Gillette Turns 30

Tommy Collison, a Gillette patient who traveled from Ireland to receive treatment for cerebral palsy when he was a boy, shared how his experience at Gillette helped him physically and mentally. Collison, a 22-year-old student at New York University, recently spent four months traveling in Israel. He’s not afraid to take on challenges and credits Gillette for his confidence.

A Big Celebration for the James R. Gage Center for Gait and Motion Analysis

Last Monday, I spoke at Gillette Children's, a hospital in Minneapolis, MN, where I had various surgeries as a child. The gait laboratory there turned 30 last Monday, and I had the pleasure of spending the day with them, and of being there when they announced a $1 million donation, which will go toward research and development. 

As the article notes, "The funds will make it possible to advance our world-renowned gait and motion analysis research and equip our facility with the very latest technologies."

I was glad to play my small part in the day, talking about the impact Gillette surgeries have had on my life. As I said in my talk, the surgeons and staff at Gillette had a huge impact on my quality of life. I spent the last four months traveling around Israel and Palestine, and it's largely thanks to their care and support that I have both the ability and the confidence to do so.


What's New, Buenos Aires?

Let's see...

I'm in Buenos Aires for another two days. It's been a great fortnight, with good food, excellent company, and amazing surroundings. I added 10,000 words to the manuscript and got to see a little bit of South America, where I've never been before.

I had a much longer introspective written, but decided that nobody needed the word vomit and that it's better saved in drafts. TL, DR: I think this is going to be an uncertain year -- professionally, personally, and (more widely) politically. Trump, my college graduation, a change in visa status, job searching... But I'll meet it as it comes. The odd years are always more fun than the even years anyway. 

I fly back to the US on Saturday, and then drop up to Maine for a few days. I've never been, but I'm a fan of the cold and I have a good friend up there. Plus, it's Stephen King territory, so the winter spookiness should be in overdrive. After that, it's back to New York for my last semester.

I'll put up some photos of Buenos Aires in a bit, but that's all for now.

2016 Book Recommendations

'Tis the most wonderful time of the year: when people post their book recommendations. Here are some of the books I read this year with comments and recommendations. I'm copying the style of on Aaron Swartz's excellent Review of Books, with books I particularly recommend up top. The links go to Amazon, but they're not affiliate links.

My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Best piece of fiction I read all year. The story follows a young Hasidic Jew who grapples his love for his religion and his love of art. First-person-child-narrators as a genre often fall flat, but this is done very well.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, by Simon Winchester

...And this is the best non-fiction I read this year. An eminently readable account of the past and present of the Pacific Ocean. The stuff-to-come bits feel slightly shoehorned in, but may we all have Winchester's comprehensive-yet-readable writing style.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

As someone said somewhere in a review, this isn't a who-done-it so much as a why-done-it. I almost went to Bennington College, which is thought to be the basis for the book's Hampden College.

Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, by David Feige

A fascinating look into the justice system and public defenders in general, but I found the author to be totally unlikeable, and some of the Amazon reviews take issue with some of the assertions he makes. It's a poor writer who can't write an autobiography where he comes out looking halfway decent. The cast of characters is somewhat unnecessary and hard to keep up with. Worth reading if you focus on the institutional parts and stop trying to keep track of the names.

Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

Ticks all the boxes of a biography in terms of comprehensiveness, but something's still missing. Not particularly compelling, which is a shame considering that the source material is exciting and meaningful.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton

A delightfully funny and surreal piece of short fiction. Read in two sittings.

Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, by Anthony Shadid

Compelling long-form journalism at its best. Shadid is a role-model to foreign correspondents everywhere, particularly in his attempts to understand the region he covers.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Fiction at its most brilliant, and most immersive.

Israel/Palestine, by Alan Dowty

My go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a "how did we get to today?" primer.

Sex With Shakespeare, by Jillian Keenan

A little bit off-the-wall, but an enjoyable autobiography-with-a-twist. Genuine, funny, and conversation.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

This was written in 1987, and so it lives and dies by its immediacy: on the one hand, it's an honest and compelling look at the people who were on the ground floor of the epidemic. On the other, one of the book's central claims about "Patient Zero" has been disproved.

