Recently, I started reading a book called “Be Excellent at Anything." It’s written by the leadership of a top management consulting company, and its premise is that renewing our relationship to four “core needs” - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual - can make us higher performers at work. The authors support this philosophy, and their business, with various scientific studies and quotes.
I’m generally enjoying the book. It’s well-written and thought provoking. The ideas are worthwhile. But the way science is used in it grates me. It feels incredibly obvious that whoever researched this book went out and cherry-picked studies to support the ideas, rather than the ideas actually being based on science.
And I think it’s time we admit that when we say something that is not science-y is “scientifically proven,” we are actually saying that we have quoted enough studies to make it feel that way.
What got me thinking about this was how, early in the book (page 5, to be precise), the authors hang their hat on one piece of scientific evidence in particular. It’s a 1993 study by Anders Ericsson “designed to explore the power of deliberate practice in violinists.”
"Over the years, numerous writers, including Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling Outliers, have cited Ericsson’s study for its evidence that intrinsic talent may be overvalued.”
That sentence says to me that one of the authors read Outliers, and then thought, “That also supports my point! Put it in my book!” They use it to support not an idea about talent, as the study was designed for, but their idea that 90 minutes is the ideal amount of time for focused work. Therefore, employees should take short breaks, mental refreshers, throughout the workday. They briefly describe the study, and it immediately raised some red flags.
1. It’s a small study. Only 30 violinists participated, and they were divided into three groups of ten. That’s not a lot of data to draw vast conclusions about the way all people work.
2. The groups were not equal. The first group was selected from violinists that professors thought were destined to be soloists, the second group were thought to be good enough to win a place in a professional orchestra, but not showcased, and the third were taken from the music education department, destined to never play professionally. Then they were judged by how they practiced.
Obviously, the third group did not practice as much as the first two groups. Because they did not have the goal of being professional musicians. Their focus was to become educators. So why should they be on the same playing field as the first two groups? The author of the study may have been sensitive to this distinction, but the authors of the book characterized them as low performers. This seems unfair. I might be especially sensitive to the unfairness as I’m married to a music education grad student.
3. The data on practice times is self-reported, starting with from the time that the musicians were eight years old. How many of us remember accurately how long we did something for when we were eight? Back in those days, five minutes could feel like a half hour. I remember that my mom told me to practice my oboe for a half an hour every day, but did I scrape by with 15 minutes? Obviously I’m not a great musician today with that kind of attitude, but my point is that self-reported data is not the most reliable.
As I read on, it annoyed me that the authors were using such a flimsy study, which is now over 20 years old and has not been replicated, to support major ideas. Over dinner last night, I brought it up to my husband, who had already heard of the study from a music psychology class. He found it on Google Scholar, which showed it had been cited in almost 4,500 other publications. That’s probably not counting the number of times referenced in popular books. My husband is reading a non-fiction book called Quiet, about the power of introverts, and stumbled over the study in his reading just after our conversation. That book quoted Ericsson from an interview with the author of yet another book.
It’s almost as if this study became an input into some pop-pyschology writer hive mind, where any one author could draw it out from whatever keywords it matched, and found it ready to pin to their own ideas. And this is repeated over and over again, to patch together a convincing enough base of “scientific support” from scraps of studies and popular quotes.
Is this a problem? I would argue that it is. People are used to seeing science used in this way, to bolster pre-conceived ideas (hello, Malcolm Gladwell!). It undermines scientific literacy - that is, our ability to truly understand how science works. We are comfortable with reading scientific conclusions, ready-made to agree with whatever we want to think. And science doesn’t always readily agree. In a world of ready-made conclusions, we prefer not to know about the scientific process, uncertainty, or admit that what we nod our heads along to now may be utterly disproven in a few years. That comes back to bite us when we need to deal with socially complex scientific questions (hello, climate change!).
Be Excellent at Anything has good intentions - it wants you to work happier and better - but it ends up falling into the common trap of popular psychology. The trouble is that most of its readers don’t know that they’re in that trap, too.
I’m 40 weeks + 3 days pregnant and counting. I’m waiting on the border of my patience for my baby to be born. I have heard the phrase, “When the baby decides to come…" countless times each day for the past few weeks, and the wording has gotten under my skin.Babies don’t make decisions. How could they? They don’t know what the options are. They come blindly into the world, forced out of the womb by basic human biology.
But what constitutes that basic biophysiological function? What pushes a woman’s body into spontaneous labor? What do we actually mean when we say “the baby decides?”
I asked my doctor at a third trimester appointment, and she told me (disappointingly) that no one knows. I demanded to know why there wasn’t more research to find out. She said that there is research, billions of dollars worth, because pre-term labor accounts for a disproportionate amount of spending in our health care system. Everyone would like to know how to stop labor from happening. Certainly, what initiates labor is part of the question. But the best answer my doctor could rustle up was some combination of the baby colluding with the mother’s body to trigger labor.
With each subsequent appointment, the science of starting labor appeared more and more fuzzy. My doctor would check to see if I was dilated or effaced, starting around 36 weeks. Every time, she turned up with nothing. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “You could go into labor tomorrow. But you probably won’t.”
I brought up a friend whose doctor had told her she would be waiting for another week, and then went into labor that night. “I’ve been wrong like that before,” my doctor said. “But I’ll see you next week. Or maybe earlier.”
As I’ve gotten into full-term territory, it’s become clear that the indicators of labor indicate barely anything. I had prodromal (false) labor starting on my due date, and I continue to have frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions. No one knows what specific purpose they serve in getting the body ready for labor, but my doula assures me that they are signs that everything is headed the right direction. I lost the mucus plug and again, a good sign, but it could mean labor is a few days away - or one to two weeks. Who knows?!
As a result of this lack of knowledge and control over possibly the most important event in my life, I’ve turned to “natural” induction techniques, which other parents are quick to offer up. Science’s ruling position on this has been totally thrown off. I’ve turned eagerly to drinking raspberry leaf tea, calculating astrological charts for ideal birth dates, and acupuncture. I know that nothing is proven to work, even if a friend swears it put her into labor with her second. Out of all the natural induction techniques, acupuncture has been the most studied. But the study I read last night showed that the often-quoted successful results have not been replicated by the same research team that produced them.
Looking further into the research with Google Scholar, I found only one paper that attempted to answer my basic question, “What initiates labor?" - from 1983.
Science is obviously more focused on interventions for babies in danger than with my frustration of having to wait to deliver a healthy, full-term baby. And I know I’ve been very lucky to have a very healthy pregnancy, and that the “problem” of this gap of knowledge isn’t an actual problem for me. But - I want answers, gosh darn it! I’m tired of folky sayings and anecdotal evidence. And I’m way pregnant, so shouldn’t I get what I want?
I’ve been thinking about the controversial Grantland story, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” since I read it on Friday night. Much has been tweeted, written, and reacted to. I am adding my two cents because, despite my obsessive consumption of all the tweets, writings, and reactions, I still can’t stop thinking about it. And my husband refuses to have a informed conversation about the ethics of this piece with me due to his self-proclaimed lack of interest. Thus, the turning to vent on Tumblr.
I’m not going to sum up the story, which has been done, again, many times elsewhere. I read the story only with the information from a tweet that the main character committed suicide - not who, how, or why. My early impression is that it was a very well-written, engaging read, the type that generally ends up in Best of Whatever Genre type-lists on Longform at the end of the year. That was, until I got to the end of the piece. When it was revealed that Dr. V had killed herself, the reaction of the storyteller felt hollow and left me confused. He called his story a “eulogy.” It was not. Eulogies are respectful of the dead person. This story was not. He also did not reflect upon what seemed obvious given the lead up: the role of the story in her death.
