6 notes on the train

This is the fourth and final installment of a week-long series about travel.

A major thing I miss about Europe is being able to get on a train and go wherever I want. That kind of freedom is pretty exhilarating.

To celebrate my love of European mass transit, here are my favorite (or at least most memorable) train rides.

1. My best friend and I missed the morning train to Amsterdam from Paris. For the afternoon train, we had to take first-class seats on the way to a connection in Brussels. My first experience with first-class seats was awesome: roomy seats, a lunch with oranges, a sandwich and cookies, attentive staff. That was the life … for a couple of hours.

2. We took an overnight train from Rome to Nice. There were three of us in the compartment: my friend and me, and an older (quite older) French lady. As I was making my bed with the sheets and blanket, she tsk’d me, took the stuff and made my bed herself, muttering in French under her breath. Merci!

3. In March 2007 I took the train from Reading to Wales to visit a friend for a weekend. The ride home on Sunday night was probably one of the most quiet and peaceful I had ever had; riding through the Welsh and English countryside, one of only two or three people in the car, reading “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Ahhh.

4. We caught an early morning train from Vienna to Salzburg. There were practically no people onboard. We had a six-person cabin to ourselves and were able to stretch out. I remember snoozing and my friend woke me up and told me to look out the window. The train was going through the Alps. It remains one of the most beautiful and jarring (“Wow, we’re in the Alps!”) things I have ever seen.

5. German trains in general are simply awesome. They are clean, sleek, on time and just great. My first ride on a German train involved sitting on my duffel bag outside the bathroom on a train from Amsterdam to Munich. It was still one of the more comfortable, pleasant rides of the trip.

6. Our last train ride of the trip was an overnight ride form Madrid to Lisbon. My friend and I were in separate sleeping cabins. I woke up early — probably about 5 a.m. or so — and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and wandered through the train and ended up in the dining car. I had only to sit down and the server had a croissant, a fruit bowl, juice, coffee and a little piece of bacon in front of me. And I ate all of it, even the kiwi, which I usually don’t care for. There’s something surreal about having breakfast on a train before the sun comes up.


12 not-so-obvious European cities to visit

This article is the third in a week-long series about traveling. Again, the focus is on Europe, but please feel free to submit your own non-European cities of choice.

Not everyone has the chance to ever visit a European city, much less several of them. So most people choose to visit the classics — Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona. And they’re classics for a reason. But there are other cities out there that are just as deserving of your attention.

This list is a combination of cities that I’ve visited, and some that I wish to visit at some point.

1. Edinburgh. There’s Old Edinburgh and New Edinburgh; New Edinburgh is still like 600 years old. There’s imposing Edinburgh castle on one end of the Royal Mile, and Holyrood palace on the other, with all kinds of shops, restaurants and pubs in between.

Edinburgh castle

2. Nice. It’s not as expensive as its Riviera neighbor, Monte Carlo, and not as glitzy, but Old Nice is pretty cool. Go get some rose or violet ice cream at Fenocchio. Wander through the winding pathways and grab a sandwich or a snack at an olive bar. The beach (covered with smooth rocks, not sand) is also gorgeous at sunset.

3. Lisbon. It’s easy to forget about Portugal, which is just … sitting … there. Lisbon’s Baixo district has a ton of places to eat and drink, St. George’s castle and St. Jerome’s monastery are great historical sites and the seafood is amazing. I recommend the swordfish.

4. Munich. This place just felt more … German, especially compared with Berlin’s more modern feel. The Marienplatz, the Frauenkirche and the Englischer Garten are all fun places to visit. I also recommend Augustiner’s, a brewery/restaurant with the most delicious weisswurst.

5. Salzburg. Vienna is the prototypical Austrian city, but I enjoyed Salzburg more. You can hike up to Hohensalzburg fortress, enjoy the annual Mozart festival and hit Zum Fidelen Affen for black pudding, wienerschnitzel and amazing Austrian custard balls.

6. Florence. Other than London, Florence is my favorite city in Europe (so far). The art is overwhelming, you can have lunch at a sidewalk cafe right next to the Duomo and the weather is gorgeous. Florence also has the distinction of being the site of my favorite meal ever — a (shared, thank you) bottle of white wine, bruschetta, ravioli in a cream sauce, roasted lamb, roasted house potatoes, chocolate-topped custard and a shot of limoncello.

