Category: Work

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.

A Bandana-Wearing Rodent and A Staid Network

The company I work for can hardly be seen as “on the cutting edge” of anything. In focus groups, the words boring and slow come up almost as often as interesting and informative. And the work culture behind the scenes matches the product on the screen most of the time.

So when my boss asked me to look into a new social media product called RebelMouse and to investigate how we might use it to enhance our users’ experience at our website.

Basically, it’s a social media aggregation tool. At first look, you hook up your social media feeds (currently, it supports Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Google+ and Tumblr), and it creates a neat, infinitely scrolling display page of your tweets, posts, and photos. You can either send people to the page hosted by RebelMouse, or embed the page in your website using a WordPress plugin or a simple embed code.

At first, I was a little skeptical. While I saw the benefit of using this for organizations that traffic in news, our focus is on events coverage and, because of that, many of our social media posts contain the words “Live Now” or “Watch now,” which become useless once the event ends. But then we looked at Time Magazine’s Person of the Year announcement. Time used RebelMouse to aggregate social media postings about their Person of the Year, and embedded those posts in their site.

We decided to use RebelMouse for Inauguration, focusing on photos and videos. We wanted to give our users a behind-the-scenes look at Inauguration day in our nation’s capitol. We knew from prior events that people on our staff and the public at large would be tweeting photos of themselves on the National Mall, along the parade route, and at the Capitol and White House. We thought that users who couldn’t be in Washington for the event could get a glimpse of what it was like to produce and attend this enormous event.

So we worked with RebelMouse to develop an embedded site and widget that we hosted on our own site, and then we got to work choosing photos to post on the page and making sure we had a variety of viewpoints and media. We linked prominently to the page from the top banner section of our homepage, and we promoted it heavily during our TV coverage of the Inauguration events.

So… was it a success? It’s hard to say. From an editorial standpoint, we thought it performed exactly as we had hoped it would. We got great pictures from our camera crews, producers, and viewers, and the RebelMouse feed was constantly updated through the hard work of our Developer-turned-editorial director of the project and our Vice President, who chipped in for breaks and evening coverage.

By traditional measures, however, we were less impressed. Our page views were mediocre and we did not get a lot of feedback from users or other staff. But we were encouraged by how quickly we were able to implement the tool, and are looking forward to trying some different promotions and link wording in the future. Overall, we’re calling it a success.

Hopefully our users will see it that way too.

Turns Out You Don’t Learn Something New Everyday… Unless You Try

You know that phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”?

When I was in grad school, I couldn’t wait to re-join the workforce and have my nights and weekends to myself. I recalled lazy weekends spent reading, and actually being caught up on all the TV shows that everyone is always talking about. Now that I’ve been out for a little over a year, I miss school. I miss having someone push me to learn new things and solve problems. I miss the structured discussions and the camaraderie of working exclusively with people who were all focused on the same life stage.

I figured out recently that one of the things I like most about online journalism is that there is constantly something new to learn, from stuff as basic as a new HTML tag or CSS property, to whole new social networks and web apps.

For me, this realization led me to another. That the only person pushing me to learn new things… is me.

So, since I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, I will set a goal instead: I will structure in time to my life to learn new things, at least one session a week, starting with an open course I bookmarked at NiemanLab in August. (I’m starting the “summer reading” this week, so that’s how far behind I am with that).

It won’t be easy. Since coming back from grad school, I’ve fallen into a lazy pattern of dinner and TV after work. Weekends are scarcely better. Somehow, errands that took an hour a week in grad school seem to take all day back in D.C., but I am committed to trying.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

If I Have to Explain Sequestration to One More Person…

If there is one thing I have learned from the past couple of years, it’s that I know basically nothing about how the economy actually works. I have a firm grasp of federal budgetary procedures and thanks to a great grad school course on how to report on the economy, a fairly good understanding of the Federal Reserve, the stock market, futures, options, and all of that stuff.

But as to how the economy actually works, what forces actually affect the rise and fall of the average person’s fortunes, I have to admit that I’m still a little in the dark. And that’s how it should be… right? If the economy is chugging right along, if everything is going as it is supposed to be going, if there aren’t any wayward bankers and investment advisers altering the flow of things, I shouldn’t need to know what things are.