This is not to call Caleb Hannan a murderer. That characterization is extremely unfair, and I’m disturbed by the way that these types of exaggerations always find a willing crowd to reinforce them. (And how some outlets cover the story as “Twitter is freaking out about this thing!" People tweeting en masse is not in itself a story. It is the appeal of Twitter.) But it is undeniable to say that Dr. V warned Hannan that his story was akin to a hate crime - something very bad was going to happen. He did not seem to take that line seriously, because she was a quirky and increasingly unhinged character. The perfect type of character for a career-making story. Stakes were being raised! The plot was deepening. To turn back now would be folly.
The consequences of following this story to its conclusion are tragic. Dr. V is dead. (The way Hannan informs the reader is particularly insensitive to Dr. V’s memory and the reader: “‘Well, there’s one less con man in the world now’ …his seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died." Just unwrap that for a minute, while I sit here making frustrated sounds.) And as terribly as I think Hannan conducted himself towards the end of Dr. V’s life, I feel sympathy for a journalist in this kind of shit storm. This story could have happened to a lot of people: Case in point, Bill Simmons at Grantland named his entire editorial team that went through a seven month process, without anyone ever raising the issues that he admits ultimately condemned the story. I bet they pressed “publish” thinking it was another sure Grantland winner on the end-of-year Best of Sports Writing list.
But speaking of Bill Simmons’ editorial letter, I was very impressed with the way that he took responsibility for really, truly screwing up. I deeply believe that editors should have their reporters’ backs, no matter what. My critique of the letter is that he took almost too much responsibility, while there is still much to be said about what happened during reporting. It was a freelance piece, always on the brink of not being published. It sounds like Dr. V’s death occurred before the editors had a serious hand in shaping the story. Only Caleb Hannan will be able to provide answers into the process - when he might have had second thoughts, or not. How he felt about Dr. V herself, whether he had a clue of the risk he was taking by following the story. I don’t think you can blame editors for saying, “There’s not a story here yet, come back later.” That is an editor’s role. What the freelancer does in the meantime - how he gets the story - is his responsibility.
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
Right there. The conversation that my husband did consent to have with me involved him invoking the self-harm done by government officials who have lied - and Dr. V did also lie. But her lies did not change the effectiveness of the product she sold, and not wanting to reveal that she was trans is not the same as a lie. As a company founder, she is still a private individual, and the public did not need to know that she was trans. I sympathize with a reporter’s annoyance when the subject tries to dictate the terms of the story, but Hannan should have seen why she insisted on the story being about Science, not the Scientist, and have spoken with her and written based on that understanding.
Bottom line, this story is terrible for everyone involved, and a person is dead. No amount of hand-wringing about ethics can change that.
How a new mindset changed my future, and maybe my baby's future, too
I had a weird realization yesterday, while sitting in traffic, that I went through my entire formal education without liking to learn. I was a good student. I got good grades. I learned things. But I only wanted to learn the things that I was good at already. It’s only been the past year or so that I’ve truly appreciated and taken advantage of my ability to learn.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of a book called Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. My husband, who is an educator and grad student and geek for educational psychology research, introduced me to it. The ideas and research are really interesting, but the book itself is not an great read, so I’ll save you the trouble.
The gist is that people can be categorized into either having a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. According to the book’s website: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.” For example, you’re good at math. You’re a natural athlete. Your innate talent and ability leads to your success. And if you’re not successful, that’s the hand you were dealt.
Quoting the website again: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”
It’s the book’s argument that the growth mindset allows people to learn and develop to their “full potential” while those with fixed mindsets remain stuck trying to prove themselves and hide their deficiencies rather than overcoming them.
I’ve lived most my life with a fixed mindset. I was always good at reading and writing, and I was constantly praised for being a talented writer. Things I wasn’t good at, I abandoned interest in. One telling example is that I still automatically tune out when someone starts talking in numbers or trying to explain a graph. It’s become a reflexive instinct, because I know that I won’t understand. (Coping mechanism: Ask good questions after nodding head silently.) And if I was considered the “best” but was challenged at it - I would resent the challenger, rather than trying to get better. I gave up on the oboe immediately after a girl who was obviously more “talented” at music beat me out for a seat in the better high school band. Luckily being the best at the oboe is not necessary to join a rock band in Austin.
Things started to change when I left my full-time radio job for freelancing and small business ownership. It became apparent very quickly that I had a lot to learn about things they don’t teach you in school. Filing taxes, using Quickbooks, how to price myself, getting jobs, networking. I didn’t really like learning those things, but for the first time, I appreciated why I was learning them. I would say I finally developed my active like of learning when I taught myself how to edit videos - and then to shoot video, and then add titles, graphics, and make DVDs (all from YouTube). It was immensely satisfying to do myself what I previously had to outsource. The world of what I could do started opening up. I wasn’t stuck as an “audio person” as I had defined myself, I was everything I could learn how to be.
What really helped accelerate my learning was to just start saying yes to everything. When a client asked me if I could do something I didn’t know how to do yet, I said yes. And I learned it. Now, I’m eager to have people ask for new types of videos, so I have the opportunity to spend time learning new things.
There’s a chapter in Mindset on parenting, or how to raise a child with a growth mindset. (Another thing I’d like to learn how to do.) It’s all sorts of beneficial for their development - rather than getting frustrated when they’re not the best or when they fail, they realize that they need to work at it rather than feeling cheated or entitled. Here’s the catch: You can never tell them they’re good at anything, or acknowledge any positive attribute as a fixed trait. No “you’re so cute!” No “you’re so smart!” Praise sounds more like this: “I’m proud that you worked/studied/trained really hard and that’s why you achieved your goal.” Kind of dry, but more meaningful?
I doubt I’ll ever be able to avoid letting it slip to my child that he is the cutest, but I really believe that emphasizing work and dedication over talent and ability will help him understand and develop his abilities in a mindful way. I wish I had known before I hit my late twenties, why I should have liked to learn all along.
"Radio silence" is a fitting term to describe what’s been happening on this blog for the past few months. But it’s about to be broken with the premiere of my most recent radio story, filed from a new outlet for me: Marfa Public Radio. Click above to listen to a story from the Funny or Die "Happier" Hour at the Marfa Film Festival.
Marfa is a small town of about 2,000 people in West Texas. It’s an hour outside of Big Bend and features its own devastatingly beautiful vistas of desert, ranch, and mountains. After spending a few days there and getting to know the town, I started to think of it as transplanting a Brooklyn neighborhood into the middle of nowhere, and somehow incubating a harmonious habitat of creatives and ranchers.
Marfa is kind of a thing, especially when you live in Austin. El Cosmico t-shirts abound. I’d driven through twice and been unimpressed: Nothing was open. It was a small town with hipster pretensions. Why did everyone love it so much?
I decided to give Marfa one last shot. The Marfa Film Festival was coming out of hiatus after two years, and my friend Rebecca is a film-lover and Marfa-lover. If I couldn’t figure out Marfa with lineup of films and a personal guide, I could finally stop questioning my judgement.
I returned from Marfa feeling like a person torn away from a new love: Daydreaming of a different life and angry to be back in Austin. And I’d say that’s due to Marfa Public Radio.
One of Rebecca’s recommendations had been to get a tour of the radio station, so I stopped in during a break between films. After I introduced myself as an independent producer, the receptionist began to give me a tour. The tour was quickly interrupted by the general manager, Tom Michael, who asked if I was in for the film festival. I said yes. He said, “Great, can you get on air?”
One three minute live-feed later, the tour resumed. Tom had started the station seven years ago and has lived in Marfa for ten. I explained that I had brought my recording equipment (in case of any potential stories or interviews) and would be happy to do a story.
And that’s how I ended up in a thrift store recording “analog tweets” from a Funny or Die comedian.
The next day I skipped a few films to put the story together. It was the best kind of vacation. Through Tom and Sarah, one of the interns, life in Marfa was revealed to me. I had thought it would be a lot of boredom and drinking, which may still be true, but what I saw was a close-knit community of people who left their keys unlocked in their cars and doors wide open, a town where everyone helped out, with a cultural life matched to the beauty of the landscape. There might not be a decent grocery store in town, but every child receives a Montessori education and hangs out in art galleries. Life in Austin, with its traffic and office buildings, seems like New York City by comparison.
