCain as Oswald C. Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, from Batman. You can see it here:

The Penguin is surely one of the more entertaining Batman villains–my favorite, if we’re working from the 1960s television series, where he showcased the talent of Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith, sneering behind that cigarette holder, was right on with his swaggering greed, the casual entitlement papering over the insecurities of a truly desperate character. (All the showcase villains from that show were surprisingly good: Frank Gorshin/Riddler, Eartha Kitt/Catwoman, Cesar Romero/Joker.)

The modern iteration of the Penguin in today’s politics has been identified by John Stewart, for the last few years, as Dick Cheney, whose mimicked utterances Stewart punctuates with the occasional side-of-mouth squawk. But the McCain parallel drawn above put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate another bit of Penguin scenery chewing. This video, posted on Marc Ambinder’s worthy politics blog, hits the right notes for the current campaign’s meta-narrative.

Anyway. Watch and learn:

China, environment, irony

Olympics Preview in Bay Area

Here’s my backyard on Thursday morning.

my backyard june 26, 2008

The roses are blooming. There’s a nice, warm light here. But what is it about this air that’s so familiar?

Take a look at the government’s air forecast map for this weekend:
air quality prediction for united states on june 28, 2008

California doesn’t look too good. All those little fire icons are making the air here “moderate,” at best, “very unhealthy,” at worst.

There are more than a thousand wildfires burning in California, and they are filling the place up with smoke. The smoke makes the light flattering, in its way, diffusing sunlight during the high contrast afternoon hours and making the magic hour light at sunset and sunrise even more attractive. The roses look better than ever.

There is a trade-off, I suppose. The regional air quality management agency is warning us not to do anything outside (here’s a PDF of its latest health advisory). People have irritated eyes and throats. That’s familiar, too.

The air these days seems as bad as Beijing’s. That’s what I’m reminded of. I hope to get back to China, soon. Until then, I guess we’ve got a taste of China here.

Our athletes should consider training out here in California, just to see how they might perform in Beijing. We’ve got an atmospheric preview of what many expect in August, and you don’t even have to cross the Pacific.

If the air quality board is still concerned for our health, they might consider contacting Beijing’s Weather Modification Office for advice.

A couple of blogs help to put Chinese air pollution in context relative to the U.S. and other countries. The Beijing Air Blog notes that air quality indices in China and the U.S. are roughly the same, numerically, but are not categorized similarly on a qualitative level (I’m looking for the SEPA standards to confirm). For example, unhealthy air in the U.S. is “lightly polluted” in China. Another site,, with the charming tagline “living in China despite the pollution,” displays Beijing’s air quality in the header, and you can click a menu to see how that would rate in other cities. A Good air day in Beijing still counts as a Very Bad day in Paris.

I’ve seen a lot of blue skies in China. Maybe I simply noticed them more since my expectations were so grim. During my last couple of days in Beijing in August, everyone noted that we were enjoying unusually clear weather. Driving through Shanxi, full of coal mines and power plants, the gray-blue skies could be oppressive, but one of the locals told us that air quality had improved a great deal over the last five years. The sky, he said, used to be black.

I remember my first few moments in Beijing: the acrid smell and the view, composed mainly of my plane and the soupy gray-brown air that blocked out everything else. It looked like this:

view of air pollution at Beijing airport

China, geography, history, international, irony, really?

A little torch history.

I’ve been throwing ideas around lately to all kinds of people. They haven’t stuck, which is too bad. But one of them was to look at the history of the torch relay after reports that the IOC and Britain may forgo the tradition in the runup to the 2012 games. I kind of knew the answer to the question about how the modern torch relay started, but the LA Times editorial page beat me to it:

The Olympic torch relay was invented by the Nazis. According to historians, Adolf Hitler wanted to promote his belief in an Aryan master race by symbolically linking the 1936 Berlin Games to the ancient Greek gods and rituals, hence the carrying of the flame from Olympia to Germany. The first relay was chronicled on film by Hitler’s propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl.

