The MacGuffin

Always Use Exact Change

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 23, 2011


I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing, but when you pay for something here it seems they prefer that you provide exact change. It happened yesterday at lunch, and again today at the store in the mall. The cashiers look at you like you’re crazy if you just hand them a 20. It’s not so much they expect you to have the exact amount, say 16.50, but if you hand them a 20 they also expect the 50 so they can give you an even number of francs in change. I’ll have to keep that in mind. (On a side note, I managed to take the bus and find the shopping center all by myself!)

Work was fun again today. I had a tour this morning, which unfortunately was not as behind-the-scenes as yesterday’s tour. We just went to the visitor’s center and looked at posters and slide shows, right along with a large group of European high school students. I asked if there was anything else to see, but he said not really. On a positive note, I met several people who might be nice to work with to find good stories.

After the tour I tagged along on a lunch meeting with two representatives from the US mission to the UN and the director of communications at CERN. We had a great conversation about outreach, using art to spread science and diplomacy around the world. One of the reps, who is also relatively new to the area, suggested we meet up for fondue (a local favorite) in the near future.

We ate a catered 3-course meal in a private dining room just off the cafeteria. First was some sort of soup, maybe mushroom, with a chunk of something resembling the texture of feta cheese in the middle. It was probably like duck liver or something,  but I don’t want to know because it was delicious. Then they brought out the main dish, which was salmon with what tasted like a creamy dill sauce. Salmon is probably my least favorite food in the world, but I didn’t have much of a choice, so I politely ate about half of it. (Mom don’t read the next part.) It wasn’t half bad! (I know you read it anyway, so don’t expect me to eat it when I come home. :)) Then for dessert we had fancy pastries with custard and fruit, followed by espresso. 5-star living in US = free lunch in Geneva haha.

I also started listening to podcasts of French lessons. Rather than teach vocabulary and grammar, they use complete phrases that are useful in conversation, then explain the parts of the phrases. Hopefully this will give me some good practice so I don’t feel so illiterate any time I need to do anything in public.

Still hunting for an apartment or roommate, but a few good leads have popped up. I hope I can find something soon, as this hostel is terribly expensive.

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My Three-Hour Tour

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 22, 2011


(three-hour tour… three-hour tour…)

Today went a lot better than yesterday, though I still had a few administrative blips to deal with. First thing this morning I went to get my ID card, and the lady was totally rude, yelling at me for not knowing if I was in the right place and not giving her the papers before I knew she needed them. Then she took my picture without telling me. If I ever get arrested, my mug shot couldn’t be worse than the picture I have to show every guard on site any time I go anywhere. Sigh.

I also tried to open a bank account, but was denied because I will only be here for 6 months. I’m still working on a solution for that. So if anyone knows a cheap way to get money from America to Switzerland let me know, otherwise I will just have to keep paying the exchange fee to turn dollars into francs.

Anyway, onto the good news! This morning I ran into a grad student I knew from SLAC. It was nice to see a familiar and English-speaking face, so I’m hoping it will turn into introductions of more grad students and potential social opportunities. I also practiced my numbers in French, which came in handy at lunchtime, when my meal cost “huit quinze” (or 8.15, which sounds like “wheat cans”).

Finally, this afternoon I met with a scientist who took me on a tour of one of CERN’s largest experiments, CMS, which stands for Compact Muon Solenoid. The “C” part is funny because the detector sits 100 meters underground, and is 7 meters high by about 22 meters long. Unfortunately the protons started accelerating again the same day I landed in Geneva, so the detector is off limits. A shame, because it would have been amazing to photograph. I did see the warehouse where it was built, and the insane mechanisms they used to lower it into the ground, piece by piece. He said each piece took about 10 hours to lower down this massive shaft, and only had about 10 centimeters of clearance on all sides. All in all it took about a year and a half, because they had to build each piece above ground after the previous one had been lowered then assemble everything underground. He did open the gate and let me peer over the edge down the shaft, which was just dizzying. It’s insane the infrastructure they had to build just in order to build the machines that will actually do something!