Unfortunately, due to extenuating circumstances, I am not packing my bags for Marfa right now. But there might be a position at Marfa Public Radio open for another very lucky producer with small town fantasies.
I usually stay away from films with violent words in their titles. I’m sensitive to violence in movies, and I spend all violent scenes covering my ears with my hands and staring stoically at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder. But last night, something told me to make an exception for The Act of Killing, a documentary showing at SXSW this week.
That “something” was the endorsement of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, documentary superstars who I’d like to imagine summering at each others’ houses, and the intriguing description. It’s about the perpetrators of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 getting together to make a fictional movie celebrating and glamorizing their past. They were “movie house gangsters” who took tickets at the cinema, got inspired by the violence in Hollywood movies, and aspired to be even more sadistic than what they saw on screen. One million people were killed in the genocide, and the main character claimed to be responsible for a thousand of those deaths.
The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, introduced the movie. “I won’t tell you to enjoy it,” he said. Awkwardly, the festival organizer came on right after him, told us there would be a Q&A later, and said, “Enjoy the film” as if there was no other way to close it out before the lights went down. Then the Alamo had a threatening message about not texting talking instagramming sexting etc, and the movie’s opening credits were disturbed by a waitress loudly asking our neighbors if they wanted parmesan on their popcorn.
What followed was an intense and powerful film about the state of Indonesian politics and how the killers are dealing with the past. The situation in Indonesia is as if the Nazis won and stayed in Germany, and celebrated their crimes and continued to act like gangsters with total impunity. In one scene, the Vice President of Indonesia gives a speech in front of the paramilitary and says, “We need our gangsters!” In another, the gangsters who are making the movie go on a national talk show, and the host congratulates them for creating a more humane and efficient way of exterminating people, as if Oprah was telling about a woman’s journey to her best life.
Those scenes felt surreal. They’re just so outside the realm of imagination, and also, it’s crazy that such an alternate reality could exist and that I was totally unaware of it. The movie-making scenes were equally crazy, starting one of the gangsters dressed up in drag with a Buddha belly and I’m still not sure why.
But the movie was really about the main character, Anwar, trying to exorcise the demons that haunted him from the genocide. In the first scene the director shot with him, he danced on the rooftop where he said he tortured and killed so many. Throughout the movie, he goes deeper into dealing with the morality of what he did - even though everyone around him glorifies his actions. In one scene, in which he says he understands how the people he killed felt being tortured after acting it out, the director calls him out from behind the camera. “No, you don’t know how they felt,” he says. “Because you knew it was a film and they knew they were about to die.”
After the film, the director did a quick Q&A and explained that although he was no longer welcome in Indonesia (the paramilitary tweeted that if he went back, the film should be called “The Act of Being Killed” which Oppenheimer thought was very clever, but scary), the film had changed the conversation about the genocide. People were actually able to speak out, whereas there had been total silence and intimidation before. He had started making films about the survivors and victims, but found filming stunted by the military. A neighbor suggested that he go and film with the killers. He interviewed 40 of them before he found Anwar, and shot him dancing on the roof.
After we were hustled out of the theater, we spent another half hour huddled in a small circle around the director, talking about the film. This is the kind of thing I love about South By. The thing that struck me about him was that this guy had already done a life’s work: Making a film that made a difference. For me, that’s what the point of art should be. Usually art aims on a small and vague scale of difference making (“start a conversation about…” or “make people think differently…” or “shock”) but The Act of Killing aimed for an overpopulated country with huge problems in the present and past, and made a difference there. That’s incredible; that’s inspiring to me.
The other thing, as an aspiring documentary maker myself, was that the film didn’t always look great. I’m so used to seeing these crisp and visually rich films shot with DSLRs on up. I just took a class on digital filmmaking that focused mostly on shooting narrative films where shots and lights are pre-arranged, and was frustrated by how the documentary I shot was often rough and shaky (I really would have liked a dolly walking alongside my character!). But in The Act of Killing, all scenes shot at night or in low light looked grainy or noisy, and some scenes were out of focus. And that was okay, because the story was just so captivating. I get caught up so often in how things look and it’s a reminder that the most important thing is story. And sound.
So go see The Act of Killing when you can. It’s being distributed by Drafthouse Films here in town, so it should be getting showings across the US.
Also, I’m having my first premiere today, at SXSW! A short documentary I made last year with Robert Melton won the City of Austin film contest and is being shown in a showcase at the Carver Center. It gives me a little bit of street cred, I hope.
My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish.
It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.
As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California.
The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.)
I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.
Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)
Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right.
This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord.
The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal.
There are radio stories in the pipeline, but my work with Reflect & Record has been occupying a front space in my mind. The holidays are a great time to promise that projects will be done, and thus I have been in a mad multimedia production dash.
I’m really excited to share those projects, but I’ve just sent them out and want to give the families a chance to spend some time with them. In the meantime, I’m totally in love with these vintage Christmas cards I received as part of a family documentary project I’m working on. Arriving at the beginning of December, they might be responsible for how much I’m anticipating Christmas this year. That, and the fact that we’re not traveling.
I’m very excited to share my first story for a Marketplace program. I pitched this back in the summer not long after Plug & Play opened. Plug & Play combines co-working with childcare (they call it a “work-life balance”) so that parents who work freelance or part-time have a more flexible childcare option.
I learned a lot while reporting this story.
1. Childcare is crazy expensive.
2. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that you can work from home and look after a child at the same time.
3. This type of business should be everywhere.
4. Mothers are willing to give up major bucks in their careers to spend more time with their kids.
My favorite part was observing Lauren Walz, the mother in the story, as she tried to work with her daughter nearby. It was a bit of a setup, but it played out as Lauren promised me it would: Nora was not happy with her mom’s attention being on the Mac. Mac needed to be stopped. Nora first tried to pull out the thumb drive. Then she put her hands on the keyboard as her mom typed. Then, she finally just tried to close the laptop. It was a pretty effective strategy, and a little scary. I’ve heard a lot of talk about women having it all, or not having it all. But I hadn’t connected it to the idea that kids are the ones that do not want moms to have it all. I thought it was like, a societal construct. But Nora really did not like to see her mom at work, and would love to end her career aspirations. I wonder, is this how it is with all toddlers?
Many thanks to David Shaw for being a fantastic and fun editor, Ashley Milne-Tyte for sharing the secrets of how to pitch Marketplace, and Amy Braden for helping me get connected and patience while this story waited for airtime.
This story was produced with StateImpact Texas, a collaboration between Texas public radio stations and NPR. Essentially, that means that this story looks wider than Austin, up to Dallas, where they are decades ahead with public transportation.
Here’s the full text writeup I did for the StateImpact site:
That title isn’t technically correct. Dallas has the only subway in all of the Southwest. The only reason it exists is because it would be a bigger headache, or impossible, to get right of way through the neighborhoods that a new light rail line would have gone through on a route that parallels one of the city’s biggest commuter roadways.
The bottom line is that it’s pretty much light rail or bust. And for all Austin’s talk of being the most progressive city in Texas, it’s behind the curve on public transportation.
I love public transportation stories, so this was really interesting for me, even though I knew coming into it that cost is the biggest issue. The best part was talking to Rob Spillar, the director of the city’s Transportation department. After our interview, he spent a half hour talking about future plans and challenges for public transportation in Austin. I wish I had recorded it!
But I love interviews like that - when you realize your interview subject loves talking about what they do so much, they grab ahold of an interested listener, and you get to learn so much more than you came for.
This reporter claims to have handed in his laptop and uses only an iPhone and iPad for reporting and editing.
I have heard of this extreme behavior before, and I could not possibly get on board. I think it’s fine for down and dirty, super quick turnaround news reporting, but you’re inevitably sacrificing quality of sound and any suaveness of craft.
He’s basically using the pre-installed voice memo app and SoundCloud to send in audio for the newsroom to put together his pieces.
I just don’t know why anyone would go actually want to turn their laptop in. That stuff is still useful!
Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish wrote this great piece about the future of magazines.
One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle. Part of me has come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd. They are like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is vast and steep.
It sounds harsh. But without even realizing it, I’ve come to the same view. I said I’d never give up the feeling of a book in my hand, the satisfaction of turning a page in a newspaper, admiring the layout of a magazine.
I remember where I was standing when I said this, my senior year of college: The office where we were laying out a print magazine.
But technology has a way of reducing our ideals to nostalgia. I got a Kindle as an un-asked for gift, and now when I read a physical book, I wonder why I can’t pull up the meaning of a word on the page itself.
In a personal last stand for physical media, I ordered a subscription to the Sunday Times, during Labor Day weekend. It hasn’t come yet. Apparently, it’s a huge hassle to get a carrier to deliver it to my house. (Andrew Sullivan mentions delivery problems too, NYT, stop whining about the death of print and get it together!) I’ve called or emailed five times now, and I want to cancel my subscription. I tried! and was defeated by print itself.
Sullivan sees the future of magazines as existing only in extremes: High-end luxury product, or low-end grocery line tabloid. I think that’s realistic. But it assumes that everyone in the mid-range (those who would read Newsweek, for example) has access to a tablet reader. That our lives are filled with increasing amounts of physical technology. I feel like I’m already there, living in the future.
My friend Ashley Milne-Tyte’s recent blog post has been attracting attention in public radio circles in the past week or so. It addresses, straight-on, what is almost a taboo subject: The fact that you can’t make a living as an independent producer.
I’m secretly proud to have contributed (via Facebook chat) what has become the catchphrase of the post: It’s radio’s dirty little secret.
The post was triggered by Ashley’s experience at the Third Coast Audio Festival, a bi-annual conference that celebrates independently produced work, and where many people from the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) meet up.
I found it hard to sit there applauding at the idea that AIR has so many more members, when a lot of these members will be 20-somethings who will find it very hard to make anything more than $200-$700 a story, depending on the outlet and the ‘tier’ of pay the outlet decides the producer deserves.
If you do the math (and I don’t, both because I’m scared of numbers and the results of said math), you might end up making minimum wage or less on a radio story. That’s because it’s the nature of us public radio folks to make the best work we can, regardless of pay. You can’t charge for getting an interview that wasn’t originally discussed, or invoice extra for a second edit on your story. Or you might end up making nothing, like Ashley does on her high quality podcast, The Broad Experience.
I’ve been complacent about pay. For me, making radio is a luxury. I knew when I left my steady radio job that freelancing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills. I once accepted $200 for an 8 minute story just because I’d wanted to do the story for so long. There’s a priceless value for me in reporting a story and getting it on air.
But I do wonder why we’re not more up front about the fact that it doesn’t pay very well. In a way, it’s the same ethical dilemma all across journalism: Should we tell j-school students that they probably won’t find a newspaper job? That more likely, they’ll be blogging on a crappy website for nickels? It’s not such a bright and shiny future if you aren’t willing to be creative about it. I feel lucky to have found life stories, and learned not to put all my career eggs in one shrinking basket.
Last week I flew out to New Orleans with a light HD camcorder and a 60 lb bag of lighting equipment on my shoulder. I was shooting my first family history documentary - four interviews that I’ll weave together to tell the story of a wonderful Southern family living in an idyllic Southern town.
One of my unexpected favorite parts of the interview was this reading. One of the interviewees had stumbled on a church program that focused on the importance of family stories. She thought it was akin to divine intervention.
As you can see, the interviews can get very emotional. I’m tearing up behind the camera. Each interview is fascinating and beautiful. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect - with seriousness and intention - on the meaning of time gone by.
It’s a real privilege to be a part of moments like these, and in some ways, responsible for bringing them about.
* The above video is completely unedited. It will get nicer with editing!
**Also, re: heavy and huge lighting equipment bag: Fly Southwest! Tell them when you check in that you’re with media or a commercial filmmaking company, and you can preboard so your precious gear does not get checked.
This press release headline first caught my eye because I thought it read, “Tasered youth fare well as adults”, which implied that tasering a youth teaches them an effective and valuable lesson.
What it really means to say is that tasering a youth is not a big deal and no one should complain about being tasered (“Don’t tase me, bro!”). The study looked at 100 adolescents who had been tased - a group which turns out to be older and larger, more similar in physiology to adults than children. They found only 20 mild injuries, most of which were puncture wounds from the weapon’s probes. That sounds like it kinda hurts. But they also found that there weren’t any heart problems associated with getting tased, which was backed up by an earlier study with volunteer police officers. Who volunteered to get tased.
I don’t know. Getting tased still sounds unpleasant. Although, as the press release concludes, it’s obviously safer than getting assaulted with a baton, fists, or firearms.
For the past six months, when people ask “What are you working on?” I have to explain what “human cheese” is. Hearing the reaction to that phrase never got old.
The short version is that Christina Agapakis, a brilliant and hip biologist (and a childhood friend of my best friend), has made cheese using human bacteria. It’s a pretty simple project actually. Most cheeses start with bacteria. Christina has just replaced the pure strains with a potpourri of bacterial communities taken from the dirtiest places on the body.
I did most of the recording at South By Southwest, where I (and a few other Austin science communicators) helped Christina set up an event called South By South Swab. It was at a popular bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s. The human cheese project started as an art/science collaboration, but Christina is now interpreting it more as a science outreach project. You can see the project at bacterially.org.
I also got to talk with Austin’s most famous cheesemonger, John Antonelli. The man knows a heck of a lot about cheese. If you want to know more about the science of cheese making, he recommends Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking.
This was a very fun story. Many thanks to my amazing and patient editor, Mia Lobel, as well as Christina Agapakis, John Antonelli, and Joe Hanson.
[Update: This was produced for Distillations, a podcast from the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Hear the rest of the "gross foods" episode.]
I’m so, so excited to share this. With the arrival of Localore’s Austin Music Map in town, I’ve had the opportunity to record some of Austin’s greatest sounds and places.
The Minor Mishap Marching Band has been one of my favorite, must-see Austin bands for a few years now. I’ve seen them start spontaneous, riotous dance parties in parking lots, parade through my neighborhood, and rise up with a big brass sound from the escalator beneath Whole Foods and proceed to march around the store. I love them. So when Delaney, the producer of Austin Music Map, asked for off-the-grid musical experiences, I pretty much called dibs on Minor Mishap. She said okay.
It was fortuitous that when Delaney asked about their next show, it was in the works to be the most ambitious Minor Mishap show yet. Twenty-five members of a brass band would be playing in canoes, underneath Barton Creek bridge, while aerialists dangled and danced over the water.
Yes, it was as amazing as it sounds. I got a front seat ride, with Datri, the ebullient band leader, in her canoe . And that was the single moment when I felt most affirmed in my career choices.
This was my first non-narrated piece, and Delaney helped with its shape and final sound. I always feel like making radio is like putting pieces of an audio puzzle together, but there’s no edges and no one picture to create. It’s a blobby and vague puzzle.
The radio story, which is hitting Morning Edition, Texas Music Matters, and All Things Considered is paired with a beautiful video by KUT’s Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon.
I just discovered Storyboard on Tumblr, and I am now a fan. Just look at this great video with David Remnick.
As I film mostly interviews, I like to see how filmmakers fill in the space between the interview subject. This can be quite challenging in an office setting. Luckily, the New Yorker has a vast collection of interesting covers.
Today is National HIV Testing Day. By no coincidence, today is also the day I had a story air on KUT about National HIV Testing Day.
The backstory is that HIV/AIDS is one of my main beats for dailyRx.com. I cover lots of awareness days (World AIDS Day, National Women & Girls HIV Awareness Day) but for this one, I decided to get in touch with a local AIDS organization, AIDS Services of Austin. They invited me to do an in-person interview - something I rarely get to do.
Their building is very hard to find. It sits behind a hurricane fence and has no sign. They explained that the lack of signage is an attempt to reduce some of the stigma of walking in to get tested for HIV.
