Perhaps not one for The Economist


The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a fascinating and provocative outfit and has so much to say — albeit in an oblique way — about America, as I said in the previous post.

Who else would study, with the same quasi-scientific rigor and implicit irony, the following?

  • Yucca Mountain (above), America’s preferred dumping ground for nuclear waste,
  • Cathedral Canyon (below), a random crack in the desert turned into religious shrine,
  • Emergency training centers such as Del Valle, California (all the way at the bottom), and
  • the thousands and thousands of other non-obvious but telling places in America

And yet, we decided not to run a piece on it in The Economist. At least for the time being.



I decided to let you peak into the process because I think it might give you a useful glimpse into

  1. writing, and
  2. The Economist

Specifically, the issue involved all of the writerly themes that you guys and I have been writing about:

Here is what happened

After my visit to the CLUI, I did indeed write a draft, at about 700 words, for our US Section. And I sent it off.

I had an unsure feeling. I felt that I had not done justice to the CLUI or the places I had chosen as examples.

1) Length

Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative. The CLUI, however, seemed to need the opposite: not to be compressed but to be expanded and developed. It seemed to need length.

2) Momentum

Worse, I had not spotted an underlying narrative in the CLUI (or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for that matter) at all. This, in fact, is my criticism of the CLUI: They are so meticulous about their neutrality that they forget to do storytelling.

In fact, the Center’s name is a misnomer. It is not the Center for Land Use Interpretation but the Center for Land Use Observation. The interpretation is what is missing.

3) Voice

So I felt that to do this justice, I would have had to make it a humorous-but-profound story about a search for something elusive.

When you’re searching in vain, the story is about doubt, uncertainty, futility. Not things that The Economist is naturally good at, even though I excel at them personally. 😉

4) The First  Person

To be really fun, moreover, a search narrative would have to be about me, the searcher. Me looking for answers and getting confused. Me on a CLUI bus in the desert with other searchers…

The First Person: Definitely not something that The Economist is naturally good at. 😉 😉

(Since we have no bylines, we also have no First Person. It is banned. The most you might see is “As your correspondent took his seat…”. Yuck.)

Conclusion: This really wanted to be a New Yorker piece.

A few weeks later, I got an email from my editor. He essentially said the same thing:

The problem with the piece as it stands is that it poses a lot of questions, but does not answer them. I appreciate that that is part of the philosophy the point of the CLUI, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a US section article. It reads too much to me like a long list of interesting and not-so-interesting places…

What is it, in fact, that we learn about American culture from the landscape, other than its uses are many and various? That America (like every other country) cherishes, abuses and neglects its physical space? …

I think this piece could benefit from being longer… Such a longer and more narrative piece would not, I think, work in the US section.

In a way, this was reassuring: My editor and I had come to exactly the same conclusion independently.

There was another upshot: Another editor had read it and expressed interest in a longer and more narrative version for our Christmas Issue, the one occasion every year when we really let our writerly hair down.

Did I want to expand the piece for the Christmas issue?

Opting for easy

This is when experience kicked in (13 years at The Economist now).

My experience told me that it was time to move on.

I did a risk-benefit analysis. I could sink a lot more time and effort into this story in the hope that a forceful narrative might emerge out of it. Or I could write the many easy and obvious stories that were offering themselves to me like streetwalkers.

In case you’re wondering, there is pressure on us to perform. We’re supposed to write something in every issue, on average. In fact, the last sentence in that same email from my editor was:

PS: that said, I am therefore in the market for a piece from you next week! Can you call me on the mob once you’re up and about?

And so I moved back into streetwalker alley, where it has been easy pickings and obvious stories since.

How judge ye?


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America seen through non-obvious places


This picture says a lot about the American character.

Or does it?

The question, rather than the answer, may be the point. That, at least, seems to be the premise of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which allowed me to use this and the other pictures in this post.

The Center is one of the strangest entities I know of. You might ask, what is it?

Let’s start with what it is not, despite the general sound of its name. It is

  • not a government agency,
  • not a think tank, and
  • not a lobby.

Well, then, what? After struggling to answer this question (which is what this post is about), I will venture these two options:

  • a deliberate mystery designed to make Americans aware of their peripheral vision, and possibly
  • an inside job, which is to say an incredibly cunning and subversive satire of America.

