Managing information through hubris

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime. 

-Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise

This reminds me of when I worked at NASA, running a technical library (contract style). Our overseer was convinced that our researchers no longer needed a library: they knew how to get the information they needed. We should not bother ourselves in getting in between them and their searches, but worry about, well, whatever else it was librarians worried about. 

Her ideas may have well and good, until they weren’t well and good. Yes, a good number of researchers were very savvy research gatherers. They held many degrees and were part of the smartest people in the world in their fields. But...

The information field had changed — was constantly changing. Many people didn’t know what to do with the information they had. They could find things, but they didn’t know how to interact with all this information they were gathering themselves. That was a micro problem. And my bosses thought they could get around that by building more tools. What also happened, the organization at the macro level didn’t know what to do with all the information their researchers were collecting and work they were doing. 

Librarians can come between the researcher and her research in bad ways. They can interrupt without understanding the needs of their patrons. They can throw too many irrelevant tools in their faces. But librarians are knowledgeable about the research process, the lifecycle of this information.  

What I came away from that job was a lesson in the problems non-librarians create running a library. But the issue was something different — a question of hubris. Not only did my overlords have too much faith in their machines, but they also didn’t want any help where they needed it most — how they handled their information. 

The Pope in today's world

As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God. 

-Saint Augustine 

Friend: Are you Catholic? 
Me: My mother was a Catholic, so I was raised one
Friend: So were you sodomized when you were 12?

The Catholic church has gone through the scandal. Accusations of priests molesting (mostly) young boys began in a drip-like fashion in the late 1980s. Decades later there doesn’t seem to have any end in sight. In fact, as transparency slowly increases, the crimes against young people appear even more horrific. 

We may never know the tally, which could include thousands of priests and tens of thousands of victims. 

One of the many questions we ask isn’t whether the church will survive the scandals. That’s most likely true. The Catholic church, while it has most likely paid out millions in claims across every continent, seems to have intact its solid foundation. But will it ever be able to separate itself from these scandals? Moral authority has seen its star fade over the centuries. but people look still look for institutions and individuals guidance. 

What is true is the church could die a more insidious death. It may survive, but its essence will be hallowed. It survived for so long because the stories it told about the life of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles rang true. Will parishioners learn to separate the stories from the rot?

These topics come up as the Pope is in UAE for the week, in a goodwill gesture on all sides. People outside the church may look to Pope as a spokesperson for millions. But do the people in Christian countries — the countries who survived the scandal — feel the same? 

What we must ask is what is the Pope’s role in today’s bruised Catholic church. It is an organization with one of the deepest infrastructures in the world. But the abuse happened in the bottom rungs of the machine. Regardless of what archbishops and cardinals did or did not do, people will remember being failed by their local church. That trust may be hard to replace. People may revere the Pope today but it’s the church and its failings they’ll remember. 

Will the last reporter turn off the lights?

Friday, January 25

I am laid off. I put up my little lay-off tweet and watch my mentions, inbox, private messages, and WhatsApp go straight to hell. Mostly people are very nice, and send their well wishes and job suggestions. Some people online tell me that I couldn’t have been good at my job because I got laid off. I think, but do not respond, that many good people on our news team lost their jobs. I think, but do not respond, that a part of me agrees with these trolls. The whole DC bureau leaves and gets lunch and drinks.

-By Emily Tamkin

Media layoffs, again. No surprise there, but this time time it was the online media folks who lost their jobs. 

Buzzfeed recently cut 15 percent of its workforce, totaling about 250 employees. This is after a year where the company “basically hit” its revenue target of $300 million. The Wall Street Journal reported BuzzFeed Chief Executive Jonah Peretti said the company's layoffs would cut operating costs "so that we can thrive and control our own destiny, without ever needing to raise funding again."

Verizon Media Group which contains AOL, Yahoo, TechCrunch and HuffPost shed 800 jobs, seven percent of its media workforce. 

Vice, Vox Media and Mashable have also announced layoffs in the last 12 months.