We also saw the control rooms where people can monitor the beams and the collisions, as well as where they control the magnets that bend the protons around the circular accelerating ring. Then we went up to the room with all the computer servers that process the data. Proton collisions happen roughly 40 million times every second. A trigger chooses about 100,000 of the “best ones” (that look like they might contain something interesting), and the computers pare that down to about 100, which they send off in real time to computers on the main site where scientists will analyze them. It seems like a lot of wasted data, but 100 events per second is still tons to work with! Finally we visited a display area where they have replicas of the accelerator tunnel and magnets. I learned what actually happened during the 2008 accident, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy 😉

CMS is located across the ring from my office, which is about 6km in a straight line, but between 10-15 km driving. CERN doesn’t own all the land above the ring, just the land where they have above-ground facilities, so driving to CMS was all farmland and tiny little villages with stone houses and roads. It looks quite idyllic, except there isn’t so much as a grocery store. It was cloudy again today, but the nearby mountains were visible. Slawek, my tour guide, showed me a road to take on a clear day where you can see all the way to the Alps and everything in between.

Tomorrow also looks promising. I’ll be touring another one of CERN’s major experiments and then having lunch with people from the US mission to the UN. Stay tuned!

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First Day on the Job

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 21, 2011


After a relatively sleepless night I clocked in to my first day at CERN this morning. The Rugani family will appreciate the following story:

Because I still write for some of the same publications as I did at SLAC, I had plenty to do besides sit around and wait for someone to come up with an assignment for me. But my computer would not go online, so I had no access to email, notes, or saved drafts of stories. The computer services guy came and fiddled around for a bit before telling us to try to find a PC repair person (CERN uses mostly Macs, and my computer is property of Fermilab in the US). So we put a request in.

Meanwhile, I had to register with the users office to get my email and whatever else accounts all set up. On visit number one I was missing a bunch of paperwork. Luckily it was in my room just a few buildings over so I could get it easily. I also needed to fill out an application and get it signed by my group leader. Turns out the group leader as well as the three people below him were all out today. I finally tracked down someone who thought they were authorized to sign the paper, and brought it back to the office.

On visit number two I was informed that this person, in fact, did not have authorization. It seemed as though I’d have to wait a day to get the proper signature, until miraculously one of the three absent people came into the office for some unofficial reason. I got her to sign the paper (despite her having a broken wrist and cast) and went back to the office.

On visit number three, I was informed that because I will be here longer than 3 months I need to have both a French card and a Swiss card, which I guess are like residency permits or something. However, I only have a Swiss visa, not a French one, so they wouldn’t issue me a French card, which is bad because you need both to be a full time employee. I explained to them that my French visa was not issued to me because of an error on THEIR end. They suggested I return to the US and get a French visa. Finally they agreed that if I secure a permanent address in Switzerland within the next 2 months, I can use that address to acquire the French card. Phew.

Then they told me that because my offer letter states my first day as January 17, they won’t authorize me to stay past July 1. I again explained to them that today was my first day, not January 17, again in part due to their error processing my paperwork. Again, we negotiated with a supervisor and all was well.

In the midst of all these trips to the users office I actually worked. We had two meetings in the morning. The first was just 4 of us because the rest of the office is out sick or traveling. The second meeting was conducted entirely in French, although they acknowledged that I neither speak nor understand it. I guess a good way to pick up a language is to be thrown into the fire and have to figure out what’s going on.

After lunch I got my own computer and brought it back to the office so I could finally get some work done during my last two hours.

When the day was over I decided to walk up the road a bit and get some food to keep in the hostel with me. A pretty mundane chore, except for two things: the view of the snowcapped Alps in the not-so-distant distance, and my first taste of Swiss chocolate. I know I promised to take a picture of the mountains, but by the time I got out of the office it was nearly dark, and I had to make it to the store before it closed and didn’t want to carry my camera with me.

Can’t wait to see what Day Two brings!

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Welcome to Geneva

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 20, 2011


My first weekend in Geneva is over.

The first impression I had when I landed yesterday morning was, “Where’s all the snow?!” It was a warm day, but gray and cloudy. Going from the airport to my hostel in Meyrin, just outside Geneva, I noticed that the area was very industrial, or at least looked that way. Lots of gray buildings, not a lot of scenery – though I suppose that on a sunny day the view of the Alps is nothing short of majestic (I’ll report back on the first sunny day) and there are some vineyards nearby that might look nicer in season.

