Archive for the ‘In the news’ Category

Fri 7 May 2010 7:22 am   //   Posted in: Brooklyn, In the news, New York is different

Every American should spend a day in Prospect Park

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.” — E.B. White, “Here is New York.”

“If we want to have a future, we need to have more immigrants here.”—Mayor Michael Bloomberg, April 2010

I live a couple of blocks from Prospect Park, one of the best-utilized urban green spaces in the world. Constructed in the 1860s, it was designed by landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux as their encore to Central Park. To call it a success is a gross understatement. On any nice day, it’s packed with people enjoying the rolling, tree-studded lawns and ballfields, cookout areas, concert spaces and other free, public facilities.

The park is made truly rich by the Brooklyn neighborhoods that surround it. To stroll around the park is to stroll around the world. Everyone can dress how they feel most comfortable, speak their own language, and enjoy the games, foods and music from their culture. Nobody ever gets called out for looking different.

Thu 5 Nov 2009 6:39 am   //   Posted in: In the news, New York is different

Any headline writers left in this city?

I kind of love it when the Post and the Daily News run the same headline. Somehow it makes it seem like the world is unfolding according to plan. But “27th HEAVEN”? Is that really the best they could do?


Also, go Yankees!!

Mon 22 Jun 2009 11:30 pm   //   Posted in: In the news

Guess the Journal’s anonymous source

“Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple Inc. since January to treat an undisclosed medical condition, received a liver transplant in Tennessee about two months ago.” — The Wall Street Journal, June 20

That was a front-page scoop on Saturday. The story communicated one fact in the first sentence with no attribution, and the rest of the article was mostly background. It’s a weird way to structure a story. It tells us the reporters knew one thing with absolute certainty, but didn’t now anything else.

I enjoy trying to guess who the anonymous sources are in stories. (Quite often it’s somebody quoted on-the-record elsewhere in the story.) So who was the Journal‘s source? It’s curious that rather than attributing it to a “knowledgeable source” or “someone close to Jobs” or “an Apple source,” the Journal writers left it totally unspecific. That alone is an important clue. It means the writers are so sure their information is accurate that they’re willing to write from assertion (sometimes called the “Voice of God”). They must have proof the story is true. Yet they also have a good reason to cite no source. Based on those clues, here are my top five suspects, in descending order of likelihood. (more…)

Mon 22 Jun 2009 8:56 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Media

My thoughts on the Neda video

Of interest if you’re paying attention to the Iran protest coverage: I just posted some ramblings on why the Neda video represents a new kind of reporting on my work blog, PDNPulse.

Mon 1 Jun 2009 8:07 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Labeling, Movies

Reboot reboot!

J.J. Abrams’ awesome remake of Star Trek was branded as a reboot. I suspect it’s the first time that word has been used to market a movie, but we all instantly knew what it meant. I’ve also heard the same word — reboot — used to describe the government’s attempts to fix the economy. Let’s take as a given: People are using the word reboot a lot these days.

It’s an elegant word that comes from computers. (Merriam-Webster: boot: “to start or ready for use especially by booting a program <boot a computer> often used with up.”) Practically everybody knows how to fix a computer bug by hitting a restart button. The computer clears its memory, runs its start-up routines, and after several minutes, presto!, everything is new again. It’s like un-popping your ears or cleaning your glasses.

These days, many of our economic systems could use rebooting. Think about where you work. Imagine if you could shut the place down for a period of time, rethink everything you do, and then restart with all the current problems solved, inefficiencies purged, bugs fixed. Imagine if a company undertook a careful study of itself, figured out what it did best, trained and redeployed its people to solve its hardest problems, and came roaring back to life. It’s appealing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, nothing works that way. Outside of the world of computers, few problems can be solved by taking something apart and fitting all the same pieces back together again. Heck, even modern computers are designed to be stable enough that you shouldn’t have to reboot them. (If Vista gives you guff, rebooting doesn’t help much.)

If you wanted to reboot General Motors, you couldn’t just shut it down, wait, and then try again. You’d have to spend a lot of money and human energy correcting a system gone wrong. You’d have to invent new things. Creation is hard, and language needs to reflect that. The makers of the new Star Trek film didn’t just re-shoot an old sci-fi flick with better special effects. They respected an existing template, but used it to say something new. It was hard, it was expensive, it paid off.

Reboot just sounds lazy. I submit a better word: reinvention.

Fri 15 May 2009 8:51 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Technology

Buying bird food

“You have zero privacy… Get over it.” — Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems CEO, 1999

Take a minute and think about all the electronic data that exists about you.

The credit card company knows where I shop, and how often. The stores know which products I buy. The phone company has a record of all my travels—they know which celluar towers my phone is near, and I seldom go anywhere without my phone. The bank knows how often I get cash, how often I check my balance online, and at what times of day. Google knows which blogs I read and what I search for. My Internet provider and my employer, theoretically, can read every e-mail I write. Experian knows every addresses I’ve lived at since I was a kid. TransUnion knows where I’ve worked. Google Maps has a photo of my apartment on file for all to see. I still have copies of my academic records on my computer, and I bet my university has them backed up somewhere.

We haven’t even gotten to the stuff I voluntarily make public—my Twitter posts, my FaceBook profile, this blog, the stories I publish and the presentations I give as a journalist.

The New York Times Magazine has a story this week about what credit card mathematicians know about customers. Most companies are conservative about taking action based on what they know, but oh the things they know! Example: People who buy wild bird seed are likely to make their credit card payments on time.

