Stuff I Wrote: April 2015

Writing Fountain penWhen I look at the posts that go live each month, and the ones I actually worked on, there’s always a big discrepancy. Posts I am proud of sometimes get stuck in purgatory, as harried editors work through the piles already on their desk—in the order in which posts were received, of course. Then posts from the past come cascading into the present, sometimes worse for wear.

Paychecks work this way, too—a months-old invoice that’s three times my rent collects dust, while I’m cashing checks for posts that haven’t even gone live. But the growing pains, that space between idea and print, can be even more painful than getting sponsored by American Express while waiting for past due payments.

In any case, here are 11 things I wrote that got posted this month. Most of them were actually written this month, too. I hope you find something that piques your interest.

Tech

Health and Health Tech

Writing

MMA

The Scrapbook Diaries: Sun and Moon

After finding stacks of old letters, notebooks, and zines I read and wrote as a kid, and spending some time poring over L’s Journey and similar sites,  I’ve decided to catch a break now and again from my regular reporting (and shameless self-promotion), and share some more personal thoughts based on pages of a scrapbook I kept while in college. 

FullSizeRender

When I was younger, I strongly believed in male-female polarity. I saw the universe as a divine balance between masculine and feminine energies, and believed that the end goal was to balance these two complementary energies inherent in us all.

Interestingly enough, I viewed traditionally masculine activities as those encompassed by a “true” femininity. That meant that I didn’t have to give up my identify as female, but would simply broaden my definition. By participating in activities such as training in stick fighting, lifting heavy weights, kickboxing, grappling, backpacking, aggressively negotiating contracts, participating in roleplaying games, going to tech meetups, etc. I could simply say “women can do this also,” without compromising my own identity.

I obviously can’t speak for men, but it seems to be the case that the ones who engage in traditionally feminine activities don’t expand their definition of masculinity. Men don’t seem to typically get props for taking ballet classes or wearing lingerie. Baking, gardening, and other activities may be more accepted by mainstream society, and certainly empowering for their own sake, but it seems that there may be a bit of a tradeoff. And while “soft skills” such as emotional intelligence certainly don’t hurt anyone of any gender, finding a balance between what’s generally expected of us and what we’re most comfortable with is a challenge for everybody.

And, of course, my 19-year-old self might not have had a problem glossing over the important detail that gender isn’t binary, and that being able to neatly categorize everything into a gender binary system is a privilege.

Stuff I Wrote: March 2015

Writing Fountain penLast month was pretty slow with many of my posts winding up in perpetual purgatory, but this month has seen a few trickling into print. I hope you find a few that interest you.

Freelancing

Tech

Health and Fitness

Other Media

I was also on an 0311Media podcast, and on the Global Influencer podcast. I am always too scared to listen to the audio, but I hope it is useful!

Stuff I Wrote: February 2015

Writing Fountain penApologies for the delay in this post. Without further ado, here are my posts for the month.  Aside from a sole piece about MMA (Beating the Odds: UFC 183), my February posts–the few that got posted, anyway–all fit neatly in one category.

Tech

Stopping a Smart TV From Eavesdropping On You Could Be a Felony (Slate’s Future Tense)

Superfish: How To Get Unhooked From Lenovo’s Dangerous Spyware (ReadWrite)

Twitter’s Latest Anti-Harassment Measures Still Don’t Do The Trick (ReadWrite)

Time to Die: Let’s All Resolve to Get Rid of Flash (ReadWrite)

Empathy Can Change the World: An Open Letter to the Tech Community (Medium)

 

The Elephant in the Room Episode 7: FOIA Superstar Jason Leopold

podcastYou’ve probably heard of investigative reporter Jason Leopold. He covers Guantanamo, counterterrorism, national security, human rights, open government and civil liberties issues for VICE News. His weapon of choice is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which he’s used to unearth all sorts of injustices around the globe. (Oh, and he personally went out of his way to help me with a FOIA request that the Department of Energy had sat on for over a year).

