Unsafe At Any Speed

Last night, I almost saw my dog killed in front of my very eyes.

We were crossing with the light on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, having just stopped by Cafe Steinhof to say hi to some of the people outside. When an SUV accelerated into the left turn, I saw a front bumper miss me by an inch and pass over my dog’s head. I then had to pull her out of the front wheel well before he crushed her and bring her back to the curb. The driver was oblivious to my screaming and kept on down the road. Nobody got the plates, and I was on my way running down a few blocks to the pet hospital with Bella in my arms (when you’re on adrenalin, a 55-pound dog seems much lighter).

We should probably rename her “Lucky.” After $500 of tests and screening, she may have emerged without much in the way of major injury (I’m hoping a tear in her Anterior Crucial Ligament isn’t in the cards though), but she hasn’t been too happy here at home, even with the pain killers. So, I guess I should be feeling fortunate…

But I just feel angry instead. This was not an accident that had to happen, and I think the fact it was a massive SUV was the cause of the problem. This is not to say that there are no bad drivers for smaller cars, but it’s a lot harder to run someone over and not notice in a MINI. The driver did not race away in a panic, we were just a bump in the road, a minor skip for the CD system, nothing to notice. And that was the truly scary part to me. How can car makers talk about the “safety” of your vehicle, when they’re really engineering a decrease in safety for everyone else? And what does this do to our cities, our public places, when we create these speed lanes for the oblivious and disconnected to barrel through without any caution? There is no single point to blame here, but I feel like we’re engineering a society disconnected from the effects of its actions, insulated from the outside world, and craving more of the same. And that just fills me with sadness this morning.

Blogging? Me?

Sometimes, it’s best to just come out and say it, so here we go: I suck at blogging these days. This is not me beating myself – I don’t feel bad in the slightest – I just am acknowledging the truth of the matter. Sorry for any of my readers who haven’t consigned me to the dustbins of their feed readers yet, but it’s unlikely I will be producing any riveting content anytime in the near future. I have a lot of changes in my life coming up – new coop! baby! projects here at the Times! – that I’m spent when I get home to blog (of course, thanks to Time-Warner Cable I haven’t had Internet at home anyway) and don’t produce any writing that meets my high standards for Original Blogging Content (TM).

However, I do still have time to feed content into a few other places, for those that need to get their Jake fix. For starters, you can follow the minutiae of my random thoughts (all less then 140 characters) at Twitter. In addition, I have started what’s known as a tumbleblog over on Tumblr, which is where I will post content that’s the opposite of Nimble Code: pithy, snarky, non-technical, and varied. Feel free to check both out and one day I will get back to writing here as well.

Finally, if you were interested in some of the topics from my Future of Newspapers posts but want to see a professional journalist’s perspective, I strongly suggest Frontline’s News War series, being broadcast now on PBS and also viewable on the Web.

Packaging Your First Gem With Hoe

My name is Jacob Harris, and I am a rubygem addict. I’d estimate I have hundreds of them tooling around on my hard drive, useful little snippets of Ruby or C library wrappers or random noodlings. I might not actually use most of them in any of my projects, but like a vast library of unread books, I enjoy having them around. But for the longest time, I’ve been a freeloader. I’ve downloaded gems, but I’ve never written one, but it’s time I start giving something back.

And so, I’ve written my first gem. It’s nothing incredible – all things have to start simple – but I like it. It’s called Amazon Hacks and it consists of two classes (for now) to benefit people whose sites handle Amazon links. The Amazon::Hacks::Link class contains a few methods to extract an ASIN from any product link, normalize product links, and append an affiliate ID easily. The slightly sillier Amazon::Hacks::Image class puts a convenient Ruby wrapper around the convoluted syntax Amazon uses for its image transformation engine. If you work on a site that links to Amazon product pages (e.g., All Consuming), try it out and let me know if it works for you or it can be improved. It’s simple to get started, simply run

gem install amazon-hacks—include-dependencies

Which brings me to hoe. Last night, I gave a talk on hoe to the NYC.rb group and the slides are here if you want to learn more about the process.

Before last week, I had no idea of what it takes to create a gem, but it seemed like a lot, and I had better things to distract myself with. And it does indeed require a fair amount of busy work, what I call administrivia, to turn your snippet of Ruby code into a packaged gem, and this work has to be started anew for each gem you want to create. Now, as pragmatic programmers, we learn to automate menial tasks whenever possible, and hoe makes the creation of gems a lot more manageable by automating the busy-work away via a set of useful rake tests. The result is more time for coding, faster releases, and more likely you’ll release that gem in the first place. So, give hoe a shot, learn about gems, and start writing gems. You’re a brilliant Ruby coder, it’s time to share it with the world. And when you write that gem, I’ve got a cherished spot on my hard drive for it.