NYU administration to look at providing free menstrual hygiene productions to students

Last month, a student group at New York University petitioned the administration to fund a pilot program looking to provide students with free menstrual hygiene products. St petition garnered over 3,000 signatures, and this week Students for Sexual Respect at NYU reported that the NYU administration has agreed to fund the pilot program, which will report to the administration by the end of the semester.

It seems reasonable to me that NYU should look at providing pads and/or tampons for free in public bathrooms and in residence halls, in much the same way that they stock condoms at no cost to students. Having sex is arguably more of an opt-in activity than having your period.

I'm exceptionally proud of the college activists who pushed for change on this one — it's a big achievement to get the university to move on it. I know Josy from around NYU, and I'm very proud of the work she's doing. Can't wait to see where this goes.

Sometimes you have to say no to your friends to say yes to your work

It's 23ºC here in Tel Aviv. I'm sitting outside my dorm in a T-shirt and jeans, headphones in, working my way through a draft of the forward of this book.

I think some friends of mine are going to a bar with live music in southern Tel Aviv, near Jaffa. I'm probably not going to join them -- part of it is residual tiredness from traveling all day Thursday and not getting into Tel Aviv until 5am on Friday, but part of it is that I'm working on the book. I have an idea of how I want this forward to look, and so I'm probably going to keep at it until what's on the page looks a little bit more like what's in my head.

As I was working, I was reminded of an answer Lin-Manuel Miranda gave in an interview about writing stuff. He's asked if the idea of writing Hamilton ever got overwhelming and whether he ever thought about giving up. He says:

Oh, all the time. All the time. And then you push through it. Like, you push through it because what’s the alternative — you’re going to just leave that idea stuck in your head forever? That sucks. The alternative is you go through life and you had this great idea and nothing came of it, because you got tired? And yeah, sometimes you don’t go to the party that all your friends are at because the idea is calling to you in that moment.
You have to do that sometimes. You have to say no to your friends to say yes to your work. Because, what are you going to do? Lose that idea because you decided to have a drink with your friends?

Churchill's Hiccup, and the Modern Nation State

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, at the heart of the modern Middle East, occupies what has been called "a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe." Its neighbors are Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine, and so it plays a central role in the politics of the region. It remains one of only two countries in the region to have a peace treaty with Israel (the other being Egypt).

The nation of Jordan, as we know it today, officially came into being in 1946, but between 1921 and 1946, it was a British mandate. Following World War I, the imperial powers of Britain and France divided land in the Middle East (which had been previously administered by the ailing Ottoman Empire) and created the nations we now as Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

This mandate system was organized by the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization founded at the Versailles Peace Conference which ended World War I. Under its auspices, "advanced nations" were to guide and administer "those colonies and territories" which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Why? Because those colonies and territories "are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world," according to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

(If all that sounds like a thinly-veiled retelling of The White Man's Burden and the mandate system sounds suspiciously like colonialism, well, I wouldn't say you're wrong. In reality, mandates legitimized —legalized, even— the blatant usurping of sovereignty.)

Britain and France, then, created states and borders which had not previously existed. The historian James Gelvin points to Jordan as an example of how the borders of these new states were sometimes lacking in rationale.

"If you look at a map of Jordan, for example," he writes, "you will see a strange indentation in its eastern border with Saudi Arabia. There is no reasonable explanation for that indentation. No river runs through the area, no mountain range forms a natural division between the two states."

Serving as British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill drew Jordan's borders at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Years afterwards, he is said to have bragged that he "created Jordan with the stroke of the pen one Sunday afternoon." (1) This much is known, but here's the piece de resistance — the robust colonial secretary, known for large lunches, is reputed to have been drawing Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia when he hiccuped, and his pen moved off the straight line he was drawing, creating the deviation. Some Jordanians refer to the line as "Churchill's Hiccup" to this day.

The contrived nature of the state of Jordan's borders has several impacts.

