Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

It’s a Weird World After All – China’s Foreigner Theme Park

chinese pyramid (1 of 1)

It’s a Weird World After All – Roads and Kingdoms

“The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.

I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.”

Sometimes I still travel write! Special bonus offer – this Flickr album has all the photos I took while I visited Meixin Foreigner’s Street.

foreigner street full view (1 of 1)

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Drone Mapping a Mental Hospital with the DJI Phantom 3 Professional

Medfield Mental Hospital from the air.

Medfield Mental Hospital from the air.

I recently bought a Phantom 3 Professional, operating under the logic that it costs $1200 and is therefore much more economical than a hexacopter. Myself and my partner, Daniel, are working on developing expertise in 3D mapping with a UAV, and I’d been looking for a new model capable of waypoint navigation and shooting high-quality, undistorted still images. My Phantom 2 still worked great, but it wasn’t great for mapping – built to use a fish-eye lens GoPro camera, and unable to carry out waypoint navigation without extra, expensive parts.

I was really sold on buying a Phantom 3 Pro after I visited the DroneDeploy offices in San Francisco and watched a demo of their waypoint navigation software, which is paired with their cloud computing processing. You fire up your mobile phone or tablet, sync it with the Phantom 3, then draw a box around the area you want to map. The software calculates how many times the Phantom will need to cross the area, the altitude of the area, and how many pictures are required, then you press a button. The Phantom proceeds to launch itself and carry out its work without your input, though you can always call it back from the controller. Simplicity. I like it.

So, I bought a Phantom 3 Pro—  and since I live in the giant no-fly-zone otherwise known as Washington DC, I had it shipped to Daniel in Boston where I regularly visit him. On my last visit in early September, we decided to test out DroneDeploy and the Phantom 3 by using it to map the abandoned Medfield State Hospital  in Medfield, Massachusetts, which I’d found out about on Atlas Obscura. (Scenes from “Shutter Island” were filmed there). Unlike most creepy, abandoned mental hospitals, this one had been opened to the community for use as a park, while the town decides how best to redevelop it. It’s a sprawling complex with red brick architecture and lush greenery around it in summer, with the Charles River bending towards one corner.

My new Phantom 3, configured to run DroneDeploy off my Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet.

My new Phantom 3, configured to run DroneDeploy off my Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet.

We parked across the street and walked in, and identified a parking lot where we could easily launch the drone from a flat location. DroneDeploy synced up easily enough with my Phantom 3, and I chose to map about half of the area, going conservative for a fist-time experiment. I pressed the button. It worked great: the Phantom efficiently flew off in the designated pattern, in  neater lines then I could manage myself.  It retuned to home in about 15 minutes, and landed itself, albeit with more force then I’d like. I may, in the future, switch back on manual control of the Phantom as it comes in to land after a DroneDeploy mission, as I prefer to catch it rather than landing it.

Since DroneDeploy missions currently can’t be flown with the camera at an oblique angle, I manually shot my own oblique imagery, with the Phantom 3 camera set to shoot images every five seconds. I flew reverse transects from the DroneDeploy pattern, and – following advice from DJI’s Eric Cheng – flew the drone in large, slow circles over the area I want to map. I probably should have worked with alternating the altitude more, but I was pleased enough with the images I was able to collect. The Phantom 3 handles even more smoothly than the Phantom 2, and shoots beautifully crisp still images with its 12-megapixel camera, without the distortion that used to annoy me with the GoPro.

We used both DroneDeploy’s processing tool and Agisoft Photoscan 3D to process the final imagery. Daniel has a great summary of the pros and cons of each over at his blog, so I won’t recap them – but in summary, DroneDeploy was a lot faster, while Agisoft PhotoScan had higher quality results but took a longer time and required much more processing power, and also required us to manually fill in some holes in the mesh.

Here is the final, orthorectified map. DroneDeploy’s ability to quickly orthorectify 2D maps using cloud processing is definitely handy. In the 3D model, DroneDeploy was not able to incorporate our oblique imagery successfully, although we’ve been in touch about the problem, and they’ve told us it will be fixed. There’s two other problems with DroneDeploy as of this writing: it only works with Android phones and tablets, and it requires either Wifi access or mobile data to function.

