That Time I Obsessed About Writing Like The Economist

Throughout my 20s, I had an intense and all-consuming relationship with that infamous British newsweekly which refers to itself as "this newspaper," an issue I've only recently come to terms with.

Despite English being my main tongue, it is the third language I picked up. I have always felt that immigrant's pressure to integrate and to conform, to write and speak flawlessly, to not stand out negatively. And who better to learn from than the finest hacks the Mother Country had to offer (I'm Canadian, btw), whose dense, idiom-packed, and idiosyncratic British English rang right through the page. In fact, I hear a finely inflected BBC news reader's voice in my head when I read an issue of The Economist to this day.

I started reading it around the start of the Iraq war, in 2003. Even though their neoliberal boilerplate and justifications for war rang as hollow as any, having grown up Second World, my tolerance for doublespeak is high. The dogma of their "Leaders" (or editorials) section, so off-putting to many, I simply read as an entertaining sermon to the converted, to be recited and mocked. It was the proliferation of sections and 600-word breakdowns of complex and sometimes obscure topics that got me; it made me feel smart, informed even. I could recite fun factoids about Thailand's opposition party, the outcome of legislative elections in Latvia, or the triumph of Unilever's brand strategy over P&G in the BRICs countries. Soon, I was reading the magazine cover-to-cover every week.

What reeled me in, though, was when I opened the science and technology section one January issue only to find a small announcement in the margin, inviting applicants to "the Richard Casement internship"—the chance to spend a summer writing science in The Economist's London office. Inexperience preferred, it more-or-less said; looking for journalism ability in a scientist, rather than vice-versa; send a sample article and a letter introducing yourself.

I was in my senior year of engineering at the time, but my interest in it had begun to wander: I was doing basic PR work for the department's communications office, instead of focusing on my problem sets. My mentor there pointed me to a researcher doing interesting work in the then-trendy area of micronutrients, so I mustered up my best try-hard writing voice, wrote up the piece, and hit "send."

Three weeks later, I was stunned to receive a reply from the section editor, inviting me for an interview in New York. Though I was elated and tried my best, I was clearly green and in over my head. My story pitches were far too theoretical; I hadn't even yet discovered Eurekalert, or PubMed.

But I had caught the science writing bug and was determined to try again. My preoccupation with The Economist voice became something that infected all my writing during this time. Every writing opportunity became a reason to look on dispassionately, to hedge tersely using constructions like "this may well..." and to dress it all up in British idioms I would painstakingly Google to get right. It wasn't pretty.

Three more times I went to New York to interview for that Casement internship. Meanwhile, I was (perhaps unwittingly) doing all the things a young person does to break into media: I went to j-school for a year—and hated it; I snagged the science editor position at my college paper, which then published twice weekly; the next year, I somehow won the popularity contest that is every masthead election at every college paper, and moved up to edit the news section. I continued to constantly read The Economist, which seemed odd to others. A colleague cracked that I was "running a morass of right-wing ideology."

In 2007, I really thought I had the summer internship in the bag: the editor interviewed me over lunch, and invited me to return after he'd finished the rest of the day's interviews, to continue to chat. I had high hopes.

Two weeks later, however, another letdown wound its way into my inbox. He couldn't give me the internship, the email said, but he wanted to have me write for him.

Sadly, I was too young and foolish then to realize that a working relationship with the editor – and not the summer internship – was the real prize on offer. I never followed up. Shortly after, I moved with a girlfriend to another city, took an entry-level job in corporate I.T., and stopped writing altogether for a number of years. In 2012, I allowed my subscription to lapse.

Last week, I dug up those old applications I sent out, in my university email's sent folder. It was like opening a time capsule. "Man, I used to try so hard, when I used to try hard," I thought to myself. I had forgotten that one year I used InDesign to lay out my article submission to look like a page out of the magazine, right down to the typeface, which I'd bought from a font website for $20.

If there was ever a capstone to the decade of wasted opportunities that were my 20s—the time I obsessed about writing like The Economist was it.

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Appendix: My 2006 and 2005 Casement submissions

Promising the moon

A pharaonic solar power project could provide sufficient clean power for all Earth's people. At what cost, though?

Solar power from space is an old chestnut, first told by NASA's Dr. Peter Glaser in 1968. He envisioned a constellation of satellites in geostationary orbit, each of them ten kilometres long and five kilometres wide, beaming power down to Earth. NASA and the Department of Energy (DoE) first studied the concept in the mid-70s, but deemed the project technically—but not economically—feasible. NASA took a fresh look in the 90s, and shelved it once more. Its last research related to space-based power wound down in 2003.

Yet space solar power (SSP) and lunar solar power (LSP), a more radical proposal championed by Dr. David Criswell, of the University of Houston, are two ideas for quenching mankind's thirst for energy that refuse to go away. An LSP system would litter the surface of the moon with hundreds of power bases, each made up of fields of solar collectors and a microwave emitter that beams power down to massive rectenna arrays on Earth. A demonstration system that could beam 1,000 megawatts down to Earth would take 10 years and cost $20 billion—assuming a moon base is already built. A full-fledged system would cost had a trillion dollars and take 15 years to build, but would begin to pay for itself. Dr. Criswell estimates that a 20,000 gigawatt system could fully meet mankind's estimated energy needs in 2070.