"Jordan can be seen as among the most artificial states in the modern Middle East, with a highly contested national identity," writes Curtis R. Ryan, author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah, although he goes on to acknowledge that the adjective "Jordanian" is meaningful to many Jordanians. (2)

But more generally, it's significant that the region doesn't really have a history of nation states. The region was organized into longstanding authoritarian regimes, of empires Ottoman, Abbasid, and Qajar. These empires were often distant, not playing a large role in the everyday lives of their citizens.

As I mentioned last week, identities based on religious or ethnic lines were often more important. Syria and Palestine are, according to Bernard Lewis, names from antiquity which "hadn’t been used in the region for a thousand years or more before they were revived and imposed—again with new and often different boundaries—by European imperialists in the twentieth century.”

He goes on to point out that, in the Arabic language, there is no phrase for Saudi Arabia. Rather, "present-day Saudi Arabia is spoken of as 'the Saudi Arab kingdom' or 'the peninsula of the Arabs,' depending on the context." (3)

In short, the Middle East before 1900 was a region of empires rather than nations, where multiple identities were more important than nationalities as we understand them today. When officials and pundits talk about the Middle East, they neglect to mention that many of the region's borders are artificial. When Western pundits question why "they" can't be more like "us", or why they can't all "get along," absolves us from the responsibility the West had in creating some of the problems in the region today. Our action's their reaction, our cause is their effect, to some extent. In the same way that ISIS is a direct result of Iraq's instability following the 2003 invasion, we have to examine how many of the region's longstanding problems can be attributed, in part or in whole, to the artificial borders bestowed on them following World War I.


Some of the ideas in this essay come from lecture notes from Arang Keshavarzian's Fall 2015 class, MEIS-UA 750, “Politics of the Middle East," at New York University. 

(1) Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015, pp 202.

(2) Ryan, Curtis R., “Jordan” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East. ed. Angrist, Michele. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 2013. Print, pp 336.

(3) Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004. pp 16.

NYU Local, Disability, Representation

NYU Local is an independent news site at NYU. I write for Washington Square News, NYU's independent student newspaper. Note: this is a personal blog and I'm writing here in a personal capacity, outside my position as Opinion Editor with WSN. 

In one of my first journalism classes at NYU, my professor organized a short panel and Q&A on the subject of diversity in journalism. One of the speakers referenced this 2009 NY Post cartoon comparing Obama to a dead monkey.

Talking about how such a racist cartoon saw the light of day, the speaker highlighted the lack of reporters of color occupying high-ranking positions in the newsroom.

"There weren't enough voices in the upper echelons of the paper stopping that cartoon," Frankie Edozien, the speaker, said at the time. "Nobody was saying 'this will cause you a problem.' People in privileged positions have to be aware of their blind spots."

NYU Local published a profile of a disabled burlesque performer at NYU. She has the same disability as me — cerebral palsy.

Here's an archived version of the piece as I read it for the first time. This is how it began:

Initially, she seems like the typical NYU student. Coffee in hand, sitting in the Tisch Lounge, consistently distracted by various friends yet still somehow getting things done.

But then she gets up and saunters across the room to the door. It quickly becomes clear through how she walks that she is not like the rest. Is she drunk? Injured? Winner of an award for clumsiness?

Hey, it's really obvious that this student walks capital-D Differently. She's at NYU and an arts student and interesting or important enough to be the subject of a profile, but the most important thing you need to know about her —beyond the coffee and being easily distracted— is that she is "not like the rest" because of how she walks. We're even treated to the writer's stream of consciousness, her guesses as to, jeez, what is wrong with her?

The jibe that physically disabled people walk drunkenly is nothing new, but it's still completely out of line for NYU Local to publish it.

NYU Local and the WSN have long been rivals. We're competing in the same space to be NYU students and professors' first call for NYU news -- I get that. Back in August 2014, I commended them on a story about the NYU Secrets admin. I'm happy to give them credit both here on this blog and on social media when they do right.

But when they screw up, I'm gonna call them out on it.

Those lines should never have made it into the final version. I don't have any insight into the internal workings of NYU Local, so I don't know how many people read that piece and gave it the green light. I also don't know how many people with disabilities are on senior staff at the news site. But I guess the answer to the second question is zero. I genuinely can't comprehend how someone who knows people with disabilities (as friends, not as subjects of profiles -- y'know, real, complex people with lives outside our drunk, clumsy walks) could have okayed that piece.

