Water textures in the SF Bay.

Two sailing ships in the water.
Textured water alongside the Balclutha and CA Thayer.

Yesterday I swam around Aquatic Park on a sunny, windy afternoon with shreds of fog whipping themselves away from the Golden Gate and across the blue sky.

The wind on the cove gave different textures to water in every part of the cove: Just off the dock and along the buoy line I was swimming into the chop, punching through each wave and gliding just beneath the jade-green roughness of the surface. Alongside the pier, sheltered from the wind, the water took on a darker, smoother quality, with long, easy hills swelling up and down. Beside the opening of the cove, waves rose up to a foot or more in height, and I looked out at the whitecaps in the open bay and decided I didn’t need to be there at all. I swam back through the lively little waves pushed up against the breakwater and what we call the Jacuzzi, a round cement structure at the end of the breakwater, but felt a bit like I was in a foamy, bubbly jacuzzi myself. Around the other side of the breakwater, in its lee, the water was glassy calm, flat, and pale green. Then I swam back out, alongside the sailing ships and encountered bouncy, playful, tumbly waves the color of an overcast sky, which rolled and rocked me back into the dock, laughing and grinning.

Water in the San Francisco Bay is highly changeable, even within the half-mile circle of Aquatic Park, which after all is just a tiny sample jar pulling a bit of water out of an enormous ecosystem. Sometimes the water is murky and brown, sometimes translucently green, sometimes (rarely) completely clear. It can be as salty as the aftertaste of an over-salted salt bagel, or as mild as lake water on the lips.

The Bay is, in a phrase that John McPhee rightly calls haunting, a “drowned river mouth.” Legends of the people who lived here first suggest that the Bay may not have existed at all as recently as a thousand years ago, or maybe a few hundred—the first Spanish explorers apparently sailed right past it without noticing it, which is surprising for explorers in search of good harbors but perhaps not entirely impossible. The underwater topography of the Bay still preserves what was there before: a river canyon, flowing to the sea around a large hill and then between two even higher hills, the sentinels on either side of what we call the Gate. But at some point it sank, or the sea rose, and though the rivers still flow into it their water now mixes early with the inflowing sea tides, swirling around the northern and southern lobes of the bay and creating thousands of microclimates in and around the water.

The water is green because it’s rich with phytoplankton, the tiny algae that convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and serve as the foundation of a whole web of life. It’s opaque brown or translucent green-brown because of suspended sediments of silt, brought down from the Sierras along with the snowmelt. Its fish have elevated levels of mercury because mercury was used, 150 years ago, in gold-mining operations in the foothills hundreds of miles away, and the excess mercury ran down into the Bay and sat there for a century, only now starting to diminish in its effects as the silt covers it up. Because of the mercury you shouldn’t eat certain fish more than once a month, although some of the fishermen along the pier, who are fishing for their dinners, for their families, probably eat more than that. It’s saline because of the ocean and fresh because of the rivers. It’s cold, and the more ocean water pours in the mouth of the Gate the colder it gets, but in the southern and northern, shallower parts of the Bay, the water warms up to bathlike temperatures.

And its currents are maddeningly complex. Tides alone have their own rhythmic predictability, so as mysterious as they may seem while you’re standing on the beach, they’re orderly and rational enough that a simple algorithm in an app can calculate the high and low tides at any time of day anyplace in the world. But the inward flood of water leading to the high tide, and the outward ebb on the way to low tide, are truly hard to grasp. Fluid dynamics at large scales are not easy to understand intuitively, the rivers add another complication, and the involuted, lobed shape of the Bay makes everything cockeyed.

Everyone who swims at Aquatic Park has their own rule of thumb for guessing the currents. Some who have guessed badly, or are not prepared for the currents, have been trapped, terrifyingly, against the pier, pinned down by a current they couldn’t fight. My principle is to listen to people, watch the water, and make my own decisions. I pay close attention to what the water’s doing, how it feels, how it tastes, whether there’s a seam between a patch of ruffled water and a patch of smooth. I watch the shoreline to see how I’m drifting, and time myself between landmarks I know to see if the current is speeding me up or slowing me down. I don’t go outside the cove alone. But those are my rules, and I only know a little about the Bay. I’ve only been swimming here a few years. I still have much to learn.


Note: I’m planning on doing a 6.5-mile (10km) swim in the Bay on July 9, for Baykeeper’s Bay Parade. Would you support my swim for a cleaner Bay? 

And if you’d like to follow along with my adventures, please enter your email address here and I’ll keep you posted:

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Water textures in the SF Bay.

Getting used to the cold.

