Thursday, March 22, 2012


Here's an open letter to Mike Daisey, the performance artist who appeared on my favorite radio show, This American Life, and lied to their producers about fabricating parts of a dramatic story about visiting an Apple manufacturing plant in China. (Full story here.)


I listened to your performance on This American Life this weekend and I was sickened and disgusted by your behavior. After all of the evidence they had against you, you still couldn't bring yourself to admit that you LIED. You lied to Ira, to his fact-checkers, to his listeners, and to every one of your audience members. Even after they gave you a chance to correct yourself, you lied. And you still won't take responsibility for it.

I believe lying is wrong. Once a lie gets out there ("Obama is a Muslim", "Jews eat Christian babies") it takes forever to eradicate it. I know you believe you lied for a good cause. But that only weakens your cause. Because from now on, whenever an Apple supporter hears stories about Apple factories, they can point to your fabrications as proof that it's not really bad as people say. "People make stuff up!" And they're talking about YOU. Your disregard for truth and accuracy has only hurt your cause.

But what really baffles and infuriates me is how you appear to take little responsibility for what you've done. Your defensive posture has been sickening. You say, "If you think this story [the one of you lying] is bigger than that story [the working conditions in a Chinese factory], something is wrong with your priorities." No, I think something is wrong with your priorities. Truth IS more important than winning people to your perspective, regardless of how noble your cause is. Because once you start to stretch the truth, you lose all credibility. Human rights are impossible without truth and accuracy. It wasn't a bunch of lies that led to abolition, women's suffrage, and civil rights. It was the truth. A truth that you pissed all over just so you could gain notoriety, make money, and further your agenda.

I don't own any Apple products, so I have no dog in this fight. I value my priorities-- those of telling the truth, accepting responsibility, and admitting when I'm wrong-- over that of any single business practice that I oppose. I wish you shared my priorities.
Mike Daisey: Lying Piece of Shit (as Dan Savage would say)

Although the majority of the interwebs are similarly flaying Daisey for his dubious respect for the truth (my favorite uses the wonderful phrase, "counterfeit truth":, there are some people who come to his defense. They say that greater truths are more important than niggling details, and theatrical performances can take dramatic license with the truth. That's all well and good, and I have no problem with fictional accounts of true life. As long as they're labeled that way.

But when you insist that something really happened, and sell it as such, it better damn well be true. I remember during the whole James Frey fiasco I had a discussion with someone who said, "Who cares if it's true? It's just a story." Well, EVERYONE cares if it's true.

Whether or not something really happened is an integral part of every story. When people tell urban legends, why do they always insist that it "really happened!" They will swear up and down that they know it happened to their cousin's babysitter's neighbor. If truth doesn't matter, then why are people so insistent that something really happened? Because a story that really happened has a much lower bar than one that didn't happen. People pay much more attention to true stories.

James Frey knew this, which is why, when he tried to sell his book as fiction, no one bought it. It was only after he changed it to non-fiction that a publisher bought it. Mike Daisey knows this as well, which is why he fabricated scenes that he personally never witnessed. Everyone agrees that he tells a great story-- but the quality of any story changes depending on whether or not it really happened.


Totally unrelated to the Daisey story is something else that has captured my attention this week: The shooting of an unarmed teenager in Florida by a neighborhood watch captain who pursued him because he looked "suspicious."

Trayvon Martin: Murdered for looking suspicious

This story disgusts and enrages me. Because George Zimmerman, the shooter, claimed "self-defense," the law in Florida prevents him from being arrested. So apparently I can go up to anyone in Florida, pick a fight with them, and then shoot them and get away with it?

The lies in this story are of an altogether different nature. In a letter that was written by Zimmerman's father after the shooting, he claims that the media coverage is "cruel and misleading" toward his son. He also claims,
At no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin. When the true details of the event become public, and I hope that will be soon, everyone should be outraged by the treatment of George Zimmerman in the media.
Knowing what we now know about the case-- that Zimmerman called 911 and said there was a suspicious man in his neighborhood and he was going to follow him, because "they always get away,"-- it's hard to reconcile his father's assertion that George never followed Martin. Are we to believe Martin
(armed with a bag of skittles and a jar of tea) just attacked Zimmerman, without provocation, in order to steal a bullet out his gun with his chest?

Obviously, someone is lying. The question is, does Zimmerman's dad really believe the account as he told it, or is he intentionally lying? I'm tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt that he believes the lie himself. He just doesn't want to believe his son is a killer. Who would?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Trapped in the Office

This is the post that just won't die. I tried to write it, then decided it was bunk, but then I keep running across other things that relate to it.

My original thesis was: Americans work too much. Our priorities are out of balance.

This was inspired partly by another book I read recently. It's called Spousonomics, and it combines my love of economics, human behavior, and psychology with my love of relationship stories.

It's a pretty good book, although the jokey way the authors focus on sex as a motivator can sometimes be annoying. They present dozens of different couples, tell the story of how they met, and then how they got into some major conflict/tension they're having in their relationship. Then the authors (an economist and a journalist) apply economic principles to "solve" these marital issues.