CERN, for all of its international renown, is made up mostly of aging buildings, again gray. My room is nice: a bed, desk, armoir and full bathroom. There are a communal kitchen, TV, reading and laundry rooms too, kind of like a college dorm. It’s been pretty quiet so far, but perhaps during the week I’ll meet some fellow hostelers.

I spent my first day wandering about Geneva. It’s a fairly simple bus/train ride, which takes about 45 minutes, but isn’t anything I’m not used to after living in Boston. We walked through the “red light district,” which during the day is pretty tame. Lots of people on the streets, every other shop sells watches or chocolate, very touristy. We walked to Lake Geneva and saw the Jet d’Eau (water jet), walked out onto a cement pier where people were sitting having lunch and feeding birds. Lots of boats are docked there, so I’m assuming it’s quite a happening place in the summer. We also visited a few other neighborhoods in the city and stopped for coffee.

I’ll either need to learn French immediately or make sure I’m with someone who speaks fluently any time I go to a restaurant. For the most part I could make out the items on the menu, but I’m under the impression that waitstaff do not generally speak English. The food is also expensive, but I have to remind myself that the tip is built in. Also, unlike in America, the waitstaff don’t check back on you a million times after dropping your food to ask if everything is alright. I’ve heard that fondue is very popular, as are dishes made of potatoes, cheese and bacon, which I can totally get behind. I’m looking forward to sampling local menus as often as possible.

I joined glocals.com and Young@CERN in the hopes of meeting people to explore with. My first major project, however, is finding an affordable place to live. I definitely have my heart set on Geneva so I can walk around and see as much as possible.

Tomorrow is my first day of work, which I’m sure will consist mostly of trainings, orientations, introductions, tours, etc. I’m excited to explore the site even more and perhaps see some of the experiments that I’ll be writing about. Hopefully I can get enough sleep tonight – my brain thinks its dinner time but it’s almost midnight right now! Luckily my room is a 2-minute walk to the office, so I can sleep in a little later until I fully adjust to the time difference.

Check back soon for pictures of the site and the city!

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An Open Letter to Adam Rogers

Posted by Lauren Rugani on November 29, 2010


Dear Mr. Rogers,

Your decision today to tweet excerpts from applications for editorial internships at WIRED magazine does not sit well with me. At best, this was unprofessional and immature. It was an unapologetic display of arrogance, and perhaps humiliating for those who might have recognized one of the tweeted phrases as their own.

As a senior editor, your relationship with interns — current or potential — should be one of tough love, constructive criticism and patient guidance. It should not include publicly mocking their mistakes so that you and your cronies can have a good giggle. I understand that you don’t have the time, nor is it your job, to address each applicant and explain why they are utter failures how they might have missed the mark. But your remarks should be kept, at the very least, between you and your hiring team. If the task of screening applications is too frustrating for you, perhaps you should pass the responsibility to someone else.

An editorial position at WIRED is one of the most coveted among young and aspiring science writers. This undoubtedly means you get inundated with applications for every opening. Some will be above the bar, and many will be below. But every single one of those people would do almost anything to be able to type those five impossibly cool letters at the top of the “Experience” section on their résumé, and you should be humbled.

Your actions today certainly revealed bad judgment on your part, but also reflected poorly on the organization that you represent. I respect many WIRED staff members for their authoritative, thorough and well-written pieces. I even call some of them friends. I hope that your behavior isn’t representative of how WIRED editors treat their staff and freelancers. It would be a shame for this incident to tarnish the integrity of a publication I have come to know and love.

I want to believe know you intended to be humorous, not cruel, and the overall conversation surrounding your tweets could be summarized into a lesson on how not to write a cover letter. But you weren’t always a senior editor. You had to start somewhere, too. And there was probably a time when you wrote a bunch of crap and someone laughed at it you made a few mistakes. So, going forward, please try to maintain some level of sensitivity and professionalism. If something is so awful that it would be detrimental to the human race not to share it, please at least do so in a thoughtful, teachable manner.