The problem, says Katie Herzog of the Stranger, is the double whammy of the crunch of online advertising dollars and poor business decisions. 

In reality, the reason BuzzFeed laid off staff was simply that the business model is flawed. After Google and Facebook claimed the majority of online ad revenue, there wasn't enough left for everyone else. And it’s not hard to see why advertisers would flee traditional forms of advertising: Facebook and Google can precisely target ads based on the users’ interests, location, friends, etc. News organizations just don’t have that sort of data. (This was compounded by the fact that classifieds, which also used to be some 40 percent of media revenue, moved online to free sites like Craigslist in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.) The returns on banner ads were so low that BuzzFeed gave up on that model entirely, relying instead on native advertising, which is essentially ads designed to look like articles.

This doesn’t mean management should be let off the hook. Some new media companies tend to run their business less like newsrooms than they do startups. BuzzFeed, for instance, received over $500 million in venture capital by 2018. Half a billion dollars would keep local papers in business for eons, but BuzzFeed choose to locate their offices in the most expensive real estate markets in the country. This wasn’t necessary—nor were the free snacks and lunches—but it was a part of the brand. And it worked for a while. But the thing about taking venture capital is that venture capitalists want some return on their investment. When they don’t get it, lay offs commence.  

I reported for nearly a decade, but only worked for a few established newspapers. I know about the economics of the industry, though, from a freelance perspective. These stories still surprise me when they happen. I can’t help but moralizing over this stuff. 

The economic model for today's journalism seems to be a large part of the problem. Story after story about these layoffs showed that a year ago, these digital media companies were investors' darlings, promising fat returns. Good reporting takes a lot of time and doesn't bring a lot of revenue. And these venture capitalists are the first to push for cost cutting when the company goes throw a lean period. 

But economic model talk misses the point, too. If journalism really is a public good and not just another facet of the economy, we need to ask what kind of journalism organizations we want. Do we want to rely on organs that are going to make big splashes and sell lots of advertising or whatever? Or, do we want to rely on something more cautious, more conservative where the values are placed in the work they do? It’s easy for us to say we’d pick the tortoise over the hare. But do we put our money where our heart lies? There’s always going to be flashy, high flying companies that promise riches to their investors. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when they get burned. 

Clouds and rain in the desert

A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…..No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

-Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

The wind kicks up, the palm fronds rustle, the dust blows. And the rain falls. It didn’t come too much today, just a bit more than a drizzle. But it was enough to wash off the dust and brighten the sands with the color of moisture. 

The air will be clean for the next few days—maybe even a week. We will be able to look into Dubai from our campus and pick out the Burj Khalifa. 

It was good. We needed the rain, something that other Emirates witness but Sharjah somehow misses.   It still is good. The air is fresh and the clouds hang low.

How to survive a mall

Malls are town squares in the UAE. It’s a country built around shopping and consumption — not to mention the fact that half the year the temperature rises above 100 degrees. 

The major malls in the UAE are big and cavernous, designed to carry sounds. Stores in the UAE spend a lot of money on visual billboards and they throb from every corner. Every store is equipped with theft detection gates and they often shriek with false positives, maybe someone walking too close. 

The best time to go to UAE malls, of course, are Friday mornings. Most muslims are either preparing for prayer or at Friday prayers, so during those morning hours the malls are as quiet and empty as they will ever be. 

But let’s say you need to go to a mall outside Friday morning. How do you do it? 

Apartment Therapy had some good ideas for how to handle shopping in the US during holiday shopping season. This is helpful in the UAE because the malls here are on holiday mode all year long. 

One suggestion: 

Create a Game Plan Ahead of Time

Writing a very specific shopping list and checking the mall’s online directory to plan out which stores you’re going to visit ahead of time puts you in control of the situation and will make it overall less stressful. You won’t feel overwhelmed with options when you arrive and you won’t run the risk of forgetting someone of your list.

Bottom line: Get an understanding of where you need to go beforehand. This will help with the parking decisions, which can be very important. 

