How to be a freelance foreign correspondent

One of my favorite books is a how-to manual on becoming a freelance foreign correspondent. There's something endearingly credulous about the kind of person who would buy a how-to book about such an involved and multifarious discipline. But that's me ... endearing and credulous. From 1997, it's a little outdated, but it's a hell of a good book for the aspiring correspondent.

The book is called (swingingly) The World On A String: How To Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent  by Al Goodman and John Pollack, veteran journalists. There's a foreword from Wolf Blitzer, who was Senior White House Correspondent for CNN in 1997.  It really is a good book, chock full of great information on everything from choosing your region wisely and finding stories to pitching new outlets and filing expenses. There's even an appendix listing plug types and voltage by country. Everything a neophyte needs.

But what I really like about the book, the reason it appeals to me so strongly, is that, intentionally or not, it serves as a detailed and credible description of a lifestyle I can't help but idolize. There's nothing more romantic-seeming than the life of a foreign correspondent, nothing as brazen, nothing as manly in the Hemingway sense. I've dipped my toes deep enough, reported overseas just enough, to know that the foreign correspondent lifestyle is actually incredibly stressful, compounding the most harried and high stakes parts of journalism and freelancing. The authors of the book aren't coy about any of that. But the lifestyle still beckons me, still seems like the distilled essence of adventure.

All this has been on my mind as I've been thinking about James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and also about Matt Power, whose death was accidental but no less tragic. Like everyone who works in the media, I have thoughts about the professional culture that these journalists worked within, and like everyone who draws breath, I can neither fathom nor shake the darkness of the executions of Foley and Sotloff. The second part, I think, should never be fathomed fully, because wrapping our minds around something like that would degrade us somehow, scratch our humanity. The first conversation, about the professional culture and increasingly anemic infrastructure of the Fourth Estate, needs to continue, and urgently, and it needs to survive the here-and-then-gone attention span of the news cycle. It already seems like that conversation has dimmed.

Matt Power 1974 - 2014

But what I feel some license to say, and which may seem obvious or pandering to the point of being fatuous, is this: those guys were heroes. They were young men attracted to a certain kind of life, and unlike many of us, they threw themselves into it with bravery, talent, and dedication. There's such a stigma associated with idolizing that living-on-a-razor's-edge drive, and there's good reason for that stigma. But there's also good reason to stand in awe of the people who attempt a life that's unbounded by the restraints that most of us have agreed to live by, people that live life with the world on a string. That is unquestionably brave, and in service to a higher purpose like journalism, it's heroic. I'm saying nothing new, but it's just something on my mind on a gray morning in Los Angeles, looking at my bookcase, seeing that familiar spine.

Tripod Field Desk

One of the new gadgets I tried out on my recent motorcycle camping reporting trek was a tripod field desk. You can buy a version of this a few places, but everything that's out there seems ill-suited to camping. I needed something lightweight, easy to stuff into the top box of motorcycle, and cheap. I did some Googling and found [this riders] tripod table. Seemed like a brilliant design, so I set to work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLtXSe0M00g

I have a cheap and relatively lightweight Manfrotto tripod with a quick-release system. I wanted to be able to use the tripod as, well, a tripod, so I didn't want to permanently alter the thing. I ordered another quick-release plate, which is the part that you screw into the bottom of the camera that then slides into the tripod head and locks. The plate, of course, was ridiculously expensive relative to the tripod (which was only $40 or so), but I decided to give it a try.

quick release plate

I went to Walmart and bought a couple cheap cutting boards, one bamboo and one plastic. After fiddling with each, I decided the bamboo would be best, both for rigidness and size. I drilled a couple holes in the quick-release plate. I then drilled corresponding holes in the cutting board. The quick release plate has that 1/4 inch/20 thread for the bottom of your camera, so I also drilled into the cutting board to accommodate that.

I didn't want my laptop sliding off, so I pulled a corkboard tile off my wall. You can buy these in any office supply store, and they're cheap. A bit of wood glue and I had a my desk surface. The quick release plate slides right into the tripod head. It takes a second to assemble and disassemble, and it packs down to the size of ... well, a cutting board and a tripod. Here it is all put together.

