Remembering the Y2K Bug

Man in 2000 glasses in times square

Flashback to December 31, 1999. Waiting for the clock to count down to a shiny new millennium. Should have been exciting, right? But that New Year’s Eve, the world was particularly on edge — and not even a few cocktails and Prince’s party classic could take away that nagging worry that maybe, just maybe, the world as everyone knew it was about to descend into total chaos. 

Maybe, just maybe, the world as everyone knew it was about to descend into total chaos. 

Why? Because of a possible worldwide computer system meltdown known as Y2K, also affectionately dubbed “Doomsday 2000.”

It’s easy to forget just how anxious people were about that looming date — from nail-biting business execs fraught over potential mass system failures to the average person wondering whether his or her bank accounts would be wiped out. And all because of some cost-saving measures put into place in the middle of the century. 

Back in the 1960s, computer memory was very expensive. To save money and valuable space, computer programs often shortened four-digit dates to two digits. Seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, programmers did not conceive that the code they were writing in the ’60s and ’70s would still be in used at the end of the century.

But it was. And in the 1990s, the dire situation became clear: The year 1900 (shortened to ’00) was about to become indistinguishable from 2000. The Millennium Bug was born. And that was a mighty big tech-support problem. To make matters trickier, the year 2000 was also a leap year. Which meant factoring in an extra day. Damn.

With the security and safety of utilities grids, hospitals, transportation and financial institutions at stake … this was much more than a computer problem with a futuristic name.

Y2K soon became a matter of global importance. Why was it such a big deal? With the security and safety of key systems at stake — like utilities grids, hospitals, transportation, financial institutions, government networks — this was much more than a computer problem with a futuristic name. And it wasn’t just about software; any device with a computer chip reliant on calendar dates, such as an elevator, could also be affected by the Millennium Bug.

But how to tackle such a big problem affecting the whole world? Y2K preparedness teams were formed and the smarty-pants from around the globe were encouraged to pool their brainpower. In 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act, where U.S. companies could share data and best practices in return for “limited liability protection.” Later that year, the U.N. held its first international conference on Y2K and established the International Y2K Cooperation Center in Washington, D.C.

And the price tag to thwart potential global crisis? An estimated $300 billion, half of which was spent in the United States.

But despite all that geek magic at work, not everyone thought that all would be fine when the clock struck midnight on that final day of the 1900s. Some feared massive blackouts and nuclear meltdowns. Others drained their bank accounts and stockpiled food and guns. Survivalists prepared for the potential apocalypse by building bunkers in their backyards.

Recently, a satirical Canadian radio program interviewed a man who had supposedly emerged from his Y2K bunker after spending almost 14 years underground. News of a guy who opted to hunker down and wait out the effects of Doomsday 2000 spread like wildfire online. When the story turned out to be a joke, many were rather disappointed. Why? Well, it was a great, sharable story. But also, it reminded those of us who fell under that looming shadow of Y2K just how freaked out we actually were back in the day — when heading underground to wait out Armageddon didn’t sound like such a crazy idea at all.

Dr. Mary Walker: Freedom Fighter

Color treated portrait of Mary Walker

She was a woman ahead of her time. Way ahead. Yet not everyone is aware of the force that was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist and suffrage activist. She devoted her personal and professional life to medical excellence and championing human rights — before, during and after the Civil War. For her wartime service, Walker is theonly woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for military bravery offered by the United States of America — an award that was rescinded and then reinstated.

And she did it all while wearing pants.

Walker is the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, her nation’s highest award for military bravery.

Mary Walker was destined to be a freedom fighter. Born in 1832 to a free-thinking father who believed in equality and education for all, she worked on the family farm in men’s clothes, alongside her four sisters. Both parents were against restrictive women’s clothing, favoring trousers and pantsuits over corsets and dresses. Walker went on to be arrested on several occasions for “impersonating a man.” In the military she wore “radical” bloomers and a man’s uniform jacket, and later in life she wore a full tuxedo while giving lectures about women’s rights. She even got married in pants (and, shocking for the times, kept her own name ; Walker staunchly opposed male-dominated wedding vows). 

Scorn of Walker’s wardrobe choices persisted even into the 1990s. Said a history professor to Walker’s great-grandniece Ann Walker, ”She was always imitating men, and if she had dressed like a lady, she would have had a larger role in history,” 

Oh, but she did play a large role in history. 

Color treated portrait of Mary Walker

A medical hero in men’s trousers

At age 23, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College, an education that she paid for herself. After becoming the second-ever American woman to finish physician training, she ran her own medical practice for six years. When the Civil War began in 1861, Walker was ready to join up, but the Union Army didn’t hire women doctors. So she volunteered as a nurse, treating wounded soldiers at the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. Finally in the following year, she was appointed an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry — the first American woman to be a military doctor — and chose not to share the sole surgeon’s paycheck. 

During the war, Walker crusaded against “senseless,” unhygienic and barbaric amputations that contributed to high mortality rates, and she refused to follow the standard procedures practiced in the operating room. Even when it meant crossing Confederate lines to treat soldiers and civilians, she went. When Walker was captured by Confederate troops and held for four months, she continued to work as a contract surgeon.

Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Walker’s wartime service was recognized by the Medal of Honor; the citation signed by President Andrew Johnson on November 11, 1865, praised Walker for devoting herself ”with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health.” But during the “Purge of 1917,” a movement to crack down on fraudulent medal copies, the awards given to Walker and roughly 900 other recipients were revoked. On what grounds? No supporting proof of “valor of combat.” The Army demanded that Walker hand over her medal. She flatly and fiercely refused, proudly sporting the award until her death in 1919 — the same year that the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote.

Olympics and Oppression

Tommie Smith and John Carlos

Politics and the Olympics do not always make the best bedfellows. The upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi have prompted international debates about whether LGBT athletes and allies should boycott the Games to protest Russia’s strict anti-gay laws.

A boycott is not looking likely, but LGBT rights organizations and supporters are looking for other ways to protest. An added challenge came when Vladimir Putin preemptively banned protests in Sochi from January 7 to March 21. So, what’s next? Should athletes who wish to compete but also make a statement wear rainbow pins? Should out athletes like speed skater Blake Skjellerup make some sort of salute from the podium if they win a medal?

What are the potential repercussions for those who wish to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws and treatment of LGBT citizens?

One lesson can be learned by looking at history. On January 17, 1968, in New York City, sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Louis Lomax, an African-American journalist. Lomax had arranged the meeting with Edwards and King to discuss what kind of protest the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) would carry out at the upcoming Olympics. Edwards had created the OPHR to protest racial inequality in the United States and abroad.

Mexico’s own student movement was cut short when, in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza just 10 days before the Olympic opening ceremony, police and military shot at unarmed demonstrators protesting government repression, killing as many as 3,000. Casualties remain disputed to this day.

Edwards was a professor at San Jose State College, which African American Olympic contenders Tommie Smith and John Carlos attended. Smith had joined the OPHR and he, Edwards and other athletes tried to organize a boycott of the Games. When the boycott didn’t work out due to lack of willing participants, they had backup plans.“Since the march on Washington, 12 civil rights leaders had been murdered, along with three little girls in a church in Birmingham,” said Edwards. “We were looking at a situation of intolerable interim, of suppression, oppression, murder and so forth, which we felt compelled to deal with, as opposed to seeing sport as outside of the realm of legitmate political protest and concern.” 

Edwards said he discussed the range of possible Olympic protest scenarios with King. “The only constraints that came out of that meeting were that the protest had to be nonviolent, that it had to be respectful of other Olympians – especially those who disagreed with the goals and methods of the OPHR – and that the athletes protesting had to be safe.”

Ten months later, on October 16, 1968, Smith and Carlos won Olympic gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race in Mexico City. They stood on the victory podium and each raised a black-gloved fist, heads bowed, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Many would call this a Black Power salute, although Smith later said it was a salute for all human rights. Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who had won silver, stood next to Smith and Carlos, wearing an OPHR badge in solidarity.

They wore black socks, without shoes, to represent black poverty. Carlos wore black beads to symbolize the victims of lynchings. 

The negative reaction was almost instantaneous. The audience booed the athletes as they left the podium, and Smith and Carlos raised their fists again. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage promptly banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. An IOC spokesperson called the salutes “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”


Source Getty

When the athletes returned home, they were met with animosity in the mainstream media. Time put the Olympic logo on the cover with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier” replacing the “Faster, Higher, Stronger” motto. The Chicago Tribune  called the salutes “an insult to their countrymen,” and the Los Angeles Times described the salutes as “Nazi-like.” Norman was greeted with anger by Australians when he came back from Mexico City. Edwards was fired from San Jose State College and said he was placed on the FBI’s list of subversive revolutionaries. Carlos and Smith received death threats against them and their families. Although some news reports said they were stripped of their medals, Carlos, in an ESPN fan chat, said this was false propoganda used to deter people from protesting in the future.

Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006. “Many people in Australia didn’t particularly understand. Why would that young white fella go over and stand with those black individuals?” said Carlos.

When asked if he would have done anything differently, despite the harsh response by the American public, Edwards said, “Absolutely not.” He said of the civil rights battles in the ’60s, “Some of us never believed that we would get through the 1960s alive, so we had nothing to lose except the battle to bring about greater equality and freedom and justice for all people.”

Edwards said that LGBT athletes and allies in the 2014 Olympics who choose to protest will be “in much better shape imagewise and jobwise” than Smith and Carlos were following their actions. He said the protests are not parallel, since Smith and Carlos were protesting a grave injustice in their own country, rather than laws in a country not their own. However, he does advise people planning protests to be prepared. “I think that one who intends to demonstrate on what is the second most political international forum outside of the United Nations itself should be able to pay whatever consequence that they can imagine.”


Tommie Smith and John Carlos

LGBT rights organizations are looking to the IOC for guidance on what comes next. Brian Healey, a program coordinator for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization aiming to end homophobia in sports, said, ”I don’t think we’ve heard the right answer in terms of what athletes themselves can do. Sochi is going to become this big actionable moment for LGBT inclusion in sports, and so much more than that because it’s drawing attention to these horrible, destructive human rights issues in Russia that goes so much farther than sports.” He also cautioned about the lack of security that demonstrators may encounter in Russia. ”I doubt seriously that you will have the full protection of the Russian authorities should this thing develop. …At the end of it all, the athletes determined to demonstrate, they may have to be ready for anything and everything.”