Everyone takes away their own message from these kinds of lessons, but the common theme I noticed throughout the book was time management. People didn't seem to make enough time for each other, their families, or their relationships.

The refrain I heard over and over (probably because I was keyed in on it) was that so-and-so was at work too much and couldn't devote time to their family.

In one case, a wife uses some economic principle to change her schedule and it benefits her relationship, but as the authors point out, it's not a fool-proof solution. "Some nights she'd be legitimately trapped in the office until late."

I wrote that down:
Some nights she'd be legitimately trapped in the office until late.
This bothers me. Unless you work as a magician's assistant, no one should ever be "trapped" at work. It just shows how skewed our priorities are that this sentiment is just taken for granted-- a necessary aspect of working life.


That was my original thesis. But as I think more about it, it's kind of simplistic. People want to do a good job. I do value a conscientious work ethic. Incompetent, lazy, shoddy work drives me crazy. It is a credit to our national values that people work hard and want to be productive, useful, contributing members of our society.

And really, when you compare our lives to those of almost every generation before us, we have TONS of leisure time. We don't have to grow our own food or make our own clothes or build our own homes. We have it so easy.

You think peasant mud farmers in the Middle Ages had any leisure time?

Maybe that's what bothers me about the work-all-the-time mindset. For most of us, our work is not so important that we can't just put it down at the end of the day and say, "This can wait til tomorrow. I have a home, family, and personal life to tend to."

It's all about balance.


Because of my ambivalence about this issue, I decided not to publish this post.

Then two things found their way onto my Facebook feed.

The first was this article from the British paper The Guardian : Top five regrets of the dying. A nurse compiled a list of the regrets she most often hears from patients who are dying.

Number 2 on the list of regrets? I wish I hadn't worked so hard. This regret came from "every male patient that I nursed... most were from an older generation... All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

The other thing that caught my attention was this video:

It's Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, saying that she makes it a point to leave work every day at 5:30. What's striking is that this video needs to be made at all. Why does someone need to make a big deal of the fact that she's able to leave work at a reasonable time every day?

What does it say about our priorities that this is a bold brave act?

I didn't go looking for these items, but they found me. Obviously other people are thinking about this issue, too.

Let's get some balance in our lives.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Annoying Mr. W.

I love this video:

Since it has sort of a twist ending, I won't discuss what it's about. If you plan to watch it, then do so before reading on...


My college has had plans for a wind turbine for several years now. Every time they were about ready to pull the trigger and buy one, they decided that the technology was just on the cusp of a super cheap and efficient revolution, so they'd wait. They didn't want to get something that would be obsolete soon. So they waited six months. Then another six months.

After several years of talking about the wind turbine-- telling people how awesome and efficient and cost-effective our new green energy generator would be-- they finally bought one. For what seems like the past year, they've been putting it up.

Now there's a big tower and propeller sitting outside our new agricultural building. But it's not working yet.

It just sits there, sad and impotent.

I love seeing the big majestic turbine, a huge flag of green energy rising up above my college. But when is the damn thing going to start turning? WTF is the problem?!? We had some really windy days last week, and it burned me to see all that wind going to waste, NOT generating any power.

I'm sure there are a lot of technical stuff involved in setting up a wind turbine, even though they look relatively simple: a propeller on a big pole turns and generates power.

Still, it seems like we've been waiting forever. What is the hold up?


I love the idea of taking something so natural and so annoying, like the wind, and putting it to good use. It seems like the perfect panacea to our energy problems.

A few years ago local residents threw up a fuss over some wind turbines that were going to be built near their neighborhood. They worried about property values and having "40-story towers in their backyards." Seriously? We have a simple, easy, clean, elegant solution to a major energy and environmental problem, and this is all you care about?

Down with progress!!

This just goes to show that no matter what great idea technology comes up with, there will always be people who want to stand in its way.


I personally love driving past farmland and seeing a collection of titanic turbines collecting all that wind power. It makes me happy.

"How can I blow if you won't let me grow?" -Rachel from Friends

Thursday, March 8, 2012


The love he received from fans was wonderful and great, but it wasn't real. The diehard Bears loyalist wearing the No. 34 jersey knew Walter Payton as a halfback, but he didn't know Walter Payton. Everything was surface and superficial. What would they think, Walter wondered, if they saw him away from the field, cheating incessantly and failing as a businessman?


When I was a kid, one of my favorite games I played with my brothers was called Walter Payton. My two big brothers would get on their knees in the front of the couch, guarding it like an end zone. Football in hand, my job was to jump, run, or somehow get past them to get onto the couch.

The game simulated one of Walter Payton's trademark moves: jumping over a line of defenders into the end zone.

Walter was such a hero of mine as a kid that when I was 14 I named my new cat-- a female cat-- Walter. Walter was a very sweet kitty, but I never called her by her namesake's nickname: Sweetness.


As a child, Walter wasn't a real person to me. He was a hero. Someone I looked up to merely by his virtue of being able to run a football really, really well.

So reading his latest biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman has been a real eye opener.