Once you’ve parked, take the most direct route to the store. This may seem obvious, but it goes with the game plan idea. Bigger UAE malls are very easy (for me) to get lost in. You may spend stress-filled time searching frantically for your store. Don’t wander from your route.  

When walking to my location, I try to stick to the inside lane next to the stores where traffic seems less hectic. People like to walk shoulder to shoulder, even groups of five, so staying out of their way is a priority method to make your trip faster. 

Stay away from the food court. This is only to be visited when empty. If you must go, think about not patronizing restaurants where staff scream out your order when complete. Taking a number for your order may sound demeaning to you, but it’s easier to listen for a number than trying to listen to the staff screaming names off a menu. Another point: Customer service is generally in English, and the language level is very high here. However, people arrive speaking with many different accents. It may be difficult to hear your order, Chicken Tikka with side of naan, than a number. 

Bring headphones. Many people walk around with them on. And until I did, i didn’t know how much they could deaden the sonic overload. 

Otherwise stay off your phone. (Apartment Therapy suggested this, too.) I could handle general, run-of-the-mill malls, but not the steroid-packed malls of UAE. To do so, I need to keep focused at the task at hand. Malls have so many built-in distractions of noise, lights, buzzers, people, I don’t like adding another one.  

Find a safe space. Chances are you may be finished before your family and you’ll need a place to hunker down. Malls, by definition, are private spaces, and mall owners want their visitors to take down time spending as much money as possible. You won’t find many benches or outdoor areas to relax. Chances are, you’ll be relaxing in a private establishment. 

There are plenty of coffee shops, but some are better than others. Starbucks is often the busiest store in the mall. Add the long lines on to the staff screaming orders, you’d be best to skip. Coffee shops attached to stores could be good, especially if they are off-brand. Arabic coffee shops are good and have table service. They can be busy, but the din of conversation is much more pleasant in places like this than elsewhere.

I type this as a father and watching a young boy and a girl run up and down the middle of a coffeeshop, kicking a soccer ball into the wall.  I don’t know where the parents were. Needless to say, childcare and child minding can be very different in the UAE. 

Hit an off-brand mall. Some of my best experiences shopping in UAE is at the smaller malls, which have a small town feel. Everything is always spic-and-span in the country’s commercial establishments, so you’re only foregoing massive amount of choice (three kitchen stores than the usual six or eight at the larger mall). You’ll also be eschewing the chaos and clatter of large malls. 

What will be remembered 100 years from now?

The Trump era news cycle moves fast. As we try to separate the urgent from the important, it’s worth asking who and what will really be remembered a century from now.

It’s not likely to be what you’d expect. For the past few years, I’ve been combing through the archives of the New York Times Sunday magazine for my website SundayMagazine.org. And what I’ve found is that even the biggest news of the time quickly fades.

The 100-year test is much different than the half-century test. After 50 years, tens of millions of people are still alive. After 100 years, the living witnesses are gone.

So let’s examine who and what from around 1918 is—and isn’t—still widely remembered in 2018. Those findings can help us make informed guesses about who and what from 2018 might still be remembered in 2118.

-Jesse Rifkin

I’ve always had a fear of dying anonymously, so I take these questions seriously. What will we remember from today a century from now.

Here’s my list, in no particular order.

Phillip Roth. I spent a large part of my youth arguing which contemporary authors would be studied in the future. Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Joan Didion. Ishmael Reed. (I think I will probably be wrong on at least two out of those four.) I never argued for Philip Roth, but I have to think the way he captured the zeitgeist of our times and was so prolific, people will be talking about him in 100 years.

Another aspect that helps the Philip Roth argument is that his work may play well in the future. History has shown many artists who caught their time perfectly but almost too much: they didn’t make much sense in future times. We remember William Shakespeare for many things, but one of them is because his stories and characters still resonate today. Ben Johnson, not so much.