Three factors have increased the odds for space-based power, says Dr. Michael Duke, of the Colorado School of Mines. Solar power technologies have improved. Thin film photovoltaics that tap the infra-red part of the light spectrum as well as the visible and can be painted onto a glass surface promise great increases in conversion efficiency. Secondly, world energy use is set to grow nearly 60 per cent between now and 2025. Lastly, NASA has committed itself to returning to the moon by 2018, and plans for a semi-permanent moon base as early as 2022.

The variable that has stayed flat is the cost of getting to space. No matter, argues Dr. Criswell, as most of the LSP system's infrastructure can be manufactured in situ, in large automated factories, from resources readily found on the moon. Lunar regolith, or moon dirt, is a fine powder containing jagged grains of iron and glassy silicon. It quickly sinters under microwaves, and all kinds of glassy surfaces or building materials could be fashioned from it.

LSP has a big drawback, points out John Mankins at Sunsat Energy Council, an organization founded by Dr. Glaser that champions SSP. Energy beams in motion tend to spread out, so sending a finely-focused beam from the moon to Earth requires a transmitter ten times larger than sending a similarly-sized beam from geostationary orbit. It might prove more practical to construct pieces of solar power satellites on the moon, and then bolt them together in geostationary orbit. After a period of inactivity, Sunsat Energy Council met in Washington, DC last month, to plan further ways to drum up support for space-based power.

Meanwhile, the European and Japanese space agencies are still studying SSP, and writing reports, but they estimate practical results are still decades away. A recent European Space Agency study calculated the economics of SSP in the 2025 to 2030 era. NASA is showing no interest in the idea, though, and the DoE continues to pour cash into fusion research, says Mr. Mankins, himself a former NASA hand. "This subject, which is far more technically feasible than fusion, is kind of between the cracks—no one will touch it," he says. This chestnut ain't roasted yet.

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A great leap forward

Identifying things is becoming easier and faster

One of the most taxing aspects of taxonomy is tacking a name to a specimen. You could send it to one of a handful of experts in the world and wait a few years for an identification. Or you could send it to a lab that uses a genetic-based technique called DNA bar coding. This spells out the genetic code of a short segment of mitochondrial DNA called CO1, revealing a signature that is unique to each species; it takes only a matter of hours. Taxonomists have high hopes that this technique will allow them to faster catalog the world's biodiversity. That was the main message at a DNA bar coding conference held earlier this month in London.

Brian Fisher, an ant specialist at the California Academy of Sciences, outlined a way to accelerate the identification of the ant species of Madagascar. This by making ant literature and pictures of known species available on the Internet and by adding bar coding to the taxonomic toolbox. Ants are ubiquitous in the biosphere, collectively weighing as much as all the humans on Earth. But while group of ant species are easily distinguished, individual species are fiendishly difficult to differentiate: the fine features of thousands of specimens have to be painstakingly measured and compared before arriving at a verdict.

DNA bar codes offer a good initial guess of how ants might group into species. And they can also unearth some startling results. Dr Fisher found an ant species in which the queen is red, while the rest of the ants in the colony are black. It would have been near-impossible to draw this connection using traditional methods, since the queen looks nothing like the other ants.

Headway was also made in the bar coding of plants. This group of organisms had proved troublesome until now, because the CO1 gene is nearly identical in all plant species. But John Kress, of the Smithsonian Institution, has identified two plant DNA regions that are up to the job. One of them, called trnH-psba, is found in the chloroplast genome, where photosynthesis takes place. The other, dubbed ITS, is found in the nucleus. Dr Kress is gearing up to bar code the 8,000-odd species of Costa Rican flowering plants to decide which of the two candidate regions will become the bar coding standard for plants.

But interest in DNA bar coding is not confined to the taxosphere. America's Food ad Drug Administration (FDA) is starting to use bar codes in regulatory science, according to Haile Yancy at the FDA's Centre for Veterinary Medicine. One application is in monitoring compliance with the 1997 Feed Ban. This prohibits the use of certain ground up animals in cattle feed, in order to curb mad cow disease. Another use is in the fight against economic deception, whereby cheaper foodstuffs are fraudulently substituted for dearer ones. This is a concern in the seafood industry, where rockfish is sometimes passed off as red snapper for instance – fetching twice the price of the former, according to froogle.com.

The Holy Grail of DNA bar coding is building a hand-held device that quickly identifies species from as little as a tuft of hair or a piece of leaf. The device would then inform the user whether the beast is a carnivore, whether the plant is edible, or simply whether the organism is a previously unknown species. Experts reckon such a "barcorder" is still about a decade away though. But when it does arrive, barcorder-toting enthusiasts – amateur and professional alike – may well take taxonomy to warp speed.