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Eight Years of Solitude
March 15th, 2014, 07:26 PM

On freelance labor, journalism, and survival

When people tell me they admire my freelance career, when they tell me it must be nice to sleep in, when they then break eye contact when I tell them how much I am paid, when I am sending a fourth follow-up email to an editor regarding that check, you know, that one you said was in the mail a month ago, this is what I think about:

Almost eight years ago, a week after my 22nd birthday, I graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia’s journalism school. I didn’t know what having an Ivy League master’s degree in journalism meant, besides an overinflated sense of young self-worth and a collection of very expensive bills. I was about to find out: nothing.

I wanted to write about politics but soon found myself applying for entry level editorial jobs at Conde Nast teen magazines, at Daily Candy, at Babble. I pretended to be a college student and blogged for $10 an hour for a shady start-up. I blogged for pennies. I blogged for free. I filled out dozens of job applications a day. I was one of thousands.

In journalism school, professors had told us to never write for less than $1 a word, but we didn’t spend much time learning how to pitch. My parents, who had fostered creative careers in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, encouraged it all. “Don’t take those unpaid internships, you’re worth more than that!” But I wasn’t.

I did apply for those unpaid internships. I didn’t get them.

I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t think I really needed it. I survived, and I felt lucky. Despite the rejections, I was still young and privileged and ahead of the game. Something would work out.

In 2008 I decided to move to the Bay Area, a smaller pond flush with tech money. The assignments came easier — $25 to $50 for short reviews for a local alternative weekly, $200 for longer articles. Within a few months I landed a job as the editor of Curbed San Francisco, a relatively new real estate blog. I posted ten times a day. I developed excruciating carpal tunnel in both hands. I bought wrist braces and posted some more.

A week after I was hired, the stock market crashed spectacularly. Two months later, I was laid off. Two months after that, I was sleeping on my parents’ couch.

These were, objectively, strange times for media; they still are. Tens of thousands of staff writing jobs disappeared in journalism over the last couple decades, replaced by freelance gigs that pay a fraction of what they used to. But the pool of available talent only seems to grow wider and deeper.

I read this piece by Richard Morgan in 2010, a few months after McSweeney’s had hired me to write a 3,000-word investigative article about San Francisco real estate for $250.

It seemed in my best interest to diversify my skill-set and differentiate myself from the pack.

And so I learned to draw. In between applying for quota blogging and copyediting gigs across Northern California, I filled sketchbooks with hand and drapery studies. Every other out-of-work journalist is learning Javascript, I figured, but I’ll be the only one who can draw.

While 2,000-word reported stories earned me $200 from national news and magazine sites — less self-employment taxes— some small illustrations could earn me $200 each.

But while it filled my bank account and raised my profile, my drawing seemed to ultimately devalue my journalism. Readers presumed that if my work was illustrated, it was not fact-checked; that quotes were fabricated, statistics rounded off to whatever.

I footnote everything now. It matters about as much as my masters degree.

“It looks like she’s a cartoonist first,” a journalist said about me the other day, not bothering to, I guess, look.

I was arrested and jailed while reporting on Occupy in Oakland because the police didn’t recognize the outlets for which I freelanced. Some media blogs speculated that it was because I was really a cartoonist and not a reporter at all. When I reached out to Columbia for guidance on facing the resulting criminal charges, the dean wrote a Tumblr post about it.

As I’ve established myself as an independent journalist, I’ve received more inquiries for free labor than for the paid stuff. Writers for local newspapers, for Salon, for the Huffington Post, for the New York Times magazine, for media around the world send emails complimenting my reportage and then asking me to help them with their articles about the Bay Area for free.

More newspapers and magazines want to profile me and the strange work I do than hire me to actually do it. Other writers and illustrators chastise, how can you complain about getting that kind of promotion? The year I got the most TV and radio spots and magazine write-ups, I made about $17,000.

The economic world is structured for people with jobs. Yet the self-employed population is growing by leaps and bounds — more and more people each year are paying higher taxes and buying their own insurance. We have no institutional protections, no security, no unemployment benefits when our contracts run out.

I know I’m far from alone — freelance journalists quietly, privately lament our low, late pay, our inherent insecurity, and the dual pressure to appear productive and successful while also available for hire.

During my relatively brief stint as a staff writer, I saw the wide discrepancy between labor and payment for staffers versus the freelance work our site and many others rely on to fill content columns and drive traffic.

I felt guilty. And then I cashed my checks.

I’ve cultivated relationships with great editors, and learned which ones to avoid. I have an impressive resume, from some angles. People tell me it’s the resume of someone who picks and chooses for success, a stack of interesting stories for national outlets with good reputations. I see it as a list of struggles, of hustles, of all-nighters and four-month-overdue paychecks, of $20 an hour work done for $4, of an unreasonable and naive optimism.

But each new published piece is a chance that a hiring editor might see my work, reach out, offer something. It keeps me chasing $4 an hour assignments. I’m terrified that if I don’t publish an article one week, I might be forgotten altogether, losing out on the hypothetical opportunities I’ve been working toward for the better part of these last eight years.

Media companies often make hiring choices by skimming the cream off other, competing media companies; it’s easiest to get a job if you’ve already got one. Everyone knows you’re most attractive when you’re already in a relationship. Freelancing becomes an easy place to get stuck on the low side of this employment gap. You seem great, but there must be something wrong with you.

Maybe I never should’ve left New York. Maybe I never should’ve started drawing. It feels too late to turn back now. I did not plan to make this my career. I still don’t. But here I am.

I’m currently waiting on $1,200 in outstanding payments from editors. And my degree is still in storage.

Now I have to get back to work.

Hacked Off
March 15th, 2014, 07:26 PM

The hacker-activist community seems to leave no safe place for women. Rosie J. Spinks asks: Can it grow up?

This article originally appeared August 29, 2013, in The Magazine. Illustration by Amy Crehore.

When information activist Asher Wolf wrote her blog post “Dear Hacker Community, We Need to Talk,” she wasn’t feeling particularly levelheaded.

“If you look at my Twitter feed during that period,” Wolf says, “it involved me saying ‘fuck you’ over and over to male hackers in the community.”

Wolf, who describes herself as a citizen technologist and internaut, is the founder of CryptoParty, a privacy-education program that teaches people how to use cryptographic tools to secure their online communication. The platform, which was born from a casual Twitter exchange in late summer 2012, quickly went viral.

Despite being passionate about her work and pleased about CryptoParty’s success, Wolf was fed up. This wasn’t the first time she had noticed different treatment in the hacker space due to her gender. She’d already experienced a huge shift when she removed the gender ambiguity of her pseudonym, Asher Wolf, by changing her Twitter avatar to one with female attributes. But this marked the first time she’d acted on her disgust.

After working on CryptoParty for months, Wolf used her “Dear Hacker Community” post — published in late December 2012 — to announce that she was quitting her role as CryptoParty’s organizer. She cited as the main reason the “sexism and unacceptable behaviour,” including stalking, doxxing, and the unbridled hurling of sexist obscenities, from some of the people involved with running Cryptoparty chapters.

“Inequality doesn’t just spring up without a context,” Wolf wrote in her post. “And women don’t just opt out of hacking and hacker communities because of the tired rhetoric ‘maths and hacking is boys’ business.’ No, women stay the hell away from hacker spaces, conferences, and tech initiatives because of ongoing experiences of misogyny, abuse, threats, put-downs, belittlement, harassment, rape.”

She published her post on the same day as the annual Chaos Communication Congress, an international hacker conference in Hamburg, Germany, but it wasn’t intended as a commentary on that event. When a featured speaker, who was unaware of Wolf’s blog entry, mentioned her work favorably in his talk, her post began trending on Twitter. One of Wolf’s colleagues explains that the impact was akin to “letting off a flash grenade in a pond.”

“I got 44,000 hits on my Web site that day,” she says in an interview. “It was overwhelming — I was front page of Hacker News and I got called a troll. But the truth is I didn’t have an ideal outcome in mind when I wrote it. I wrote it because I was angry.”

And when it came to what her online tormentors were willing to target, Wolf said nothing was off limits.

“What I found they went for was the lowest target, which was my son,” Wolf says. “Quite often, they’d say things like, ‘Wait you tweeted for X amount of hours today — who looks after your son?’ Well, frankly, it’s none of your business, and I didn’t ask who looked after your son today.”

