Category: History

I hiked so hard I broke my boot

Today, I hiked. I woke up to a beautiful, warm, Western North Carolina morning (the first one we’ve had on a weekend I’ve been in town all year) and I decided to put aside work (yes, work on a Sunday… blurg…) and head for the trails.

I chose a challenging trail in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest just outside of town. The guide book said the trails can be quite muddy after a rainy week like we had, so I laced up my trusty hiking boots and headed out. It was hard, it was long, and it was amazingly fun. Several times while hiking, I thought to myself, “this is the reason I moved here.”

About one mile to go on an eight mile hike, I felt like something was dragging on my left foot. I looked back and saw that the sole of my boot had almost completely detached from the shoe. I flipped and flopped out to the trail and thought about all the good times I had in those boots, which I’ve owned for about 10 years. They were sturdy but comfortable (and bought on sale!) so I just never saw the need to replace them.

But sometimes you have to replace things that are old, outdated, broken, or just plain falling apart. In business and in life, you have to think about the tools you’ve “always used” and decide if they are still the right tools for the job. Just because I build sites in WordPress and use Dreamweaver, Coda, and Filezilla every single day, doesn’t mean those will always be the right tools to use. Part of succeeding in life is knowing when it’s time to retire some of those things.

And so this week, I’m boot shopping.

Have I Read Everything on the Internet?

I work in news. Some days I can barely make it to the refrigerator to grab my lunch. Other days, I do practically nothing. It’s the nature of the business. On the latter days, a former coworker and I used to joke that we’d “finished the Internet,” as in, “I’ve read everything on the Internet, want to go get a smoothie?”

Obviously it is impossible to read everything on the internet, in a literal sense, but lately I’ve been finding these strange loops in my reading habits online, where I find myself back at an article that I’ve already read, though my path to get there was different.

An example:

Wired Magazine recently celebrated 20 years of publishing by producing a special issue with some of the best articles from the past 20 years. This anthology included Disneyland with the Death Penalty by William Gibson, from the Sept./Oct. 1993 issue. I am a tablet subscriber to Wired and read the article, along with most of the special issue, during one of those slow days at work. Just last weekend, I picked up a book that I had purchased after reading an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab site about journalists learning to code. That book: a collection of essays, forewords and speeches by William Gibson, Distrust that Particular Flavor.

Not being good with names, and not being a particular fan of science fiction, I had no idea who William Gibson was, until I made it to about the halfway point of the book, and came across “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” again, which got me thinking about this particular circular phenomenon.

In this case, the reference came from two different media entities, but just as often I find that I read an article straight off the homepage of something and a few weeks later circle back to it through a Facebook or Twitter recommendation. Sometimes it’s been so long since I read the article the first time that I end up reading several paragraphs before the deja vu feeling sets in.

Some days it feels like I could never read everything I want to read on the homepages and twitter feeds of my favorite news sites. But on other days I find myself wondering if there is really that much new out there. When you narrow your sights from “everything on the internet” to everything worth reading on the internet, the list sometimes seems very short, indeed.

The Cable Industry

On a recommendation from someone, somewhere (the exact source has escaped me; another issue of my infinite reading list – see below), I just finished reading an article from the December 1996 issue of Wired about the laying of transoceanic cables (Mother Earth, Motherboard, 4.12).

This article, written on the cusp of the internet revolution, describes a cable being run from Cornwall to Japan, crossing over land, but mostly buried at the bottom of a very complicated ocean. The writer, who describes himself as a hacker-tourist back when few people knew what hackers were to begin with, focuses on the technology that made these transoceanic cables possible.

But one particular part of the article hit home to me. For five of the last six years, I have worked for a cable network (the television kind). In one of the myriad positions I have held at this company, I used to request out of town, and sometimes international, video feeds.

In 2013, there are multiple ways we get these feeds. Some come off of a satellite dish in the sky. Some come to use via FTP (across the web). Some still come to us via microwave signals, which require a line of sight. Our newest technology is video feed via cellular signal, which, as a new technology, is spotty at best. But the vast majority of our coverage, from across the street at the U.S. Capitol building to across the ocean in London, comes to us via fiber link, or physical cable.

I have booked fiber feeds and cross-connects too numerous to count, but I never really thought about what this meant until I read this article from 1996. There are literally cables running across the ocean, carrying the BBC’s coverage of the British House of Commons to my building in Washington, D.C. There are cables in the White House and in the Capitol, there are cables in most of the “think tanks” and in the State Department and Pentagon.

There are buildings, like the one the author describes in Alexandria, Egypt, where people literally connect this fiber coming in from one location to one going out to another location, creating a world encircling network of fiber cables.

In the modern era, we take for granted that these fiber networks work, and have significant built in redundancies to prevent an interruption of service. But not so long ago, at a time in most of our lifetimes, this was not guaranteed. It amazes me to think that these systems only exist because a very talented team of engineers, cable layers, and sailors physically laid the cable that enables our nearly instantaneous around-the-world communications.

What amazing everyday feats of engineering and science are we performing right now that children born today will completely take for granted? What will we be unable to live without?

Infinite Reading List

I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.

A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.

In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.

The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.

It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.

Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.

The Republican Party’s Built-In Liability

When I first moved to Washington, about 6 years ago, my roommate at the time worked for a liberal non-profit, and as you do when you’re 22 and new to town, I spent a good deal of time with her colleagues and friends, all of whom shared her ideological bent.

At the time, we lamented that the Republican Party was so good at messaging and ideological purity that it left the Democrats to be “the party of everyone else.” We thought that meant the Democrats would never be able to form a unified front, to counter the focus of the Republicans.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll released last week, the Post reported that”only 39 percent of Republicans gave positive marks to their own party’s representatives.”