Picture of Aquatic Park cove showing two docks and a triple-masted schooner in the background
A sunny day at Aquatic Park. Photo by Dylan

I swam for an hour and 25 minutes on Saturday, with my swimming buddy Zina, and it was good. The sun was shining, the water was calm, there were no currents to speak of, and we explored a new-to-us route that took us from the far end of the breakwater guarding Fisherman’s wharf to the far end of the Fort Mason complex and back, for a total distance of about two miles.

It was less than I’d hoped for, though: I was going for 2:30 or 2:40. At least, that’s what my swim plan told me to do. But I got out after an hour and a half to get some warm water (mixed with carbohydrate powder) on the dock, where I’d left it in an insulated cup, and then I looked back at the water and … I just didn’t want to go back in.

There was nothing particularly wrong with me. I felt reasonably strong, my stroke was in good shape, I wasn’t too cold, and I’ve done a swim of 2:40 before, in water that was about the same temperature as it was Saturday (56 degrees F or about 13 C). Of course I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit, but that goes without saying in this series I’m writing.

The fact is, the human body has a remarkable ability to acclimate to cold water. People ask me about this, mentioning Coast Guard statistics saying you can’t possibly stay conscious longer than an hour or two in 50-60 degree water. But that’s for non-acclimated, non-swimming humans in emergency situations. English Channel swimmers spend ten, 12, sometimes 18+ hours in water at 14-18 C (57-64F), wearing nothing more than an ordinary swimsuit, a silicone swim cap, and goggles. But before they jump into the Channel, they need to train in cold water — in fact, you can’t even attempt the Channel without doing a qualifying swim of six hours in cold water (60 F or less).

While my swim July 9 will be much shorter (more like 3 hours, I expect), I need to go through a similar kind of training. And much of my training is about building up my body’s ability to handle the cold for that time.

It’s an odd ability, because you’d think that the second law of thermodynamics would reign supreme here: A small warm body surrounded by more or less infinite amounts of cold water is eventually going to lose heat to the water. In other words, it’s far more likely that your body will wind up being the temperature of the water than the reverse. In fact, that’s a given.

Or is it? The human body has a couple of defenses against the cold. One, it’s a mammalian body, which means it generates its own heat. This is particularly true if the body is in motion, because using your muscles generates heat, which means in addition to moving you forward, your muscles are also heating your blood.

Second, there’s a whole mechanism, the vasoconstrictive system, which can slow down the flow of blood to the skin and the extremities. This effectively sets up a heat exchanger on your circulatory system. Your forearms, hands, fingertips, lower legs, toes, the tip of your nose, and the surface of your skin become cold; your core remains warm; the blood flowing between the two regions passes slowly enough that the arterial blood (going out toward the surface) gets cooled down while the venous blood (coming back in to the core) gets warmed up.

book cover: what doesn't kill usAs Scott Carney details in his fascinating and fun book What Doesn’t Kill Us, most of us have atrophied vasoconstrictive systems thanks to central heating and air conditioning. We like to hang out in comfortable temperatures, between 65 F and 75 F, so we design our homes and HVAC systems accordingly. But that’s not how humans, or really any mammals, evolved. Our bodies are made to adapt quickly and effectively to a wide range of environmental temperatures. Carney describes in some detail how methods invented by Dutch cold-water and breath-holding enthusiast Wim Hof (aka “The Iceman) can help augment those capabilities, and his book discusses his own experiments with doing extreme sports (a tough obstacle course, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro) shirtless, wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, even in quite cold temperatures.

book cover: WaterlogIn fact, exposure to cold temperatures exercises the vasoconstrictive system, and there are some signs that this has real health benefits. Roger Deakin, in his book Waterlog, describes the results of a clinical experiment involving people who took a twelve-week course of daily cold baths, starting with five minutes at a time and working up to twenty. The study found, Deakin writes, that cold-water exposure reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels, led to weight loss, decreased blood viscosity, increased anticoagulants and white blood cell counts, increased the oxygen capacity of the blood, increased the heart muscle thickness, lowered the pulse rate, increased production of plasmin (which can dissolve blood clots), and enhanced production of testosterone in men, and estrogen and progesterone in women, increasing fertility and libido.

The prolific blogger at LoneSwimmer has an enormous amount of experience in cold water and has studied and written about the topic far more than I have. He differentiates between habituation (getting used to the feeling of the cold, which is primarily psychological) and acclimation (the body’s ability to adapt to the cold physiologically). It’s a useful thing to keep in mind. The initial shock of the cold never quite goes away completely. Nor does the feeling of chilliness that you occasionally feel in your extremities. But if you get used to that shock, and hang in there for a few minutes, your body rapidly adjusts. And your ability to stay in cold water increases the longer you do it.