Then came 2011 and 2012. Congress decided they were going to fight over every. little. thing. and that we might default on our debts. The only way to get anyone to agree to anything at all was to implement what is known as sequestration. In other words, the 435 men and women in the congress and the president couldn’t agree on budget cuts now, so they agreed to massive, economy-altering, but hypothetical, budget cuts about a year in the future.

Fast forward a year and, guess what? They still can’t agree and now those hypothetical budget cuts aren’t seeming so hypothetical anymore.  If the lame-duck session after the election can’t come up with some agreements on budget cuts and deficit reduction, those hypothetical budget cuts will become oh, so real.

In a recent episode of “The Bugle,” a satirical news podcast by The Daily Show’s John Oliver and his cricket-obsessed, London-based friend Andy Zaltzman, John Oliver went on a rant about having to explain LIBOR (the London InterBank Overnight Rate, or the interest rate banks pay to other banks to borrow money from them). “I don’t want to know what that is!” he yelled. And if it weren’t for the actions of some banks to allegedly affect the rate to make their businesses look more attractive, he wouldn’t need to.

But maybe this is all for the best. After all, now that I know all this stuff, maybe I could have a promising career explaining it all to my fellow Americans, most of whom remain blissfully unaware that these things exist, and how they are subtly changing the future of the world’s economy.

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.

Into the abyss of unemployment

You may be wondering where I’ve been…

After finishing my master’s degree in December, I moved back to Washington, DC, to start the job hunt.  A trying process in any economy, in this economy it has been particularly tough.  Staying with whatever friends would host me, I sent out dozen of resumes, emails and requests for networking opportunities.

I finally landed back at my old company, at least for now, and it feels great to have somewhere to be five days a week.

In my last few months of grad school, I was actually looking forward to some time off.  I would have time to exercise, and see those museums that I never managed to get to when I lived here before, I thought.  And, most importantly, I would be able to fully dedicate myself to the job hunt.  Looking for a job would be my full-time job.

What I discovered, though, is that unemployment, for someone like me who craves deadline pressure, can be a huge black hole of free time.

I would sleep until noon, because I had no where to be.  I would then eat breakfast and read the paper for an hour.  I justified this by noting that all of the job search articles I had read said that the job search is only 20 percent applying to jobs, and 80 percent getting yourself ready for the application process.  I wanted a job in news, so reading the news was a good way to keep myself abreast of important events.

Then I might surf some job boards for an hour or so.  Then, if I was feeling really productive, I’d write a cover letter.  And before I knew it, my friends who were so generously allowing me to stay with them would be home from work and my day was over.

When I finally found a job (even though it’s a temp job), that amazing time hole that I had to fill went away.  All of a sudden, I’m running all my errands in one day.  I’m searching job boards at night when I get home.  And I’m finally getting to those museums and monuments that I’ve always wanted to see.  (It helps that it has been about 75 degrees out in DC for the past few weeks).

In light of the fact that I’m already into week 4 of my 12 week assignment, and of the fact that I just signed a year-long lease, I know I need to come up with some additional strategies for unemployment in the future.  What have you done to help you stay on the wagon?

The heat is on…

We’ve got four weeks left in our project this quarter.  Four weeks to finish producing an iPad magazine and to present it to potential investors and to the faculty.

We’re at that crucial point where it feels like there’s no way we’ll ever get done and yet we make leaps and bounds every day.  I’ve been looking forward to this part of the project from the beginning.  Everyday we are closer to having a completed magazine and it’s really exciting.

I can’t wait to share it!

When is a protest not a protest

About a week ago, I found myself heading down to the Occupy Chicago protest to complete an Oral History assignment for my Audio reporting class.  I had been through the protest a couple of days earlier, but due to unsuitable audio conditions (i.e. massive road construction 10 feet away), had decided to return at a later time.

When I walked up Jackson Place towards the Fed and the Chicago Board of Trade, I had a flash of panic.  Where were all the unwashed protestors?  I expected to find people sleeping on the sidewalk and some volunteers serving up hot coffee to the early risers, but what I found instead was a giant pile of signs and one guy with a donations box.