Both features are in the works, but keep this in mind if you want to experiment with it.In Agisoft Photoscan, which did use our oblique imagery, the sides of the model weren’t as detailed as we’d like – though, some of this is to be expected when mapping an entire complex of buildings.  We could probably fix this by taking the time to shoot oblique imagery around each individual building, but this would take quite a bit of extra time and battery power. (I’d like to try it anyway).

The Drone Deploy model:

Medfield State Hospital
by mountainherder
on Sketchfab

The Agisoft Photoscan model:

Medfield State Hospital – PhotoScan
by mountainherder
on Sketchfab

Overall, I’m very pleased with the Phantom 3 Professional as an inexpensive mapping tool, and I’m excited to see what we can come up with next.  I’m also interested in doing more work with DroneDeploy – and I eagerly await the release of the off-line version, which should make it a much more viable tool for field work. What else could we map in the area around Boston?

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Drones and Aerial Observation: our primer for New America is finished!

drones drones drones


We’ve finally done it: the “Drones and Aerial Observation” primer I’ve been working on for New America with support from the Omidyar Network and Humanity United has been released into the wild.  Ever wondered how drones can help with peaceful endeavors, from disaster response, to conservation, to archaeology? We have you covered.

With this book,  I’m of the mind that myself, my colleague Konstantin Kakaes, and the drone experts who contributed chapters have created an overview of drone technology accessible to people who don’t already know what a “gimbal” is. (Yes, I am aware that is a funny word).

We hope the book will encourage people to start thinking of drones as a tech they can practically use for their own field endeavors. While drones certainly look complicated when you first encounter them – at least, that’s how I felt about them – it’s a tech that’s remarkably accessible to people who don’t have aeronautical engineering PHDs.

You can download the whole shebang as a PDF,  or you can also download individual chapters. Share it, print it out, tell your friends, tell us what you think, tell your friends what you think.

On my end, I wrote chapters 4 and 5: “How to Make Maps with Drones” and “Mapping in Practice.”  Writing these chapters was a real crash-course in drone mapping for me, and I’m grateful to come out the other side alive and with a better sense of what’s required to carry out mapping projects. I hope I can pass that on to you. I’m also planning to get my own mapping drone in the very near future so I can start carrying out some of this work myself.

I also wrote Chapter 9, which is a case study of the world’s largest archaeological drone mapping project, carried out by the Ministry of Culture in Peru. They were incredibly hospitable to me,  and I had a great time watching the researchers deal with the quotidian, difficult, occasionally terrifying realities of making maps with drones in remote and difficult areas. Many thanks to Aldo Watanave and Dr. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters for taking me along for the ride. A Slate piece about this work is impending as well.

To celebrate the release of the book on July 22nd, we held a “Drones and Aerial Observation” symposium at our Washington DC offices. The half-day event featured a lot of great thinkers and practitioners on UAV technology, and from my admittedly biased perspective, I thought it went very well. You can see videos and slideshows of the panel discussions at this link. 

I’d love to hear what you think about the primer, so feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook, or maybe even email. More drone-related writing and research coming up: watch this space!

dji S1000 pisaq BW

My favorite photo from my distinctly drone-focused trip to Peru.

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How Drones can Protect Indigenous Land Rights – Latest for Slate

The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.

The countryside in Flores. Which is not Borneo, but I like the picture.

Drones to the Rescue: how unmanned aerial vehicles can help indigenous people protect their land – Slate 

My latest on Future Tense, documenting how inexpensive UAVs can help indigenous people (and other people without much access to resources) document where they live and what they own. From an interview with Irendra Radjawali, a fascinating Indonesian geographer who begun pioneering this kind of work with the Dayaks of Borneo, with some inroads into Papua and Bali. It’s really cool stuff.

I think this is going to be a particularly important usage of drones, and I hope to do more writing and research on that potential in the near future.

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3D Mapping with a Drone in Wildest Vermont


If you know me at all, you’re probably aware that I write about and research the humanitarian uses of drones for a living. One aspect of today’s drone technology I find particularly interesting is how aerial imagery can be used to make 3D modeling, even with inexpensive consumer technology. I’ve been wanting to try it for a long time.