Now, if you want to try this yourself, don’t go alone. Learn the signs of mild and moderate hypothermia, because while mild hypothermia is a fact of life for cold water swimmers, moderate to severe hypothermia is a real risk, even for experienced swimmers. Without experience, you can become badly hypothermic far faster than you expect, and one of the particularly nasty effects of hypothermia is that it impairs your ability to make good decisions.

But if you want to try this, get yourself a buddy, and find a body of cold water to jump into. Get yourself ready by wading in up to your knees. Reach down into the water, get your wrists wet, and swirl your hands around in it — “like you were reaching into a cooler for a cold beer,” as someone once advised my friend Kate. Splash some water on your face, especially on your upper lip, below your nose (this helps cue your vagus nerve that cold water is coming, and that can help reduce the shock experience when you do plunge in.)

When you’re ready, plunge in with your whole body, immersing your head, and start swimming immediately. Breaststroke, crawl, doggy paddle, it doesn’t matter. You’ll find that initially, the water is painfully, shockingly cold—beyond cold even, into a different realm more accurately labeled “pain” or “WTF.” It will take your breath away at first, send your heart racing, and put you into a bit of a panic. The best thing to do here is to keep stroking and breathing rhythmically. Within a few seconds to a couple minutes your heart should start to slow down. Keep swimming and concentrate on breathing regularly. If you find yourself hyperventilating, stick your head out of the water for a minute and breathe more slowly.

Once you’ve caught your breath, you’ll notice that you’re no longer panicking—you’re just cold. Now is the time to start really swimming. Focus on doing your strokes well, the way you’ve practiced them, or however you’re comfortable swimming. But swim.

The first time you do this you probably won’t want to be in the water more than five or 10 minutes. That’s fine. Get out and warm up. Take off your wet swimsuit (as it will keep you cold far more than you think it will) and change into something warm. Keep in mind that your core temperature will continue to drop for 10 to 20 minutes after you get out, as your vasoconstrictive system relaxes and all that cold surface blood starts circulating back into the core of your body — this is known as the “after drop” and it’s a real, and often surprising, effect. Shivering is normal at this point, so don’t panic. Don’t jump right into a hot shower, at it can warm you up too fast and make you lightheaded or even make you pass out. A lukewarm shower, or a sauna, or sitting in your car with the heater on full blast, is far safer and more effective. Drink warm water, hot coffee, or tea. And bundle up. In half an hour or so, you should be feeling much more warm.

If you do this two or three times a week, you’ll find that you can gradually increase your time in the water. Within a few weeks you should be able to handle 20 or 30 minutes in fifty-ish water with no problem. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your body adapts.

And you might start noticing some of the benefits of the cold immersion: Fewer colds. Slower heart rate. Higher libido. And a general sense of wellbeing and freshness to the world. Also, your friends will start saying you must be crazy.

As for me, I’m going to continue with my training plan, with plenty of pool time and some shorter Bay swims planned for this week. A few things may have interfered with my ability to swim a long time last weekend: I didn’t have quite enough breakfast that morning. It was too easy to get out and stay out when my friend Zina got out. And I’d had a few beers the night before. Next Saturday, I’ll be aiming for two and a half hours or more, and this time, I’ll be better prepared.

I’m writing one or two posts a week about my journey towards a 6.5-mile swim in SF Bay on July 9. Would you like to follow along? Just give me your email address here: ↓ ↓

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Getting used to the cold.

2.5 miles in a purple Speedo.

Selfie with shadow on the beach

I wore my swirly purple Speedo for a two-hour swim in the Bay on Saturday.

It was the morning of a joint Pride celebration with my club, the South End, and the Dolphin Club next door. Fifty or sixty of us were going to swim from a bayside beach about a mile away, back to the beach between our two clubs, where rainbow flags had been strung over the water between the docks. It would be a quick swim, on a building flood current, and most people would finish in half an hour or less.

But for me, it was also a training day, when I was planning to do the first of a series of increasingly long weekly swims designed to increase my swimming endurance and cold tolerance in preparation for a 6.5-mile Bay swim July 9. So I hit on the idea of swimming from the club to the swim’s official start, joining the crowd that had walked there, and then swimming back.

Why the purple Speedo? That was my nod to Gay Pride: A small recognition of the freedoms won by gay rights and LGBTQ activists in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. They dared to express themselves in ways that were dangerous to their reputations, their careers, and even their lives. Because of their work, people in this country are now freer than ever to express their love no matter which way it inclines.

My life is richer because the queer people I know and love can be true to themselves. But I also have personally benefitted from this freedom, because as a mostly heterosexual male it takes the pressure off me to constantly defend and represent my own “straight” sexuality.

