Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WQED's Rick Sebak launches crowdfunding campaign

Posted By on Wed, Mar 29, 2017 at 12:00 PM

In 2014, Rick Sebak was named City Paper's Best Media Personality - CP FILE PHOTO
  • CP file photo
  • In 2014, Rick Sebak was named City Paper's Best Media Personality
At a time when funding for public broadcasting is at risk, one Pittsburgh legend is looking to bring more programming to WQED through alternative means.

This week, Sebak launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a new series called NEBBY: Rick Sebak’s Tales of Greater Pittsburgh. The series will be comprised of six half-hour episodes featuring interesting things about the Pittsburgh region.

"Public broadcasting has always had to use creative ways to raise funds," Sebak says. "We make programs that no other network does. I like to celebrate Pittsburgh and I hope people are surprised by what we come up with."

The kickstarter campaign ends April 25 and has a goal of $113,000. As of this morning, nearly half of the funds have already been raised. Donation rewards can be earned for as little as $13 (getting you a "Nebby" button) and go as high as $5,000 (which gets you a private concert with the Beagle Brothers).

The Buhl Foundation has also contributed funds for the project.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner calls on Pittsburgh mayor to end partial lead-line replacements

Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 4:28 PM

Timeline of PWSA's lead issues - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
  • Timeline of PWSA's lead issues
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, partial replacement of lead service lines has been linked to an increased incidence of high blood lead levels in children. But partial replacement of lead service lines is exactly what's happening in Pittsburgh and other cities around the country right now.

"If you don't do [full replacements], you are ensuring that people are going to continue to be poisoned," Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said in an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper. "It's actually worse. By changing out just one part of the line, you're actually making the problem worse. You'd be better doing nothing at all."

Earlier today, at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Wagner called on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to halt all partial lead service-line replacements by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

"Hundreds of these dangerous partial replacements have already been performed throughout Pittsburgh, and the PWSA is slated to complete 1,500 by July of this year," Wagner said today. "When left to fend for themselves, families either cannot complete the replacement of the private side of their line because they cannot afford to do so, or will not because they don't understand the level of risk, and the fact that the partial work that has been done is in fact making the problem worse."

Lead tests of Pittsburgh's water have shown levels of lead above the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion. And as a result, Pittsburgh has been required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to replace seven percent of its lead service lines each year. However, the mayor's office says Pittsburgh is barred by the state Municipal Authorities Act from replacing the residential portion of the lines.

"The City is in the midst of an open, transparent and public process to evaluate the future of the PWSA, which includes looks at lead service-line issues, and the authority's crippling $1 billion in debt," Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff said in a statement responding to Wagner. "It appears the County Controller instead wants to preserve the status quo at the authority and push massive tax increases on City residents, all while taking cheap political shots at those actually working to address the authority's issues."

According to Wagner, of the 58 lead line replacements done in Lawrenceville last year, only one homeowner chose to replace the private portion of the line. Wagner says failure to replace the private portion of the line could be due to the fact that 52 percent of Pittsburgh homes are rentals where residents don't have the power to replace lines providing the water they drink.

She is calling on the mayor's office to take steps to replace the entire portion of each lead service line and says the process of replacing the private portion could be done for $25 million over the course of 5 years, or and estimated $1,200 per line.

Earlier this month, the Urban Redevelopment Authority approved  a low-interest loan program to help low-income residents pay for their lead service line replacements. But Wagner says the program has only been funded for 75 people, far less than the thousands of residents requiring lead line replacements.

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Trump Puppet highlights Pittsburgh's weekly Tuesdays With Toomey protest

Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 1:48 PM

Steve O'Hearn operates his Donald Trump puppet - CP PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • CP photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • Steve O'Hearn operates his Donald Trump puppet
Today's rainy installment of this weekly Downtown protest at the office of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was marked by the debut of a larger-than-life Donald Trump puppet created and operated as a side project by members of performance troupe Squonk Opera.

The puckishly named No You're The Puppet Theater found a gray-suited "Trump" (complete with flag lapel pin), perched on the shoulders of Steve O'Hearn, joining about 125 protesters at Firstside Park and then marching to the Grant Building, which houses Toomey's office.

A brief skit had someone calling Trump a puppet, and Trump (voiced by O'Hearn) bellowing back, "No, you're the puppet" — reprising an infamous exchange from Trump's final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton last year. O'Hearn operated the puppet partly by pulling on its overly long maroon necktie. In a sloppy gray wig and black-rimmed eyeglasses, O'Hearn himself looked remarkably like presidential adviser Steve Bannon.

