How the WIRED summer went

After our fellowship was done, we were all flown back to D.C., and we had a “poster fair”. All of us fellows who had been placed at newsrooms pasted and arranged our articles on posters, and then we had some very nice and supportive guests tell us what a good job we had all done.

My poster:


And then all of us fellows spent the rest of the two-day “wrap-up” sessions joking, giggling, eating, and having each other’s back. It was great.

Now that it’s all done, here in no particular order are the stand-out moments as a AAAS media fellow:

1. We gave each other certificates for “superlative awards” (like what you do in high school year books), and one of the fellows brought along her childhood sticker collection to decorate the certificates with. They came out looking glittery and glamorous!

2. I got to email, call, and interview people at the Sweden UN office. I also talked to someone at the Swedish consulate.

3. And I got to interview the presenters of an Arabic science show that I’ve watched for years!

4. Seeing my name on the WIRED home page, my name coupled with the article I wrote. It never got old

5. Biking across the Golden Gate bridge.

6. Writing my favorite article of all, which was full of good people, quiet, storied forests, and voices that are heard less often.

7. Writing about Sweden, Arabs, and North Carolina (in three separate articles)

8. The apartment I sublet in Berkeley, with the attic bedroom where you can climb out the window onto the roof, and sit and read in the sunshine

9. The Ghirardelli ice cream store right by my train stop

10. Emailing most any scientist, activist, or natural resource worker and having them be eager to get back to me and be interviewed by me (though this did not extend to government people, especially in Maryland)

Sweden in Berkeley

1. Bokmärken: Bokmärken are little pictures that little kids collect. They’re like stickers, without the sticky part on the back. They can be flowers, or maybe toys, animals, angels, and during Christmas you can get Santa Claus ones. If you’re lucky, you can find glitter ones. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with them, other than accumulate as many as you can. After all these years in the US, I finally have found some – at Payn’s Stationary Store in Berkeley. They had whole stacks!


And then,  I found more at a store called Twig and Fig, but it was going out of business.

2. Carl Larsson: This is a famous Swedish painter from back in the day. They sell letter-writing cards with his paintings on them in the stationary stores in Berkeley. But, they only seem to sell them during Christmas, from what I gathered from the various clerks. They sell wintry scenes that he painted. However, I chanced to visit some stationary stores in Davis, California, 5 years ago. At that time, I found tons of Carl Larsson stuff, and I only bought one thing (a set of greeting cards) and I’d always yearned to go back and get more. Davis is only one hour from Berkeley by train, and the train comes pretty frequently for the US. So I biked to the train station one day, bought a ticket, and hopped on. I didn’t remember the name of the Davis stationary store, so I just went to all of them, and as soon as I stepped into the one called “Newsbeat,” something felt familiar! It was the same store I’d been in 5 years before. However, they didn’t have any Carl Larsson greeting cards this summer. They did have a calendar of Larsson paintings, and a pack of postcards! So the hunt after all that was very fun, and I went back and examined the cards I’d bought 5 years ago. The company making them is called “Pomegranate.” I went on their site and lo and behold, they have like 16 different Carl Larsson items features 🙂

3. The Swedish couple at Golden Gate Park: I wrote before about the sad lack of Swedish tourists I found in San Francisco this summer. But on my second to last Friday, I went to the Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean. While walking near the Botanical Gardens, I kept passing and re-passing a middle-aged couple who looked American (all three of us were kind of lost). The only reason I got interested in them was because even when I was only 3 feet away, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I couldn’t even hear indistinct murmurs of what they were saying. When people talk softly like that, there’s a chance they are Swedish. But I put it out of my mind until I overtook them, and as finally the direction of their mouths was directly towards my ears (and maybe the air currents were trending my way, too) I heard actual words from them, and yes, they were Swedish. I wanted to stick close to them after that, but you sadly can’t do things like that without exciting suspicion.

4. Swedish books at the library: they have 2 Pippi Longstocking chapter books in the kids’ section of the Berkeley Central Public library; and other Astrid Lindgren books besides. They also had a book from back in the day by a guy called Hjalmer Söderberg, which I didn’t really like and is in my list of books, and they had other Swedish books besides that, too.

