where trouble was needed

June 7, 2014

Not only toilets

Filed under: Comment,Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 4:13 pm
Tags: ,

Dear Editor,

While I agree that "access to sanitation and water are fundamental human rights" the assertion that "a lack of these services is putting hundreds of millions of children, girls and women at risk each and every day" where the risks refer not to health and hygiene risk but personal safety and freedom from violence, takes attention away from basic equality and humanity.

Yes a woman should have a clean place to go and yes for the sake of public health this should not be out in the open, but even if a woman goes to the toilet in the open she should not fear for her safety.

Obviously we don’t expect Bill and Melinda Gates to look into issues of caste, gender and land tenure when they’ve got a huge toilet program going on. Good for them. But let theirs not be the last Word on the matter.

In response to

Two girls died looking for a toilet. This should make us angry, not embarrassed

Attacks on girls and women as they look for somewhere private to defecate are frighteningly common. Improving basic sanitation, as a global goal, would do a lot to make them safer.

October 3, 2013

Feminism and its masks

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm

A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen
Published: October 3, 2013 Comment


The masks for the war-scarred women and children were undoubtedly magnificent, though one wishes they did not need them. The mask you put on to speak at the awards ceremony was also strong and beautiful. Thank you for drawing from your own experience as a daughter and as a mother, and sharing your insight regarding the mutually enhancing circle of love that allows us to discover our inner strength and beauty at every age.

September 9, 2013

Quotation Approval

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm


So, who knew this was a thing?  But it turns out I’ve been doing it too.  Reading this article I feel a little sheepish about it, but in my defense, journalist David Von Drehle, points out:

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

from David Carr, “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval,” in The New York Times, September 16, 2012.

I have found this to be true when speaking about education and homeschooling for example.  Many people are wary of giving interviews simply because the resulting articles have turned out so awful in the past.  Unless one practices succinct answers that do not allow for misquoting, one cannot trust these interviewers.

It is not as if we want journalists to behave like publicists or promoters of the ideas of those whom they interview.    We do want them to ask tough questions that inspire us to think rather than just repeat our practiced answers.  Such a process would help us challenge ourselves and sharpen our ideas, enriching the public debate.   We can’t expect every journalist to share this goal.  So it is up to us to find out more about the journal and the journalist before agreeing to the interview.

Incidentally I came across this article because a sentence in it was quoted in today’s edition of “A Word A Day


noun: A servant or a low-level employee tasked with many things.
From Latin factotum, from facere (to do) + totus (all). Earliest documented use: 1573.
“Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums.”
David Carr; The Puppetry of Quotation Approval; The New York Times; Sep 16, 2012.

Explore “factotum” in the Visual Thesaurus.

Here is the article:

The New York Times

The Puppetry of Quotation Approval
September 16, 2012

Now that it’s become clear that many journalists covering politics and government agree to quotation-approval as a condition of access, it’s tough not to see the pageant of democracy as just that: a carefully constructed performance meant to showcase the participants in the best light.

In July, my colleague Jeremy Peters pulled back the blanket on the growing practice of allowing political sources to read and approve quotations as a precondition for an interview. His story got attention inside and outside the Beltway, in part because the quotation is the last refuge of spontaneity in an age of endlessly managed messages. When quotations can be unilaterally taken back, the Kabuki is all but complete.

Those rules of engagement drew new scrutiny last week when Michael Lewis, the author of a forthcoming profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair, acknowledged that he had to get approval for the quotations he used from eight months of extensive access.

Good thing those of us who cover business don’t have to deal with the same self-preserving press policies. Except we do. In an anecdotal survey of 20 reporters, it was clear that on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and at some of the big media companies I cover, subjects of coverage are asking for, and sometimes receiving, the kind of consideration that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

It used to be that American businesses either told reporters to go away or told them what they wanted to know. Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums, preconditions and sometimes a requirement that quotations be approved. What pops out of that process isn’t exactly news and isn’t exactly a news release, but contains elements of both.