We bring you this brief history lesson because, as the Olympic torch makes its only North American appearance today in San Francisco, it will be met by thousands of protesters decrying China’s human rights record. In response to similar demonstrations Monday in Paris, the Chinese government complained that a “small group” of Tibetan activists was seeking to politicize an event that should have been a tribute to the love of sport.

Nonsense. From its very beginning, the torch relay has been deeply political, a promotional extravaganza for the Games’ host country. Chinese officials are well aware of this, having designed the longest relay in Olympic history — an 85,000-mile, six-continent tour, meant to highlight China’s vast economic and political might. The protests are a welcome reminder to Beijing that it can’t tailor public opinion in the rest of the world the way it can at home.

Asia, international, irony, journalism, photography

Lost Boyz, Cambodia

Straight Refugeez 21

Photojournalist Stuart Isett will be speaking at Berkeley with author Navy Phim next Monday. Isett has been documenting the lives of young Cambodian men who came to the United States as refugee children, did not officially become citizens, and now are being deported.

Isett does good work; you can see some of it at his web site or his Flickr page.

Last spring he did a good audio slideshow on the palaces of Calcutta for the Times.

Monday, February 4, 2008
4:30 p.m.
IEAS Conference Room, 6F
2223 Fulton St., Berkeley CA 94720

anticipation, dissipation, education, irony, journalism, politics, really?, ridiculousness, unfortunate

Instant Void: When it comes to the Journalism School’s Dean, you’ve got questions, but we’ve got no answers

Wrote this on Tuesday:
John Peabody has a nice rundown of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s meeting on the surprise withdrawal of Dianne Lynch as incoming dean. She is, and will remain, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. To recap: Lynch was the favorite candidate among the finalists for the job to succeed Orville Schell. She withdrew late in the game. Provost George Breslauer discussed her reasons for withdrawing with her and convinced her to accept the position in May. Breslauer and the search committee got the UC Regents to approve what they felt was a generous compensation package and official appointment in the summer. Then they started the faculty review. Breslauer said they waited until they could be sure the money was in place before they initiated the review. And then she withdrew, again, last week, about two months before she was set to start, about 5 months after she accepted the job.

Breslauer, along with Vice Provost Shelly Zedeck, and interim dean and professor Neil Henry, a former Washington Post reporter, met with students, faculty, and staff for about 40 minutes Monday evening.

The meeting, according to an e-mail from Henry, was “to discuss the withdrawal and the school’s immediate future with the full school community.”

The discussion of the withdrawal consisted mainly of variations of the phrase, We can’t tell you what happened.

The school’s immediate future was never substantially addressed either. Professor Cynthia Gorney got Breslauer to confirm that program funding would continue, though how much, for how long, and for what was not completely clear. But there’s a promise. In any case, in the same e-mail that Henry sent informing us of the meeting, Henry wrote: “With much School planning and decision-making on hold in recent months pending Dianne’s arrival, I will now move to secure university financial support for various curricular and program initiatives during our continuing transition.” So no surprises there.

There were a handful of notable moments in the meeting, including Henry’s admonition that we should not be curious about rumors, nor should we ask questions about confidential information. Sometimes a person will kick away the dirt to reveal the bright shining line that exists between journalism and bureaucracy.

But all of this secrecy and uproar may have a more pernicious effect. Granted, Breslauer, et al., are bound by the University’s rules of confidentiality related to personnel matters, and thus can not tell us what happened. But Breslauer was careful in describing the timeline of this process (which I summed up above). And he noted that it was during the faculty review process, when materials presumably relating to a candidate’s professional history, are scrutinized by faculty, that she withdrew.

And that’s where the questions start pouring in.

Look at it this way. If one went through the process of getting a high profile job in one’s field, only to withdraw during the professional evaluation–when people are examining your work, maybe calling up a few old colleagues–the casual onlooker might then wonder if something unpleasant was discovered. If it were enough to disqualify someone from being a dean at Berkeley, one might wonder if it might be enough to disqualify that person from being dean anywhere. Yet due to the confidentiality surrounding personnel matters, that other school might not be similarly informed. (Or it might not have seen a problem where others did.) Meanwhile, the reputation of an accomplished administrator and new-media star hangs in the balance.