For the swim, a kayaker, Gary Maier, had agreed to accompany me, and we estimated it would take about an hour to do the reverse swim, given that we didn’t expect much resistance from the current. So I did a loop around Aquatic Park to start, and then Gary and I set out toward Coghlan’s Beach.

Immediately on coming out of the cove and into the Bay, it was clear that the flood had already started. It wasn’t strong, but I wasn’t being carried along by the last of the ebb as expected. What’s more, a headwind was whipping up one- to two-foot waves. Not a big deal except I couldn’t find a rhythm that let me breathe comfortably, so, as I’ve done in similar situations in the past, I frequently switched to breaststroke. That stroke allows me to glide through and under the waves and breathe comfortably, but it’s noticeably slower.

My speed slowed still further as the flood built up against me. With fifteen minutes to go before the start I was still a quarter mile away, and, as I stopped to drink a bit of orange juice that Gary was carrying for me, I said: I don’t think we’re going to make it in time. Indeed, I was still about 100 or 200 yards away when I heard the honk of the air horn signaling the start of the swim. A few minutes later a could see a river of swimmers splashing along in our direction.

I swam out to where they were and turned right, joining the river. I returned back to where I started in about half the time it took me to get out there. I didn’t reach the official start at Coghlan’s Beach, but it didn’t matter, since I got my two-hour swim in, it was a reasonably tough one covering about 2.5 miles, and I felt good about it.

The Pride celebration continued at the South End with brunch and dancing to disco music on the patio, under the colorful flags and a multitude of multicolored balloons. I thought about a man I talked to on the beach, just before starting out that morning. He had moved to San Francisco in 1972. It was a fantastic time, he said. The city was so accepting and so full of love. And, he added, laughing, everyone was having sex and doing drugs. I smiled. I was a kid in the 1970s, but even in Ohio we’d heard about how much fun they were having out in San Francisco.

There’s no doubt that a purple, glittery Speedo would have gotten me called names when I was that kid back in Ohio. In fact, I did get called names: for wearing an earring, for not wearing the right clothes, for having funny hair, for not walking in a masculine enough way, for being terrible at sports. Today, that purple Speedo might raise an eyebrow (because let’s face it, it’s a bit outré) but it’s not going to make anyone call me names or make assumptions about me. Or if they did make assumptions, who cares?

I have more freedom, and we all have more freedom, thanks to LGBTQ activists, and for that I’m grateful.

I’m writing one or two posts a week about my journey towards a 6.5-mile swim in SF Bay on July 9. Would you like to follow along? Just give me your email address here: ↓ ↓

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2.5 miles in a purple Speedo.

Take a memo.

Photo by Jeremy Tenenbaum/Flickr

If we learned anything from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony this week, it’s the importance of well-written memos.

Comey’s memo to the Senate, spelling out his introductory statement, is clear, crisp, and to the point. It contains a wealth of precise detail that lends credibility to his report. And it is restrained: He doesn’t accuse the President of anything illegal, he merely spells out the circumstances of their various meetings and explains enough of the context so that readers can understand why the President made the FBI Director so uncomfortable.

What’s more, the fact that he wrote memos after every meeting with the President is also credibility-enhancing. There’s no better time to take notes than during a meeting or immediately after it, as every journalist knows. The passage of time erodes memories and changes perceptions.

Of course your experience is your own: It’s not like anyone is going to be recording the Objective Truth in their memos. How much you believe in the veracity of Comey’s memos depends largely on how much credit you give Comey himself for being honest and impartial. However, all other things being equal, a factual statement written at or shortly after the events in question should carry far more weight than a statement written much later.

And that brings me back to the detail. Comey includes particulars about the meetings he had that leave no doubt he was there, and was paying attention. These particulars can be crosschecked by other observers. They lend credibility and enhance the veracity of his writing.

“It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy Stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”

This is what is meant by objectivity (with a small “o”) in writing: A focus on presenting the facts as plainly as possible.

Note that the facts also include the writer’s reactions and his or her attempts to understand the situation. For example, Comey includes in his memo the fact that the dinner with Trump felt awkward. He mentions that Trump asked for “honest loyalty” but that Comey wasn’t entirely sure if the two of them had the same understanding of what that meant. In situations like this, objectivity includes your own impressions and feelings, and it’s important to include them.

The takeaways, for anyone who writes:

  • Take notes.
  • Incorporate salient details, including your thinking about what happened and how it felt.
  • Don’t overstate your case–an understated presentation of the facts will carry far more weight, in the long run, than a passionate defense of your point of view.

As a poet I follow on Twitter said recently, “stop journaling & start memoing.”

Take a memo.

Why I swim

Swimmers leaving wakes in calm water at Aquatic Park, San Francisco. Photo by Dylan.

