A Voice from Other Times: “Biased and Phony Media Descend on Cleveland to Cover Very Very Tremendous Convention”

The Atavist, and Justin Peters, seem to be channeling HST (Hunter S. Thompson) by reporting from the edges of political sanity outside the RNC this week. Worth a read. For the colour (and the confusion) of it all.


Shifting Sands of Academia

The demands of the academy can, at times, appear futile. This malaise is most acute when one’s ostensible “requirements” for continued professional development take them further away from the most inspiring avenues of their field. Reviewing literature for an upcoming essay, I came across a succinct (and edifying) critique leveled by international relations scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

Worried that IR had abdicated responsibility for developing applicable theories to the world’s changing events, with scholars opting for (needing to adopt) quicker, more reductive and less rigorous “hypothesis testing” (i.e. crunching numbers into regression analysis and reporting on any “miracles”), Walt and Mearsheimer explain how the IR’s incentives have changed:

By contrast, almost anyone with modest mathematical abilities can be taught the basic techniques of hypothesis testing and produce competent research. Similarly, teaching students about research design, process-tracing, and historical interpretation can help them do better qualitative research, but it will not turn someone lacking imagination into an accomplished theorist.

Moreover, because graduate programs are reducing the time students take to complete their degrees, teaching a set of tools that enable them to produce a competent thesis quickly has become the norm. Developing or refining theory is more time-consuming and riskier as it requires deeper immersion in the subject matter and the necessary flash of inspiration may never occur. Once a graduate program is committed to getting lots of PhD students out the door on schedule, it has a powerful incentive to emphasize simplis- tic hypothesis testing. In addition, piling on more and more methods courses (whether quantitative or qualitative) while compressing the time to degree inevitably crowds out courses on theory and on the substance of IR, leaving students ill-equipped to think in creative and fruitful ways about the field’s core issues.

Stasis is a terrifying thing. Thoughts?

Quoted: David Whyte

A life’s work is not a series of stepping- stones, onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, in conversation with the elements. Looking back we see the wake we have left as only a brief glimmering trace on the waters.

David Whyte on “Ambition” in Consolations  

As the new year brings a spate of personal resolutions, I found Whyte’s thoughts on meaningful life work particularly affecting.

Under Your Feet: Cambodia, Land Mines, and Unexploded Ordinances

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The last few days have offered some incredible vistas —ancient wats, crumbling temples and visual proof of the tireless battle between preservation and natural decay.

One of our last expeditions was to the temple of Beng Mealea, or “lotus pond”, dated (experts believe) to the 12 century. Marking the start of the well-trodden path, however, was a subtle reminder of Cambodia’s more recent —and resonant— history.

A sign warns visitors of ongoing de-mining operations outside Beng Mealea, a 12th century temple, 40 kilometers from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The scale of the US bombing campaign of Cambodia, between October 4, 1965, and August 15, 1973, continues to astound. According to Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen (in a 2006 project for Yale’s Genocide Studies Program), 2,756,941 tons of ordinances were dropped in 230,516 flights on 113,716 sites. Citing official (then-newly declassified) documents, their report revealed the bombing campaign in Cambodia had begun nearly four years earlier than previously known, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. Owen and Kiernan, whose work was then published in The Walrus, write:

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambo- dia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.



But history never abates.

According to MAG, or Mines Advisory Group, citing the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System, more than 64,000 people were injured or killed by land mines (and other unexploded ordinances) between 1979 and 2013. MAG’s project in Cambodia started in 1992, but the organization says more than 9,000 mined areas (i.e. regions of varying size) have yet to be cleared.

*Caveat: The US might not have the monopoly on responsibility (when it comes to land mines, for instance) but the consequences of Vietnam War era bombing have resurfaced throughout my reporting in Asia.*


Overheard: Venkatesh Rao

Interesting conversation with writer/thinker/consultant, Venkatesh Rao —drifting from Silicon Valley as its own (well-developed) epistemic-sociological space to the responsibility of “bloggers” [def: writers without the mediating force of editors who know more about the audience] to keep the Internet a lively and productive intellectual space.

Venkatesh Rao is the founder of Ribbonfarm and the author of Breaking Smart.