A Year In Consumption

This year, as an experiment I started living in public. By this, I don’t mean I jumped into the online exhibitionist extreme that seems to be required for MySpace users, but I have started tracking my media consumption of books/movies/music online. So, as a short post to tide everyone over until I gird myself to continue the never-ending newspapers series, here’s a review of my year in media.

In the last year, I read approximately 63 books, of which the most notable were:

  • The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
  • The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers
  • La Perdida, by Jessica Abel
  • Maps of the Imagination, by Peter Turchi
  • Rip It Up And Start Again, by Simon Reynolds

This last year I also saw approximately 67 movies and TV shows (new and rentals), of which the following 5 were the best, in no ranked order:

  • The New World
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Aguirre, The Wrath of God
  • Grizzly Man
  • Veronica Mars, seasons 1&2

Finally, here were the top 10 bands I listened to last year, courtesy of last.fm

  • Boards of Canada
  • Xela
  • Sigur Rós
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • Ms. John Soda
  • Thom Yorke
  • The American Analog Set
  • Ulrich Schnauss
  • Aphex Twin
  • Ladytron

Anyhow, there you have it; my life as a consumer for one year (but am I going to go see movies this weekend? Yes!) Anyhow, happy new year and see you all next year! If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more books to read.

My NYTIIH Score, Year Two

Sunset Cranes

It’s that time of the year again, when the air gets a certain crispness, snatches of holiday song fill the air, and everybody communes with their friends and family, joined in warmth by their shared commitment to one thing: figuring out their New York Times Year In Ideas Hipness score. For those of you who missed this last year, I’ve started the personal tradition of reading through the New York Times Magazine’s annual Year In Ideas issue and tabulating how many of the collected phenomena I had known about beforehand. This is no mere game; a sufficiently high score is the only thing that allows me to still bask in the comfort of being “with it”, so please appreciate the seriousness of this moment.

I’ve been a bit late coming to the game this year (it’s been a really busy December), but now is the moment of truth and a big game day question: Now that I actually work at the Times, how will that affect my score? On the one hand, I am that much closer to the elitist, liberal, intellectual mindset the Times is so renowned for, so that should conceivably help my score. But – and I am painfully aware of the irony here – I find myself with so much less time to read the news these days now that I’m actually working for it, which might detract from my score.

If you’ve never read the Year in Ideas issue, give it a gander and see how much you recognize. I’m sure there will be some things you recognize a little, some you’ve known for years (as the picture shows, I’m very aware that shipping containers explain everything), and some things that will completely surprise you. And if you’re feeling competitive, tally up your score and see how intellectually hip you are. My results follow:

The Aerotropolis The New Inequality
Air-Index Impressionism Olfactory Cuisine
The Ambient Walkman Paternity Confidence
The Ballot That Is Also a Lottery Ticket Phantom Pianists
The Beer-Gut Flask Psychological Neoteny
Bicycle Helmets Put You at Risk Publication Probity
Big Urbanism Redefining Torture
The Boomerang Drone The Return of the Corporate State
Cohabitation Is Bad for Women’s Health Reverse Graffiti
The Comb That Listens The Robot Fielder
Creative Shrinkage Rods From God
Digital Maoism Sailing an Oil Tanker
The Diplomat-Parking-Violation Corruption Index Salt That Doesn’t Stick
The Drivable One-Man Blimp Shipping Containers Explain Everything
The E. Coli Wipe Smart Elevators
Empty-Stomach Intelligence The Social-Cue Reader
Energy-Harvesting Floors Sousveillance
The Eyes of Honesty Speed-Reducing Art
The Fashion Czar Spit Art
For-Profit Philanthropy Sporno
The Gyroball Straw That Saves Lives
The Hidden-Fee Economy Taxing Virtual Economies
Homophily Techno Fashion
Human-Chimp Hybrids The Tongue Sucker
The Humane Flophouse Trash-Talk Exegesis
Hyperopia Tushology
Indie Sitcoms Unscratchable Paint
Jujitsu Advertising The Visage Problem
The Lady Macbeth Effect Voting-Booth Feng Shui
Literary Spam Walk-In Health Care
Low Starting Prices Lead to High Auction Sales Web-Based Microfinancing
Misery Chic The Wheelchair Car
Money-Circulation Science Wine That Ages Instantly
The Myth of ‘the Southern Strategy’ Workplace Rumors Are True
Narcissistic Celebrities Yodeling Is Universal
N.C.A.A. Psyop The YouTube Referee Indictment
Negativity Friendships The Ziggurat of Zealotry

There you have it. A total score of 46 out of 74, for a NYTYIIH score of 55.4%! Given the wide-ranging scope of ideas, this might seem decent enough, except last year I scored an impressive 65.38%. Oh the humanity! I guess I’m now longer the idea hipster/coolhunter I thought I was. But can you do better?