5. Swedish lady at the Farmer’s Market: This is a farmer’s market that takes place along Shattuck Street, near the CVS and Safeway, on Thursday afternoons. A lady at one of the booths was offering crackers. She said her Swedish partner, who was away for the month in Sweden, made them by hand according to some traditional recipe. The crackers were really good.

6. Swedish consulate: This is very near Ghirardelli Square and the curvy Lombard Street. It’s on a hill overlooking the water. It’s a snow-white, quaint and stately building with a large ship’s anchor out front. It’s got a very nice flag outside, and I don’t mean the Norwegian or Danish ones.


(The view from the side of the snow-white building.)

Interviewing Arabs

It’s my last few days here, and I’m interviewing Arabs.

I’d had the idea for a while – to write a story about a science and technology show that airs on the BBC Arabic. It’s called 4 Tech, and I’ve watched it a whole bunch, and I think I probably blogged about it some, back when I was religiously keeping up with the Arabic news. But when I first mentioned it to my editor a few weeks ago, she asked: so is this the only show of its kind in the Arab world? What’s the broader context? Hmmm … I had no idea.

This week, while scrambling to try to find one last topic to write about, 4 Tech came back to mind and wouldn’t budge out. I contacted the single online email I could find for one of the presenters; and then I contacted a few scientists in Iceland whom they’d had on the show; and a bunch of professors who specialize in monitoring Arabic TV. I did it all sort of mechanically, just so I could tell myself I’d given it my best shot. I didn’t expect everyone to get back to me quickly enough so I could pull off all the interviews I needed, and then do the writing/editing/fact-checking, all by the end of the week.

Looks like I’m going to make it, though! Hopefully. By some weird magic, the 4 Tech people got back to me Tuesday early morning, after I’d emailed them Monday afternoon. They’re in London, and like 8 hours ahead of me in California, but they said they’d all three be available to talk at 7:30 pm London time, 11:30 pm California time. Now, this availability to talk immediately never happens – and definitely doesn’t happen when you’re trying to interview 3 people at once. And two of the people in Iceland got back to me, too. And I interviewed all the media experts today, and wrote up the article.

Things have been moving too quickly for me to take it in, but interviewing the 4 Tech people is really special to me. I’m not one to be interested in science and technology shows in the least. But I liked this one a lot! It’s so upbeat. And they’re always showing things that I didn’t expect – not just gadgets or stuff from the most famous universities. Like 2 years ago, I watched them do an episode in Ghana. I was really tickled, because my hero Mr. A is from Ghana. Well, yesterday I got to ask them all about it. And I got insight into another episode I’d really liked, which had focused on technology making life in Syrian refugee camps easier. And I finally got to the bottom of how they managed to seamlessly ask their scientist guest a question in Arabic, which the guest answers directly in English, without cutting the camera or anything.

Dalia is the female presenter. I always liked watching her especially – she’s been kind of like a role model/character study to me! She’s so approachable and friendly, but also confident and focused, on the show, and I loved to wonder about her. I never ever could have thought that I’d be interviewing her. Though when I first heard her voice through the Skype call, I didn’t gush, or even have the inclination to gush; or even realize that gushing was one of my options. I just sailed in with the interview, being all cool and calm. It doesn’t seem right, because I know a part of me should have been gushing.

This has been my second unexpected surprise, I-can’t-believe-I’m-interviewing-these-people experience while at WIRED. The first was when I interviewed people at the Swedish UN office. I’ve been spamming them (lovingly) on Twitter for a long time, and I couldn’t believe I had a sure-fire, valid excuse to contact their media department and bother them some more. I never, ever could have dared to hope that I’d stumble upon a story idea that would give me such an excuse. Which is just as well, because when I hope for things about Sweden, they never happen. But same thing with 4 Tech, interviewing Sweden UN was just too wonderful of a thing for me to really grasp it. It should have been such a sweet and giddy moment. But it wasn’t. I’m all strict business over here, it appears.


