Archive for June, 2012

June 23, 2012

The Invisible Knapsack

We need a new word for what the phrase “white privilege” describes; privilege suggests money and class exclusively. Until then, here’s one of the best definitions around.

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. … As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

Via: Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing
From: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

June 17, 2012

7 Lessons In Creative Non-fiction from Gay Talese

Some lessons in creating literary-quality non-fiction from a master.  Gay Talese was a journalist whose “innovation was to apply techniques from the craft of fiction to his newspaper and magazine stories, giving them the shape and life of short stories—a style, later referred to as New Journalism, which he originated in his days as a New York Times reporter in the fifties.”

Inspired by the Paris Review’s illuminating interview with Gay Talese, here.

  1. Research deeply: Talese’s innovation was to apply literary techniques to non-fiction. To accomplish this, he had to do unconventional things, like spend days interviewing people in their environment; immerse himself in the world he was trying to describe; spend months finding people who were interesting characters, had interesting stories, and were willing to have their real name used. “In order to get to know these people, and to get in their heads, I felt that I had to be there. More than that, I had to be there in such a way that I didn’t seem different from them. I couldn’t be seen as a journalist…The point is that they had to trust me and I had to trust them. I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
  2. Be curious about other people: “All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them…I was just interested, endlessly interested, foolishly, unadulteratedly, with unparalleled vigor, interested in all I could do to extend my range, to extend the boundaries of my own particular experience.”
  3. Finds the interesting angle: Talese looks for the stories behind the news and the interesting unnoticed perspective. “Once, at an NYU baseball game, I overheard a conversation between a young couple who were having a lovers’ quarrel. I wrote the dialogue and I told the story of the game through what they were watching and what they were saying. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I wrote about the last person in the procession, a little guy who was carrying a tuba, and behind him came the sanitation trucks. I followed the parade from the vantage point of this tuba player.”
  4. Get inside people’s heads: He consistently asks people what they were thinking at the time so he has a non-fiction account of their interior monologue. “When we speak in person I ask him not just what everyone said, but what he was thinking. I always ask people what was on their mind.”
  5. Note your observations daily: At the end of each day of typing up his notes, Talese will type up how he was feeling that day, how he responded to what happened. “[I always record] my personal observations, what I myself was thinking and feeling during the day when I was meeting people and seeing things and making notes on shirt boards. When I’m typing at night, on ordinary pieces of typing paper, I’m not only dealing with my daily research, but also with what I’ve seen and felt that day. What I’m doing as a researching writer is always mixed up with what I’m feeling while doing it, and I keep a record of this. I’m always part of the assignment.”
  6. Let the form fit the story: Gay Talese moved from newspapers to magazines to books in an effort to find the best format for the stories he wanted to tell. “I could not contain myself within the twelve-hundred-word limit of daily journalism. Wherever I was, I thought that there were stories that other people weren’t telling…Other reporters didn’t even see the story, they just saw their job. Yet because it was a daily newspaper I was always being pulled away from these stories. I couldn’t do them at any real depth. That was really why I couldn’t do the job anymore.”
  7. Do the work that other people aren’t willing or able to do: His work is daunting. The time it takes to this quality of reporting is intimidating. And as such there is value in that. He adds value by doing something that no-one else can do, mostly because they don’t have the personality for it. “Original research is difficult and time-consuming…Most of what I gather for my work doesn’t wind up in a book, but I don’t think one can do too much research. All my research is important because it gives me a foundation and a sense of proportion for my subject…In order to get to know these people, and to get in their heads, I felt that I had to be there. More than that, I had to be there in such a way that I didn’t seem different from them. I couldn’t be seen as a journalist…The point is that they had to trust me and I had to trust them. I couldn’t have done it any other way.”
June 17, 2012

The Great Explainers

I greatly admire people whom can explain complicated topics simply. Here are 2 of the greats:


“Feynman has been called the “Great Explainer”. He gained a reputation for taking great care when giving explanations to his students and for making it a moral duty to make the topic accessible. His guiding principle was that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman  lecture, it was not yet fully understood.“–via Wikipedia


“In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First we guess it; then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right; then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

–Richard Feynman, via Brainpickings


We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.via

“Carl Edward Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences.

…Sagan’s ability to convey his ideas allowed many people to better understand the cosmos—simultaneously emphasizing the value and worthiness of the human race, and the relative insignificance of the Earth in comparison to the universe.”

“My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”

–via Wikipedia


“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

–Carl Sagan, from, via Brainpickings

June 17, 2012

You’re Gay Because Your Mom Is A Hottie

“Why haven’t gay man genes driven themselves extinct?

… After investigating the characteristics of 161 female maternal relatives of homosexual and heterosexual men, the researchers have adjusted their hypothesis. Rather than making women more attracted to men, the “gay man gene” appears to make these women more attractive to men.

…Turns out, the moms and aunts of gay men have an advantage over the moms and aunts of straight men for several reasons: They are more fertile, displaying fewer gynecological disorders or complications during pregnancy; they are more extroverted, as well as funnier, happier and more relaxed; and they have fewer family problems and social anxieties. “In other words, compared to the others, [they are] perfect for a male.”

