The Whole Enterprise of Foreign Correspondence

In How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India, New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry sheds some light on international news making: 

Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.

She goes deeper into the contradictions of telling stories from other countries in an interview with Aaron Lammer on the Longform podcast. (Starting about 12:45) 

Lammer: What had you learned about telling the big story of a place, when you end up in a place like Russia or India and you are asked to tell the story of a country, in the case of India which has one of the largest populations in the world, and you are supposed to boil that all down for the New York Times reader? How does that make you think about the story? 
Barry: It’s terrifying to suddenly be the kind of oracular voice of authority in a place where you are still a stranger. And, of course, we are always strangers, no matter how much time and how much area expertise we acquire. And it is also a kind of skill. I think that especially 10 or 15 years ago, a kind of characteristic oracular voice of the foreign correspondent that was part of the tradecraft of being the foreign correspondent that you assumed that confidence to try and sort of clarify the thicket of confusing nuance and contradictory information that you get about foreign conflicts. 
It was hard, I think the only way I managed to do it was fortunately I had a few years to go around and do reporting in Russia before I was called on to write those pieces like the bobbing head of the Wizard of Oz that tells you how it is. It took a long time to have the confidence to do that.  
I think what you fall back on is being a reporter whether you’re in northern New England or the deep south or wherever, it’s always the same, it’s always the same job. You go out and you find some kind of narrative that illuminates a theme and you report until you can’t report anymore and you sit down and you try and write it. And, I suppose no matter how bewildering the landscape is, you can just do that if you’re careful. To me, learning India in particular, because I had very little background, was the only way I could have done it was just by going out and taking one bite of the apple and repeating the cycle for two or three years.     

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez, a Lahore-born and raised Pakistani, returns home after graduating from Princeton in the US and getting fired from his job at a prestigious New York finance firm. A woman may be to blame, but so is America's reaction to 9/11 in general and a semi-bearded Pakistani in particular. His story is unspooled through a dinner conversation with an unnamed American who Changez happens to meet next a market in Lahore. 

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2007), the Reluctant Fundamentalist is a mediation on identity and nostalgia (both personal and public), class (Changez comes from a noble, but falling family in Pakistan and climbs the ladder in America's education realm and New York’s finance sector) and the truth/fiction of the stories and myths we use to define us. 

The novel's tension lies in understanding why Changez rescinds his role as bridge between two countries (or, two worlds). Here Changez lectures his unnamed guest:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

While much of the narrative flow takes place on the personal level (and in the the US), Lahore becomes a great unnamed character:

You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness — with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards — they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts that lie between us and the River Ravi—the congested, maze-like heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheel who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Mohsin Hamid's second novel. He’s now written four, and he continues his experimentation with the dramatic monologue, in which a single speaker uses stories to reveal his or her character to a silent audience. These tales, especially in the hands of compelling narrators like Changez, have an intimate and warmth to them that is supposed to persuade the listener.

As always, such conviction should be taken with a grain of salt. Check out these CliffsNotes questions you should ask yourself when coming across a dramatic monologue:  

- Who is the speaker talking to or why? 
- What tactics is the speaker using to make his case?
- Does the speaker seem to change his mind during the poem?

Reviewers and book jacket blurbers spent a lot of time exploring the underlying tension between this man of the “East” who once lived in the “West.” If we know Changez through his stories, though, we don't know much about the man he's speaking to. Much was written about the first CliffsNotes question above— who is the person Changez speaks to? He is just a tourist? Or, something a bit more complicated? 

Mohsin Hamid explains some of his explorations with story forms: 

In my final year, as I was starting my first novel, I read The Fall by Camus. It is written as a dramatic monologue, with the protagonist constantly addressing the reader as “you,” and it changed how I thought books could work. I was amazed by the potential of the “you”, of how much space it could open up in fiction.

The book I was writing then, back in 1993, became Moth Smoke, the tale of a pot-smoking ex-banker who falls disastrously in love with his best friend’s wife. You, the reader, are cast as his judge. The story has what might be called a realistic narrative – there is no magic, no aliens – but the frame of the trial that it uses isn’t realism. It is something else: make-believe, play, with “you” given an active role.

In my second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wanted to explore this further, push the boundaries of what I knew how to do with “you”. Camus’s novel was a guide, but my project was my own: to try to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader – fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty – could colour a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on. I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics.

In all, this is a fascinating read.

It Can't Happen Here

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. This one I read for a book club.

Sinclair Lewis writes this novel in 1935, when he describes the rise of populist, yet unconventional, governor Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip who defeats FDR in the 1936 Democratic primary and wins the national election promising to nationalize the banks, neuter trade unions, share corporate profits with people, not to mention forcing Jews to claim loyalty to the US (and these policies) and stripping voting and education rights from African Americans. Once he wins, Windrip dissolves most government institutions and rules through a paramilitary force.