Barriers to entry

Wolf is far from alone in her disillusionment with the male-dominated hacker space and the tech world at large. For her, the outrage her blog post elicited is indicative of the generally fraught relationship between women and tech. The US tech sector largely eschews boardrooms and hierarchy; CEOs wear hoodies, not suits. With so many of the world’s major industries still run by white men, one might think that if any field could buck that trend, it would be tech.

This, however, doesn’t ring true in the tech world at large — where women in the United States held only 25 percent of professional IT-related jobs in 2009, down from 36 percent in 1991 — or in the more insular world of hacktivism. But while the small numbers of women getting tech degrees or obtaining IT/programming jobs may contribute to both the under-representation and the hostile treatment of women in the hacker space, it doesn’t seem to explain it completely. After all, this is a culture in which it’s often more sensible for a woman to pretend, as Wolf once did, that she’s not a woman at all.

“The more I reached out into the world through blogging and attending conferences, the more my gender began to play a part,” she says. As male colleagues learned her gender, she says many interacted with her differently than they once had.

Nowhere is evidence of this anti-female ethos easier to find than in the Internet’s most high-profile and highly organized subverters: the hacktivist group Anonymous. Anonymous’s roots lie in the profane message board known as 4chan, where jokes about rape, porn, and homosexuality are for nothing other than the “Lulz,” or gratuitous laughs. When 4chan factions morphed into Anonymous, the entity gradually gained a political activist-minded consciousness.

Anonymous has always been a shifting entity, defined by whoever decides to participate on any given day, making proper accountability nearly impossible. Using devious tactics and a middle-school sense of humor (such as sending hundreds of unpaid-for pizzas to a target’s address), the amorphous group carries out a diverse range of well-publicized actions (or “AnonOps”), such as targeting the Church of Scientology’s Dianetics hotline or impinging on the operations of PayPal after it suspended payments to Internet messiah Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.

“Kat” is a member of Anonymous and a self-described online activist. (She notes that she does not break into systems, nor does she approve of illegal tactics, so she demurs at the term “hacktivist.”) Her induction into the group happened on an IRC channel (an internal chat room) where much of Anonymous’s self-organization plays out.

Four years on, her gender is now known to most in the community, but she says that for females starting out, the choice to be open about their gender is likely to invite trolling. She cites the crass ultimatum of “show me your tits or get the fuck out” as a common rite of passage for many new female users in IRC rooms.

“I know some females who have shown themselves because that’s part of their personality — they don’t care either way and see it as just a body part,” Kat says. “And then there are some that do it because maybe they want people to like them. It’s usually the ones that do it because they want people to like them that end up not necessarily earning respect.”

Straight white males only

Adrian Chen, a journalist who covers Anonymous and hacktivism extensively for Gawker, believes that the Anonymous demographic — as well as its most influential members and Twitter account controllers — are “overwhelmingly male white twenty-somethings.” He isn’t convinced that adding more female members to Anonymous’s hive mind would be enough to reverse the organization’s core ethos.

(On a recent evening, Kat counted the female members in the IRC channel she was connected to. Out of 40 to 50 Anons, she counted seven known females, a number she knew to be quite high compared to other servers.)

Chen sees Anonymous as a direct descendant of hacker culture, a male-dominated space where “showing off, screwing with people, pranks, and being very aggressive and sardonic” are de riguer. For that reason, he says, it’s no surprise that a female entering this space might find her gender being used against her.

While the “brogrammer” culture of Silicon Valley makes sense when viewed in the context of inherent male privilege, Anonymous’s misogyny seems somewhat incongruous. It is, after all, an organization that bills itself as inclusive, transparent, grassroots oriented, and non-hierarchical, and yet, it uses tactics and language that are deeply offensive and alienating for essentially anyone who is not a straight white male.

Aminatou Sow is the co-founder of Tech Lady Mafia, an online platform for female hackers, programmers, developers, and the like to cross-pollinate ideas and raise the profile of women in the technology sector. As someone who advocates against the marginalization of women in the tech world at large, Sow finds the blatancy of Anonymous’s misogyny a challenge.

“With Anonymous it gets really dicey because it’s this behemoth that looks different every day and so intentions are not clear,” she says. “For a lot of us that work in social justice, that’s really problematic.”

Sow believes that the ethos underpinning technology and specifically hacktivism — which values self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and, above all, subversion of the status quo — contributes to a culture of entitlement, one in which white males already have a huge leg up.

“I think that sexism is more blatant in tech because the technology world believes that it’s a meritocracy,” Sow explains. “The number one resisting factor I hear all the time is bros saying, ‘I worked really hard to be here, and if everybody worked as hard as me, they would also be here.’ The problem is they don’t fully understand how ‘hard work’ looks different for a woman or for a person of color.”

Revenge of the nerds

Gabriella Coleman holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, where much of her research focuses on Anonymous. She says that despite Anonymous’s origins, it’s dicey to stereotype its members as engaging in a kind of white male nerds’ revenge.

“If we are going to critique gender dynamics, as I feel we must, stereotyping hackers as sickly pathological narcissists is something that must be avoided,” Coleman explains via email. “All too often, this is the picture that gets painted instead of looking at the structural barriers within and outside of these domains.”

Coleman says that one of the reasons gender inequality seems especially rampant in the non-hierarchical structure of Anonymous has to do with its sovereignty from any form of governance or regulation. Unlike what would be required in a Silicon Valley corporation, there is no “mechanism to redress inequality” built in, such as an enforced anti-harassment policy or a diversity office — nor is there any culture of accountability.

Many in the tech industry can relate to this experience when they attend conferences, some of which also operate without any sort of established policies of inclusion. Such events have historically suffered from a similarly gender-disproportionate speaker and attendee list. Asher Wolf notes that at Ruxcon 2011, a Blackhat Infosec conference in Melbourne, Australia, she was one of just six women in a crowd of a thousand. Blow-up dolls, booth babes, and lunchtime trips to strip clubs often serve as an IRL manifestation of what one might have found on the boards of 4chan.

Power shift

While improving the gender ratio of tech conferences has a more clear-cut answer — both Sow and Wolf personally ask their friends and colleagues to refuse invitations to speak on panels which include few or no women — the amorphous “hive mind” of Anonymous is nearly impossible to influence externally. There are, however, hints of change.

Chen recently wrote at Gawker about a high-profile AnonOp; his piece was partially responsible for helping law enforcement bring two teenage rapists to justice in a highly publicized trial in Steubenville, Ohio. This, Chen wrote, represented Anonymous’s broader “turn towards fighting rape and cyberbullying, an odd reformation for a group that started on 4chan.”

Wolf believes the number of women that are active in Anonymous may grow, abetted by well-publicized ops like the one above. This starts to erode the idea of it as explicitly anti-women. She points to the fact that several of the last few major AnonOps were run by women, and that it is possible that there are many more who are leaving their gender out of their actions altogether for fear of being ostracized or having their hacking work diminished.

“I think there are a lot of successful Anonymous ops that have been run by women,” she says. “However, I often think women step back from the limelight because their sexuality is used as a weapon against them when they become public figures. It’s why real anonymity is so important: it provides people with a voice that is often threatened by their day-to-day personal circumstances.”

Wolf points to something that perhaps lies at the root of the problem: by necessity, many women in the hacker space have grown accustomed to accommodating a culture that isn’t particularly accommodating to them.

Kat shows this when she speaks of Anonymous’s internal lexicon, in which calling someone “new-fag” is just the same as calling them “the new guy.” She never uses this language either on- or offline, but admits that she is no longer bothered by it either.

“I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten used to it or because I know the people who are using it don’t mean it that way,” she says. “It’s taken away the negativity of the word.”

It’s a troubling status quo: in order to effectively do their jobs and not be fighting a constant battle, women in this space must either remain genderless or prove they are undeterred by rampant abuse until it finally (hopefully) relents. All this to attain something that male members have at go: a chance to be taken seriously.

There are plenty of admirable and effective movements designed to help girls get into the tech world at large, but entry into groups like Anonymous, by definition, must happen organically. And yet, it’s unclear whether a mere increase in numbers would change the underlying ethos that is so alienating to many females. But Sow believes that being outspoken about the challenges of being a woman in this space has the potential to change the consciousness.