Tuesdays With Toomey marchers today - CP PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • CP photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • Tuesdays With Toomey marchers today
No You're the Puppet is distinct from Squonk Opera, the long-running, nationally touring Pittsburgh-based art-rock band and performance troupe whose work has long featured giant puppets and other outrageous props. O'Hearn and fellow Squonkers Jackie Dempsey and David Wallace have (again, as individuals, not troupe members) been regulars at Tuesdays With Toomey, designed to call out the senator's inaccessibility to the public and close allegiance to Trump's policies. Letters addressed to the senator were also delivered to his offices.

Tuesdays With Toomey have run weekly since January in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania towns, with protesters often turning up in the hundreds to demand that the senator meet with constituents, which he has so far refused to do (aside from a couple hastily called tele-town halls). Participants expressed concern about a range of issues, including health care: "No to Block Grant for Medicaid" and "Don't Compromise Seniors," read two signs.

On the sidewalk outside the Grant Building entrance, protesters chanted "Town hall! Town hall!" and cheered the defeat of the Republican-proposed health-care plan that failed to reach a vote in Congress last week.

Tuesdays with Toomey happens at noon every Tuesday.

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Report shows Pennsylvania fracking companies paying few fines for environmental infractions

Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 1:35 PM

Environmental advocates at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
  • CP photo by Ryan Deto
  • Environmental advocates at a press conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse.
A new report released March 28 by the statewide environmental group PennEnvironment shows that for the past eight years, fracking companies in Pennsylvania have together committed 4,351 environmental and public-health violations.

That amounts to 1.4 violations per day in the state. This number is pretty significant as is, but PennEnvironment also pointed out that only 17 percent of those violations were issued a fine. Additionally, that average fine was only $5,263.

Since many of the oil and gas companies that were administered fines, like Chesapeake Energy, pull in billions of dollars in revenue each year, Stephen Riccardi of PennEnvironment says this is akin to charging 10 cents for a parking ticket. “There would be illegally parked cars in every handicap spot and probably cars littering the sidewalk,” said Riccardi at a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse. “If the penalty isn’t high enough, it won’t stifle illegal polluters.”

Riccardi says these low and infrequent penalties can actually set up a toxic environment in the state. “Sadly, the message is clear: It pays to pollute if you are fracking in Pennsylvania,” said Riccardi. “These violations pose serious environmental and public-health threats.”

Raina Rippel, of the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said doctors and health experts are just beginning to understand the health impacts fracking has on populations close to fracking well pads.

“Proximity to well pads has been associated with increases in a person’s risk for respiratory and neurological problems, as well as elevated risks of birth defects,” said Rippel.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, a health-advocacy coalition, has recently called for a moratorium on fracking.

One example of a direct link between fracking and health issues is contaminated water. Riccardi cites Texas-based Range Resources which leaked pollutants into Brush Run in Washington County last year. He adds that Pennsylvania has identified 283 instances where drinking water has been contaminated due to fracking.

John Stolz, director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education, said there have been 9,400 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection since 2004, and more than 4,000 have been related to water contamination.

“There is something going on, and we need the DEP to step up and hold the industry responsible,” said Stolz. “We need the industry to admit that there are some [environmental] challenges to fracking.”

Riccardi said PennEnvironment is calling for the state to restore adequate funding levels to the DEP, which has seen cuts for many years. (In 2008, the DEP budget was $229 million; in 2016, it was $148 million.) He said this can create more positions which can enforce environmental laws more frequently. Riccardi also said fines need to be increased for repeat violators.

For those looking to see increasing in fracking, this report comes at an inopportune time. Recently released census figures for 2016 show the Pittsburgh region losing thousands of residents for the third straight year. Some believe if the fracking industry were to return to levels it saw in the early part of the decade, it could help build the population back up.

Riccardi said that in the long term, fracking isn’t a good idea for the region.

“We don’t see fracking as a long-term sustainable investment in communities in Pennsylvania,” said Riccardi. “Really, we see it as an existential threat to the health of Pennsylvanians and to the safety of our environment.”

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Air-quality expo scheduled for Sunday just outside of Pittsburgh

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 10:21 AM

The town of Clairton, an epicenter of concern about continuing poor air quality in the region, is the site of Breathless: An Air Quality Expo, to be staged by three environmental groups.

The event will include information, resources and speakers on air pollution (and also refreshments). Speakers include Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, environmental-justice activist Knowledge Murphy (of Black Man, Green Plan), and Deborah Gentile, a researcher who has recently studied asthma in Clairton.