Barack Obama. I am not wholly convinced by this, but I think he provides a window into our times. And, there are a lot of firsts. We also may count Ronald Reagan, who will be remembered as the opposite of FDR or the end of his influence. Reagan for his popularity and the revolution he was part of.

Milton Freidman. That is a good question. His arguments certainly fueled some of Reagan’s revolution, but how will laissez faire capitalism play in the future? The next few years may help decide: a really bad idea or give us more, please.

Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius. Some of the great religions of the world. Will we have another one 10 decades from now? Will followers flee from one of the popular religions? It’s doubtful. For one, 100 years isn’t that long. Not very much can change on that level, even taking into account surprises and black swans. We haven’t had a major new religion in many centuries. The other ones are four millennia old.

Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Nina Simone. Future people would need a reason to study people like this, and they all have it. Frank Sinatra gives us a certain space in time and someone who could play well in the future. He is a window for a specific milieu which could be interesting to certain people in the future.

Davis has so much material, and he was at the forefront of so many artistic movements. Some of his music will pass the test of time. He is also arguably a window in more than one fascinating time frames. 

Something about Nina Simone. She wasn’t the most popular of her time, but her songs still have that …chill. She’s still influencing people. Put her on the slow burn.  

Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi. American sport stars don’t have a lot of global traction, so Jordan may not be remembered outside the US. The list above is pretty US-centric, so he may be remembered there as the greatest of all time. He hasn’t played in nearly two decades and he’s still considered cool. 

I don’t have any idea of how soccer players age and how their careers look so far into the future. Cumulatively he’s the biggest star (give or take) in the biggest sport in the world. Does this make him the biggest athlete in the world? How much does this hold when he retires?  

 Wikipedia (from my daughter). We’ll still be talking about Wikipedia somehow. Perhaps it will still be around. Perhaps it will be studied and revered from the early days of the web.  She said it is because people can make stuff up about other things.

What we learned 

How to be remembered by people in 100 years:

  • Like Philip Roth, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, you have to be a hitmaker during your day and you have to have something to say for the future. 

  • You have to be an interesting window to your world. Never underestimate the power of popular historians and artists to keep people talking about you. (see, Hamilton, Alexander).  

  • You have to have a one-in-a-million personality with a complicated sense of power. You also need to have power. Think Teddy Rosevelt to our day. Personal power has always been attractive. No one is certainly the combination of power and personality of Nero or sheer power like Stalin. Even in this age of YouTube stars, even the brightest lights can be dull. 

What I like about Alserkal Avenue

AlSerkal Avenue is an arts district in Dubai. 

Here is what I like about it: 

  • The district covers a large city block, housing more than 60 creative venues, including art, design and performance spaces in nearly 40 warehouse spaces. 

  • It is located next to an industrial zone in Dubai, where, logically, people make things. These environs, which can be quite busy, presents a refreshing milieu for art. The area reminds you that art can stand side by side with other physical work. They re not pretentious about it. It’s like they say, “this is where we have our space. Come and enjoy.” 

  • Alserkal avenue also feels like a place where people work. They just seem to be working on creative pursuits

  • The buildings were designed as warehouse spaces, which is both good and bad for exhibiting art. The good is the spaces are quite large with clean with well defined walls. The bad is they waste a lot of vertical space. Some galleries have tried to establish a second story in their space, but none seem to work all that well. Either the floors shake or the stairwells wobble. 

  • As I’ve visited a number of times, I’ve noticed the district is becoming more and more self contained. Lots of coffee shops have opened, although they seem quite similar, and a restaurant or two launched. A great chocolate shop is housed there, along with a chocolate factory. I’ve noticed a Gym. Even a record shop (go when a dj is spinning). 

  • Functionality and art sometimes don’t go hand in hand. In this place it works.  

  • They seem to be letting fewer cars inside the compound, which means walking is easier. Maybe this is a weekend occurrence. All the streets are one way, but it’s easy to forget it, which means it was somewhat hazardous to drive in there. I did it once, and I’ll never do it again. I’ve also seen tour busses trying to get around. The parking lot just outside makes life easier.  We can’t forget, though, that abutting one side of the compound is an auto repair shop. 