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I put the cutting board in the bottom of my top box (which is just a Pelican case), and lashed the tripod, along with a portable camping stool, to the lid of the case. It worked like a charm! I used this in conjunction with my Antigravity Micro-Start portable battery, which recharges my laptop once fully.

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There's some room for improvement. The quick release plate and tripod head are plastic, so the lateral strength isn't great. A better tripod with an aluminum or steel head would be more stable.  But all-in-all, this is a fantastic addition to any rustic writer's retreat. I usually work at a homemade standing desk, and the tripod easily gets to the height my 6'4" frame needs to comfortably work standing up. The ball joint in the tripod head lets me work at any angle, and the retractable tripod legs mean I can work on uneven surfaces. the other day I did some transcribing in a set of bleachers by propping two of the legs on the bench in front of me and one on the next bench down. Pretty snazzy!

Motorcycle Camping

I've been doing some reporting in the Bay Area. I love the Bay, used to live in Oakland, and never tire of going back. But damn if it's not an expensive place to stay. The trips are for a new book, so it's on my dime. Staying at friends' houses only works for so long, and even cheap motels are $60+ a night. Frankly, staying with friends isn't my idea of an ideal reporting scenario. A crucial part of a reporting trip is having time to process the tidal wave of data you've collected, to read, to think, and it's tough to do those things while getting barnstorming drunk with old pals. So how's a striving author type going to save some coin.? Boom ... rustic writer's retreat (aka, camping).

Home sweet home (please take your shoes off)

Strangely, for all the outdoorsy goodness the Bay Area has to offer, there are pitifully few campgrounds in relative proximity to metro areas (my research is in Richmond, which is East Bay). To get a spot in summer, most campgrounds require reservations months in advance. That's doesn't help when you're booking a trip around a source's schedule and usually at the last minute. One option, if you're a badass, is to do some stealth camping. I was debating the badass option, but I decided to keep it in my back pocket on my most recent trip. I found two first-come-first-serve campsites on Mt. Tam (Pantoll and Bootjack campgrounds), so I decided to chance it.

I arrived on a Sunday, and both places were 90% empty. This is high season, but that just means that people arrive on Thursday and stay through the weekends. The Bay Area is a foggy mother, and Pantoll is just inside the fog belt. I was advised by a friendly ranger that things would get wet every night. Bootjack, which recently opened, is only a half-mile down the road, but it's outside the fog belt and dry as a bad meatloaf. I chose Bootjack.

Among friends

More on camping in the next post, but for those non-riders out there, there's something incredibly liberating about riding a motorcycle. Having all your camping equipment on the back is even more liberating. There are a lot of great moments in Travels With Charlie where strangers approach Steinbeck, do a once-over of his epic custom camper, and tell him how much they wish they could do something like that. The same thing happens at rest stops and parking lots when you've got a motorcycle packed to the gills. It's one of those rare moments in life when other people's perceptions of your life align with your own. Journalists -- or at least journalists of a certain ilk -- tend to be independent souls, and long motorcycle trips can be real indulgences.

"No, really, I'll be right back ..."

I was on deadline for two pieces while on my week-long trip, and just to be clear, being on deadline is a drag whether you're motorcycling or reporting to an office. There's no escaping that tyranny. But camping does put certain constraints on you -- chiefly, there are obvious limitations on internet and power. I had intermittent LTE service at the campground, so I could monitor emails on my phone, but most of the time, once I returned from a day of reporting or working in coffee shops, I was offline. I read, I worked on my new reporting project with no thought to deadlines, and I just sat and stared into a beautiful fire. That's the essence of camping, no?

Next up: Gadgets and gear to make camping a breeze (and leave others thinking you've had a proper shower).

Well, my [brand new] passport is expired P.2

[Continued from Part I] My editor called back just as the Orbitz rep picked up. I didn't dare switch over (my flight was about to take off, and with it, I assumed, my $1200), so I let it go to voicemail. I asked the woman on the other end (she sounded French) to cancel the ticket, and she asked me to wait while she verified information and initiated what ended up being a long process. Every couple minutes I tentatively interjected with, "Hello?" After the third time she just put me on hold. Twenty minutes later, after my scheduled takeoff, she said she had successfully cancelled the flight and that I would get a refund (- $100). It was the best I could have hoped for.

