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Where’s my GLOMAR gif?

Posted in ahlan on March 26th, 2015 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

I will admit to being a bit of curmudgeon before my time.  But on the subject of Gifs, I have mellowed – especially after seeing how people have grown the gif into an artform – especially with animation. I have even softened on reaction gifs, as I have received hundreds of delightful emails and tweets chock full of them.

But a lot of my old feelings about reaction gifs have returned through this story – Google sends reporter reaction gif

What exactly is this gif trying to get across? I know what I means to me – but I bet if I asked my twitter followers I’d get a slightly different meaning from more than a few people. And that’s probably just people outside the autism spectrum.

Gifs are a good but imperfect medium of getting across meaning. I’d rate them better than emoji sentences but worse than a passive-aggressive email.

They also seem to be indictator of being “up with the kids” for some groups – see Republican attempts at the gif press release. A company can say they’re “with it” (or in this situation are probably the very people who started the reaction gif expansion) by sending this along in response. But  if I was the reporter, I’d ask them what exactly they meant, in English. Or maybe I’d ask them to translate it into emoji, just to put a point on the issue.

Basically, if we could agree on a standard GLOMAR gif, I’d appreciate it.

Patch is dead, long live Patch

Posted in ahlan on January 20th, 2014 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

There’s a lot of things missing on Wheaton Patch. Text links are gone, not just broken, but have taken their words with them, rendering some sentences nonsensical. Videos, including pieces that took several weeks, have disappeared into the ether.

I know this because I was the one who put all those links there. I was the one who created those videos.

Last week AOL announced it had sold control of Patch to Hale Global, an otherwise nondescript turnaround firm. The announcement is basic corporate speak, promising to to re-launch Patch as an “efficient platform”. One report says Patch would be entirely dismantled and sold off in its various parts. (Edit 1/29: 100 more of Patch staff gone)

Fair enough, given it had already begun dismantling itself.

When Patch ramped up in 2010, the idea seemed counter-intuitive enough to work: scaling real local journalism.

For me it was AOL’s relatively large pockets versus struggling local newspapers; slow to internet launch newspapers versus a website-only hybrid of bloggy items and reported stories with tips from engaged local residents. Promised a challenging launch and a large amount of independence, I jumped on.

I cannot tell you what finally did in Patch, although I can tell you what made it much easier to leave almost three years ago.

  • Sixty-to-70 hour work weeks. I’m not a person with hobbies but anyone, no matter how dedicated, is going to burn out.
  • Top-down editorial decisions, made in an attempt to make the work load easier (and raise the quality across all sites), often ended up backfiring in communities where the demographics or facts on the ground didn’t make sense. Sean Roach’s CJR feature describes this much better than I could, you should read it.
  • A bad taste in my mouth towards the attempts to boost content with site bloggers. I don’t object to having a blogging platform integrated with the news site, but it should have be an add-on, not something the site ever wants to rely on (bad business in addition to bad journalism, imho). Plus, the implementation of the blogging roll out confirmed – for me – that upper-management wasn’t fully invested in each new curveball they threw at us.

Granted, I speak from a very different place now – a company that operates by charter in the public interest. But there was an odd mixture of naivete and cynicism at Patch that, as far as I can tell, never resolved itself.

Which brings me back to all the things that disappeared.

When I first realized the videos were gone, I berated myself for not taking copies before I handed back my Patch laptop. I should have known this would be an option. The internet might be forever, but Wayback Machine doesn’t cache video. But that was a personal loss – among the hundred thousand words I wrote that year I doubt more than a few thousand meet the “truly needed to be preserved for posterity” threshold. I can save those things for my personal records. What might not make it is the another 10,000 or so words that might be useful to someone some day but look like filler now. That problem is much larger than Patch.

So I was grateful I got to leave when I did but sad to go from something I thought was a good civic idea. Local journalism needs people on the ground, people who are professional but respectable pain in the asses. In a way, the independent neighborhood blogs I see in DC gives me hope.

I don’t know if it gets replicated elsewhere in the country, especially when local broadcast journalism moves towards further consolidation. I’d given up on Patch as a company a while ago, but I’m still not convinced the spirit in which many Patch writers did their work should be considered too expensive or too unworkable.

