Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Distant Witness by Andy Carvin

"Distant Witness" by Andy Carvin (2013)
[cover image courtesy of CUNY Journalism Press]

Distant Witness: A book about Twitter, revolutions, and the Twitter revolution

I never thought reading tweets, retweets and hashtags could be so compelling.

Andy Carvin has done a wonderful job looking at Twitter as a new platform of information and interaction, and told that story using both his own narrative and the voice of the medium itself.

The result is a document both of an amazingly important time in international geopolitics (the Arab Spring that saw citizen-led rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain) and a tool that allows the voices of the people involved to resonate around the world.

During the time of the uprisings, Carvin was a masterful curator, filtering the noise and bringing credible first-hand voices into the conversation around the news.

He has proven equally skilled at looking back and recognizing the unprecedented nature of a revolution lived by those on the ground but witnessed by the rest of the world in a way that had never been done before.

"Distant Witness" chronicles news - the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, the Libyan rebellion through to the eventual capture and killing of Moammar Ghadafi, and also the unique ways that news lived and evolved on Twitter. The extended sections about the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, the effort to identify supposed Israeli weapons in Libya and the story of the high schooler who advised rebels with field manuals collected and translated into Arabic.

You won't find these stories anywhere else.

I am sure Andy Carvin would admit that his book is just the beginning of a larger conversation, but it's an amazingly useful one with lessons that journalists should be aware of as non-traditional voices continue to find new ways to be heard in documenting history. "Distant Witness" is most of all about those voices, and Carvin does a great job at letting them speak.

Read this book. It will make you a better journalist and a better citizen of the world.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

"The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg (2012)
[cover image courtesy of Random House]

The Power of Habit: Self-help journalism

Self-improvement disguised as journalism is a very hit-or-miss genre, but with a reporter like Charles Duhigg (2013 Pulitzer at the NYT) writing it, you're in good hands.

'The Power of Habit' is all about understanding how the brain works, and what the latest research says about how patterns of behavior are formed.

But you also get a look into the latest psychology and practice of behavior modification to learn that it is indeed possible to reprogram your brain to break bad habits and develop good ones to achieve whatever it is you want to change about how you live your life, if anything.

It's very well-written, with substantive case studies and plenty of interviews, context and background to attack the issue from a number of angles, which is very satisfying.

The discussion about how responsible a person is for the subconscious habits at work in their brains (murderer vs. gambler) is particularly interesting and an issue that we are already seeing come up in the news as crafty lawyers try to argue that their clients didn't have control over the things they may have done.

You will learn a lot from this book, and you may even be able to improve your life as a direct result. That's a pretty strong takeway from this one.

Oh and speaking of takeaways, here is the book's 4-step formula for changing a bad habit:

1. Identify the habit loop - trigger, behavior, reward - that you see at work in your life.

2. Identify the specific cue - Pay attention to when you get the craving and you will probably find that what triggers this sequence of events is one of five common cues: a specific time, a specific place, an emotional state, the presence/behavior of certain other people, or what you were doing immediately before you had the craving.

3. Experiment with rewards - For a week, test different rewards and gather some data. You may think that donut is what you crave, but it may turn out that it's the getting-up-from-your-desk-to-take-a-walk that you crave. So just try going for a walk instead of getting the donut next time. Some of the other rewards will satisfy the craving, some will not. The one that does is the one you want to preserve in your new behavior.

4. Have a plan - When you are undertaking the difficult task of rewiring a bad habit in your brain, have a plan for how you are going to deal with the trigger, and some obstacles you are likely to encounter. If you have a plan, you're less likely to fall off the wagon and give in to the craving.

There is a ton more insight in the book, such as the factors that influence the success of a new habit and the theory of small victories, but the main takeaway - that habits can be changed if one goes about it the right way - is a meaningful lesson that can apply to all sorts of situations we encounter in our own behavior.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Opinion: Hipsters may have ruined Paris for you, but Paris doesn't care

I see two types of stories about modern Paris life: Stories about how French people love Brooklyn hipster culture, and stories about how Brooklyn hipster culture is ruining Paris.

The latest is of an American in Paris lamenting the gentrification of the Pigalle's loss of its dirty whorehouses, a Sunday Opinion piece in the New York Times by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

I for one find it terribly pretentious for an American to complain about the fact that his naive, romantic desire that charmingly gritty shitholes in Paris remain charmingly gritty shitholes forever may be under threat by the arrival of cool bars and restaurants serving interesting and healthy foods.

He mentions that the bars are packed, so Parisians are obviously happy for a neighborhood full of bordellos to get a bit of a facelift.

I think a lot of tourists and expats fail to realize one thing: The world is not there for you to escape to.