I’m going to attempt to swim down SF Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to AT&T Park, on July 9.

The distance is about 6.5 miles. The water temperature will probably be about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus a couple degrees), or about 15C. Depending on how much of an assist I get from the flood current, it could take over 3 hours. In distance and time it’s longer than any swim I’ve done so far.

Can I do it? I’m not sure yet. I’m pretty confident, and I’m training hard. But I was never a swim team member, came to “serious” swimming fairly late in life, and I’m in no sense particularly athletic. In fact I’m an extremely average swimmer.

People who know me aren’t terribly surprised that I might attempt something like this, given how much I’ve been swimming in the Bay the past couple of years. Swimming is almost a spiritual thing for me.

Since I’m asking people to support this swim — and the health of SF Bay —  I figured I ought to try and explain my particular madness a little bit. There are better blogs on open water swimming, and better blogs on swimming long distances. But this is my little story. For the next month, I’m going to share with you a bit about what I’m doing in the water and why.

Most of the time the reaction to learning that I’m a Bay swimmer is something like: That’s crazy. The water is way too cold for me.

It’s true, the water can be chilly. But you get used to it.

I’ve been swimming all my life, from my first swim lessons at age 5 onwards, and I have always enjoyed the water, but it’s only in the past few years that I got really serious about it.

At some point, around 2010, I heard about a coworker who swam in the Bay every morning before coming to work. That’s kind of impressive, I thought! So I decided to try it out myself. I found my way to Coyote Point, a semi-enclosed cove near my home in San Mateo, where there’s a beach. It gets very windy in the afternoons but early in the morning it seemed like a pretty calm place to try swimming in the Bay. It was late summer, and the water was warm-ish, well into the 60s, and I wore a wetsuit. Since I was alone, I stuck very close to shore.

I learned that 60-ish water was warm enough I didn’t need a wetsuit. On the other hand, I also discovered that I could barely swim 50 yards without getting out of breath. Even though I’d been running fairly regularly and considered myself to be in good shape, swimming required a whole different set of muscles and techniques. My stroke was good enough for getting from one side of the pool to the other, and then taking a daiquiri break, but not much more than that.

I returned to Coyote Point a few times, each time swimming a bit longer, and each time marveling as I discovered the watery world, the way the dawn light looked shining through the trees, how the salty water embraced and held me floating at its surface. One morning in particular I remember watching the moon set in the west as the sun was rising in the east, and I was all alone, floating in still, almost mirror-like water, stunned at the beauty of it all.

It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to learn how to swim better, both to enjoy myself more and to keep myself safer. That led me on a journey of improving my stroke, mostly using Total Immersion techniques, off and on over the next few years. (This video showing Shinji Takeuchi’s amazingly smoooooth crawl stroke, is the one that convinced me Total Immersion had something remarkable going for it. The fact that the accompanying music has the refrain “I can see my destiny” might have helped too.) I’m not following all of its techniques any more, but TI caused a major improvement in my ability to swim comfortably over time.

The next step was when I realized that technique alone wasn’t going to transform me into a powerful swimmer: I needed to spend more time training. While I loved the open water, I could never stick to a very serious workout at Coyote Point. I was more like a tourist. So eventually I found my way to a Masters swim group, Burlingame Aquatic Club. “Masters” in this case simply means “old,” not necessarily expert, and “old” means “over 18,” so it’s a really misleading name. In fact, Masters swim groups have adult swimmers of all abilities, from very slow to very fast. And as I found there is no obvious correlation between age or shape and speed. I was in one of the slowest lanes and was regularly getting smoked by older women of a, shall we say, comfortable shape.

But I stuck with it, after awhile, and found that with some moderate training I was getting a little faster and a lot more comfortable in the water. That brought me back into the bay, and in late 2015, I started swimming with my friend Kate at the South End Rowing Club — another perhaps misnamed organization, since in addition to rowing it also supports handball, running, and, yes, swimming. It’s also nowhere near San Francisco’s South End anymore, although it started there; since the 1930s it’s been located on the city’s north shore at Aquatic Park, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf.

In Aquatic Park, I discovered an enclosed cove that, while colder than Coyote Point, had stunning views: Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge. And the historic ships along Hyde Street Pier: The epic masts of century-old sailing ships, and you could swim right past them, like a pirate! I was in heaven.

Throughout 2016, Kate, her friend Chris, and I had a weekly midday swimming date. We explored Aquatic Park and its environs, in the water and out of it, swimming longer distances as we got used to the water and checking out different lunch options almost every week. It became clear to me that Aquatic Park was a jewel in San Francisco’s crown, an under-appreciated treasure, and it was right there for anyone to jump into it and enjoy. Even better, every day we swam there it was different. Water conditions, air conditions, things swimming about with us or flying overhead: Every single swim was like an amazing new voyage. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Of course, I was hooked.