For Episode 7 of the Elephant in the Room podcast, I spoke with Jason about how he uses FOIA requests to power his brand of aggressive, groundbreaking news. While you won’t become a fellow FOIA terrorist overnight, Jason shed some light on the process and mindset behind these requests by discussing the following:

  • ways journalists can use FOIA requests to get information instead of just wasting time
  • how to pay for FOIA lawsuits
  • what reporters should know before making FOIA requests
  • how to use LinkedIn in these requests
  • ways to narrow down requests
  • advantages in obtaining documents via FOIA as compared to anonymous sources or even direct access to politicians
  • ways to secure one’s communication
  • how many FOIA requests he has out right now
  • what people should be asking about FOIA

Show notes

Books Jason’s reading

More on Jason

Empathy Can Change the World: An Open Letter to the Tech Community

Last fall, one of my closest friends took his own life. I can’t really do him justice with a pithy description, but I do feel compelled to try. He was UX consultant, a poet, a fiction writer. He was probably taller than you. He played the ukulele and liked taking long walks in the rain. He always had a book to recommend, a restaurant I should try, and someone to introduce me to. He was intelligent and thoughtful, wry and kind. We had long discussions about everything from food to fonts, fiction to 4chan. He often helped me rewrite hostile missives into ones that were more socially acceptable. And he walked all around San Francisco with me, meeting up with various people, delivering random gifts to my favorite startups, finding hipster cafes with good cupcakes, and pointing me to the bus I needed to take.

Sam playing the ukulele while I typed away at the Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge in 2013.

When someone commits suicide, the classic platitude is to say that there’s nothing anyone could have done. I have really begun to question this. It’s similar, in my mind, to when someone says that any kind of victim who survived a harrowing encounter “did the right thing.” I question this notion.

Here’s an example from my personal life. About a decade ago, I woke up one day with a stranger standing over my bed. Luckily, he ran away when I woke up and asked him who he was. Later, I saw that he’d tried and failed to break in through my back door—he’d cut through the flimsy screen with scissors or a knife, and reached his hand through and unlocked the bottom lock, but was unable to get in because I also had a deadbolt. However, I’d absentmindedly left my house keys in the front door, which is how he got in.

Was it my fault that someone broke into my home? Absolutely not. Did I ‘do the right thing’ by leaving my keys in the door, as evidenced by me surviving the encounter? Of course not.

There are other factors at play as well. Perhaps if I’d made different life choices, I would’ve been living in a safer part of town. Maybe if I didn’t have to drag my bicycle into the house, I would’ve been less likely to forget the keys. Maybe if I lived in a community where neighbors looked out for each other, someone would’ve spotted him. Maybe if the police had gotten there faster when he broke into other homes, he would’ve already been apprehended. Maybe if we lived in a society that handled crime more effectively, he’d have already turned around his life. The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that many factors could’ve changed what happened.

Is suicide really inevitable?

So let’s say that there are factors that can make a home break-in more likely, and ways we can lessen the risk not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors and our communities. Couldn’t this also be the case for helping prevent suicide?

I don’t want to blame individuals for what happened to my friend. He was clouded by a fog of depression, and unable to see things as they truly were. There was an accumulation of events, coupled with his state of mind, that made things seem dire. This was not just a single event, but there is a single event I want to focus on. Because I feel that we as a society failed him, and that we can make changes in how we treat people and interact with them that could potentially reduce the types of feelings that lead people to suicide.

Sam and I used to chat online every day—sometimes multiple times a day. This was the last message that he sent me. I didn’t read it until the following day. By the time I responded, I later learned, he was already gone.

 

I’m not sure if everyone can relate to this, but I certainly can. It happens to me all the time. A lot of people don’t invite me to things and don’t try to hide the fact. People often reschedule multiple times, or stand me up. I get ignored at events. I watch people around me having conversations with each other and feel overlooked on a semi-regular basis. People often steal my ideas or repeat them at meetings—and get a much better response.

Interestingly enough, I see these very same people have these complaints about other people, ones higher on their totem pole. It’s like this weird platonic love triangle. The person who stood you up got stood up by someone else. That person who was so rude to you may be upset because someone with higher status was rude to them. That means that we should know what it feels like, right?