Yes, the homogenization of global culture is something that is happening and is ultimately not that interesting, but Paris doesn't give a damn if it's becoming similar to the neighborhood you left behind in Brooklyn. Paris isn't trying to lure you away from your home with promises of exotic and charmingly gritty shitholes. Paris is just trying to be Paris and to evolve as Parisians want it to evolve.

So sure, hipsters may have ruined Paris FOR YOU because you had hipsters back home, but it doesn't seem like hipsters have ruined Paris for Parisians. And they only ruined it for you because you were applying your own set of ideals that you wanted the city to live up to.

Let Paris be whatever Paris wants to be.

**Full disclosure: I have a French passport, I have lived in Paris, and I don't like Paris. But it's not at all because of the hipsters.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Justin Smith, new Bloomberg CEO, gets wrong about digital media

Bloomberg LP is getting a new CEO, and though Justin B. Smith's track record of turning around The Atlantic and creating excellent products like Quartz and the Atlantic Wire are enough to say that Bloomberg got a major score here, what I've read about his vision for the company gives me two reasons for pause.

Smith has the mind of an entrepreneur, and has used that with incredible success in his career. And he clearly values speed as an essential ingredient of innovation, as Digiday quotes from his email of introduction to the staff:
"Moving quickly is paramount: the faster you move, the more you learn, and the sooner you can optimize for success. Fred Wilson, the VC behind Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and others, argues that ‘speed’ is the quality he seeks out above all others in digital media entrepreneurs. I agree.”
For plenty of products, that's true, but as it relates to Bloomberg's media arm, my Spidey sense tingles whenever I see a hint of velocitatum super omnia. 

Speed is always going to be important, but I've seen brands diminished (TV news is a big offender in this category) because of a devotion to being first that can lead to unverified reporting and the spreading of false information. Speed, sometimes, kills.

My second reaction to Smith's email, though, is one that I think is much more problematic: I see no mention of the user in his vision for the future of digital media. Yes, he is quick (and correct) to assert that the future is not yet written:
“Anyone who tells you they can predict the future state of media and its consumption patterns or business models isn’t being honest. No one knows where things are going and how they’ll play out. To succeed, we must accept this state of confusion and embrace the chaos."
But I think the one thing we DO know about the future of media is that the balance of power is shifting always in favor of the user. Homepages are less relevant as users pick and choose content a-la-carte; the conversation around the news (read: social media) is often even more important than the news itself, and users, not editors, increasingly decide what the top story of the day is.

For me, any media organization that doesn't acknowledge this trend is leaving truth on the table.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens (2010)
[cover photo from]

Hitch-22: A memoir, if you're up for it

For fans of Christopher Hitchens - that is, for people who know a bit about the guy beyond just his writings - Hitch-22 is a great look at what made the man tick and how he sees his legacy.

For those reading Hitch-22 as a way to get to know Christopher Hitchens for the first time, this might not be the book to do it, unless they studied English Lit in college and still have a deep interest in it.

It's clear from this book and his other writings that Hitch's first love was always English literature. It defined him, his thinking, and his impressions of himself. In Hitch-22 he yearns with as much humility as he can muster to be considered among his favorites W. H. Auden, P. G. Wodehouse, Martin Amis and many others whom he quotes at length.

For the first few hundred pages, you'll hear more about writers with two initials in their names than about Christopher Hitchens, so be prepared.

Aside from that, you will learn a lot about the mind of Christopher Hitchens. Some biographical details - family history, childhood in boarding school (including some interesting thoughts on the development of his sexuality) and role as a student of revolution, but this one is a memoir of the cerebral sort.

Rather what you would expect from a book about Christopher Hitchens written by Christopher Hitchens, actually.

But readers who, like me, are interested in gripping recollections of Hitch's many adventures around the world, the front-row seat to liberation struggles and back-room discussions with influential figures, will probably be disappointed.

Hitch-22 is a memoir that takes place in the mind; how Christopher Hitchens came to be himself, how he developed his thoughts, feelings, and talents, etc. Wherever an external event has shaped him, it is described only so much as necessary for him to ruminate at length about what effect said event had on his revolutionary thinking, or what role it may have played in the context of history and literature.

Interesting, yes, but not a terribly quick read and not one that I would recommend to anyone who didn't already feel a strong affection and admiration of Hitchens. I have been reading his writings for years, and I consider myself a fan. So while I know a lot more about him than when I started, I still know there are more stories to tell.

And it's too bad he's no longer around to tell them.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Work for the page views, not the paychecks

Remember in the early days of Web journalism, when the backlash against chasing page views led people to pontificate about that fundamental axiom of journalism, that you must balance what people WANT to know (Kimye's baby name) with what people NEED to know (the government is spying on you)?