The story centers on Vermont journalist (and newspaper owner) Doremus Jessup and his opposition to Chief Windrip and his "Corpo" state. But you can't help but notice how relevant it is to today.

If there were ever is a fascist dictatorship here, American humor and pioneer independence are so marked hat it will be absolutely different than anything in Europe. For almost a year after Windrup came in, this seemed true. The chief was photographed playing poker, in shirtsleeves, and with a derby on the back of his head, with a newspaper, a chauffeur and a pair of rugged steel workers.


They planned, these idealists, to correct, as quickly as might be, the errors of brutality and crookedness among officials. They saw arising a Corpo art, a Corpo learning, profound and real, divested of the traditional snobbishness of the old-time universities, valiant with youth, and only the more beautiful in that it was “useful.” They were convinced that Corpoism was Communism cleansed of foreign domination and the violence and indignity of mob dictatorship; Monarchism with the chosen hero of the people for monarch; Fascism without grasping and selfish leaders; freedom with order and discipline; Traditional America without its waste and provincial cockiness.
Like all religious zealots, they had blessed capacity for blindness, and they were presently convinced that (since the only newspapers they ever read certainly said nothing about it) there were no more of blood-smeared cruelties in court and concentration camp; no restrictions of speech or thought. They believed that they never criticized the Corpo régime not because they were censored, but because “that sort of thing was, like obscenity, such awfully bad form.”

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes

For the last 15 years or so, the US has been increasingly failed by its institutions:

  • The government (think response to Katrina, build up and carrying out of Iraq War)
  • The universities (think Penn State child rape scandal, and I'd add, Baylor University)
  • The Catholic Church
  • Financial regulators
  • The media (think missing the story of the Iraq War, the missing story of financial regulation).

Hayes is interested in illustrating where the failure comes from and what it's doing to us.

We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of broad and devastating crisis of authority.


Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating the extreme economic inequality of scope and scale unseen since since the last Gilded Age. … There are many reasons for inequality, but the underlying idea is it is shared in our meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be member in good standing of that select few.


But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The closest I ever came to first-hand knowledge of slavery in the US was a station on the underground railroad in Milton, WI where we would take elementary school field trips. Suffice to say, I don't know too much about the human details of the system of slavery: terror as a economic model and an organizing principle.

Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad is certainly eye opening on the level of day-to-day existence of slaves: living on the economic whims of agriculture (especially cotton) and the barbaric and impetuous impulses of slave holders. But that’s not the power of Whitehead's book. It’s making these personal stories so universal and modern.

Take this — from the novel's main character Cora as she hides in an attic in the home of Martin and Ethel, very reluctant (and they thought, former) members of the underground railroad in barbarous North Carolina (which used to be a popular stop, the underground railroad conductor told Cora, “from what I’m told. Not anymore.”). The North Carolina of the novel tried to outlaw not slavery, but African Americans.

“In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.”

Riding in a carriage, Martin pulls back the blanket covering Cora to show her what the locals call ‘The Freedom Trail,’ corpses of African Americans hanging from trees, signs of torture apparent, going all the way to town.

Cora spends months hidden in Martin’s and Ethel’s attic, across the street from the town park where every Friday the town meets for a concert, the production of a play and the hanging of an African American:

Cora hadn’t left the top floors of the house in months but her perspective roved widely. North Carolina had its Justice Hill, and she had hers. Looking down over the universe of the park, she saw the town drift where it wanted, washed by sunlight on a stone bench, cooled in the shadows of the hanging tree. But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. Martin and Ethel were terrified of the watchful eyes behind every darkened window. The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things the dark: the rising black tribe; the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in the attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family.   

What is Populism?

"Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers. What makes them all “populists”, and does the word actually mean anything?" The Economist recently asked.

Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University answered in a book-length essay: What is Populism? “Populism is seen as a threat but also as a potential corrective for politics that has somehow become too distant from ‘the people,’” Müller writes.

“Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unifiedbut I shall argue, ultimately fictionalpeople against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way inferior.” (19-20)

Populists justify their acts by claiming that they—and they alone—speak for the people. Müller says the populists government's exhibit these features:

  1. Attempts to colonize the non-partisan state apparatus (judiciary, civil servants, etc.) with representatives of “the people”
  2. Corruption in the form of mass clientelism — trading specific benefits or favors for political support
  3. Efforts to systematically to suppress civil society seen in opposition

“Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people.” (p. 4).