Well, I don’t currently have a UAV that I can program for autonomous flight, to create the pattern of transects that allow drone-shot images to overlap in an optimal way, so they can be stitched together to create maps and 3D models. I also don’t have a point and shoot camera, just a GoPro Hero 3+ with a fish-eye lens, which is rather less than optimal for mapping applications.

But as it turns out, with the help of the open source Visual SFM software, you can *still* get pretty good results. I was visiting my boyfriend Dan’s family in Southwestern Vermont last weekend, which is a really ideal place to mess around with drone mapping since there are very few people there to notice. My friend Matthew Schroyer of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists has been getting good 3D modeling results just by pulling out video imagery from drone videos shot by amateur pilots.

So, I figured I’d give it a go and see what we got. I flew my Phantom 2 over my boyfriend’s parent’s house in some approximation of a zig-zag pattern, with the GoPro 3 set to shoot an image every second – probably overkill, all things considered. I eyeballed the pattern, and since it was a bit of a windy day, it wasn’t as tight as I’d have liked it to have been.

With the initial fly-over done, we had a few hundred images that could be fed into Visual SFM, which Dan handled. Dan says the VisualSFM model used 378 photographs and took about 20 hours to render using his late-2013 Macbook Pro Retina laptop. That’s including the time required to render the image in MeshLab, which creates the mesh required for three-dimensional modeling and overlays the photographic texture on top of it. You can read about how you can use Visual SFM to crunch images over at the excellent Flight Riot.

Agisoft Photoscan performs all these functions inside of the same program, and is a more effective and powerful software, although unlike Visual SFM, it isn’t free. Dan ran the images through Agisoft Photoscan and added some still shots from a video we’d taken the day before, but it didn’t seem to make much of an improvement to capturing the backside of the house, which was quite fragmented. He ran it again with 75 photos, taking out the video stills, and got a better result with fewer artifacts.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.11.53 PM

Here’s the results with VisualSFM. You can manipulate the model we made with Visual SFM in Sketchfab at this link.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.05.41 PM

Here’s the first Agisoft Photoscan model.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 2.40.25 PM

And here’s the second Agisoft Photoscan model, with the Sketchfab link here.

The results obviously aren’t perfect, but considering how little effort or specialized equipment we used, I’m still impressed. I’m planning to have a good quality mapping UAV with a point and shoot camera and the ability to program transects up and running by July. I think that there’s some very interesting potential for story-telling and journalism with 3D modeling, and I want to figure out ways to experiment. Beyond that, it’s rather fantastic that I can use consumer-grade technology to made video-game like maps of the world around me.

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The Arsenal of Democracy: WWII Planes in Washington D.C


On Friday, I saw the WWII flyover on the National Mall. They called it the “Arsenal of Democracy” after FDR’s famous phrasing in 1940, a name which in our modern age are both comically overwrought and entirely American – perhaps representations of the same thing.  It was the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and 15 historically sequenced formations of historic military aircraft had been permitted to fly over the US capitol, sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force (a group whose existence I was until now entirely unaware of).

They would fly down the Potomac River, then fly over Independence Avenue – buzzing the World War II Memorial, where a group of veterans and dignitaries would gather, proceeding over the Washington Memorial and the Mall.  I could not miss the thing, of course. This is one of the moments that makes enduring some of the indignities of DC, especially when heat-and-metro-outage season hits, slightly more worth it.

When I think of WWII aviation and the war itself, how we remember it in this country – well, I think less of Europe and much more of the tropical remains of the war I’ve seen in Asia, the remains I will divert myself to go look at whenever they are available, as if I feel it is mildly incumbent upon me. And they are, in their way, neglected: the reminders of the war in Burma and in Chongqing don’t get the visitation and the affection that the sites in Europe do.  As a friend noted on Twitter, the  sites are reminders of a sweaty and brutal jungle war – and who romanticizes jungle warfare, with its insects, its rotting feet, its miserable sweat?