“Requests for quote approval rise in direct proportion to the involvement of P.R. people,” said Felix Salmon, a business columnist at Reuters. “As the flack-to-hack ratio continues to rise, the number of requests for quote-approval will continue to rise as well.”

I’ve had my own encounters. Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.

As someone who has covered Hollywood, I can’t begin to catalog the number of distasteful communications customs in that industry. And reporters I spoke to said Wall Street companies have been trying to negotiate quotations for a decade, in part because one poorly chosen word could cost millions or even billions. But now it is leaking into all corners of the kingdom.

(How silly can it get? After sending out e-mails to reporters who cover business, I got many revealing stories. But guess what? In most cases their employers — news outlets — don’t allow them to speak on the record.)

When you think about it, business leaders have more leverage than government executives because there is a presumption that public officials should be just that, public. But politicians and their aides seize on the hyper-competitiveness and bargain with hungry reporters. Ben Smith of BuzzFeed said Mr. Peters’s story made him more mindful of the process.

“We resist it whenever we can and disclose it when we can’t,” he said.

A few things are at work here, some of them legitimate. Journalism is a blunt technology. Reporters don’t generally record most interviews and can’t always type or write as quickly as a subject is speaking. I have been written about enough to know that what appears in quotation marks is sometimes an approximation of what is actually said. Sources want to protect themselves from routine distortion.

But something else more modern and insidious is under way. In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article. Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.

Even when the ground rules are transparently conveyed in an article, it raises questions. In July 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek did a profile of Elizabeth Warren, the fearless champion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Well, sort of fearless. Deep in the article the writer noted in passing, “The press office is jittery about allowing reporters to talk to staff on the record, and Warren agreed to two interviews on the condition that Bloomberg Businessweek allow her to approve quotes before publication.” That caveat made me read the profile with different eyes because the locus of control seemed to be reversed.

Of course, quotations often serve as furniture in a house that a reporter is free to build as she or he (or their editor) wishes, so it’s not as if sources can control the narrative by controlling what appears between quotation marks. But a great quotation, the kind that P.R. folks love to rub out, in my experience, can make an article sing or the truth resonate.

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

Thankfully, some pushback is under way and young journalists are among those doing the pushing. This month, the editors of The Harvard Crimson said they would no longer allow school officials to approve their quotations. The longstanding policy was discontinued, they wrote in a letter to readers, because “sometimes the quotations are rejected outright or are rewritten to mean just the opposite of what the administrator said in the recorded interview.”

Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.

September 5, 2012

Comment on organic foods – runner’s world

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 12:46 pm

Recent current “events” of US have brought attention to a magazine called “Runners World.” I looked at the site and saw the top story Study: Organic Foods Might Not Be More Nutritious.

So in solidarity with the many runners who also take interest in sustainable agricultural issues, as well as organic-enthusiasts are interested in truth and “fact-checking,” and considering that this magazine is enjoying its day in the national spotlight, I posted this comment on the site:

The vision of organic has been rapidly diluted after it shot to fame and fortune, but this approach to growing food should mean far more than refraining from the use of harmful inputs (chemical pesticide & fertilizer). It should be a holistic approach that supports the ability of the plant itself to draw fertility from the soil and to defend itself from pests. This will involve inter-cropping and focus not on directly feeding N-P-K to the plant, but rather on replenishing the microbes living in the soil. Plants grown this way will take longer to bear fruit but the resulting fruit / vegetable / leaf will be higher in a much wider range of nutrients because the roots were allowed to dig deeper. It may also be smaller in size compared to a vegetable that has been pumped up with fertilizer.

Because this method takes more time it is not favoured by the Big Organic Agriculture companies, who continue to do monocropping and focus on methods that make the fruit / vegetable gain weight faster. This means less time for the roots to do their rooting for nutrients and hence the results reported here are not surprising. But if you have the opportunity to buy from a local organic farmer, working in a smaller area and and practicing holistic and sustainable agricultural techniques, you are more likely to finds fruits and vegetables able to grow in a way that draws in a wider range of nutrients.

