Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for July 2013

One Foot in Front of the Other

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footprints in sand

I stopped for a second from working on a huge project to say I am working on a huge project. Between interviewing and volunteering, I have been focused on one of a series of ideas that I’ve been wanting to work on for the last few years. To be honest, I realize more everyday that the older I get, the less time I have to do the things I most deeply believe in. So, I am working on my discipline, and the progress I’m making on this project gives me encouragement.

Other sources of encouragement come from a professor at my alma mater, and a man near the top of the academic US foreign policy establishment. With the support of these two very busy people, I trudge forward, digging out one teaspoon at a time. My goal is to create something that will help people navigate the laws which govern their day to day lives and at the same time, hold the people who make those laws more accountable.

The thing about this project is that it is only a warm up for some other projects I am planning with a similar focus. I decided to start with this one because it acquaints me with processes and language that I’ll need to have a better understanding of when I move onto other projects.

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July 22, 2013 at 05:22

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Busting with Ideas

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I’m saving blogpost ideas in a file rather than write when something inspires me. So in the future, fresh inspiration will be at the ready. Lots of writing coming soon.

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July 19, 2013 at 00:02

Posted in Scratchpad


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never give up

I’m curious to hear about your failures. This is a site dedicated to the successes and the possibilities, but for every success, there are many failures. And who determines what a “true” success and a “true” failure is? Can your failure teach anybody anything? Did it teach you something? Can you talk about it with pride or do you hold it in because you don’t want to be seen as a failure simply because you had a failure?

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July 16, 2013 at 08:14

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Deja New

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This isn’t about interviewing.

In a previous post, I whined about how I couldn’t get a Windows 7 computer to play nice with a Windows XP telephone answering software program that I really liked. Despite futzing around with the compatibility settings, I couldn’t get a PCI modem card from my old PC (which worked perfectly fine before) to work in the new one because the drivers wouldn’t install. I wondered if this was on purpose to force people to put their calls on the cloud thanks to stuff like Skydrive or Google Voice. In desperation, I even dug up from the bowels of the Internet a cumbersome dinosaur of an answering program called Advanced Call Center and bought a bagful of PCI modem cards in hopes that switching them out would help me eventually stumble upon something the either the old or new program would recognize.

But there was another problem; the computer recognized the all of the modems I installed for fax and data, but not voice. Voice modems back in the day were the only way you could get a computer to talk to a telephone. And since it was a voicemail system I was trying to make work, the sound fax and data modems gave was like trying to hear a whisper over someone digging through a box of styrofoam peanuts.

Here’s where it get weird. Back in December, I ordered a USB modem that promised to be a data, fax AND voice modem. I’d never seen one before, and it looked nothing like what I’d grown up with modems looking like; big boxes with lots of lights and parallel port connectors on the back. I was used to names like US Robotics or Hayes splashed all over it. The names and the look gave me confidence. So when I found this thing, I saw a simple black box, barely bigger than a package of chewing gum with two phone jacks, one skinny USB wire and one little red light. I thought, “This is a modem?” But I was desperate so I ordered it. And it came, without an installation disc or instructions, from China.

So I plug it in and the software program says “Please install a modem” and I think, “I’ve just been punked. I’ll never get to have control over my own calls. And I don’t want to revert back to answering machines or cell phone carriers that can lose or delete my saved messages. And I can’t retrieve my message by email. What to do?”

This week, I decided to try the modem switch out dance again, so I do. And again, the bag o’ modems don’t work. But when I dig through my box of gear and pull out the USB modem and plug it in, it works! Maybe Windows had since provided a generic modem update. Or maybe the modem had a few months to think about how it had disappointed me. Anyway, the software says, “Thank your for installing your voice, data and fax modem. Enjoy a rich experience from the full features of your program. Congratulations.” That tells me that even the software developers must know how hard it is to find a decent modem.

Written by Interviewer

July 13, 2013 at 23:35

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Speaking of the Life they Lost Because of It …

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In researching the last post, I remembered and was reminded of this from the Iranian election protests of 2009. I wonder if one of the only reasons why mainstream journalism picked up her story was because her death was captured on social media and citizen journalists. Yet in four years, I have not heard this woman’s name mentioned again. I can only hope work is going on in her name. Her name is and was Neda Agha-Soltan:

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July 13, 2013 at 22:24

Splitting the Baby

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This is about how reportage and interviewing connect. And this reference to King Solomon points to one of storytelling’s ancient problems.