We as Westerners are better at imagining great battles on stony beaches and in cities with lots of soaring cathedrals. This particular imagination is, I suppose, what fueled the Arsenal of Democracy. But me, I guess I am a tropical creature, if my life trajectory so far means anything. I remember being the only person knocking around General Stilwell’s house in Chongqing, overlooking the Yangtze river, and the only person in the Flying Tigers museum besides. So, I went to the Arsenal of Democracy in a way to help add some color to the things I have read about World War II in China – the sound of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, what the Douglas C-47 aircraft used to make the nerve-wracking journey over The Hump looked like from below.


Thousands and thousands of people had emerged from their office buildings to join the tourists to watch the flyover, a rare event everyone could agree on. I made my way from my building at Farragut West and headed down 17th street, past the White House. The heat is already like summer but I can comprehend it, it’s not worse than Cambodia, not yet, anyway. As I was nearly to the mall and passing the Association of American States, I saw some of the first planes go over, in a tight formation, somewhere far away. I hurried up, hoping I hadn’t missed anything. The airspace around Washington D.C. is some of the most tightly restricted in the world, locked down even more after September 11 – a topic I know a little about, as I am bound to know all kinds of tiresome things about FAA regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles. So to see anything flying in this vicinity was a bit of a novelty in and of itself, an exotic sight.

People were massed around the Washington Memorial, but the crowds looked ike a sweating, nostalgic Woodstock. I weaved through them, stopping for a moment to take a picture of a young red-headed man who was staring up at the sky, as an early formation of planes went overhead. I had come to the place in large part for the acoustics, to get a sense of what these particular,  historical airplanes sounded like overhead, but there was highly obnoxious jackhammering going on around, from the perpetual revamp of the Mall, and I kept walking.

I headed for the WWII memorial instead. Famous airshow announcer Rob Reider was commenting in a typically silvery voice and I stayed put, grateful for the interpretation, which I could really use. I only recently became interested in aviation, I was never the kind of person who could identify a certain model of historical airplane from just glancing up at the underside for five seconds, as Reider spoke in a  voice that was entirely suitable for a special presentation on the History Channel about what was to come. The first formation was composed of trainer craft: the Piper L-4 Grasshopper, the Beech AT-11 Kansan with its glassed-in nose, the North American AT-6/SNJ, the Boeing Stearman PT-17/N2S. People applauded in scattered and perfunctory chunks as the planes went over, although it was very evident the pilots couldn’t hear them – which, in that case, what were we applauding exactly?


At the  memorial, the first rows of folding chairs were reserved for veterans of the war, and there were lots of them, in olive green uniforms and military hats, looking up at the sky with baseball hats on, with wives and children sitting beside them, often clutching their forearms. Young soldiers in vintage paratrooper gear stood and looked over the water. I photographed two girls in WWII outfits, in blue and red, who smiled prettily. A man in a old Navy uniform, with stark white bell bottoms, patrolled the area and frowned a lot while shooting pictures.

I circulated around the area, trying to figure out where the source of the announcement was coming from, but I could never quite get sight of him. “And our special guest former senator Robert Dole!” he announced, and everyone cheered. I tried to stand up and see what Robert Dole looked like from one of the raised platforms around the WWII memorial but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd, which was a disappointment, since I recalled going through the 1996 elections as a young child and having no clear conception of his appearance (beyond “elderly).

As I looked down to the platform where the special guests were, the planes kept going overhead – there were 56 of them in all, and they would all go over our heads over the next 40 minutes or so, in formation according to certain battles or some other (somewhat loose) historical association. The weird shape of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which famously and retributively shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. The speedy North American P-51 Mustang, of which there were seven present at the flyover, and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which went toe-to-toe with Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

b-29 superfortress

On the platform below, I watched as a group of veterans with artificial legs, most about my age, walked below, taking pictures with one another, and I looked at them for a moment, then felt strange about looking at them, about noticing the particular nature and origin of their injuries. I looked up at the planes again, to break up the weirdness of the moment, the noticing : a huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress cut through the sky ahead of us, and everyone stared at it for a moment, a little moment of distinct mechanical reverence, tinged slightly (perhaps I imagined this) with fear.