The Duomo, Florence

And now for six cities that are on my list:

1. Stockholm. This is arguably the hottest city in Europe now, thanks to the Millennium Trilogy.

2. Prague. It’s inexpensive, the architecture is amazing and, as of 2004, the Czech Republic has the highest amount of beer consumption, per capita, in the world — ahead of Germany, the UK and Ireland.

3. Copenhagen. I once read that you could cast a Pepsi commercial by plucking ordinary Danes off the street. Says it all, I think. It’s a perfect combination of continental Europe and Scandinavia.

4. Athens. Greece could really use the tourist dollars, and I really want to see the Acropolis before the Parthenon dissolves from pollution.

5. Milan. It has one of the most beautiful churches in Europe, it’s home to “The Last Supper” by Da Vinci and it’s a major European fashion capital.

6. Belfast. I have not yet been to Northern Ireland; it’s the last country of the United Kingdom I’ve yet to see. I want to go as much to muse on The Troubles as I do to see the city itself and the view of Belfast Lough.

In defense of high-school journalism

My week-long travel series will resume tomorrow. Thanks everyone for the good response.

I was once a high-school journalist.

My district, Shawnee Mission, is/was arguably, pound for pound, one of the most quality journalism districts in the country. Pacemakers, Columbia gold and silver crowns, national student journalists of the year, design of the year. You name it, we won it.

We’re scattered all around now — most of us went on to something else, but I know of designers and photographers, reporters and copy editors. People for whom working on the Epic, Lair, Indian, Harbinger and Patriot was the start of a life-long commitment to our field. Others among us are lawyers, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, police officers, musicians and artists.

I’d go so far as to say that without my journalism education at Shawnee Mission West, I probably would never have studied journalism at KU, never would have worked on the Kansan and never would have come to love editing.

I was a news reporter my sophomore year of high school, then the feature and opinion editor and finally the editor-in-chief. I was able to immediately apply what I had learned to working on the Kansan.

That’s why I was dismayed to learn today that as of 2012, journalism programs in Kansas will no longer receive state funding. We’re on our own now.

This may be a mere annoyance in more affluent districts, but what about rural schools? I was extremely lucky to work on good computers with updated, professional-level software. What about the kids using old copies of Pagemaker on beat-up PCs? With many schools using bare-bones resources as it is, these cuts could very well be the end of high-school newspapers and yearbooks across the state. But hey, that’s what Facebook’s for, right? Right?

While KU’s journalism school draws students from all over the country, much of its core comes from students who have benefitted from rock-solid journalism education in Kansas high schools. Will cutting journalism funding temper enthusiasm for the major at KU? Will students coming in with no training in news judgment, design, AP style or software use be at a marked disadvantage next to their suburban or out-of-state classmates?

The arguments for cutting journalism funding make little sense to me.

It doesn’t require “high skill” sets?

You mean I didn’t have to get an undergraduate degree to be a journalist? Or learn how to use computers, video and camera equipment and software? Sit down in front of a blank InDesign template and we’ll see how “high skill” it can be.

It’s not “high wage”?

Few people have ever gotten rich out of being practicing journalists. But most of us make a comfortable, if modest, living doing what we love. If high wages are the only real indicator of success, why don’t we all just go become corporate raiders on Wall Street? This implies that accumulating wealth gives a career its value, and this is not true. To be accurate, the requirement should be a “living wage,” which journalism provides.

It’s not “high demand”?

Yes, the industry is going through a lot of changes now, and long-term employment is uncertain. But you know what? Nearly everyone I know from KU who wants a job in journalism has one, whether in news or public relations/advertising. Many others are working in other fields, based on their journalism degrees. Obviously there’s a demand somewhere.

There’s also more to journalism than learning to write and tell stories. It’s about working with people, teaching your incoming green reporters the ropes and mentoring them, making judgment calls, learning business acumen and becoming a better communicator in general.

And I’m sorry that that kind of education is no longer worthy of funding in Kansas.

How to not come off like a tourist

This article is the second part of a week-long series about traveling. My main traveling experience abroad has been in Europe, but these tenets should fly just about anywhere.

