Saturday, December 20, 2008

Words, Data and the Big Story

I've been doing a fair amount of pondering and research about how data can be utilized in different ways to better communicate. There's this vast amount of information available to us in the world. And yet, it's largely "unreadable" to most everyone. My neighbor has long been fascinated by the visualization of data or concepts. Thanks to him I'm adding books with bulky titles to my reading list.

For my part, I'm mostly interested in the story-end of this data. Let's imagine that you could store tons of data in one central warehouse--population size, export numbers, health and wellness statistics, earnings for employees at non-profits, whatever. And as a media maker, you could draw out this data and use different, set mapping tools to communicate it. For example, check out this site. You've probably seen **maps like this before that can easily demonstrate different world trends, like the world map according to population size, or land mass. But imagine if you can plumb different information stats to demonstrate something else. In honor of Christmas time, check out these two maps:

The first one is a map where territory size shows the proportion of worldwide net exports of toys (in USD) that come from that territory. (**net exports are exports, minus imports. When importas are larger than exports the territory is not shown.) And as you might have guessed on your own, the second map is where territory size represents the proportion of worldwide net import of toys (in USD) from that territory. Starts you thinking, right? The maps on their own tell a story. But let's say you want to go one further and create an even more elaborate narrative for these numbers--perhaps with a (gasp) agenda...

This video comes from the very talented crew at Good Magazine. They take the concepts from the maps above, and blow them out into a specific story about Christmas consumption, and the implication behind the places from which we get our goods. They don't exactly tell you what to think about the amount of Christmas imports from China--but they invite the viewer to be conscious that there's a story behind these numbers. You decide what that story means to you.

I don't claim to be any kind of numbers whiz; statistics...what are those? But as someone interested in telling stories about how our world is shaped--numbers, stats, data are all fundamental to my process. And I see it as a responsibility of media makers to help transform that "unreadable" data, into something intelligible and interesting for the larger audience. I'm trying to imagine right now how to train people who are not professionals to use the data to buoy their own storytelling purposes. If you've seen any interesting visualizations of data out there, please send them my way!

And as an extra bonus for you readers who held on during my hiatus, here's a pretty amazing video using words to tell a story:

More Life 101 videos at

**I found that mapping tool while listening to a presentation given at the TED conference by the head of PRI (Public Radio International), one of the big distributors of public radio programming. The presentation noted the skew of news reporting in the U.S.. The visualization of the data was fundamental in her telling the story that Americans are highly uninformed about international news. Take a look here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things I like, a list

As the holidays approach, those in the U.S. (and some places around the world) are hunkering down to pour over their family and friends' Christmas lists, Hanukkah lists (Kwanzaa lists?) to pick out "just the right thing." Gift giving isn't as central to the holidays here in México. Most families with grown children don't exchange trinkets at all. And kids, kids can expect one or two minor things under the tree (if there is a tree) on Christmas Eve, at the most. The season seems to be more about meals shared with loved ones, decorating your house, and LONG vacations from work for government employees. It's a refreshing perspective.

So I've got my own suggestion for those of you still tied to your Lists this year. Rather than share with you a slieu of the things that cry out from my greedy shopper bones, I will make you a list of things I enjoy instead. I encourage you all to participate in this kind of list making in 2008 in lieu of a catalog of things you'd like to consume (sorry, waning economy--I don't think a retail surge will save you at this point.)

1. Potato chips doubled over on themselves.
Have you seen this? You reach into the bag and find that most chips are in the shape of disks, or triangles, perhaps. There will be the lone renegade in the handful that got folded over itself pre-frying. These chips are more delicious. It's true. The fold creates a perfect pocket with which to hold spices, salt, or dip (if you're dipping). And I love them! When I pull one out of a bag, it makes me happy.

2. An afternoon shower.
I, like most, take my showers in the morning because they revive me for a day filled with work. But on the rare occasion that my schedule permits me sit around in pajamas in my home office (which happens more now than before), I get to take an afternoon shower. When a shower isn't wasted on a half-conscious brain, nor rushed through whilst preparing to go out for the evening--it's somehow more fun.