It is the only flyable B-29 Superfortress in the entire world, and I did feel lucky to see it, outside of computer-generated versions of such in nostalgia-drenched movies – an enormous black form, as big as you had imagined it if you were prone to historical re-imagining. They are the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. This was not, I think, mentioned in the commentary.

The last formation was devoted to the dead of America’s air wars in WWII, the Missing Man Formation, composed of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the North American P-51 Mustang, and the cyan-colored Grumman TBM Avenger. “This is the symbolic moment of this flyover,” Reider told us, in case we were wondering what to feel, and also wondering why one plane would intentionally fall away from the others, which would perhaps be the kind of thing everyone would Tweet about.



“Everyone should stand,” he added. Someone started to play taps, and all the veterans rose to their feet and saluted, and in that moment I felt like I should salute too, but I didn’t, although at least I was standing up. My sensation of patriotism, which is fickle and odd, emerged in me for a bit and I had uncharitable thoughts about the people who remained splayed out on their lawn chairs and on their towels, who failed to meet the moment with reverence, or at least with bothering to entirely notice.

The planes came over, with one plane – either the Mustang or the TBM Avenger, I can’t tell – with a plume of colored jet trail behind it, meant to represent the smoke from a direct hit. It fell away as it passed over our heads, and was gone. That was the end of the flyover.

We all started to walk back immediately, to get out of the sun. “Remember: if you speak English, thank a veteran,” he reminded us, as a sign-off. A woman began thanking people.

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Nepal Disaster Response, and Please Don’t Just Go There With a Drone

nepal earthquake

About a week ago, I wrote an article for Slate about how drone pilots were assisting with the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Here’s the article, which is a general overview of the planned response – at the time of writing, not much had actually happened yet with disaster response UAV flights.


Patrick Meier, organizer of the UAViators collective of humanitarian drone pilots, filled me in on how the UAV teams affiliated with UAViators would work closely with humanitarian aid organizations and with local officials.. This coordination and organization would hopefully help prevent the skies over Nepal’s disaster areas from becoming dangerously choked with UAVs, flown by teams who weren’t working with or even aware of one another.

Unfortunately, Nepal has just banned the usage of drones without explicit permission from authorities. The stated reason fro Nepali authorities is that the drones could be capable of leaking “sensitive information and pictures of its valuable heritage sites .”

Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve also got to wonder if the influx of drones into Nepal – including those flown by journalists and others who didn’t liase with UAViators – helped to influence this decision. I’m not in Nepal, I don’t know much about Nepal, and I can’t say if that’s actually what happened or not. But as we’ve seen in Cambodia, drone use that isn’t very responsible and very well coordinated with local authorities can lead to hasty lawmaking.

Patrick’s written a great article about his observations from the Nepal disaster response, which you should really read. I especially think his point about building local capacity to do disaster response missions with UAVs is important. With the low price and relative ease of use of todays’ drone technology, here’s no reason why a country should have to wait for UAV teams from developed nations to get in the air.

I support everything he’s said, and would like to reiterate a point here: if you’re planning to book a ticket to Nepal and schlep your drone over there to help, don’t. Or at least, don’t do so without first contacting UAViators, following its Code of Conduct, and making a concrete effort to ensure you’ll be hurting, not helping.

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Faine Made a Drone Video: Travel in Cambodia and Thailand

I dragged my Phantom 2 around Southeast Asia last summer. I wondered at the time if this was really a good idea, but the Phantom survived, I survived, and I got to fly it over some pretty cool things in the process. Some observations about travel with the companionship of a drone that fits in a backpack:

Airport security around the world could not care less about your drone. Authorities in Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand all failed to even ask to look at it. You may have issues if you try to carry-on one of those cans of spray-on deodorant, though. I feel so safe.

You will develop a remarkably keen ability to notice when someone is jostling, sitting on, or just looking funny at the backpack that contains your $1200 piece of specialized aerial equipment. Maybe I developed a mind-link with it. Maybe I’m just crazy?

In my experience, average people in Cambodia and Thailand were deeply disinterested in the drone. Perhaps they wrote it off as yet another inexplicable thing foreign tourists do to amuse themselves. I think the monk sweeping the steps at Wat U-Mong didn’t even look up when we launched it, after we explained what we were doing and secured his permission. Still, watch out for feral dogs. Feral dogs love drones.