As I’ve said before, there is a difference between a traveler and a tourist. Travelers go to a place to experience it naturally, even if what it is contradicts what they think they know about it. Tourists often expect a locale to conform to their preset expectations. Travelers go with the flow and behave like guests. Tourists are pushy, obnoxious and entitled.

Here are a few basic ways to set yourself apart from that guided herd ahead of you in line at the Vatican. Note that these tips are also as much about safety as they are about courtesy — someone who’s obviously out of their element makes an easier target for thieves and other miscreants.

1. Attempt to speak the language. The last post offered a list of suggestions to get started. Don’t be frustrated if you go on a wine tour in rural Tuscany and no one speaks English.

2. Familiarize yourself with a map of the city before you get there. Getting lost at some point is almost inevitable, but you can make it easier on yourself by studying your maps on the plane or train before you arrive. It also limits the number of times you have to block street traffic to whip the map out (if you need to, duck inside a shop or something).

3. Don’t just explore tourist traps. Yeah, you go to Paris to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and London to see the clock and Parliament and Buckingham Palace. But so do millions of other people. Take at least a day or two and explore off-beat parts of the city you’re in. Pick a neighborhood on the outer edges, for example, and walk it. Or take a train to a smaller town nearby.

4. Don’t get stupidly drunk. Each region of the word offers its own unique drinks, but that doesn’t mean you need to go crazy (this is especially true if you’re of legal drinking age in your holiday country but not your home country). All your obnoxious antics will do is make a mess and annoy the neighbors.

5. Keep it down. Americans are loud. Many, many other people around the world are not. Don’t scream at them.

6. Eat the local food. Smoked salmon tapas, weisswurst, fish and chips, bangers and mash, French pastries, freshly caught seafood, pasta, wienerschnitzel. All delicious, and yet you’re eating at McDonald’s again. Stop it.

7. Don’t complain about the way things are done. “This isn’t how we do it in Insert-Place-That’s-Probably-Texas-Here!” If you’re perfectly happy with the way things are where you live, stay there. If you dislike how something is done in a different country, suck it up, note it and don’t go back if it bothers you that much. And I just used Texas as an example, don’t jump me.

8. Respect the signage. There is a BIG display right outside the Sistine Chapel that clearly prohibits photographing it. Yet you walk in, and everyone is taking photos. Most annoying and obnoxious thing I’ve ever seen. And just because other people in a place might be acting trashy, tacky and rude doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to.

9. Respect houses of worship. This goes even if you are an atheist or not a follower of the religion in question. Churches, cathedrals, mosques, temples, synagogues — almost all of them, including the ones open to visitors, are still operating houses of worship. Treat them as such and respect the local people who may be praying there.

10. Don’t just stay at the homogenized chain hotels. This is more about getting a good experience. Look up hostels on a site like Hostel World (I recommend the Flying Pig in Amsterdam). If you’re going to be staying awhile, rent a flat or stay with a host family. If you’re a braver soul than I am, look into couch surfing. You’ll meet local people, make friends, get good traveling tips and connect with fellow travelers in ways you never could if you checked into a chain.

11. Travel light. Take only the essentials that you’ll need for the day — passport, tickets, map, wallet, phone, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, camera, key to your room and maybe hand lotion, aspirin or a compact. All of this should easily fit in a purse or other small bag. I’ve seen people in line for museums or at restaurants who look like camels because of all the crap they’re trying to carry. It makes you stick out like a sore thumb, it makes it easier for people to pick something off of you and it’s murder on public transit. The guy on the Tokyo subway trying to get to work does not need your bulging fanny pack poking him in the spine.

11 must-know phrases for foreign travel

This entry kicks off a week-long series of travel-related musings and advice on The Canterbury Tales. I’m in a travel-y mood; I leave for England three weeks from Tuesday!

While most locals appreciate you taking a stab at speaking the language, no matter how awful you sound (here’s looking at you, France), no one really expects you to speak fluent Spanish/German/French/Norwegian/Japanese/whatever.

However, there are a few words and phrases that you should always know beforehand when visiting countries that speak something other than your native tongue. Many rural areas (and some urban ones, too, like eastern Berlin, in my experience) will be short on English-speakers.