All the tourists in San Francisco

It’s been fun people-watching all the tourists around San Francisco. There’s not many around WIRED’s office in the financial district, but once you go towards the wharf and the water and the Golden Gate Bridge, they’re everywhere.

I think the most I’ve seen is Germans. Sometimes you’re walking along, and you just go from one German family to another, the parents gripping the hands of 2-3 kids.

Then, there’s a lot of French people, and some Spaniards. There’s also a lot of people from Asia but I don’t know enough to tell what country.

But of course I had my eyes peeled for anyone from Sweden. To my chagrin, I haven’t had a 100% match 😦 I passed some people I thought might be Swedish; but either I was biking past, and couldn’t very well slam on the brakes, extend my ears, and listen closer; or they just weren’t talking as I passed them on the sidewalk.

The only one I was pretty sure about was a couple, maybe in their 50s, one bald and the other with frizzy hair, who were wandering around the financial district as I left work for the day. They were pointing out skyscrapers to each other or something. But after all, I only heard them for about 2 seconds.

Sadly, I think I’ve run into more Norwegians and Danes. Well, with the Danes it’s tricky. One second it sounds Danish, one second it sounds German.

But there’s been two groups of Norwegians I can confirm:

First, at the end of my second week here, I decided it was high time for me to poke a bit around San Francisco, so I went walking like 5 miles along the water until I got to  Ghirardelli Square and the little sand beach there. Then, I walked up the streets into the mansion-thronged hills, and I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I came across some footpaths, some wind-bleached staircases set right into the hillside and away from the cars; the dwellings became fancier and fancier and all of a sudden, a snow-white building arose before me with a giant black ship anchor planted in the tiny grassy lawn. It’s the Swedish-Norwegian-Danish consulate. So I stood there for a while, and then as I continued farther up the hill, there was a lady with two teenaged kids, one boy and one girl. They were all talking, and it was definitely one of the Scandinavian languages; and it was not Swedish; and I decided afterwards that it must have been Norwegian, not Danish. I had to give them a nice big smile, and the mom, who was looking a little harassed, stopped, and said, “excuse me, could I ask you a question?”

My dear lady, you may ask me a hundred questions. But all she wanted to know was: “Do you know if there’s anything to eat around here?” And she pointed down the hill I’d just walked up.

Unfortunately, I had no idea at all, and I hadn’t seen anything on my way except a pizza place – maybe. I stammered something out along those lines, wished them luck, and we passed.

The second group of Norwegians I’ve run into now 3 times – they get on at the Berkeley train stop, which is one stop after me. I see them if I catch the 8:07 am train and board the first or second car. They are not tourists; they must be here for the summer just like me, or maybe even longer. The first time this happened was in my second week. Four of them got on – two guys and two girls. It was a crowded car, and everyone was quiet, except these four going on endlessly in Norwegian, they really needed to announce to everyone that they were foreigners and they were new and that they were having a very good and exciting time. Especially the biggest guy, every time the train slowed to a stop and was the quietest of all, he would crack a joke which I’m sure wasn’t funny, but nevertheless set all four into howls of mirth. Ha ha.

Then I saw them again two weeks ago, but this time, just a girl and the smaller guy. They talked the whole time, too. The girl is very distinctive because she has bleach-blonde hair which she ties back with a thick black bow and then also wears all black, so you know the contrast is kind of hard on the eyes.

Then last week, I was standing there against the train wall – all the seats being taken as usual, and at the Berkeley stop, this time both girls got on. And in a new twist, they stood right in the empty place next to me. But don’t worry, I didn’t do anything to alarm them,  I don’t think. I just stood there and tried to work out what they were saying. I didn’t make it too far, though, because I only seem to understand filler talk in Norwegian: “did you know”, “it’s absolutely true,” “and I felt…” So I don’t much get to the meat of the matter.

I have passed the Swedish-Norwegian-Danish consulate a second time now. It was open, so the flags were all flying out front, and there was a family walking up the hill towards me as I came down towards them, just a man and woman, faces very pink from the exertion and smiling very widely – I think because of the Norwegian flag that comes out the side of the building at the entrance to the Norwegian seamen’s association, or something. But it makes me made because it is the same entrance used for the Swedish church, so why on earth is there no Swedish flag coming out the side?