The IOC’s Rule 50 bans “political, religous or racial propaganda,” and it is unclear whether athletes wearing rainbow pins or other rainbow paraphernalia will be punished. Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro sported rainbow-colored nails at track’s world championships in Russia and was asked to change her polish. An IOC spokesperson recently told BuzzFeed that Rule 50 has “seldom if ever been ‘enforced’ with a ban, expulsion or similar.” She added, “Again, the IOC will always take a sensible approach when dealing with potential actions and always act on a case-by-case basis. What happens in reality is that we often start by having an informal conversation with the athletes concerned, who in most cases understand the spirit of the rule and the reason for having it.”

But do the Olympic Games ever really lack politics? John Carlos does not seem to think so. In a past interview with PBS he said, “If you look at the Olympic Games as a whole, if we would say we didn’t want to interject politics into the games, then why are we using nations’ flags? Why don’t we use one Olympic flag to encompass all the Olympians, as opposed to being separatists in terms of China versus Russia or Russia versus the United States? Why don’t we just say man versus man?”

The Art of Scandal

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in an embrace

Were he alive today, Serge Gainsbourg would tell Kanye to take a hike. If you’re obsessed with celebrity scandal, put down your People, turn off TMZ and get to know Gainsbourg — father of actress Charlotte and the biggest pop star France has ever known, even two decades after his death.


With Brigitte Bardot

Source getty

How? Bump the 2011 biopic, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life  to the top of your Netflix streaming queue and find out.

What was it about the controversial singer/poet/artist/actor that brought Paris to a standstill the day of his funeral in 1991? There’s his music, which you’ve heard before, because it’s been covered by De La Soul and Rufus Wainwright. But that’s not why a harem of women sat in his bedroom with his dead body for four days, or why his house is still covered in tribute graffiti.

Maybe it’s because the guy’s a legend whose nicotine-fueled, alcohol-soaked life included love affairs with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin and was the very stuff of Us Weekly fodder — long before we’d ever heard of Brangelina.


Written and directed by graphic novelist and fellow Frenchie Joann Sfar, A Heroic Life features Nazis and naked women, guns and drugs, and all the songs that made Gainsbourg a star, including — in the best scene — “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” which he recorded after having hotel sex with Bardot.

But as you might expect from the only movie the Gainsbourg family has authorized, you won’t get to watch him burn a 500-franc note live on TV (a crime in France) or tell a 23-year-old Whitney Houston that he wants to “fuck” her. (Currently playing on YouTube ).

You will, however, get a glimpse of a celeb with the kind of colossal fame — not to mention debauched, Charlie Sheen-esque, self-destructive impulses — who could’ve taught today’s tabloid brats a thing or two about the art of scandal.

Tristan Wilds

Wilds on white backdrop with hand to chin looking into camera.

Who would think that Tristan Wilds, the fresh-faced actor playing Michael Lee, the good boy gone bad on HBO’s The Wire would go on star in Fox’s reboot of the Hollywood highlife drama 90210, and after that would turn into a Grammy nominated hip-hop/R&B hybrid rapper and singer? Certainly not Tristan himself. Yet, with a new stage name persona, Mack Wilds has the talent to lead urban-flavored music in the right direction and the artistic stature to carry it all on his logo’d crown.

Representing Staten Island, New York, Wilds joins other urban music acts hailing from the Big Apple like Harlem’s ASAP Rocky and ASAP Ferg who are gaining respect and mixing up current music industry genres. Wilds recreates a sound that has been missing since the 1990s and paves a new lane for other artists to explore becoming singer/rappers.

Growing up, Wilds watched his father perform in local bands in Staten Island, and was determined to focus on his own voice. As he got older and hit his teenage years, he was able to pull inspiration from rappers like Wu-Tang Clan that hung out at his father’s barbershop, and started rapping. Though his acting career flourished first, Wilds’ love for music was always burning inside: “Considering it was my love since before acting, I wanted to go after it forever; I just needed sufficient time to dedicate to make it how I wanted to. And with 90210 ending in March for good, it felt like the perfect time to go after it.”

Many have tried to recreate this ’90s/’00s sound, but it’s Wilds and Remi who’ve succeeded in overcoming the hurdle.

The 24-year-old Wilds released his debut album, New York: A Love Story, on Sony Music this past September and received praise from music critics, fans and industry insiders alike. “I wanted to create something that gave people the same feeling the music I grew up listening to gave me back then. I wanted to introduce myself, and tell people who I am, and where I’m from,” Mack explained when we asked him about NYALS.

Salaam Remi, a staple in cross genre music who produced tracks for the Fugees, Nas and most notably the late Amy Winehouse, produced the lion’s share of NYALS. The 13-track album features beat remakes of hits by hip-hop icons DJ Premier (“Keepin’ It Real”), Jay-Z (“My Crib”) and even a cover of the king of pop, Michael Jackson (“Remember The Time”).