11. “Hello.” An obvious mainstay. You’re trying to make friends!

10. “Please” and “Thank you.” There’s really no excuse for not practicing common courtesy while traveling.

9. “What time is it?” If you’re like me you have a watch on you at all times, but this doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re antsy about catching your ride on time.

8. “How much does this cost?” This can help you avoid embarrassing situations at the cash register; you didn’t really want to spend 40 euros on that AC Milan jersey.

7. Words for basic food. Trust me, when you look at a menu in a foreign language, you want to know what you’re ordering. I once mistook fish (poisson) for chicken (poulet) at a Chinese restaurant in Paris. In hindsight, I’m lucky fish was all I got.

6. “Where am I?” Everyone gets lost. Knowing how to ask a local where you are ensures that you won’t stay lost.

5. “How do I get to the bus station/train station/airport?” It goes without saying that you should always carry a map of the city you’re in, but sometimes getting to a station or airport can be confusing, especially if the city doesn’t have any or many cabs.

4.  Days of the week. Knowing these can help you in a variety of situations, from reserving theater tickets to asking about museum openings to booking airfare or trainfare.

3. Numbers one through 10. Because when you order certain things (like, say, bottles of wine, steak or slices of cake … mmm, cake), it’s important to get one, and not one hundred.

2. “Where is the toilet?” This one doesn’t really need an explanation. Everyone pees.

1. “Do you speak English?” Well, at least you tried.

Eating well abroad

Despite a generous cost-of-living stipend in my student loan, I’m going to have to be smart and frugal about my food budget. I’m also going to try hard to eat fresh, healthy food, cut back on soda (which is more expensive there anyway, so I have a good incentive) and eat out rarely (although I may splurge on quiz-night chips).

Luckily Canterbury has a Sainsbury and a Tesco, and the university has an on-campus grocery store. My dorm also has a full kitchen. I find it easier to eat well when I’m on my own and not in a time rush.

So what am I planning to do?

The main things I cut out in Indianapolis, my first major foray into regularly and knowingly not eating crap, were red meat, soda and packaged sweets. I didn’t fudge on the soda until the Olympics started and I needed a caffeine fix one night on the Star’s sports desk. As a side note, I lost a ton of weight (which I promptly gained back as soon as I got back to Lawrence; thanks, Chick-Fil-A and Pizza Hut).

I know vegetarianism isn’t realistic for me, namely because I A) like meat and B) am fairly picky about vegetables. I prefer raw spinach and baby greens, loathe onions, am allergic to mushrooms in general and like my tomatoes sun-dried. Luckily spinach is one of the best things you can eat.

As far as meat and protein go, my Indianpolis diet consisted mainly of chicken, salmon, eggs, nuts and turkey. I love salmon, something my parents don’t care for. It’ll be nice to justify getting salmon steaks or smoked salmon just for myself.

The only fruits I’m not big on are citrus fruits and peaches, although I love their juices. Blueberries, raspberries, apples, strawberries, kiwis, pomegranates, mangoes, pears; they’re all good.

I’d love to make my own bread (I bought a loaf of whole-wheat bread at Kansas City’s City Market last week that was to die for), but that probably isn’t realistic. I’m going to try to stick to whole wheat or rye bread. Regarding dairy, I like milk and many varieties of cheese and yogurt, although I do worry about the fat and salt in some of it.

I enjoy brown rice, basmati rice and black beans. Our backyard herb garden has yielded amazing basil, rosemary, parsley and thyme; cilantro is the only herb we don’t grow that I wish we did (our sprouts got rained out, sadly). My experimentation with Greek and Indian food has exposed me to a variety of different grains, proteins and spices, like bulgur wheat, hummus, tumeric, saffron and basic curry powder. I look forward to trying almond butter and fruit on toast, cilantro and lemon rice with black beans and fish, homemade trail mix and oatmeal with fruit and honey.

For beverages, I’m going to try to stick to low-fat milk, water, 100% fruit juice and tea, although I know coffee will probably be a continued vice.

I also tend to believe that healthy food isn’t more expensive than unhealth food and that access, not price, is the problem. That’s why I’m glad I have access to a variety of different grocers at school.