Or maybe it's just a lesson in growing up. A lesson that the black and white world of childhood becomes a lot more complicated when you see it with adult eyes.

Walter Payton was a great athlete, and meant a great deal to a lot of people. But he was still a human being, with human frailties and shortcomings.

And sometimes, he was just an asshole.


If I had to describe his life in one word, it would be tragic. Like so many great artists, his personal existence was often a tortured one. Two of his greatest moments, the day he won the Super Bowl and the day he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, were miserable experiences because of his own demons.

The day he won the Superbowl, I remember the indignation I felt on his behalf. Although the amazing '85 Bears scored 46 points in that game, Walter never scored a touchdown. Instead, late in the game they gave the ball to William "The Refrigerator" Perry to score. Perry was a rookie and a novelty. Payton was the long-suffering veteran and backbone of the team. When they brought Perry in on that goal-line play, I yelled at my TV: YOU BETTER GIVE THAT BALL TO WALTER. HE DESERVES A TOUCHDOWN! Instead, the Fridge got the touchdown. I was furious.
Perry, get your fat ass out of the end zone and let Sweetness score.

Afterward, the coach (Mike Ditka) and quarterback (Jim McMahon) both agreed that they dropped the ball on that one. They didn't realize Walter hadn't scored yet, but as a 15-year-old watching at home, I did. And I was incredulous.

I was a child. Walter was an adult, part of a team, a veteran and a leader. Yes, he got shafted, but it's still the pinnacle of any professional football player's career to be part of a winning Super Bowl team. After Walter's disappointing personal performance in the game, he shut himself in a broom closet and cried.

Question: Walter, you just won the Super Bowl! Where are you gonna go?
Answer: To the broom closet to mope.

This is one of hundreds of examples of Walter acting petty and immature. He liked to play stupid and annoying pranks, like pulling down guys' pants, flicking their ears (?), or calling a teammate's house and in a female voice telling the guy's wife "she" was pregnant with her husband's child. Classy. He cheated on his wife with his mistress. He cheated on his mistress with several other women. He fathered an illegitimate child and then would have nothing to do with it (although he did support the mother financially.) He accidentally shot a manager at the restaurant he owned. He would drive his sports cars 120 mph in 30 mph zones.

He appeared to suffer from bipolar disorder and ADHD. After he retired he would call his personal assistant, a young lady named Ginny, 30-50 times a day, at any time day or night. He lost oodles and oodles of money on failed business ventures. He threatened to kill himself dozens of times.

Despite all that, people close to him were very loyal. He touched many lives in personal ways. As his assistant said, "People loved Walter. People were drawn to him." For every story of him acting immature or irresponsibly, there is a story of him giving his time or attention or encouragement to someone who really needed it. They talk about how he was always laughing. Even though he was the superstar of the team, he went out of his way to make the newcomers feel welcome. He visited sick children. He set up foundations and charities. When a teammate made a terrible mistake that lost the game, he would console them. There are plenty of stories of how he touched someone with a simple, kind, generous, or supportive gesture.

As Pearlman writes at the end of the book, "Has I so desired, I could have written a seven-hundred-page book consisting solely of You're-not-gonna-believe-this stories of Payton's goodness."


Long before I read this book, Walter Payton had stopped being my hero. Growing up will do that. But after reading this book, I realize that my hero was just a caricature to begin with. I only knew him as a running back, and that's all that mattered.

Perhaps a better nickname for Walter Payton would be Bittersweetness.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Losing Literally

At a professional meeting the other day, I heard the following two sentences:

"I've been literally bashing students over the head with information literacy."
"She literally blew the professor's socks off."
As one of my favorite humor sites, the Oatmeal, explains: "literally means actually or without exaggeration."

These were not uneducated simpletons who made those statements. They both had master's degrees, and at least one of them was intelligent and thoughtful. (He had a beard and glasses, so he must be, right?)

Doesn't he look smart?

As someone who studied linguistics, I know what's going on.

Popular usage is changing the meaning of the word "literally."

Look, words change meanings. It happens. If it didn't, then everyone in Spain, France, Italy, and South America would be speaking Latin.

One of my favorite examples of this is from the 17th century when Queen Ann described a new cathedral as "awful, artificial, and amusing." It was a compliment. Back then those words meant awesome, clever, and though-provoking, respectively. (A quick web search casts this particular story into doubt, however, claiming it to be apocryphal. Still, it illustrates how the meaning of words can change.)

"Literally" is now going the way of "really." I imagine at one point really referred to something being real. I really want to eat an entire gourd! But then it started being used as an intensifier, to mean very much or a lot. That's what's happening to literally. It's becoming an intensifier. From a linguistic standpoint it's kind of interesting to see this happen before my eyes.

For a while there I think people were using "literally" ironically, as a joke. But now it's seeping into our language as a non-ironic intensifier. "I've LIT-rully never been happier!" I blame Rob Lowe on Parks and Recreation.

I'm literally mourning the loss of literally. I'm literally wearing black pants today. My heart is literally heavy: about 10 ounces.