What sets populists apart is how they define who “the people” is. Populists, by Müller’s definition, often view citizenry in narrow terms, purposely excluding specific groups. “Right-wing populists also typically claim to discern a symbiotic relationship between an elite that does not truly belong and marginal groups that are also distinct from the people.” (p. 23)

“Apart from determining who really belongs to the people, populists therefore need to say something about the content of what the authentic people actually want. What they usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy.” (p. 25)

When in power

“Populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people. Hence it becomes crucial to argue (and supposedly “prove”) that civil society isn’t civil society at all, and that what can seem like popular opposition has nothing to do with proper people.” (p. 48)

For all the potential problems populists bring—the silencing of opposition civil society or the press, the corruption, the narrow definition of what it means to be a true citizen—the reasons populists become popular stem from a very specific issue:  parts of the population are truly underrepresented.

“Those defending democracy against populism also have to be honest that all is not well with existing democracies in Western Europe and North America…[T]hey are increasingly suffering from the defect that weaker socioeconomic groups do not participate in the political process and do not have their interests represented effectively.” 59-60

The man in the crowd photo by Hernán Piñera.

Lagos, Nigeria: Through Grey-ish Literature

Lagos seen through documents


Nigeria is considered a key power on the African continent, not only because of its size, but also because of its political and economic role in the region. One in five people in Sub - Saharan Africa call Nigeria home. The country’s commercial center, Lagos, is among the world’s largest cities. Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy, and it is one of the world’s major sources of high-quality crude oil.

Congressional Research Service. Nigeria: Current Issues and U.S. Policy.  March 11, 2016

Mind Blowing

The mere mention of its name evokes strong reactions from visitors and Nigerians alike. Most people either passionately love or virulently hate Lagos, but no visit to Nigeria is complete without experiencing this overpowering and mindboggling city. It is stimulating and vibrant, and dirty and dangerous, all at the same time. Those who love Lagos do so because of its diversity, and the majority of Lagosians proudly confess that they can't see themselves living anywhere else in Nigeria. Those who hate it find it a volatile place, with perhaps one of the world's worst reputations for congestion, crime, poverty and chaos. Whether you love it or hate it, you will undoubtedly find Lagos mind-blowing!  

Nigeria: The Bradt Travel Guide by Lizzie Williamsfrom 2008


Lagos map, courtesy of Wikipedia

Lagos map, courtesy of Wikipedia

1861: British annexation of Lagos as a Crown Colony.
1960:  Nigeria becomes independent from the United Kingdom on October 1; Lagos Stock Exchange and Nigeria Acceptances Limited
1961: Nigerian Institute of International Affairs founded.
1962: University of Lagos established.[5]
1963: Independence House built. City's population: 655,246.
1979: Murtala Muhammed International Airport opens [Photo]
1983: Vanguard newspaper begins publication; Mama Cass restaurant in business.
1990: Third Mainland Bridge opens; Lagos City Polytechnic and Equatorial Trust Bank established.
    Urban area Population: 4,764,000
1991: Federal government relocates from Lagos to Abuja
1995: Urban area population: 5,966,000
2007: State election held; Teslim Balogun Stadium built; Centre for Contemporary Art founded
2009: Nike Centre for Art and Culture opens.
2010: Lagos Fashion Week begins

From A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton and Wikipedia

Why Come Here?

I asked Olakunle Tejuoso, who co-owns Jazzhole with his wife, Olatundun, what makes people come here.

This is a place where you come and take a breath from everything outside. Lagos is so fast and rowdy at times, but you can come here and hear yourself think.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, The Guardian. Welcome to Guardian Lagos Week – live

Growing, Growing

The growth of slums in Lagos state results from the population, size and age of existence. Presently, the number of slum areas in Lagos is over forty-two (UN HABITAT, 2003)... 

A great challenge facing Lagos Metropolis is shelter (Abiodun, 1976) particularly for people living in overcrowded slums. The estimates from official records put the population density at 1,308 persons per square kilometers with the available land falling prey to unregulated and unplanned development. The problem of insecure land tenure defined by the inability of the slum residents also contributes to the growth of and the poor sanitation condition of the slums. The common practices of bulldozing the slum environment exemplified by the Maroko case of 1990

Adedayo, A. F., and N. A. Malik. "Variation in the quality of upgraded slums in Lagos, Nigeria." Ethiopian Journal of Environmental Studies and Management 9.1 (2016): 14-21. [PDF]

On Nollywood

Lagos is where Nollywood is primarily located, and for budgetary reasons its films are always shot on location, most often in Lagos, which serves as the ground of the films, not just in the immediate sense that when cameras are turned on, they make images of Lagos (or one might even say, Lagos imposes its images on them), but also that the films are a means for Nigerians to come to terms—visually, dramatically, emotionally, morally, socially, politically, and spiritually—with the city and everything it embodies. Nollywood’s imagination forms the city’s images, making them public emblems of fear and desire. Nollywood is a part of that cityscape, an element in its visual culture. This cityscape is a resource that the films share and an environment that shapes them materially.

