3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring Bill Gates, finding meaning, and giving back

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I’ll be honest: I found the coolest story I read this week in an in-flight magazine.

Perhaps I have just been traveling too much.

I have taken two trips, involving six flights, for work in the last two weeks. Eventually I found myself with nothing to read, so I picked up the US Airways in-flight magazine … and I found a gem.

The famed author Andrew Carroll gave the magazine an abridged introduction to his just-released book, Here is There. I found it engrossing. In the article, Carroll recounts a few true but hard-to-believe stories from U.S. history, such as:

  • the time the brother of John Wilkes Booth saved the life of the son of Abraham Lincoln
  • how a group of Confederate rebels tried unsuccessfully to set Manhattan on fire

Carroll is a terrific storyteller, and I have since purchased Here is There and am awaiting its arrival in the mail. I decided to include his abridged introduction as an honorary great story this week, and — believe it or not — the in-flight magazine version can only be found in virtual magazine format online.

So you too can now experience the joys of getting inspired by an in-flight magazine, completing with the ads for two-karat tanzanite rings and indoor kart racing.


And now, the 3 Great Stories of the week:

Bill Gates: ‘Death is something we really understand extremely well’ (5/17/13, Washington Post Wonkblog): This is a classic example of where a story is best served by a straightforward Q&A format.

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein goes in-depth with Bill Gates, still the world’s richest person according to Bloomberg News, about his latest ambitious endeavor: the literal eradication of polio across the globe.

But the interview really gets fascinating when Gates discusses the ways in which different countries treat the reality of death. Some of his assertions are simply haunting, such as the following:

When you’re running a poor country health-care system, you can’t treat a year of life as being worth more than, say, $200, $300 or else you’ll bankrupt your health system immediately. So, with very few exceptions, you do nothing for cancer. If you get cancer, you’re going to die.

To find meaning in a secular age, stop searching (5/17/13, BigThink.com): Since we’re talking about some heavier subjects this week, why not continue with a harrowing think-piece about the search for meaning in our lives?

Sam McNerney is a science writer for the always-provocative Big Think web site. In this story, he frames an age-old question (“What is the meaning of life?”) in a modern context. At a time when fewer people consider themselves religious and we are all exposed to a tsunami of information, how can anyone find an indisputable purpose?

McNerney crystalizes the situation beautifully towards the end of the column:

The problem, I should clarify, is not necessarily that we’re lacking meaning. The literature on cognitive biases suggests we are facing the opposite problem: we’re drowning in meaning. We see patterns that don’t exist, faces in the clouds, believe in essences, and stereotype. We cannot not find meaning. The problem is we struggle to find meaningful meaning. We need something – a team, a band, or a politician – to filter our beliefs and provide some coherence to our worldview, even if it that worldview is an illusionary one. Otherwise we’re lost.

Interestingly, I saw this article two days earlier on the Big Think web site. It discusses an app called Buycott that, according to its own description, allows you to scan a product and then “determine what brand it belongs to, and figure out what company owns that brand … It will then cross-check the product owners against the companies and brands included in the campaigns you’ve joined, in order to tell you if the scanned product conflicts with one of your campaign commitments.”

Thus, as the Big Think article puts it, “Want to reward companies that took your preferred position on Internet freedom or marriage equality? Just scan and tap.”

I wonder what McNerney would make of an app like Buycott. Is it empowering, allowing us to make informed decisions on nearly every product we use, or is it paralyzing, presenting us with so much data that we cannot help but find conflicts of interest in everything we do?

Giving it away (5/6/13, NPR’s TED Radio Hour): Now that we have blown your mind about the meaning of death and the meaning of life, let’s take it down a notch (only slightly) with the final story.

Let’s talk about the meaning of giving.

Credit NPR for jumping on the TED Talks bandwagon and re-crafting the talks in a more cohesive, all-encompassing way. The station’s TED Radio Hour combines 3-4 TED Talks on a similar subject, while its host, Guy Raz, interviews the speakers and strings together the stories.

In this case, the talks range from incisive (activist Dan Pallotta discusses what’s wrong with the current standards for non-profits) to inspiring (Ron Finley speaks about planting a community garden in South Central L.A.) to adorable (a volunteer firefighter finds heroism in the seemingly un-heroic parts of his job).

Each speech will get you thinking.


Have a suggestion for “3 Great Stories of the Week”? E-mail me at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

4 thoughts on “3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring Bill Gates, finding meaning, and giving back

  1. I love looking through an aricle that can make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing forr me to comment!

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