Natalite Wolchover, via HuffPo

June 14, 2012

Guy Talese, The Art of Nonfiction:


When did you realize that you had talent?


Never. All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them.

About Guy Talese

“Talese occupies the strange position of being both legendary and misunderstood. His innovation was to apply techniques from the craft of fiction to his newspaper and magazine stories, giving them the shape and life of short stories—a style, later referred to as New Journalism, which he originated in his days as a New York Times reporter in the fifties.”

From the Paris Review

June 10, 2012

How Testosterone Drives Financial Markets

“The hubris that traders experience during a bubble can be as overwhelming as passionate desire or wall-banging anger. They are under the influence of some naturally produced narcotic, one that can transform them into different people. I have come to think of it as the “molecule of irrational exuberance,” and to take seriously the possibility that during bubbles — and crashes — the financial community turns into a clinical population…

In one experiment we sampled hormones from 17 male traders and found that their testosterone did indeed rise with above-average profits, and in other studies, with 54 traders, we found that higher testosterone led to greater risk-taking. These experiments are continuing, but the preliminary data was strong enough to be published by the National Academy of Sciences. We collected equally powerful data suggesting that the molecule of irrational pessimism — which we suspect can promote chronic risk aversion, driving a bear market into a crash — is the stress hormone cortisol.”

From the NY Times: The Biology of Bubble & Crash

June 9, 2012

Mac Lethal on You’re vs Your

For a funny, speedy grammar lesson here’s a vid of Mac Lethal about the differences between You’re and Your.

And hey, I make this mistake all the time. Also hear and here. I spell by sound which gets me in trouble with homonyms.

Mainly, I wish I could speak that fast and write verse that tightly.

June 9, 2012

The thing about smart people…

“The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.”

This photo made me smile. But that caption isn’t accurate, especially paired with that picture.

Were the Wright brothers smart? Yeah, I’d bet so. But that’s not what made them first in flight: A lot of hard work and playing around with ideas in pursuit of a seemingly unreasonable goal did. (More on why the Wright brothers succeeded over much more well funded competitors here.)

They were entrepreneurs — and a lot of smart people aren’t. A lot of smart people are afraid to act. They’re much more comfortable in the world of thought and theory.

Further, many smart people are not smart in ways that threaten the status quo. You can be wicked smart at math and no one will think your crazy — just really good at something they don’t know much about.

I understand that the creator of this cartoon needed to be pithy. And it worked: it made me laugh.

An ungainly and more accurate phrase would be: “The thing about smart, driven, creative people who are pushing the boundaries of what is known to be possible…is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.” But that probably wouldn’t have made me smile.

June 4, 2012

3 Ways Twitter Can Help Performers

Matt Ruby on How Social Media Transforms Standup Comedy Career

From comedian Matt Ruby‘s 18-part interview on Capture Your Flag, three ways Twitter and social media can help performers.

  1. Exposure: “When your a comedian, you go onstage and there’s those people in the room at that moment but that’s it. Comedy is this very evaporating art form where it just disappears. Online stuff is a good way for people to follow you.”
  2. Developing your voice: “If your posting on Twitter a couple times a day for a year you’ll start to have a…voice that is recognizable.”
  3. Testing ideas: “I’ve had things I’ll post on Twitter that I think are just throwaway lines and then it will be retweeted a dozen times in an hour. And it’s like ‘Oh, that is something I should talk about on stage because it’s clearly striking a nerve.’


June 3, 2012

“Hood Rat”, New Journalism, and what I want to do

I’m always hunting for my voice. For new ways to tell the stories I want to tell.

Recently, found this book “Hood Rat” at the Holborn Library. It’s based on over 100-hours of interviews Guardian journalist Gavin Knight conducted while embedded with anti-gang units in some of the UK’s big cities.

According to the jacket, the story is “researched on the front line and told like a thriller” — written in the present tense, third-person POV, the journalist himself invisible from the story.

There is something here that relates to what I am seeking to do: topical issue, examined systemically, based on interviews. From one review: “In its approach and style, Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat follows the New Journalism that revolutionised the form in the 1960s…His experience crosses two worlds: he does no report simply on the gangs, but also on those entrusted with the powers for bring about justice and change.”

I twigged on New Journalism, not knowing exactly what is was — it’s this: ’60s and 70s journalistic style bringing a literary style to reporting, for example Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

New Journalism reminds me of what I’ve read about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, meant to be an article before it became a non-fiction novel full of James Agee’s lyrical overwrought prose, and other work I’ve read about in Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work. 

But my thoughts are still coalescing. It’s enough to say that the research work behind “Hood Rat”, it’s fictionalized style, and ecological aim all resonate with me artistically. There is a curiosity here, and a desire to tell stories about the world as it is (especially stories that newspaper and broadcast media either ignore or are unable to report on because of their more abbreviated form) that appeals to me.

The hunt continues.