And that’s the other side of this. I am often short with people when I feel like they’re wasting my time, or when they don’t resonate with me. I have no trouble setting clear, strong boundaries. Often this is necessary—you know, like when you wake up in your own bed and realize that some dude’s broken into your home. But sometimes, it’s just not. For example, if I decide not to invite a coworker to hang out, I would like to think that I wouldn’t discuss these plans in front of him as if he were invisible.

How about a little empathy?

It would be grossly inappropriate for me to tell people they have to spend time with people they don’t like. Forcing social interactions is not a solution. At the same time, we know from studies on solitary confinement—to take this to an extreme—that human contact is absolutely necessary for people. If people knew that inviting a coworker to lunch or a happy hour—even if he’s a little bit sulky—could make a huge difference in that person’s life, how many people would refuse?

And what about that person you do like? I think people don’t realize how much they mean to others. That person in your meet-up group who you kinda want to hang out with, but aren’t sure they’d be down? It’s possible that they have nobody to talk to outside of the somewhat forced interaction of your group. You could reframe their entire construct of the world by just taking a bit of a risk—assuming you’re emotionally resilient enough to handle the possibility of rejection.

When I invited Sam to my wedding, he asked me if I actually wanted him to come or was just being nice. I reminded him that I was terrible at being fake nice. He realized I was being genuine, and came to the wedding, which was about three months before his death. It was the last time I ever saw him. If he had any idea how much of a void so many of us feel with his absence, or how big of a difference he’d made in so many people’s lives, he may still be here. Perhaps we should’ve made it more clear to him. Perhaps the people he had everyday contact with should’ve let him know as well.

When someone is suicidal, the oft-repeated advice is to tell them that they should talk to someone or see a therapist. Sam was seeing a therapist. And he talked to me about his depression on a regular basis. Ultimately, I couldn’t hold space for so much sadness. I told him at one point that he could only complain about three things a day. I used his constant stream of sadness as an excuse to indulge in my own. I think he was better at being there for me than I was for him.

It’s impossible to know for certain if anything anyone had done could have helped Sam, if shifting the environment around him to one that was more welcoming and inclusive was all he needed. In any case, I do believe that we as human beings have a choice. We can be stuck in our own heads and our own egos, focusing only on impressing others, and perhaps in the process creating a backdrop in which someone else’s depression grows. Or we can reach out to people, even if they’re a bit shy or awkward or can do nothing for us, and show them that they’re valuable anyway—in the process, chipping away at their depression or false view of the world.

I can’t really explain how potent this loss is to me. I miss Sam every single day. Whenever something good happens, I wish he was around to share it with. Whenever something bad happens, I long for his perspective. Some days I don’t even want to go online because he won’t be there, making silly jokes and adding bite-sized insight to any topic that comes up. I don’t know if this will ever change.

If there’s anything that we can take away from this, I hope that it’s to have a little bit more empathy, especially to people you may not think belong. Maybe that guy at your GLBT meet-up is genderqueer and needs a lot of support, rather than being a straight dude trying to infiltrate or take over or co-opt your event. Maybe that person who’s quiet and kinda shy has been eating every meal alone for months and needs someone to talk to. Maybe that person you’re using for free development would love to get coffee or drinks with you, and the rockstar investor you’re dying to meet is booked for months and wouldn’t remember you anyway.

We’re all busy and have grandiose plans, and many of us are trying to grow our businesses or make a name for ourselves. Reaching out to the people we really admire is of course a higher priority than extending a helping hand to someone we don’t really know all that well. But sometimes doing so can make a huge impact on their lives, and maybe, just maybe, people in fragile emotional states will stick around a little bit longer…until something else turns around for them. And that can make all the difference in the world.

My husband and I stuck to emoji-only texts for 48 hours. Here’s what happened.

I used to use emoticons and emoji quite liberally and without much thought, but a few things have made me puzzle over my decision to use them at all, as well as my level of frequency.