Sincerely,

Lauren

 

(For other readers, I’ve included the relevant twitter conversation below, in chronological order. Fair warning: it’s long.)

jetjocko Adam Rogers

This is the part of the year where I resist quoting from terrible, hilarious intern applications. No, seriously. I resist. I do.

 

sshivell Stanley Shivell

@jetjocko You do realize that you cannot tease your followers like that, right? Come on! Share just one!

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

No, no, no. I’m still going to resist posting from the unintentionally funny intern apps. Well, OK. Maybe just one. Stand by.

 

MyStudioVideos MyStudioVideos

@jetjocko Can. Not. Wait. Love, an intern.

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko Just give in now.

 

USelaine Elaine, of the U.S.

@jetjocko We can hear your suppressed guffaws over the cubicle walls. Give it up.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

“[I] honed not only my love for the written word, but my love for writing itself—I can honestly and unequivocally call it my joie de vivre.”

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

Lots of adverbs + misused French ≠ what you meant to say.

 

OKnox Olivier Knox

@jetjocko uh-oh. What are you doing to my first language?

 

Lizstins Liz Stinson

@jetjocko The current intern in me says, “Don’t do it!” But the bitter, almost-done intern in me says, “Share away!” I’d trust the latter.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@Lizstins It’s a terrible, unprofessional thing that I’m probably going to do anyway.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@OKnox It wasn’t me. It was an intern app. Pretty sure he meant “raison d’etre” and not “joie de vivre.” But non parlez pas, so….

 

OKnox Olivier Knox

@jetjocko Oof. Sub-optimal in an app for anything.

 

shandy_d Shannon Driscoll

@jetjocko MORE MORE MORE!! #emphatic

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

“My intentions are hopeful of securing the select editorial internships for a solid foundation in my journalism career.”

 

katiejmbaker Katie Baker

@jetjocko sounds like a Nigerian spammer wrote that one

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@katiejmbaker I would *totally* hire a former Nigerian spammer.

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko Dude. Uncool. That was from MY application.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@mat That’s what I love about your intentions, Mat: So hopeful.

 

lizzieohreally Lizzie O’Leary

@jetjocko so mean!

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@lizzieohreally It’s terrible of me. I should stop. It’s not right.

 

dannydoom Danny Dumas

@jetjocko For every 10 horrid intern apps, there’s gotta be at least one that’s awesome. I demand a pull quote from one of those!

 

erikastalder erika stalder

I so want more!RT @jetjocko: “[I] honed not only my love for….

 

Sciencewriter Sciencewriter

Wow: “@jetjocko: “My intentions are hopeful of securing the select editorial internships for a solid foundation in my journalism career.””

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

Excellent point. You got it. Stand by. MT @dannydoom: There’s gotta be at least one that’s awesome. I demand a pull quote from one of those!

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko Hate to tell you, but @dannydoom is just enabling you–encouraging you to post the good because he knows it will lead to more bad

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko PS: please post more bad

 

jopearl Joanna Pearlstein

@mat While @jetjocko demurs, I’ll offer this sentence: “Being excellent at multitasking and coordinating several projects simultaneously.”

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

1/2 A key to journalism is combining chutzpah with neurosis. To wit:

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

2/2 “I know I’m good at what I do, but I also know I have lots to learn and there are people in this office with vast amounts of authority.”

 

jaketapper Jake Tapper

@jetjocko does chutzpah + neuroses = Charoses? Yum!!!

 

jaketapper Jake Tapper

@jetjocko please don’t passover my tweet

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@jaketapper I won’t. Just seder magic word.

 

alexismadrigal alexismadrigal

@jetjocko Wait. Isn’t that confidence plus ass kissing? #alsoawinningcombo

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@alexismadrigal I knew that, but that is such a perceptive bit of analysis (as I’ve come to expect of you).

 

mediagadfly Kit

This exchange ftw RT @jetjocko @jaketapper I won’t. Just seder magic word.

 

AllisonPDavis Allison P Davis

@jopearl @jetjocko careful what you post, current interns are starting to feel smug. until you tweet all the errors from our apps that is.

