In the December issue of Bicycling Magazine is a feature story I did on Nick Frey, a brilliant young engineer, a rising star in the cycling world and founder of Boo Cycles, which makes high-end, $7,000 racing bikes out of wood. The story was a lot of fun to do, and gave me a chance to delve into the the history of aerodynamics in the sport, the arms race in the war against wind, and to interview pioneers like Steve Hed, Lennard Zinn and others. It’s not online, but you can see the story on stands now. Also, there are some beautiful photos of Frey and his bike here taken by photographer Sam Adams.
Last year I traveled to Nigeria, where I knew some people, and where I also had some work to do. Before I left, I racked my brain for small gifts that I could give to friends and others I met along the way.
At the time, I was a bit low on funds. I wanted to give something meaningful, useful – and affordable. Because a lot of the people I would be seeing were journalists, I thought a great idea might be flash drives – the storage system of the future! I’d been to Nigeria a few years earlier and had not seen them anywhere.
So I stocked up. When I landed in Lagos, I proudly handed over my gift to a friend who took it, turned it over, and said, “Thanks. I could use another one of these.” And he pulled a small handful out of his pocket.
Welcome to the global economy, where everything is available everywhere, and simple abundance is no longer unique to the United States. So much has changed so fast, it often seems that giving gifts isn’t as simple as it used to be.
But gift giving has always been complicated. Fraught, even. In his 1925 essay The Gift, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss argued that in preindustrial societies, the “gift exchange” was part of a complex social cycle made up of three interlocking obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.
Last year, when B. Todd Jones walked though the big doors on the sixth floor of the U.S. federal building in downtown Minneapolis, many things were the same. The windows in his corner office framed the same urban skyline. The carpets were the same: gray, industrial, all business. The mission was the same: enforcing federal law. And there were still plenty of bad seeds out there committing crimes—and plenty of ways for Jones, a Justice Department veteran, to go after them.
But at the same time, things were different. There was more gray in Jones’s hair. The fraud figures he encountered had more zeros on the end. There was a new No. 1 mission: anti-terrorism. And there was also an edgy, irritated, and rankled vibe, left by Jones’s predecessor, flowing through the office—one that Jones’s very presence was meant to calm.
The last time Jones had been here, occupying the seat of U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, was back in early 2001. It was a different age—an era when we were still reeling from talk of stained dresses and “right-wing conspiracies,” when we were still irrational and exuberant about the housing market and all things dot-com. It was pre-9/11, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before terrorism and homeland security became America’s watchwords, before Alberto Gonzales took charge of the Justice Department and before Rachel Paulose became his agent in Minnesota. It was, in other words, a long, long time ago. And now, nearly 10 years after vacating the position of U.S. attorney, Jones was at it once more. This was round two.
Read the rest in the December issue of Minnesota Monthly.
If you find relationships challenging to cultivate and maintain, then you are in good company. In his new book, evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar argues that our ability to manage such complex social connections—love lives, work colleagues, childhood buddies and friendly acquaintances—is what drove humans to develop such large brains in the first place.
In a small village in central China, a man was boiling meat. This was strange because it was 1961 and no one had meat. For more than two years they had all been starving, dying, in the largest famine of the 20th century, which killed at least 45 million people, according to new archives used in Frank Dikötter’s groundbreaking book, “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962.”
The other villagers, suspicious, reported the man to local officials, who found a hair clip, ornaments and a scarf belonging to a girl who had disappeared a few days before. This incident of cannibalism was not isolated. According to Dikötter, human meat was traded on the black market, most of it taken from the plentiful dead, and sometimes mixed with dog meat to disguise it.
At some point while I was reading V.S. Naipaul’s new book, The Masque of Africa, it became hard not to picture the venerable Nobel Prize winner in a pith helmet and khakis, doddering around the continent looking for bits of religious trivia he could take home and put on his mantel. This was not, of course, his stated purpose, which was, instead, to investigate the current state of “belief” in Africa, and to see how the modern world is intermingling with the older one on which it rests.
To this end, Naipaul travels to Uganda, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Gabon and South Africa, an impressive itinerary for the nearly 80-year-old. Along the way, he spends time with witch doctors, politicians, businessmen, professors and the like, all the while peppering them with questions about their rituals and religions and historical events.
Those events are something in which Naipaul is steeped: The writings of Mungo Park, John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley and others who first wrote about the continent. In a way, this is refreshing since that context is sometimes lacking in writing about Africa. But in the end, Naipaul seems perhaps too steeped in it…
Back in the mid-1990s—the Dark Ages—I was living in a semi-rural area on the slopes of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha, Tanzania. Every now and then I had to make a phone call back home, across the world.
This is not an easy thing to do, I often thought to myself as I headed out into the neighborhoods to inquire about using one of the few phone lines at houses near mine. Often, these lines would be broken, or working spottily, and it could take weeks to get a repairman out to find the place where there was a problem. Moreover, the calls had to be arranged in advance so both people’s ears could be physically connected to the line that ran under the sea.
Usually, I would end up knocking on the door of a business in town (owned by friends of friends), trying to be unobtrusive as I heard the crackly sound of the voice of the woman I would later marry. But our words seemed to run into each other along the way, and we each had to wait a minute to be able to hear the other. In the lag, the distance seemed tangible.
These days, when I’m in Africa, I tell people this story and they laugh. They laugh as if they can barely remember those times. They laugh like I was telling them I used to hunt with rocks and start fires with sticks. Because technology in the developing world has changed so much and so fast that it’s hard to believe unless you see it yourself.