First, I’ve been using Slack with three of my clients, and emoticons magically turn into emoji i that platform–sort of like in Gmail chat, but of course Slack is a more professional context. Second, I somehow found myself frequently perusing the emoji options on my phone, and wondering why there’s no cupcakes or popcorn or a number of other images on there… even though emoji buttons on phones are a fairly recent invention. And finally, I started spending more and more time sending encrypted emails using Thunderbird/Enigmail, which also allows for emoji rather than just emoticons. (If you don’t know the difference between those two terms, read this explainer.)

As more and more people post what I thought were private emails I sent to them on public listservs or websites, outdated and out-of-context tweets are anonymously forwarded to my clients, and I get responses to emails I sent from third parties (gotta love the forward button) or notice new readers (go cc: go), I’ve found that sending encrypted messages makes me feel safe. Of course, it’s possible that my encrypted emails will also get posted or forwarded by the person who decrypts them, but it seems like that’d be a dick thing to do, and would therefore be more unlikely to happen. I’ve been taking advantage of my veneer of safety by sending goofy, rambling encrypted messages with dumb questions, and, of course, overusing emoji. It feels a little childish, and my response rate isn’t at an all-time high, but using encryption to send silly emails with lots of smilies reminds me of middle/high school days listening to riot grrrl bands belting out revolutionary punk rock while wearing barrettes and baby doll dresses. Totally my style.

And yet I know I cannot overuse emoji with clients. I mean, I’m on listservs for professional groups where people shame unnamed strangers for using too many exclamation points. Recently a colleague posted a thread about a grammatical error in a tweet someone had posted after the unexpected death of a family member. I would hope that if I was mourning and sudden death of a loved one, my grammatical errors would not be the foremost item on others’ minds. Still, I spend a lot of time reading and rereading any article submissions, as well as any business emails, making sure that I present myself well.

The decision to use–or not use–emoji and emoticons in business emails reminds me of puzzling over how I am perceived in person. I learned early on that smiling too often makes it very difficult to be taken seriously, but not smiling enough comes across as abrasive or even rude. I’m a huge extrovert, so am often happen to be surrounded by people, but am often quickly reminded that facial expressions can come off as unintentionally flirtatious,  which I surmise is also true about emoticons. Then there are the interviews. I cringe when people ask to video chat. I want to put people at ease, but also need them to give me useful answers. In emails, my written words can be harsh, so I sometimes use emoticons to try to soften them. I often second-guess myself, though, spending way too long in draft mode.

Obsessing over finding this elusive balance is, well, exhausting. That’s why texting back and forth with my husband is so much fun. I can be a total goofball without worrying about future professional repercussions. And though we do send each other random image of typos on billboards or public signage to laugh at, we mostly send really silly and lighthearted messages because it’s fun, and because we have no one to impress. So yes, we go nuts with emoji, and I’ve sent as many as a dozen cutesy ones in a single text.

We decided to send a day just sending emoji to see if we could communicate, and this is how it went.  First he sends me Thumbs Up Sign. I guess he is having a good day! So I send back Smiling Face With Sunglasses because I’m cool like that. Next I get Couple With Heart , which looks just like us…

…so I respond with Face Throwing A Kiss. Now we’ve got Monkey. I decide to up the ante and send See-No-Evil Monkey Hear-No-Evil MonkeySpeak-No-Evil Monkey. He sends me Banana, which I figure is for his monkey…So I sendBananaBananaBananato feed my monkeys. I also add Cherries and Heart Decoration. He sends me Lollipop, which is oh-so-literally sweet.

Now I’m trying to tell him I was going to work at a cafe. This was one of the emoji I sent, as well as a few others that describe the exact location–but I couldn’t find them on Emijopedia. Hot BeverageBut wait! OMG we have a letter coming! It’s a complicated story I can share privately over encrypted email, but basically there’s a certified letter I’m deliberately trying not to sign for. Whenever the mailman or FedEx or UPS come a-knockin’, I pretend I’m not home. I send this: envelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-above !

