Wired asked me to look into the science of J-B Weld as part of its What’s Inside series on the chemistry behind iconic, everyday products. Epoxy fun for everyone!
(Photo by the Voorhes)
Wired asked me to look into the science of J-B Weld as part of its What’s Inside series on the chemistry behind iconic, everyday products. Epoxy fun for everyone!
(Photo by the Voorhes)
Over the last 140 years, give or take, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach has been a sort of boxing ring, pitting the optimism (or hubris) of humankind against the relentless power of the ocean.
We’ve moved sand around, we’ve imported beachgrass and iceplant, laid concrete, set down boulders, dumped actual, used tombstones from a cemetery evicted to make way for development in good San Francisco fashion on the beach—all this to defend against the water as it pounded our western shore.
And, like so many other natural phenomena that kick our butts and blow up best laid plans and remind civilization that we aren’t the only forces to reckon with on this planet, climate change makes it worse. As sea levels rise, so does the pressure on those coasts, which are naturally worn away by the seas and naturally replenished by rivers and streams that deposit bits of sand and rock. Except when we disrupt that dynamic by laying down houses and asphalt and all this built environment on the natural one.
These days the latest move on the part of planners is to strike a sort of compromise with nature at Ocean Beach. You can read more in my article for California Magazine.
[Image above of men laying concrete at the Great Highway, which runs alongside Ocean Beach. June 19, 1919. From the always great OpenSFHistory (OpenSFHistory / wnp36.02175.jpg).]
The whole Jonah Lehrer thing just keeps unspooling, yielding a trove of new insights, or presumed insights, or see-how-these-details-fit-what-I’ve-said-all-along insights. Lots of insighting.
It’s sparked some soul-searching (ahem, navel-gazing) among the media about just what it means to be a noble, truth-seeking writer or reporter who focuses on science.
One obvious conclusion:
What we need are not journalists and popular writers who turn their hand to science, but scientists who turn their hand to journalism and popular writing.
This is what happens when journalists major in neuroscience instead of #journalism.
So, that’s settled.
An exchange I spotted this morning on Twitter:
Storified by Tim Lesle · Wed, Aug 15 2012 18:38:28
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.
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.
One of the interesting results of the retraction of This American Life’s Mike Daisey monologue on the Foxconn factory in China is the shoulda/coulda/woulda-ing of the press corps, particularly those who have some experience covering tech, China, and/or Mike Daisey. After hearing the original broadcast, Marketplace’s China correspondent thought some of the details were odd, and he followed up on his suspicions. Many others, it seems, did not, or were persuaded not to.
A few examples:
Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.
But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time. Even driving down the highway exit was sort of plausible. And, more seriously, I feared that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.
In my (extremely limited) experience in China, I’d have to agree that weird things do happen all the time. Within three days of arriving in China for the first time, I was standing on the edge of a new shaft at an illegal coal mine as migrant workers hauled freshly excavated rocks from it. Are illegal coal mines hard to get to? My guess is yes, probably, but my experience was, no, not exactly. At least, not that time.* I can definitely understand Osnos’s semi-suspended skepticism when he heard Daisey’s story.
In these posts, I sense a sort of wistful “one that got away” element. But maybe I’m just projecting how I’d feel were I in their position. Any other examples of Daisey Monday-morning quarterbacking? If so, let me know and I’ll include here.
[Update] Jeff Yang writes for the Journal’s Speakeasy blog about the case, and how he received links to the TAL show from dozens of people, but he was reluctant to share it because he “felt like something was…off.”
[Update #2] Time Out Shanghai interviewed Adam Minter on his skepticism about Daisey’s story. Minter was on the radio show To The Point in February (worth a listen), along with Daisey, and essentially says that the concepts underlying Daisey’s criticisms are a misunderstanding of the situation (at best). He goes on to point out some of Daisey’s inconsistency on his blog. This is the most public rebuke of Daisey’s overaching theme (if not necessarily all the details) that I’ve seen in the wake of that initial TAL broadcast.