 

dannydoom Danny Dumas

@jetjocko @alexismadrigal Well I’m in favor of that candidate. What’s his name? A. Madrigal you say? Wait a minute…

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

Credit “chutzpah + neurosis = journalism” to @ugahealthjourn. She taught me that equation.

 

timleong tim leong

I wonder what Wired editors did for fun before Twitter.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@timleong Halo

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@jonsnyder @dannydoom @alexismadrigal @timleong (Much better at that than Halo.)

 

noahWG Noah Gray

@jetjocko YOU NEVER ASKED FOR PERMISSION TO POST FROM MY APPLICATION! STOP ABUSING YOUR AUTHORITY!

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@noahWG You’re hired.

 

Eaterofsun Oliver Morton

@jetjocko @noahWG rilly?

 

noahWG Noah Gray

@jetjocko Oh my! Well! I wasn’t expecting that! (which way to the podium?)

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

First time in seven years of reviewing editorial intern apps I’ve seen people touting SEO skills.

 

morepete Pete Mortensen

@jetjocko goodintern greatreporting fetchescoffee gaganude bieberfever techvisionary

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko Just wait. Next year they’ll include their Klout scores, if they aren’t already.

 

michellelegro Michelle Legro

@jetjocko Look for their first post: “The Top Five Reasons SEO skills are the Justin Bieber of making the Internet Work for You.”

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@mat relatedly this is the first time I’m having to Google what the hell these people are mentioning to show how hip they are.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@michellelegro Brilliant! Is one of the reasons a video of a kitten?

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@morepete I think I actually got that cover letter already.

 

morepete Pete Mortensen

@jetjocko Yeah, but @cshirky‘s probably ineligible from working for you.

 

StevenLeckart steven leckart

Has anyone applying for a job/internship ever seeded the pool w/HORRIBLE faux resumes/letters just to stand out? cc: @jetjocko @jopearl

jetjocko Adam Rogers

Also seeing intern apps from people trying to switch from marketing or PR to journalism. Coming in through the out door?

 

JenLucPiquant Jennifer Ouellette

“Dear @jetjocko, I would like to be a Wired intern b/c I crave my father’s approval and will never get it.” #kickmesomemore

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@JenLucPiquant lots better careers to either endear or alienate a father than this one….

 

editorialiste Andrew Nusca

@jetjocko you could always shock them by asking them to explain those SEO skills. without the use of voodoo dolls.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@editorialiste Hah! Obviously they’re not *that* good or they wouldn’t have to apply. I would have just found them on Google, right?

 

editorialiste Andrew Nusca

@jetjocko oh man, if there was ever a reason to send a “reply all” e-mail, it’s that one

 

edyong209 Ed Yong

@jetjocko One can only hope that those people understand that they’re making a career *shift* 😉

 

USelaine Elaine, of the U.S.

@jetjocko If you ever need an aging, unemployed curator, give me a toot.

 

jetjocko Adam Rogers

@edyong209 They all *say* they do….

 

edyong209 Ed Yong

@jetjocko Ask them for an outside opinion 😉

 

mat apocryphal mat honan

@jetjocko Right out of college, I worked in PR. Didn’t suit me. A year later I was interning @motherjones. It happens.

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Switzerland

Posted by Lauren Rugani on November 16, 2010


Who’s got two thumbs and is moving to Switzerland?

This girl.

Yesterday I accepted an official offer for a short-term position at CERN. Ok, fine, it’s an internship. At 25, a small part of me is ashamed to admit that, especially seeing as how it is a slight step backwards from the position I have now (you know, decent pay, benefits, that sort of thing). But I mean, it’s CERN.

Since I realized science writing was a career option, I’ve wanted to write about physics. And, so far, I’ve been fortunate. My last three gigs have been, in chronological order, at Photonics Spectra, Technology Review and SLAC. I fit grad school somewhere in between. All of these experiences have helped to shape, and improve, my writing — but my passion hasn’t changed.

Getting an opportunity to write at what is arguably the world’s most well-known physics lab is the experience of a lifetime. I’ll get to write about things that are happening for the first time, things that people have spent entire careers only dreaming about. I hope that I can write about them in a way that my parents can understand.