“Representation is the issue — it’s true that there are not a lot of women, but what is even more true is that we’re not telling women’s stories,” Sow says. “It behooves us to make sure the world knows that women are the ones doing this too. I think there’s something about it that’s paradigm shifting — about letting people know that women are capable of this kind of work.”

Illustration by Amy Crehore.

Rosie Spinks is a Los Angeles-born, London-based freelance journalist and storyteller. Insatiably curious and optimistic, she writes about sustainability, women’s issues, social justice, tech, culture, and design for outlets such as GOOD, Dwell, EcoSalon, The Ecologist, and Sierra Magazine. She loves keeping things simple and hates staying in one place.

Issue 24

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 24. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of four (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Correction: This article originally called the Chaos Communication Congress a “conference.” It’s been corrected.


Hacked Off was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

My Hazelnut Heart
March 14th, 2014, 07:26 PM

She only speaks a few words of her in-laws’ language, but she knows how to find the right thing to say.

Each August, a filbert frenzy seizes Beşikdüzü, my Turkish husband’s hometown in the footfills of the Kaçkar Mountains. Men, women, and children scour the sprawling groves, shaking the 10-foot trees, and rooting in the moist sod for fallen nuts.

An agricultural staple, the hazelnut has been grown here since 300 b.c.e. Packed with fiber and vitamin E, the super food purportedly lessens the risk of colon cancer and heart disease and ameliorates high blood pressure. Turkey produces roughly 75 percent of the world’s supply, enough to quell the most insatiable Nutella cravings.

The harvest alone didn’t draw me to this hillside hamlet. With my in-laws nearing 80, little time remains for bicultural bonding between my American-born sons and their grandparents Muzaffer and Sevim. So in June we left my husband behind in Connecticut and headed to the Black Sea.

Without a common language, we relied on gestures and one-word exchanges.

Guzel?” I asked one day, holding up a shriveled specimen. Good? Growing in clusters of five to twelve, each nut shelters in a leathery green husk, or “hazel” from the Anglo-Saxon for “headdress.” As the fruit ripens, the leaves and stem dry out until the mature nuts drop to the ground.

“Tsk,” Muzaffer clicked his tongue, and tossed the moldy mass over his shoulder. He brushed a mosquito from his brow and settled back on his heels. In his baggy pinstriped cotton pajamas and ribbed sleeveless undershirt he looked like a Silk Road Bilbo Baggins.

Sevim padded over, hooked a small funnel-shaped basket around my waist, and shooed me off toward the roof to lay our haul out to dry. Halfway up the slope I tripped and toppled face-first, the hazelnuts bouncing to the ground like badminton birdies.

“Stupid nuts,” I hissed under my breath in embarrassment.

My ankle and my ego were still smarting later when we decamped to the earthen patio. Muzaffer spread a prayer rug beneath a green-and-white striped canopy strung between two mimosa trees. Even in the shade, the still air sizzled. I thumbed through a newspaper, my sweat sticking to the pages, and tried to decipher the Turkish.

Nearby, Sevim raked a heap of nuts onto a tarp and scanned the sky for clouds. Then, wiping her brow, she plopped onto a tree stump and began to peel. Deftly, she pried open the bonnets with her thumb and flicked the nuts into a red plastic basin. Soon husks littered the table and ground.

I set down my dictionary and picked up a cluster. Wedging my fingers between the frills, I tugged at the leaves. But the nut wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, I decided to go for a walk and gathered my boys and we clomped off down the hill past thousands of nuts basking in the sun.

The author and her son, Noah

The footpath deadended into a gully where boulders and tree roots clogged a mud-choked rivulet. The town was paving over hazelnut groves to make way for a modern road. A dump truck clattered by with a tangle of limp branches.

“Why are they cutting everything down?” my son Ayden worried. “Don’t they know we’re farmers?”

“I don’t know if I’d call myself a farmer,” I said.

“Why not?” Ayden asked, squatting down to examine an anthill.

“Why don’t you guys play torpedo?” I said to sidestep the awkwardness. As my sons lobbed rock-bombs into the stream I closed my eyes and imagined their father, uncles and all the generations of village boys that came before.

We lingered for an hour, Ayden and Noah cheering over every hit. Then, as lightning flickered across the valley, we headed home. Suddenly, Ayden stopped short. I looked up and saw Muzaffer, flashlight in hand. From his glare I knew we were late.

Ayip!” he scolded — shame on you.

The insult stung and, wounded, I retreated to my room while the kids peeled off to play hide-and-seek. “I’m 50 years old!” I fumed silently. “I’m not going to do everything his way!” Through the window, I heard Sevim trying to calm Muzaffer. “Amerikali,” she’s American, she murmured.

An hour later I was getting ready for bed when Muzaffer tiptoed in. “Gelin,” daughter-in-law, he said, “I am not smart. I am not modern. But here,” he continued, jabbing his chest with a finger, “here I have a good heart.”

A burst of static crackled, and before I could answer, the call to prayer floated over the public radio. Muzaffer leaned over, kissed me on the forehead, and slipped off to his evening ablutions.

Stunned, I fell back into bed puzzling over his words. Outside, the hazelnuts, one by one, gave way to gravity.

Muzaffer and the author

The next day at sunrise my in-laws’ voices floated through the open window as they amble to a neighbor’s house. Through the cucumber vines snaking up Muzaffer’s homemade trellis I watched my boys spin in a hammock like onions in a mesh bag.

At last, a morning alone.

In the kitchen Muzaffer’s white cap, a souvenir from his pilgrimage to Mecca, sat primly next to the family’s Koran. I traced the hat’s fine gold embroidery and spied a slip of paper beneath the Koran. Tugging the sheet free I was startled to see a photo of my younger self cradling newborn Ayden. Someone, most likely Muzaffer, had placed the picture here for safekeeping.

I was tucking the photo back when my boys skidded through the door. “Mom, it’s pouring!” they cried. “The hazelnuts!” I shouted and sprinted to the roof.

Frantically, I grasped at a tarp with rain-slicked hands but it skidded away like a gulet on the Bosphorus. With my bare feet I snared the plastic just before it sailed over the roof’s edge. Then I spread it over the nuts, pinning the corners down with cinder blocks.

There, I sighed, you’re safe now.

Two hours later we were in the kitchen, listening to the thrum of rain. Sevim slid a pan from the potbelly stove and handed it to me. I tilted the tray and toasted nuts clattered into a white porcelain bowl.

From his spot on the sofa, Muzaffer suddenly remembered the stash on the roof. “Kim?” he asked, pointing toward the ceiling and wondering who kept the nuts dry.

Ben,” me, I answered.

Guzel,” he said. Good.

I smiled and together we plunged our fingers into the warm nuts, cradling them like prayer beads.

Cultural anthropologist and instructional designer Justine Ickes has written for Gastronomica, Language magazine, and Parent & Child, among others. Justine also develops training programs, writes grants, and creates custom content for the United Nations, the Peace Corps, Berlitz, and other clients.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to 200 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


My Hazelnut Heart was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

How to Move a Wood Bison
March 12th, 2014, 07:26 PM

The chutes, ladders, and waiting games behind a plan to restore a giant mammal to Alaska. Jenna Schnuer observes some of the first steps.

“Here she comes!”

The call comes down from the metal catwalk that curves four steps high around one side of a wood-planked corral.

It’s a partial false alarm. The wood bison stops. She ignores all attempts to keep her moving, which include attracting her attention with what looks like the world’s biggest cat toy: a long pole, one end of which is wrapped with bright orange netting. She stands there, squared off against the world and any notion of moving forward.

A few people up on the catwalk go into a steady patter, trying to cajole the obstinate beast into moving along.

Stop arguing with me.

Hey now.

Why won’t you move?

Nothing.

“Did you try the tarp?” asks Kristen Lawrence, the executive assistant at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). She spends her days behind a desk, but a wood bison handling is an all-hands-on-deck kind of event.

Jason “Aaron” Mendive, whose job at AWCC can best be described as Aaron will do it — he handles maintenance and moving the large animals around, sometimes by going right in there with them — drapes one of Alaska’s most revered multipurpose tools, a tarp, over the wood-walled chute. The tactic helped get other wood bison moving earlier in the day.

Don’t be buffaloed by their obscurity

There’s no shame over a bit of huh? at the mention of wood bison. After all, their kin, the plains bison, offer the great American success story of species restoration, while the wood bison came close to shuffling off to extinction.