I’ve just listened to Malala Yousafzai speak boldly against the Taliban attack on her last October. Their shooting of her may have been in line with their religious and political priorities to keep women subjugated according to their interpretation of Islam. But it backfired severely in a world that is becoming more intolerant of any culture that suppresses any part of its population that could be helping to lift it instead. As I listened to BBC reporters interview three ten year old girls; two in a Pakistani school for girls, and one making mud bricks at a family home though, I thought about the responsibility of journalism.

Journalism says the truth must be visible for all to see and verify, even if that means exposing the people with the most to lose to the people who want most to insure they lose it. Those two girls, identified by their real names, are in danger now, as far as I can tell. The third, making mud bricks, far from a school and other girls, is no threat to religious fundamentalism.

Should the girls in school be afraid for their lives? That’s a lot to ask of ten year olds. But the adults should certainly be. The world has rallied around Malala Yousafzai and has made her into a symbol of the emancipation of girls and women from radical sects and muslim extremists. Take note however, that on Pakistani social media, Ms. Yousafzai is being criticized for being a “Drama Queen” and reflecting unfavorably upon Islam. These things said about an innocent women who took a bullet to her head after she dared to speak out about the right of girls to go to school. So even if these groups don’t dominate Pakistan – the country with the highest percentage of girls not in school – their views certainly seem to.

Does that make Pakistan a pyrrah? It’s a debatable questions, especially if its citizens are looking at Octomom, or Girls Gone Wild videos and asking themselves, “Is this what Western freedom does to women?” But it doesn’t justify murder or torture. It doesn’t mean that they then have the right to rape and kill and mutilate females who refuse the polar opposite mold.  And an equally important question for this post; does that mean Western media should point out girls trying to attain both personal freedom and national pride despite these practitioners of tribalism only to be raped or killed or mutilated into subjugation? The amazing thing about political freedom is the right of choice. As stupid and demeaning as a behavior may be, a free society allows it as long as it isn’t doing harm to yourself or someone else, and as long as it isn’t so revolting that people eventually can’t stand it anymore. But the threshold for revulsion can be high in free societies.

I will forever be torn over journalism’s ironic necessity to tell the story with full attribution and disclosure of someone who, more than anything, needs anonymity to survive. I understand without it, anyone can claim any set of circumstances is true, and thus, manipulate an audience without proper facts. I understand a cause celeb can bring many people out of the shadows and give their own experience voice. And I understand that some people tell their stories while accepting their fate that they may become martyrs for their causes. But in many cases, our need to be exactly sure of who these people are only puts huge fluorescent targets on their backs, with their only comfort being that the fickle West might remember their cause even if it doesn’t remember the life they lost because of it.

Written by Interviewer

July 13, 2013 at 21:54

For Want of a Chair

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Chair Killing You

This isn’t about interviewing.

I am ripping off this old proverb, but anybody who spends a lot of time sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, might see the connection I’m about to draw. This “For Want of a Nail” proverb has been around for centuries and tells how ignoring something small can eventually cause something big. Wikipedia says “The rhyme is a good illustration of the “butterfly effect”, and ideas presented in chaos theory. At a more literal level, these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever thought that an unshod horse could cause a kingdom to fall.”

I bought one of those fancy, schmancy Aeron-like chairs about three years ago. I found it in a thrift store with a damaged piston. So I took it to a furniture repair place and they fixed it and I was thrilled. I researched the chair and found it was a brand that Office Depot sold for about two years for 60% less than the almost identical Herman Miller Aeron Chair. Everybody was clamoring for these chairs at a former workplace, so I thought I had scored a coup in getting one for myself at home.

Little did I know that when Herman Miller hired engineers to update their iconic 60’s ergonomic masterpiece, that they were more concerned with making it 21st Century cool. Surprisingly, the emphasis wasn’t reducing lower back pain. At work, I was reading more and more about how sitting the way we all were sitting was not good and I talked with the supply office about a standing desk. But I didn’t make the connection that sitting badly at home was no better. I was so in Iove with my chair that I refused to believe it was hurting me.

Two years later, with excruciating back pain, I decided that the chair was the problem. My beautiful, Aeron knock off was really trying to kill me. I’ve always taken particular care of my back. And even though I’ve put it through a workout in this past year, I knew I didn’t do anything that would’ve caused the pinched nerves I was feeling from my heel to my neck.