I know, an evening shower's just not as fun, is it?

3. The window seat on an airplane.
I prefer a view to leg room. I say this knowing that I'm 5'2", so it's easier for me to enjoy. But I'll wager that there are some tall window seat lovers out there! For me, it's more than merely the view. It's also that the window seat affords me the opportunity to rest my head somewhere when needing to sleep; my own personal space, if only on one side; and distance from the drink cart knocking my elbow. Having a window seat on the plane is like hunkering down into your own little rabbit warren for the duration of the flight. (This also applies to the window seat on the N/R/Q trains on the subway in NY.)

4. A crumbly top.
Any pastry that involves a crumbly top is scrumptious. Eating a cinnamon/butter/brown sugar crumbly top with my blueberry pie the other day made me think, "Why don't we just put crumbly tops on everything? It is so good." And why don't we? I'm trying to figure out if a crumbly top perched on a Turkey Club Sandwich would be gross. I think not. Given the right salty ingredients, I think it could only enhance my experience. So, food inventors, get to it!

5. The feel of my sheets in the morning.
Right as I wake up in the morning, the nerve endings on my skin are kind of prickly. It makes everything I touch feel more of whatever it is. Thus, my lovely soft sheets (thanks, Mom!) feel that much more comfortable and smooth. I peddle my feet around the foot of the bed, moving between the warm spot left by my body heat, and the cooler pockets that went untouched throughout the night. It feels awesome, don't you think? And sometimes, it invites me to spend another 15 minutes supine, semi-conscious.

6. This open source map by Ben Fry.

It's so cool!

I kind of like to imagine what it would be like if every house in America had kids and parents gathering around the tree not sharing gifts, but lists with information about each other. I mean, you can't run out of this stuff. With more years, you just discover more things you enjoy in the world, right? And then your family, on top of knowing something about you, would also be a kind of Things-You-Love guardian. You know? Like they would then be on the lookout for those moments you love. They'd reach into a potato chip bag and just instinctively pass you the ones that are doubled over. It would be great!

So what's on your list?

**and for those still tied to buying something this winter, here are some great ideas for how to do that conscientiously.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Published Sound

A quick update to let you all know that I've just posted a series of my radio pieces to the Public Radio Exchange site. You can listen to some of my past work, from audio tour stops, to feature documentaries there. My most recent update is the series "Llegando de los Pueblos" (Arriving from the Villages)--which is the radio work I've built here in México for my fellowship.

So please go take a look and listen. The México pieces are in Spanish, of course. But I've included English-language transcripts so you can listen and follow along. Don't miss this opportunity to hear my embarrassing gringo accent in Spanish!

Here's the link. Feel free to leave comments/reviews on the site. It helps draw stations and programmers to my work. Thanks!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Postcards from the edge

I wrote a postcard to myself while on vacation in San Francisco. It just arrived:

"I miss the land of open vowel sounds and rolled R's. The words here in SF are truncated. The sign says, 'shark,' but people here say, 'TIH-burr-unh.' It gets caught in my mouth; it's so strange here."

Also, this is my new boyfriend. I met him at Bishop's Pumpkin Farm.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What if...

What if gestures and general facial expressions weren't universal? They aren't entirely, I know. Sure, sure, lifting a backwards peace symbol with your hand will illicit no kind of reaction in the States, but when you arrive in the UK, will be greeted with a black eye.

Certainly those little cultural differences exist here in México. Luckily, the kind people at the Fulbright Commission actually demonstrated some of them at our orientation. Like how one can answer "Yes" even if one's mouth is full, because it only involves your index finger:

Or how men generally greet one another by shaking right hands, moving right to embrace with two pats on the back, and then returning to shaking right hands.