Other speakers include Ana Tsuhlares, of Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab, who will demonstrate how to use a Speck air-pollution monitor and the free Smell PGH app, and representatives of the Clean Air Council, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, and the Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality Program.

Allegheny County has received a failing grade for year-round particle pollution from the American Lung Association. One big reason is U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, which for years has been one of the largest polluters in the county.

"Mon Valley residents are more susceptible to health issues, including asthma or cancer, because of this fact," said Annie Rega, Southwest PA outreach coordinator for PennFuture, in a statement. PennFuture says it has uncovered about 6,700 air-pollution violations at the Coke Works between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 31, 2015.

The presentation by the county's Health Department will include an update on attempts to enforce air-pollution rules at the plant.

The expo is sponsored by PennFuture, Clean Water Action and the Clean Air Council.

Breathless: An Air Quality Expo, runs from 2-6 p.m. this Sun., March 26, at the Community Economic Development Corporation Center, 282 St. Clair Ave., in Clairton.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

A+ Schools launch Vote School Board First campaign

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 5:36 PM

Screenshot of
  • Screenshot of
In a quality-of-life survey conducted last year, strong public schools were identified as the No. 1 priority for residents living in the eastern part of Pittsburgh. But despite this recognition of the importance of public education, in 2015, only 20 percent of registered voters voted in Pittsburgh's school-board election.

"We can't have strong neighborhoods without strong schools," David Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said at a press conference earlier today. "Yes, public schools are a family issue, and the strongest measure of our public schools is how they treat our most vulnerable students. But public schools are also a community-development issue. Because of the school-to-prison pipeline, they're also a public-safety issue. They're a workforce-development and a real-estate issue."

With this in mind, earlier today, education-advocacy group A+ Schools launched a campaign to raise awareness of Pittsburgh's upcoming school-board election. Its new website will provide information on each candidate vying for a seat in four Pittsburgh districts.

"We're going to try to close the information gap with this website," said A+ Executive Director James Fogarty. "We want to help you understand where the candidates stand on policy issues and transparency. ... When you go talk to these candidates, you should be able to ask them, 'What are you going to do about Weil [K-5]? What's going on at UPrep [6-12]? How are you going to make those schools better and what are you going to do to ensure kids in those buildings have access to a high-quality education?'"

In the upcoming May primary, incumbent Sylvia Wilson who represents District 1 is running unopposed. The District 3 race pits former Pittsburgh City Councilor Sala Udin against James Myers, director of community affairs and business development for Urban Innovation 21, an organization that helps businesses in under-served communities. In District 5, incumbent Terry Kennedy will face Ghadah Makoshi, founder of Pittsburgh Baby Equipment Rentals, a small business that rents baby equipment to Pittsburgh visitors. In District 7, Cynthia Falls will face newcomer Joseph Conrad Kearfott Burns. And in District 9 incumbent Carolyn Klug will face Veronica Edwards.

"We believe a high-quality education is a civil and human right," said Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. "In these times, with uncertainty at the federal and state level, it is more important than ever for voters and black voters especially, to know who their school-board candidates are and understand their positions on the issues. It is critically important to be informed, and to understand they represent the promise of high-quality education for us all."

This year, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ budget is $594.4 million, making it larger than the city of Pittsburgh’s operating budget. At today's press conference, education advocates said this figure should lead even those without students in the district to have a greater interest in how their tax dollars are being spent.

"Sometimes we're so concerned with what's at the top of the ticket, we don't look at what's at the bottom," said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project.

A+ Schools is holding a School-Board Election Candidate Forum at 6 p.m. May 8  p.m. at the Hillman Auditorium at the Kaufmann Center.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

PETA marks World Water Day with demonstration in Downtown Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 3:44 PM

PETA demonstration in Market Square - CP PHOTO BY REBECCA ADDISON
  • CP photo by Rebecca Addison
  • PETA demonstration in Market Square
If you walked through Market Square in Downtown Pittsburgh around lunchtime today, it was hard to miss the World Water Day demonstration held by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. With temperatures in the low 30s, two women wearing nothing but nude-toned underwear and pasties over their breasts stood under a stream of water in a makeshift shower.

The demonstration by animal-rights group PETA,was meant to send a message about the amount of water used to produce animal-food products like meat and cheese. According to language on the makeshift shower curtain, it takes 55 gallons of water to produce two slices of cheese. Another section of the curtain said one pound of beef is equal to 180 showers.