Where does this lead? Under one scenario, companies or the government will gather as much information as they can and run it through complex algorithms to evaluate everyone. With every choice we make, we’ll have to think about how it would appear if examined by an outsider. Will buying a beer hurt my credit score? Life will be about cheezy, tedious, pointless rules: SAT prep or search engine optimization, but for real life. We’ll lose our freedom to be original.

But then there’s a second scenario, one that I think is more likely. For decades, banks and mortgage lenders have had access to credit scores and other predictive data about how people will spend money, and they still blew it. Hence the credit crisis. Company forecasts for 2009 have been wrong everywhere. Stock brokers, who trade in math and numbers, have lost heaps of money. The temptation to doubt statistics—and the fact that statistics can be manipulated and sometimes contradict each other—is too powerful.

Human nature means most of the data we collect is useless field of noise. Are we really to believe that we can process massive amounts of data and use it to predict human behavoir? Our digital record says a lot about us, but it still can’t predict what we’ll do next. We’re kind of random like that.

Fri 1 May 2009 7:16 am   //   Posted in: In the news, It's a trap!

How can we exploit this scary disease?

I was reading The Daily News online this morning and saw this advertisement:

Let’s break down this ad pitch: “Have you self-diagonsed yourself or your kids with a rare but scary disease? We can help get you cheap drugs from another country.”

I wonder what gets more clicks, this or Canadian Viagra?

Tue 28 Apr 2009 7:45 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Media, Technology

URGENT! Don’t ask why, just panic!

If Twitter (the biggest fad in journalism) can teach us one thing, it’s that the newer something is, the more valuable it is. And the best way to make a 140-word news blast even more valuable is to slap the word URGENT on it.

In some ways, the URGENT craze can be traced to cable news stations. A few years ago, CNN discovered the marketing power of the phrase BREAKING NEWS, and began applying it to every story, even ones that aren’t especially important. Digging deeper into mass communications history, Twitter honors the writing format pioneered by the Associated Press for the telegraph. Correspondents were trained send the most important stuff first, as concisely as possible, and to fill in detail later.

In the last few days, we’ve seen Twitter take this to a whole other level. The culprit: Swine flu. Every middling swine flu update rises to the level of URGENT. If this continues, people will become stressed by a constant stream of noise that sounds like bad news (think post-9/11). Either that or the word “URGENT” will lose its power.

There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter and cause a panic. So far this hasn’t happened in a bad way, but I see it happening on a small level with business gossip.

The worst offender is the Twitter service Breaking News Online. @BreakingNews has a small staff that monitors the newswires and sends out a Tweet every time something is happening. As of this morning, 290,253 people on Twitter are following the account. They have more subscribers than The Baltimore Sun. I follow it so I don’t miss something everybody else knows.


Thu 23 Apr 2009 7:27 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Stray data

This place is falling apart

All over my neighborhood, workers are tearing up streets to replace pipes and do work on other utilities. I have only a vague idea of what’s going on—they look like water pipes to me—but I take relief knowing there is some work going on to fix our infrastructure.

Infrastructure repair is a classic example of something important but not interesting.

You’ve heard politicians talk about it and you’ve read news stories about it. But are you really excited about infrastructure? Repairs are slow, expensive and often invisible. A project like the Hoover Dam and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge only comes along once in a while. Most such work is more like Water Tunnel 3—a $6 billion project you’ll never even notice. Yet the way we live demands electricity, running water, roads, data cables, and so on. These aren’t systems you can build once and let ride. You have to keep paying for them.

And if you don’t pay? Single failures can have an impact way out of proportion to the initial problem (like the 2003 blackout) or kill people (the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis). If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you know what a difference it makes when things don’t work. Here in the U.S., we’ve had it good for a long time. But too many of the systems on which we depend are old, stressed, patchwork, unfinished, or in need of repair. We have to spend the money.

Mon 20 Apr 2009 8:27 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Media

One story that ought to win a Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced today at 3 p.m.

The Pulitzers are good fun, and when they’re announced, hysteria ensues at news publications. This happens even though the contest has some branding problems. The Pulitzers honor a broad range of categories including drama, literature and music—Did you know Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer last year?—but most people think them only as prizes for journalism. Even then, they’re hardly a reflection of the year’s best journalism. They’re limited to American newspapers and Web sites, and thus ignore great swaths of the journalism landscape (such as The New Yorker, 60 Minutes and Photo District News [kidding]). The prizes always tilt in favor of the old guard of East Coast-based national newspapers. But whoever said life was fair?

Of course we cover the photo categories at PDN. The game plan is easy: At 3 p.m., I open the Pulitzer web site and hit “reload” every few seconds. (I don’t bother riding uptown to the press conference.) I’ll also check Editor & Publisher, Yahoo! News and a few other sites. One way or another, I’ll have the winners list by 3:15. I’ll immediately copy and paste the photography winners onto the PDNOnline Twitter feed and I’ll post a story a few minutes later on the PDN site. I’ll have a shell story entered into our CMS in advance to save a few seconds of typing (“The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography went to TK….”). I have no clue who’s going to win and guessing would be unproductive, given that I’ve always guessed wrong in the past.

However, on this blog, I will venture a guess in the Feature Writing category. This story should win: A Butler Well Served by This Election by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post.

UPDATE: I was wrong about the Feature Writing category. However, I announced the two photo winners on Twitter at 3:00 and 3:01, and had a story live at 3:08 p.m. Not bad.