I was grateful to work with Amy Kovac-Ashley as my editor, who smartly reminded me I was allowed to delegate in order to do larger projects, who supported me when I got a strange cease-and-desist letter and who was an all-around great sounding board for a young journalist. I’m glad to see many of my fellow Maryland Patchers landed on their feet and went to bigger and bolder things. To its credit, Patch hired some fantastic journalists.

So my rallying cry to all my former Patch coworkers, those who left early or who stayed on to the bitter end, is simple: remember why you signed on in the first place. Then remember when somebody in your community came up to you and thanked you for what you did. Keep doing things that aim towards those ends.

Talking Nerdy: My story on nerdfighters in Somersault magazine

Posted in ahlan on December 29th, 2012 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

Between being very sick and the holiday season, I managed to write a story about politics, empathy and, of course, nerds, for a pop-up magazine called Somersault.

I’d stumbled upon the vlogbrothers, two brothers who shared videos and now a huge online fan community through Tumblr. And maybe it was my own interests, or the youtube algorithim guiding me as such, but the more I watched their daily, then twice-weekly videos, the more I heard something like an attempt at explaining how a political yet empathetic life could be lived without the screaming pundits of cable news. I’ve never been very much into YouTube culture, but researching this story also introduced me to the niche of vlog stars. Somersault – all about the intersection of art and politics – ended up leading me to write about what I was watching obsessively anyway.

There is no shortage of online communities coming together to donate to charity or raise awareness. What distinguishes the Nerdfighters is their collaboration around smaller projects to decrease suck. On the Your Pants forum (an old Nerdfighters joke) and recently on the Ning group, Nerdfighters are floating new, smaller projects: Dylan wants to create a charity album with musician Nerdfighters as he finishes a music degree, Jarod asks for advice about how to quit smoking, Melissa asks for votes for a technology grant for which her school has been nominated. Nerdfighters helped find some stolen objects from a house burglary in Philadelphia.

Nerdfighters projects don’t necessarily have to change the world. Maybe they just help a local community, or offer some kind words to a family member during a tough time, or even just create a project that is fun and brings joy. But there is an implicit theme here: improving lives in small ways all the time adds up to a larger charge.

But does it? Nerdfighter Olof Pettersson is happy about how big the community is on Kiva, but is concerned about the effects of developing economies on the environment. What if fighting world suck accidentally increases it instead?

You can read the full story on Tumblr here, and if you’d like to see the full, free pdf (tablet-friendly!) magazine, with other stories from Lebanon, activist clowns and the Canadian culture industry, that’s here.

DC Bikeshare’s uphill problem (and why I understand that physically now)

Posted in ahlan on October 9th, 2012 by Taylor – 1 Comment

Capital Bikeshare at Nationals Park

After months of procrastinating, I bought a yearly membership to Capital Bikeshare. It’s been a good month now and I’ve been using it primarily for commuting. The ride is not busy at all, as the majority of my route rides along the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, which are in the center of the road and have small breakdown lanes on either side.

But oh those Bikeshare bikes are heavy. At 40 pounds and three gears (at settings of “too loose to peddle” “hill, I guess” and “will move you more than 2 miles an hour on flat surfaces”), as the hero/insane person who used a bikeshare bike to race a triathalon (!) can attest, they are sturdy but painful to push against the smallest hill or stiffest wind.

“Whoever said that trail was flat, should try riding it on a Bikeshare,” hero/insane person Jefferson Smith told DCist.

I have one notable hill – 15th street along the Treasury building –  that fortunately has its own offset bike lane. Granted, I’m not in the best bicycling shape but that hill is long and deceptively steep. After a month I’ve already felt faster on straightaways and gotten better at picking up from a dead stop, but when I turn onto 15th, the next three blocks have never ever gotten easier. A phantom pain in my knee has generally stopped protesting when I go up the hill, but it’s still a real work out for my legs. Is it the 40-pound behemoth I’m dragging uphill along with my own weight? Or is it just a nasty hill?

Left and Leaving Co-efficient

That being said I have throughly enjoyed being a bike commuter, even on a heavy bike. I see plenty of people doing the same, although only about a  1/4 or a 1/3 are doing so on bikeshare.