I got a quick tour of the building. The thing that impressed me most was a photo documentary project lining the walls, of the faces of HIV/AIDS in Austin. I realized that while I could quote off any number of studies and statistics, I don’t have any stories about HIV/AIDS - what it’s like to be diagnosed, to live with the disease these days. The people in the photographs looked healthy and normal. It’s now possible to be healthy and normal with HIV.
I think a look at those faces would do more to encourage people to get tested than any statistics or awareness day. A face and a story that was just like mine would make me get tested. I haven’t been, although I would not hesitate tell you that the CDC recommends everyone between 13 - 64 be tested at least once.
My most recent feature article for dailyRx. Interestingly, there hasn’t been a lot of regular reporting on the influence of HIV on aging. But it’s an expanding area of research and care as as people who survived the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s and 90s reach their 50s and 60s.
Doctors are seeing the traditional diseases of old age show up about 10 years earlier, on average. And their cells actually LOOK 10 years older, under the microscope. It’s not yet known why this is happening.
I got a nice little shoutout in this interview I just stumbled across with Christina Agapakis on yourwildlife.org. I interviewed and worked with Christina on her project bacterially.org, which I prefer to call the “human cheese project” but unfortunately that is far less linkable. I’m actually supposed to be working on the script right now…. but instead I’m on tumblr.
Do you think this study is sponsored by Big Chocolate?
Dark chocolate may be an inexpensive way to help prevent cardiovascular events in patients at risk for heart disease, researchers found.
A modeling study predicts that patients with metabolic syndrome who eat dark chocolate every day could have 85 fewer events per 10,000 population over 10 years, Chris Reid, PhD, of Monash University in Melbourne, and colleagues reported online in BMJ.
At a cost of only $42 per year, treatment with dark chocolate falls into an acceptable category of cost-effectiveness, at an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of $50,000 per years of life saved.
"Chocolate benefits from being by and large a pleasant, and hence sustainable, treatment option," they wrote. "Evidence to date suggests that the chocolate would need to be dark and of at least 60% to 70% cocoa, or formulated to be enriched with polyphenols."
This is my most recent feature article for DailyRx, the health news website I write for. I think you should read it because it features an interview with one of my favorite science communicators, biologist Rob Dunn.
I think I’ve already gushed about how much I love his book, “The Wild Life of Our Bodies.” (Go read it!) One of the wildest parts (pun intended) was the section about the mysterious cause of Crohn’s disease. More and more people, primarily in developed countries, are being diagnosed with this incurable disease.
In his book, Dunn tells fascinating stories about how scientists are trying to unravel Crohn’s and how people are taking steps to treat themselves. They both have to do with germs and parasites. (I recently posted about pharmaceutical companies investing in whipworm eggs.)
Recently, studies about how it’s good to get your kid exposed to dirt, germs, and worms have been in the news. The theory is that our first-world environments have been scrubbed clean of the microbes that our bodies “learned on” and educated our immune systems about stuff that is normal and stuff that is bad.
In Crohn’s disease, the body is confused about what’s bad and attacks healthy tissue in the gut for no good reason. I keep thinking about my former neighbors’ little boy who always had a stick in his mouth and a face smeared with dirt by the time I came home from work. I’d put money on a bet that he doesn’t develop a case of inflammatory bowel disease. Anyone want to take that bet?
Companies are springing up to sell parasites as therapy for Crohn’s disease. Right now, infecting yourself with parasites for relief from chronic diseases is mostly DIY.
Its probiotic treatment consists of “Trichuris suis ova (TSO),” or non-infectious porcine whipworm eggs, to quell inflammation and abnormal immune function that causes such autoimmune diseases as multiple sclerosis (MS), inflammatory bowel disease, and type 1 diabetes.
First, a trip out to Marble Falls, which is about an hour outside of Austin. I met with New York Times wealth columnist Paul Sullivan as he interviewed a Ponzi scheme victim. Carol Lovil, a very, very sweet lady, lost her life savings after investing with Allen Stanford. Stanford was just convicted of defrauding 30,000 investors, but Lovil doesn’t expect to see her money back.
In the middle of the story you’ll hear Lovil’s edited monologue, which was recorded in a restaurant in Marble Falls.
During SXSW, just as I was getting ready to attend one of the most anticipated panels on my schedule (New Careers in Journalism: Online Video Producer (aka my career)) I began receiving a barrage of texts, calls, and emails asking if I could get to an interview at Homeaway’s headquarters in an hour.
A reporter for Marketplace was doing a story about people paying off their mortgage by renting out their house. Ironically, I had pitched a very similar story to Marketplace about how Austinites cash in on SXSW, which obviously didn’t make the cut. It occurred to me that maybe that was because of this story? Anyhow, I did end up cashing in on SXSW by ditching the panel (conference audio is up now!) and heading down to Homeaway’s office at 5th and Lamar.
I’ve always wanted to visit the office, which has a large replica of Homeaway’s birdhouse logo looking out on the busy intersection. After the interview I got a private tour of all the features - snowglobes collected from around the world, game rooms, recycled wood all over, and travel-themed art created by the founder himself. It’s a pretty awesome office. And I finally learned why Homeaway maintains so many home-rental brands: They bought up competing websites but the task of migrating the information to Homeaway’s main site is too large to do all at once.
After the tour, another frantic text: Could I collect vox pops about where people are staying? That’s the term in the business for walking up to complete strangers with an out-of-context question that supplements the audio for your story. This time, I dragged along my friend Julianna who had just flown into town for the music festival. We met a girl whose parents were “helping” her pay $700 a night to stay at the W, because “all the other hotels were booked.”
Julianna and I silently gasped at each other. That audio made it into the story.
But maybe not safe to listen to at work. Or around kids. Or if you’re squeamish about weird cheese and body parts.
This was recorded while I was observing scientists at work. They were standing outside a bar at SXSW, getting drunk people to contribute their skin bacteria for a human cheese making experiment. That’s already awesome, right?
It got even more awesome when the singer of the band that had just played (obviously there were bands, it’s South By) stopped by the table. She contributed some cleavage bacteria, and as I recorded her reaction to the project, she launched into this awesome rap that I’m titling, “I’m Gonna Make Cheese Outta You.”
Thinking of adding a parenthetical (The Human Cheese Song) when the album is released.
I’m sorry if you haven’t heard from me during the past nine days. I fell into an alternate world that descends onto Austin, Texas, every March. It’s called South By Southwest.
This year, I had a badge and was excited to go to the Interactive Festival. There were several panels on digital storytelling, and their presence in the schedule of the hottest tech conference in the country means that digital storytelling is a hot topic, with widespread interest.
On Monday, I sat down to a talk in the Austin Convention Center called “Cinematic Storytelling.” It featured Michael Senzon of CNN Digital; Olivia Ma of Youtube News; Blake Whitman of Vimeo; and Katy Newton, who is a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, and a former documentary filmmaker and video producer at the LA Times.
My background is in journalism, and I’ve seen the shift from formulaic TV news reporting to what’s being called “cinematic storytelling,” first-hand. The bottom line is that people are not just getting their news from traditional outlets like TV, newspaper, and radio.
Big players like YouTube (see Olivia Ma) have stepped in, and now anyone with a cellphone camera can create news. And people are turning to Vimeo (see Blake Whitman) for the most creative video and multimedia that’s being produced around the world. These forces are re-defining what audiences want to see and come to expect from the media they consume, and traditional outlets are trying to keep up.
I can certainly understand that. My first experiences with creating videos were for a media company born as a traditional news outlet, and there’s no manual for understanding how to adapt to a rapidly changing media landscape. Katy Newton (I believe it was her) mentioned that some newspapers initially thought, “Hey, we’ll have our reporters shoot videos and it will be great!” only to realize that it’s an entirely different format from print, and not every video is worthy of being on the LA Times website.