Overall I hope that it will be another learning experience. In no way do I pretend to be an expert in physics — the reason I like writing so much is that I constantly learn new things with each topic I pursue. Aside from the subject matter, I hope to learn new ways to communicate complicated physics to general, educated, and interested audiences. I hope it will bring me a step closer to my [duck because I’m about to throw a cliche at you] holy grail, which is a happy medium between “Gee whiz” science and “What applications will it have in five years” stories.

The paperwork for my visas, however, will be an adventure of its own…

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Feeding off of Feedback

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 15, 2010


I love getting feedback on something I’ve written. Especially when it comes from someone besides my mom (no offense, Mom). Good feedback, of course, is great. But critical feedback –not necessarily negative — is essential, too.

I get feedback all the time from my editor, who sees everything I write before it goes live (I write mostly for the web). It’s nice to get a piece back with most of the redlines being style points or suggestions for tightening up the prose — meaning, in other words, that my editor was satisfied with the organization, explanation and overall writing in the piece. I think a good editor is one who understands that each writer has her own voice, and so edits around that, making corrections only where it helps the flow of the story. (I’ve had editors before who have changed adjectives or verbs for no apparent reason, inserted completely new phrases, etc. that have made the final product sound nothing like anything I would write. But I digress.) When I write, I do try to self-edit as I go along, but having a fresh set of eyes always helps.

Getting feedback from colleagues is also nice, but can sometimes feel gratuitous: “Nice story today, Lauren.” I mean, I don’t think they would say anything if they didn’t like my work, and it’s a great compliment regardless. But every so often, one of my coworkers will send an email with a specific reason they liked a story, and that feels awesome. Especially when their comment, something like, “You made me feel like I was standing right there watching it happen!” is what you were trying to get across in the first place. Also awesome when said coworker is an award-winning journalist.

The most nerve-racking kind of feedback is probably from the subject of a story. You always want to provide a fair description to your readers, but knowing that the person you’re writing about is inevitably going to read the piece, a general tendency is to err on the side of praise. I’ve learned to avoid this by cutting out as many adjectives as possible, writing only facts and letting any subjectivity in solely through quotations. When I have consciously done these things, the subjects have been very pleased with the story and the readers have felt a personal connection to the subject on some level.

Then there are the people who aren’t a part of the story, but are either very close to it or know a lot about it. These are the people who aren’t looking at your grammar or punctuation — they are mostly concerned with the content. Hearing from them that the story was “spot on” or even a “really nice description” feels good. Last week, I got an email from someone I had never met, who was very familiar with the topic of my story, and told me that not only was I a talented writer (!) but also a very talented observer, which I think go hand in hand. Having only done about 3 to 4 hours of reporting for this story (really not a lot!!) I had managed, in his eyes, to capture the environment, the connections among the people in the environment and the importance of these connections. He noted that it took some people several years to finally become cognizant of such things, even being immersed in the environment on a daily basis. It was really the most unique feedback I’ve gotten in quite some time, and it certainly boosted my confidence in my ability, as a writer, to portray things as they really are.

Then there is what I like to call “accidental feedback.” That’s when the person behind you in line at the coffee counter is talking about the story you wrote. I never announce myself to these people. It’s usually been good when this has happened, but good or bad, it’s still nice to know that people read my work and it sticks with them long enough to warrant a conversation.

Clearly, feedback comes in many forms. Some of it is on the technical side, some is about the content, some about the writing itself. It comes from trained and untrained eyes, from subject-matter experts and the uninitiated. The good feedback reassures me that I’ve chosen the right career. The bad feedback stings, and sticks with me longer than is probably healthy, but in the long run makes me conscious of my mistakes and a better writer. Both kinds make me want to keep doing what I’m doing.

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On Inspiration

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 11, 2010


I summed up my last post by pointing out that I find good writing inspiring. I also marveled at the amount of work that goes into writing a long-form magazine piece (nevermind a book!) that makes the work seem as though it simply flowed from the tip of a pen without any hesitation. A more recent inspiration to me is Rebecca Skloot, author of the award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The story is profound, but what inspires me most is Skloot’s persistence. It took her roughly a decade (I think?) to go from concept to completion, tracking down details and earning the trust of her sources. She was even threatened and, if I remember correctly, doused in salad dressing. Most of us would have abandoned the idea.