Capital Bikeshare makes no secret that the system is designed for short around-downtown trips. The average trip is just over a mile. But there are stations everywhere around the city. For those who aren’t familiar with DC, downtown is set in a bowl. Which means, if you go far enough north or southeast (south is just Virginia, and that’s another story) you will be climbing some serious hills before it becomes flat again.

As I was signing up for Bikeshare, I noticed that they had a system data tab where they made public some of the data associated with the bikes. Among the data released are arrivals and departures by station. As a about-to-be new member I realized this could be helpful to me – noting which stations had high general turnover and which ones were likely to be empty/full.

But then I got a bit fancy.

The methodology of the  following analysis was done by essentially making it up, using a gut-level understanding and basic math skills. I took one statistics class in college, in which one day I walked out, returned a library book, had coffee and lunch, and returned to my seat, all as the professor stared at the board, never noticing my absence. So be forewarned, but I think this makes sense.

Here is the July 2012 Arrival and Departure data for the 11th and Kenyon stop:

  • Departures: 1828 Arrivals: 1364

(A quick moment to explain: bikeshare “rentals” are one-way. You take a bike out at station x and drop it off at station y. You may later take another bike from station y and drop it at station x, or even z, but that’s a separate trip. This means that in the month of July, 1828 bikes left the 11th/Kenyon stop and 1364 bikes were dropped off there. Bikeshare has vans that move bikes around to different stops as they fill and empty).

As I scrolled through the data, I noticed that some arrival/departure numbers were fairly equvalent, while others were several hundreds, even thousands apart.

So I made another column: Difference between departures and arrivals. Here’s the top 10.

Idaho Avenue and Newark Street NW 335
Georgia & New Hampshire Ave NW 338
Lamont & Mt Pleasant NW 378
39th & Calvert St NW / Stoddert 401
Columbia Rd & Belmont St NW 430
11th & Kenyon St NW 464
Park Rd & Holmead Pl NW 474
Adams Mill & Columbia Rd NW 504
14th & Harvard NW 562
16th & Harvard St NW 1008

Hey there 16th and Harvard.

Now this is the top 10 of difference in departures; these numbers represent how many more bikes are leaving a station than arriving in a month (July 2012).  The top 10 difference in arrivals would show how many more bikes arrived in a station than left it (none of these numbers include manual transfers by Bikeshare, I assume, so this is customer behavior.)

But the simple difference tells us nothing in relation to how busy the particular station is.

The stop by 7th and Maine SW will have nowhere near the volume of the stop by 21st/Penn, near many office buildings and a university . So a difference of 50 at Penn isn’t as significant as a difference of 50 at Maine.

Instead, what’s more interesting is the difference between departures and arrivals as a proportion of total trips. Please pause for math:

(Departures – Arrivals)/(Departures + Arrivals) = the Left and Leaving co-efficient.

The Left and Leaving co-efficient is named after a favorite song from the first year I lived in DC, by the underrated Weakerthans, but that’s mostly for my own amusement. What is represents is how significantly (NOT in a pure statistical sense ) each stop “left” more often by users. A stop with a high L&L co-efficient will have a systematic empty problem, possibly not just at rush hour. My guess is that bikeshare is already very very aware of this.

BUT WAIT, YOU’RE FORGETTING – yes I know: what happens to the L&L with stations where there are more arrivals than departures? I’m not going to bother reversing the top part of the equation when it can effectively show me a spectrum. It can have a negative value. Stops with high negative L&L’s  in theory will have the opposite problem – always being full.

An example of a negative L&L station: 13th and D NE – Departures – 1539 Arrivals – 1568 L&L: -0.01609323.