Interesting to note that, in a post a few days ago on Minter’s blog, he quotes an email from the NYT’s David Barboza. Barboza described the inconsistencies in his story, and questions This American Life’s factchecking. He also writes, “Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.”
*It’s important to note that credit for something like this must go to the incredibly skilled Chinese journalists, and sometimes non-journalists, who often work with foreigners in China.
I’ve been reading a lot of good things about Jack Shafer. Most, it seems, can be written in fewer than 140 characters. Nothing wrong with that! Among the people I follow on Twitter, a perhaps unsurprising number of accomplished journalists have worked with—and owe significant aspects of their career to—Jack.
I haven’t worked with Jack. I barely know him. We’ve met twice, both times at an investigative journalism conference, where people hover around him in ever-tightening orbits until they get to talk with him, and I skulk around with the other young journalists waiting for our openings. I enjoyed meeting him; he’s a nice guy. It’s an odd feeling referring to him as “Jack” in a public setting like this, because that makes it sound like we’re buddies. We do follow each other on Twitter, which might have sounded like weird nonsense a few years ago, but which now means something. (I consider it a badge of honor, no matter how easy it is to hit the “follow” button; as far as I know, Jack is careful about whom he follows.)
Four people were laid off at Slate yesterday, and Jack Shafer was one of them. Shafer is good at Twitter, and the news is still bouncing around over there. It’s gotten a lot of attention among the chattering classes.
While we’re talking about layoffs, also yesterday, 20 people lost their jobs at newspapers around St Louis, and the Bay Area News Group announced 120 would be cut during an upcoming consolidation. Media is a tricky business these days.
What might might explain the widespread public reaction to the Slate layoffs are that these are journalists with a national audience whose personalities came through in their work. Mass layoffs at newspapers can still feel anonymous (unless, of course, you’re the laid-off or in their circle of friends and family). But guys like Noah and Shafer, who I’ve been reading since college more than a decade ago, bring the concept of professional instability back into sharp relief.
They’ve had an opportunity many other journalists would love to have, and I’d say they earned it. Juliette Lapidos is a sharp, efficient observer; check out her recent piece on the politics of Parks and Recreation, one of those I-wish-I’d-written-that articles. I happen to follow June Thomas on Twitter, where she has an offbeat kind of charm and seems to watch a lot of television. It was Tim Noah who got me hooked on Slate. His forthcoming book on inequality in America will surely be required reading. Though he ranges widely and seems to have had a much different background than me, reading him on topics like class and status was to be reminded of where I came from (or don’t come from). And if any one writer kept me coming back to Slate as an avid reader, it was Shafer.
Shafer has written about this sort of thing in the past. Earlier this summer, he even collected two columns‘ worth of notes from journalists who’d been fired! A couple years ago, he wrote about the wave of buyouts across media, which is now uncomfortably resonant:
The “retirement” of the buyout brigade has the added benefit of loosening the ugly stranglehold the boomers have over the press. I may be risking self-extermination by advocating wholesale boomer expulsion, but there are just too many of us—especially the older variety—in top slots for journalism’s good. The sheer weight of our presence blocks the promotion of the next generation of talented journalists to the most desirable beats.
We like our nice salaries, we enjoy our benefits and vacation time, we dig our place in the pecking order, and we expect to live forever. So why should we leave? Our intransigence not only gives our product a rancid boomer tang—who can blame nonboomers for being repulsed?—it tends to stifle innovation.
Ouch! But Classic Jack. Shafer didn’t fall into that professional groove (nor his colleagues), and his point is as easily applied to tenured professors or others who ease into a late-mid-career doldrum. I don’t think anyone, young or old, begrudged his role at Slate, except maybe Rupert Murdoch, if Murdoch deigned to notice. And as the American Journalism Review profile published yesterday points out, he writes like a much younger writer. (Aside: a favorite part of that piece is the sullen-sounding contribution from Tom Goldstein, dean of the journalism school I attended despite carefully reading Shafer’s thoughtful evaluation of j-schools.)