Advertising The Future Newspaper

And now for the second post in this minor series All The News Fit To Serve wherein the blogger attempts to parlay a passing knowledge of the newspaper business into an exploration of how newspapers might change in the Web age. As it should go without saying, these are my opinions, and do not reflect any thinking at my employer or any actual strategy being taken there. Just needed to clear that up. That said, on with the show! This post’s theme: advertising, or how “old media” is not so much different than new media when it comes to bringing home the bacon.

Analyzing the newspaper business today is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, print circulation continues to decline and the recent drop suggested a more extreme decline may be in the future. Net wisdom decries newspapers as ailing dinosaurs doomed to extinction by 2014.
On the other hand, papers still enjoy healthy profit margins and often monopoly status in local markets that gives them an advantage in covering a local area unmatched by anyone. Still, newspapers have seen some unsettling drops in readership and the decline in classifieds might be a troubling portent. On the other hand, newspapers are far from finsished and the warning signs have actually helped some papers to retrench and repair wasteful processes. In terms of readership, ewspapers still enjoy esteemed and privileged positions in their local markets that are still worth a lot, but Wall Street is alarmed whenever at the anemic growth or even retreat many papers are suffering. Putting it more simply:

  1. The glass is half full
  2. But the water level is dropping at an accelerating rate

And now every paper is trying to figure out how to refill the glass. But why is declining readership such a concern for newspapers? It helps to understand how the business operates.

You might assume that papers are supported largely by subscription fees and the decline in print readership is troubling because of decline in that revenue. But for many papers, subscriptions only offset delivery and printing costs; indeed, it is possible for some small urban papers to even make a business giving away their product for free! Rather, subscriptions have the unusual property in that they are meaningless as money, but essential as a quantity. Because the real value of circulation is to set the advertising rates.

Like many Web sites, the dominant driver of revenue for newspapers is advertising. Of course, there are sometimes a few other minor revenue streams (licensing, royalties, books), but advertising is such a dominant revenue source that you can directly gauge the health of a paper by the advertising rates it can charge. And since the value of an advertising in a paper is largely determined by the size of the audience it reaches, advertising rates (and advertising profits) are directly influenced by the circulation of the paper. Advertising has been exceedingly good for newspapers – the total ad market for papers is estimated at $45 billion – but the writing is on the wall. Classifieds (another form of advertising) have already precipitously declined, and it’s only a matter of time before commercial advertisers follow suit. The party is over; this is why the papers are getting scared.

There is some good news on the horizon though. Internet readership of papers has been climbing steadily and ad rates are expected to continue increasing at a phenomenal rate – next year, internet advertising is expected to increase by 29% while traditional media advertising will increase only an anemic 1-2% – and some papers like the New York Times have built online web sites that reach a global audience and dwarf the readership of their printed versions. A lot of geeks read these trends and argue that papers should save themselves today by discarding the printed product and surviving off websites only, but such a move would only be suicide for any paper foolish enough to try it today.

The catch is for all its promise, Internet advertising is nowhere near the profitability of print advertising – optimistic estimates suggest it might be there in 10 years. This gap is simply stunning to casual pundits like me who think the Web is a ready equivalent to anything in traditional media. Why is this disparity so great? I think it has to do with a few different factors. One possibility is that Internet advertising is not attractive enough to traditional print advertisers yet, perhaps because of its perceived limitations (you just can’t buy a flashy three-page spread in the first few pages of the Magazine online). In addition,
unlike print advertising, no single entity has a monopoly in a local ad market on the Internet. Which belies another difference between the two ad markets: the print version is local, the web version is global. I think it will take a while for some advertisers to want to reach the latter.

All is not bad for for Web advertising however. As stated before, web ads are able to reach sheer numbers of people inconceivable for any print publication today and at all times of the day and night, so some profits might be made in volume. Newspapers could also conceivably farm out web advertising to outside sources too who might have a better chance selling to Internet-savvy advertisers (Google is certainly hoping for this). The main advantage of online advertising in the long run will prove to be demographics however, and how intelligently newspapers are able to target them. The audience for a print ad can only be considered as an aggregate average, since the same ad goes to every subscriber, be they rich or poor, urban or suburban, dog owners and/or video game players and/or coffee drinkers. But the beauty of Internet advertising is that you can target the ads to the consumers more likely to respond to them – I am still talking about marketing to aggregate groups and not individuals (that gets a little too much into privacy), but the groups are much smaller here. This might make Internet advertising rates eventually exceed those of print ads. Newspapers would be foolish to ignore this opportunity. Which is why every newspaper at this point seems to require users to register. As an anonymous reader, you’re worth so very little to advertisers; as a 27-year old female from the Midwest, you (as part of an advertising group) might be worth much more. More readers and better marketing might help to make up for the decline in print readership.