Then when I got closer to the consulate, there was another family there, this time with two kids. And I don’t know if they have a special pass or something, but when I looked back again, this time they were up on the balcony of the consulate. Right from where the flagpoles rise up. You can believe I felt left out. Is everyone allowed to do that?

Third article for WIRED

This article was going to be a triumph for me, for many different reasons. First, because it was about Sweden, pretty much. Second, because all the instagram/twitter/blog/facebook stalking I’ve done over the years came into handy. No one can say all of that was a waste of time any more. I went from a random Twitter post, to a Twitter account; then hunted up an Instagram account, which was all in Swedish, and figured out what blog I needed to follow, which was also all in Swedish, and found the email to get in contact with the girl on the cargo ship. I could not have been more proud, I could not imagined that I could ever, ever get a chance to write something like this!!

But then, when the story actually came out, I was super upset. I felt this weird sense of loss that I maybe shouldn’t try to explain. And I was also sad because some of my descriptions had been taken out of the story. Like, I had mentioned the Swedish midsummer beckoning for Kajsa to come home. And I had used the description “sunrise-bound” in the paragraph talking about the ship gliding over the Atlantic.

It was a little hard and mournful to see those killed off.

Here’s the article.

I actually have since also written my fourth article, but there was no big to-do about that. It was just a short little thing. I mean, I should have been really excited, because this one was in Greenland, so there was a chance I could talk to a Danish person. But I don’t know, that didn’t appeal too much for some reason.

Maybe I thought I was pushing my luck with too many stories from Scandinavia, even though this Greenland story was assigned to me. It wasn’t me that chased it down.

Well, I regret to say that I didn’t actually fulfill the mission of the Greenland story. I was supposed to find out: are big icebergs like that going to get stuck by villages and force their evacuations quite often from here on out, because of climate change? Or was this just a freak accident, due to some combination of the depth of the water, or the size of that iceberg, or the elevation of that island? No one that I spoke to actually knew. My interview-people were all researchers who have been to Greenland, and know a lot about glaciers and icebergs; but none of them had seen that particular iceberg, and they couldn’t say anything definite merely through looking at the pictures of it.

I contacted people in Denmark and Greenland, but they all got back to me too late. Or, they just told me, “no, can’t help,” and then when I emailed back, “do you know anyone who can help,” the reply was “unfortunately not.” Well.

In other news, I found out today from a lady called Therese Øvergård that my bristlecone pine film was not chosen to be played at the Fredrikstad animation festival. I thought it would because I had an idea that all student films are chosen! But I guess not. I got a similar email from Therese two years ago when I’d entered the film, “Who’s cutting down Yusuf’s trees?”. She always ends the email with, “Thank you for submitting your film!” I think you should leave off the exclamation points at moments like this. I’m going to check the YouTube stats. I give it 50-50 that no one from Norway has watched the film in the first place. Not to say if they’d watched it they would have picked it. But you at least would hope that they’d watch.

And this was the most carefully prepared animation I’d ever made. I was a little sad this morning. Good-bye to the bristlecone pine. It’s sunset-time.




Smarmy in the interview

I was interviewing these people.  I should have known they would turn out to be annoying because they were the only ones who had a secretary set the call up. And they’re honestly not such important people anyways. Now you know where administrator fees go at a public university!

They had an edge in their voice the whole time: why are you so stupid to be asking these questions, and why are you so unsophisticated, why are you so prone to splashing about in fallacies?

Every time I go back and read the interview notes, they sound ruder and ruder.

That kind of put me off my week.

Also, I don’t know what I’m doing after this fellowship. It is just now starting to be of some concern, because everything I applied to seems to have fallen through in the last two weeks. And some of the things I applied to were easy-peasy jobs, but I never even heard back.

My fall-back plan is just to go to Sweden. But I’m applying for things – very simple things – that would at least let me go there without starving and becoming homeless. And even those don’t work out. Not a single thing that has to do with Sweden works out for me, did anyone else notice?

I don’t ever quite get there, do I?