In response to this letter, he sends me…well, Clinking Beer Mugs. Cheers? But seriously, whu? This makes no sense! Me: http://emojipedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/black-question-mark-ornament.png

He responds with Ear Of Maize.

But no matter. It’s a beautiful day out, so I send him Sunrise. And Face With Stuck-Out Tongue And Winking Eye. And some old-fashioned X’s and O’s.

He sends me a bunch of treats, which is really sweet. I send him every fruit I know.

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 11.27.18 PM

Then I’m trying to convey that I just signed a bunch of contracts for new assignments. Can you tell? 

Then I remember that I could make a “fruit” joke, by sending “French fries.” If you don’t get the joke, watch this video. No matter how stressed out I am, this scene always sends me into fits of riotous laughter.


I also send another personal joke (which I won’t get into). He is shocked.

Okay, so I never did get coffee, so now I think it’s time to go to a cafe, and am trying to ask if that’s cool, because we eat dinner together. Hot Beverage Clock Face Seven Oclockhttp://emojipedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/black-question-mark-ornament.png

Him:  Face Throwing A Kiss.

I blow a kiss back but at this point I’m so confused by our exchange that I decide to wait until he gets home so we can talk it out. Well it turns out that he understood NONE of my emoji because he thought we were just sending random images–which is what he was doing. Sigh.

It makes sense, though, right? I mean, if you saw the State of the Union in emoji, it was pretty hard to understand without looking at the corresponding words. Actually communicating with images instead of just using faces to try to further clarify a point or be cute or tone down language that may otherwise be construed as abrasive is…well, easier.

We decide to start again, the next day, after a few more exchanges, mostly indicating that it’s a nice desert night or that I’m on my way home.

The next day, we both agreed on the ground terms, but it wasn’t much easier. We blew more kisses, sent hand-holding emoji, and some more references to the weather. He sends emojis to remind me to eat lunch, because I’m a workaholic, and sometimes forget. I try to show that I am eating lunch, but don’t recognize the subsequent rice bowl. Oh! There’s someone knocking at the door–could it be the postal carrier?! But he’s worried that I accidentally got tricked into signing it, and I take a picture of what it was–just a box.

My conclusion? First, it’s hilarious that images could be interpreted differently–that we had to discuss how to communicate. But even after that was done, I really like words better. They can be as silly and adolescent as images, but the other person is more likely to get what you have to say. And I start to feel very childish. Case in point:  I stopped using emoji partway through this post because I didn’t want people to have emoji fatigue.

Since then? Aside from trading one dog photo each, my husband’s only sent one smiley, and I haven’t sent a single one. I guess we can be goofballs without them.

The Elephant in the Room Episode 6: David Heinemeier Hansson

podcastIn December, I was joined by the ever-fascinating Ruby on Rails creator, Basecamp CTO and Founder, Rework and Remote co-author, and Le Mans class-winning racing driver David Heinemeier Hansson for episode 6 of the Elephant in the Room. (It took forever to post this because my intro audio was messed up–thanks to Cedric for helping me splice a new one in, even if it makes the rest of my audio sound worse in comparison.)

DHH and I discussed:

  • Remote work, and his Twitter war with Reddit
  • The most pressing social issues of our time (11:14)
  • Disillusionment and creating change (15:27)
  • Being called to task for not speaking out about sexual assault in the Rails community (19:00)
  • Steps to take to secure your own data (and how to make things harder for the guy in the cafe, Google, and the NSA)  (24:36)
  • What he’s reading (30:54)

Enjoy the show!

Show Notes

Maybe Better If You Don’t Read This Story on Public WiFi

Cloak VPN (see also Choosing the VPN That’s Right For You)

Two-factor authentication

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Stuff I Wrote: January 2015

Writing Fountain penIf you read my annual review in December (which Chris Guillebeau–who I got the idea from–included in his roundup), you already know that I’m deliberately working to shift away from posts that I think are just adding noise to the world, and trying to cover things that really matter. I think I’m off to a good start, and next month should feature more posts on NGOs that are changing the world. For now, some of the ten posts below may pique your interest.