I later discovered that this was normal.  The protestors didn’t usually show up until 1pm or so and didn’t march until 5pm, when they would have the largest audience of commuters and pedestrians.  Furthermore, I learned, all of these details were carefully laid out, along with the structure of the organization and its various committees, in a Google Calendar.  Had I bothered to Google ‘Occupy Chicago Schedule’ I could have saved myself a lot of time.

At the time, however, I felt totally disillusioned.  Where were the masses of people who had left their previous lives to join the movement?  Where were the young people braving the cold nights to make their point to the establishment?  Where were the sign holders and petition carriers and drum circlers?

As it turns out, they’re in New York (and Oakland, Calif. and a few other major demonstration locations).  The reason I was expecting to come across a mass of protestors at 9:30 in the morning is that most of the coverage I have seen of the movement comes out of the national news bureaus located, conveniently, just a few short miles from the original and largest Occupy protest, Occupy Wall Street.

This is partly my fault.  Having come from a national politics job, I tend to still read the national papers and watch the national news before turning to NBC5 or the Chicago Tribune.  But partly, this expectation and subsequent disappointment was a result of a (very) successful message campaign by the protestors themselves that stated that they were not getting fair coverage in the media.  Here they were, they said, day after day, protesting the 1 percent and no one came to amplify their message in the mass media.

Admittedly, I still managed to complete my assignment and did not return later when the bulk of the scheduled activities commenced, but I left with a renewed sense that what you see on the news, even without an intentional bias, can greatly affect what is known in the general public.  And journalists can lose sight of this.  They’re entrenched in the story and forget that the public only sees the minute-twenty package on the evening news.  Coming to this story as someone who only glanced at it before Monday, I was reminded how what we leave out of the story can affect it more than what we put in and that editing can distort both the scope and importance of a story.

A focus group of one

Seven days ago, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died at 56 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Apple fans across the world showed love and support for the man, the brand, and his family, often through a medium that Jobs himself was responsible either for creating or for promoting.

I was down on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue on Sunday to one, buy a suit for interviewing, and two, shoot some photos for photojournalism, and came across an Apple Store covered in multi-colored Post-Its with messages for Jobs and his family.  And one-by-one people walked up, left a message on the wall or an apple on the ground, snapped a photo with their iPhone, and went on their way.

Jobs was not a fan of focus groups, audience research or user testing.  I am also not a fan of those things.  He believed that often with groundbreaking technology people had no idea what they wanted until you told them what was possible.  He was, among other things, an excellent salesman of the possible.

I, on the other hand, simply do not like conducting these interviews.  It’s not that I don’t see their value, although I do challenge the audience Kool-aid that says that we should simply ask people what they want and then give it to them.

In journalism school, it is expected that students inherently know how to talk to people about a product that they are working on.  They’re supposed to know exactly how to express a sense of empathy and immediately build a rapport with random strangers who the journalists are supposed to miraculously find on street corners and in coffee shops and convince to dedicate 20 minutes of their lives to answering a journalist’s prying questions about their lives.  Professors and administrators do not seem to see that there is a difference between this type of interviewing and interviewing someone for a story.

Audience research is very, very good at finding out what people like and how they behave.  Unfortunately, even the first man who bought an iPad has only been using it for fewer than 2 years.  And his world of experience is limited to the type of apps and interactivity that a small group of developers has been able to dream up.  And of that very small group, only a very few of those are doing any sort of groundbreaking work, while the others are using their innovations to display content.  So, essentially, the ideas of a couple of men and women are the sum of iPad experiences that exist.  And asking an iPad user what they like can only encompass those ideas.

We can ask people to imagine what they would like, but they will still be limited to their experience of interacting with the device.  Even the truly visionary random man on the street might suggest something that we couldn’t possibly execute.

We’re warned about the dangers of the “focus group of one:” essentially using only your own experience to make decisions.  We’re especially warned about that in our class.  As a group of 13 girls and one boy, we have chosen to create a magazine for men.  As a group of 23 to 28-year-olds, we’ve chosen men age 35-55, which for most of us means neither our friends nor our fathers.

And so, if you need me on Saturday, I’ll be hanging out at a Starbucks in Skokie, stalking men with iPads and asking to see some ID.