So what does the L&L co-efficient tell us, really? Let’s look at the top five highest and lowest L&Ls

Highest

39th & Calvert St NW / Stoddert Washington, DC 701 300 401 0.4005994006
36th & Calvert St NW / Glover Park Washington, DC 445 239 206 0.3011695906
Tenleytown / Wisconsin Ave & Albemarle St NW Washington, DC 711 383 328 0.2998171846
Idaho Avenue and Newark Street NW Washington, DC 730 395 335 0.2977777778
16th & Harvard St NW Washington, DC 2641 1633 1008 0.235844642

Lowest

C & O Canal & Wisconsin Ave NW Washington, DC 1866 2435 -569 -0.1322948152
7th & Water St SW / SW Waterfront Washington, DC 667 881 -214 -0.1382428941
Lynn & 19th St N Arlington, VA 1016 1354 -338 -0.1426160338
Georgetown Harbor / 30th St NW Washington, DC 1345 1846 -501 -0.157004074
Ft Myer Dr & Wilson Blvd / Rosslyn Metro Arlington, VA 695 959 -264 -0.1596130593

I’ve removed stations with less than 100 trips total for issues with sample size, but the first thing I notice is the high L&Ls are all at the top or midway up very steep hills. Bikeshare customers are leaving 16th and Harvard, near the Columbia Heights neighborhood, but they aren’t returning on bike. And with the exception of the 16th/Harvard and the Tenleytown stop, all are in exclusively residential areas. The other two are also very residential but are nearby commercial strips.

The lowest L&L’s? Yes, they’re generally downhill, but most places in Washington’s core are. Three are touristy or entertainment areas, and the other two are relatively close-in Arlington commute stops. With the Arlington stops, this suggests that commuters are more likely to take a bike back home rather than into work. At Georgetown Harbor, everyone is likely heading over for a meal or a drink at the end of the day, maybe getting a bit too tipsy to take a bike back. C&O is likely very busy and has many trips where tourists are taking the bikes out along the towpath and returning them to the same station.

None of the conclusions from the L&L co-efficient are particularly world shattering. I’m not shocked that people don’t like powering a 40 pound red monster up a massive hill on a busy city street.

But it’s nice at the end of the day when data matches up with the aches in your bones.

Learning Ruby

Posted in ahlan on September 11th, 2012 by Taylor – 2 Comments

First: Homicide Watch, which I wrote about here, has met its Kickstarter goal. I’m delighted. I’m also delighted that the model has gotten the attention Arianna Huffington, David Carr and others with a larger microphone. I’m especially happy that I saw many of my DC friends among the Kickstarter pledges.

But, as I said before, what really drives Homicide Watch is day-in, day-out dedication. I have no doubt the internships will attract the brightest of DC’s journalism students, but the reason I’m certain it will succeed is the way the site is structured to cover every murder, without judgement of value. As DCist noted, three homicides have occurred in the District since the Amicos moved north. Nothing headline grabbing, though.  The names of the deceased and some basic information is available online, but the background, charging docs, and everything else that Homicide Watch normally does is not. Sometimes you’ve got to collect data in person.

(P.S. Carr’s column also notes that the Homicide Watch has been licensed for the first time by The Trentonian – a city definitely in need of more good reporting.)

**

On my own professional development path, I’ve decided to stop thinking about it and simply start working on learning code. I’m starting with Ruby and Dan Nguyen’s Bastard’s Book of Ruby, based on Ruby’s friendliness to the English language and Dan’s background in journalism and eye-opening essay on how he coded SOPA opera.

It’s been pretty rough already, including realizing a half-day too late that all Apple computers come installed with Ruby, and the frustrating nature of breaking something because there is a space or not before a certain code. But the basic logic of coding languages have always appealed to me, from when I started reading source pages to deduce simple HTML or how I learned just enough PHP to make this site look the way it does.

Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.

Posted in ahlan on August 29th, 2012 by Taylor – 1 Comment

Weeks out of grad school, my world was the confines of Wheaton, Maryland. But it was reporting locally that I first came across Homicide Watch. Laura Amico, the site’s founder, messaged me on Twitter that someone wanted for a murder in Wheaton was also a person of interest in a DC case. I was grateful for the tip and began following the site.

Then when I started at the BBC, I realized I had more time on my hands that i knew what to do with. So I contacted Laura and offered her some of that time.

For several mornings last fall I sat in DC court, listening to hours of hearings – conversations that were both bureaucratic and vivid – of murders, assaults, rapes. I saw families wait for hours in court to see their loved one pulled out in a jumpsuit and handcuffs. Other families were there to bear witness to those who they lost. One woman next to me muttered under her breath “lies, lies” when a defense lawyer cast aspirstions on the victim.

