My first paid writing gig was as a summer reporter for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pt. Reyes Light, a tiny weekly in West Marin County, California. Ever since then, I’ve worked mainly for long-form publications that give their writers the chance to stretch out and experiment with structure, character, and narrative. I thought I’d share a handful of essays, features, and interviews, plus a few random items (like this first one) that seemed relevant to the book. Just a sprinkling of stories I’ve done over the years—but I didn’t include the one for which I had to jump out of an airplane.
October 2018, Mother Jones
Researchers Think They Know Why Nice Guys Finish Last
Financially successful people may disagree.
Nice guys finish last. That’s the partial title of a paper published today in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. So is it actually true? Well, according to the paper’s coauthors—assistant professors Sandra Matz of Columbia Business School and Joe Gladstone of the school of management at University College London—previous research has shown that people who are more agreeable tend to have lower incomes and worse credit scores than less-agreeable ones. Matz and Gladstone wanted to find out whether “agreeableness,” a measurable trait, is associated with other bad financial outcomes—and also to figure out why. (Read more.)
July 2018, Mother Jones
Is Hollywood Ready for Boots Riley?
The rapper’s subversive satire on race, class, and capitalism is shaping up to be a big summer hit.
An hour before showtime at a mid-April premiere of Sorry to Bother You at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, moviegoers were already lined up down the block on either side of the marquee. “What’s this for?” asked a passerby. “Star Wars,” someone joked. Inside the historic theater, sporting a ’70s-era navy blue suit, Raymond “Boots” Riley, first-time director and longtime frontman for eclectic hip-hop group the Coup, came out to introduce his film, which hits theaters July 6 and is shaping up to be a success story in the vein of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. ..
Riley, 47, has been a visible icon of East Bay culture and activism for such a long time that it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t born with his trademark Afro and muttonchops. Sorry to Bother You, like Riley’s music, functions as a portal into his revolutionary worldview, wherein artists and working families and people of color struggle against gentrification, greedy landlords, diabolical corporations, and a rigged, racist, rapacious capitalist system protected by thuggish cops and bought politicians. Riley’s coup, so to speak, is that he has managed to package these ideas into a film that’s fast-paced, funny, and refreshingly weird. (Read more.)
January 2018, Mother Jones
The Music I Love Is a Racial Minefield
How I learned to fiddle my way through America’s deeply troubling history.
Last winter, about 10 months before Donald Trump managed to revive Colin Kaepernick’s protest movement and set off a fresh national debate on race, patriotism, and the emotional stability of the president of the United States, Ben Hunter was asked to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a crowd of about 600 people. The occasion was the annual conference of Citizen University, a nonprofit run by former Clinton White House adviser Eric Liu. Presenters at the meeting included progressive authors and activists, broadcasters and businesspeople. Slow-food guru Alice Waters was on the bill, as was Greenpeace top dog Annie Leonard. Hunter was the event’s musician-in-residence. But the anthem request gave him pause. Hunter, 32, is biracial and identifies as black. He took up classical violin at age five and now, as part of a Seattle-based duo with banjo player Joe Seamons, makes his living researching and performing old-time American music. So he already knew a bit about the anthem’s dark past. (Read more.)
August 2017, Mother Jones
This Technology Could Stop the World’s Deadliest Animal
The capabilities of “gene drive” are thrilling—and terrifying.
Not long ago, Bill Gates, whose family foundation has spent billions of dollars battling diseases around the globe, noted in his blog that the deadliest animals on the planet are not sharks or snakes or even humans, but mosquitoes. Technically, the bloodsuckers merely host our most dangerous creatures. Anopheles mosquitoes can incubate the protozoae responsible for malaria—a stubborn plague that inspired the DDT treatment of millions of US homes and the literal draining of American swamps during the 1940s to shrink the insects’ breeding grounds. Malaria is now rare in the United States, but it infected an estimated 212 million people around the world in 2015, killing 429,000—mostly kids under five. Mosquito-borne diseases—Dengue, Yellow Fever, West Nile, Zika—kill hundreds of thousands of people every year and leave others debilitated. What if we could just make all of this go away? (Read more.)
May 2017, Mother Jones
This Man Can Help You Escape the IRS Forever
All you need is a small fortune—and a taste for foreign food.
In January, New Zealanders were surprised to discover that Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal co-founder and Donald Trump adviser whose libertarian proclivities and social quirks were lampooned on HBO’s Silicon Valley, had quietly become one of them during a 2011 ceremony in Santa Monica, California.
Thiel, who owns real estate in New Zealand, had secured an exception from the country’s residency requirement by emphasizing his business and philanthropic clout, his investments in two Kiwi companies (totaling $7 million), and his donation of nearly $1 million to a local earthquake relief fund. “We do not sell our citizenship; it is earned,” New Zealand’s Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed after the news broke. Subsequent reports speculated that Thiel, besides being a huge Lord of the Rings fan, viewed the country as a survivalist haven in the event of an apocalypse. “I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future” is all Thiel would say.
Thiel’s little secret came as no surprise to David Lesperance, a Canadian-born lawyer who is among the world’s leading champions of transnational exit plans for the superwealthy. (Read more.)
December 6, 2015, Mother Jones
Some Startups Actually Do Make the World a Better Place
City CarShare co-founder Gabriel Metcalf wants to disrupt capitalism-as-usual.