I had hoped for a discussion of what the term “cinematic storytelling” really means and how it’s being done now, because presumably the idea of telling a journalistic story like a movie isn’t a new idea. It’s called a documentary. But like most journalism-focused panels I attended at SXSW, it ultimately came down to a discussion of “old” media’s business model.
Are people with cellphone cameras and Instagram undermining the work of documentary photographers? Is a citizen journalist as valuable as a trained journalist? Do people prefer watching cat videos over the six o’clock news, and if so, will Boxing Kitteh and his ilk bring down the New York Times and CNN?
My feeling is that this conversation will be moot in few years, when we can all agree that these things (including cat videos) have different values in our culture, and the high-quality stuff is worth paying for. The important thing is figuring out a way to pay for it.
I cannot recommend highly enough episode 460 of This American Life, in which Ira Glass and crew have to retract and apologize for an earlier show based on Mike Daisey’s one-man stage play, ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The facts you need to understand the new episode, simply called Retraction, are in this New York Times story.
Daisey’s play is about terrible working conditions in Apple factories in China. It became a hit, raising awareness of the issue and adding pressure on Apple to improve those conditions. But it was based on a lie: that Daisey had himself witnesssed what he presented as the record of his experiences in China. In many cases he had not. And he lied to the producers of This American Life when they tried to fact check his performance before putting excerpts of it into their show.
All of this becomes clear in Retraction, which is an extraordinary display of transparency in corrective journalism. (So listen! It’s an hour.) Daisey is interviewed for the show about his deceptions. He tells Ira Glass that he always feared this day would come. Well, it came. And when he was asked to go on This American Life to account for his lies, he had only two choices. Sane choices, I mean.
Choice One: To agree to be interviewed and prepare to be stripped naked, on air, as a kind of cleansing act. You are revealed to millions of people as a bald-faced liar and a cheat about the things you care about the most, but by being ruthlessly honest and unsentimental with yourself, you stand a chance of coming out of it with at least some dignity. But if you cannot go through with that, there’s…
Choice Two: Don’t go on the air. Let them talk about you and send a note with your regrets.
There is no choice three.
But Daisey took door number three, anyway. That’s the one where you say to yourself…
I’m a master manipulator with nerves of steel. I can talk my way out of this, out of anything. This is just another performance! And I am one of the great performers out there. Of course I will have to concede ground, and that’s going to be embarrassing and painful, but I can also gain ground by winning people over to the greater truth beneath my deceptions. Which is… I really care about this! Through the magic of theatre, I made audiences—big audiences, who love me—care! Now they care about something they damn well should care about! Ira Glass couldn’t do that. I did. The New York Times wouldn’t do that. I would. Me and the magic of theatre, which is my love. I didn’t betray my love. I betrayed his love, Ira’s, and, yeah, that was wrong, but beyond that he has nothing on me. For I am a master manipulator with nerves of steel…
What you hear in the show is this very performance coming completely apart— before your ears, as it were. Ira Glass picks up on it right away. He realizes what Daisey came into the studio to do. And he permits a monstrously over-confident man to audibly disassemble himself. (Transcript.)
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
The post doesn’t have a title. I suggest: Fuck it. I take door number three.
I agree: You should definitely listen to this episode, and the original episode if you haven’t already.
My favorite part was when Ira Glass told Mike Daisey, “I feel terrible… for you.” As much as Mike Daisey is a liar and his lies were unethical and bold-faced, I can understand how and why he crossed the line into manipulating This American Life. He wanted that audience. I can understand how and why he justified it to himself.
My second favorite part was the long silences before some of Daisey’s answers. If anything, TAL knows what makes great radio.
For Austinites, the middle of March is like a city holiday. Everyone takes at least a few days off work, flows downtown on bikes, and celebrates South By Southwest. Going to the music festival is a given, with all the free shows that happen during the day. But this will be the first year that I step inside the Convention Center for the Interactive Festival, in possession of the badge that separates the haves hipsters from the have-not hipsters.
When I first moved to Austin, Interactive was a geeky upstart, that I vaguely understood had to do with the nebulous term “tech.” Since then, it’s grown massively in scale and scope. And this year I was glad to find that the festival offers a few great panels that align with my interests in journalism, science, and a few things in between.
Okay, so this is not a panel, but why not get started with perhaps the leading edge in networking - playing a game that requires you to suspect, accuse, and kill people you’ve never met before? Werewolf, which I grew up playing in summer camp as “Mafia” is allegedly “spreading like wildfire in tech social circles.” All I know is that my friends (most of whom are not in tech social circles) play it, and I could use some tips. Plus, you really make meaningful connections with people as you gang up with them in a lynch mob.
Werewolf games can last a while, but I hope I’m able to make this one. My company, Reflect & Record, is focused on storytelling for businesses, and I’m interested to learn from Lyn Graft, who has had success telling stories for major clients.
This is my must-go panel of the week. It gathers scientists and artists talking about biological engineering - a topic that deserves attention and fascination. I’ve been following the work of Daisy Ginsberg and Christina Agapakis for a while, and they’re brilliant. I’m also excited to be helping them organize a super cool hands-on science demo outside of the conference. Stay tuned for details!
Featuring panelists from the New York Times and Poynter, this panel looks at digital storytelling and the future of journalism. This is a major theme among journalism panels at SXSW: How multimedia should be integrated into traditional storytelling as content is more widely read online.
Digital storytelling is hot this year, and I hope I don’t get bored of it.
This panel is geared towards non-profits making themselves appealing to donors with creative ways of sharing data through stories. I’m mostly interested because it just tuned me into the fact that there’s a “Center for Digital Storytelling.”
The description for this panel is so vague, I don’t really know what it’s about or how it’s different from the several other digital storytelling panels. But I’ll go, because this is South By South Storytelling 2012.
Everyone keeps telling me videos have to go viral. I say it’s just about getting views. This solo presentation claims to show the dirty work behind a magical viral video campaign. Hopefully there will be references to Old Spice.
Again, spot on the crosshairs of my career interests! I invite you to join me, and make sense of this description on your own.
From the rise of database journalism, which adds empirical rigor to narrative journalism’s fog of anecdotes, to the emergence of accountability projects that permit tracking and peer review over time, we’ll outline a system of news that can help us better discern the truth amid a rising onslaught of information.
This will be my last panel of SXSW, as I have to go pick up a friend from the airport and get started on the Music portion of the week.
A few quick South By tips:
Stay flexible. You’re probably going to miss a few of things you’ve planned to do, because there’s a lot going on and you can’t do it all.
Don’t forget to schedule time for meals. Eat a breakfast taco and pack one to go!
Wear comfortable shoes.
Ride a bike if possible. Parking is a total nightmare downtown, and so is driving. Cabs are tough to hail or call in Austin, and as much as I love underemployed bicyclists, pedicabs will put an unreasonably large dent in your transportation budget during South By.
These are a few of my ideas for marketing the Euthenasia Coaster, artist Julijonas Urbonas’ vision for a roller coaster that will thrill you, then kill you. (Ooh, that’s a good one!) From the project’s description:
Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death. Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful. Celebrating the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster: John Allen, former president of the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company, once sad that “the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead. This could be done, you know.”
The ride is a half a kilometer long, giving you plentiful time to contemplate being strapped into a death machine and get your hands in the air for a souvenir photo for your family to remember you by. I added that part.
Obviously, this is an artistic imagining that challenges the viewer to contemplate life, death, amusement, the freedom of the human spirit to make a choice to end one’s life with a series of whoopees, etc, and is not actually being built. But in theory, it would work. A scientist of spatial disorientation worked with Urbonas to design the loops to bring the rider closer to death with each round.
It does have some evil undertones, especially when you consider that the artist ran an amusement park in Lithuania for three years. Was he thinking about how he would kill all his patrons at that time? This is the perfect setup for a horror film, one that I probably wouldn’t watch.
I just posted my first track on Soundcloud. I signed up for a premium account from a special offer on AIR, and yesterday it gave me a very easy way to share the audio edit of a video I’m working on for my family.