Here’s the video. My thanks to the late, great, Sinn Sisamouth.

Faine Flies a Drone in Cambodia and Thailand from Faine Greenwood on Vimeo.

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Charlie Hebdo, Twitter, and The Battle of Who Could Care Most


This drawing seems apropo.

“You don’t care about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, but you do care about Charlie Hebdo,” some pissed-off Twitter user says. “All this anger over attacks in Paris, but none over children freezing to death in Syria!” another rages.

It’s a familiar pattern, one that bubbles to the surface whenever a terrible event hits the international news and dominates the social media conversation: why do you care about this, but not that? Why is the media intent on promoting one story, and not another? Why do Westerners seem to care so much more when an attack strikes Paris, or London, or NYC, than they care about the Boko Haram slaughter of thousands (or hundreds, or…) in Nigeria’s northeast?

These comments are both utterly predictable and almost entirely useless. However well intentioned they may be, they are fighting a very elemental part of human nature: our biases, our fondness for that which is close to us, easy for us to understand. We crave novelty. We are naturally subjective, tribal beings. We only have so much capacity to care, lest we suffer from the modern ailment of “compassion fatigue.” What’s more, they are grounded in some ignorance of the historical context of the request for More Compassion Over Here Please, and perhaps too, of the privileged state of the complainer to begin with.

The media of every free nation in the world covers the death of a countryman overseas with more concentrated interest than the deaths of those local to the country – and usually extends the favor to foreigners with racial and cultural ties to themselves. This tendency was lampooned in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit in which a serious-looking Michael Palin notes, “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M-1 today…. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.”

It’s satire in the finest British tradition, but the “Python” riff on the tribal nature of parrots is also a clear-eyed observation about human nature: if something bad happens to someone who is more like us, we are programmed to be much more concerned about it. For those of us who live comfortable lives in comfortable places, it is far easier to imagine ourselves being shot in the head in our office downtown or blown to pieces on a subway than it is for us to imagine being kidnapped by rebels in a Nigerian forest or succumbing to Ebola in the slums of Liberia.

Nor does this particular brand of parochialism suggest we care equally about all such deaths of those we consider our own. When was the last time the death of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan made international headlines, warranted a segment on the evening news, or trended enormously on Twitter? US soldiers killed in battle in some lonely Central Asian outpost rarely seem to warrant more than a mention in their hometown paper or, at most, a poignant but impersonal wire photo of a flag-draped coffin at a funeral, evoked in service of some larger point about some aspect of the war. If this is the blasé reaction that even our supposedly beloved and venerated soldiers get when they die in battle in pursuit of our agreed-upon, national interests, then something more than mere nativism is going on.

To understand why, we must consider the power of novelty, which even the most woefully stupid marketing or media executive is intimately acquainted with. Tragic as it is, a dramatic and bloody terrorist attack on the refined streets of Paris is more exciting, more unexpected, and even more entertaining than the steady and interminable drumbeat of children dying in the streets of Aleppo or Baghdad. The stage-managed for media death of a Western journalist at the hands of ISIS is more interesting to an American audience – perhaps only dimly aware of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place – than the brutal death of yet another Syrian cameraman.

Beyond just novelty, to truly garner attention in both the traditional media and on social media, a death or disaster usually must also have a connection to a larger societal concern, especially if it happens overseas. A resurgent ISIS, feeding anxiety over homegrown jihadists, has brought the issue of Islamic terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Likewise, freedom of speech rights are seen as under attack by both all sides of the political spectrum: cultural critics such as David Brooks fret over campus activism and micro-aggressions, while the supporters of Edward Snowden worry about the chilling effects of NSA surveillance. We evaluate terrible events overseas through the prism of our own anxieties: are the victims like us and could this terrible thing happen here?