I checked my editor's message with as much trepidation as my adrenal glands could muster. Has he ever met as big a schmuck as me? Is he going to cancel my contract outright, or is he going to give me one of those "well, this is disappointing" type messages, leave me dangling above the abyss of complete professional embarrassment?  I would prefer the former, like ripping off a band-aid, let's be done with it.

His message was incredible, a lesson in how to be an empathetic and encouraging collaborator, and I will never forget how grateful I felt in that moment. I had sent him a picture of the passport, so he could see the error right there, but I get the sense he would have given me the benefit of the doubt either way. He told me how crazy the situation was, that there was no way I would have caught the error until something like this happened,  and that the thing to do now was relax, regroup, and make a plan. They'd get me over there as soon as I could get a new passport, and we could revisit the deadline to make it work.

I could have cried. Here this guy is launching a new magazine, spending tons of money to send me somewhere, presumably so I could bring him a good story for one of his early issues, and his response is to pick me up off the ground, dust me off, and say, "no sweat, get back in there, champ." Swear to God, a different kind of message might have taken me out of the game for months. Instead, I felt so energized to salvage the trip and do great work.

My wife pulled up to the airport to find me in a frantic state. My luggage was piled around me, my cheeks were flushed with anxiety, and I was still wearing those cargo pants (professional journalist!). She had taken off work a little early to pick me up, and bless her, she was all action. She'd found a few companies online that offered same-day passport services. I got two of them on the phone, and I couldn't for the life of me tell if they were legit. We quickly figured out that the question to ask was "Do you have any appointments tomorrow?" That seemed roughly equivalent to asking a drug dealer if he had any "lift tickets" to go "skiing."

The best either of the places could do was an appointment in a week. All things considered, being offered a brand new passport in a week sounded pretty good, but it still meant my trip to Cambodia would have to be completely re-planned, the photographer diverted, the Cambodian senator put off.  There had to be a better way. How exactly were those companies able to get their clients same-day service? After some more research, we figured out they were just using the same appointment system at the Bureau of Consular Affairs that's available to the general public, and then charging a shitload of money on top of the normal passport fees to  go to the appointment in lieu of the client.

Our research also turned up this blog post: http://www.hirahim.com/blog/2011/08/03/how-to-renew-an-expired-passport-in-nine-hours/

Nine hours, you say? Though the official website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said an appointment was necessary at all locations in order to renew a passport, it seemed people had had success showing up at the Federal Building in Los Angeles and standing in line. You needed a printed-out itinerary showing an international flight leaving within a couple days, and there were no guarantees, but it was my best shot. On the way home we swung by a CVS, where I got new passport photos taken. Then, saint that my wife is, she took me to a bar.

Next day I hopped on my motorcycle at 4:45 AM and made tracks to the Federal Building. There were already about 15 people waiting when I arrived. A few hours later, when the Will Call window finally opened, the line was about 150 deep. When I got to the window, donning as polite and endearing a smile as I have in my arsenal, I handed over my application forms. I had booked a new flight for the following day, ponying up for flight insurance in case this Hail Mary didn't work. The guy glanced at my itinerary and handed back a ticket with a number on it. I was directed to a cafe just across the plaza, where I was told we would receive further instructions. Inside, I bought a cup of coffee, plopped down with a magazine, and waited about an hour. Eventually a uniformed officer came in and told us to line up. We would need the ticket we received, but the numbers printed on them were meaningless. There was now a mad dash to fill in the line, and it broke my heart to see a woman who had been far in front of me early that morning coming out of the bathroom to find that she was now relegated to the back. She pleaded with the officer, but he wasn't feeling sympathetic.

