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.

competition, journalism, television


When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear.

“Just do me one favor,” Mr. Russert said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.

animals, competition, photography

Most Viewed Photo? No Contest.

I should have seen it coming. Will Smith had about 5 months to crawl to the top of my “most viewed” list on Flickr. He did it in the course of a day. Su Lin the panda has had about 4 days so far, and she beat Will in one day. It looks like it will be tough to catch up to her (though my Flickr view numbers are modest compared to many others):

Plus, “Su Lin exploring” is my most interesting photo, according to Flickr. I’m not sure how Flickr measures interestingness, and they aren’t really telling. It’s a mystery, reminiscent of Google’s page ranking system.

But Su Lin was so interesting that she made it onto Flickr’s Interestingness Calendar on February 2 as the third most interesting photo uploaded onto Flickr that day.

journalism, movies, photography, publictransport, San Francisco

You don’t look 1981.

The following was intended to be blogged, but at the time I had no blog. The related pictures have been viewed more than any of my other, better pictures. But SFist.com linked to it, so what can you do?

September 21, 2005

I was walking to my train stop at Duboce Park this morning when a woman patrolling the entrance stopped me. “I can’t let you walk through the park.” Why not? “We’re filming a movie. It’s set in 1981. And you don’t look 1981.” So that’s it then.

I never look 1981 enough, though I try and try.

For the last several weeks, I thought San Francisco Muni was building a nice, new stop at Duboce Park, where I get on the train to work. But they built it very quickly, which is not the municipal way. And it had expensive-looking, polished granite exteriors, when we all expect plastic. And it had escalators going underground, which doesn’t make any sense, since it’s an above-ground stop. Then they put up the BART sign.

So if you’re familiar with the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system you know there is no high-speed electric train line that goes to Duboce Park.

My sources on the street (seriously) said there would be filming today, so I brought my camera. I was late for work, but it was interesting to watch. We don’t get a lot of Hollywood action like Southern California. The movie is called “Pursuit of Happyness.” The scene they were filming showed Will Smith running away from a cab, escaping into Duboce Park. Pictures are of varying quality–some second unit director or something wouldn’t let me get any closer. As usual, I didn’t pass for a Teamster, many of whom are to be seen lounging at stage right.

Hey, it’s Will Smith! Sure, you can click on that photo.
It just means Will will maintain his most-viewed domination.
Help Will crush Su Lin in the rankings, who, like China, is on the ascendant!
There can’t be more Best Actor Oscar winners in the wild than giant pandas, right? So which is really the endangered species?