Well, I have my own grand idea. I’ve had it for two and a half years. I’ve only told a handful of people about it, including my graduate school adviser and a colleague who now happens to be my boss. They both told me they could see the story in The New Yorker or Harper’s. I won’t get ahead of myself by name-dropping top-notch publications, but what excited me was that they even wanted to read it. They liked my idea.

So why haven’t I written it yet? I could give you a number of excuses: I don’t have time, I have a day job (and a night job), I don’t know where to begin, I haven’t figured out the story yet, even though I have the idea. But I think, if I am being completely honest, that it’s because I don’t want to give up the idea. As much as I want it to live on paper, I don’t want it to stop living in my head. It’s not that I don’t want to share the story – I’m excited about it and I want to tell everyone. What I’m afraid of is that I won’t be able to write it, and that it will stop being an idea and become, well, a failure.

I’ve had failed ideas before, and any author or writer or journalist will tell you that you cannot cannot CANNOT become married to an idea. Things that sound amazing in your mind often sound stupid coming out of your mouth, and there’s always that one guy who crushes your dream with a “But what about…?” And, inevitably, ideas will change the more you learn. But this idea is different.

In the past two and a half years I’ve done a fair amount of research, enough for a launching point to ask intelligent questions of the people I eventually intend to interview. But there’s this one guy. My whole idea centers around him. What if he doesn’t want to talk to me? I’ve written him so many letters, explaining my idea, telling him about myself, trying to convince him that my entire being relies on his willingness to open up to me. And then I crumple them up, or delete them, depending on which century’s mode of communication I chose that day. If he says no, then I have nothing.

Tonight I wrote another letter. I was gonna do it. I’m inspired now, remember? And then I came across something I never saw before. Some information, tucked away in a dusty corner of the Internet. Thanks a lot, Google. No, seriously, thank you. I probably would have come across as an idiot if I sent him that letter without knowing the contents of that 3-page PDF. I have a lot more work to do now before I can send that letter.

But I’m going to do it. I know, I know, I’ve been telling myself that for how long? But, inspiration in hand, I know that even if he says no, my idea doesn’t have to die. There are ways to keep it alive.

Here’s to hoping he says yes.

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Reading Again

Posted by Lauren Rugani on August 2, 2010


I’m not sure if I’m ashamed to admit this or not, but Twitter is where I get the majority of my news. Often, a writer will Tweet a headline they just published hours, if not days, before it hits an RSS feed. I feel slightly superior when my non-Twittering friends bring up something they heard on the news, and I can say, “Pshaw. That was all over Twitter days ago.” It’s where I found out Michael Jackson died.

While the onslaught of headlines can get a little overwhelming — today, for instance, I started seeing red after the number of links thrown at me about a new study that concluded women find men who wear red more attractive — Twitter is also a great place to find your proverbial diamond in the rough. That one headline, from that one website you never would have found on your own.

Yesterday, another young science writer I follow, @ferrisjabr (following, of course, the proper Twitterquette of crediting someone from whom you get your information) tweeted a link to Esquire Magazine’s 7 best stories of all time. I clicked.

The first piece I read was the one the magazine claims to be its best story ever: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” It was, indeed, one of the best profiles I’ve ever read. Then I read “The School,” a chilling account of the schoolhouse hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia in 2004, before moving on to “The Falling Man” and another profile, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” I still have three more to go.

While I don’t know what Esquire’s criteria were for choosing these stories, I do know why I like them. The two profile pieces totally changed my views of the historical figures that I have, in some sense, known forever. I grew up in New England — Ted Williams is a hero. My father often bursts into song for no apparent reason. Sinatra is one of his favorites. In a sense, the imaginary personalities I had drawn up in my mind for these men were totally ruined after reading the articles. I resented that at first, but one of my favorite things about writing is the ability to change people’s minds. Many of my favorite pieces, fiction or non, are the ones that leave me saying, “Well…shit.”