Mack Wilds has the talent to lead urban-flavored music in the right direction…

But the track samples aren’t the album’s standout: that honor goes to Wilds’ smooth, harmonic voice. His tone ties together the lyrics and the production, wrapping it all up in a sumptuous bow. He sings lyrics like, “I’m a fly motherf*&ker from around the way. S-I till I die and I say it brave,” on his track “Henny,” which is built on top of Mobb Deep’s classic “Burn.” This kind of blending of melodic R&B tracks with hard hitting hip-hop drums originated with DJ Ron G’s mixtapes that flooded NY streets in the early ’90s, and was even the life blood sound of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records empire. Many have tried to recreate this ’90s/’00s sound, but it’s Wilds and Remi who’ve succeeded in overcoming the hurdle. 

Just one album into his career, Wilds has been nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at this year’s Grammys, and NYALS has been added to many media lists of top albums of 2013. “It’s the craziest feeling ever. To be nominated, especially on my first album out, it’s almost unfathomable; I catch myself still trying to wrap my head around it,” Mack says.

Skeptics may sneer at the story of another TV actor trying to transition into the music industry…

Not only has he built an amazing fan base (the young ladies love him), but the music industry has also galvanized behind him. New hitmaker ASAP Ferg and rap legend Method Man assisted the young’n at a recent sold-out show at NYC’s storied S.O.B.’s venue – rare support for a newbie on the rise. Other hitmakers are heaping on the praise, and Spin magazine called his debut confident and compelling. He’s not on tour yet, but he’s making the promotional rounds with small shows in major cities and TV appearances, like his performance on Arsenio.

Skeptics may sneer at the story of another TV actor trying to transition into the music industry, and the man himself told MTV his Grammy run is ”the epitome of a long shot” – but when you listen in, you know Mack is no joke. Line up his vocal talent with his small screen and big screen chops (he appeared in George Lucas’ war film Red Tails in 2012 and The Secret Life of Bees in 2008), and he looks more like a well-grounded triple threat. Will Smith better watch out.

The Joy of Cooking — With Samin

Samin in plaid shirt and apron smiling away from camera in kitchen

When Samin Nosrat wants something, she writes a letter — a real, old-fashioned, heartfelt letter.

“I’m an insane stalker person,” says the 34-year-old cook/writer/surfer with a laugh. “I find people I admire and I just want to be near them. I want them to be my teacher.” So, (novel idea) she simply asks.

And because she is the kind of huggy, happy, highly talented person people want to be around too, they inevitably say yes. Benedetta Vitali. Alice Waters. Michael Pollan. Strangers turned mentors, all.

It’s Samin’s way with words — and food — that has gotten her where she is on this sunny winter day: blissfully barefoot in her cluttered Berkeley, California kitchen, toiling over her white Frigidaire stovetop. And laptop. Hard at work on what could be The Next Great Cookbook.  

Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking will be published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster — to the chagrin of a dozen or so houses that lost the bidding war in March. The lucky winner? Editor Michael Szczerban who happened to write Samin a genuine letter himself that brought her to tears.

As did the enviable advance, which has allowed Samin to make writing this book her full-time job. Prior to the deal, she was scraping by on $17,000 a year. “Now I’m going to buy sea salt!” she cried to a friend the morning after the sale.

What sets this cookbook-to-be apart from the zillions out there? “It fills a gap in the literature,” says Michael Pollan. “Lots of cookbooks tell you what to do, but very few explain why.” Samin is not a restaurant celebrity, as is all the rage these days, but a true home chef, whose aim is to really teach you — yes, even you; and, for that matter, me — how to cook.

“Once you understand the four basic principles of salt, fat, acid, and heat,” she promises, “you’re no longer a slave to step-by-step recipes.” Samin’s 50 recipes will be mixed with musings, science and personal stories — and, best of all, only call for ingredients you already have on hand. No buttermilk? Try milk squeezed with lemon instead. No need to buy pecorino and Parmesan; Samin would never ask you to do something so… annoying.

Born in Southern California to Iranian parents, Samin was a “food-obsessed” kid who grew up eating her mom’s Persian equivalent of PB&J: cucumbers, grapes and feta on lavash. “My lunchbox didn’t look like everybody else’s,” she says, “and I loved that.”

At age 19, she and her UC Berkeley boyfriend saved up for a special dinner date at Chez Panisse. “I’d never eaten in a fancy restaurant. I had no idea who Alice Waters was or why this place was famous, but we got dressed up, and ordered wine and ate chocolate soufflé,” recalls Samin. “With milk! I ordered milk!” she says, laughing, still mortified. “The meal… the service… It was life-changing.”

Prior to the book deal, she was scraping by on $17,000 a year. 

The next day, she wrote a letter, pleading for a job as a busser, and was hired on the spot. “I remember vacuuming the downstairs dining room and feeling so honored. Like, I can’t believe they’re letting me vacuum the floor of Chez Panisse.”