One by one we marched through a security checkpoint and into the belly of the Federal Building. We presented our forms at another window and got another number. Then we took a seat and waited to be called up, deli style. When I got to a window and handed over my carefully filled-out application, the agent insisted I had a temporary passport, which would have required a different set of forms, and which may not have been renewable that day. My heart sank. As calmly as I could, I explained what happened, told him that this passport was a renewal for a full-fledged, all rights and privileges model, that I'd had my previous passport for ten years, that the date printed on this now-useless booklet was a simple mistake. He told me to hold on, and then disappeared to consult with his manager.

"Okay," he said when he returned at last. "Come back at 3:00."

Fed BLDG

Paranoid about missing the pickup, I camped out under a tree on the lawn in the courtyard. I had been reading Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and this seemed like as good a time as any to relax, let my blood pressure settle, and enjoy some peace. In the book, which is a riot, a hapless journalist accidentally gets promoted to international correspondent. I swear to God, Buddha, whomever that this is true: A few pages after picking up where I'd left off, I came to a scene where the bumbling scribe, completely out of his depths, arrives at the airport in high spirits and laden with an excess of ridiculous gear ... only to find that he's neglected to bring, or even apply for, his passport. Plans are altered, emergency arrangements made.

Ten hours after I arrived, I cleared security at the Federal Building once more and lined up with the other passport hopefuls. When I got to a window, a young woman took my name and expertly flipped through a bin full of pink envelopes. She plucked one out and handed it over with a wonderful smile.

passport 2

"Be sure to check it for accuracy before you go," she advised. Good idea.

I was on a plane for Taiwan the next morning, and would touch down in Cambodia two calendar days later.

 

Reporting a Tragedy

IMG_1509 A gunman killed six students at my alma mater last Saturday morning before shooting himself in the head. My wife, who also went to UCSB, read the news on her phone while we were in bed Saturday morning. We were crushed. Like anyone else who reads news like that and has some small connection to the tragedy, we felt like there was nothing we could do.

IMG_1521

That feeling festered for half-an-hour as I got up and read news, watched the killer's chilling YouTube videos, and tried to figure out exactly what had happened.  The details were still emerging, but the general story had been sussed out by the cops and by the diligent reporters at the scene. At some point, as I was reading, a familiar process took hold. A bell went off. I could drive up to Santa Barbara.

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It sounded like an awful thing to do for a few reasons. First -- and let's face it, this is how we think -- it would be a logistical hassle and a huge expenditure of physical and emotional energy. I had plans, I had a week ahead of me to deal with, and I had a full plate of stories. It also felt like an awful thing to do because it was so clearly exploitative. If I went up, it would be to look for a story, a point of entry, and even though I consider myself an ethical and compassionate writer, that felt dirty. For a few minutes, my feelings about a senseless shooting lived side by side with my ambition to get the story. Slowly, as always happens, that ambition -- or, if I'm being more generous to myself, a desire to gain a more complete understanding of something awful -- pushed away the bystander in me. I start daring myself, castigating myself, questioning my dedication to being a journalist. I don't do well with peer pressure.

So I went.

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Isla Vista, the town adjacent to campus where the shootings occurred, was quieter than I expected. I got there around noon on Saturday, so many students in this all-student town were no doubt still inside, waking up, mourning, talking with their parents. Those students that were on the streets, though, were under a full-fledged assault by reporters. There were dozens of reporters in this small town, and since there were nine separate crime scenes, they were rushing madly around, grabbing interviews, putting on austere faces as they went live. Whenever I've seen this feeding frenzy in the past I've thought it distasteful and indelicate. I was there for the same reason the other reporters were, so it's hard to judge. I was also the beneficiary of a fairly complete story before I set out, which was due in large part to the reporters working the scene. But I'm sure as shit glad I'm a magazine writer and not a daily journo. Ambition be damned: I vowed to be there, soak in the heavy atmosphere, and only approach locals when it felt natural to do so.

IMG_1584

In the meantime, I turned my attention to a group of people I didn't mind harassing: the journalists themselves. I spoke with about ten reporters and photographers, some of them at great length. I was curious how they handled this kind of situation, whether they could treat it as a job or whether it stayed with them. I found most to be ... well, human. They were doing their job, they had to have that fierce instinct, and they took no pleasure in being insensitive or brutish during someone else's tragedy.