Finally, a NYTimes article sealed it for me and I started looking at proper ways to sit. What I learned is that the normally S-shaped spine bends backwards at the sacrum, the very bottom. When we sit too low, we force the spine to compress like an accordion, but we also push the tip of the spine forward rather than its natural position, which is pointed backwards. This makes discs compress where they shouldn’t compress and causes pinching.

Look at how people ride horses and that’s how we should be sitting. But look also at how their legs are positioned. Thighs are at a 45 rather than a 90 degree angle. This reduces the tilt of the pelvis and bends the sacrum a lot less. People learning to ride horses complain that their ass hurts, but they rarely say their back hurts. And if it does, it’s because their muscles aren’t used to erect sitting, not because nerves are pinched.

I’ve learned that we should sit at desks that are 1/2 our height, and sit in chairs 1/3 our height. And when we get too sore but have to keep working, we should stand for a little while. This goes completely against what we’ve learned, and seen and been told for the last 100 years, but it’s true. Sitting low, with thighs parallel to the floor while leaning forward over a keyboard will destroy your back.

So now, I have a simple barstool that I can raise and lower. And I found a standing desk. And the back pain has gone away. After months of that lousy kind of tingling you recognize from pinched nerves, all I have now is a sore back from training muscles to learn to sit upright. It’s still kinda early to be sure, but things are looking good.

That chair has punk’d me for three years. I always thought, “I’m a relatively young man in good health. I shouldn’t have to care about stuff like this. This is for old people.” But what I’ve learned is that you can start crippling yourself at any age. That chair is outta here.

P.S. This is the best explanation I’ve found about why bad sitting hurts.
And this looks at the ergonomics of standing desks.

Written by Interviewer

July 6, 2013 at 04:28

Posted in Scratchpad

Write Stop Write Stop Write …

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Writing an article can be like running through the woods at night looking for notes tacked to trees. You kinda know where you’re going. And you kinda know what you’re looking for. But if you don’t get where you’re supposed to be in time with what you’re supposed to have when you get there, you’re monster food.

I do interviews, but not only audio interviews for podcasts. I also write freelance articles, like the one I’m finishing up right now for Hilton Head Monthly. I’m working with a volunteer medical clinic called “Volunteers in Medicine – Founder’s Clinic” in Oregon City, Oregon. Its mission is to provide free care for chronic conditions for the uninsured. And since I don’t have enough to do, I told them I’d help with their outreach. That led to me convincing an editor at the magazine to take an article I offered that connects the first VIM clinic on Hilton Head Island to the Founder’s Clinic; #86.

I spent a feverish week or so requesting interviews, sending off questions, receiving photos and transcribing answers. And two days ago, when I figured I had gotten everything from everybody that I was going to get, I closed my eyes and saw this huge pile of stuff sitting on top of a barrel of gunpowder wired to a ticking clock.

This is how writers see the world, by the way. Everything is a deadline, and mine is today. So why am I not beating the keys on the project? See the title of this post. Writing is so hard, that you have to take breaks. You have to have distractions. If I sat down and wrote the article straight through, I guarantee it would sound like something you’d read from a drop down HELP menu. In other words, it would be complete, but one dimensional; flat. It would read like all I did was transfer information from one medium to another. It would have no soul. Oh, and I’d be insane.

Writing an article requires the writer to play a role similar to the interviewer’s role, but fussier. The interviewer is lucky. They work with the interviewee’s words and only their words. An article, by contrast arranges history and mission, personalities and issues into something the editor feels OK passing along to readers. So that makes how stuff is arranged very important. Is it chronological? Yes. Is it order of importance? Yes. Is it first person narrative? Yes. Or no. I don’t know. And you don’t always know. Sometimes, it’s all of them. Or one of them. Or none of them. See the photo accompanying this post. And until the editor accepts it, all the work and the stress might be for nothing. Will it be accepted for publication or rejected? And if it’s rejected, will it be because it was too flowery, wordy, irrelevant or flat?

That’s stressful. But if this post is anything, it’s an example of how goofy writers can be. I mean, I’m doing more writing right now, what … as a way of relaxing? That’s crazy. Oh, look at the time. Break’s over.

Written by Interviewer

July 2, 2013 at 00:42