artist's rendering of earthquake

Shake and Bake

The editors at California Magazine asked me to look into the possible effects of a major earthquake on the Bay Area. It’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and have written about previously. Just about every region carries the risk of getting caught up in a disaster, natural or otherwise, that could quickly spiral out of our control. We should all do a better job of preparing for them.

journalism, science

What It Takes To Write About Science: A Lehrer Lesson

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.

That, from a scientist. And another obvious conclusion, from a journalist:

This is what happens when journalists major in neuroscience instead of #journalism.

So, that’s settled.

ideas, journalism

Why Slate’s article on toilet squatting reminds me of the imprisoned Shane Bauer.

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.

journalism, language

Is there anything you can say when quoted while eating a truffle-flavored French fry that does not make you sound like a jerk?

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?


  • “I’m as devastated as you are by what I’ve seen here today,” said BP’s Tony Haywood, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “I feel your pain,” said Bill Clinton, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” said John Lennon, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco,” said Sarah Palin, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die,” said Ted Kennedy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” said George W. Bush, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,”’ said Mary McCarthy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before,” said Tiger Woods, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum which is what I am,” said Terry Malloy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American,” said Richard Nixon, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” said Scarlett O’Hara, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Please, sir, I want some more,” said Oliver Twist, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.


anticipation, journalism

Changing Wheels: More multimedia journalism very quickly

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.

Changing wheels on train car at Mongolia-China border. Photo by Nathan Messer.
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?


  • I’m not saying everyone needs to take the KDMC workshop. But I do believe that editors are going to have to expand their sensibilities and come to a better understanding of timing. It’s one thing to rewrite a section at the last minute, another to re-edit an audio story or re-cut narration at the same time. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen. In individual fields—a radio station, a design firm, a news broadcast—they might be able to do handle that element easily. But here it’s a question of timing the tides so that all boats rise together.
  • The general manager of FOLIO magazine, Tony Silber, has a 2010 prediction: “Staff sizes will rebound as managers realize that staffs designed for print can’t do print and a whole host of new initiatives on top of that, at least not effectively.” I agree about the second part, but we’ll see about the first, whether media organizations will invest in more people for regular production. (Incidentally, in that same feature, Bob Cohn, at the Atlantic, makes a hesitant case for collaboration, an issue that desperately needs addressing at another time.)
  • If all this tablet stuff works out, expect a resurgence in Flash. Some people are very anti-Flash. If you have the option of using Flash or not, often people will advise against it. It’s long been a kind of black box for metrics and contents aren’t picked up by search engines. But we can hope for innovations on that front, because it sounds like these tablet apps will be built in Adobe AIR, which a contact at Adobe says ought to be known simply as Flash for the desktop. (Tweetdeck, if you use that, is an AIR app.)
  • Why hasn’t more of this type of stuff been done already? While the physical engagement of a tablet and the user experience will be new, especially in terms of getting around some HTML design constraints, many of the component features won’t: video, Flash, etc. I guess the tablet has finally spurred media outlets to seriously think about enriching their online arms. Please send me examples of outlets that currently make good use of multimedia, if you have them (other than the New York Times).
  • And as tablet anticipation goes up, Jack Shafer at Slate inevitably bats it down.
  • Disclosure: I have a freelance relationship with Wired Magazine, another of the expected tablet publications. My views in no way represent those of Wired or Condé Nast, and are not informed by any special insight as a result of that relationship. I have no knowledge of what any publishing groups with tablet plans are doing beyond what they have publicly announced.
  • I still believe text and informational graphics are the most efficient mode of communication for media producers and consumers. Just thought I’d throw that in. That’s like the number one thing for people jumping into multimedia to remember. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to tell a story. Otherwise we’d never see photo essays.
  • BONUS: For some mind-numbing fun, see the CIA’s thorough list of how much rail each country has and what size gauges they use.
Asia, China, journalism

Beijing Umbrella

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.

journalism, San Francisco

Matthews calls it.

Not the primary. Chris Matthews on why San Francisco isn’t a newspaper town:

“It looks like an Eastern city,” he says. “But it’s pretty hard for people to read newspapers when they’re riding a bike.”

From last Sunday’s Times Magazine profile of Matthews. One of the funnier pieces of reporting I’ve read in any magazine. Mark Leibovich does great work.