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I spotted one TV reporter camped out in front of an apartment building. I stopped and chatted with her. She looked tired, and when she told me that she had a tip that they were about to wheel bodies out of the building she was watching, she looked sad. Sure enough, inside the parking lot's automatic gate were two white vans, nondescript but official-looking. As we talked, more reporters started showing up. Word had spread. In half-an-hour there were about two dozen photographers and news types gathered around.

IMG_1704

 

Because of the gate and the position of the vans, there wasn't much of a view of the lot from the front. But a parking lot with a high wooden fence abutted the lot. It was the employee lot for a row of shops, and two Latino guys in aprons were hanging out at the back door of one of the shops. They were making faces, laughing at the news crews, interupting news reports with unscripted and uninvited cameos. It was funny, even amid the gravity of the situation. I went and chatted them up a little bit. They were brothers, Alan and Ivan, and I asked what they thought of the scene. Alan's answer surprised me.

"It's disrespectful," he said. "I know they're doing their job, but look."

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He motioned to the fence. Photographers were standing on chairs, on cars, on the fence itself to get a clear view. The fence was bowing under their weight. And sure enough, they started wheeling out bodies. There were three -- this was Elliot Rodger's house, and these were the young men he'd stabbed to death before setting out on his deadly drive. Then the gate opened, the vans pulled out, and twenty minutes later, we were gone.

My rustic writer's retreat: portable power (part IV)

Great, we've got our battery. Can't do much with that, though. We need to be able to plug in appliances like computers and margarita machines. We'll need an inverter. A power inverter changes direct current to alternating current, which is what you get from those plugs in your wall. I obviously know exactly how inverters work (electricity gnomes, right?), but if you're curious, here's a more detailed breakdown from everyone's favorite good-enough source.

Power inverters come in lots of shapes and sizes to serve lots of applications. Maybe you've hooked one up to your car's cigarette lighter outlet to give you power at your tailgates (seriously, has anyone ever used a margarita machine?), or maybe you use a small inverter to charge your phone in the car.

Now you can go to the AND watch Downton Abbey reruns. (This tailgate porn brought to us by http://www.cupboardsonline.com/2010/09/friday-find-tailgating-innovations.html)

The trick is to get an inverter with a high enough power rating to accommodate your maximum power needs. I'm primarily using this to charge my laptop, which, according to my power brick, has a maximum draw of 3.5 amps at 18.5 volts. I'll need an amp that can deliver that peak. To Home Depot!

Go Crusaders, nice goal, Jimmy, Mommy's got to go to the car for a minute ... the Black and Decker 500 Watt Power Inverter

I actually had a Home Depot gift card burning a hole in my pocket (thanks mom!), or I would have done some smarter shopping. When I got to my local store they only had a couple inverters that were suitable for my needs. I ended up choosing a 500 watt inverter from Black & Decker. According to the package, 500 watts will put out 4.17 amps at 120 volts (note, the inverter changes 12 volt DC to 120 volt AC).

You may have just noticed something interesting (though probably you just glossed right over those numbers, didn't you? Didn't you?!). The inverter changes direct current to alternating current. But my laptop power brick, which draws alternating current, is sending direct current to the laptop. So when you plug your laptop in, the power brick changes your wall outlet's AC to DC. What I'm doing with this big ass battery and inverter setup is changing DC to AC, which is then turned back into DC by the power brick for my laptop. Okay ...

If that sounds massively inefficient, it is. And if the only thing I planned to plug into this charging station were the laptop, I'd skip the inverter and buy a special laptop cable designed to draw DC directly. But, like I said, I want to be able to plug any home device into this thing, so I'm going going to have to live with inefficiency.

Putting it all together is pretty simple. You attach the supplied jumper cables to the battery terminals and voila, you've got a couple plugs to plug things in. The Black & Decker inverter also has USB outlets, which is great for charging a phone or an iPod.