Click the image below to listen. [Via the always intriguing Longform Podcast]

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History Echoes in Angkor Wat

With temperatures climbing above 33 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit), January marks the start of Cambodia’s tourist “high season.” In Siem Reap, the effect can be a human traffic jam as visitors —clumped into groups around their Turkish, Israeli, Korean, or Chinese tour guides— clamber over one another for pictures of the city’s stunning (and still crumbling) archeological sites. Mobile phones, GoPros, and too-pricey-for-amateur digital cameras glint in the afternoon sun.

Joining this pilgrimage today, I turned to my wife —who had traveled here years earlier— and asked if the surroundings brought back any memories. “You see so many images [of these historic sites] it is hard to know which ones are remembered, and which aren’t,” she said, glancing briefly at a name-tagged tour group, each member with a camera in hand.

Visitors pose for photographs in front of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia on January 5, 2016. (Photo: Adam McCauley / @adammccauley)

Criticizing the shutterfly sightseer can seem dangerously hypocritical, of course. I, too, carry my camera at a finger’s reach. But watching other paying invaders queue for the chance to freeze their faces amidst these historic backgrounds, prompted reflection. Photographs are cherished for capturing the beauty of time and space. The image’s very existence was proof the photographer was there. So why the need to graft oneself into that landscape?

In 1859, the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, had been exploring the tributaries of the Mekong River in Siam (Thailand) when a series of wrong turns, as legend has it, led to his discovery* of the astounding ‘Walled City.’ Years earlier, Mouhot had travelled Europe studying the latest photographic techniques invented by Louis Daguerre. We might imagine an astonished Mouhot, surveying the towering Angkor, wishing he had brought a camera of his own.


Drawing of Angkor Wat (1859) by French explorer Henri Mouhot.

Perhaps those times of fevered discovery have come to pass. Today, thanks to images supplied by our digital documentarians —from Instagram to Flickr, through Facebook and Twitter— we can travel wherever we would like with a click of a mouse (or the tap on a screen). And perhaps it is this actuality that now stirs, in today’s voyagers, a hunger to prove that actual people, and not only their imagination, can travel this world.

*As history would have it, said “discovery” is a little more complex, with Portuguese and Japanese explorers having (likely) visited Angkor Wat prior to Mount’s arrival. However, history has privileged Mouhot’s role in announcing Angkor Wat to Europe and the world.


The Wake of Creative Madness

Recently The New York Times reviewed “Stories I Tell Myself”, a memoir by Juan Thompson, son of the manic and mythic Hunter S. Thompson. As an avid Thompson fan (particularly in the early years of my journalistic life), I approach this particular tome with care: Thompson the younger was harmed greatly by the presence (and absence) of Hunter, and his scars from a childhood under duress demonstrate that creative energy —unbound— can leave splinters in lives lived close to such explosions. Thinking through my own relationship —albeit literary— with HST, I found an earlier post (written nearly five years ago) citing some valuable lessons Hunter offered to the next generation of journalists.

For a man often loathed by purists for his latitude with facts and their fictions, Hunter recognized the strictures and responsibilities of journalism-as-craft. You just had to look for the evidence. I’ve reposted that original article (in full) below.

Whittling away the travel hours this week, I found – and subsequently devoured (again) – Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. For those that haven’t read it, the novel tells the ‘fictional’ story of Paul Kemp; a vagabond journalist who, after covering beats in New York and Rome, sets upon Puerto Rico in search of profits and the exotic. The novel is quite short and interestingly it borders on the autobiographical. Indeed, both Paul Kemp and Hunter Thompson hail from ‘small-town’ America, express a propensity for embracing escapism and the drink; and each hold an unsettled view of their own place in the world.

Importantly, this short book contains a critical lesson for aspiring journalists or writers alike. While discussing satisfaction in life with a nubile and naïve lover (companion to his ‘man of the times’ newspaper colleague), Kemp mutters that, “Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong.” For Kemp, and by extension Thompson, a journalist should foremost be concerned with the clarity of their message. For Kemp, these billowy words are not deft enough.