Another thing I admire, in all the pieces, is the tremendous amount of reporting that went into each one. So many details, jam-packed into every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every adjective. This is one thing I’ve marveled at as an up-and-coming writer, and as someone who would like to try their hand at long-form journalism someday. Sometimes, I like to pick a paragraph at random, and try to guess how many people the writer talked to just to be able to write those sentences.

A big theme across these stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far) is the fact that the subjects were either unwilling, or unavailable, to be interviewed. It’s something you’re told in j-school, that you can write about anything if you ask the right people the right questions, but it’s not something that sinks in until you’ve seen it done, and done well.

Reading good writing makes me want to write good stuff that other people want to read. I believe the word for that is “inspiring.” I miss reading for fun, on a regular basis. Reading these stories has totally given me the jump start to get back into it, and reinvigorated my passion for the craft.

If anyone has any particular pieces that have moved you, please send them along!

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LiveScience Article Misses the Mark

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 25, 2010


Photo courtesy of everystockphoto.com/jessicafm

As I was headline surfing today, this article from LiveScience.com popped up. With my insatiable appetite for knowledge I’ll never need unless I appear on Jeopardy, I decided to take a break from serious news consumption and indulge myself with this little morsel.

Right off the bat, the headline – “Parents Choosing More Unusual Baby Names Now” – was a bit misleading. I thought I would get the fun, perennial list where Johns and Nicoles were replaced by Apples and Tuesdays, but not once did the article mention any of these unusual names that parents are allegedly choosing.

What I got instead was a convoluted summary of new “research” out of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, where the primary claim (I think) was that choosing less common names *could* suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, but, if taken too far, could lead to narcissism. In fact, narcissism is first mentioned fairly early in the article, then several times afterward:

When taken too far, however, this individualism could also lead to narcissism, according to study researcher Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University.

The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.

“I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic,” Twenge said.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life,” Twenge said.

Well, duh.

Unique names undoubtedly help children stand out, for better or worse. But this article didn’t mention any names, save for a passive example using James and Jacob, which illustrated that even the most common names each year are given to fewer children. When the article wasn’t spewing hard-to-digest facts (which I’ll get to in a minute), it was mostly harping on culture and parenting styles.

Aha! So the parents most likely to choose unusual names are also more likely to raise their children to feel entitled – hence the narcissism. Good old correlation ≠ causation. So why push the narcissism issue? Could it be because Twenge is the author of two books: “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement” (Free Press, 2009) and “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (Free Press, 2007) [to be fair, this was disclosed in the article], and she simply suckered a journalist with a gimicky “news hook” into assisting her self-promotion?

I haven’t read either of Ms. Twenge’s books, but a quick search for editorial reviews and synopses on Amazon tells me that they draw mostly on cultural examples like plastic surgery, Wall St., MySpace, and adulterous politicians (who, recently, have been named Bill, John, Eliot…). If someone has read these books I would appreciate knowing whether she talks at all about unusual names as a major contributor to narcissism.

Getting back to the LiveScience article, though. This paragraph was the first attempt at explaining statistics:

For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys’ name in 2007.

Perhaps your comprehension skills are finer than mine, or perhaps because it’s late at night, but I read this line three times before I realized it basically said that in 1950 1 in 30 children had the #1 most popular name, and by 2013 that number will drop to 1 in 180. The rest of the examples weren’t as imaginative but were equally as confusing to grasp conceptually.

Finally, the use of links in this online article were anything but helpful; two of them led to articles (also on LiveScience, and written by the same author over the past two years) that listed popular or unique baby names. Why wasn’t this information included in this article about unusual baby names. Save the links for an interesting side story, like a documentary about a boy named Nickles who grows up to be a billionaire. The other links were to an unrelated LiveScience story about baby boomers, to the LiveScience section on babies, and to another LiveScience article about narcissism, which – surprise, surprise – also touted Twenge’s books.

Because I found the article on a third-party site, the bottom of the page included a brief description of LiveScience that said:

LiveScience.com chronicles the daily advances and innovations made in science and technology. We take on the misconceptions that often pop up around scientific discoveries and deliver short, provocative explanations with a certain wit and style.

Sorry, LS, not this time.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

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