Packing tape -- my sophisticated solution for keeping this thing from clanging around

I wanted something a little more stable than the cheap clamps on the jumper cables, so I went to a boating store nearby and bought 12 gauge electrical wire. I crimped some connectors on and screwed them to the battery terminals for a more permanent fix. I also bought a battery box from the boating store to hold the whole thing together. Then I drilled some holes and screwed the inverter to the outside of the plastic box. Pretty snazzy!

Hey sir, do you have something you want plugged in? You there? Sir? Anything to plug in? How about you, sir? I've got some free outlets here. Sir?

Huzzah!

The last element is the battery charger. This system won't be much good unless I can replace the energy I've taken out. I returned to Amazon, our retail overlord, and asked for an offering. After reading lots of reviews, this bad boy [LINK] seemed like my best buy. To charge the battery I just hook the supplied charging cables up to the terminals, plug the charger in and select the appropriate voltage and battery type (12V / Absorbent Glass Mat), and let 'er rip.

"What are you doing in here?" - Nina, wife

This charger tells me how full the battery is with a percentage readout, which is great (although probably not spot on).

 

"Charge ... charge ... charge ..." - Me "Seriously, what the hell are you doing?" - Nina, wife

Initial tests with this thing are promising. It'll take a few cycles for the battery to settle to its true capacity, but so far so good. I've noticed that my laptop's charging rate with the battery is a little slower than from the wall, probably because the inverter isn't putting out as much current as a typical 120 V AC outlet. But the battery is supporting multiple charges and I'm eager to do some real tests in the field.

I deem this project a success ... and now I'm one step closer to my rustic writer's retreat.

My rustic writer's retreat: portable power (part III)

We won't get anywhere dicking around with tiny lithium ion batteries. My portable power solution has to be cheap, powerful, and capable of charging my laptop six to nine times. So where does that leave us? I briefly toyed with the idea of a solar solution. Cool as these things might be, they're not practical for my purposes.  By way of example, here's a great solar kit called the Sherpa 50.

The Sherpa 50. Sexy, no?

I love the look of this thing, especially that shot of the power unit sitting on the grass next to a bunch of gear (I'm a softy for carefully staged photos of gear), but for $350 (sale price) this only extends the life of my laptop battery by two hours. It would then take 8-16 hours for the solar panels to recharge the device's internal battery. There are plenty of applications for something like this, but a power-hungry writer's retreat ain't one of them.

I decided to look at a big honking 12V battery, similar to the kind that powers the starter in your car. Typical automotive batteries, while easy to find and relatively cheap, are designed to deliver a lot of current very quickly. But I'm looking for something that'll give me a steady draw of 3.5 amps at 18.5 volts over a lengthy period of time.

Deep cycle batteries do just that. Wholesale Solar explains the difference between deep cycle and shallow cycle batteries here. Suffice to say that I'm going to want a deep cycle battery if I want my portable power system to last. So where do you find deep cycle batteries?

Same place you find great literature and budget tanks: Amazon!

The JL421 Badonkadonk Land Cruiser / Tank is elegant, but is it up to the demanding task of suppressing today's rogue militants? The comments make me wonder.

I found this bad boy, a 50 Ah deep cycle battery designed to power electric scooters. It's $100, so not cheap, but it should do the trick.  My laptop draws 3.5 amps at 18.5 volts. This is a 12 V battery, so we'll have to recalculate to accommodate the higher 18.5 volts (3.5 amps x 18.5/12 = 5.4 amps). This is a 50 Ah battery, so if I'm drawing 5.4 amps the battery should last 50 / 5.4 = 9.3 hours. Since my laptop takes an hour to charge, this system would theoretically give me 9.3 charges. Excelsior!

Less sexy than the Sherpa 50, but you're not going to scare James Bond by hooking his genitals to a solar cell (wind turbine, maybe)

Of course this battery won't actually charge my laptop for 9.3 hours. Batteries aren't 100% efficient, for one thing. And there's another issue: AC/DC isn't just some old guys in goofy face paint. Your home appliances are designed to use alternating current, but batteries deliver direct current. If I want my portable power system to run any home appliance without a special adapter (read: margarita machine), I'm going to need to change DC to AC.

Up next: a power inverter, a battery charger, and voila!