  • The galleries in Alserkal concentrate on contemporary art from around the Arab world. Each gallery has its own personality, so the work is eclectic in themes and general disposition. On the other hand, Sharjah’s museums are known for presenting retrospectives of big-name artists. Alserkal, in general, shows big artists, but much earlier in their career. It is great to see what an artists was doing in the 1990s, which is what a Sharjah museum would show. But it’s fascinating to see what an artist is thinking about this year, last year, 2015. 

So, what’s the conflict here: 

  • I wish it were closer. It’s a long drive from Sharjah to Alserkal 

  • I wish they were open on Fridays. Some places are open, but they are mostly cafes. Many of the galleries are closed on Fridays. This may be a good thing for the families. I was just there on a Friday and a women working in one of the gallery had her six year old son in there (probably due to lack of child care). While she was with a potential client, he was following her asking over and over, “mommy, how many more games do you have on your phone.” It was quite a scene. 

On creating and marketing

I am not a patent lawyer, but there are very few new ideas born from us. Steven Johnson and others taught us that the solo genius holed up creating her work doesn’t exist. 

Nothing, really, happens in a vacuum. We learn from each other, whether we admit it or not. We borrow and steal, and great ideas are generally committee work. Even though committees can suck. 

If there are no new ideas, then difference seems to be in the details. The one problem with this thinking is that it could let off the hook those who pilfer other people’s ideas and beat them to market. It certainly has happened before. I am not a historian, but the history of intellectual change shows when two similar ideas compete for hearts and minds, the claim of genius often goes to the better marketer. 

This may be the case in this complicated and fascinating New York Times piece on the legal issues surrounding the origin of a famous line of crocheted bikinis called Kiini, which markets themselves as resort ware and sells for more than $150. 

One one side we have Ipek Irgit, originally from Turkey who came to the US at a young age, who, after a trip to Brazil around 2010, stumbled upon an idea to market a new line of bikinis.  

The problem is, as the story points out, is the design mostly came  from someone else: Solange Ferrarini from Brazil, an artisan, selling her crocheted bikinis on the beaches. Irgit created her company of swimwear that looks very similar to Ferrarini’s bikinis. When Kiini’s began to fly off the shelves, Irgit starting fending off powerful competitors through legal means. She beat Victoria Secrets who were making similar suits. 

Her misstep, according to the piece, was attempting to sue the company who paid Ferrarini for her designs.  The case is still going through the motions, but the piece isn’t flattering to Ms. Irgit or Kiini.

Even in the world of $150 bikinis, nothing really happens in a vacuum. And no one is a lone genius. Especially when you have to sue your way to prove it. 

On expat bubbles

As you move from country to country, it does get hard to keep up your interests over long stretches. 

There’s good general advice about this out there: Learn as much of the language as possible, get out and explore, join groups and set social goals.  This advice needs to be reviewed every few months to make certain you’re heeding it. It all sounds simple, but I am always surprised how easy it is to fall into a rut. 

And that rut generally lands you right in the expat bubble, the place where everyone knows your name, speaks your language, talks about locals as if they are the foreigners and keeps their strong ties back to the homeland. 

The expat bubble is the biggest complaint about living overseas, many times from people who don’t leave the country. It is a classic quandary, expats are generally adventurous and seek out new things, but some remain separate from local culture. 

Studies show that expats are happier when immersed, at least a bit, in local culture. You integrate more deeply, they like to say.  

But why do people fall back on the expat bubble? In the short term, it’s easy. Living overseas can be difficult and somedays diving deep can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. It’s quick to hang out with whom you know, what you know, where diving into another culture can take time and patience. And it’s a long-term investment: chances are after you ship out you will meet up with your bubble friends long before you’ll meet up with your local friends. 