For years, the principle meeting place for actors and producers was Wini’s Guest House, where the floor was sticky with beer and the furniture was apt to tear one’s clothing. Under pressure to relocate by neighbors upset by the noise, the frequent blockage of the street, and the difficulty of distinguishing aspiring actresses from prostitutes, the film people moved from Wini’s to O’Jez’s, a more attractive nightclub and restaurant, located in the National Stadium. The stadium itself is a hulking ruin, the field overgrown, the equipment ripped out and carried away by thieves, and the environs haunted by armed robbers, but O’Jez’s is spruce and hums with activity, a suitable home for a vibrant, rising professional community: it has good sound and light systems; and downstairs in the courtyard, film people carry on animated conversations over tables crowded with beer bottles, pepper soup, and cellphones...

Nollywood in Lagos, Lagos in Nollywood Films Haynes, Jonathan
Africa Today, Volume 54, Number 2, Winter 2007, pp. 131-150 [PDF]

On Light

 WE call it light; “electricity” is too sterile a word, and “power” too stiff, for this Nigerian phenomenon that can buoy spirits and smother dreams. Whenever I have been away from home for a while, my first question upon returning is always: “How has light been?” The response, from my gateman, comes in mournful degrees of a head shake.

Bad. Very bad.

The quality is as poor as the supply: Light bulbs dim like tired, resentful candles. Robust fans slow to a sluggish limp. Air-conditioners bleat and groan and make sounds they were not made to make, their halfhearted cooling leaving the air clammy. In this assault of low voltage, the compressor of an air-conditioner suffers — the compressor is its heart, and it is an expensive heart to replace. Once, my guest room air-conditioner caught fire. The room still bears the scars, the narrow lines between floor tiles smoke-stained black.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, New York Times. Lights Out in Nigeria

A City on the Move

This October, Nigeria’s largest city will once again host its annual Fashion and Design Week. Since 2012, the event has drawn designers from all over the continent, and a popular platform for young talent has launched new careers in an industry that has expanded as the region has prospered. The design world is taking note of lagos’s rapid growth—the task of finding creative solutions for a city with an estimated 21 million people has engaged international architects, including Rem Koolhaas, and David Adjaye, and local talent NLÉ.

The World's Most Livable Cities
Metropolis ranks the best cities to live, work, and play in.
Cities to Watch

The development of music in Lagos

Two factors appear to have been particularly important in the development of Lagosian popular music: the movement of musical ideas, technology and personnel along hierarchical economic networks linking Lagos to Europe, the Americas, and other West African port towns; and the role of musicians as cultural brokers, situated at social interstices in a complex urban environment. Syncretism, the amphoteric fusing of diverse expressive materials into performance structures stabilized by indigenous values, was, for professional Lagosian musicians, both aesthetic praxis and socioeconomic strategy.

Waterman, Christopher A. "Aṣíkò, Sákárà and Palmwine: Popular Music And Social Identity In Inter-War Lagos, Nigeria." Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development (1988): 229-258.

Cover photo by satanoid.

On the wicked lives and miserable deaths of record store clerks (and the rest of the creative class)

"When artists and other craftsman can’t make ends meet, we all pay the price,” says Scott Timberg.

It’s these craftsman who make up a majority of Timberg’s argument about the US's falling economic fortunes in his book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Timberg recently spoke at Politics and Prose in Washington DC.

Craftsman are the animators, the musicians, landscape painters, the art gallery staff, the people who work at record stores, book stores. Art teachers and school librarians can also be counted here. So could anyone bringing the arts closer to people.

For every superstar like Kanye West or Stephen King, there are hundreds -- if  not thousands -- of working artists and craftsman toiling away in relative obscurity. Before, those artists could aspire to become part of the middle class: raising families, buying houses. Not anymore. As the superstar economy continues to reach stratospheric heights, the supporting cast find themselves scrambling for paid work and their economic situation has become precarious.

It’s happening in the arts world, Timberg argues, just like it tore apart other industries. Instead of documenting this plight — like that of the auto worker or the US’s shrinking manufacturing sector — the media has remained largely silent on the issue.

Timberg, who also writes at Salon and a blog called CultureCrash at ArtsJournal, admits he came to understand the situation slowly.

At the turn the century he began noticing musicians complaining about losing revenue for their work. He mainly wrote it off as the impacts of file sharing and other economic hiccups of an industry dealing with extreme technological change. It was sad, but what could he do about it?