Now, chasing page views is falling out of vogue as news organizations that base their success on "engagement" and the many ways that can be measured, and it's not uncommon to hear my journalist friends look down their noses at sites like Buzzfeed, whose click-bait content seems to blatantly chase after the basest desires of the reading public.

I'd like to come out in defense of the page view, to a certain extent, because like it or not it's a rather pure measure of what your audience is interested in. Every click is a decision: Whether from Google search or from a visit to your homepage, that click is a choice to look at a piece of content before any other piece of content on the page at the time.

That is a pretty potent metric.

It's definitely not the whole story, and news organizations have a responsibility to pay attention to the many ways that an audience can give them feedback (time on the page, number of comments, number of shares, for example), but it is a part of the story that should be heeded.

What chasing page views also represents to me, and this is a good thing, is the snobbery of those writers and editors who would rather never publish any news about Lindsay Lohan, or the dog that befriended an injured raccoon in the next town over.

As the deputy editor of, I find myself working with every desk in the newsroom, every day. Video, graphics, desk editors, beat reporters, copy editors, social media moderators and upper management, not to mention the entire Web staff that sits around me.

That means I have a lot of time to observe the apparent motivations of the slice of life that ends up working at a major news organization like this one. What I see are some people who simply work for a paycheck: they do their jobs without making any great effort to do them quickly or to push their jobs to new heights.

Other people, who for the sake of the current discussion work for the page views, pay attention to what the audience is reading, what they are responding to, and what is animating the conversation around the news on social media.

It's not that complicated, but when it comes to the quest for page views, there are plenty worse motivations in the journalism business.

Thursday, May 2, 2013 One year later

A little more than a year ago, I wrote about 11 ideas to improve Fortune's lists online, since the company was looking for a new editor to manage franchise projects like the Fortune 500. I decided to check in on what's changed since then, using the 100 Best Companies list on which I based the initial exercise.


I much prefer the splash page with the top 10 items (each with thumbnail), and instead of the tabs to organize the list, now we have a row of features that are related to this list along the top, each with a big picture. I recommended these changes and clearly they were thinking along the same lines.

I also see that the box on the top right is now being used to highlight other Fortune lists rather than a job search tool, which is a much better way to use the space.

Video content, which used to be up top in a prominent place, now takes a more logical place below the list where it's intermingled with other featured content. I don't know many people who specifically go to a site looking for video content to watch; rather they go looking for interesting content, whatever form it takes. Fortune has apparently realized this, which is a good thing.

So it's a big step forward, pretty much involving all 4 of my original suggestions for organizing this content.


In terms of content, I don't see much new here. Looks like the old lists, just packaged in a new way. Maybe this area will improve with time, but I still think that there should be more social media on this page, and there should be deeper integration with other Fortune lists.


My biggest reaction to the new lists is that finally we have a lot of visuals to make the page stand out and give the reader things to latch onto. I would love to see more non-stock-photo art, but overall the page looks fresher and more modern than it did a year ago. I do think some persistent nav would do wonders for the user experience and would make the lists significantly more mobile-friendly though.

Finally, I am very happy to note that one feature I mentioned in my earlier posts, including one on social media recommendations for Fortune, has been made reality: Social Media Superstars, the companies with the most dedicated approach to using social media to connect with the public. It's a breakout list of the top companies master list, and I bet this one has done well both on the site and in terms of sharability.

Nicely done, Fortune, but there is still a way to go to make these lists sing on websites and, most importantly, phones and tablets. Good luck in that effort.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
[Cover image courtesy of]

Blink, like other works by Malcolm Gladwell, delivers so much more that you expect when first opening it up.

On its surface it's a book about snap judgments - the things that happen in our brains in the blink of an eye. By the end, it's a book about the illusion of free will and objectivity, and the power of human prejudice.

Through the stories he tells, the order in which he tells them and his skill with language, Gladwell takes us on a progression through the way the brain makes judgments and forms opinions, and ultimately what we can do about it.

First we learn about the unconscious processes that enable us to read minds and make amazingly accurate snap judgments.

Then we learn about the big ways that those snap judgments can mislead - when judgment lands far from truth.

After that Gladwell debunks the Pepsi Challenge to illustrate why different people will make snap judgments differently, and why some are better at it.

Finally we learn, through the story of Amadou Diallo, about how our judgments are informed by our prejudices, and how catastrophic errors of judgment can happen disturbingly easily.

We're left with deep insight into how this important but overlooked part of the subconscious works.

The only complaint I have is that Gladwell does not so much deliver on his promise that the book will teach you how to train your mind to make better snap judgments. Sure, you have some important takeaways about slowing down the process, trying to make first impressions happen in contexts that don't poison the well of objective observation, and to look at faces (hear with your eyes), but I'd love a few concrete suggestions on how to develop these skills deliberately...