Extirpated from Alaska (most likely from overhunting and environmental changes), Canada’s wood bison population almost called it quits too after intermingling with the plains variety, sullying both their genetics and their health. But in 1959 a small group of pure wood bison was found in the northwest corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. Over time (and with significant help from the Canadian government and its national park system), that bunch kick-started their kind back to health. In 1988, Canada moved the wood bison from the endangered list to the (less-dire) threatened list. The United States followed suit in May 2012.

“In the United States…wood bison have been gone for somewhere around…we don’t really know, but let’s call it a couple of centuries,” says Tom Seaton, a wood bison biologist (and all-around ungulate guy) for theAlaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). “Now is our chance to correct that and put them back where they were. Most of the really amazing and grand wildlife recovery adventures have already played out. This is really the last one.”

The wood bison is a cousin, if you will, to the better-known plains bison—both are subspecies of the American bison—and their scientific names seem straight out of a Belushi-era Saturday Night Live skit: the wood bison’s Bison bison athabascae to the plains bison’s Bison bison bison. (Bison are not buffalo.)

Pump up a plains bison 15 to 20 percent and you’re in wood bison territory. Wood bison bulls average 2,000 pounds. They look like a caricature of a plains bison, with all their features more pronounced. They have beards so pointy Satan would weep with jealousy. And while plains bison have curly forelocks, wood bison sport a straighter style across their massive foreheads. “It’s like a combover,” Lawrence says.

Move ’em out

Mendive lifts the tarp back up and the wood bison steps forward. “Shut it,” Mendive says. Lawrence closes the last wood gate, and as the bison passes on through each metal chute, there’s a clattering from her hooves on the floor, occasional kicks against the walls, and volunteers pushing the sliding gates shut on their rollers, as though steampunk musicians were using metal garbage cans as massive cymbals.

Each chute has a specific purpose: some can be pushed in to calm the animals; one has a scale; another has a breakaway wall for bison that decide to walk in backwards and need to be turned around. Between each green metal chute stand sliding gates that, when closed at just the right moment, will keep a bison from moving ahead if there’s another in line in front of it or, just as importantly, from backing up.

But if there’s no bison ahead and the chutes are clear, it’s all about the first rule of bison handling: “Once they’re moving, keep them moving,” says Mendive. “Don’t let them stop or think about it.”

Along the chutes, a hodgepodge of people have assembled to help. This includes AWCC staffers, ADF&G employees, volunteers from companies that donate money or materials for the project, and paramedics from the nearby town of Girdwood. The paramedics are on hand just in case anybody gets hurt, but they’ve also gone vet tech for the day, filling syringes with supplements and dewormer for the animals.

It’s a random family of bison advocates. Some are seasoned bison-handlers, while others are newly minted, but all hope that, this time, the program to reintroduce wood bison into the Alaska wilderness won’t hit another delay.

Fingers remain crossed that come April 2015, wood bison will be on trailers heading for a cargo plane bound for their new home along the lower Innoko River — but everybody involved with the project knows better than to cross their fingers too tightly. They’re used to delays and changes.

One of three areas originally proposed for the reintroduction, the Innoko area is the only one left under consideration. It is not ideal, as it’s sited between two rivers, the Innoko and the Yukon, and it floods some years. But not every year. It will do.

The long tail

Talk of reintroduction has been floating around for more than 20 years. Robert O. Stephenson, now retired from his job as an ADF&G biologist, blew breath into the idea based on archaeological evidence — lots and lots of wood bison bones — and oral histories he collected from elders in Athabascan villages during the 1990s, their stories recounting their parents’ and grandparents’ tales of seeing wood bison.

But Alaska is a state run on resource development, and the idea of plopping protected animals onto lands that corporations are eyeballing can turn things a little funky. “If you go to a Resource Development Council meeting and say ‘endangered species,’ people are leaping out of windows,” says Mike Miller, AWCC’s founder and executive director.

For Seaton and Miller, along with Rita St. Louis, a wildlife planner for the ADF&G, the handling is practically a focused mini-vacation from wondering when they’ll get the go-ahead for the reintroduction. They’re waiting to hear back from US Fish and Wildlife about the latest version of a rule to designate the wood bison as a nonessential experimental population. The rule balances the bison’s needs with other possible uses for the reintroduction area. Or, as one person put it, the rule would make it theoretically possible for resource seekers to drill right next to a bison.

Once the final rule is published and the state gives the thumbs-up, planning for the next phase of the reintroduction begins. You don’t just load 2,000-pound beasts onto a plane on a whim. After the trip out to Innoko, the bison will be protected in a penned area for a month or so and then released for real. That’s the moment Miller wants to see, when the bison roam free — when they start to flex their muscle memory of what it is to be wild.

Miller started AWCC in 1993 as a for-profit “roadside zoo.” A non-profit since 1999, the center focuses on education, conservation, and the rehabilitation of injured wildlife. (Though, yes, visitors can still walk or drive through to go eyeball to eyeball with the center’s numerous wildlife residents, including a musk ox named Mukluk, grizzlies, and a bald eagle named Adonis.)

Thanks to a longtime fascination with bison — and years of plains bison experience — Miller was deep into trying to get the proper permits to bring wood bison to AWCC when US Fish and Wildlife dropped a herd of 13 into his lap. They were confiscated from a man who brought them across the border from Canada’s Yukon Territory to Delta Junction, Alaska.

With Alaska’s wildlife agency intent on reintroducing the animal into the wilderness and an additional 53 disease-free calves set to join them in 2008 from Canada’s Elk Island National Park, Miller gave the animals as a gift to the state.

“Pretty much the state has the authority,” Miller says. “They are their animals, and they have to have everything that they need to feel comfortable about releasing them. We just have to maintain and take care of them here the best way we can.”

The partnership between AWCC and the ADF&G is an unusual one. “Fish and Game doesn’t deal with captive animals,” says St. Louis from the state. There’s an incredible hopefulness and generosity in this work. Nobody on the gates today will live to see it all the way through. “[It] might take 100 years or something like that for them to fully recover to their status before 100 to 200 years ago,” Seaton says.

The team members are generous in their praise of one another, too. Stephenson’s name comes up constantly, as does that of Randy Rogers, a Fish and Game wildlife planner who was devoted to the animals. “He said ‘You know, I’m going to stick with this project because I promised those bison that I was going to see them in the Innoko,’” says St. Louis. “And I always bring Randy with me and his promise to them.” Rogers died, of cancer, in April 2013.

Just passing through

After days of unusually warm weather for an Alaska winter, the temperature hovers near zero. The frigid temps are a gift. Wood bison don’t love a warm day. The cold calms them. Their thick winter coats are better suited to heavy snow and to temperatures that can dip to minus 50° or 60° F. The handling crew relies on thick winter boots and hats, hand and body warmers, layers upon layers of insulated work clothes, quick visits to a warm shuttle bus that’s been pressed into service to keep the shots that will be administered to the bison from freezing, and event-induced adrenaline to offset the temperatures.

The final chute — an off-white beast run on hydraulics — is a makeshift vet’s office. It contains the bison so she can’t hurt herself. (The chute system is familiar to anybody who’s ever stepped foot on a cattle ranch orwatched the HBO biopic about the technology’s inventor, Temple Grandin.)

“The sides kind of come in together not to squeeze the animal but enough so that there’s no room for them to kick hard and smack their legs,” says Seaton. “And right behind their head is the neck catch so they can’t swing their head too much. They could slam their head against stuff.”

Before the stubborn bison steps inside, Rick Henry, a local welder and AWCC constant, steps up to the controls. People speak of Henry in reverential tones. He doesn’t say much himself. Of all the day’s tasks, handling the hydraulics on the chute is one of the trickiest: there’s an art to it. Miller says of Henry, “You can’t get the man to panic. And he’s only got a little bit of vision because he has to look through those slats [on the chute] and you know he has to see and hit it right on the right time. He does it perfectly.”

Blindfolded and in a compression chute to keep her calm as they check her out

The team’s goal: keep the animal’s stress to a minimum. As the animal gets fitted into the chute, Seaton ducks out of sight behind a board. Once she’s calmed a bit, he works with another team member to slip the loop of a bright orange blindfold over her nose and a clip behind her horns. Seaton says, “If I can put the blindfold on they usually just go calm.”