As a kind of calculated equation, with a final value of how much we end up caring for something, these elements: novelty, relatability, and a story’s relationship to our broader cultural milieu seem crass and cruel. Perhaps in a moral and unbiased world, we would be spending just as much time being enraged about Syria, kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Ukraine, and the continuing Ebola crisis as we have all been this week about Charlie Hebdo. But what is the alternative to our current imperfect system of choosing what to pay attention to? Not everything can be covered equally, certainly not in an era where foreign correspondents are roughly as endangered as the white rhinoceros. How then do we decide what warrants conversation and coverage, and what doesn’t – beyond dictating just how much time the media must give to any story, which is very much the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument?

International conflicts and problems are often terrifyingly complex. While raising awareness and drumming up compassion for the suffering can accomplish good things, awareness and compassion by themselves are not nearly enough to solve problems. Going around on Twitter demanding that people care more about some things than other things is yet another form of armchair activism: it makes us feel good and righteous, like we’re doing something, but it rarely actually accomplishes anything concrete.

Remember this? Nah, you probably don't.

Remember this? Nah, you probably don’t.

The Kony 2012 campaign captured the attention of the social media world, but accomplished nothing at all with regards to ending the abuse of child slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and wasted a lot of well-intentioned money on splashy adverts and stickers in the process. What do we hope to accomplish if we get people to divert some of their attention from the dead of Charlie Hebdo, and towards the plight of Syria, or Boko Haram? Is there a concrete benefit for that starving Syrian child if a college student on Twitter whose avatar is a picture of his dog decides to give Syria’s plight a hashtag and a pithy little quote?

Complaints about why people in America seem to care more about one international tragedy than another also evince a certain ignorance of history, of just what that request means. In our media saturated and interconnected world, it is easy to forget the demand that people in America or India or Cambodia care deeply about the plight of people in Syria or France or Somalia is a profoundly new one.

The widespread and swift dissemination of international news and tragedy dates only to the mid-nineteenth century with the proliferation of international telegraph communication. Previously, news from overseas had taken months to travel from Asia to Europe and vice versa. When these far-away tragedies finally did hit the news, they were atomized, already out of date. People may have cared about starving millions far away, but it was a very abstract thing, and even the educated elite probably did not feel pressured to make public displays of feeling bad about it. On the whole, most people only worried themselves about distant tragedy when it had some kind of economic impact on them.

Technology has since made prodigious new demands on our reserves of compassion and time. The rise of instantaneous international news 24-hour cable networks, and most recently, social media, has prompted many people to develop empathy for exponentially more humans than they were ever asked to do before, at any time in human history. It has also produced the expectation that a good and educated person should be aware of all the world’s suffering, and be vocal about that awareness and empathy. We are not only bombarded with dozens of new and horrifying stories every day: there is considerable pressure to make it clear that we are aware, we care, and we’re not going to take it sitting down (whatever that may mean).

On the whole, we do a surprisingly good job of this newfound demand for both total awareness and total compassion. But, no, we do not do a perfect job. How could we? Susan D. Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue” described the issue very well back in 1999, and her discussion of how 24-hour television news coverage of international events contributed to the public’s exhaustion of empathy seems absolutely quaint in the Twitter era. We in the international spectator class may have developed considerable new powers of empathy for people who do not resemble us, but we have yet to figure out how to develop inexhaustible stores of empathy.

In case you've been under a rock.

In case you’ve been under a rock.

Those of us who care about things like Charlie Hebdo versus Boko Haram, those of us who with time enough to read an article like this, constitute a particular and privileged segment of humanity. We who spend our free time and energy shouting at each other on Twitter about how much (or how little) we care about things should also remember that we are among the blessed of the earth for being able to get into Internet fights to begin with.

Susan Sontag, in her “Regarding the Pain of Others,” put it well: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator.”

And not everyone is, of course, and this is easy to forget if you live in a urbanized place in a wealthy city and have friends who spend their time glued to social media and to current events. Many people, even those in our wealthy Western countries, have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to spend their free time spectating and worrying about misery in foreign countries. Many other people lack any access to an open media and to public forums at all. If you are going to reprimand someone for not adequately caring about something in a certain part of the world, the object of your ire has got to be on Twitter or Facebook or the Internet and somewhat interested in your opinion in the first place – to forget this is to run the risk of dangerously universalizing our comfortable online echo chambers.