As the 21st century rolled on, complaints from people he knew in other industries started to pile up. First bookstores, then record and video stores started to fall by the wayside. These were the very places where smart people willingly worked for little pay but held a type of prestige through their industry knowledge and the suggestions they made to customers.

Timberg wrote a piece at the LA Times on one region's last of the great record stores, Tower Record's classical annex on the Sunset Strip. It was extremely well thought of throughout the local arts community, with very knowledgeable staff helping people find even the most obscure pieces.  In the LA Times piece, Timberg pointed out the special place these record store clerks held in America's culture:

Like their counterparts at book and video stores, record clerks shape our experience of culture as decidedly as any critic, curator or culture-industry executive. They're street-level tastemakers, part of a breed that's entered pop mythology: Kevin Smith's first film was set in a New Jersey video store, and Quentin Tarantino went from South Bay video clerk to indie auteur. Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity," which became a 2000 film, was narrated by an obsessive, emotionally stunted London record salesman.

A few years after that story ran, Tower Records went out of business.

By then, the story he was covering was moving inexorably towards Tmberg and his family. Since 2002, he had worked as an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But as the Tribune company of Chicago, which owned the LA paper, posted tidy profits, Timberg lost his job in 2008 during a wave of layoffs.  His wife had just had a baby and the couple had moved into a new house. They lost the house afterward.

He was quickly overwhelmed by the economic devastation around him. During the recession that began in 2008, California was hit incredibly hard, posting an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent in 2010. The creative class most likely fared even worse, Timberg says. The economic fallout had many consequences: Job losses, certainly. But also depression and failed marriages.

Timberg lists a few reasons that brought on the gutting of the creative middle class.

The first is economics. The recent recession hit the arts community hard, cancelling funding, scaling back productions, programs and buildings. Governments reacted to this drop off in revenue by moving into austerity mode, which also impacted schools and other government funding.

Secondly, technology. The rise of the internet has been great for the consumer — and the owners of Internet-based companies, Timberg argues. We know about the impacts of Amazon on other bookstores, both large and small. We've read a thing or two from the music industry about the impacts of file sharing on their profits and the royalties they pay to musicians. Lesser known is the ease at which creative content — words, pictures, video and audio — can be found free of charge, pushing out those who try to sell their work.

Timberg focuses a lot of vitriol on thought leaders of Silicon Valley and internet technology companies, who, he says, profit from the work of others, like writers and musicians. “The cult of the free" — a popular movement from Silicon Valley advocating people give away products and services — "has been as good to the creative class as trickle down economics has for the middle class,” he said.

Finally, there is the changing social norms rippling through the US, a shift in the way we think about arts and culture. The financialization of the US economy means every project or program must be weighed as profit or loss -- just like a business -- and provide a return on investment. Arts are often pushed aside in this equation. "No longer do we think literature, art and culture leads us to a road to wisdom,” he said.

So, what is to be done?

This is the part of the post where you admit listening to the writer is a poor replacement for actually reading the writer. Timberg began his talk by calling it a "rant" -- and he didn't disappoint. He was unapologetically personal, painting a grim picture with statistics, but mostly relaying stories of his family and friends and former colleagues. (During the Q & A, an audience member, a photographer who lived in Los Angeles and also lost her house, opened up almost too frankly about her dwindling economic prospects. )

Timberg's talk was a call to arms -- as much a lament of the US middle class as to the creative class. He cajoled, he riffed, he opined.

Timberg the speaker was convincing. How about Timberg the writer?

 A book should provide more than just anecdotes and broad strokes. Timberg said his book covers each industry (music, publishing, etc.) on its own merits. That's good, because at some level the situations facing culture industries sound similar, but they are certainly not. (For example: From my distant vantage point, the shortsightedness of those who run the music industry is at least partially to blame for its own economic problems.)

Timberg the speaker did end with all call to arms for the consumer, the one person who, by voting with a pocketbook, can help in the short-term rectify some of these issues.

“If you value arts, but you don’t support places,” he said, like buying prints from artists, going to arts movie houses or purchasing from independent books stores, “this ecology will continue to whither.”  

An evening with George Pelecanos: 'Crime is just an engine to get things written'

What I learned from George Pelecanos at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC. Pelecanos, the author of 20 books, writes mostly crime fiction in and around Washington DC, an area where he's lived all his life.

Pelecanos is known for describing the plight of the working class, blue collar District of Columbia, where his books mostly take  place far away from the corridors of power. The crimes he sets his stories around aren’t often graphic, although there are exceptions. Instead, he dwells on the human implications of violence, history and maybe even fate.

His books offer a lesson of the city’s complicated racial history. And it provides a newcomer — like me — a geography lesson of the city’s cultural, historical and symbolic landmarks.