Environment

Tech and Privacy

Journalism and Content Strategy

MMA/Fitness

Here’s the Curriculum J-Schools Are Missing

Shimer_IS_5_fall_1994_Sappho_BibleI was this close to attending the University of Missouri at Columbia for an undergrad degree in journalism. Instead, I went to Shimer College, intrigued by the Socratic seminar-style classes and original source readings and hoping to feed my obsession with classic lit and philosophy. Through various twists of fate, I wound up as an independent journalist anyway. I’ve strung together my journalism education through professional groups, online courses, various forums, conferences, coaching, and trial by fire. I’ve been looking at grad programs recently to see what a more formal approach would look like.

Although each of the many programs I looked at teach the basics of writing, editing, and reporting, and cover media ethics and media law, I’ve noticed a lot of missing pieces. Many programs have worked to keep up with the times by adding in courses on computer-assisted reporting, and entrepreneurial journalism electives are also on the rise. Despite these additions, there are many missing pieces. Here are seven courses or electives I would somehow add to the excellent programs already out there–areas I think are painfully missing–based on my five years of freelancing experience.

1. Hostile Environment Training

Even journalists who hadn’t originally planned to put themselves in harm’s way for an assignment may find themselves in a high risk environment, whether they’re deliberately choosing to cover hostile regions or just hopping on a plane to a remote location for a travel story when a hot opportunity strikes. Freelance journalists are often the most vulnerable, both because we’re often still trying to make a name for ourselves and taking unnecessary risks, and because the outlets we write for don’t invest in us the way they would a full-time reporter.  Learning cultural awareness, threat identification, personal security, navigation, first aid, and even surviving captivity is frankly necessary in many regions of the world, and would-be journalists absolutely should receive this life-saving information in school. Many of these are five or six-day intensives taught to small groups, which could somehow be staggered throughout a semester.

2. Information Security

I’m not exaggerating by saying that even leaking metadata can get your sources imprisoned or killed and unfortunately, the actual mindset and practices that can increase your odds of keeping information (and people) safe isn’t something you can learn by reading a few articles, going to some conferences, or using some new apps or tools. This isn’t just for national security reporters or political journalists, either–at some point in time, most reporters will come across information they’d like to keep safe from an unwanted person or group’s prying eyes. Because it’s hard to predict scenarios in advance, this would be best as a hands-on course followed by a case-study heavy practicum, with scenarios based on real-world situations–sort of like Decisions on a Deadline, but with much higher stakes.

3. FOIA for Fun and Profit

I see all these people get great information from Freedom of Information requests, but usually I just get stonewalled. Reminding the agencies I’m querying that what they’re doing is illegal has been about as effective for me as trying to get organizations to enforce their sexual harassment policies–which is to say that it hasn’t been effective at all. Having experts available to give hands-on feedback on how to deal with various evasion strategies would be extremely helpful. I wouldn’t want to pass this course until I actually got documents–because that’s kind of how it works in the real world when you don’t have the data you need to report on a story.

4. Analyzing Large Data Sets

So your FOIA requests aren’t working, your sources aren’t talking, and you really don’t want to rehash someone else’s crappy blog post and don’t really trust their numbers anyway. This course would include hands-on projects where you actually have to scrape, clean, and analyze large data sets–real data, not a set someone created for the purpose of the course. It would then be analyzed with a fine-toothed comb by someone who’s really, really good. If your data is wrong or you can’t get any data, you fail the course. Again, that’s what happens in the “real” world of journalism. No data, no story. Bad data, you never write for the site again.

5. Dealing with Crazy

No matter how diligent of a reporter you are, there’ll always be some editor who will rewrite your post for link bait, ruin your relationship with your sources, and put you in this awkward no-win situation where you get to choose between throwing them under the bus (which looks unprofessional, ruins your relationship with your editor, and sometimes makes it look like you’re just making excuses for shoddy reporting), or taking credit for the editor’s error (which also looks unprofessional and can ruin your reputation and your relationship with your sources).