Happy eating, everyone.

From ballot box to iPhone

Today my mother and I had one of our afternoon discussions, which I’m going to miss having when I move away next month. The topic turned to voting and how to get people my age to do it. My mother’s worried that young people won’t show up properly in the 2010 midterms.

Before I really even thought about it, I said, “People should be able to vote using their iPhones or Androids.”

I voted in the Kansas primary a couple of weeks ago. I went to a Methodist (or maybe it was Lutheran?) church not too far away from my house. Even with my spry age of 23, the average age of people in the room had to be 60+. The Lawrence Journal-World reported that Burge Union, on the University of Kansas campus, had only three voters as of 5 p.m.

Is it that people my age don’t care? That may be part of it, although I think we care more than we let on. But I think a lot of it is down to the fact that the act of voting hasn’t evolved enough to match our current technology. Some places still use paper; I voted using a big, boxy touch-screen. Yes, many constituencies allow online voting, but you have to be at a computer. You know, sitting in one place.

So here’s what I propose: Tie voting into today’s technology. Partner with Apple and Android (the big two) to develop official, state-sanctioned voting apps. Download the app, register and sign in using information from your voting registration and vote when the app goes live at the appointed time on the correct day. It could even be rigged to an alarm, or set as a promo on iTunes. The security required would obviously be immense, but then again I just went up to a table, gave a nice old lady my name and signed right in.

Geo-tagging outfits like Foursquare and Gowalla could get in on it as well. Check in, vote, get a badge. It works the same way with campaign work and activism. Did you canvass thirty houses? Get a badge, sponsored by the DNC or RNC. Do Starbucks and American Eagle want to sell coffee and polos while rewarding good citizenship? Take your smartphone in, show them your “I Voted” badge, get a free small coffee or 15% off your jeans.

Barack Obama’s campaign, it could be argued, was largely won through savvy use of social media. But that was two whole years ago, and the DNC and RNC’s idea that so-fake-you-can-smell them “blogs,” robot-like Twitter accounts and lots of Facebook “Likes” equates to smart social-media strategy seems woefully outdated. It takes little to no energy to hit the “Like” button or the “Follow” button. That doesn’t equal engagement. The best way to engage us is to meet us where we live, in the cloud.

My voting motto is typically, “I don’t care how you vote, but please vote some way.” And yes, not voting is just as emphatic a political statement as voting. But I think our elected officials and election gatekeepers might be pleasantly surprised if they took a little initiative.

Call it iVote.

What did you learn in college?

It’s that time of year again. U.S. News & World Report has unveiled its list of the best schools in the country. My alma mater, the University of Kansas, was 104th overall and 47th publicly. But as everyone rushes to see where their school ranks and helicopter parents look to see where Little Annie should apply in the fall, GOOD brought to my attention another ratings system.  

This one, done by American Council of Trustees and Alumni, grades universities on a deceptively simple scale: What types of classes do students have to take to graduate?

As someone who remembers my KU ARTS form and its distribution tables well, I was surprised to learn just how poorly some of the “best” American schools did. Brown, Northwestern and Yale? Fs. Harvard landed a D. Dartmouth and Princeton sit at Cs. Amherst and Williams, the crown jewels of the small liberal-arts model, also got Fs.

Who got As? Baylor, Texas A&M, the Air Force Academy and West Point, to name a few.  And several highly thought-of schools, like the University of Chicago and Columbia, managed Bs. Kansas also scored a B, although we were docked in an area that I’m not sure we should have been.

What were the criteria?

Nothing more complicated than asking, “In order to graduate, do students have to take classes in composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, mathematics and science?” To get an A, a school must require at least six. To get a B, at least four. Cs need at least three, Ds two and Fs one or fewer.  KU had four; it was missing economics, foreign language and U.S. history and/or politics.

If you’re like me, you’re asking, “How in the hell can anyone graduate college without having to take ANY kind of English, math, science, foreign language or history class?”

The classes I took at KU are listed on this site in my CV. Quite a few of them come from the areas listed above. While economics isn’t a liberal arts requirement (which is what the site graded on specifically), it was required for my journalism degree and international studies co-major (in which I have an economics focus). I also took a course in American government and another in American sociology. I also had to complete German up to proficiency, which is why I disagree with KU getting docked in the foreign-language area.