I learned the above from a farmer at Alemany Farm in San Francisco and also from reading Michael Pollan In Defense of Food, which I highly recommend.

The study originally appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine and was also reported by the BBC on 3 September 2012. “Organic food ‘not any healthier'”

And Just for fun: Check your marathon running time against the http://www.paulryantimecalculator.com.

March 22, 2012

Teju Cole: Our Wish Come True

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.

Teju Cole, The White Savior Industrial Complex , Atlantic Monthly, Mar 21 2012.

Quite true, and thoroughly complicated.   Where, there?  When, first?  What, help?  Who, them?   The more closely one works in the field, the more the questions multiply. Over-simplified and inaccurate presentations of poverty and injustice spread more easily than those that call for complex and difficult solutions, as shown by the Kony 2012 video campaign and many before that (such as Live-Aid, that met with a response, “Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records.”) Not everyone offended by such efforts can easily explain to their friends why, and for them an article like Teju Cole’s comes in handy.

In the course of his sharp critique of the growth industry capitalizing on the needs of privileged, politically naive, socially networked people to feel good, Teju Cole passes out some parcels to make the rest of us feel good.

For example, I felt good to see someone articulate the problem with Kristof. So often Saint Nick’s articles have left me uncomfortable. But his own kind-hearted sincerity is so strong that I have been at a loss to confront what disturbed me about him. Cole hit the nail on the head when he talked about how he himself was drawn in by his eloquence, and why that precisely is the problem.

Cole strikes back with Marx and Shakespeare. Of Kristof’s feeding hungry mouths, he says that Kristof “sees no need to reason out the need for the need.”

Thank you Teju Cole! You give us food for political thought, garnished with literary delicacies.

Imagine how delicious it must have felt to pen this line:

The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

Stern tip of the hat to Marx, and even sterner rebuke to anyone who didn’t see that already.

Just above Teju Cole’s article we find this appeal to “Make a Child’s Wish Come True,” complete with a photo of an earnest child whose wish the gentle reader can fulfill with a click and a donation. Those who found Cole’s article to be a wish come true, may well respond … Aw, why not?

September 28, 2010

like a tightrope walker

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 5:45 am

When we think about god are we thinking primarily of the origin of the universe, or the creator? Is saying "there is no god" the same as saying "there is no origin" or "there is no creator?" Is saying that there is an origin the same as saying that there is a god? what is the difference, if it is possible tohave one without the other? And strumming the harp from which the strings came, or banging the big, or letting that initial particle drop – how does it really matter whether this was done by god or by itself? How is this job related to to other jobs one might assign to god, like co-pilot, etc?

As I turned over these and other such matters I came across this wonderful quote:

"An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it."
– Wittgenstein, quoted in Carlin Romano, Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking

September 26, 2010

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking 1

Art: Michael Morgenstern

September 22, 2010

Controlled Extinction?

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 4:59 am

The New York Times

The Meat Eaters

By JEFF MCMAHAN, September 19, 2010, 5:35 pm
Would the controlled extinction of carnivorous species be a good thing?


If we agree that human have caused the most suffering on the planet so far, then how would controlled extinction, where we are in control, have any hope of decreasing suffering on planet earth? Unless we began with humans. See Comment #1.

What if, to alleviate suffering on the planet, we extinguish the species that damage land, water and air? Or even the one that has done the most killing that is NOT tied to survival? I am vegetarian, but I do not think one can compare factory farming and CAFOs to the carnivorous species in nature.

Furthermore, this kind of argument, which no one will take seriously, threatens to distract attention to all that we can do right now without impossible ideas like controlled extinction or even having all humans go vegan. Eliminate CAFOs, end wars, consume less, and we will reduce a tremendous amount of human and animal suffering on planet earth.

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