Samin smiling with checkered shirt and an apron on making fresh pasta

Source Tom Story

Her career includes making pasta and plucking duck feathers in Tuscany; cooking with Lee at Eccolo; and hosting monthly dinners at Tartine that became one of the hottest reservations in town. She also put on a popular “pop-up general store” in Oakland that brought farmers and chefs and consumers together and influenced the launch of Good Eggs, the fast-growing local-food start-up she now advises.Soon enough, she pestered Christopher Lee at Chez to pleaaase let her into the kitchen, even though she had no prior cooking experience. He sent her home with a pile of books, told her to practice, and a few months later, let her peel onions. The rest is culinary history.

All along, Samin had her heart set on her next guru: New York Times best-selling author and UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan. She wrote him an impassioned plea asking to audit his class — a class with, sorry, a waitlist of hundreds of (paying) students. But her persistence and clear sense of community purpose paid off. She became a star pupil, and not just because she brought in piping-hot lasagnas.

And then…the student became the teacher. When Pollan wanted to learn how to cook for his latest book Cooked (2013), who better to teach him how to braise than Samin? Soon, she was showered with notes herself. The time was ripe for Samin to put her decade-old book idea — one she’d had brewing since her early days at Chez — down on paper.

I didn’t want people feeling bad when their dish doesn’t look like the picture.

But first! She had one more “stalker letter” to write. To San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton whose smart, whimsical work she’d admired from afar. “I wanted light-hearted, timeless illustrations — not photographs. I didn’t want people feeling bad when their dish doesn’t look like the picture,” she says. (Thank you.) “Wendy can find the beauty in anything.”

MacNaughton draws meticulously, and quickly, and always from life, as Samin chops and stirs and squeezes — say, water from balls of chard for cucu sabzi, a Persian frittata so green and delicate, it’ll ruin those eggy French things forever. True collaborators, they share hearty laughs and a love of Bud Lite Lime, which they often sip while working in MacNaughton’s kitchen. (More mod, less messy.)

Once the book comes out, Nosrat plans to resume teaching at places like 18 Reasons and San Francisco Cooking School but also take it on the road into low-income communities and food deserts everywhere. “You are afraid to cook? You only make mac n’ cheese from a box? I’m here!” she says. “I want to connect with you. Whoever you are.” 

Pollan, for one, has no doubt she will.“Samin is eloquent, passionate, and clear,” he says. “Her literary gift is to be able to recreate these qualities on the page.”  

The one thing that can change your cooking so much is knowing how to use salt. Your mind can get blown.

Samin, however, is still a little overwhelmed. “Man, I’m like a brown girl who grew up in San Diego in the 80s,” she says. “My whole life I’ve been an outsider wanting to be accepted by the mainstream.” And now here she is, an Iranian-American woman with a big personality and even bigger heart, on the cusp — if publishers’ predictions are right — of being a nicer, more talented Rachael Ray. A more approachable Alice Waters. The next … Julia Child?

But Samin’s goal isn’t necessarily to become a household name. “I want more people to cook,” she says. “When I show someone how to properly use salt, it’s like crack. Their mind is blown. I want to be the teacher that, you know, gives you the thing and sends you into the world.”

Maryam al-Khawaja, the Accidental Activist

Maryam looking into camera on black backdrop

It’s hard not to watch the political unraveling in the Middle East these days and worry that the Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. But Maryam al-Khawaja, a leading human rights activist from Bahrain at just 26 years old, begs to differ.

“I can understand why a lot of people when looking at the region could be very, very pessimistic,” al-Khawaja says over coffee during a visit to Washington, D.C., this week. “I disagree. I think that when we see this kind of change, when it’s this big of a change, it’s something that’s a process, it’s something that takes a long time.”

In other words, al-Khawaja is taking the long view, both for the pro-democracy movement in her tiny Persian Gulf country and across the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a dose of realism that policy makers in Western capitals might do well to heed.

Maryam looking into camera with eyepatch on in middle of street in color

Wearing an eye patch to protest targeted assaults on peaceful protestors

Source Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/Corbis

“As long as we continue against all odds, that’s what’s going to guarantee that, whether it’s in 20 or 50 or 70 years, things will change to the better. But it’s going to take time,” she says. “And in Bahrain it’s going to take much longer than other countries.”

It’s a startling mature perspective for someone her age. But it’s just one of many surprises about this “accidental” activist.

“I wasn’t planning on becoming a human rights defender. I was forced into it,” says al-Khawaja, chattering away in flawless English and sounding very much like any Western 20-something woman, her discourse on Middle East politics and identity interspersed with you know’s and like’s and self-deprecating asides.

Poster of Abdulhadi on an orange background, set in front of Police Shields.

A picture of Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja held up in front of riot police during a rally demanding his release, in Manama, April 18, 2012

Source Bahrain Center for Human Rights

“I actually was completely apolitical when I was in university. I hated politics,” she says. In particular, she was turned off by the indifferent response to years of protests led by her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights activists. In 2002, he co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an organization that has been alternately tolerated and banned in this oil-rich island nation of about 1.3 million in the Gulf. He is now in prison, serving a life sentence after being arrested and sentenced in 2011 for his leadership in Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising. 

“I got to a point after seeing my dad being beaten up on the streets, and getting arrested and nobody caring, I thought that it wasn’t worth it and I didn’t understand why my dad continued to do what he did,” al-Khawaja recalls. “Now I see the reflection of his work, I see how that’s impacted the Bahraini society as a whole.”