In my next update, I’ll explain why the cold really isn’t so bad. Honest!

If you’d like to follow along from now until July 9, please add your address using the form below, and I’ll send you a message or two each week, as this story develops.

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Why I swim

I’m going to swim 6.5 miles to help protect SF Bay.

Me in the water, in front of the Jeremiah O’Brien and Coit Tower. Photo by Hank Stern.

Like many Americans, I’m angry and disappointed about Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Agreement.

What are we going to do about it? This is a small contribution, but I’m going to swim 6.5 miles in the SF Bay to raise money for the environment.

In the aftermath of Paris, the gutting of the EPA, and rolling back of environmental regulations all over the place, we need local environmental advocates like SF BayKeeper more than ever. Please join me in supporting them. (You don’t have to swim with me, unless you want to, I promise.)

And even if you are a Trump-loving Republican, as long as you like clean water, support me anyway! Because local environmental organizations like this are replacing former federal government functions. It’s a win-win either way!

Support my swim and SF Baykeeper here.

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I’m going to swim 6.5 miles to help protect SF Bay.

The NYT eliminates its public editor role

Liz Spayd was more of a columnist than a true ombudsman, but the Huffington Post coverage points out why that role is still important: Not necessarily for accountability (since we all hold the newspapers we read accountable these days), but simply for getting answers:

by being in the newsroom, public editors and ombudsmen can often get responses from management on editorial decision-making that outside reporters and critics cannot

Sadly, almost no newspapers have ombudsmen any more. (A true ombudsman would be outside the newsroom reporting structure, reporting to the publisher or CEO, and with latitude to publish things that the editors might not want published. A public editor is accountable to the editor in chief.)

At any rate, the NYT is not exactly instilling confidence in the wake of its 2016 election coverage by eliminating this role. Many have rightly criticized the paper for spending far more time on Hillary’s emails than on, say, Trump’s Russian connections. Some of that is due to the nature of the news market (you write stories for what the audience wants, and the audience shares what it likes) but there is still an important role for an ombudsman or, failing that, a public editor. Not that Spayd was particularly good at the job, but she was something. And now she’s on her way out.

We need independent journalism more than ever. For all the great work it does, the Times is still fallible, often egregiously so, and it needs someone to hold its feet to the fire and demand answers.

Source: The New York Times Is Eliminating The Public Editor Role | HuffPost

The NYT eliminates its public editor role

Suburban survival

I read that Annie Dillard, when composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was living in the suburbs and raising a family. Strange, at first, to think that one could compose such solitude in the midst of bland civilization. Or dive that deep into nature among the streets and cul-de-sacs of a small town and all its busy-ness. But then I remember Thoreau, too, sought his solitude in a cabin but placed it close enough to town that he could still bring his laundry back to the landlady once a week, a fact that goes unmentioned in his book. And the Chinese poet-sages, who cultivated an air of reclusiveness such that one might almost think they were hermits: In fact they were bureaucrats working government jobs, raising families, living in the suburbs, and escaping to the hills whenever possible to contemplate, to drink with their literary friends, and to paint the landscape of their ideal world on rice paper scrolls. All that remains today are the scrolls. We chuckle at this hypocrisy until we realize: This too is a strategy of survival. The city has its own nature; why not the suburbs? To find a place of refuge in the exurban sprawl is no mean feat. We should all be able to concentrate our minds so.

Cherry blossoms. San Mateo, April 2017
Suburban survival

How You Got My Attention

One of today’s top recommended stories in my Medium feed is a piece intriguingly titled “How I Got My Attention Back.”

I clicked through, only to see that Medium estimated it as a 14-minute read. Fourteen minutes! You expect me to spend more than half a pomodoro of my precious attention on a wandering first-person narrative about your monthlong off-grid retreat?

While I’m deeply interested in strategies for focusing one’s attention in an era of hyper-distraction, this is really annoying.

Also annoying: The author’s Medium bio is “probably walking on a mountain.” Seriously, that is the entire bio. Craig Mod is clearly not the kind of guy who spends his time poring over 14-minute longreads on Medium. He’s a writer. The kind of important, literary writer who gets invited to rural writing retreats. He’s got more important things to do.

If he spends his time in 28-day retreats in Virginia and the rest of it walking on a mountain somewhere, I don’t care what wisdom he may have about regaining control of his own attention, it’s not likely to apply to me or to anyone I know. Most of us are too busy trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, make sure our kids get to school on time, and have a tiny bit of time and energy left over at the end of the day for ourselves and our partners.

This kind of long-winded, self-important essay is becoming all too common. The reason, I think, is twofold.