So I figure Jack Shafer will land on his feet. It might take some time, as these things do. He’s gotten more positive recommendations and fantasy job offers in the last day than I’ve gotten my whole life. If I had the right publication and a budget, I’d hire him. (Fantasy job offer.) Wouldn’t you? Look at the tweets where people imagine Jack’s reaction to the outpouring of online adoration, or how he should be the one to cover it, or where he should go next. It’s like people have a Jack Shafer Platonic Ideal and finally have a reason to spill it all over Twitter. I smell a fan-fiction opportunity here. Jack, capitalize on this.
And so, for whatever it’s worth, even though last night Jim Cramer tweeted the following,
Hitting the night spots in Bismarck. Shocked about Shafer, loved that guy.
— Jim Cramer (@jimcramer) August 25, 2011
I muddle on somehow and continue to refer to Shafer in the present tense.
Wait! I do have something specific to thank Jack Shafer for:
Last Sunday, as Tripoli was overrun with rebel fighters, I ruminated:
Curious what will they do with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber returned to Gaddafi's benevolent embrace.
— Tim Lesle (@telesle) August 21, 2011
Which Jack then re-tweeted (technically modify-tweeted, if you wondered what the MT meant):
MT @telesle: What will they do with Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber returned to Gaddafi's benevolent embrace.
— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) August 21, 2011
Who turns out to be Morgan Fairchild. And then she followed me. Welcome aboard, Morgan! I’m not sure how to describe what I’m feeling,* but I appreciate the follow.
And we still don’t know what will happen with al-Megrahi.
Good luck, Jack!
*Update: It’s cool! In retrospect, I think I’m just humble-bragging.
Why? Because he wrote a very similar piece a while back.
You can read it here: The Toiletization of the West
Both Shane Bauer’s and today’s piece by Daniel Lametti in Slate share many of the same ideas: the Sikirov research, the first-world/third-world toilet divide, the physiological contortions spurred by modern toiletry, and of course the perching experiment. To be fair, I don’t think you could write about this stuff without mentioning these very things, so the overlap is unsurprising. If anything, Bauer advances a decidedly post-colonial argument: the appeal of anti-natural toilet design as civilizing agent. Meanwhile, Lametti reminds us of the capitalists and their toilet entrepreneurship.
When Bauer and his friends were captured by Iran, I searched for some of his work out of curiosity, and discovered this essay.* (I knew of a few of Bauer’s projects, having met him once or twice at Berkeley, where our interest in photojournalism overlapped.) I found it strangely resonant at the time, as many people on Twitter are finding Lametti’s piece today. Maybe it revived, for me, the suppressed, culturally jarring memory of a Chinese railway bathroom lined with doorless squat stalls. Or maybe it’s just because everyone poops and is secretly fascinated by it.
*N.B. for F.C.: I’m assuming it’s the same Shane Bauer due to the mention of spending time in the Middle East; his living in California; the fact that his fellow prisoner, Josh Fattal, is listed on the About page; and the site affiliating itself with the Aprovecho Research Center in Oregon, where Fattal was once a staffer. Please let me know if it’s a different Shane Bauer.
I suspect not.
Lynn Hirschberg’s final celebrity profile for the NYT Magazine knocks the musician M.I.A. down a notch or two on the credibility scale. M.I.A., aka Maya Arulpragasam, comes across as possibly well-meaning, but also self-righteous and misguided. (And reminds us of how much we love the term “radical chic.”) Hirschberg includes little observations that, if left out of the story, would have given it a much different tone. Perhaps most-cited is the following:
“I kind of want to be an outsider,” [M.I.A.] said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
Ah, the perilous fry. So tasty, yet, as NY Mag’s Vulture blog and others have realized, shot through with the risk of unflattering revelation if eaten in the presence of Ms. Hirschberg.