The best writers listen to how people talk. Pelecanos often watches criminal trials — not for the technical material — but to listen to the language of people. He also volunteers for prison literacy and literature programs.

He recently spoke to inmate  for 90 minutes. From that, he said he got a book full of information. Not facts about crimes and guns, but the intimate details on how the person speaks, his character.

"If you’re a white writer writing a black character, they often stop there,” he said. "You have to figure out the character first and then figure out how that person talks."

On accurately translating Washington DC (and surrounding area) to the page. Pelecanos is  one of the handful of writers who gets correct the details of Washington DC, an audience member said.

Pelecanos pointed out that for writers researching on the internet can be a curse. Sure, you can get any information you want,  “but you can’t get the feeling” of a place.

Pelecanos spends a lot of time riding his bike around the metropolitan area. Unlike before when he traveled with a camera and notebook, today he always has his iPhone. “That is my tool,” he said.

On the gentrification of Silver Spring, Maryland (where he lives) and Washington DC.

While the culture and vibe has changed in Silver Spring, you can’t be nostalgic about that stuff. "No one can say that things aren't better in Washington,” he said, pointing out entire neighborhoods — like areas around the H Street Corridor — used to be business wastelands. “Now all those buildings have their lights on. That means people have jobs,” he said.

“It’s nostalgia,” he said of worrying about gentrification. “You can’t get caught up in that.”

On being a crime writer: “I want to write about neighborhoods and people who never get their stories told. Crime is just an engine to get things written,” he said.

"Conflict drives drama and crime fiction is the ultimate drama because it deals with life and death."

On the influence of Westerns on his work. (Check out this scene he wrote for HBO's the Wire.)

Both his grandfather and father — who taught him a love for movies — were born in Greece. “Greeks love Westerns," he said. "They thought that was reality.”

On the influence of music in his books. Pelecanos' books are full of music -- especially from the local DC scene -- said it comes from his love of movies. He often uses a piece of music to help pace a scene.  

The music pulsing in the background of his books come from the type of scenes he writes, bars, kitchens, cars, especially when he writes of characters driving around aimlessly smoking pot. “These are places where people sit around and argue about music,” he said. “That's what we did all day.”

He wanted his book King Suckerman to be the American Graffiti of Funk.

On writing for HBO's the Wire. He coined the term “Hamsterdam” in season three. (He wrote the teleplay for that episode.)

Television writing is much different than writing for print, he said. First of all, people actually read your lines. In season three, show eleven where Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale said good bye to each other on the roof of Stringer Bell’s apartment. “They elevated that to something much greater,” he said. "You won’t hear many writers say that.”

On professional competition in the writer's room. Working with such acclaimed writers on the Wire brought out competitive juices of everyone, which made the show better. "I don't care if it's Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, I am going to kick their ass," he said. "They were thinking the same thing." 

On the future. He sold his Derek Strange character to HBO. Hard Revolution will the first season. “All I have to do know is write it,” he said,  deadpan. HBO will then decide if it wants to fund the production.  

He also announced he’s about to start working on a short film with a young director from Baltimore.

On building a film industry in DC. He's spoken to politicians in Washington DC about exploring the ideas of providing tax credits for film work. Looking to New York City's film industry, Pelecanos points out that Law & Order kept people employed for two  decades. Those who worked on the set raise their families from that show.

Photo of George Pelecanos by David Shankbone.

As information becomes free, those who create it face dangers

Joel Simon, the Executive Direct of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has a new book out, The New Censorship: Inside the Battle for Global Media Freedom.

On Monday, January 5, he spoke to Rebecca MacKinnon at Politics & Prose, in Washington DC. MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices (where I once did some work), is the author of The Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Unrelated -- but more than a bit prescient -- the talk took place just two days before the killings of 12 journalists and staffers at the Paris weekly, Charlie Hebdo.

Simon wanted to explore the paradox that we live in such an information-saturated age that we’re actually dwarfed by it. But the people who bring us that information “have never been more vulnerable.” Today, some 200 journalists are in prison, a number that has held steady stayed for the past three years, equalling the highest number of imprisoned journalists since the CPJ started keeping track.

At the same time, People are so dependent on information that we are blind to our gaps of knowledge and we don’t have a very good understanding of the system that brings us our information.

That traditional delivery system – the professional press – is becoming more and more diminished. The information monopoly that journalists once had is gone, which makes them more vulnerable in a number of ways:

One, political leaders, especially those who Simon calls Democrators – elected to power but don’t respect democracy’s institutions (Russia’s Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) -- don’t have a need for journalists.

Simon tells a story of meeting with Erdoğan in the capacity of his head of CPJ. Generally, the meetings with foreign leaders start out with the head of state stating how much s/he respects the press, leading the visiting CPJ team to  ask: why, then, do you jail these people, listing off the journalists in prison. It's this point where the argument begins.