Up until his tragic death last fall, my friend Sam was the best sounding board I’ve ever had. One of the nicest things he did for me was help me transform profanity-laden epithets to problem clients or editors into respectful and sometimes even diplomatic prose in order to get the best possible outcome–even if I’d already decided to drop the client. Sam understood the need to intensely and determinedly focused on maintaining the integrity of one’s work and one’s professional relationships, even when you’re willing to burn the bridge for integrity’s sake. He would help me figure out what to say in order to at least try to do this in a way that showed respect the people around me, even when they didn’t give that back to me.

This is an ongoing skill that needs to be learned… and it’s not always about bad editors and link bait. It can be navigating tricky social or sexual politics at work, dealing with legitimately crazy sources, online PR crises, online harassment, or any number of tricky situations. It’s that press secretary who’s losing her shit because you didn’t know you were supposed to submit questions in advance, or that person or mob who keeps calling your editor to try to get you fired. Case studies and role playing and practice. Do it in school and you can fail in front of your friends and colleagues, instead of in front of the entire world.

6. Doing the Impossible

Whether you’re freelancing or working on staff somewhere, journalism is full of impossible tasks.

The worst is when you quickly have to get up-to-speed in something fairly technical with very little time, despite your pleas to your editor that you’re unqualified. It helps to have a lot of rock star friends who will answer really dumb questions in exchange for a beer or some cupcakes. But there’s really no way to predict the impossible objective thrust upon you.

Once I had to ghostwrite health posts for the front page of a major health site. This entailed compiling seven to 10 myths in about 90 minutes–meaning I was researching about 15 myths–and quickly read various med journal studies, attempt to fact-check, and writing them up so they’d be “surprising” but not misleading. (Somehow I only had a very minor error for one post and none–that I know of–for the rest. Eventually I hired a part-time fact-checker to help me with this. .)

One time I was sick as a dog and had to get up at 5AM anyway because that 7:00AM interview was not one I could miss. I’m surprised I even managed to drive to my destination without getting in an accident because I really was that cloudy. I am sure I looked like hell but luckily that doesn’t come across in print.

Then there’s the times when you have to build rapport with someone in 30 seconds or less before you ask them that question they may hang up on you for. Or trying to find an expert in international law with a four-hour deadline when three people no-show. Or having to stay up until 5 AM to finish a rewrite so the post can go live right when the embargo is lifted. Or trying to get a Google spokesperson to give you information you can actually use.

Some aspects of journalism are particularly challenging for introverts, but can confuse even the most outgoing extrovert as well. More and more of my clients these days have some sort of collaborative environment going, whether it’s shared visibility in the copyediting process, shared wikis, or even big gigantic interactive cc: all pitch sessions, where three editors will tell you three different things. Learning how to navigate these systems can be confusing, so throwing all these challenges into one big messy interactive class project or series of projects with different “roles” can help people learn to operate in the typical “impossible” environment that journalists have become accustomed to–just throw in a really crappy CMS or two, a few technically incompetent people and an overworked tech whiz trying to meet an impossible deadline of her own, and all sorts of budget cuts, and you’ll be set.

Whatever the impossible task, again, failing among friends and classmates can help inoculate you towards the stressors of everyday reporting. Plus, I think a course comprised of assigning impossible tasks to students would be a really fun one to teach.

7. Debt Collection

I’ve heard through the grapevine that most media law courses don’t teach you what you really need to learn how to do as a freelancer–find a way to pay people who try to screw you over. You really need to learn how to follow up on invoices, and understand the process of going to small claims court, turning a debt over to collections, etc.–even if you decide not to go through those steps. It just saves a lot of time and aggravation down the road…and maybe it’ll even help you circumvent some of the common rookie mistakes I’ve made, like signing terrible contracts or working with verbal agreements. Editors sometimes really pick their targets, and sometimes the same editor or client can treat two freelancers differently–so making sure you have a good contract is crucial.

There you have it–the seven courses I’d want in a dream J-school curriculum. Feel free to let me know what I’m missing.