Using the naked female form in campaigns is nothing new for PETA. The organization has been criticized for sexualizing women in its campaigns before. And today, the two showering demonstrators were referred to by organizers as "bathing beauties."

"This is just an eye-catching way to get people to pay attention. Facts and figures alone don't always work," said PETA campaigner Keterina Davidson. "These are two empowered women who are willingly out here to make a statement for something they believe in."

While many onlookers and passersby were intent on ogling the women and asking if they were cold, the two activists stayed on message, as two other organizers offered literature on the impact veganism  has on the environment. According to the pamphlets, by going vegan, a person can save approximately 219,000 gallons of water per year.

"We're a little cold, but it's nothing compared to what the animals go through for meat production," said Leila Sleiman, one of the women.

Sleiman and co-demonstrator Misti Lee did get through to some passersby. Several vegans stopped by to thank them for their efforts, and others praised them for their dedication to making a statement.

"I'm impressed that they're willing to risk hypothermia," said Jennifer Pizzuto. "I have mad respect for them."

Sleiman challenged Pizzuto and others to go vegan for 30 days, but they demurred the challenge saying it was "too hard" or "too expensive." Sleiman, who says she's been vegan for 13 years, disagrees.

"I think it's easier now than it's ever been," Sleiman says. "There's so many reasons to go vegan, but for me, it was the animals and health. When I learned about factory farming, I just couldn't do it anymore. Even though you're not slaughtering the animal yourself, you're paying someone to do it."

A new incubator in Pittsburgh, FUTUREMAKERS Labs, debuts at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 1:52 PM

  • Photo courtesy of Mark Simpson
If you're an artist or entrepreneur frustrated by a lack of resources and networking opportunities in Pittsburgh, a new incubator at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty, might be what you're looking for. FUTUREMAKERS Labs is a 12-week incubator running from April to June that offers training, workshops and networking for Pittsburghers seeking to connect with the city's burgeoning arts and nonprofit communities, but are unsure where to start. That may sound vague, but the open-ended approach is no mistake.

On its website, the theater wrote: "KST believes that diversity of skill, thought, and identity amongst creative entrepreneurs is key to the success of any thriving city. Diverse game-changers from across various industries and disciplines are encouraged to apply to this opportunity."

City Paper caught up with FM's project coordinator Darrell Kinsel, via email, to discuss his goals and motivations for the program.

What was the inspiration for this project?

We want to continue to amplify KST's mission as a catalyst for creative expression. The incubator, created by Janera Solomon and myself, is the second of a series of programs developed by KST to expand the role of art institutions. To be relevant and responsive to community needs and to continue to identify talented creatives operating on Penn Avenue and in Pittsburgh.

What is the vision behind FUTUREMAKERS?

The vision of FUTUREMAKERS Labs is to foster creative, community-centered practice and reinforce an initiative to connect diverse creative technology and business.

Why are “incubators” important in arts communities?

Incubators provide artists and creative entrepreneurs with a distinct place and network to innovate, test and scale. It also breaks these individuals outside of traditional studio practice, which can be isolating as you are testing out new concepts.

How did you learn about the business side to art, and when did you commit to art as a career?

I learned about the entrepreneurial side of art by studying artists, producers, curators and leaders who have a larger view of how “arts and culture” naturally intersect with the real world. So nationally, there are examples such as Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe and Umberto Crenca. Some local examples of leaders that have had a direct impact on developing my view of "art as a business” are Phil Koch, Janera Solomon, Christiane Leach and Nate Mitchell.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a working artist in Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh is a place where you can be both easily frustrated and comfortable in relation to your artistic and administrative advancements. I think that Pittsburgh artists sometimes are not fully aware of opportunities in markets that are close geographically, but very different in size and maturity. It is important to develop your skills at home, but also take the leap into other creative markets such to see audience reaction to products and services.


The deadline for FUTUREMAKERS Labs is Fri., March 24. Submit here.

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Bike-advocacy group survey says cyclists support driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 12:13 PM

  • Image courtesy of Bike Pittsburgh
Predicting how drivers are going to interact with cyclists on Pittsburgh roads is a fool’s game. Some drivers will slow down, provide the legally required four feet and pass cyclists without incident. Others will honk at cyclists and scream at them to get off the road, or even act negligent and crash into cyclists. It's all part of a normal commute for urban cyclists.