Or the one that continually causes me trouble, is "thank you." Think of Vito Corleone raising a hand of thanks to one his Italian brethren, and you're close. In thanks, you raise your hand to eye level, palm facing inward. To me, this always looks like I am swearing at someone. So even though intellectually I know this, raising the back of my hand to a car that has kindly just let me cross the street, I cringe a bit, waiting for them to floor it and trample me.

Oh, then there is what I always thought was the universal symbol for balls. But here, means "lazy." Though, Kelsey Mulyk helped explain why: "The gesture for lazy is a cupped palm facing upwards, like you are holding something heavy. One or both hands can be used in this gesture. This is highly inappropriate because it refers to lifting "huevos" (which is Mexican slang for testicles). Basically the meaning behind this gesture is that the owner's "balls" are so big and heavy that he can't get up!" Ah, I see. So I'm not totally off.

The Fulbright Commission and I must not be the only ones interested in these gesticular dissimilarities--because there are a sizable collection of explanatory YouTube videos and websites; this being my favorite.

But I started thinking, these cultural differences aside, what if facial expressions were not shared in any way? How would you learn another language? How often I find myself using facial expressions and context to glean the meaning of unfamiliar words. What would I do if a confused face in Mexico, actually meant felicity here? Or if an angry face denoted hunger?

Saturday, October 11, 2008


It's been a while, blog friends, if you're still out there. I suppose I should do a little shout out to see if anyone's still listening...


So, I've gotten lax. But we all knew there would be some changes in me now that I've pushed into my thirties. One of them might be that I'm slower. AH! But let's not delay the passing on of information. Here's a quick two-month round-up:

1) I dug myself a mighty hole of virtual paper to swim in. That's right, internet research! I was pushing hard in the few weeks before mid-October hit to research grants and funding options for a youth radio initiative I'm working on here in Oaxaca. There was a bit of actual paper to swim in, as well, as I was writing up my very first syllabus for a radio class--which was fun to work on, that is when creeping doubt didn't crowd out my creative ideas.

2) There was a bit of shopping going on. When you head for the States only once a year, that comes with a steep price. Yes, the plane ticket. But also, the price of carrying gifts back and forth for loved ones. There's no showing up empty handed when you've been away from "home" for so long. I even had to hunt down a special suitcase to lug the many crafts and delicacies one can only find in Oaxaca. Note to self, when you pack 3 kilos of coffee beans, make sure to wrap them in plastic. The over zealous security guards at the airport may topple your bag, and thus, scatter those fragrant beans all over the inside of your carry-on. Second note to self, especially important when you also pack your bridesmaid's dress in that same carry-on ("Megan, pretty dress. Is that you who smells And the load back was no lighter. It's popular to become a little "burro" for your friends back in México.
little burrito

cat burrito

3) I went on a trip. Mexico-Scottsdale-Portland (OR)-San Francisco and back. I tried to post a little video. But until my neophyte tech brain upgrades to a better model--I'll have to wait to post it again. I think it looked just like still pictures. Oy!

So in lieu of a play-by-play, here are some moments:

  • A quick stop in Arizona sees me sitting in a diner-like breakfast place with Grandma & Grandpa, where the cinnamon buns are pillow-sized, and my tummy cries out for salty and sweet; California Eggs Benedict with a bowl of fruit it is! And you know what my first thought is as I'm driving around on Scottsdale's pristine roadways...? "Where are all the poor people?"
  • Portland is neither wet, nor cloudy when I touch down. LIES! Or perhaps I have a red phone straight to the weather man upstairs--because we are blessed all week, and the day of the wedding with blissful sunshine. I do score a monkey hair coat from Vicki and Mike that keeps me warm--since I'm ill prepared for cold weather. It seems that each furry green hillside is spitting out some form of waterfall or river. There's no such thing as a water shortage here.