This doesn’t make striving to live in an expat bubble a good thing. The reason we’re supposed to be living overseas is to meet people and understand cultures. Of course, that’s not true for everyone — especially here in the UAE — where the high salaries act like cultural magnets. But it still should be a goal. Staying in the expat bubble, to some, sometimes just seems like the path of least resistance.  

What do we know about the world?

…[A] representative member of a small group of upper- and middle-class British men from which the imperial masters of Asia and Africa were recruited. Abysmally equipped for their immense responsibilities, they were nevertheless allowed by Britain’s brute imperial power to blunder through the world — a “world of whose richness and subtlety,” as E.M. Forster wrote in “Notes on the English Character,” they could “have no conception.”

-Pankaj Mishra

I have lived overseas for at least 12 years. But am I any better than the oft-mocked member of the British imperial forces? No. I don’t think I understand the richness and subtlety of the countries I have inhabited. Far from it. 

Some countries I have been more interested than others. So I have naturally tried to make those cultural inroads. I don’t think we can put too much faith in understanding a good deal of a second culture. For those not born here, or with some family links, a majority of many cultures will remain opaque and undecipherable to you. So you have to learn like you would learn anything else: be honest about your limitations. 

There are cultures where I’ve lived where I haven’t been able to understand very much at all. Reasons for this are still in dispute. I would say I tried to bridge the gaps and was rebuffed. Others may say I didn’t try very hard. Whatever the real reason, a lack of understanding or interest in a culture does make life difficult. 

Not to give myself a free pass, but I think the difference between me and members of the British Raj have to do with perceived power. I literally had no power in these countries; I didn’t even hold much of a job, let alone have anyone report to me. Members of the British Raj, on the other hand, ruled, or at least administered, a huge country. They had, for the most part, enormous amounts of power. My ignorance was mostly a personal problem. Their ignorance had greater implications. 

This doesn’t let me off the hook. I’ve learned from those overseas experiences at least enough to recognize them and see where they become problems. My main issue is at the completion of the ex-pat learning stage, generally a year and half after I’ve moved to a country. This is the time where you know a lot about how to live in a country and you’ve experienced a great deal. 

At this point the question that overcomes me is: what now? Or, what next? I’ve seen what I’ve seen and done a lot. This is when I start looking over my shoulder for new experiences, different cities and countries. This is wrong, of course. There is a lot more to learn, my rational side says to me, you've only just arrived, and life isn’t about checking boxes. 

Tell that to the side of my brain that likes to make plans. 

Language learning drops in US higher education

As I was reading a book on the importance of using universities to help educate people in an age of increasing cultural diversity and internationalization, this came across my desk: Since 2013, two- and four-year colleges around the US lose more than 650 foreign-language programs.

It’s a story by the Chronicle of HIgher Education, which got hold of a report from the Modern Language Association.

The totals of lost language programs include:

  • Spanish: 118 program losses

  • French: 129

  • German: 86

  • Italian: 56

After a jump in Arabic enrollments in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the piece stated, the only programs seeing increases this decade are: Korean, American Sign Language and Biblical Hebrew. (Interestingly, American Sign Language is now the third most studied language in US higher education, replacing German.)

Of course other methods exist in universities for students to learn about other cultures. History, sociology and other general education requirements like semester abroad spring to mind. But I can’t think of a better way to understand a culture than learning a bit of its language.This comes from a person who was quite poor in university-level language courses. For most people, though, language courses were a window into a different culture. 

What’s just as important with this news is the reported is 9.2 percent drop in enrollments in foreign language programs across the country between 2013 and 2016. This is the biggest drop since the 1970s.

This brings up more questions than answers, only some of them on the efficacy of undergraduate language teaching. Is this drop because students are uninterested in learning languages; rather, perhaps they face more credit requirements from their majors. Also, what does it mean that most of declines take place in two-year colleges?

I am also interested in what these findings say about the state of language instruction. Has language learning at school been supplanted by the online world and private companies? Do language departments need to rethink how to organize courses—concentrating on fewer, yet longer courses (perhaps over weekends, etc.) to better cement the work into the students’ heads.

