I love Doctor Who. Despite its regular cheesiness and the plot holes one could drive a space freighter through, it has a core tenet that I love: the Doctor runs into danger.
It is that simple. The show is self-aware enough to mention that fact, which is especially unusual in an age of television, movie, comic-book, novel, and non-fiction anti-heroes and reluctant heroes. The Doctor may not always want to save the universe for the umpteenth time, but he does, and often with some glee.
The definition of a hero is someone who runs into danger because it’s the right thing to do, even and especially when it is not the easiest course of action. But a hero may also choose to run strategically away from danger when he or she can save others by doing so. Sacrificing oneself unnecessarily is foolhardy. (The Doctor’s cry of “run!” at the opportune moment in many episodes is nearly as key to his character as the way he approaches helping others.)
While the word “hero” is often misapplied to those who experience no risk or sacrifice in their actions, in the last month we have seen regular exhibitions of actual heroics from first responders and average citizens alike.
Watch the videos of the bombs going off in Boston at the marathon’s finish line, and you’ll see all the people immediately running toward the explosion, because they knew people were hurt and needed medical assistance or help getting away from the scene. (One clue that investigators found in video surveillance was that one of the alleged bombers didn’t look in the direction of the first explosion when it went off.)
In Cleveland, Charles Ramsey ran to a house when he heard a woman screaming for help, with no idea of what he would find, though he thought it might be a domestic dispute; that didn’t stop him. His actions led to the freeing of three abducted women, held for years, and a child. Watch this man be interviewed; think about what he did: he had many choices, and he picked the hard one and the right one.
After Boston, I don’t think many Americans will think of firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders in the same way again. Those who wish to drown government in a bathtub gloss over the fact that one would be drowning all those selfless individuals who go to work each day in preparation for an earthquake, a Boston Marathon, a recovered abductee, a vast fire, and so much more. We also may trust each other more after Boston, as people did in New York after September 11th, knowing that a stranger would walk over broken glass, quite literally, to help others.
In this issue, Rich Mogull tells of one of his experiences years back as part of a volunteer mountain-rescue team in Colorado in “Peak Experience.” Rich and his colleagues went out on a routine call, and wound up in one of the most physically challenging rescues of Rich’s time in the field. It sticks with him partly because training, teamwork, and the right equipment allowed them to survive a situation with discomfort instead of fatalities.
Rich doesn’t think that he acts heroically (although he does in my book, over and over again), and most selfless people reject the label. They act in the interests of others because it is, to them, the right direction to run.
Christa Mrgan climbs up a less-fraught peak and comes down with a purpose in life in “Summit Cum Laude.” She didn’t find a guru, nor was she struck by a searing flash of insight. Rather, a patient and persistent resistance to a path to college and beyond strongly suggested by her parents led her to work at a camp in Yosemite, and work through what her future should be without incurring a mountain of student debt.
We used a time machine to give Christa’s now-husband, then-boyfriend Neven Mrgan the photo assignment for this story seven years ago. He makes a guest appearance in one picture.
Travel down the road from Yosemite back into civilization, and listen to Matthew Amster-Burton explain San Francisco’s demand-based parking meter experiment that is one tool among many to shift people’s patterns of driving in “Spot Pricing.”
We pair Matthew’s parking insight with Mark Harris’s look at the statistical dispute over the use of red-light cameras to issue traffic tickets automatically. Mark presents a compelling case in “Red Light, Green Light” that warning people that they may get a ticket if they run a red light perversely increases accidents at intersections.
Lex Friedman writes about improv theater and life choices in this issue, too, but I’ll talk about that guy more below.
Finally, pheast your eyes (so sorry) on “Phish Scales,” a bonus sixth article in this issue by Rohin Dhar, about the economics of the band Phish, one of Marco’s favorites. This is adapted from his blog post at Priceonomics, a price-guide site Rohin co-founded and at which he writes fascinating examinations of how things are priced and where revenue comes from. We found his Phish story so compelling that we asked to include it here. There’s a lot to learn from Phish beyond its music.
Most magazines have some standby writers, people to whom the publication turns on a regular basis to deliver essays or articles that readers strongly respond to. We figured this would evolve at The Magazine as we found our voice. We’ve already published several people multiple times because they understand the kind of writing that you, our curious-minded readers, enjoy.
One of those is Chris Higgins, who has the knack for taking the personal and making it universal, as well as for taking geeky substrata and making them approachable to folks who don’t have the same obsessive focus as his subjects. Chris wrote a wonderful book called The Blogger Abides about a determined plan to turn his writing passion into a career, and I recommend it strongly to anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps. (Hey, it’s $3.99! Cheap at twice the price!)
Chris has appeared three times, writing about Tetris championships, CPAPs (assistive night-time breathing apparatuses), and, last issue, Couch to 5K, a programmatic approach to getting off the couch and running road races in a matter of weeks.
But Chris has thrown down the gauntlet in an amusing blog entry in which he calls out Lex Friedman, who as of this issue is a six-time Magazine contributor. The man apparently tries and knows a bit of everything — magic, Ebonics, and wet-razor shaving — but he has absolutely no sense of direction. In this issue, Lex relates his love of improv theater and how the thinking behind “Yes, And” can be a powerful tool for all of one’s life.
On his honeymoon, in a cabin with no Internet access, Chris managed to file his accounting of the distribution of repeat authors. But we appreciate his larger sentiments, too: we try to serve our readers well but also be a good home for writers. Everybody wins — except Chris. Lex is still ahead. For now.
Photography and freelancers
Marco and I try to avoid writing about “inside baseball” topics here — that is, articles that are about the nature of journalism, how we put out this publication, or things of interest solely to contributors but not to readers. (If we run a piece like “Gender Binder” by yours truly, we make it an extra article that week on top of the usual we deliver to you.)
However, some readers may be interested in a pair of admonitions we wrote this week. At Medium, I published “Focus, Damn It!” about the inadequacy of the iPhone as a general-purpose camera for use by writers. The iPhone and other smartphones can produce great pictures, and we have run some in this publication. I take pictures constantly with mine. But for the purpose of documentary journalism, the iPhone often fails: it’s hard to guarantee that a spontaneous shot with any action, especially indoors, will produce a usable photo.1
Marco responded to my article with an elaboration about single-lens reflex cameras: “Please don’t buy an SLR if you’ll only use the kit lens.” Marco notes that if you opt for the expense of a digital single-lens reflex body, the stock or starter lens that comes with it will disappoint you. These “kit” lenses are inexpensive, can have optical distortions, and make many compromises to let a shooter who has already dropped a wad on a camera body have versatility.
Marco’s advice isn’t necessarily to invest thousands in lenses, though people do that all the time. Rather, if you’re spending what’s necessary for the DSLR body, budget for a good fixed-focus (“prime”) lens. I opted for an alternative: a far cheaper but quite high quality mirrorless camera; it comes with a very decent kit lens, and has affordable and not-so-affordable steps up from there.
Medium, by the way, is a platform for publishing articles, and it’s still a mystery as to what it will become; it has beautiful writing and presentation tools, but the business model hasn’t been disclosed. It’s somewhere between blog and periodical, and I like to publish items there that don’t fit into other rubrics for me. ↩