Not so with Erdoğan, Simon said. He immediately went on the offensive on how he doesn’t like journalists, finds them oppositional, and claims they don’t tell the truth.

He then broke another taboo: The Turkish leader even went to say that journalists at the New York Times and CNN were the worst offenders, an uncommon complaint for heads of state, who generally take their anger out on local journalists, ignoring the foreign reporters.

The problem with these Democrators is that they’re popularly elected, and often, quite popular, Simon says. In the case of Turkey, many people applaud the jailing of journalists, who they see as part of a political problem. (During the Q & A section, someone pointed out that he knows many Turks who have many complaints of their press.)  

Secondly, terror groups don’t have a need for journalists, either. Both terrorists and governments  have alternative ways to speak directly to people, to get their story out. Conversely, the people often doing reporting in areas held by terror groups are largely citizens (and may not think of themselves as journalists). These people lack the institutional network of full-fledged reporters who often have the help of their parent organization, their foreign bureaus, lawyers, administrative support, to fall back on.

Finally, it’s easy for governments to use journalists’ tools against them to track them, to watch them and break into their gadgets  to more closely follow their work. Discussion ensued on the how the revelations of internet surveillance in the US and elsewhere has lead to writers and others to self-censor their work, their searches and their writings.  “Surveillance is like drone warfare," Simon said. “Nothing seems safe from the NSA.” The problem is, attempting NSA-type surveillance is getting cheaper and easier for others to do.

So, why is this important? Simon argues for those who feel they benefit from information moving across borders, this is an important issue. We need people to inform us, and we in the US and other Western countries depend on journalists from around the world to tell us our news. In some countries — Syria, for example — local people are reporting by any means necessary because it is far too dangerous for Westerners. Thus, we need to insure their protection  and help those people protect themselves.


In light of last week's massacre at the Charlie Hedbo office, I'd say Simon's and McKinnon's talk has even more weight. The Paris killings took place in a Global Media Capital, so the shock reverberated throughout that world: mostly Western, media savvy, liberal and educated.  But the people Simon is most concerned about feel different.  These are the local journalists, bloggers or citizens who often toil under relative anonymity, working to uncover the stories of places many of us don't know or would never travel to. Instead of a being gunned down in an audacious terrorist attack, these people are quietly bullied into submission, imprisoned or disappeared. 

Photo: Journalists on duty by Yan Arief Purwanto

A tale of two disciplines: How Big IT and frontline health workers fix Ebola (and beyond)

Sitting at a morning meeting called Responding to the Global Health Crisis: Technology & Policy Innovation almost felt like attending two separate conferences. The first group spoke glowingly about how Big IT can solve health problems: high speed and cloud computing can provide enough infrastructure to produce high quality data analysis. The second group concentrated on the less flashy needs (technology and otherwise) of frontline health workers in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The meeting appeared to be organized to get the two groups to speak to each other. However, at this point, each faction certainly uses different language.

The lead government speaker (and the individual who did marry the two approaches), Steven VanRoeckel, chief innovation officer at USAID, said his team is worried about preventing the next Ebola crisis by solving this one the correct way. That means allowing the right technologies to tackle the problems it's best suited to solve. 70 percent of the landmass in Liberia does not have cellular network coverage, he said. So instead of worrying about cellular devices, USAID has invited tech firms try to solve basic problems like creating better PPEs for health workers, understanding what communication messages work and creating better burial procedures.

Network and resource issues in Sierra Leone and Liberia (and probably Guinea) have forced the international community to fight Ebola by leap frogging local capacity by importing the necessary tools for network and internet connections, equipment to beef up the electrical grid and also health workers to fight Ebola. These interventions certainly help out during the emergency phase of Ebola, says Farley Cleghorn of the Futures Group. But once this outbreak transitions to a different, more controlled phase, it will be necessary to bring local capacity up to speed, he said. That means training local health workers and technicians in the areas of disease prevention/diagnosis/control, technical methods like contact tracing, behavioral communications, etc. and even getting people to run and administer the power grid and internet network.

From the Big IT side of the house.

Justin Rattner, the President of the Intel Foundation said high performance computing allows technical teams to solve a lot of big problems and create tools that collect data, assess threats, model risks, predict spread. This work can be done in the Silicon Valley, Washington DC, or a garage just about anywhere in the developed world.

Simone Bianco, a staff member of IBM's Almaden Research Center, spoke about the open-source data visualization tools his team helped create to be able to track diseases and outbreaks. Here is the IBM webpage on spatial temporal analytics:

Jason Paragas, the deputy director for innovation at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, made a fascinating point that the US government provides free weather data (pre-competitive information in innovation parlance) so that various groups (many of them commercial organizations) leverage to create weather models. By making this data free and available, the US government helps business and innovation but also (by default) sets data standards.