My rustic writer's retreat: portable power (part II)

My rustic writer's retreat will need portable power. Why? Because hand-cranking a margarita is a real nuisance.

Power is also important because ... after interviewing dozens of people, transcribing hours of tape, collecting a mess of files, and jotting lots of inscrutable notes, the only way I can reasonably bring order to the chaos of my reporting is with some kind of tried and true information management system. Every reporter grapples with arranging and organizing information, and it's a topic I hope to cover here down the road. What's important right now is that my system requires a computer, and computers require power.

Like a MacBook, only worse!

So how many D cells am I going to need to get out of the house and into a campsite that has all the amenities of home? I'm going to figure this out like the philosophy major I was. I exist. "I" is a person who uses a computer all day. Therefore, I tend to recharge my HP Spectre XT from a low charge of ~10 - 15% to a full charge three or four times during working hours. I think that's Kant.

Three or four charges per day accounts for using internet and not being too conscious of power consumption factors like screen brightness and background porn ... for ... an article ... so I'm betting I can get that down to two or three charges daily. If I camp for two nights, three days, I'm looking at six to nine charges over the course of my DIY rustic writer's retreat.

Of course, that's all meaningless if I don't know how much actual power I'm using. I'm a little out of my league here, but this is what I've pieced together. Caution: light math ahead.

Power brick

The output from my laptop's power brick is 18.5V @ 3.5 amps. Science!

But what does that mean? Since the mystics that inscribed these odd characters have been silenced, we'll have to do some internet learning. To make this easier to grasp, let's start by looking at one of the popular portable power options that's available off the shelf, and then work backwards to see if it suits our needs. Introducing the Micro-Start XP1.

Micro-Start XP1

The Micro-Start XP1 is a smallish lithium ion battery, same as in your laptop. Lithium is the lightest metal around, which makes these batteries substantially more portable than lead acid numbers, like the one in your car (lead is not known for its lightness, nor its digestibility). The XP1 is a little spendy, but the issue at hand is storage capacity. How can I know if it'll meet my power needs?

Like my laptop power brick,  the XP1 is covered in lots of strange symbols. My honed journo instincts are telling me that all these numbers are related. I think Woodward and his bear friend had similar instincts about a hotel in D.C. One of the numbers on the XP1 tells me that it has a 44 Wh (watt-hour) battery. In other words, the XP1 could theoretically power a 44 watt device for an hour. That's the amount of energy it has.

Here's where it gets mathy. This dude named Ohm tells us that power = voltage x current. We actually have two of those variables already. The voltage I'll need, according to my laptop power brick, is 18.5V.  We know the XP1 has 44 Wh of energy, which means 44 W (power) for an hour (time). Let's just tuck that pesky hour under the rug for a moment, but keep it in mind. Now let's plug in our variables.

power = voltage x current

44 W = 18.5V x ??? amps

If you do the simple division (with a calculator, duh), you'll find out that this battery can deliver 2.4 amps @ 18.5 volts. That's not terribly useful information unless we factor in time. Someone hand me that hour we tucked under the rug. If you chuck that hour as hard as you can at those numbers, you get something useful. This battery can give 2.4 amps for one hour @ the required 18.5 V. In other words, this is a 2.4 amp-hour battery. Therefore, ecumenically speaking, God exists. I am God.

Boom. Philosophy.

Now let's turn back to my laptop. The time it takes to charge my laptop varies, but to make this simple we'll say it normally takes one hour to charge from nearly dead to 100%. According to my power brick, the most current my laptop will draw is 3.5 amps. That's a maximum draw, so the computer probably needs less under normal conditions, but we'll use that number to be safe. If it takes one hour to charge my laptop, and the laptop is drawing 3.5 amps for that period of time, I'm going to need a 3.5 amp-hour battery for a single charge. Sweet Moses, I do believe we now have two figures we can compare side-by-side.

And ... holy crap, this battery doesn't even come close!

The XP1 has a 2.4 amp-hour battery, which means it won't even charge my laptop, which needs 3.5 amp-hours of energy to go from dead to fully charged, even once. In reality, it probably would give me a full charge since my computer wouldn't be sucking the maximum 3.5 amps under normal charging conditions, but that still only leaves us with one recharge, and for this booze swilling DIY writer's retreat to work, I'm going to need to recharge the laptop six to nine times.