How might the french-fry phrasing sound if combined with other quotes set down for posterity? Would it be so bad?
When trains cross certain borders—entering China from Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, for example—they have to stop and change wheels. The wheel assemblies, called trucks or bogies, used on trains in Mongolia (and Belarus and Kazakhstan and pretty much all of the old Russian Empire) won’t work in China. These two countries have different rail gauges: the distance between the metal tracks that the train rolls on is 1.52m in Mongolia (called Russian or broad gauge), while China uses the so-called standard gauge of 1.435m. A difference of eight-and-a-half centimeters. You could drop a Chinese train on American or Peruvian or Norwegian tracks and it should roll fine. But try going next door to Mongolia or Russia and you’ve got problems.
So if you’re going to stick with the same train, there’s nothing to be done but hoist up the cars, roll out the old wheels, and install a new set that fits the tracks.
Photo by Nathan Messer used under Creative Commons.
I’ve been thinking about that lately as the media froths in frenzied anticipation of an Apple tablet. The tablet, for which we all have high hopes, is being heralded as the latest thing to save (print) media. Surely it will change how we interact with media online, and it will no doubt provide many opportunities for innovation. But it’s all left me with a nagging question. How are we going to do it?
If these media outlets are serious about going through with this, then creating a feature-rich publication full of interactive graphics and video on a regular basis means fundamentally altering the process from story conception through reporting and into design, editing, and production. (Even more so if they want to maintain editorial standards using the same, probably reduced, staff.) It means people who’ve spent a career working in print have to figure out which combination of media work best to tell a specific story and how producing that works, shepherding the print story through the process along with, say, a video or an interactive Flash application.
For the last few years, I’ve helped teach dozens of journalists how to plan for, use, edit, and integrate multiple media (video, audio, photo, Flash, etc) at the Knight Digital Media Center at Berkeley’s journalism school. They come from news organizations wrestling with their online presence and product. Yes, participants pick up concrete skills, and some actually develop and use them when they return to their newsrooms. But what I consider the key benefit of the experience is the understanding they gain of of the relative strengths and weaknesses of specific forms and when best to use them, a kind of literacy of multimedia journalism. They learn that some things that look easy to make are actually quite hard, sometimes things that seem hard to do can be done relatively easily, and most of it takes more time than they thought. All of it useful whether they are producing it themselves, or commissioning and overseeing these kinds of projects.
When I was a geology student, the more I learned about rocks and earth systems and what goes into making the planet work, the more my perspective on the landscape changed. There was the view as I used to see it, and the view as a geologist sees it. Happens all the time, as someone develops a relationship with a set of knowledge or a craft. After the KDMC workshop, people who arrived with little or no experience could begin to figure out how a video story was shot or a radio piece was put together because they had come to understand the tools and the process.
Anyway, back to gauge breaks and bogey replacements. The media organization is the train. There’s a fixed destination (millions of adoring readers and viability, if not profit). They can see a route that will lead them there. But there’s a border where the track is interrupted. On one side, the tracks are the traditional methods that they’ve employed for years, and on the other the tracks are a different size, a larger set of responsibilities and new methods of production. Hesitate too long at the border and risk being left behind; push forward without planning and risk jumping the tracks entirely. I’m curious to see how they do it, whether they re-tool their organizations, and what it might mean for me as a freelancer. How are they going to change the wheels?
Last week, with June 4 marking the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the student protests in Tiananmen Square, Chinese officials blocked filming around Tiananmen by physically blocking shots. Below, the experience of BBC’s Beijing correspondent.
Umbrellas are one of the things I remember from Korea, Japan and China. As a boy, I think I was surprised to see people using umbrellas when it wasn’t raining. But some do use them when it’s sunny, so encountering people using umbrellas to shield themselves on a bright day at Tiananmen wouldn’t be so strange. At least, not until they turn out to be plain-clothes security agents.