The blindfold on, the team steps up. With another ADF&G staffer recording data, Seaton checks the animal’s teeth and takes nasal swabs and blood. He checks for ear tags, punching a hole for a new one when necessary. At the side of the chute, local veterinarian Jerry Nybakken unlatches windows to give the bison shots of selenium, vitamin B, and dewormer. He takes her temperature, hoping to see it around 102 to 104 — anything higher indicates a stressed animal.

Then Tom Yeager, AWCC’s operations director — also freed from his desk for the day — takes his turn at the window to pull a hair sample for DNA testing. The latches closed, Seaton pulls out a small red point-and-shoot camera, snaps a photo, and slips back outside the gate behind the board. Henry reverses the hydraulics, and as she’s released to run back out to the fenced enclosures against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and bright blue sky, the bison makes a show of an extra little foot stomp, a “well, I never” look on her face.

As she runs off, Seaton stands to watch her go and check her body condition. Then, just a brief moment of relief before the next bison comes through. So much can go wrong, but one more down, one more that went well. One by one, the cows run off to join the herd. As some young bulls come through, they’re loaded onto a truck for a quick trip out to a new grazing area.

The day ends when a pair of the herd’s old ladies — two of the original 13 — just stop. There’s no moving them. The next day starts in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and –4° F. The team is quieter, and there’s less first-day-of-school energy. Four hours later, three cows remain. Sixty-three others have passed through the chutes over the last two days. Now, last night’s session-ending pair convince a third to join their protest. A trio of wood bison Golden Girls, they’re in charge.

They gather into a defensive circle, turning their backs on the handling process. Their health checked again and again over the years, Seaton gives in to their demands, delivering their injections with the help of an eight-foot jab stick. “They weren’t interested in going through the chute that day,” he says.

When it comes to the wood bison program, patience clearly rivals the tarp as the greatest tool of all.

Freelance writer Jenna Schnuer is a New Yorker who, after 10 years of bouncing back and forth to Alaska, moved to Anchorage in September 2013. She writes for National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and BonAppetit.com, and is in the early stages of a book project about the reintroduction of wood bison to Alaska’s wilds. Photos by the author.

Cover of Issue 38

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 38. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


How to Move a Wood Bison was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Used Books Speak Volumes
March 11th, 2014, 07:26 PM

A book in the hand is worth two in the Nook.

I take the old way, over the railroad tracks, into an old, blue-collar neighborhood that now serves as an example of how urban blight can also be suburban, and the road dumps me off at a left turn. On one side, a newish CVS; the other, a church. Take the left, and there is Magina Books, standing tall on the horizon.

It towers over the strip malls and newly built storefronts. The all-brick facade contrasts with the glass-dominated aesthetics of modern commercial architecture, most of them with “For Lease” signs up so long that the red lettering has been sun-faded to pink.

By the door, there’s a cheapo rack of 50-cent books. It’s always worth a look; I found John Irving there once and my life has never been the same. New titles meet you upon entering the shop, with their soft glossy covers, but it is the smell that you notice most of all.

The old books have a familiar musk, the same smell of a library when we were little. It’s the old books that lead you to Steve Magina, 58. (It’s pronounced “ma-JEEN-a.”) He’s almost always at the back of the shop, behind the desk, surrounded.

“Hi,” he calls from the far back. Sometimes you don’t see him. “Anything you are looking for in particular?”

“Catcher in the Rye?”

“You saw the new documentary on Salinger?”

“I did.”

“Everyone has been wanting to get their hands on this book.” Steve beelines for a shelf and pulls a new copy without looking for it.

Cataloging

George Magina, Steve’s father, had the store built in 1948 and originally ran it as curio shop. George was an avid reader and a great lover of books. As time went on, he weeded out the coffee cups and vases to make more room for the new and used copies.

George died in 1986 at age 78. It was already agreed that Steve would take over the family business. The father-and-son duo had been working together for some time.

Steve is tall—six foot three or four, depending on the shoes. His hair is salt and pepper and still full. He’s worn a goatee as long as I have known him. When he speaks, it’s in bursts, developing the conversation as collections of words with little silences in between.

He’s democratic with the way he runs the business. You come in for the first time and get the same service he’ll offer to his lifelong customers. Find your book, along with others by the same author. Then get a snippet of history about the book or the author. Steve has a lot to say about writers. Just ask. He’s got a lot of them in stock, too.

“You can find things now,” he says. “I had to do a lot of reorganizing.”

That’s online and off. Steve has 50,000 books in the store, but, like a lot of used booksellers, he sells via the Web too—about 20,000 of his volumes are posted on half a dozen Web sites. Still, if you’re coming in and know what you want, just ask Steve. He can find every book in his store without much effort. I’ve seen that unerring instinct every time that I have come in looking for something.

Saving grace

College was cleaning me out. After a series of very bad choices, I found myself paying for school and living with an out-of-work girlfriend.

The economy was tanking, and the student loans that had been keeping me afloat dried up. After paying for a semester out of pocket, there was nothing left for schoolbooks — not if I wanted to make rent.

It was luck that I saw Magina on my way to school one day. The advert on the side of the building looked promising, so I stopped in with my girlfriend the next afternoon. I had my list of reading materials; she had her addiction to shopping.

The grand total was thirty-some-odd dollars. It would have been less, but along with my college books, I was also buying a few other books that my girlfriend wanted, and a $15 leather-bound, gilt-edged copy of Edgar Guest’s The Passing Throng.

“It’s so pretty,” she said. “You have to buy it.”

And I did. And rent was late.

Rarities

The rare copies do not outnumber the others, but they are the centerpieces of Magina Books. Sometimes on display, other times hidden deep in the stacks, they make Steve’s store stand out from the rest of the shrinking bookstore economy in Michigan.

“I get people coming from all over [Michigan] looking for rare, leather-bound old books.”

“Is there anyone else in the area like your store?” I ask.

Steve shakes his head. “No.”

Rare book collecting — your Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio — is a rich man’s game. You won’t find it at Magina. But the collector’s market for semi-rare, or very pretty at least, is still alive.

“Online helps.” Steve says he put his business online back in 1997. “But I wouldn’t say that it has been a huge boost.” Steve looks to his front door. A father and son just walked out, their search for a few copies of used paperbacks completed. “Most of my business still comes through the door.”

Hard copies

I’ve heard Steve say it before. And as I am typing this up on a Royal typewriter, next to a bookshelf that is structurally compromised by the weight upon it, you know that I agree: there is nothing like a book in your hands. The world, it would seem, still tends to agree, even if it is leaning digital for most of its daily reading.

When Barnes & Noble debuted its line of B&N Classics, it advertised them as, “Handsome. Authoritative. Affordable.” Unlike modern books, which are mostly utilitarian in look, the Classics boast richly designed covers and gilding on every side of the page, evoking the look of Magina’s out-of-print and rare editions. If the second word in that ad means anything, certainly books have more power in hand than a Nook.

“They’re a great experience,” Steve tells me.

I still like to open and read my copies of Guest and Capote, both bought from Magina. I even bought my son a copy off the B&N line, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. It’s not quite the same as an old book. The smell and crispness of the pages doesn’t match, but it’s close. It feels almost right.

Elliott Fitzgerald McCloud is a writer, poet, lyricist, alchemist, and partner in a timeshare on Hyrule. He earned his BA from Wayne State University in English. Since then he has worked and written in the fast food and medical industries.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to 200 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


Used Books Speak Volumes was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

It’s a Bumblebee’s World
March 10th, 2014, 07:26 PM

Spring has nearly sprung, and the bumblebee is its harbinger, explains researcher Kent McFarland.

Kent McFarland was one of the subjects of our recent feature on the decline of Vermont’s (and other) bumblebee species, “To Bee or Not To Bee,” in The Magazine. He tells us that spring is coming.

Ensconced under the earth and insulated by a blanket of snow, bumblebees lie slumbering for the New England spring. The workers of last year are long gone; the male drones frozen and lost. Only the queens remain, waiting.

For the past few years, I have chased bumblebees from museums to my backyard to the tops of the Green Mountains with biologists and citizen scientists, on a quest to understand their conservation status. Each year in March, with the maple sugaring season in high gear and the snow pack receding, with my close-focusing binoculars hanging nearby and my camera empty with promise, I also wait.

A foraging Eastern Common Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) queen drinks from a flower.

For years I waited for the arrival of migratory songbirds. And then it was for the spring eclosure of butterflies. Now it is for the emergence of queens. Seeing things through a lens leads to certain fascinations.