The Austin Listening Lounge has also created a group for our producers. We’re hoping that it will be a great way to queue up sound at our lounges, and let those who couldn’t make it keep up to date with what we’ve shared.
Take a listen to my latest feature for Distillations on the chemistry of exercise.
One of the things I love about reporting on science is learning interesting things that actually apply to my life. Now every time I exercise, I’m visualizing the mitochondria in my cells struggling to keep up with my body’s demand for ATP. I’m trying to encourage the expansion of my body’s ATP factories so I can work harder, and feel better while rowing sprints.
I feel like more of a nerd than a jock when I think about chemistry as I exercise, but I’ve noticed a difference. Understanding exercise as something my body is going through somehow helps me get through a workout easier - and it’s also nice to have Will’s voice in my head saying, “If you believe you can do it, you’ll get through it.”
I hadn’t, until last week, when I stumbled on this blog.
Adam Westbrook calls himself an entrepreneurial journalist. He makes online videos, and he makes them in order to make money. He freelances, which means he’s basically running his own business. In his spare time, he dishes out excellent advice about how to treat journalism like a business.
This new term - and the ideological shift that goes with it - struck me as brilliant. The traditional way of thinking about newspapers, magazines, and public radio is as institutions. The New York Times, our local papers, and our other preferred media with long histories have always been there for us, and they should continue to exist by some unalienable right. But they’re businesses. And they’re struggling with the economy, and the fact that people are now getting what they used to pay for for free. Traditional media outlets can’t pay people what they deserve, and they can’t hire as many people as they need.
For the past decade, or at least since I entered journalism, there’s been a struggle to redefine the business model. Whether it’s the paywall for the Times or talking about funding for NPR, it’s clearly a time of transition for everyone. There was this recognition: The way things worked for centuries isn’t working anymore. We need a new business model. And as newspapers and radio programs struggle, they pass the pain on to freelancers.
When I left my job to work on my own, I thought of myself as a freelancer. But really, as soon as I left, I should have thought of myself as an entrepreneur. That would have been a healthier attitude. I had assumed I would go at it on my own for a few months, and then start looking for a new job. But as it happened, I fell into being an entrepreneur, and I managed to combine my interests and skills from journalism into a business.
So I was an entrepreneur and a freelancer. But now I discover that all the jobs I’ve created for myself are actually a symptom of being a entrepreneurial journalist. When I’m working for Reflect & Record, I still feel like a journalist. I’m asking questions, I’m presenting stories. It’s just that I have to think about marketing, and selling, and taxes, and all of that business stuff. That’s what I should have been doing when I started freelancing.
I have two businesses. I have two sets of business cards - so how did I not realize this before? The good thing is that they’re both growing. And now I can think of my working self as one whole: an entrepreneurial journalist.
What I love most about writing and reporting is being able to talk to experts about things that I’m already interested in. I’ve recently become interested in depression among the elderly, since I started volunteering with seniors. I’ve heard some very sad stories about the situations of elderly adults who don’t have the support network of family and friends. Depression is very easy to come by when you’re isolated, and when you’re most likely going through a lot of traumatic life events - the loss of friends and loved ones, loss of independence, increasingly serious health problems.
I wanted to know how common depression is among seniors. It turns out that 10 percent of seniors are depressed. I was shocked by the rate of depression in nursing homes - 50 percent! It’s a sad figure. But depression is hard to talk about, especially among this generation. I spoke with Dr. Helen Lavretsky about how people can approach the topic and treatment of depression with a loved one.
It’s time to announce I have a new gig. I’m writing about health for dailyRx.com, a health news website based here in Austin. Each week, I delve into the headlines and journals to find the news on different health conditions - everything from HIV/AIDS to multiple sclerosis to osteoporosis. A side effect of the job is that I’m getting super vigilant about staying healthy myself. Yesterday, I wrote an article about World Osteoporosis Day (by the way, happy World Osteoporosis Day) and today woke up with a strong compulsion to incorporate more calcium-rich dairy products into my diet. Did you know that sunlight is our main source of vitamin D? Our skin actually converts it. It’s the human version of photosynthesis.
This week, Distillations is airing my feature on dinosaur growth! Distillations is the podcast of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, so I dug deep to find the chemistry behind the study of dinosaur growth, or ontogeny. Really, it was all an excuse to go behind the scenes at the UT Vertebrate Paleontology Lab, the massive fossil storehouse that I blogged about earlier this summer.
Another highlight of reporting this story was talking to Dr. Jack Horner, one of the best known paleontologists in the country and perhaps the world. An oft-cited fact about Dr. Horner is that he was the model for one of the paleontologists in the ultimate dino movie Jurassic Park, and he also served as an adviser on the film. Suffice to say, he’s a cool guy and he’s still doing research. But rather than creating dinosaurs as they did in Jurassic Park, he’s deconstructing them. The real impetus for this story is his assertion that two dinosaur species with giant horns and frills actually represent the stages of development for another dinosaur with giant horns and frills: Triceratops.
Horner wants to strip those dinosaurs of their species names and put them in their proper place. But how do paleontologists find support for their view on how a creature grew millions of years ago? Believe it or not, chemistry underlies many of the techniques that are used.
The audio above is an excerpt from the entire show, which you can listen to here. And just to clarify what the host says in the intro: Triceratops is NOT going the way of Brontosaurus! It’s the other two species that will lose their titles and become known as Triceratops.
Humans are incapable of consuming less, so let's consume better
That was the thesis of Matthew Nordan’s talk at SXSW Eco. Nordan is a venture capitalist who titled his Wednesday talk, “Consuming Better: What Neuroscience Says About a Sustainable Future.” Going into the talk, I was curious to see how neuroscience and sustainability tied together with venture capitalism. Turns out I wasn’t alone. The room was packed, and by the time Nordan started speaking, it was standing room only.
He started by talking about our resource issues - essentially, the core of sustainability. Our energy and water supply is dwindling, and solutions that involve other limited resources, say, lithium batteries, create what Nordan called “playing wackamole” with our resources. The easiest answer is that we should consume fewer resources - but real-world experience shows that’s totally unrealistic. Nordan posed the question, “Are we fundamentally incapable of consuming less?”
He quickly answered: Yes. Here’s where neuroscience ties in. He cited a study close to my heart, a study I often mention when the conversation turns to wine. Antonio Rangel at Cal Tech, who I interviewed back in 2008 for EarthSky, found that people enjoy wine more when they think it costs more. (Here’s the backstory.) The point being, we like things that are “more” rather than “less”. That’s what our brains are showing. “There are many studies like this,” Nordan said, and then moved on.
With the fact that we can’t consume less established, Nordan said that the best thing to do is to get people to feel like they’re experiencing something that’s better than what they had before, but has less impact. For example, a better performing car that’s also electric, or something similar. He described several business strategies that could be considered sustainable. The ideal situation is to “deliver truly better consumption.” That is, products and technologies that have no drawback compared to what we’re using now, and also have less impact. That’s where venture capitalism comes in: How do you find and invest in these game-changing technologies?
I really enjoyed Nordan’s talk. He was talking about the same old problems in a new and interesting way, and thanks to a Power Point where he debated himself on video, it was also entertaining.
My one qualm was the use of “neuroscience” in his title. I think his thesis is interesting and provoking on its own, but the scientific evidence didn’t stand up to truly support it. I love that study, but it’s not really neuroscience. Rangel is an economist who uses an MRI. When I asked Nordan for more evidence after the talk, he mentioned Dan Ariely at MIT - a well-known behavioral economist. It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Nordan’s talk, but it did leave me wanting more. What does neuroscience say about a sustainable future? It might be mum on the question.
This week I’m attending SXSW Eco, the brand new conference that addresses sustainability in the public, private, and academic worlds. I just got married over the weekend (!) so I had to rush back from a post-wedding retreat to catch Alex Steffen’s keynote speech.