So if you’re angry about people on Twitter caring more about Charlie and less about Boko Haram: I understand, but stop and think about what you’re asking. The problem is bigger than merely telling people to give a damn: it is hardwired into our basic psychology. Not only that, the problem of biased compassion about one disaster or killing is a historically new one – and a problem that today, many people around the world still lack the tools to even engage with in the first place.

Someday we might solve or mitigate it. Perhaps we can find a way to direct our compassion in effective ways, and spread it around more evenly. But shouting at people on Twitter for inadequately caring about whatever story has caught your attention is unlikely to be the answer.


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“Last Christmas” or Cambodia’s Inexplicable Favorite Christmas Song

It’s the holidays, and I want to talk to you about a very, very annoying Christmas song, one that nevertheless has a special, perverse place in my heart thanks to my time in Cambodia.

It’s called “Last Christmas,” and was created by those British songster scamps “Wham,” who you’ve probably never heard of outside of the context of awkward oldies stations if you’re under 30. Watch the hilariously dated video, which features people with big hair and even bigger beaver-fur bonnets (I guess that’s what they are) cavorting in the snow. There is infidelity and lots of glaring and confusingly rosy tans. It is a poem to 1985, which is, admittedly, a year I didn’t even exist in.

If you’ve spent any time in Cambodia, you probably have a slightly uncomfortable memory linked to Wham’s “Last Christmas.” The song may be a slightly embarrassing relic of the Time of Neon-Colored Windbreakers in the US, but in Cambodia, it remains a beloved holiday favorite. And you remember hearing it, at some moment when you didn’t expect it. Probably a moment that caused you  bit of retroactive shame.

open 24 hours girl

That’s because  “Last Christmas” is everywhere, and it’s essentially impossible to escape during Christmas – especially if you spend a lot of time hanging out at bars. (Which, if you’re an expat, you almost certainly do). You’re ordering your fourth drink or so on the holiday, you maybe didn’t call everyone you should have called, your life choices are shown to you in stark relief – were these the right tones? And then on comes “Last Christmas.” End scene.

From one festive year.

From one festive year.

I cannot adequately explain why “Last Christmas” has permeated so deeply into the Khmer consciousness, and I’ve never heard an entirely adequate explanation from a Cambodian person. There are even Khmer covers, with impressively high production values and videos that feature great bales of probably dangerously chemical fake snow. I have been told the sickness has permeated into Vietnam.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not actually Christmas, I should add. If you’re in Cambodia, “Last Christmas” will make its inevitable, ambiguous appearance regardless of the season, or in fact, even the time of day. It’s kind of like the gentle to-and-fro of the tide. Accept it, or go mad.

I’ve noticed the closer it gets to 3:00 AM, the more likely people are to dance very badly to “Last Christmas.” It’s a regular fixture on the essentially immobile playlist at Howie’s Bar on Street 51 in Phnom Penh. If it goes on the playlist, I will probably have to go home and cry.

Since, I am a bit sentimental about “Last Christmas,” as objectively terrible and dated as it is, despite the number of times I’m heard it in the middle of August. I’m back in the states this Christmas, and whenever the song comes back on, I’m filled with nostalgia for the Cambodia version of the holiday season. The elaborate displays at the Nagaworld Casino, with Vietnamese and Chinese tourists in business suits snapping appreciative photos.

tiny santa suits

Slightly sloppy but endlessly good natured holiday parties. Cambodian parents buying tiny-sized Santa suits to torment their children with. The occasional burst of fake snow emanating from a friendly-minded bank.

Fake trees on the back of tuk-tuks. Being wished “Happy Merry Christmas” all the time, said as a single phrase. Delightfully warm weather on Christmas Day, and maybe a trip to the beach. And of course, finding yourself at a particularly disreputable hostess bar at 4:00 AM, filled with some combination of affection for humanity and mild, nagging self-questioning. But you’re pretty happy anyway.

If anything fosters an entirely appropriate sense of affinity for your fellow man despite it all, it’s an expat Christmas.

Suck on, “Last Christmas.” Suck on.

Happy Merry Christmas.

PS: here’s a link to my Christmas in Cambodia photoblog from back in 2010. 

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