But the real kicker is that for many newspapers, the website will never be able to close the gap.

Online readership growth for any paper must eventually reach a stable plateau where it starts to level off. How do you increase readership to greater levels beyond that? One possibility is to increase the paper’s website to be more than the news. The New York Times has followed this idea and unveiled sites for interactive applications like movies, travel, and home finance. Another possibility it acquiring outside media sites like About.com (NY Times) and Slate (Washington Post). This helps to some degree, but it can also seem like developing portals in an age where portals are no longer relevant. Personally, I think the opposite approach might be the wave of the future. Stop expecting your readers to live their online lives at your websites and distribute your content to them all over the web. But that’s a topic for the next post.

All The News That’s Fit To Serve

Here in New York, it’s routine for people you’ve just met to ask you what you do for a living (we inquire about rent when we get to know each other better, about 10 minutes later). As interesting as it was at Alacra, most people’s eyes would start to glaze over when I summarized the various minutiae of reselling financial information online (I eventually learned to describe it through the metaphor of a grocery store). But everybody knows about the New York Times, and I can almost visualize the cascade of associative thoughts—complete with press passes tucked in fedoras, people shouting at each other in a news room, and the obligatory spinning newspaper transition. This then leads right into the next question: that’s the newspaper, but what do you do at Times Digital that’s so different and special? Not much for the moment, and that’s a problem.

The lion’s share of traffic to the New York Times Digital goes to www.nytimes.com, which is largely just a reformatting of the printed paper for a web audience. Sure there are some additional applications specific only to the website (eg, you can search through movie reviews and we now have videos), but you could easily miss them, since the focus on presenting a cohesive look that mirrors the printed product all but guarantees that anything truly exclusive to the website will never be allowed to stand out. Indeed, one might get the sense that the management of the Times thinks of the Web as merely another printing format, rather than a completely different medium in its own right. Despite the fact that online readership obliterates the print subscribers these days, I would honestly be surprised if any newspaper’s editorial board contained a member who only read the paper online and “understands” the web. Furthermore, even “understanding” the Web does not entail grokking how savvy readers browse the paper online—how many newspaper editors know what a tabbed browser is for instance? or why single column is preferable to users with scroll wheels on their mice? My guess is not many. These sort of blind spots are not much of a big deal to those who want to just maintain the status quo in a new marketplace (and how mostly see the online paper as merely a convenience for people on the go), but I think there are so many unique web-only opportunities being missed out that newspapers need to grasp. And I’m going to write the next few blog posts on some ways in which newspapers might uniquely evolve online. I think the problem is not so much the people, but the cultural mindset needs to evolve a new notion of what newspapers are and how the public interacts with them. In the next few posts I will explore some ways in which the notion of newspapers might change online and how that might affect the news of tomorrrow.

But first, a few disclaimers. I’m not singling out my employer only for ridicule. Many of the problems the Times faces in the Internet age (declining readership and a demographic that’s skewing older) are striking the industry as a whole. Also, unlike some smaller regional papers, the Times has been working hard to position itself as a global news brand both in print and online, which could make all the difference between success and failure in any new web ventures. And the paper side of the operations here does at least recognize that something must be done to reverse the slide in readership and profitability and integrate the web and newspaper operations more tightly (although they don’t quite know what that might be). But the New York Times does share much of the mindset current to the newspaper industry, and I do work here, so it’s too easy for me to single them out for examples indicative of newspapers as a whole.

Also, I am not a media analyst or expert in how the newspaper business works. I do not have a journalism background and I do not even have a lot of experience working in a newspaper environment. I have never visited a newsroom and even navigating the old building’s corridors to visit the credit union or get a photo ID left me as bewildered and confused as a tired old man. It’s possible I’ll gloss over something momentous or overstate something glib. But I do think I understand the Web and how people use it and I will treat the idea with more seriousness and depth than the usual buzzwords when geeks try to reinvent the newspaper business. Hopefully it’ll be good, but as always let me know how you feel in the comments.

And finally, I do believe there is a place for newspapers in the Web world and I am working here at the Times mainly because I am interested in being a part of developing new refinements of a business model that’s been unchanged for hundreds of years

That said, on with the show! Newspapers online are rather limited, what are the ways they can change and embrace the web? I will be following up with four further posts organized into distinct but overlapping themes:

Notice how I started the latter three with ‘D’ to be extra clever. Those will link to the further posts when they are published, but stay tuned and watch this space.


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