Inevitably, I will post at least one of the seemingly numerous videos available of Ira Glass telling people how to tell stories. But until then, I’ll stick with the video above. It’s a clip from a Woody Allen film.
If you haven’t seen his Hannah and Her Sisters, I’m spoiling things a bit by putting it here; I think of this as the climax of that movie, though we can debate that.
But when I watched it—and, especially, heard it—I couldn’t help thinking of Ira Glass. The tone, the delivery, the tics and timing of the narration. The actual story, as told. I suspect that our Mr. Glass learned a lesson in storytelling from Mr. Allen’s films (as many others have).
In fact, the pacing and sequence reminded me of how Glass structures his stories. As Glass said in an interview conducted for Current, a public broadcasting publication:
This is the structure of the stories on our show: There’s an anecdote–a sequence of events. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the reason why that’s powerful, I think, is because there is something about the momentum, especially in a medium where you can’t see anything, especially in radio. That you just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible. You just cannot help but want to know what happens next.
Then, there’s the part of the story where I make some really big statement like there’s something about the kindness of strangers. Because you can’t just have an anecdote. It’s got to mean something. You can have people read the little story from the Bible, but unless you tell them, you know, the lesson they’re trying to draw from it, it’s not a real sermon. And radio, in particular, is a very didactic medium.
The way that we’re taught to listen to it is, I think, largely from news shows, where they’re constantly telling you: here’s what happens, here’s what it means. And so we’re used to that. And if I didn’t say, “There’s something about the kindness of strangers,” this story just would not be as satisfying.
So the way that my staff and I talk about stories is we talk about, okay, what’s the anecdote and then where’s the moment of reflection. And we structure the stories like that, over and over and over.
watch listen to that scene with Woody again.
Freeman Dyson is a global warming skeptic. This should not come as a surprise.
Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured a profile of the physicist, now in his 80s, as its cover story. He’s been ensconced at the Institute for Advanced Study for the last several decades.
I liked the piece. There are some questions, which I’ve heard a couple of editors express, about why he merited such a long profile, and the cover, no less. But that’s really a question of editorial inclinations.
The great strength of the article is the sensitive portrayal of Dyson himself. He is a character, a charming and sweet man whose life experience reads like fiction. Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote the piece, describes Dyson’s smile, and his laugh, “so hearty it shakes him,” which is absolutely true. The global warming controversy seems secondary, though I’d guess it was originally the big reason this story was picked up by the magazine. Ultimately, we have this story of a man who is happy with his life, and has always done whatever suited him, rather than whatever the establishment expected. After all, he did switch from being an Englishman to being an American, and from mathematics to physics to activism and writing.
I interviewed Dyson almost nine years ago, in April 2001. As the years pass, I keep thinking how fortunate I am that my first in-depth, sit-down interview with anyone was with him.
You can see a kind of blueprint for the magazine story in my interview, from the series of Dyson’s greatest hits of applied scientific craziness (Project Orion, the so-called Dyson sphere, major genetic re-engineering), to his deep sense of humanity and obligation to the less fortunate.
I was also introduced to Dyson’s skepticism in that interview. He criticized people who were wary of genetically modified foods. He applauded gentrification. He recounted a story about NASA’s emphasis on public relations over science. He dismissed sustainability, “because what does it mean?” As far as Dyson was concerned, “sustainability” was—and, one could contend, still is—vague enough to mean whatever its promoters want.
At the bottom of my web site, in the footer section, there is a phrase: “It is a great big world.” After my interview with Dyson, as I was about to leave, Dyson told me about flying to China, and sitting next to a boy who spent most of the trip staring out the window. At one point, the boy turned to him, and said, “It’s a great big world!.” Indeed, it is. Easy to forget.