I attended a memorial for a woman who was stabbed by an estranged boyfriend outside her children’s school, and interviewed a mother whose world was permanently colored by her son’s unsolved death, five years later.

But these are only my personal experiences with Homicide Watch – interesting, sure – but not why the site is important, crucial.

It’s crucial because every death, especially violent death is important to someone, even if you see it as a statistic. In a city like DC, those deaths are disproportionally shared by those who have already lived around violence, and who are forgotten by a “one more murder” standpoint.

DC’s murders largely happen out of sight from the federal city and from downtown. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

It’s crucial because when you follow every murder you know when a police statistic sounds iffy – and can explain what I actually means.

It’s crucial for people who are looking for information, any information on a case, where they can follow the sometimes confusing legal process of bringing a murder trial to court, and where they can grieve and share memories about loved ones.

Life and death and the legal system can be written as a story or can be shared as a set of data. Homicide Watch has found a way to do both.

Laura received a Nieman-Berkman fellowship in journalism innovation at Harvard for the 2012-2013 school year. The original plan was to partner with a local news org for the time she was in Boston. But that fell through.

In its place, they aim to make Homicide Watch a student-reporting workshop for the better part of a year- but to do so, they will need to fund full-time internships. They are doing so with a Kickstarter project.

The point being is that I haven’t done much work for Homicide Watch recently. As much as I think the site is amazing, I have a full-time job and life gets in the way, despite the best intentions. To do this work, you need someone dedicated. Not necessarily a ton of people – the site has been run by Laura and her husband for its entire duration – but dedicated.

Homicide Watch will go on hiatus if the Kickstarter project isn’t funded. To me, that would be a terrible, terrible outcome. My initial reaction to hearing this news was to email Laura and offer to help run the site for free. But then I realized that was insane, and would not actually help the site.

So instead, I’m doing the next best thing. Here’s the Kickstarter. Here’s Homicide Watch. Read around the site, look at the interactive map, read last year’s year in review. I don’t fund projects all that often, but I’ve never done so quickly before. Please let me know if you do the same.

Now with New Awesome: Episode 2 – Gerard Matthews

Posted in ahlan on June 1st, 2012 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

For episode two of Now with New Awesome (did you miss the first one? No worries – it’s right here), I talked with Gerard Matthews. Gerard is working on a book about Lucero, a rock-and-roll-and-country-and-punk band from Memphis and Little Rock. Gerard knew that writing a long piece of journalism on his favorite rock act would change his relationship to the band , but he didn’t expect how much. He also talks with me about his rock journalism inspiration.

I couldn’t help but be caught up in his enthusiasm for the project and the band. If you’ve ever found yourself growing with a band, you’ll want to listen to what he has to say about Lucero.

*

Know someone who should be featured on Now With New Awesome? Drop me a line at nowwithnewawesome at gmail.

*

Show Notes:

Music: “What are You Willing to Lose” by Lucero off 1372 Overton Park

Gerard’s Lucero Blog

It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon

Wilco: Learning How to Die by Greg Kot

Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad

Time from interview to production: 11 days

Now with New Awesome: Episode 1 – Erica McGillivray

Posted in ahlan on April 20th, 2012 by Taylor – 1 Comment

In a two-year unintentional streak, I’m releasing a podcast near my birthday. Now with New Awesome is the silly name I came up with for a very simple, broad idea:  Talk to people who are doing cool, interesting things across the web. Our first show is with GeekGirlCon president Erica McGillivray, who graciously answered a completely blind email. Erica’s entire life is a geek-out, and I talked with her about supporting geeky women everywhere, her essay in a new collection and the ultimate transferable skill of being yourself.

Know someone who should be featured on Now With New Awesome? Drop me a line at nowwithnewawesome at gmail.

Show notes

Music by Incompetech

GeekGirlCon

SEOmoz

Mad Norwegian Press

Time from interview to production: 1 month (with a international vacation thrown in!)

How many Facebook subscribers does it take to get a twitter follower?

Posted in ahlan on March 1st, 2012 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

It’s March and I have Thin Mints – let’s do this.