Because of this unpredictability, it's not all that surprising that Pittsburgh cyclists would support taking the human element out of driving, and data recently released by Bike Pittsburgh proves it. The bike- and pedestrian-advocacy organization released a survey on March 21, showing that only about 10 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members with and without experience sharing the road with driverless cars disapprove of Pittsburgh as a testing-ground for autonomous vehicles. Moreover, about 75 percent of Bike Pittsburgh members actually approve or somewhat approve of driverless-car testing in Pittsburgh. (Somewhat ironically, a recent survey of Americans with AAA coverage showed that 75 percent of drivers were afraid of fully autonomous vehicles.)

In September 2016, Uber debuted its semi-autonomous vehicles in a highly publicized event. Since then, semi-autonomous Volvo SUVs and Ford sedans have been navigating select Pittsburgh neighborhoods, with a driver ready to take over and a technician monitoring the driverless components.

The survey compiled responses from 321 Bike Pittsburgh members and about 800 non-members. About 40 percent of members said they have interacted with a driverless car either on bike or on foot (non-members have interacted with AVs slightly less on bike, but slightly more on foot).

“While our own personal experiences riding and walking alongside AVs have been mostly positive, we believe that the introduction of these vehicles to our streets deserves a larger conversation,” said Eric Boerer, BikePGH Advocacy Director, in a press release. “As far as we know, we are the first organization collecting these stories from bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Both members and non-members also said they felt safer when interacting with an autonomous vehicle, rather than with a car controlled by a driver, even if there were still some uneasiness. "People noted the lack of road rage and aggression toward them as opposed to human drivers," said the study. "However, many were not comfortable with the dehumanization of the interaction even if it ended up being safe."

But not all reports were positive, according to the press release. While most bike-riding respondents noted driverless cars gave four feet while passing, several people cited times AVs passed them only giving a few inches. Additionally, some walking survey respondents noted driverless cars didn't stop for them while waiting to cross the street, and one respondent witnessed an AV running a red light. (It should be noted that Recode recently published a story showing that while Pittsburgh has become the epicenter of semi-autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S., the driverless cars only travel an average of 0.8 miles before human drivers have to intervene.)

Regardless, respondents of the survey want Bike Pittsburgh to support AVs; 50 percent of members and 43 percent of non-members want the bike-advocacy organization to "actively support" autonomous vehicles. Only 3 percent of members and 7 percent of non-members want them to oppose AVs.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 3:51 PM

Ta-Nehisi Coates was a hot ticket in Oakland last night: Some 500 attendees packed a William Pitt Student Union ballroom to hear the author speak, with more in an overflow room and 100 or more folks turned away at the door. But if people came expecting him to talk about his best-selling 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, his experiences writing Marvel's Black Panther comic, or even his high-profile journalism in The Atlantic and elsewhere, they got a bit of a surprise.

  • Photo courtesy of Nina Subin
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
Appropriately enough, given that he was visiting as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, Coates talked about himself not as a pundit, scriptwriter or adherent to any single genre or subject matter, but as a writer. In fact, he spent the first several minutes of the hour-long program talking about how writing and studying poetry back in college had shaped his craft. (He was sparked here by his introduction by University of Pittsburgh professor Yona Harvey, an old college pal from Howard University.)

And most of Coates' presentation involved his reading aloud a pair of excerpts from his work-in-progress novel. The story is set in slavery times; the hero, whose father is a slavemaster, is plotting escape with the woman he loves, a fellow slave. The passages were heavy on thoughtful dialogue and ruminations on the relationships between the enslaved persons and their white owners.

Coates is riding high these days. The talk was recorded by a PBS cameraman for future use, and the applause that greeted Coates when he took the podium was enthusiastic enough that it risked turning into a standing ovation before he'd spoken a word.

Instead, he got the standing O at the conclusion of a lively Q&A in which several aspiring writers asked him for advice on the writing life. "Cultivate a group around you of people who push you," he counseled. He also spoke of his desire not just to be "right" in a piece of writing, but to evoke an emotional response in readers. "It's not enough to be logically correct," he said. "You want people to feel it." Later, he added, "I want people to be disturbed like the literature I love disturbs me."

In response to another question, he identified James Baldwin as his favorite writer of nonfiction. (That's notable in a town that's made a surprise arthouse hit of I Am Not Your Negro, the new documentary about Baldwin.)

Coates also noted the dangers that come with the success of a book like Between the World and Me, a critical and commercial hit that's informed our discussion of issues like white privilege. The risk lies in the "external life" the book itself takes on, one that requires a lot of its author (presumably in terms of things like personal appearances and the like). "You can get lost in that external life and you can forget who you are as a writer," Coates said.

His dedication to his novel (he said his publisher gave him a deadline of this year) suggests that Coates, for his part, still remembers.

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