Each year in the bumblebee kingdom, only the young queen, hatched in the dog days of summer, will carry the colony’s torch through winter to produce the next generation. Everyone else — workers, drones, and the old queen — dies with the onset of fall frost.

A Tri-colored Bumble Bee (Bombus ternarius) queen wanders the forest floor in search of a new nesting site.

During the waning days of late summer and early fall, larvae begin to develop into virgin queens and males rather than the workers that have been hatching all summer. Some colonies will produce up to 100 reproductive individuals, hoping that at least one or two queens will survive to establish a colony in spring.

The thatch cover was lifted from this early summer Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis) nest we stumbled upon in a hay field, exposing the new worker cells and honey pot. The queen shown here was from a collection and placed in a brooding position to depict how the live queen would have been sitting.

When male bumblebees emerge from the cocoon, they may spend several days in the hive and drink some of the stored honey. Bumblebees do produce honey, just not the great quantities of their honeybee brethren.

The males soon leave the nest to forage and live on their own, often finding shelter under plant leaves and flowers during inclement weather and at night. You can find them in the cool morning air sitting motionless on sunflowers in the garden. The male bumblebees have one charge in life: stay alive long enough to mate. Each male leaves a chemical attractant along a regular flight path marking his territory.

A queen Tri-colored Bumble Bee forages.

New queens emerge from the hive a week after the males. Unlike the males, they will leave the nest to forage by day and return for shelter at night. And unlike their sisters, the workers, they do not add any provisions to the nest.

As the days grow shorter, a fertilized queen visits flower after flower, drinking lots of nectar to build body fat and fill her honey stomach. The honey stomach is a small sack that can hold between five-hundredths and two-tenths of a milliliter (A teaspoon holds about five milliliters). Each flower may yield only one thousandth of a milliliter of nectar, causing the queen to visit up to 200 flowers to get her fill.

A Two-spotted Bumble Bee (Bombus bimaculatus) worker approaches a flower. Some bees may seek flowers like this turtlehead, which have a unique chemistry that may help them fight parasites.

Not all flowers are alike. Fall flowers like goldenrod and aster, for example, generally yield far less food than jewelweed blossoms. Bumblebees must sustain thoracic temperature at 86° to 95° F. to be able to fly. So when the morning temperatures are cool, it does not pay for them to visit flowers of poor quality, because they burn as much fuel as they gain from foraging. Queens won’t emerge to forage in the cool mornings until the air temperature reaches near 50°.

While the young queens are foraging, they are also detecting the perfume left by a male. If the scent is to their liking, they may land and wait for the male. Mating can last up to an hour and a half, but sperm transfer generally occurs in the first two minutes. Why the long encounter? Males want to make sure the future colony belongs to them. When he is done mating he exudes a gummy sealant that helps to block other males from mating with her.

A Common Eastern Bumble Bee worker leaves a squash flower in my garden covered in pollen.

When the queen has mated, she searches for a good place to burrow into the soil for the long winter wait. Once under ground, usually one to six inches down, the queen somehow knows to avoid the false start of temporary winter thaws.

Finally, in April or early May, when the warmth of the spring sun penetrates her underground home, she emerges. And I follow with my binoculars and camera in hand to witness another year in the life of bumblebees.

A worker Yellow Bumble Bee (Bombus fervidus) forages in a flower garden.
A male Common Eastern Bumble Bee warms itself in the sun on a cool morning.
A male Brown-belted Bumble Bee perches in the flower garden.

Kent McFarland is a senior conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. He’s seldom far from a pair of binoculars and his camera. When he’s not physically immersed in biodiversity, he is often virtually. When he’s not working, you might find him down at the volunteer fire station.

Please contact Kent about licensing and using his terrific bee photos.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to 200 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


It’s a Bumblebee’s World was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

My Cup of Tea
March 7th, 2014, 07:26 PM

The forgotten art of proper tea.

Coffee drinkers complain all too often about how tough it is to find a decent cup of coffee. Pfft. You know what’s tough? Imagine this: You’ve just finished an elegant dinner at a fine establishment. The service has been excellent. The food worth every penny. The waiter returns, sets down a mug of hot water…and dumps into it a heaping teaspoon of Folgers Crystals.

This is what it’s like to be a tea drinker.

It’s an embarrassing state of affairs for a drink whose consumption dates back to the 10th century b.c.e. We’ve known how to make a proper cup of tea for thousands of years, but in the last century or so it’s as if our collective cultural tea-brewing knowledge has been whacked over the head and thrown into the trunk of a car. Filled with coffee.

Unsurprisingly, that century mark coincides with a singular event in the history of tea: the rise of the tea bag. If anything has contributed to the downfall of tea in society, I’d argue that it’s this “invention,” which came about more or less as the result of idiocy.

Around the turn of the 20th century, tea merchant Thomas Sullivan would send samples to his customers packaged in small silk sachets. The customers, unaware of their purpose, dunked them right into the hot water. Thus, the tea bag was born, and the beverage’s long slide into commoditization and second-class citizenry began.

And so, order a cup at many an otherwise admirable restaurant, and you’ll be given an eyebrow raise usually reserved for those who ask for ketchup to go with their filet mignon. Why are tea drinkers an afterthought? Tea has a long and distinguished history in America. Nobody protested high coffee tariffs by dumping it into Boston Harbor. (We may have done ourselves a disservice there, as some argue that the tense relationship between the U.S. and Britain during the Revolution only served to increase coffee’s popularity.)

Though it may have been popular among our forefathers, to many today tea seems old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy—perhaps even a bit froofy. And it’s clearly not strong enough for the caffeine-driven needs of today’s office workers; those who drink tea must do so because they just can’t stomach coffee.

But ask yourself: when was the last time you had a real cup of tea? Not a cold mug of lukewarm water and a limp bag of Lipton’s, but a well-and-proper freshly brewed pot. Never? Here’s your chance. If you can boil water, you can make a cup of tea. (If you can’t, watch for my forthcoming article “How to Not Burn Water.”)

The tea: It all starts with the tea. Tea all comes from a single plant species, the leaves of which are processed in different ways to make a few types that dominate: black, green, and white. (Other outcomes include oolong, yellow, and post-fermented varieties.) Black teas tend to be stronger in flavor than green teas, with a higher caffeine content. White teas generally have the lowest caffeine content of all.

Bag the bags: The tea bag has taken some of the mystery and ritual out of the tea process, but, more than that, it brews a less pleasant cup of tea. That is in part due to bagged teas traditionally relying on the leavings of the tea-making process: small pieces called “fannings” and a powder referred to as “dust.” These smaller pieces have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, which leads to an insipid or stale taste as oils evaporate more rapidly than with larger pieces.

Tea in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China by David Boté Estrada

Avoid tea bags in favor of loose tea whenever possible. Mail-order options abound, or your town may have a tea shop or two, while a natural-foods store may also sell tea leaves. But if resort to tea bags you must, there are some acceptable options, as more and more tea purveyors offer longer-leaf tea in pyramid-shaped bags that mimic the traditional brewing process.

Infusion confusion: Instead of a bag, you’ll probably want to use an infuser. They come in numerous varieties, made from materials like mesh, ceramic, or perforated metal. Ideally, you’ll want a larger one that allows tea leaves to move freely as they brew; it produces a better flavor than if the infuser constrains and compresses the tea.

Gamila’s Teastick is a modern infuser.

Otherwise, the choice of material depends mainly on your cleaning habits. I tend to favor ones I can just rinse out, as soap can leave an unfortunate aftertaste. If you’re going the truly traditional route, there’s nothing wrong with putting the leaves right in the pot (as is often done in Chinese restaurants), as long as you don’t mind drinking some leaves. (Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. Much.)

Don’t use too much tea: You’re using loose tea—great! Unfortunately, some people seem to think that quantity is more important than quality, so you might be tempted to spoon in half a container. This does nothing but mar the experience and waste perfectly good tea. The rule of thumb: one measured teaspoon per cup—not a literal teaspoon with which you stir tea. If you’re making a whole pot, add one more teaspoon for the pot itself.

Warm the pot/cup: Pouring hot water into a cold cup is a good way to end up with a room temperature cup of tea. Providing a hot mug—not a “teacup,” the wide, shallow shape of which tends to more quickly bleed off that heat—will help the water stay hotter longer. Iced tea is one thing, but cool tea is nobody’s friend.