Which led me to question, does the Republican party as it stands right now have a built in liability? Do people who think government is too big, too overreaching, inevitably see those who govern in negative light, regardless of party and platform? And if you run on the idea of the less government the better, are you running yourself out of a job?

Poll after poll shows that politicians with unbelievable approval ratings during primary and general election campaigns find an immediate drop off when the get down to the business of governing. For small-government Republicans, does the very act of governing betray the ideas they ran on?

Now, the vast majority of the Republican Party wants smaller government, not no government. Most understand that there are functions that only the federal government can accomplish. But a growing subset of the party holds the vast majority of government in contempt, meaning that the second a Republican stalwart is elected, he becomes part of the problem.

The younger me finds this comforting, a leveling of the playing field. If the Democrat’s tent is too big, then the Republican’s tent may be growing just small enough to squeeze out all but the most ideological incumbents in the federal government.

The Fallacy of False Equivalency

Gather ’round children, and I’ll tell you a tale.

Once upon a time, journalists got it into their heads that every story had (at least) two sides. And that was good. A reporter would interview one person, he would say something about someone else, and then the reporter would go ask that person or someone who knew them about it. For really complicated stories, this often involved asking many, many people about their perspective and their grasp of the facts at hand. Barring video evidence, this was the best way to get an idea of the scene, event, story, or whatever.

This took time, lots of time. Reporters, especially good investigative reporters, would work a story for days, weeks, even months. The same story. Just one.

For many years this went on, until a series (or confluence, really) of events took place that changed the paradigm for reporters everywhere.

1. Newsrooms got smaller

2. Right wing activists got organized

3. The Internet got invented (you know, by Al Gore, or Rush Limbaugh, or some government and defense scientists)

When these three things happened, Journalists found themselves with a lot less time, a lot more competition and a lot more vocal partisan chatter.

And thus was born the fallacy of false equivalency.

Reporters, struggling against deadlines and decimated newsroom staffs, still strove to tell both sides of a story. But instead of a well-researched, well-reporting accounting of the facts, journalists were forced to get action-reaction stories and crank them out at high volume. An industry developed around providing those reactions and suddenly a “consultant” or “analyst” was just a phone call or email away.

When reporters tried to analyze information and provide an account of the facts instead of this action-reaction (he said-she said) story, the organized right wing (and to a much, much lesser extent a few on the left) charged the media with “bias,” it being well-known at this point that all journalists are commie pinkos who seek socialized everything (or something), and the reporters were forced back into the “Republicans say this and Democrats say that” format.

It became common practice to treat each side like their position and information was equally valid. And not just in politics, but in science, medicine, education, and other seemingly fact-based disciplines.

Jay Rosen of NYU has taken an active role pointing out these false equivalencies, as has the Atlantic.

Treating Republicans and Democrats as equal players in the “truth” game may not seem like a big deal. In fact it may seem like the right thing to do. So what’s the big problem.

The big problem is this: Journalists treating climate change deniers like they are equal in number and quality of proof to the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the mainstream makes news viewing and reading citizens think there is actually a debate going on. Treating everything a politician says as fact, even when it’s fiction, does a disservice to democracy and the intelligence of the public. And it’s not really journalism at all.

50 years of “A Vast Wasteland”

I had the honor (and the pleasure) of attending an event last Friday hosted by the Medill School of Journalism honoring Newton Minow, the FCC Chairman under Kennedy who coined the term “a vast wasteland” with regard to television programming.  The event was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the speech Minow gave to the National Association of Broadcasters, during which he chided broadcasters for equating “the public interest” with whatever the public was interesting.

As part of the event, PBS NewHour’s Judy Woodruff, Virginia Heffernan, the New York Time television critic, and Torey Malatia, the president and CEO of Chicago Public Media talked about where the television industry has gone in the 50 years following Minow’s speech.  The news, I’m afraid, was mostly negative.  With the explosion of cable channels and the internet, the proportion of television and entertainment that does not need to hew to the public interest has grown, while broadcasters have mostly continued their policies of a few hours of children’s programming and a couple of news shows per week.  Radio has done no better.

Heffernan argued that there is television programming that exists that meets and exceeds the standards laid out by Minnow in his 1961 speech.  She went on to say that she hoped that people would watch more television, not less, and that the type and number of programs in existence today say a lot about our culture.

But perhaps the most entertaining and heartening portion of the evening came after dinner, when Minow’s three daughters stood up to speak about their remembrances of their father.  The three women, themselves highly successful lawyers and writers, remembered how their father always managed to get home in time for father-daughter time.

Martha, the dean of the Harvard Law School, remembered seeing questions about her father’s famous speech on her bar exam.  She and her father conferred after she discovered that she got two of the questions wrong, and sent a letter off to the test’s publisher questioning the “correct answers.”  They received in return a letter stating “We’ve been asking these questions for years and you are the first to complain.”

It was touching to see how close and connected this family remains, even with all of their various commitments around the country and the world.

In preparation for the event, I read the entire speech, as well as Minow’s update published in April’s issue of The Atlantic.

The idea that the airwaves belong to the public and that those broadcasters who “rent” space should program to the public interest seems almost quaint, given the explosion in the type and number of media.  But it is something that remains important, especially in the realm of public media, PBS and NPR.  For their commercial brothers, it seems that they are still hoping that they can do a little local news and a few children’s cartoons and call it a day.

The big question for me is does this still matter to people today?  Is it possible to have a public interest if the public isn’t interested?  If people can go straight to the internet or to niche cable channels to get news and information that speaks directly to their biases and interests, can local broadcast television even get through?