Calculus, microeconomics, macroeconomics, biology, statistics, geology, eastern religion, western civilization, classics, English seminar, psychology. You name it, I took it. And I had to, to graduate. And that’s on top of the 30-33 credit hours for each of my two majors and about 15-18 for my co-major.

A lot of the schools with poor grades are big on lax curricula and letting students set their own requirements. This is all well and good, if students would challenge themselves and not try to use basket-weaving as a history geneneral education requirement. And yeah, students at many of those schools are known for being academically motivated.

But (and I could just be cynical), I don’t think biology majors would necessarily take literature if they didn’t have to, like I don’t think many English majors would want to take calculus. And, someone could posit, does it matter? It’s a question of what kind of education you think is best: one that is narrowly focused on a highly specialized area, or one that requires a broad sampling of classes.

I just don’t like the idea that maybe, just maybe, I took classes of actual difficulty and substance at a “lowly” state school, while someone else could theoretically enroll in cream-puff classes at a more “prestigious” school and somehow have a “more valuable” degree.

Ah, well. That’s what grad school’s for. And speaking of grad school, the British immigration authority has graciously accepted my visa application, meaning that in less than a month’s time, I will officially be traveling to England.

Where, ironically, undergraduates typically take classes exclusively in their majors, allowing them to graduate in three years instead of four in most cases.

Oy vey.

Six ways to stay (or get) sharp

One of my basic rules of being a good copy editor (other than all that grammar Nazi stuff) is to know a little about a lot. Yeah, most of us on non-universal desks specialize in some way, either in news, sports, arts, business or features, but it’s always a good idea to be familiar with a variety of topics. It’s hard to edit stories with authority if you don’t have a good grasp of basic current events and trivia.

Know what the top-grossing film of all time is, considering inflation? (It’s “Gone With the Wind.”) What about who won the 1976 World Series? (The Reds swept the Yankees.)  Who on earth is the President of the European Council? (Herman van Rompuy.)

“But Kels,” you say, “how does one learn all of this and become more well-read?”

Here are six ways to increase your general knowledge that don’t involve eating an encyclopedia.

1. Watch “Jeopardy.”

My grandmother is not college-educated. She only recently got a passport (she’s going with us to London next month). She’s still using dial-up Internet. But she knows a freakish amount of cultural minutiae. How? “Jeopardy.”

“Jeopardy” is on pretty much every week day, and its rotating categories ensure that you’ll never get bored. You can also watch the Kid, Teen and College versions of “Jeopardy” and goggle at how some nerdy 12-year-old knows more than you do.

2. Visit Sporcle.

Apart from being perhaps the greatest time-waster since Minesweeper, Sporcle offers a lot of knowledge disguised cleverly as quizzes. If it exists, there’s a Sporcle quiz on it. Countries’ exports, beer consumption, movie quotes, European monarchs, Hogwarts staff, all-time leading NBA scorers. You may feel like an idiot if you can name only 10 Danish monarchs (the ones named Christian, yeah!), but surrendering and clicking the “I Give Up” button is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.

2. Set up Google Reader and use it.

I subscribe to a few dozen sites and blogs through Google Reader. Most of them are tech- or journalism-related, but a few are for business, politics, travel, cooking, entertainment and other areas. Whenever you find a blog or site you like, link it to your Google Reader. You don’t even have to read every blog entry that comes in; skim and see what’s interesting. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. You can also supplement a Google Reader blogroll with a Twitter feed; follow your favorite bloggers, writers and personalities on Twitter. If you follow only your in-person friends on Twitter, you’re missing out.

4. Consume foreign media.

Because domestic (domestic meaning whatever country you live in, not necessarily just American) media inherently only offers a limited or even biased viewpoint, it’s imperative that you look at news sources outside your border. It may be the anglophile in me talking, but pound-for-pound (no pun intended), it doesn’t get any better than the BBC in terms of global, even-handed reporting on all levels. I also like Der Spiegel.

As a bonus, pick a news source from a country whose language you’re studying. Not only will you get news from another perspective, but you’ll also practice your foreign-language skills.