But that’s for you to judge. Let’s start with the facts:

The Center is located at 9331 Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Outwardly, this is a nondescript block on a slightly depressing thoroughfare of the sort that the city is infamous for. Inside, however, it may be the strangest block in America. For the Center shares a building with the Museum of Jurassic Technology (of which, more in a moment) which is at 9341 Venice Boulevard, just one door down.

The contents of the Center include a vast database of pictures, descriptions, videos, maps and other information about American places. Furthermore, the Center occasionally organizes bus tours to some of those places. This can look as follows:


But that still tells you nothing. Why should this be interesting?

Well, trustworthy sources had brought it to my attention, so I went there for a visit.


I chatted with Matthew Coolidge, the Center’s founder, while gazing at a multimedia exhibit (ie, a video) of a stretch of California highway that I’ve driven on many times. It was slightly surreal and yet hypnotic.

“You seem to be drawn to drab, banal or ugly places,” I said to Matthew.

“What is ugly?,” he probed. Calling something ugly is judging, and judging distracts from observation.

My source had prepared me to expect subtle irony, so this was perhaps it. If so, Matthew played his role perfectly. He spoke dispassionately, like a scientist — “anthropogeomorphologist”, is the delightful word he used.

He said, more or less, that the Center’s mission is to make people aware of surroundings they usually try to ignore because they seem un-noteworthy. Office parks. Garbage dumps. Deserts. Highways.

“It’s like negative tourism,” as a friend of mine had put it. In other words, the places of interest are not the obvious ones (Disneyland, The Golden Gate Bridge, et cetera) but all the others. That leaves a lot of places.

For example, America’s vast empty places.

Americans do strange things in them.

Sometimes, for example, (as at the Nevis Range in Nevada) they bomb or nuke them for practice:


Strangely beautiful, isn’t it? Almost like art.

Other times, the places are eerie. Towns like St. Thomas, Nevada, for example. It is usually invisible, having been submerged under Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, when the Hoover Dam was built. But St. Thomas re-appears during droughts, emerging like a ghost town or haunted museum from the waters:

Savoring contradictions

As my source put it, most people who go on the Center’s tours or sojourn in its database soon find that the “juxtapositions accumulate force.” Whatever they might have thought about America before, they are tempted to re-examine it.

But what might the conclusion be? This is what kept bothering me.

Both Matthew and his Center are militant about not having an explicit point of view.

As Ralph Rugoff, an art curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, puts it, this “flagrant nonpartisanship” is “slightly suspicious”.

If you are at all like me, it is also unsatisfying.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Matthew must have sensed my dissatisfaction when we stood together, for he suddenly asked me: “Have you been next door yet?”

Next door is of course the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

“Not yet,” I answered. “What is it about?”

“The less you know the better,” Matthew answered.

“Are they connected to you?”, I asked.

Matthew seemed to suppress a smirk: “No.”

Suddenly, a female voice wafted to my ears from behind us. “Connected only in spirit,” she said.

I turned, and beheld Matthew’s partner. I had never noticed her entering the room, but there she sat. She was patting a black cat.

Patting a black cat.

I went next door.

A few meters and seconds later, I entered the Museum. I was about to make my voluntary contribution into the money jar when somebody said: “Are you the journalist?”

“I am a journalist,” I answered.

“They said you should go in free,” came the reply.

How did “they” beat me, I wondered. Clearly, there had to be an internal door. I entered.

The museum is — how to put it — disconcerting.

It was dark and clammy. There were — or seemed to be, I can no longer tell — disquieting noises. One exhibit is a model of American trailer parks. Another, about “mouse cures”, consists of two dead mice on toast, with the explanation that this sort of thing was once said to have cured bed wetting and stammering in children. Another exhibit featured “salted teeth.” So it went.

The Museum baffled me even more than the Center next door.

Finally, I pieced together a narrative for myself:

The Museum seemed to be a meta-museum: a museum that mocks museums. It communicates bemusement at the human tendency to put things behind glass and stare at them, and at our underlying ignorance combined with confident superstition.

How, then, was it “connected in spirit” to the Center, as the lady with the black cat had said?

It had to be that the Center comments on America as the Museum comments on humanity, and that both, realizing that they are inside jokes, know that they must never explain the punch line.

Somewhat disconcerted, I left and began contemplating whether and how I might turn this into a story for The Economist, as I had intended. What that led to will be the subject of the next post.

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