spin cycle: absconder

If you’re new here, Spin Cycle is where we reach into the news with our bare hands and pull out a word or phrase that doesn’t sound right to us.

Did you hear the story about the convicted child rapist who escaped from a halfway house in Colorado?

This is a horrible story all around, and there’s a lot to talk about here, like the fact that people who abuse children were almost always abused themselves when they were children — and we could probably spend all day talking about how to keep people from hurting children (or adults) while remembering that they are humans like us — but the thing we’re going to talk about instead is how the PR guy for the Colorado Department of Corrections called the escaped prisoner an “absconder.”

You can see why he would do that. He works for the organization that was supposed to be keeping an eye on the escapee, and it’s his job to make that organization look as good as possible. It’s much easier to forgive them for losing track of a sneaky absconder than for failing to keep a convicted child rapist off the streets.

If you are trying to get information about something that happened, it’s important to consider your source.

juvenile detention center

A juvenile detention center is a jail for children. “Juvenile detention center” is a euphemism for “child jail.”

Whether or not you think it’s a good idea to put children in jail, you can see that the people who named “juvenile detention centers” had some doubts about it. If the idea of jailed children didn’t make them uncomfortable, they could just as easily have called these facilities “child jails.”

Instead, they settled on “juvenile detention center,” which has three times as many syllables as “child jail” and draws your attention away from the children who are locked up inside.

There are some differences between child jail and adult jail. Children are allowed to go to school in child jail — adults have no such rights. But the basic idea is the same.

Why not call them child jails, then? Really: Why not?


If someone tells you “scientists are baffled” about something, there are two questions you might want to ask right away.

The first one is, “Which scientists?” If the answer you get is, “The two scientists I interviewed before I told you this story,” then you might want to see what a lot of other scientists have to say about the “baffling” turn of events. Or: Read some related research. You might find a perfectly reasonable explanation all on your own.

The second question to ask is, “Did the scientists actually say they were baffled, or did they just say they didn’t know exactly what happened?”

Not knowing the exact answer to a question is not the same thing as being baffled. Like let’s say you have the flu and a journalist asks you how you got it. You say, “Hmm. Maybe I caught the virus from my roommate, or maybe I picked it up from the child who sneezed in my eye on the bus. I don’t know for sure.” You wouldn’t expect the journalist to turn around and say you were BAFFLED BY MYSTERIOUS FLU OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN.

That kind of thing happens to scientists all the time. Watch out for it.


Hello. It’s nice to see you. I’d like to tell you why I’m here.

Mostly it’s because language is full of hidden assumptions and riddled with little stories most people don’t even realize they are hearing. Some of the stories are basically harmless. Others are powerfully destructive.

Whether the person speaking believes the stories or merely hopes that the rest of us will believe them, the effect is the same: The stories get stuck in our heads like irritating pop songs. We repeat them over and over until they are part of us.

I just want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to assume anyone is out to get us. We don’t have to yell or call anyone stupid. We just have to learn to spot the story behind the words and then repeat it out loud. Make it clearer.

Here’s how we do it.


The first thing is to look honestly at what’s happening. That means describing the situation with simple verbs and no adjectives. Then, just to be sure you’re not bullshitting yourself, repeat the exercise from the perspective of a person who has an opinion different from yours about what SHOULD be happening. The point is to settle on a description that feels as neutral and non-judgemental as possible. Once you have done this, any disagreements about what SHOULD be happening will make themselves known.


Yes, obviously, empathy for people who have less power than us, fewer unfair advantages, who suffer in ways we can barely even imagine, yes, yes, of course. But also empathy for people who spread bad ideas — ideas that hurt people. We want those people to shut up a lot of the time, but we have to remember they are people just like us. No matter how hard we disagree with them, no matter how much their faces annoy us, no matter what kind of havoc their awful ideas are wreaking out in the world, they are human beings and that means we have a lot in common with them. For example, none of us thinks of ourself as a bad person. We think we are good and they think they are good. We are starting from the same place. We have to remember.

critical thinking

That doesn’t mean we should keep quiet when we notice an idea that is harming people, but it does mean that we don’t attack people. If we must attack, we attack ideas, and always with the goal of making the world a kinder, more thoughtful place.


You might be wrong. That’s okay! We’re all wrong all the time. If you are wrong, there is no need to feel defensive about it. Simply change your opinion to accommodate the new information you’ve received and you’ll be right. Unless you’re still wrong.

the pale blue dot

One of my favorite pieces of writing is Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” monologue. It’s a beautiful reflection on the ways our planet is both utterly insignificant and the most important place in the cosmos. I think about that a lot. Everything we do matters so little and so much.

Life is short and we don’t always get to choose what we’ll do with our time. I’d like to spend some of mine here with you, thinking critically about the stories we hear (and tell) every day. Maybe write a few new ones. We have a lot of work to do. I hope you’ll stick around.