It reminds me of the chimp cartoon I mentioned above. People familiar with disabilities, who had some insight how this would read to someone unfamiliar with the performer, either don't exist in senior positions at NYU Local or aren't being listened to when they do raise concerns.

And that sucks.

In the time after I posted about this on Facebook, the article was amended. The second paragraph has been removed. You can see it here. It also now includes this line at the bottom:

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article contained language that was offensive and discriminatory to those with CP. NYU Local regrets the error. 

Obviously, it would've been better if NYU Local had caught the offensive, discriminatory language prior to publication, but I appreciate how quickly they moved to change the article when it was brought to their attention. I wasn't the one who did —I don't have a rapport with either of NYUL's editors in chief nor the writer of the piece, although I do know the performer— and we haven't spoken directly about any of this.

I didn't write this piece as a call for an apology -- I'm just glad the damn line has been taken out. Journalists hold a privileged position, though. We have a responsibility to call out this sort of screw-up when we see it. I hope people call me out when I fall short, and I'll continue to do so when I see journalism that can do better.

Thoughts on the Outing of the NYU Secrets Admin

Background: NYU has two main newspapers -- the print Washington Square News and the digital NYU Local. NYU Secrets is a Facebook page where anonymous "secret" updates were posted, written by members of the NYU community. The page is curated by an anonymous administrator, and given that NYU is a decentralized, campus-less university, the NYU Secrets page did serve as something of a community. Today NYU Local published This Is The Man Behind NYU Secrets:

The founder and administrator of NYU Secrets is senior Aristotelis “Aristo” Orginos. A frequent Redditor, Orginos also participates in the Men’s Rights movement. [...] Outside his duties as administrator, Orignos posts in the Reddit group r/mensrights. The men’s rights movement argues that men are oppressed and disadvantaged by women, a view that lends itself to bitter misogyny in some circles and has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to describe the movement as a hate group.

The discussion that the NYU Local article prompted has centered on two main areas: whether the admin being an MRA makes him a bad fit for NYUS admin, and whether or not the journalist had any right to out his identity. I'm more interested in the latter question, because it has to do with journalism ethics. The NYU Secrets page, which has 30,000 likes, is a public page. The identity of the admin, who periodically would comment on secrets and make announcements, was of much interest and debate.

To my knowledge, the page isn't sanctioned by NYU but the administration has been known to follow the page and look into particular secrets. Considering that the topic of cheating on finals comes up, this doesn't surprise me. But the NYUS admin has no fundamental right to privacy. Whether or not his identity remained a secret seemed largely contingent on how good his operating security was. I'm sure I'm not the only one who did some digging to find his identity and satisfy my curiosity. It's the classic game of cat-and-mouse -- the admin wanted to remain anonymous, the NYU Local journalist wanted to find out his identity. Hackers and infosec types play these sorts of games all the time. The NYU Secrets guy has no fundamental right to keep his identity anonymous. The journalist owes him nothing, and certainly has no responsibility not to publish.

Questions of whether or not the journalist should have done it is a totally different question, but even there I'm leaning towards the school of thought that says, hey, they had a good story and they're rightfully getting attention for it. In debating this on Facebook the afternoon, I was asked why I held the above views considering I'm so privacy-conscious. Of course people don't have a fundamental right to privacy -- it'd be a different question if the journalist posted the contents of the admin's e-mails, or his medical records. Those are details the NYU Secrets guy, since he's a private citizen, does have a fundamental right to keep private. To briefly touch on whether a supporter of such an odious movement deserves to edit a page famed for diversity and inclusion, I largely agree with the NYU Local journalist:

"But the fundamental problem with a college secrets page remains the same: in filtering the voices of a diverse student population through a single anonymous administrator, the results are necessarily limited by what that anonymous administrator (in this case, a white man) chooses to publish. We’re drawn in by the illusion of vox populi, the voice of the people, when in fact what we see is “10-20%” of that voice, as curated by one person with their own biases — intentional or not."