This integrated weather model does not exist for biology or health. The FDA has their data and rules; so does the NIH and the various military health people. A lack of agreed-upon platform means groups like IBM and their competitors are kind of making up rules and standards as they go along. A chicken or egg argument broke out: A few in the audience say the government needs to step up to make various standards. The government people in the room say they can't make anything without consent of industry folks.

David Arney, from the Medical Device Plug and Play Interoperability Program, said this crisis has already pushed the FDA and other government agencies into rethinking their reluctance to move ahead with technological innovations in the health field. For example, the FDA blocked approval of wireless medical devices in ICUs because the agency felt they were not safe. Because Ebola treatment centers prove it's far safer for medical personnel to enter isolation units as few times as possible, the FDA is changing its mind.

Now, for the frontline health workers.

Jeremy Wacksman from Dimagi says tech firms must walk a fine line when working on the ground in this Ebola crisis. For one, network infrastructure is very limited, placing many technical solutions out of reach. Also, many of the skills necessary for community health workers are not technical in nature. Community health workers must also develop more understanding of behavioral change communication, he said. They must learn to better understand contact tracing, which takes very developed skills involving interviewing, case management and data storage. This was seconded by Lesley-Anne Long, from mPowering Frontline Health Workers, who said CHWs could use more training on how to collecting data.

This understanding of data can't be underestimated. Supercomputers create outbreak models and visualizations in various parts of the world, but they are wholly dependent on the veracity -- and completeness --  of data at the local level. Also, that data created by the high performance computers needs to be shared with the frontline health workers so they can make the correct decisions, says David Arney.

Moving directly to the needs of community health workers Lesley-Anne Long told a story of asking health workers in Kenya what they needed. "We could have given them laptops, iPads or mobile phones," she told the group. 'But what they really wanted was bicycles."   

“Technology made the health worker sexy because we can give them Ipads and such,” Allison Foster of IntraHealth International told the group. “But health workers have always been sexy.”

Photo from Wikipedia

How do you out Google the Google?

How are we going to be better than Google, a colleague of mine asked.

It’s an honest question, but one that I'd say nobody has any idea how to answer. Nobody I know can say "this is how to do it on the Internet” any more than “this is how to do it against Google.”

Sure, people have been successful. But there’s no tried and true method. Only books about tried and true methods. And most of them are shite.

It’s a big monster, this commercial information age, swallowing everything that matters to them.

Being better than Google? You can't out Google Google. You have to go  niche. Deep niche. That means not returning the most results, but the best hits. It means, in our sense, returning things we can provide more context to our users. Only problem is, I am not supposed to use the word context. That’s from my colleagues, not from Google (who don't know we exist).

Nobody really understands what you mean by context, my colleagues tell me, continuing: We only nod in agreement because you say it at every meeting. Context to me is the legend of a map, answering the "so what?" question, or the "why is this important?" question.

David Weinberger, in his work on networked information, points out that links take readers forward; pushing the idea you're currently reading about forward, pushing your curiosity forward. Paper books and journals had no method to create this action; if you wanted to follow a writer's argument, you had to go back to the stacks and find the books/journals cited yourself.

I am taking this argument somewhat out of context (that word!) for my point, but here's a different take: The internet and its network gives us information, the raw material in the process that forges meaning.  This is a nice piece on the hierarchy of meaning from Aeon Magazine by Dougald Hine.

Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.

Knowledge, then, is higher level stuff, the context added to information:

Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning.

For content aggregators, like where I work, it’s a tight-rope walk providing information to users or providing context.

People don’t want too much of a heavy hand. Most feel that it smacks of the old way of doing things. The "go get the book off the shelf" way of doing things. Even if you're old enough to never have gotten a book from a shelf to find information, it feels old. Musty and grimy.

Answering the "so what?" question for people feels too much of a heavy hand. It can get clunky. Too AOL. And you never know how much context to provide. Or, what kind.

The map legend idea works kind of well, because we're thinking of information as a map where disciplines and subjects take up space. I deal with health systems, so we can say training and educating health workers goes here while managing health workers and providing incentives to them is over there. (Not the best example, I know.)

But is this physical-ness the best way? It feels right, now. But we'll have to see.

The bottom line is we need to find how our little digital library is going to keep users coming back after they've stumbled upon us from a Google search. The big search companies -- and there are a few more that just the G- -- eat guys like us for lunch. Even if were real niche.

But users? Users are even worse. They don't have the time nor the patience for cluttering up their information with knowledge.

Photo: Can hierarchy and sharing co-exist? (high res) by

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