Like the man said, you're going to need a bigger boat. Also, dude, where's my car?

Car battery

Up Next: A big ass car battery

My rustic writer's retreat ... camping! (Part I)

I have a dream. I'm at a secluded campsite on the California coast. There's an ocean view, a perfect breeze, and I have three days' worth of provisions (read: lots of booze). I'm on deadline, but I've done my reporting. I just need to write, to sit my ass in the chair and put words on the page. From a recent camping trip to El Capitan State Beach north of Santa Barbara. Don't you think you could be productive here?!

Of course, my other dream is to get arrested for some outrageously courageous act of defiance, and then use my six months in the hatch to bang out some really choice pages. That one's far-fetched (and probably ill-conceived), but the thing about my camping dream is that it's completely doable. There are plenty of gorgeous campsites near LA, many of them secluded, and if I'm going to be a grouchy jerkoff for three days, I may as well spare my loved ones the face time.

Still, driving to the sticks with a pad of paper and a bunch of notes does not a rustic writer's retreat make. I'm hell bent on creating a completely comfortable, totally portable setup that will enable me to disappear for a stretch to get some work done.

My first challenge? Portable power

Stay tuned!

How to interview experts

What's the best way to get a source to open up? Easy. Follow them on their turf and act (!) like you don't know anything. People like to be experts, and if those people happen to be actual experts so much the better. I was reminded of this on a recent ride along with Mike Osborn, Supervisory Inspector for U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Torrance office. Walter Mike Osborn, Supervisory Inspector, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a federal agency that polices the nation's wildlife trade. Those live tetra fish you bought at Walmart? They probably came from Brazil in a big wooden crate in the belly of an airplane. The guys and gals who work for Osborn make sure the importation permits are in order, that the animals are safely handled, and that no protected species find their way into those water-filled plastic bags.

Michael Brown, USFW inspector, looking at a legal shipment of fish that came through LAX. These fish came from Australia, presumably for a gap year in the States.

I'm doing a story about the illegal wildlife trade in LA, and USFW was kind enough to invite me along for two days of inspections. I spent one day at LAX, and one at a warehouse for ocean freight coming through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The cargo entering and leaving from these hubs, along with Southern California's year-round temperate climate, makes this the busiest wildlife trading corridor in the country.

Ever wonder how they ship live spiders?

Oh. Okay. So those salsa containers are modified to keep the spiders securely inside?

No sir. They are not.

Over two days I got about eight hours of tape, most of it captured in peripatetic conversation with Mike Osborn, a fascinating guy who's more than happy to roll up his sleeve to help the investigators he oversees.

Shipment of drums

Osborn gave me tons of insight into the world of wildlife importing and smuggling. Eight hours is a transcription nightmare, but I'm now in the middle of that arduous task and I've been struck by the meaty level of our conversations. Usually interviews ebb and flow, with lots of blind alleys and fruitless questions preceding those unexpected gems that get a source talking and opening up in brilliant ways.

But with my recorder tucked in an outside pocket of my snazzy reporter's bag, and with tape rolling from the second I got out of the car, I captured tons of great material just by following this guy while he worked, letting him take me into his world instead of trying to break into that world through an hour of calculated questioning.  It was a nice reminder that interviews don't have to take place in a fluorescent-lit room, and in the future I'm planning to make more of an effort to have sources lead me around whenever possible.

TIP: I have two recorders that I can work blindfolded (sort of like a trained assassin can field strip a glock). Nothing is scarier to me than the prospect of missing a great, technically convoluted conversation (maybe loose spiders running amok under a plane). Make sure you know your equipment, and have a backup at the ready.

In this case it also helped to know what kind of interference I would get with the recorder in my pocket, in a bag, or in my hand.  A good way to test out your rig is to spy on your significant other. Extra points for using the raw tape to splice together a lascivious message. "Greg ... your ... package ... makes me ... hot ... hot ... hot" - Nina Anthony, wife.