Category Archives: Travel

Visiting Walden; Reading Walden

A lovely day trip from Boston, Walden Pond is a large, crystalline lake, surrounded by tall trees and walking paths. Henry David Thoreau lived alone near its shores in the 1840s and was inspired to write his famous work, Walden. Today, many families visit to spend time outdoors and swim in the lake, and the Massachusetts park service runs a visitors’ center nearby with information about Thoreau’s life.  A replica of the tiny house Thoreau built for himself sits close to the center; a reminder of his call to live simply.

I visited in September with friends and was captivated by Thoreau’s house. It looked surprisingly like the tiny houses of recent social movements, aimed at either helping the homeless or getting stressed-out city dwellers to downsize and simplify. Suddenly I was envious of his project to live alone by the lake. I’d never read Walden; it was time to pick up the book. 

A reproduction of Henry David Thoreau’s house at Walden. 2018 Photo by Mark Holan

Walden is a first-person account that’s part nature study, part self-help, part political critique. Thoreau meanders for long passages but then makes a sharp point that seems right on target for 2018. Most pointedly, he talks about how quests for money, property and prestige tend to complicate our lives with pointless worry.

In passage after passage, he discusses the way we mindlessly accept society’s conventions and how poorly it serves us. He calls for truth in all things; even when others disagree:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.”

He emphasizes the tremendous value of reading and thought and how it strengthens the mind:

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

Even though he was alone in the woods, Thoreau did not hunt. Instead, he makes an explicit pitch for vegetarianism:

“Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

He sees personal health as both holistic and spiritual, which moved me deeply:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxim.

Almost eerily, he seems to forecast the dangers of climate change. Thoreau made detailed studies of the pond and its depth. In his day, workers would come each winter to harvest ice by cutting away the top layer of the pond and packing the ice in straw to send to the city. Thoreau saw how the pond itself seemed to react by melting faster as its top layer was cut away:

“Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.”

Later, he notes the ultimate power that the natural environment has over human life:

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

Thoreau is philosophical, but he alternates big thoughts with charming observations of the surrounding forest life.. Here he describes the foxes and wonders about  their motivations:

“Sometimes I heard the foxes as they ranged over the snow-crust, in moonlight nights, in search of a partridge or other game, barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if laboring with some anxiety, or seeking expression, struggling for light and to be dogs outright and run freely in the streets; for if we take the ages into our account, may there not be a civilization going on among brutes as well as men? They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated.”

On the day of our visit to Walden, I spent a pleasant day on its shores with my friends and their children, eating a picnic. My partner, a serious swimmer, swam across Walden and back and wrote his own thoughts on it. Though Thoreau’s life in one way seems very long ago, in another way it’s quite immediate. Many things about Walden, both the book and the place, will stay with me.

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Global Fact V in Rome

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Fact-checkers from around the world gathered at the end of June in Rome for Global Fact V, the international fact-checking conference. It was a smashing success, with many great panels and discussions. (Read coverage of the conference events via Poynter.org.) … Continue reading

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Talking about fact-checking in Germany

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I traveled to Germany recently to talk about fact-checking and U.S. politics at the German-American Institutes. Here are some photos from the trip.

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Talking about fact-checking in Brazil at Festival 3i

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Earlier in November, I was a guest speaker at Festival 3i in Rio de Janeiro, where I talked about fact-checking in a partisan environment. Here are some photos from the trip.    

Fact-checkers meet in Spain for Global Fact 4

MADRID — For the fourth year in a row, I’ve gathered with fact-checkers from around the world to discuss best practices and highest principles, with lots of time for socializing. We come together to confab, commiserate and encourage as we all go about our work of holding the powerful accountable and giving our readers the facts on what’s true and what’s not.

Global Fact 4 drew 190 attendees from around the world. (Photo by Mario Garcia)

I saw two major themes at this year’s conference: technology and trust.

For technology, Bill Adair of Duke Reporters’ Lab showed us the latest on automation and Share the Facts, coding that allows fact-checks to be shared and highlighted in search findings. Meanwhile, the UK fact-checkers at Full Fact showed us how they’re using automated processes to identify and flag false statements and then present corrective information simultaneously. Both efforts are exciting and point to new ways of getting accurate, vetted information in front of people on the Internet.

Interestingly, basic trust struck me as the trickier issue. Several speakers mentioned the high levels of partisanship among the general public, a.k.a. our audience. That partisanship sometimes makes people hostile to fact-checking or evidence-based findings that contradict their world view. As one academic put it, partisanship is a social identity, not a cognitive tool. That means people can perceive fact-checking as threatening (or bolstering) to their own sense of identity, instead of simply seeing fact-checks as information that helps them make decisions. Reaching out to audiences that are suspicious of fact-checking remains one of our most important tasks, and we’re still figuring out the best ways to understand and address their concerns about our processes and work.

Laura Zommer of Chequeado and I present on fact-checking methods at Global Fact 4 in Madrid. (Photo by Mario Garcia)

The International Fact-checking Network, which grew out of the first year’s conference, hosted this event and announced new grants to increase fact-checking’s reach around the world. The next few years will be exciting, and I’m already looking forward to Global Fact 5 in 2018.  

What do fact-checkers around the world have in common?

I wrote a column about the recent third annual Global Summit on Fact-checking in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Much of the discussion there focused on best practices for fact-checking.  My column explored five fundamental principles we all could share.

From Canada to Colombia, from Spain to South Africa, fact-checking is now spreading around the globe. In June, international fact-checkers gathered in Buenos Aires to compare notes on how we investigate claims, weigh evidence and publish our findings.

Those of us who gathered at the Global Summit on Fact-checking are a diverse lot. Some of us are journalists, as we are at PolitiFact. Others are researchers and writers who work for nonprofits. Still others consider themselves civic activists, agitating under repressive regimes to get truthful facts to the public.

While our identities are sometimes different, our work is usually the same: Credible, accurate information backed up with sources and evidence. MORE …

PolitiFact in Buenos Aires 


The PolitiFact team recently visited Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the third annual Global Summit on Fact-checking. I’ll be posting more on this soon, but in the meantime here is a photo of some of us with street art in the city. 

‘What happened when fact-checkers left their desks to go to Iowa’

Here’s my op-ed for PolitiFact and the Tampa Bay Times, summing up PolitiFact’s 2016 visit to Iowa to cover the presidential candidates.

DES MOINES — The art and craft of political fact-checking is not much to look at, usually. We sit at desks and read transcripts. We watch politicians on TV. We read documents and reports. On lively days, we talk with national experts on the phone. Every now and then, we might have a heated conversation with a press secretary.

So when PolitiFact decided to send a small team to Iowa, I jumped at the chance: Fact-checkers unbound from their desks! READ MORE.

PolitiFact in Iowa

Our team went to Iowa recently to cover the caucuses; we snapped this selfie quickly on our way to a campaign rally. From left to right, it’s me, reporter Lauren Carroll and deputy editor Katie Sanders.

Books for a vacation

With summer coming to an end, it seems appropriate to post this list I wrote up for a friend: my recommendations for books to read on vacation.

  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. Irreverent and funny. A dentist gets his identity stolen and has a run-in with an invented religious.
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fantasy. An adventure story, lovely writing, better than the movies. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit … .”
  • The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Modern Charles Dickens-like tale about an orphan and a stolen painting. Fascinating sub-themes of alcoholism and addiction.
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Nested short stories: historical, romantic, detective, farce and futuristic. The subtle but overarching theme is humanity’s own predation on its members. David Mitchell is a big favorite of mine.