*

A few months ago, Franz Strasser brought his fellow BBC folk into the wild world of Facebook subscribe. As a long-time Facebook user (circa around a month before I started college), I was wary, but felt better after I realized how easy it would be to separate public and private. So I turned on subscribe and Franz made this nifty BBC US edition journalist subscribe page.

Then Vadim Lavursik, Facebook’s journalism program manager mentioned it on his wall.

And then everybody showed up.

Well, not exactly everbody. But somehow, a few of us on the page got sorted into the Facebook algorithm for showing up on the suggested list of many many Facebook users.

As of yesterday, I had hit the 50,000 subscriber mark. 50,000 is the population of my hometown.

I had a slight panic when the number started to increase by at least 200-300 a day, and I encountered some of same problems mentioned by Katherine Goldstein on Slate, (currently marriage proposal count: 3) but in the past few weeks, things seem to have calmed down, mostly because I am ruthless with the spam buttom.

But yesterday I attempted a small experiment. I mentioned my twitter account on facebook.

I feel more strongly about my Twitter account. I’ve had it since 2007, and used it with regularly since 2009. Before yesterday I had 295 followers. When I posted this I was both excited by new twitter followers and scared that I’d be deluged by spam (right now its a slow trickle). As you can see, 27 people “liked” the mere mention of my Twitter account and one person shared it.

So how many twitter followers did I gain in 24 hours from this experiment, from highlighting my Twitter account to, in theory, 50,000 people?

Six.

And there’s no way to tell (that I currently have) if they came from Facebook. A quick search of my six new followers shows that one is currently also subscribed to me on Facebook. Congratulations, Wilfred Drover.

I am relieved in an odd way. I certainly haven’t “earned” those followers by my fascinating insights and excellent linking. Most, as far, as I can tell, do not read or write much English, which while awesome if you are a fan of remembering how big the world is, prevents us interacting in a meaningful way.

But I also wonder how important these Facebook connections are. If people are blindly “liking” something in my feed but never clicking on the link, then it seems like I’m wasting everybody’s time.

Except, I got an email from a friend two days ago, chatting since we haven’t seen each other since August and she mentioned how interesting the links on my wall are.

Facebook’s original paradigm of “friends” and personal connections is still lingering over the site, even as they move towards pushing brands. Maybe that’s why I’m getting so many messages from people I will never meet, asking if I would like to be friends.

Ahlan around town

Posted in ahlan on January 21st, 2012 by Taylor – Be the first to comment

It was a busy 2011. To say the least.

I moved. I started a new job. I went to London for two weeks. And that was just three weeks in August. It was a fantastic year, but as it goes with a hurried life, a lot of personal projects got pushed to the side. 2012 might be a bit calmer (maybe. I make no promises, but perhaps this will be the year I don’t completely change my life around each summer), so I’m focusing back in, figuring out what’s moving me and making me excited.

But one dip back into 2011: I finished it off with a story for Homicide Watch DC – which if you’ve never heard of it, I encourage you to dive in and read what the site is all about. Laura Norton Amico has done as inspiring job with a two-person shop and focus on something’s that direly needed.

The story, about unsolved cold cases in DC, left many of my questions went unanswered, but reminded me the long, important slog of building stories up from the bottom:

“I say it each and every night to my son, why didn’t you tell me something was wrong?”

For Shirley Jamieson the most important thing to her is finding out who killed her son, James Lott. That way she doesn’t look at young men around her and wonder if they were perhaps responsible for his death.

“I find hatred in my heart,” she said, “And that’s not me.”

Jamieson, who lives in Brandywine, Md, avoids the area where Lott was shot if she can, taking detours to get away from the city. She said she is still upset that, while MPD detectives have spoken to her about the investigation on the phone, police never came to her house, even on the night her son died.

The officers working the case, she says, are respectful, but don’t have a lot of new information to impart.

“It’s almost five years,” she said. “I just don’t understand the system.”

I’m looking to do more long items – and a bit of my “own” writing in the upcoming new year. Plus, after just recording Taylor on Taylor episode three (with special guest!) this morning, I’m jazzed for new stuff overall.