That’s the uncomfortable situation that Lynch is in, and since there is a void of substantial information, rumors and assertions rush to fill it.

Worse, it may all be the result of bad timing. So Lynch withdrew during the review phase rather than the salary phase. Her motivation may have had nothing at all to do with the review. But because it happened during her professional review, it’s difficult to shake the implication of impropriety. And that, inevitably, is where many questions are headed.

But wait: What if Lynch’s withdrawal didn’t have anything to do with her record? Why withdraw then? Family, yes, which is what she’s told us. (When Karl Rove resigned, citing family reasons, Sara Schaefer Munoz mused about the popularity of the family reasons reason on the Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle blog.)

Could it be the Journalism School, itself? Possibly. Over the course of this whole dean search, a fair amount of dirty laundry has been aired, most of it having to do with the usual departmental politics endemic to any academic institution, though some of it has to do with the nature of journalism and journalism training. If you had a good thing going at your current job, and saw that the new job was rife with vitriolic, internecine feuding, maybe little Ithaca College isn’t so bad, after all. Why leave upstate New York, four seasons, reasonable cost of living, for the big time at Berkeley, if that means trading it all in for a two-season, earthquake-prone den of dysfunction?

Or maybe it’s something else. But I guess that’s the point here.

As long as the confidentiality rules hold, then both sides are technically protected from any potential revelations that they’d just as soon keep hidden. But in the process, both sides risk losing face.

irony, politics, really?

Questioning the Answer

So, two days ago. The Senate Judiciary Committee called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in to answer more questions about things like

  • firing federal prosecutors, for hard-to-explain reasons;
  • just what was happening when then-White House Counsel Gonzalez and former Chief of Staff Andrew Card tried to get a bed-ridden and sedated Attorney General Ashcroft to sign off on the domestic surveillance program; and,
  • why he is still attorney general.

A sample exchange:
Senator Chuck Schumer: Did the president ask you to go to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed?

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: We were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Schumer: I didn’t ask you that. Did the president ask you to go?

Gonzales: Senator, we were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Schumer: Why can’t you answer that question?

Gonzales: That’s the answer that I can give you, senator.

If you asked me, When were you born?, could I get away with saying, On a day
in a year?

Technically, that is true. And, technically, it is an answer. But, really.

Could I get away with saying that under oath? How about under oath while on a witness stand or testifying in front of Congress?

irony, politics

Eighteen Years, Eighteen Years


Joe Lieberman got his political start in the anti-Vietnam-War movement; and now he is a target of the anti-Iraq-War movement. His loss in the primary prompted him to run for Senate as an independent. As part of his anti-Vietnam-War activites, in 1970 Lieberman (with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) supported the Reverend Joseph Duffey over incumbent Connecticut senator Thomas Dodd–father of the current Connecticut senator and potential presidential candidate (“It’s an itch. Could grow, could disappear.”) Christopher Dodd. The growing support for Duffey prompted the elder Dodd to drop out of the primary and run for Senate as–what else?–an independent. That year, 1970, Dodd and Duffey split the Democratic vote which helped Republican Lowell Weicker win the race. Weicker held the Senate seat for 18 years before losing it to Joe Lieberman, who may yet lose his Senate seat of 18 years.

By the way, in 1990, Weicker won the Connecticut governorship. He ran as an independent.

food, irony, journalism, money

When to Talk Elitism: The Times is great, but how’s its timing?

After I got back to San Francisco last night, I paged through the New York Times‘s list of most e-mailed articles. It’s one easy way to catch up and sort through the news after being offline and away from the papers.

I started reading Frank Bruni when he was in Italy. He’s now the principle restaurant reviewer. Here’s his article, which has moved up considerably on the list (the positions of all these articles have changed since when I took the screenshots).


I appreciate that when discussing the question of how food “should be,” one considers the possibility of elitism. But why doesn’t the question of elitism pop up in some of the other lifestyle and consumption articles on Sunday night’s list?