When Gabriel Metcalf, then 26, co-founded City CarShare—the first technology platform to give urbanites easy access a car when they needed one, even for an hour—he wasn’t looking to cash in. Metcalf, an environmentally minded urban planner, had loftier goals. He envisioned a nonprofit car-sharing collective that would go mainstream, freeing Americans from the burdens of private car ownership and removing countless carbon-spewing vehicles from the road in the process.
Unlike your average tech startup, City CarShare was (and still is) an “alternative institution”—one that sets out to change the status quo by offering a new model for doing things. More examples? Worker-owned cooperatives. Community land trusts. And even good old representative democracy, which began in the colonies as a parallel system to British rule and provided the structural underpinnings for self-governance in the wake of the American Revolution.
Now 45, Metcalf no longer runs the car-sharing service. He’s president of SPUR, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps solve regional problems related to things like transit infrastructure, affordable housing, and climate change adaptation. But he’s still spreading his gospel via a new book, Democratic by Design, which explores the historical track record of alternative institutions, looks at what makes them succeed and fail, and calls on activists to incorporate artificial intelligence into their arsenal of solutions for society’s most intractable problems. (Read more.)
October 2014, Mother Jones
Atul Gawande: “We Have Medicalized Aging, and That Experiment Is Failing Us”
The prescription, he argues in “Being Mortal,” is to rethink our priorities for the dying.
The latest book from surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande may not change your whole life, but it could very well improve how it ends.
In Being Mortal, Gawande, a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, takes on the utter failure of the medical profession when it comes to helping people die well, and the short-sightedness of the elder facilities that infantilize people rather than bother to figure out what they actually need to maintain a modicum of meaning in what’s left of their lives. In the process, he gives us a lesson on the basic physiology of aging and on the social and technological changes that led to most of us dying in hospitals and institutions rather than at home with our loved ones. And he chronicles the rise of the nursing home and the creation of assisted living as its antidote—if only it were. (Read more.)
June 2014, Mother Jones
Is It “Madness” to Rebuild a Flu Virus That Wiped Out 50 Million People?
Because this scientist just created a novel strain that’s dangerously similar.
Remember the Spanish Flu of 1918? Of course you don’t. That’s the freakishly deadly influenza strain that swept the globe in 1918 and 1919, wiping out 30 million to 50 million people. It infected about one in four Americans and killed about 675,000. It didn’t just kill little kids and the elderly, either, like most flu strains. This one was unusually devastating in young, healthy people—although why the “mother of all pandemics” behaved as it did is not fully understood.
This week, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, an influenza researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (which happens to be my hometown), published a new study—”Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential.” It describes the creation of a highly pathogenic flu virus that varies by just 3 percent from the Spanish Flu. “To assess the risk of emergence of a 1918-like virus and to delineate the amino acid changes that are needed for such a virus to become transmissible via respiratory droplets in mammals, we attempted to generate an influenza virus composed of avian influenza viral segments that encoded proteins with high homology to the 1918 viral proteins,” he and his coauthors wrote.
Needless to say, some of Kawaoka’s scientific peers think he’s insane to do such a thing. As Harvard epidemiologist Mark Lipsitch told the Guardian, “I am worried that this signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale. This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this paper does not provide.” (Read more.)
February 2014, Mother Jones, with Nina Berman
“It Was Kind of Like Slavery”
Backbreaking labor, vicious beatings, unmarked graves, childhoods lost—five men return to the scene of their nightmares.
In early August, a few weeks before forensic scientists began exhuming dozens of unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, five older black men took a road trip to Marianna, a rural town on the Florida panhandle—historic Klan country—to confront their demons on the reform school’s vast, wooded campus.
At least 96 children died at Dozier between 1914 and 1973, according to school records, and while state officials say there’s no proof, former students insist that some of the deaths were the result of foul play. Boys of all races were routinely, brutally, and even fatally beaten by staff, they allege; some were raped, and “runners” were fired upon—at least seven kids were reported dead after trying to escape.
Tens of thousands of boys passed through Dozier’s gates between its founding in 1900 and 2011, when Florida officials shut it down (citing budgetary reasons) amid a Justice Department investigation that found ongoing “systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices” at the school. (Read more.)
March 2008, Mother Jones
Contestants on the Fox Reality show “Solitary” forgo sleep, food, and dignity—all for a crack at $50,000.
Phu Pham was hallucinating badly. Little gray rabbits stared up at him. Vivid cityscapes materialized in the stone-hard carpeting of his 10-foot-diameter pod, and instant-messaging gibberish scrolled across its translucent wall panels. “You’re seeing all this crap,” recalls the diminutive 23-year-old photographer. “It’s scary.” Pham had never been so tired. In two days of isolation, he’d been allowed just a few hours of sleep and minimal food. He’d been treated to the amplified screams of infants and hours stuffed into a small box that kept getting hotter. Those first days, he recalls, were when he most wanted out. But Phu Pham is no quitter.
Endure isolation and a series of arduous physical and psychological “treatments” until you break. That’s the gist of Solitary, a made-for-TV competition that concluded its second season last September and is headed for a third this fall on the Fox Reality Channel, a network spin-off that airs reality shows 24/7. The brainchild of producers Andrew Golder and Lincoln Hiatt, Solitary places nine men and women in cramped pods for up to 12 days with no human contact. “Guests,” their names reduced to numbers, must instead submit to Val—a female spin on Hal, the sentient computer from the sci-fi classic 2001—who serves as host, enabler, and oppressor. (Read more.)