  • A take a stroll in Noe Valley, the neighborhood just east of Drew and Felicity's hilltop apartment in San Francisco proper. I shuffle around the colorful shops, and plop down eventually in a café for a bagel and a vanilla steamer. The table next to me is talking presidential election. I'm finding it more difficult to tune out English, than it is to do the same with Spanish. Can't a girl read in public in peace?
  • I'm stunned by what Felicity names the Bay Area's "free to be you and me" philosophy on life which makes it allowable to have 3 different public transit systems in town, separately run, and without a unifying map for tourists. This is not American organization, people!
  • Felicity makes killer sweet potato stew. Alaska Amber is tasty. Tiger ice cream with hot fudge and homemade brownies is worth crossing the border for.
  • Kiely is a burst of blonde energy and cries for "babies babies babies!" She leaps from lap to lap, happy and brave to visit with everyone at our small dinner party. I'm so glad Sarah and Eric's little one wasn't past the stage where people other than her parents get to hold her.
  • Roadtripping with mom down the Columbia River Gorge, stopping to marvel at the size and power of Multnomah falls, that has pushed a bus-sized boulder from the surrounding moss-covered walls.
  • An afternoon visit to the beach in Alameda. A long trek from Embarcadero to the Ghiradelli chocolate headquarters. An afternoon of thai food with the girls.
  • "I don't know what I'm doing," seems to work its charm on transit workers in the MUNI system when one is lost, or really just wants a bit of hand holding.
  • A tiny cape hidden under a larger cape. Brilliant! I love circus jokes.
  • Um, did I mention my first friend in Glenview got married!
  • Ah, the Mission District--a tiny Mexico far from Mexico. There's no absence of Spanish here.
  • My little red sweater gets left somewhere on the streets of San Francisco. I hope you are happy Little Red, whereever you are. If your new owner doesn't treat you right, you know where to call!
  • A long climb up the back way to Coit Tower, takes me to now almost 80 year-old frescoes (a public works project form the 30s), that seem more relevant than ever.
  • A visit to the country east of Sacramento with Jenny: pumpkin festivals, hay rides, a cool night wrapped in blankets by an outdoor fire, sipping some tea.
  • A dash to wine country, taking in the quickly chaning colors of the landscape over shallow glasses of pinot noirs and cabernets.

I feel like I wondered into a redlight district. The two little pieces of ginger on this sign look like they are tangled in a very naughty situation!
  • And of course, more food, oh, glorious eating: steaming pitas and hummus at Nicholas, stuff red peppers at the Ovink/Sindelar house, purple cabbage soup, Bob's for breakfast, Basil/Mint ice cream from an Indian store, a raspberry white chocolate shake at Ghiradelli's, a long hunt for Giordano's in North Beach--where they pile your cole slaw and fried right onto the sandwich, ginger molasses cookies at Grand Central, Tofu Sate with Peanut Sauce at a hole-in-the-wall in the Bay, Vegetarian Crispy noodles--Vietnamese-style, dinner at Q, complete with battered catfish in a corn/lime salsa and hearty mac 'n cheese, three warm chocolate chip cookies floating atop vanilla bean ice cream (oh how I miss you cookies!), freshly made biscuits drizzled with homegrown honey, buttermilk fried chicken and corndogs that actually taste good, carmel apples, sushi on a conveyor belt, and micro brews for miles! Oh my!
  • Sit on some square of green just across from Pier 19, watching the day go by. The sun glinting off Alcatraz. The tour of people atop sidekicks. I talk to an Iranian guy with two GIANT German Sheppards about how his electronic store is tanking now with the economic crisis--but his frozen yogurt shop is doing fine. I guess there are some things that people can't, in fact, live without.
  • Navigating the construction-filled streets of Scottsdale with Holly. Enjoying election results at Meg's. Pouring over old albums of Grandpa squashed into a 1930's car with his family, their luggage lashed to the sides of the car, for there was no trunk.
Oh, friends and family, I miss you! What a treat to get to see so many of you in one fell swoop. You inspire me in the distinct ways you each cobble together your jobs, hobbies and careers, and in the way you love.