Fill your cup with hot water from your kettle, or even from the tap. Let it sit for a few moments, and then dump it out when you’re ready to brew. Traditionally, the Chinese pour the first cup of tea into mugs to warm them, then dump it out; the first cup of tea, it’s said, is for your enemies. These days, I find there are never enemies around when I need them.

The water should be boiling: Note that I didn’t say the water should be boiled—we’re not trying to sterilize surgical instruments, make potatoes, or prepare for a home birth in the 19th century. As any tea drinker worth his salt will tell you (not that you should put salt in tea), an infusion like tea requires boiling water to correctly release the properties of the dried leaves.

There are a few exceptions, depending on the tea itself. Both green and white teas require lower boiling points, in which case it’s recommended that the water be boiled first, then be let to cool briefly.

Steep, but not too steeped: Every tea has its own ideal steeping time. Most black teas run about three to five minutes. You can certainly keep steeping after that, but the bitter, astringent result may be more suited to scrubbing scuffs off your hubcaps than consumption. Follow the instructions on the box.

Add nothing: This one is personal preference. Some people like adulterating their tea with sugar, milk, or lemon. To each his or her own, I suppose, but I highly recommend trying a cup without anything at all, to let the innate flavor come through. Otherwise all you really end up tasting is sugar, milk, or lemon. (My one exception? Tea with honey is a great way to soothe a sore throat.)

And there you have it: a real cup of tea. Maybe I sound a bit obsessed, but I’m not alone in my fixation. Tea can count no less than Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams, and George Orwell among its ardent defenders.

Of course, the real dirty secret of tea is that you can ignore almost everything I’ve written if you decide you want to drink it another way. That is, after all, why it’s your cup of tea.

Dan Moren (@dmoren) is a writer whose work has appeared in Macworld, the Boston Globe, and on his parents’ refrigerator. He’s also a regular panelist on the award-winning podcast The Incomparable, a would-be novelist, and an occasional Dungeon Master. Shhhh.

Was this article your cup of tea? You can read much more by subscribing to The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, including this one, which originally appeared in Issue 3. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week.

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My Cup of Tea was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

String Theory
March 6th, 2014, 07:26 PM

A bit of twine transformed between two hands is an ice breaker that transcends cultures and languages.

A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old Iris had one of those “I’m bored” moments. When this happens, I usually hand her my phone and let her disappear into the latest in mindless 99-cent entertainment.

Instead of Cut the Rope, however, something sent me into the kitchen, where I pulled a ball of twine out of the drawer and cut off a few feet. I tied the “rope” and taught Iris how to play Cat’s Cradle, just like a classmate had taught me when I was a kid.

We pinched and rotated our way through the steps of the game as best I remembered them, from Cat’s Cradle through Fish in a Dish. I taught her Witch’s Broom and Cat’s Whiskers. At that point, my string game knowledge was tapped, and I figured that’s about all there was to the pursuit. I also figured string tricks were invented by bored American kids, maybe in the 1950s while they were waiting to get their hands on drugs and early time-sharing computers.

Fish in a Dish from String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands, 1906

Shortly after that, Iris and I took a trip to Japan and learned how wrong I was.

In Tokyo, Iris found that a loop of string is the ultimate icebreaker. Produce the Cat’s Cradle opening, and nearly anybody, old or young, will jump in with delight. Our friend Akira showed me up with flashy tricks that make the string seem to pass through a grinning victim’s fingers and wrists. I started wondering: Where do these string figures come from? How long have they existed? And where do you find them besides the U.S. and Japan?

Humans have used string since prehistoric times, and wherever there is string, there are string figures. We have no idea where they originated, but they’re found in hundreds of cultures, from hunter-gatherer to modern industrial, and often take the form of important cultural signifiers. On the island of Yap, for example, one string figure represents the island’s famous stone money being moved by four men carrying a log passed through the stone’s massive center hole.

Carrying money in Yap

We know about the ubiquity and diversity of string figures because of one particular group that practices them: anthropologists. Franz Boas, known as the father of American anthropology, wrote about Inuit string figures in 1888. Louis Leakey, the discover of Homo habilis and countless other pieces of proto-human history, used string figures the same way Iris did: as an icebreaker when traveling in sub-Saharan Africa. String games are like musical instruments or food: it’s hard not to get along with people when you’re sharing the experience.

But the world of string games would be poorly understood today without the work of Caroline Furness Jayne. Like Leakey, Jayne studied under English anthropologist and string figure enthusiast A.C. Haddon. Jayne, however, didn’t use string figures as a way to get to fossils. She studied string figures as human artifacts themselves, and traveled the world collecting them. In 1906, she published String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-cradle in Many Lands, an encyclopedia of over 200 figures from Europe, Native America, the Pacific Islands, the Arctic, and Africa.

The book is now in the public domain. You can download it for free or buy a cheap reprint edition. It’s lavishly illustrated, and its instructions are far clearer than the average string figure video on YouTube.

Iris and I can now make the Japanese butterfly, the Siberian house, and the mosquito. We use string made of modern synthetic polymers, but our fingers, frustrations, small triumphs, and cross-cultural exchanges belong to a tradition spanning back to when our ancestors had to contend with actual angry birds.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His latest book is Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo. You can read two short excerpts from that book at Medium: “I’ll Fry Anything Once” and “Tokyo Trash.”

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


String Theory was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Baseball Misfits
March 5th, 2014, 07:26 PM

There’s a weird schism between geeks who love sports and those who don’t.

The author’s 1979 team

It took 30 years for me to realize that as a kid I had been judged an athletic misfit and filed away where I could do the least amount of harm.

My daughter’s softball league holds a draft every year to place the eligible players on several different teams, equally balanced by skill. And then I realized: my childhood team, so terrible that it won two games in four years, had been comprised entirely of the kids who couldn’t play very well.

I don’t recount this story here to elicit sympathy for my childhood self, or to judge the parents who devised this plan of attack (though they were selfish assholes), but to establish the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a jock.

I did not have a moment in high school where someone discovered that the nerdy kid with the bowl haircut could, miraculously, throw a football accurately or hit home runs or reliably plant a jump shot from outside. The closest I came to any of that was when a bunch of guys who hung out at the computer lab during lunchtime (which I did not, since I was too busy playing a dice-themed fantasy game instead) recruited me to be on their team in an inter-school programming contest.

That’s the nerd stereotype, right? Bad at sports. Loves computers. And probably spent his lunch hours playing Dungeons & Dragons. Except that the dice game I played in high school wasn’t D&D, but Sports Illustrated Superstar Baseball. Because I loved, and love, baseball. I even loved playing on that losing team of baseball misfits.

It was a long time before I realized that in the geek world, there’s a weird schism between the people who love sports and the ones who don’t. The first time I saw someone on Twitter act furious that one of the tech nerds they followed was tweeting about sports, I was amazed. These are people I otherwise felt a kinship with, as fellow lovers of technology and sci-fi and comics and similarly nerdy topics. But they had suddenly drawn a line between what was geek-appropriate and what wasn’t. And I was on the wrong side.

It’s easy to look at sports and view it as a massive jockocracy, a celebration of the physical over the intellectual, an industry designed to sell beer (and, later in life, Viagra) to high-fiving fratboys.

And yet sports are embraced by nerds as much as by jocks. The revolution in baseball chronicled in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball was one driven by nerds with spreadsheets (and later, massive databases) who discovered an entire layer of baseball hidden in its statistics, one that could be turned to a team’s advantage. (See also Philip Michaels’ story in The Magazine, “Three Strikes, You Shout,” about baseball 10 years after the book’s appearance.)

The most successful professional football coach of the past decade is a mumbly slob who wears hoodies with the sleeves cut off on the sidelines. And fantasy sports—a number-driven pursuit utterly disconnected from reality—is a multimillion-dollar sub-industry.

I’ve heard it said in more than one geek-oriented forum that sports are a modern manifestation of our base, tribal tendencies. That it’s more socially correct to cheer for the paid professionals wearing the home team’s laundry and boo the ones wearing some other set of colors. A statement like that might seem to suggest that geek culture is above such baser instincts, when of course geek culture is just as rife with tribalism. Whether you’re a Red Sox fan booing a Yankee or an Android fan posting angry comments at the end of an article about Apple or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan mocking the viewers of Supernatural or a Magic player who laughs at kids playing Pokémon, you’re someone who has identified with a side and demonized the opposition.