My question: When is it a good time to bring up the specter of elitism?

Maybe now just isn’t the time to talk about elitism when covering people busy buying Parisian pied-à-terres (one broker advises that if you’re looking at more than $1000/foot, you might as well buy in Manhattan), or how to find something to do at Lake Como (the writer dangles the prospect of seeing George Clooney shirtless), or the best ways to vacation with your pets (go with the private jet).

They are all interesting. The pet article does acknowledge the fashionably conspicuous consumption associated with its subject:

“Traveling with pets is in some ways the latest status symbol, a sign that travelers have the means to indulge themselves. Sure, anyone can load the family dog into the car and head to a beach house for a week. But checking into a hotel or resort with your pet undoubtedly carries a certain impression of affluence. Flying with a large dog means you’ve probably spent hundreds of dollars on transportation alone or, in places like Aspen, that you flew in the old-fashioned way: on a private jet.”It all has become part of the lifestyle — the whole trend of pets as accessory, ” said Joel Morales, the marketing manager of the James Hotel in Chicago.

I’m not particularly interested in piling on the Times for being elitist (those who do might be careful to differentiate between the lifestyle content and the news content). But last night I couldn’t help noticing when elitism was mentioned on the list, and when it wasn’t. Why do concerns about ethics and eating warrant a mention of potential elitism, while there is no mention of elitism in so many other articles? Perhaps the elitism is already settled there.

I should point out that the question of elitism doesn’t really crop up in Bruni’s article as much as it does in the capsule description of the article shown above–when it comes to actual food, the article gives quite a bit of space to the treatment of oysters, lobster, and geese (foie gras), which don’t usually grace the tables of most regular people, anyway. But Bruni does do a good job of highlighting the wild inconsistencies in our beliefs about how best to treat animals, given the space he has to work with.

When it comes to reporters’ interest in status and elitism, Slate‘s Tim Noah and Daniel Gross shed light on the issue. (Can we trace this interest to the 1960’s, when Clay Felker made status a subject of his New York magazine and would tell young writers he would make them famous, which he sometimes did, helping to create a generation of wealthy superstar journalists?) Noah wrote last year about journalists’ tendency to write about their summer homes and what it might say about their confused sense of equality. For example:

The offense against which I rail is not owning a summer house, but being clod enough to write about said summer house for a broad reading public that, in most instances, summers at the same address where it winters, springs, and falls.

Gross looks at the issue more directly, citing David Brooks’s “status-income disequilibrium.” He writes:

. . . .Given the types of lives many journalists wish to lead—and think they’re entitled to lead by virtue of their education and positions—the wages aren’t anywhere near sufficient.It’s ironic that much of the expanded coverage of both the Times (Thursday Styles, House & Home, Real Estate) and the Journal (the Friday weekend section, the Saturday edition) is dedicated to the sort of high-end consumption that reporters can’t really afford. As a result, there’s a nose-pressed-to-the-glass quality to much of the coverage.

So there’s a possible explanation about why elitism gets only a glancing mention in regard to these articles.

Now that we’ve figured that out, maybe the next step is not to keep asking whether the discussion is elitist (that’s like saying we need more research to determine whether global warming is happening or how to improve fuel economy: a stalling tactic), but to look at the bigger question of affordability–tackling the problem, for example, of making something like better food more available.

And so we’ll leave off with Michael Pollan, who recently wrote about Wal-Mart’s plan to bring organic to the masses (and was interviewed for Bruni’s article). He begins: “‘Elitist’ is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and ‘elitist’ has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche.” With Wal-Mart’s decision, Pollan says, “all this is about to change.”

The question is less about whether Wal-Mart will make organic food affordable–it almost assuredly will deliver on that promise or something close–but how the corporation will make it so. And the answers, Pollan writes, may be far from ideal, entailing tasks of commerce, production, delivery, and probably lobbying and regulation.

But wait: We started here by looking at self-referential elitism and end by almost jumping into a discussion of production, scalability, and influence? (I stopped myself from going further–who would read it?) Oh, complexity! Maybe I am not cut out for blogs.