4) I'm back almost a month now. We've got a new president on the horizon in the U.S.. That's exciting. The holidays are chomping at our heels. They've already started putting up Christmas decorations in the stores here. Without a holiday between Halloween (Day of the Dead) and Christmas here, they just have to march right on through and start the selling frenzy.

My head's down, and to the grindstone (ouch! bad metaphor). I've got to find funding, or a way to make this work. So I'm trying to keep all the plates spinning at once here. That finds me inside, at my desk, nose to computer most days. My bloodshot eyes tell the tale. But through it all I'm thinking it'll be much easier to be without funding and poor here in Mexico than the same in the States. So...

Thanks for hanging in there, readers. More from this side of the border to come.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Opposite Of, a guest blog by Matthew Love

On the heels of my post about loneliness comes a post about the opposite of. Last week Wednesday the first of four friends descended on my lil house in Oaxaxa for a week-long visit. And this Wednesday past all four departed for their respective cities of New York and Denver. It was a glorious set of days, to say it simply. Oaxaca is somewhat quieter and duller now in the wake of their good company. But off of my melancholy, and onto the visit!
As I'm told, some of my dad's friends have commented, "your daughter is a good writer; she can't possibly get it from you." But in this blog you will inevitably come to know what a true artist of the word is, as my good friend Matt (who has provided this post) is a professional; writing is his craft. I hope he will permit me to lessen his post a bit with some pictures added by me (it seems wrong to offer photos where words have imagined for you; but I can't help myself). So, here is Matt:
And here is his post:

In a succession of moments, empirically stacked end-to-end in some recognizable form – oh, the span of a week, say – it’s difficult to summarize one’s experience in any effective way.

Great works of literature like Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” make this clear. The closer words come to some sort of understanding about one moment or another, the more the moment slides from the bounds of standard perception, its stitches coming unglued and its seeming solid shape dissipating.

It is in this spirit I humbly offer the following: balls, balls, balls, balls, balls*.

That is: when speaking of the slow, blissful haze of a week spent in the company of good friends with nothing to do but talk, eat and wander to our hearts’ content, perhaps it is best not to say, “we went here and then there, la la la” but rather offer a glimpse of the moment-to-moment experience in snatches of dialogue and bites of perception (almost) at random.

And so:

-- Sitting down in a decidedly un-harried market near Megan’s house, light falling into the space from a wall that is simply missing, teaching my BAG of smoothie to stand upright on a checkered tablecloth while munching simple - and magnificent - memelas (masa/tortilla, frijol, quesillo, red chile – minus asiento, the extra lard) in the cool afternoon.

-- Walking from the Reforma neighborhood into the Xochimilco neighborhood over the aqueduct after another big midday meal, holding leftover sticks from cajeta (essentially a light caramel) popsicles, bodies shifting back and forth along the ridiculously slim sidewalk. As Brian once pointed out, the mutability of the group is as it has always been; each person can talk to any one in the group at just about any given time, so during the trip I think all possible combinations of the five of us were achieved.

-- Ruining a breakfast, which is a metaphor for being one’s self, having fun and in doing so absolutely ruining an experience for people around you. It’s something this group is famous for… in fact, this may be its signature move. No matter the café, hillside, or village it falls into, we are always a bit like a noxious clown car exploding into a spot where the audience did not know it was an audience (but became aware of this fact rather quickly). In this particular case, we ruined an actual breakfast for a crowd of locals in an unnamed, makeshift restaurant that exists only on Sundays**, eating tamales and drinking a drink I’m certain to pine for, for years – champurrado, a thick and comforting beverage of rice, milk, sweet, and cacao – when a radio was suddenly turned on very near our table and quite loudly***. We understood the hint, though I’m not sure as a crowd we’ll ever respond to such a hint very well. P.S. We paid about $3 per person for this meal. And it was… DELICIOUS.