5. Travel smart.

The only museum in the bum-you-know-what town you’re driving through celebrates a mutant ear of corn. See it anyway. That historical society down the road? Pay it a visit. The brass plate on the downtown bank says someone was shot there 125 years ago trying to rob it. Cool, look him up (or her; I pass no judgment).

Some museums and historical sites are more glamorous than others (many of which can be seen in the photos of yours truly), but all can be valuable if you’re open-minded. No museum is too small, too cheesy or too weird that it can’t be enjoyed.

6. Play in pub quizzes

These are more popular in the UK than in America (in my experience, anyway), but a lot of bars and restaurants are doing them now. The concept is simple: Go out with a group of friends, participate in a trivia contest, have a few drinks and eat. If you win, you get money, drinks or some other prize. If you lose, you still had fun, and you got to learn some new stuff. Win-win.

So there you have it. Six fun, relatively pain-free ways to expand your general knowledge and help you be a better copy editor and a better citizen of humanity in general. Happy learning, kids.

Time, Afghanistan and Conflicts of Interest

A couple of weeks ago, when I saw Time’s cover story about women in Afghanistan, something about it seemed … off … to me. It’s difficult to describe, but as soon as I saw the cover, my Spidey sense went off.

The cover in question features a young Afghan woman named Aisha, whose husband’s family cut off her nose and ears after she attempted to run away. The sell line on the cover states (not asks) “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.”

I remember thinking that it seemed to have a vein of demagoguery. With opposition to the Afghan war rising (or, at the very least, more people asking critical questions about why the U.S. and NATO remain there), this article seemed like a punch in the gut. “If we leave,” it seems to imply, “this will happen.”

The problems with that are A) while women’s rights are obviously important, that’s not why the U.S. is there, B) the U.S. being there didn’t prevent Aisha’s mutilation and C) the Hamid Karzai government has passed laws that are decidedly anti-women, apparently with the U.S.’s implicit blessing. So using the dangers Afghan women might face in the U.S.’s absence to frame the debate of involvement seems like a red herring. Surely the U.N., local advocacy groups, NGOs, missionary groups or other bodies would be better suited than the U.S. military to go to the mattresses for Afghan women.

After reading the article and making the aforementioned mental notes, I set the story aside. Yesterday, however, I saw a piece from the New York Observer questioning whether Aryn Baker, the Time reporter who wrote the story and had (she’s since been reassigned) the magazine’s Afghanistan/Pakistan beat, might have had an ulterior motive or conflict of interest in writing the story.

It turns out that Baker’s husband works on a board with the Afghan government that pushes to get foreign direct investment into the country. He had also worked with and ran companies in the past that solicited development contracts from both militaries and private companies.

In other words, at face value, it looks like Baker’s husband, and by extension Baker herself, would be gaining monetarily from continued U.S./NATO involvement in the region, and it looks curious at best and dishonest at worst that Baker happened to write a magazine piece that seems to advocate continued military involvement.

Time has, of course, defended Baker and denied a conflict existed (its full statement is included at the tail end of the Observer story). But the issue here, I’d say, is the appearance of a conflict. It may be that Baker has no monetary stake in the Afghan operation, or that it didn’t cross her mind when she wrote the story. In fact that’s probably the case; I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Perception is reality. If it looks like something is rotten in Denmark, then that will color people’s perceptions. Time had the opportunity to actually fuel a solid, grounded debate about implications of a U.S. withdrawal. Instead it finds itself hustling to defend a reporter’s integrity, and in a worst-case scenario, any further reporting it does on Afghanistan will be somewhat soured by this. Any number of writers could have taken on the story; that it was someone in Baker’s precise position was unfortunate.

Which brings me back to my Spidey sense going off. Now I know I wasn’t expecting a conflict-of-interest story to emerge, but I do know that my gut told me that something wasn’t quite right. I don’t know whether I had a sense that more was going on than it seemed, or if I had a negative reaction to what I thought was an appeal based more on emotional reactions than rationality.

Either way, this is a good example of trusting your gut. It’s also a lesson that journalists don’t exist inside a vacuum. We make human connections, we network, schmooze, marry, travel and spend money. And when our human lives intersect with our journalistic lives, it doesn’t take much to put our reputations on the line.