Whatever the many reasons for this drop, it’s probably not a good sign. The stereotype is mostly true: Americans are pretty bad at languages, even with the increase of instruction in lower education levels. It’s not a good trait. To problem solve in today’s multicultural and multipolar environment, we need ideas from everywhere. Without understanding in language, we will only hear a fraction of those ideas.

Why photography can matter in the UAE

When we leave the UAE, I’ll take with me a large framed photograph. My wife already bought me one, of a camel track out in the desert that shows a sliver of the Dubai skyline on the horizon.

But I’d like to purchase more. 

Photography, to me, is the best method to capture the spirit of the UAE. The macro-level wide-angle shots are for posters: the buildings forcing their way upwards, the lights and dust and sand in the air. These are the photographs for people who’ve never been here, and they wouldn’t believe it. It’s the eternal optimism and confidence of Dubai daring you to come to find a life. 

What these posters oftentimes don’t show is the micro-level UAE: Its streets and people. Much of life here is quotidian, but most days, the streets in some neighborhoods bustle with lives and personality. The diverse mixing pot of these neighborhoods are full of fascinating studies in mashing foreign cultures into a mix that is unique to the UAE. 

We have purchased a few of the interesting UAE/Dubai-based photo books by photographers living in the country. These are generally inexpensive but still designed in printed in high style. 

What’s important, though, is that anyone can take a good photo. The popularity of photo apps and photo sharing sites means people understand that, too. It would be nice that we start to see photos from those living directly in these melting pot neighborhoods. Because of their proximity to these scenes, they could grab some very dynamic and personal shots. Even more important, they could offer new fresh interpretations of their neighborhoods and the UAE. In fact, they would be able to offer a window into a world people don’t know exists. 

How to sell the story

A big problem that a lot of radio beginners have is the problem I had with my pitch to This American Life: confusing a story setting or premise with an actual story. Community Garden is not a story. It’s a setting, or maybe a topic to investigate, but to do a story on the radio about it, you need some specifics. And by that I mean, a character to talk to, and a situation to talk to them about.

- Alex Blumberg

This used to be my problem with writing stories, and probably why I am no longer involved in journalism. I was too interested in the setting at the expense of the story. Or, I thought my setting was just as important as a story. And stories need conflict and some sort of change. 

I spent much of my journalism time in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And that’s a pretty nifty setting. There’s just so much going on, whether it’s the blocks of furniture makers, all  sawing, soldering and pounding their work into form. Or the streets full of bikes, donkey carts, mopeds, cars, trucks, all trying to get places. Or, the people trying to earn money in one of the poorest cities on the planet. Ouagadougou may be poor statistically, but it earned so much in style, in spunk and just plain pizazz. 

Just thinking about the places where I hung out looking for stories gets me nostalgic. I would trot out to the big corner at the head of our neighborhood and talk to my friends, these four boys —about 16 or so at the time — selling newspapers and tissue, phone card minutes, even cell phones. We would talk the news of the day, and I would slowly get to know them. 

I tried to fashion their lives into narratives that I could do something with. Most of these guys were village kids who went to school until reaching age 14  and were told by their parents that the family could no longer afford to send them to class. It was time to move out to Ouagadougou and try to earn a living. 

And so the great West African urbanization began in human form. I had living examples of this phenomenon. Who wouldn’t want to hear a story like that?  

But the problem was I never got close enough. For all the time I spent with them, I didn’t know that much about them. I mean, I knew them but not enough, it seemed, to write about them. I didn’t know how to get deeper and get more involved with their thinking, their psyche and their hopes and dreams. Perhaps it was language, perhaps it was cultural. Perhaps I was asking the wrong questions. 

What I ended up with was the the 30,000 feet story—urbanization and its effects with these four kids. But there wasn’t enough development or personal drama to drive the story. I was too enthralled with the setting: the street corner, the little kiosks they worked out of, the traffic, the customers. I grabbed the wrong theme.