-- Humping the corner of a white, stucco wall directly across from my friend Tim, who was also humping the corner of a white, stucco wall. (Well, okay, in our defense, we were dancing. But will the perception of the historical record support this fact?) I started because he did but I can’t remember exactly what set him off. He does like to hump (ah, dance with) inanimate objects.

-- Leaning over an open basket of crickets to pinch some between my fingers and push them in my mouth. Hm… salty. Crispy. Full of protein. Turns out, I love them. Customs even let me keep them, so I have a bag of tiny insects, red with heat, lemon, garlic, in my kitchen. For some reason, though this makes me a meat-eater, it doesn’t set off my normal vegetarian alarms. I fed them to Brian on his first night -- he ate them but resented me for it later.

-- At night, dancing in a crew at a fiesta to the sounds of a boisterous clarinet band with what felt like an entire community dancing or watching (tall gringos, much less tall flamboyantly dancing gringos, and cute white girls are something of a curiosity here) outside of a church, it’s doors open, everyone expectant for the fireworks – which do come, and feature the first animated vagina I think any of us had ever seen.

Flaming vagina not pictured here.

-- Eating shrimp, flax crackers, flowers, tuna, cake with prickly pear jam, risotto and fresh herbs until quite full or fairly nearly dead… the sun setting, the pond quivering, a small boy dropping a trail of rocks beside our small table. Thank G-D Megan loves food, and carried us to a series of amazing restaurants all over Oaxaca: street food, sweets, market drinks, snacks, dishes with tomato foam or entire four-course meals prepared by Italian chefs at their homes (the meal mentioned above) – we did it all. It is good all of us are clear on one thing: eating well is one of life’s undeniable joys. And so: mole, tortillas, mezcal, and much of each.

-- “Heh, heh.” A well-timed laugh from Tim, who was being quite a good sport, considering the circumstances.

-- Puttering up to the edge of the world into a pond at Hierva el Agua, where minerals have done a thorough job of petrifying a waterfall and making a miniature cliff-side water resort. Gorgeous and baffling. With the entire place to ourselves, we swam in the cold water, begged the sun to come out, took a series of goofy photos before the rain came. This site is also the location of Brian’s first ever porno. (Distribution of video soon to come)

-- Sara taking the enormous steps at the Monte Alban ruins immediately outside of town in Oaxaca. In fact, Sara walked everywhere. Every day. No cane, no nothing. How is it possible that her surgery was only a couple of years ago??? WOOF!

-- Woof (in general). Megan says that in Mexico, dogs say ‘wow wow’ instead of ‘woof’ or even ‘bow wow’. So Americans walking around saying ‘wow’ at everything are essentially barking in amazement. We took this on and said ‘WOOF’ to express awe at every opportunity.

Of course, there is more, more, more but at this, I must cease. I must work in the
morning and you, dear internet reader, must use your tired, ADD-addled eyes again at some point in the future. You’ll have to trust me as I say this doesn’t really even scratch the surface. If I were to generalize, this was the thread running through our trip: simple, impractical moments reminding us of our capacity for joy -- how simple they are, how little planning goes into them. And little fuss is kicked up in the simple machinations of living when you’re at rest in the arms of great friends with whom you feel absolutely comfortable. Now, heading back to the activities of our daily lives, it’s important we take that joy and comfort and shuffle it into what we do regularly -- a hard task, to be sure, but what is a juggler without all those balls. Ballsballsballsballs.

* Of course, for those of you paying attention at home, I speak of the unfortunate (possibly apocryphal creation of urban legend) gentleman whose case of Tourette’s Syndrome finds him repeating the word ‘balls’ loudly and repeatedly after hearing the word ‘balls.’ Quoth Tim, “His trigger word is ‘balls,’ and he knows it.”

** Did I mention that Megan is a magical tour guide who knows all of the secret things you want to know about a place highly unfamiliar to you? She loves walks down narrow, cobble streets with small fountains in courtyards, good graffiti, spots for rooftop drinks, interesting architecture and, yeah, it bears repeating: food.