One, editing is hard, and good editors are hard to come by. Even good editors are probably too overworked these days to do the difficult work of chopping a good but verbose writer’s work down to a more manageable size. I do think his writing is good, if long. The editors did him a disservice here by not chopping it more.

Two, content platforms like Medium fetishize length. There’s some good evidence that this is because some people use length as a signal of “seriousness,” and they are more likely to share articles that seem serious. As a result, longer articles tend to get shared more, liked more, and clicked on more. That’s why Medium adds the helpful “14-minute read” estimate–it’s an indicator of what you’re in for, but it’s also a proxy for seriousness.

Unfortunately, all this sharing and clicking happens regardless of how much people actually read. It is entirely possible that longer articles get shared, but not fully read: People read the first few paragraphs, notice that it’s extremely long and therefore must be serious, and they click “share” or “like” in order to signal to their social networks that they are the kind of people who read and share serious articles.

Meanwhile, the art of writing concisely gets lost. And the art of reading carefully does, too, since everyone’s too busy skimming through these overly long stories to see what the highlights are.

In this story’s case, I couldn’t make it through two minutes, much less all 14. But I did scroll down to see if there was anything practical and relevant here, or whether it was all just navel-gazing about the state of attention today.

So here, let me extract the takeaway for you, since the editors didn’t:

  1. Turn off your Internet access before bedtime.
  2. Leave it off until lunchtime.

Good advice, actually! You’d probably find yourself even more productive if you kept the Internet off until dinnertime, but even half a day offline is no doubt helpful to your writing.

That is, unless the kind of writing you do requires an Internet connection so you can look up references and read what other people have written. But it’s clear that Craig Mod is not the kind of writer who spends a lot of time reading online. He’s probably on a mountain somewhere.

Top Photo: This book is really long. It must be good. Credit: Michael Pereckas/Flickr 

How You Got My Attention

The difficulty with complexity.

As a society, we are facing a crisis of understanding.

Fake news is just the latest expression of a deeper problem: We have more and more difficulty thinking about (and talking about) complex topics.

In short, it’s hard to convey nuance and multiplicity with the media we have today.

Social networks are built to facilitate transmission of ideas that can be embodied in a catchy meme or 140 characters and a Twitter card. Anything that requires a few paragraphs or more to explain sufficiently runs the risk of being ignored or (at best) misrepresented under a catchy headline.

Online news sites live and die based on how many monthly visitors they get, which means their headlines and story choices are all geared towards generating clicks and shares, not understanding.

Television “news” focuses, as it always has, on the sensational and the provocative, and it has even started catering to the need for short-attention-span entertainment by adding background music and jokes.

Radio, for the most part, is dominated by those who can shout their opinions the loudest and provoke the strongest listener reactions. The exceptions, like NPR and PRI, are somewhat better, but even public radio has a hard time conveying complexity or nuance in a 4 minute segment (or even an hourlong weekly science show), given the imperative of entertaining and engaging the audience.

And even an ostensibly #longread-friendly environment like Medium suffers from human nature’s tendency to focus on the pithy highlight, the tweetable excerpt, the clickable headline.

Yes, in part this is human nature. We are programmed to notice the new, and to respond quickly and viscerally to stimuli that promise food or sex, or that seem to present a threat.

But as Daniel Kahneman has written in Thinking Fast and Slow, that is not the only mode of human thinking. It is also possible to engage a more logical, deliberative mode of thought. This mode of thinking is not as fast at coming to decisions but it is better suited to problem-solving, especially when the problems have many contributing factors, competing stakeholders, and unpredictable outcomes.

We need this kind of slow thinking, especially now. Because while our media leads us to ever-simpler, ever-more-catchy reflexive ways of intuitive thinking, the world itself is incredibly complex. Some examples:

  • What happens when the Arctic warms to 50 degrees above its normal December temperature is the result of an incredibly complicated system of interactions. What will happen next is hard to predict. What to do about it is even harder to figure out. And yet discussion online devolves into simplistic binaries: “the climate crisis is real and we’re fucked,” versus “global warming is a Chinese hoax.”
  • The companies that are working on autonomous vehicles, such as Google and Uber, seem to be getting closer and closer to truly “self-driving cars.” What will this mean for the tens of thousands of people for whom driving a car — or a truck — is their livelihood? How soon will self-driving cars actually be on the road? How autonomous will they be? How should governments respond to ensure the safety of all on the roads? How will insurance companies respond? How do we build a safety net, or alternate employment, for those who may be put out of work? None of these are easy questions to answer, particularly since the technologies themselves are still in development and their future arc is not entirely clear.
  • Health care in the U.S. seems in some ways incredibly advanced and in other ways the system seems complex and opaque and on the verge of collapse. Efforts to improve its functioning, such as Obamacare, are themselves incredibly complex, and that leads to further misunderstandings, errors, unpredictable outcomes, and, yes, political mischaracterizations. A slogan like “repealing Obamacare” might play well politically but practically speaking it’s far from clear how that might work, and how to proceed in a way that doesn’t lay waste to vast numbers of stakeholders, from those in poverty to those who own stock in insurance companies.