I was a long-time follower of Steffen’s Worldchanging.com, an online magazine that focused on what it called a “bright-green future” and folded a few months ago. It was relentlessly optimistic about the future, and emphasized how urban design could change the world. Steffen seemed to be the obvious driver for the website, and he penned long essays about his vision. Admittedly, I was a bit of a skeptic about our bright-green future. There’s great design ideas out there in concept, but how many can make a difference? I was interested to see if Steffen could make me a bright-green believer.
Steffen started by establishing that goals for emissions reductions are either overly ambitious or not clearly defined, and even the way we measure our emissions (“footprint” in sustainability parlance) is not a solid accounting tool for reductions. As a planet, we’re barely moving in the direction of carbon neutrality. Meanwhile, the world is becoming more urbanized everyday. People are moving to the cities, and our emissions are determined by the “systems” or infrastructure we live in. Therefore, Steffen says, it makes sense to make cities more efficient. “The number one way to tackle climate change is to build more compact cities,” he said.
From there, he outlined a few ways in which design can reduce emissions. Creating denser cities, increasing walkability, and better public transportation are all obvious targets to reduce urban emissions. He also mentioned a number of interesting new apps that can help people understand their footprints, in order to make their lifestyles more sustainable.
At the end of his talk, I emerged bright-green neutral. Hearing Steffen speak was better than reading one of his essays. He was logical and realistic. The most intriguing idea was that technology is enabling people to see their own consumption - and does that mean that data may change their behavior? But I’m unfortunately cynical about “worldchanging” sustainability. The people who are interested in sustainable design and checking out the size of their footprint is one small segment of the population. I think talk about how design can change the world must be rooted in a policy discussion involving energy efficiency. Because at the end of the day, sustainable design is only one type of design. And “business as usual” design - and emissions - are far easier to do.
I’m very excited to share this story, even though I didn’t produce it myself. Snap Judgment, one of my favorite hour-long NPR shows, asked me to do a tape sync in San Antonio. A tape sync is what producers want when they can’t visit their interview subjects themselves, but they need something that sounds better than a phone interview. They call up a freelancer to get the recording while the producer talks over the phone. Since I love Snap Judgement, I agreed to drive down to San Antonio, no questions asked.
I arrived at a small house in a neighborhood of small houses, in the southern part of the city. It had a purple cross in the front yard, along with a cactus in a container that nearly reached the roof of the porch. Inside, it was like there was a community meeting waiting for me in order to get started. The Alvarados, who lived in the house, had gathered about seven people onto their two couches to come talk to me/ the producer. I put my recording equipment together and was ready to begin.
I spent the next two hours listening to several versions of the same tragic story. The neighborhood is bordered by Kelly Airforce Base, which is now closed. Many of the neighbors had worked there, they all knew people who had worked there. The story they told me was about how they had all gotten sick over the years, and many of their friends, family, and neighbors had died. The purple crosses marked the homes of people who had fought cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Robert and Lupe Alvarado, along with their children, had collectively had over three cancers, kidney failure, an aneurysm, and now Robert is mostly blind. Others had bow-legged children, mysterious splotches, knee pains, more cancers.
They didn’t think it was a coincidence that everyone was getting sick. The neighborhood came to believe that Kelly Airforce Base had dumped chemicals for decades, and then covered it up. The truth came to light when a construction crew hit a toxic plume in the ground.
That began a struggle that lasted decades. The neighborhood residents worked to bring their ordeal to light. But it’s a classic environmental justice storyline - those without wealth and power can’t summon a loud enough voice to affect change. Instead, a doctor charged with looking into the health problems blamed them on eating too many corn tortillas. Seriously. It happened.
The cleanup started a few years ago, but for many, it’s too late. Many studies have shown that environmental toxins are passed down through the generations. The Alvarado’s children have had their own children, and Robert & Lupe worry about what will happen to them, even though they have moved away. The Alvarados themselves are resigned to dying in their house. They can’t afford to move. Their house no longer holds any value. They’ve outlasted many of their neighbors, but they know that living next to the now-shuttered airforce base will eventually kill them.
This morning I woke up to a neighborhood coated in a thick haze. I stepped outside, and it smelled ominously like walking in a pine forest. I was smelling the memory of the trees that have gone up in flames. I took my dog for a run, and returned with a rough feeling in my lungs. Breathing deeply outdoors is not a good idea today.
Where I live is relatively far from the Bastrop fires that have displaced so many, but much closer to the fires north of Austin. My house feels safe, but there was a small fire yesterday only a few miles away. The landscape in Texas these days is apocalyptic. Fires rage like hell, particulates cloud our sky and our lungs, and there’s no rain or relief in sight. It’s almost like someone is trying to tell us all to get out while we still can.
Covering natural disasters can be difficult logistically, for obvious reasons, and offering analysis on the subject can be problematic. In some sense there is no culprit other than nature, and attempts to inquire about any man-made activity or policy decisions that exacerbated the consequences can be seen as overly political, given that such analyses arise in a context of widespread human distress. But ignoring the human factors is also irresponsible, because it undermines our ability to pursue better stewardship in the future.
U.S. policy has pitted a deeply ingrained institutional belief that some wildfires can and should be “fought” against a scientific consensus that they are ecologically indispensable. Global warming has kindled the debate further because it has created both hotter and drier conditions in many places. In addition, a legacy of all-too-successful suppression means that many forests now contain huge “fuel stores” of woody debris that periodic fires used to eliminate. Add the fact that droves of people have moved into fire-prone areas, and you have an increasingly combustible mix of policy and ecology. “Megafires are signaling a new era in fire and land-use management,” says Williams.
What a spot-on paragraph. It really encapsulates how we’ve set ourselves up for nature to savagely turn on us. In a climate where nothing can be accurately predicted, we have to get smarter - much, much smarter - about land-use policy and stewardship. It’s a shame that this lesson has to come with such a high price for Austin.
I tend to think that a native tree is a better tree. It evolved with the local climate, it’s attractive to other native species, and most importantly, it’s meant to be part of the local ecosystem. Exotic trees, imported from other ecosystems, can bring problems: pests, disease, water requirements, the potential to become invasive. But I recently ran into a study (an ESA poster, really) that revised the way I think about native and exotic trees - and how much we’ve changed the environment we plant them in.
The study was done by a class of undergrads at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, under the guidance of entomologist Steven Frank. They were doing a student survey of trees on campus, and they came across a mix of native and exotic trees. Taking a close look into the branches, they saw that the native trees were covered in scale - a common but dangerous pest that can disguise itself as knobby bumps or cottony tufts on plants. The exotic trees weren’t completely scale free, but the native trees had 90 percent more scale.
The class’ theory to explain this phenomenon was based on something called the “enemy release hypothesis.” The idea is that exotic trees would naturally host fewer insect communities, because they’ve escaped the species that lived on them in their native range. The sinister sounding enemy release theory, then, predicts that the students would find more scale on native trees than exotic trees.
The one complicating factor is that when they compared two native oak trees, they found different types of scale on them. They were both hosting native North American scale, but the students also found an exotic scale species from Japan on one of the trees. The native trees were somewhat prepared to deal with a native pest, but the Japanese scale posed another problem. Free from its native habitat, it could potentially spread amongst the trees, unsuppressed.
As a result, the native trees on campus looked sick. Their canopies were thinning out, and many of their branches were dead. Meanwhile, the exotics were looking pretty healthy. Is this a world turned upside down?
Well, yes. A college campus is an environment that has been meticulously created, controlled, and managed by humans. The trees that were surveyed were not a part of a complete ecosystem, they were planted for landscaping. The students came to this conclusion:
"Maintaining urban trees to provide human sources of temperature moderation, air filtration, and beauty may not be compatible with conservation objectives to maintain native plant and animal diversity."
In other words, the reason you would plant a tree on a college campus is not really the same reason that you would advocate for planting a native tree. On a college campus, trees are planted for human enjoyment. Native trees evolved in ecosystems where they played roles beyond giving shade, filtering our air, and providing a nice place for students to stroll between classes. So maybe, it’s okay not to plant a native tree. Maybe in some cases, an exotic tree is a better tree.