While authenticity and accuracy are surely comparable pillars of any journalistic code, the ability to convey facts, stories and events in a manner clear to all readers, should not be overlooked. For Kemp, the issue with Happy or Love is not that they are vacant of meaning, but merely that they are imprecise (in fact they mean too many things). These words are the layperson’s vernacular of the everyday which, while intentioned enough for random conversation, fails to impart the specifics needed when written. The critique hinges on this relativity (that happy must have an antithesis, yes (sadness) but that it is also a function of degree (happier today than yesterday etc…). According to Kemp, it is the “priest or the fool [who] use them (these words) with any confidence.”

In the end, if these relative descriptors are not made viciously clear, the value of theses words is diminished and the accuracy of the story is reduced. If we consider that the journalist–reader relationship is one of trust, earned through the cagey application of razor sharp nouns and verbs, then any sacrifice relating to the language used will leave the reader with doubt – potentially one that will linger.

For aspiring writers the world over (and I count myself within this group) our lives will always be an expedition to find the perfect collection of letters, lest our own language take away from the power of our thought.


I arrived in the United Kingdom —the first flight into Heathrow that day— on a cool (early) morning in late September. My destination, two suitcases in hand, was the town of Oxford, and my new home at the Department of Politics and International Relations.

As many readers will know, I’ve worked as a journalist for the last five years —a period which has seen stories (or the search for stories) take me from the jungles of Ecuador to the temblor-crumbled streets of Nepal. Between these assignments and adventures, like message heard in static, was a deepening interest among a suite of issues both increasingly relevant and difficult to tackle. One of these was the apparent rise in insurgent (or “terrorist”) groups in West Africa.

For me, this topic was being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change were seeding the grounds for an unwanted harvest. Moreover, the topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

My return to the academy has been tricky. One of journalism’s great traits is its vitality —its steady, often straining, pulse that signals to readers that this world is alive. But my impatience is mitigated by a steadily increasing gravity in purpose. By this, I really mean a growing confidence in my own ability to identify (and commit) to a story I believe will demand tellers for the rest of my life’s years.

And today, re-checking the The New York Times site before signing off, I caught the following headline:

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Source: The New York Times

The piece, strongly reported by Carlotta Gall, makes clear a range of growing security concerns about the expansion and sustainability of insurgent groups across West and North Africa. It might not be a “scoop” in the traditional sense, but it ought to be read as a clarion call. The editors, deciding to put the piece on A1 (front page) ostensibly felt the same.

For now, however, I’ll leave the story link here for readers to explore on their own. And I will be addressing particular conclusions/assumptions/suggestions of this in an upcoming series of posts. In these upcoming installments, I will outline my present work —its potential value and its weaknesses, in the hopes of engaging readers to comment and converse. Above all, this is a (re-)commitment to this online web space so often ignored amid the noisy chambers of the internet.

So, finally, this site —which has served as home for more than four years— might soon shift to meet my current demands, and will ideally serve as a platform to stimulate a new set of conversations. These are tricky conversations to begin, but essential conversations to attempt. I’m also keen to experiment with new ways to engage with readers (and their significant questions). And, of course, it’s 2016. So we better get started.

On the Road: Detangling ISIS (Updated)

An important review, by an unidentified author, in this week’s New York Review of Books, argues that ISIS’s resurgence cannot be explained by much more than the availability, suddenly, of “a territory available to attract and house” it’s motivated members. That ISIS exists because it can exist is a tautology the author admits, but their otherwise competent description and analysis leaves few other explanations of ISIS’s rise.

Lacking adequate information/rationales about/for ISIS’s causes/rise -as a group or phenomenon- the author believes “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS” and that this won’t necessarily be rectified by “the accumulation of more facts.” 

Unsatisfying as his/her conclusion is — that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled”— it is crucial to accept what isn’t known, instead of hiding behind “theories and concepts that do not bear deep investigation.”

This shouldn’t preclude the important work of investigation and analysis, but inspire a commitment to the lengthy and laborious task of understanding modern extremism (in all the corners of the world it now mars.)

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra has written his own riveting and riotous review (in The Guardian) of our current historical moment —one dealing with marginalization and disappointment colored with violence and vitriol. He tackles both ISIS and the shootings in Charleston —not as counterpoints, per se, but as diodes across a network of international actors as they deal with the erosion belief systems, particularly as it relates to future prosperity (or their expectations of such prosperity). As always, Mishra builds his commentary with uncommon depth. Agree or disagree? You should read it.