They don’t understand that history has taught us that … they don’t stay in power no matter what.

One of al-Khawaja’s sisters, Zainab, was also jailed in 2013 for her activism. The Centre’s president, Nabeel Rajab, is serving a two-year prison sentence and was denied early release just this week. That has thrust al-Khawaja into the role of acting president at the Centre, which is now being operated out of Copenhagen, where she has gone into exile. In August, she was on her way back to Bahrain in advance of protests there, but was removed from a British Airways flight at the request of the Bahraini government.

If her exile, her family’s incarceration or the mounting expectations in her role as the new face of the movement are weighing on al-Khawaja, it doesn’t show. One-on-one, she’s upbeat, forthright and remarkably relaxed. 

“She has to be enormously disciplined because a lot of this stuff is enormously personal for her,” says Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders program at the American NGO Human Rights First. “She is juggling an awful lot of responsibilities,” he says, and “it’s not like she’s had a lifetime of experience.”

“I’ve been doing this for, like, 25 years; I’ve never met anybody who is as good an advocate for their cause,” says Dooley, who has visited a long list of foreign capitals with al-Khawaja to lobby other governments to pressure Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family. 

The hand-wringing in the West over the ramifications of the Arab Spring has grown markedly in recent months, as the heady early days of the revolutions in 2011 have given way to power vacuums and sectarian violence.

She acknowledges that real democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties in the Arab world may not happen in her lifetime.

Just this week, a New York Times report confirmed the growing concerns about a surge of jihadism in the region, with extremists taking advantage of the lawlessness in much of Libya, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and across Syria.

While not condoning the growing violence, al-Khawaja says it is a predictable response to the social divisions autocratic regimes have sowed in an attempt to defend their regimes. 

“They don’t understand that history has taught us that … they don’t stay in power no matter what,” she says. “Yes, they might be successful in getting the people to kill each other, but even if they do, they’re still going to be removed and those people are going to continue to kill each other until something better can come.”

For her part, al-Khawaja remains optimistic that the region is moving in the right direction, even while she acknowledges that real democracy and respect for human rights and civil liberties in the Arab world may not happen in her lifetime.

Zainab is sitting on the ground being screamed at by female police officer

Zainab al-Khawaja, 28, mother of a 3-year-old girl, becomes the fourth member of her family to get arrested.

Dooley credits al-Khawaja — who travels constantly and is an active presence on Twitter and other social media — with helping keep Bahrain and its political crisis on the West’s radar despite the ghastly violence in Syria and political upheaval in much bigger Egypt. He doesn’t think the issue “would have anything like the international media profile” without her.

With the Bahraini government’s intimate ties to its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, its strategic location in the Gulf and its agreement to provide a base for major U.S. naval operations, that’s proved to be an uphill climb.

The United States’ response to the crackdown on dissidents in Bahrain has been far more tepid than elsewhere. In a State Department report on the status of the Bahraini government’s reforms after the original 2011 uprising, a copy of which was obtained by OZY, the United States acknowledges that there is no indication of any high-ranking officials being held accountable for the deaths of protesters at the time, as promised. But it continues to maintain that the government “has taken some important steps.”

On Tuesday, a senior U.S. Navy official said it plans to expand its Fifth Fleet, despite growing pressure to consider relocating it out of Bahrain.

Al-Khawaja says she is realistic about the challenges. A piece of advice from her father has helped her maintain her resolve. “He told me, ‘Maryam, when you become a human rights defender, you do the work not because you’re waiting for an outcome,’” she says. “‘If you wait for an outcome, you’re going to get depressed, you’re going to get pessimistic and you won’t be able to continue. When you know that it doesn’t matter if the outcome is today or after we’re dead, you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,’ that’s what helps me continue.”

Racing to Save the Environment

Leilani sitting facing camera leaning against a stock car

It’s easy to argue that race car driving can kill the environment, but for Leilani Munter, the opposite is true. Her love for the environment is hurting her racing career.

Cue tires screeching on a pavement. We know, it is a tad counter-intuitive.

Munter, 37, is a race car driver who has professionally raced both open wheel and stock cars. She’s also a self-proclaimed “vegetarian hippie chick” and an environmental activist. She travels around the world speaking about carbon footprints, dolphin slaughter, biofuels, global warming and more. To offset her carbon footprint, Munter donates to both rainforest and coral reef protection for every race she enters. She signs all of her emails: ”For the earth… Leilani.” While it may seem like her two worlds are mutually exclusive, Munter says racing is actually an unconventional, yet effective platform.

She refuses to accept sponsors who aren’t green. Less sponsorship means fewer races. Which, in turn, diminishes her power as an activist.

“My race car can be a 200 miles per hour power billboard for the environment,” she says in a phone interview from her home in North Carolina. She points out that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in the United States, and if she can get five percent of them to be environmentally conscious, even with small daily changes like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, it would have a huge impact.

Leilani sitting facing camera leaning against a stock car

Racing to Save the Environment

Source Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis

Sounds great. Except for one thing: Munter refuses to accept sponsors who aren’t green.  She won’t work with fossil fuel companies or businesses that sell meat, leather, or engage in animal testing. Compare this to Danica Patrick, who earns millions in sponsorships as one of the world’s highest paid female athletes. With less sponsorship opportunities for Munter come less funds, and fewer races. Which, in turn, diminishes her power as an activist.