As a writer, a former journalist, and person who currently makes a living helping companies communicate better, I think about this constantly. Those of us in the “content business,” broadly speaking, have a responsibility to find ways of matching what we produce with the complexity of the world around us.

It is not just a matter of raging against the publication platforms and the social media available to us. Likewise I think it is useless to rant about the stupidity of the public (though that is often a satisfying outlet for the frustration of attempting to communicate). And we certainly can’t accomplish this by lecturing to people about how they need to pay closer attention and read that 10,000-word essay by Elizabeth Kolbert more closely.

No, I think we need to use our skills as communicators to engage readers and draw them in to stories that convey complexity and nuance. There is some hope here: As Nicholas Thompson has written, long-form storytelling is a thriving niche. There is demand for longer, more complicated stories, especially those that are well-told.

But length alone is not enough. I’ve read too many #longreads that seemed to be long for the sake of length, as if writing more words conveyed an impression of seriousness and depth. Actually, it does, but that’s just another example of how our intuitive brains can be easily fooled by superficial things. If you take the time to read these long stories closely, you’ll quickly realize which ones are long because they need to be long, and which ones really just need more editing.

So that brings me to the question I’m asking myself — and anyone who cares to join me — in 2017:

How can writers, journalists, designers, filmmakers, and artists work to convey complex, important ideas more accurately, completely, and engagingly?

That’s the question that motivates me this year. What about you? If you have good answers to this question, or — even better — some questions of your own, I’d love to hear from you.

Also published on Medium.

Illustration by Daniel Friedman on Flickr.

The difficulty with complexity.

Santa is real.

This year I took the kids shopping with me on Christmas Eve. I gave them $60 each: A twenty to buy a present for their mom, a twenty to buy a present for their sibling, and a twenty to buy some stocking stuffers for the other three members of the family. “You’re going to help play Santa this year,” I told them.

The fifteen year old went off and got a single stocking stuffer for each of us, a nice pair of pie pans for her mom, and two big bags of taffy for her brother. Done! And everyone was happy.

The ten year old spent an hour combing Cost Plus for a huge pile of stocking stuffers, and went slightly over his limit. (I bailed him out.) He got some nice mittens for his sister and a Downton Abbey calendar for mom. Also good.

On Christmas, after we’d opened all our presents, the 10 year old started talking about how he learned the truth about Santa. “C told me that Santa isn’t real two years ago. I like to pretend that he is real, but I know he’s not.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Santa’s not real? What about your mom over there? Do you think she’s not your real mom?”

“No,” he said. He knows that he has a birth mother and an adoptive mother, just like he has a birth father and an adoptive father. But we’re not “unreal” … we actually do the work of taking care of him, feeding him, buying him clothes, driving him to soccer practice. We’re pretty real, I reminded him.

“And guess what,” I added. “Santa is real, too. Who do you think Santa really is?”

“You guys?” he said, pointing at me and KJ.

“And you,” I said, pointing right at him. “You helped buy all those stocking stuffers, and you put them in the stockings. So you were Santa, too.”

His eyes lit up. “Yeah!” he said. Then, in a very deep, Santa voice, while posing like a bodybuilder: “I’m Santa Claus! I’m Santa Claus!”

Photo: One of the not entirely appropriate stocking stuffers the little dude got me.

Santa is real.

Signing off Facebook for awhile.

I’m done with Facebook for now, so I am signing off for awhile.

Partly I am annoyed with the company for not taking a stand against the Trump administration and its elected leader’s comments about making lists of Muslims and immigrants. For the company’s COO to attend a meeting with Trump yesterday and say absolutely nothing about that is not what I would hope for.

But mostly I’m fed up with the addictive design of the service. I don’t like myself when I use Facebook too much. It feeds me too much crap that just reinforces whatever cynical political mood that I’m in. I have had some useful conversations and event debates, but it takes an effort to get past the depressing crap. And it keeps encouraging me to click, and scroll, and click, and scroll, in a way that I dislike.

So for now I’m signing off, and will try to stay off through the end of the year. I may even deactivate my account. For now you can find me on Twitter @dylan20, and of course I’ll always be here on this site.

Photo source: Jolie O’Dell/VentureBeat

 

Signing off Facebook for awhile.