It’s a fact of human nature proven by endless wars, nationalist politicians, and the Stanford prison experiment. (As a fan of Stanford’s arch-rival, the University of California at Berkeley, I’d like to suggest that all the study proved was that Stanford is made of pure evil, but I think I’d just be proving its point.)

Geeks analyze (and over-analyze) everything. We want to know the rules of a system. We want to watch something repeatedly until we know it by heart, and have spotted all the flaws. We want to debate theoretical conflicts between incompatible objects, like the Death Star and the Enterprise or Superman and Spider-Man.

Enjoying a sport, at least at some level above tribalism, does require being able to analyze it. I admit that baseball is not everyone’s cup of tea, but when I ask why people don’t like it, most of them simply say that it’s boring. And viewed on one level, it most certainly is. If you spend hours watching a baseball game waiting for a run-scoring hit or, better yet, a home run, you will spend most of your time being disappointed.

And yet to me, the game unfolds into something much more interesting when you focus on the individual confrontation between pitcher and hitter—baseball being one of the rare sports where the offense doesn’t possess the ball. My wife, who was not raised around sports, became a baseball convert once she became aware of the strategy happening on a pitch by pitch basis. I admit, it’s still not a sport for everyone, but it seems to me that debating the right pitch selection when the count is 1–2 and there’s a man on third is not that different from debating the right decision to make in chess or Settlers of Catan or Halo.

Given my lack of athleticism, my history of being on awful teams, and the usual collection of high school locker-room horror stories, there are plenty of reasons for me (and other geeky types) to not be a fan of athletic competitions. Yet we are. Given that I could just as easily boo Windows users or DC Comics readers as Dodgers, why do I like sports?

For a possible answer, I turn to my favorite novelist, Nick Hornby. In addition to being an award-winning writer, Hornby is an obsessive soccer fan who has written the definitive memoir about being a fan, Fever Pitch. (Read the book; skip both forgettable movies.) In his ebook, Pray, Hornby speculated that we are fans of sports because it provides drama that can not be predicted by any amount of analysis.

A match can’t be a work of art because there is nobody playing God. When you watch a play or a film, even a film directed by Tarantino or Hitchcock, you are aware, somewhere in you, that there are many, many people who know the ending… the people who willed it, wrote it, shaped it…. The glory of [the last day of the English Premier League season] was that all was chaos. Nobody in the world knew how it would turn out, and nobody — not the coaches, not the players on the pitch, not the referee, not the hundreds of millions watching around the world — could shape anything.

What sports give me, and my sport-loving comrades, is an opportunity to do the same, but in a world that has a fundamental amount of mystery that just can’t be reverse-engineered. Statistics reveal to me the true face of baseball, and (American) football affords me an enjoyable amount of game-theory analysis (or as it’s more commonly known, Monday-morning quarterbacking). But in the end, with sports there is never a point at which I can sum up what I’ve seen so far and figure out the ending that’s been scripted. Anything could happen. And I find that incredibly appealing.

Unless we’re talking about fans of wrestling. I mean, it’s totally fixed. Only an idiot would like wrestling. Let’s all go beat those guys up!

Jason Snell (@jsnell) is editorial director at IDG Consumer & SMB, publishers of Macworld, PCWorld, and TechHive. Prior to that, he was editor-in-chief of Macworld for seven years. His projects outside of work include The Incomparable, an award-winning podcast about geek culture. He lives in Mill Valley, California, with his wife and two children.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays, and originally appeared in Issue 1. We publish individual articles regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five (sometimes more) thoughtful features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


Baseball Misfits was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Mexican Digital Library
March 4th, 2014, 07:26 PM

Mexico is determined to convert its patrimony into digital form on its own terms.

There was a time not so long ago when, if the country that invented the Internet came knocking at your door to invite you to participate in the world’s biggest digital library, you wouldn’t hesitate to say “Oh, yes” and “Thank you very much.”

You would have turned over treasures of the patrimony, entrusting they’d be handled properly and returned to you in due time. You’d be honored to be included in such an ambitious, important project.

The days of the United States’ digital hegemony seem numbered, if La Biblioteca Digital Mexicana (The Mexican Digital Library) is any bellwether.

In 2005, a representative from the Library of Congress presented UNESCO with a proposal for the World Digital Library, an online archive of primary materials from around the world, accessible in multiple languages, intended not only to facilitate scholarly research, but also to expose cultural treasures to anyone with an Internet connection.

The WDL was launched in 2009 with the Library of Congress serving as the point-of-contact institution responsible for digitizing material and maintaining the website. To date, nearly 10,000 items from every part of the world, spanning 8000 b.c.e. to the present, have been uploaded. All of them are accessible with the click of a mouse.

Yet one country with a curious paucity of entries relative to the expanse of its history (not to mention its relative geographical proximity to the U.S. compared to, say, Tuvalu) is Mexico. Despite having thousands of items and objects dating back millennia that would be valuable additions to the WDL, Mexican officials have been investing more resources in the development of the country’s own digital library.

It’s a choice that raises interesting questions about how “developing” countries are beginning to resist American digital ownership by taking technology’s tools and deciding how they are going to represent themselves and share their most important primary materials with both a domestic and an international audience.

“I admire the WDL very much, and I participate in its meetings,” says Andrea Martínez Baracs, a Mexican historian and the director of La Biblioteca Digital Mexicana. “But we want our own digital library, and the two libraries—the WDL and the BDMx—are quite different. One is immense and global; the other is tiny, with a limited budget. The size of our project allows us to be more careful, more focused, with materials hand-picked, one by one.”

During a visit to New York’s City University last fall, Martínez spoke to an intensely engaged audience about what she refers to as “the modest ambitions” of the BDMx and the process by which materials from some of Mexico’s key institutions are selected for inclusion in the country’s digital library.

“I have the honor of being shown our country’s most valuable, important historical documents,” Martínez said. She works with directors of public and private libraries and institutions around Mexico to choose the material they consider most important. Miguel Bustamante, who, like Martínez, is an employee of CONACULTA, the country’s National Congress for Arts and Culture, prepares the materials for digitization and uploading while Martínez writes a description and bibliography to accompany the items.

One of the characteristics distinguishing the BDMx is that every item must be able to stand on its own. Though the descriptions explain an item’s provenance and basic facts that justify its historical value, one of the guiding ideas of the BDMx is that less is more. “Technology is a marvelous ally for knowledge building and [scholarly] investigation,” Martínez says. “Just being able to zoom in on an indigenous codex to see its details clearly is a privilege. But on the other hand, a Web page gets sick or dies if you don’t tend to it.”

In other words, the more references and links required to explain an entry, the more likely it is that the ultimate value of a centuries-old object will be subject to very modern technological troubles, such as 404 errors. With an average of 5,000 visitors per month—a large number, for the type of site it is, Martínez says—it’s critical that BDMx stay information rich, resource lean, and optimally functional for the average user, who may not possess Internet or research savvy.

If the decision to build their own digital library seems isolationist, consider this: one of the first tasks the BDMx took on when it was founded was organizing and co-hosting an international congress with the WDL in Mexico City. The topic? Mexican codices in the exterior: early bound books that were created in Mexico, but now reside outside the country. Twenty-six institutions from around the world that possess Mexican codices participated, a fact that hints at some of the intriguing possibilities for Mexico and other countries taking control of their own digital footprint.

No longer the passive subjects about which conferences are held and topics such as repatriation of archival objects are discussed by Ivy League scholars, the creation of the BDMx positions Mexico squarely on the world stage as exactly what it is: the rightful keeper and interpreter of its own patrimony. There’s a lot the BDMx can share with the world, says Martínez, but on its own terms.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a bilingual (English-Spanish) writer, editor, and translator whose work covers a wide range of topics and interests, from art to science and from food to Pope Francis. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, Discover, Scientific American, Ms., and a number of other publications. Based in New York City, she has also called San Juan and Mexico City home.

This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic periodical that commissions original articles and essays. We publish regularly at Medium, and produce an issue of five or more in-depth features every other week. A subscription to our issues costs $1.99 a month for two issues or $19.99 a year for 26, and includes free access to over 160 past articles — our full archive. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.


Mexican Digital Library was originally published in The Magazine on Medium on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.