“As soon as I stop racing, I lose my voice a little. When I’m gone from the track, my messages will be gone from their mind,” she says.

So how good is she? She races in the ARCA  national stock car series. Switching temporarily to open wheel – where the wheels are outside the car’s body and racing is often faster and more dangerous– Munter became the fourth woman in history to compete in the Indy Pro series in 2007.

Racing blogger Bill Zahren says he has been impressed by Munter’s ability, especially since she doesn’t have the benefit of racing frequently. “Even though she’s just had a race or two each year, she seems relatively competitive in those races,” he write in an email. ”She also got some positive feedback from some racing veterans when she raced in the Firestone Indy Lights open-wheel series. I think if she had a full season of racing she would surprise a lot of people with how quickly she improves.”

Munter majored in biology at the University of California San Diego, but her love of science and nature dates back to her childhood. Her mother, a Japanese-American nurse raised in Hawaii, met Munter’s father, a German neurologist, at the Hawaii State Hospital. They moved to the Mainland to work at the Mayo Clinic, and Rochester, Minnesota is where Munter grew up with her three sisters. The family boarded their horses at a farm and Munter said she always viewed barn animals as akin to dogs and cats. She became a vegetarian at age 6 and moved on to a vegan diet two years ago.

When Munter was 14 her mother had a horse-back riding accident that resulted in severe brain injury and memory loss. Since then, she says, “there’s an underlying feeling every day when I wake up that I don’t know how much time I have.”

The teenager created a bucket list, which she adjusts to this day. It included scuba diving, skydiving, and driving a race car. “I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie,” she says, laughing.

Her personal car? A Tesla, naturally.

She saved up for racing school by working as a photo double for Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic and America’s Sweethearts. Her first time in a real race car, she beat everyone on the track and a local NASCAR team owner asked if she had considered racing professionally. Nine months later after knocking on doors and acquiring small sponsorships, Munter entered her first race. It wasn’t easy at first – someone once commented that she was ”checking her makeup” when she went under her car to work on it  – but the disrespect stopped when she moved up to higher levels of racing. 

“When you are a woman in the sport I think a lot of people are doubtful,” she explains. “You have to prove yourself more.”  

Add ardent environmentalist to the mix and the road gets even tougher.

After posting a link to An Inconvenient Truth on her website in 2006, a heated discussion about the environment ensued on a NASCAR forum. One person posted a graph of carbon dioxide emissions. Munter said this was the moment she decided to use her race car to get people to talk about the environment.

Zahren named his big green recycling bin “Leilani,” because he found himself thinking she would be pleased every time he threw something in it. He was environmentally conscious before, but says that Munter’s advocacy has “greatly heightened” his awareness of what he can do.  “If she does that for all her followers and fans, she’s already having a huge, pro-environment impact on the world.”

The woman he named his recycling bin after agrees. “When you are just sitting around talking to people that get it, that already agree with you, you aren’t moving the needle. We have to talk to people that aren’t on board yet. It’s a more difficult conversation to have but it’s the most important to have.”

Does it pain her to have her activism affect her racing? 

“I want to race like all drivers, but I am as passionate about the environment and unwilling to compromise those beliefs, so this is the reality of the situation for me,” she says. “Sometimes I am going to stick to my morals, and watch the race from my couch instead. It sucks, but at least I am not selling out. I hope that someday those sacrifices will pay off.”

Munter’s Stats: 

  • In 45 starts, she’s had 9 top five and 19 top ten finishes
  • First woman to qualify in 45-year history of Bettenhausen Classic at Illiana Speedway in Indiana
  • Set the record for highest finish for a female stock car driver at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing fourth in 2006
  • Fourth woman in history to race in the Indy Pro Series, the development league of IndyCar

I Said I Would Learn to Read, and I Read.

Portrait of Anthony wearing glasses

And I’m going to tell you what I told them – We’re doing it because this guy is gargantuan. It’s the story of a man who learned to read in his 20s and then went on to write a number of books. It’s the story of a man who was helped by others, and now does the same thing himself. It’s the story of someone who wouldn’t give up. It’s the story of the American Dream, and I want everyone to know about it.When I told the OZY editorial team that I wanted to profile Anthony Hamilton, former illiterate football player turned self-published author, they gave me a hard time. They said, ”Carlos, we’re glad you want to tell the story of a poor black guy who makes it and yes, it’s a compelling story. But there are a lot of stories out there like this, why should we tell this one?

In Uruguay, Everything Happens, Every Week

Tiranos Temblad

Unless your name is Suri Cruise, people don’t usually care if you drop your ice cream on the floor. However, in Uruguay, Agustín Ferrando is treating seemingly minuscule moments as important news events. 

How minuscule? Ferrando thinks that a little girl riding a bike without her training wheels for the first time is just as relevant as a presidential address. You might not expect it, but his gentle tenor voice expressing joy in the mundane can lull viewers into a state of childlike happiness.

One clip on its own is a small bead of a moment, but strung together they make a rosary, Ferrando’s offering to the gods of daily life.

“People here are always saying that nothing ever happens in Uruguay. In these things like a boy learning how to walk or a teenager eating ham, a ton of irrelevant things happen,” said Ferrando via phone. But when he groups them all together in his videos, ”It ends up giving you the sensation that in Uruguay, everything happens, and all in one week.”

A single episode can feature the existence of a rainbow, someone peeling off their plastic laptop protector and a waddle of rescued penguins returning to the ocean. His narration is factual and unadorned: “A young guy missed a goal because he went to the bathroom,” or “A chicken laid a small and strange egg.” One clip on its own is a small bead of a moment, but strung together they make a rosary, Ferrando’s offering to the gods of daily life.

At less than a year old, Tiranos Temblad is still in the early phase, but Ferrando is one to keep a YouTube-trained eye on. His take on media can captivate even the most cynical viewer, joyfully making the irrelevant relevant. There is something appealing in how he transforms seemingly unremarkable events into the stuff of headline news. We’re all jaded about how contrived and scripted the news industry can be, but Ferrando dispels this notion, bringing elements of wonder, innocence and spontaneity to the idea of news.

The show is named after a line in the Uruguayan national anthem. It means “trembling tyrants,” but Ferrando isn’t going for a serious meaning, he just wanted a phrase that spoke to Uruguayan culture and its citizens’ idiosyncrancies and pronounciation, and that was easy to remember.

He developed the idea almost as an afterthought when searching Uruguayan YouTube videos alongside his fiancée Fernanda Montoro. “I said, ‘I would love to see a channel dedicated to things like this.’ Then we realized, it was possible to do.” With a day job as a music video producer/director, Ferrando had the skills to take many of the reasons YouTube, cat pictures, baby follies and the like are popular on the Web and off, and mesh them into one show.

Tiranos Temblad combines assorted YouTube video clips either from Uruguay or referencing the country. Each Sunday night a new episode gets posted, including a “crack” of the week, which he describes as being the “most awesome thing that has happened in the week,” a WTF moment and awkward encounters. He’s posted 30-plus videos since the first chapter on December 30, 2012, and he has yet to receive a complaint from someone featured in one of his videos. “They tell me it’s an honor. People want to be in the videos.” 

Skeptics might object that Ferrando’s news sense is too soft and indiscriminate, wondering, “Does anyone really care about a random person’s 80th birthday?” The answer appears to be yes. The channel has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube, not bad for a country with a population of only 3.3 million. Mainstream media in Uruguay has caught on to the popularity of his YouTube show, with some TV channels playing his videos on their stations. One outlet, Subrayado , referred to it as “Uruguayan humor to save the world.” International news site 20 Minutos said, “Tiranos Temblad is a global cry, unconventional and sexy. The soundtrack of the tragi-comedy of our time.” 

”I had complained for years about national broadcast news,” Ferrando says. ”I felt it wasn’t reporting on people like me. They didn’t show anything about people’s lives. The popularity of Tiranos Temblad showed me a lot of people felt the same way.” The 31-year-old said watching the nightly news depressed him. “After watching it, I am afraid to leave my house, I think of humanity as horrible, and I feel like I’m fighting against the human race. People are actually doing fascinating things. I want to watch something that makes me feel happiness and love toward humanity.”

His approach is starting to get noticed. Ferrando was invited to give a TEDx Talk in Montevideo about TV of the future, and more YouTube views are coming from countries outside of Uruguay, places like Argentina and Spain. He’s also hired a translator to begin adding English subtitles to his videos.

One outlet referred to it as “Uruguayan humor to save the world.”

Still, Ferrando is taking a business-savvy approach. He has created a logo and a catchy brand name, and he has chosen an unmissable theme song, “Uruguay is the best country ,” which fans sing in different parts of the world. He’s cognizant of social media, creating hashtags, a Twitter account and a Facebook page. He keeps a consistent visual style and weekly features that make his work instantly recognizable. ”I realized I was starting a media company and I had to set rules and then follow them,” he said. Does this make him the next media mogul? Maybe not.

Ferrando’s aspirations are more philosophical than monetary. He wants his work to emphasize the importance of everyday life and to generate positive feelings in people. Brands have recently contacted him to talk about product placement or ads in Tiranos Temblad , but he has turned them all down.  “I don’t want to contaminate it with economic interests; that changes the rules of the game. They can say no, I don’t like this, do this shorter or longer. It happens with the rest of my work, but not with Tiranos Temblad . This is my passion.”

Maybe Tiranos Temblad will remain a solely Uruguayan phenomenon, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see his sensibility catch on in many more places. Ferrando has clearly activated a desire in Uruguayans to watch small, quotidian, happy, homemade videos. We ask, Wouldn’t it be nice to see the similiarties and differences in a Tiranos Temblad version of Ghana or Thailand or New Zealand? “I’ll do this as a hobby in Uruguay. To do this for other countries would be a dream come true, it would be beautiful.”

As notes from admirers pour in to let him know they’re watching, Ferrando says, “It’s a YouTube dream, an Internet dream. Sometimes I have a few seconds where I begin to realize what has happened this past year. And then I forget about it and get back to work.”