Overall a great, easy read that delivers on many levels. You will be smarter after reading Blink.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Boston bombings: Why Lytro is a game-changer

Major public events like the Boston bombings reinforce the importance of spectators' iPhone photos, GoPro videos and surveillance footage from sidewalk cameras as officials enlist every source they can access in the search for answers.

The many hi-res iPhone photos we have of the scene are great, and better than what came before them, but all of them are grainy and unsatisfying, despite their apparent success in smoking out the Tsarnaev brothers.

There is better photo technology out there though, and my first thought is that THIS is what the Lytro camera was made to do.

If you're not familiar with Lytro, it uses what's called light-field technology that basically uses a 3-d light sensor to capture not a flat image but one with depth, with enough visual information to allow you to focus after the fact on whatever part of the image you like.

I don't have a Lytro, but I played around with one once, and this image from a crowded subway shows a little of how it works. Click on the face in front left, then on the blonde on the right, then at the back of the subway car and you see how the focus changes dynamically.

That means no matter what you were pointing your Lytro camera at when you took the picture, you can decide later on if you want the foreground, background, or middle ground in focus.

It's easy to criticize the apparent trend toward always-on lifecasting, even when you are not the one doing the lifecasting, (Google Glass, anyone?), but in times like these there never seem to be enough selfies, vlogs or surveillance videos with hi-res images that we want to use.

Imagine if iPhones somehow used light-field technology. Or imagine if surveillance cameras used Lytro technology? A few dynamic stills could definitely be more useful than grainy video in investigations like these.

We are still years away, sure, but the technology is here, and could be a game-changer in any situation where you need to scan an image of a crowd and produce usable visual information.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

LIRQS: A formula for news

Journalism, a craft that can arguably include everything from "25 signs your boyfriend is going to dump you" to "How Wal-Mart used bribery to get what it wanted in Mexico" does not seem prone to sweeping generalizations about the "right way" to write a story.

But the news business looks for trends, and that includes trends in the news business itself. That's where LIRQS comes in.

The way I heard it told, from a New York Times veteran, was that a long time ago (maybe in the 70s), Times reporter Lawrence Van Gelder spent a long weekend analyzing the paper's most successful stories - front-page features, award winners, etc - to pull out what, if anything, they had in common.

LIRQS was the result of that effort. If not a formula then a structure, a framework to guide young (or just bad) writers in crafting a successful story, at least the critical first half of one. 

Here's how it works:

1. LEDE: There are a few ways to begin a story (factual lede vs. anecdotal lede, for two), but it should grip the reader and give them something to latch onto. To reference a good movie, your opening scene is your best footage. When writing for the Web, the lede needs to be quick and factual, and include the juiciest bits of your story, or nobody will continue reading.

2. IMPACT: Your 'nut graf' - the nut at the core of the fruit. Why this story matters and who it matters to. Basically answer the question "who cares?"

3. REACT: The other side(s) of the issue from that of your main character, or the reaction of those impacted by the issue. This section defines the tension, the drama of the story - the sides struggling against each other over the issue.

4. QUOTE: Your money quote. What is your money quote? Well it goes back to why you quote people in the first place - because they say something better than you could write it. Or because they have the authority to say something that you, as the neutral observer, do not. 

5. SCENE: Context. Now you can get into where this story takes place, with a brief history of the issue, statistics to back up different arguments made over it, etc. This is the rest of the article. Tell the characters' stories, give the facts, and write your article. Give us the scene where all of this is taking place.

With this kind of approach, you do have the bare bones of a news story that establishes some of the players and gives them a voice, illustrates the tension inherent in the issue and identifies the action-reaction of people impacted by an issue and those responsible for that impact.

It my not be a formula for journalism, but it's certainly a decent way to get some of the most important elements up at the top, which will give your readers a reason to keep reading. And that is what good journalism is all about, right?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Boomerang by Michael Lewis

Photo courtesy of W W Norton & Co

BOOMERANG: Travels in the New Third World (2011)
by Michael Lewis

As a longtime reader of Michael Lewis's features in Vanity Fair, I found 80% of 'Boomerang' to be redundant, since it's based on his reporting on the global economic collapse in countries around the world. 

His reporting on Iceland, Greece, Ireland and the U.S. is fascinating and intelligent stuff - a great chronicle of how the world got itself so turned upside-down - but when you've read it before you find yourself disappointed that he seemingly didn't add much to his original reporting.

But for anyone who hasn't read much of Michael Lewis's features in Vanity Fair for the past 8 years, it is an essential and well-written chronicle of how the global economy can suffer such a complete meltdown in so many places at once. 

Lewis's writing style is casual and honest, smart in a way that sometimes reads as the personal musings and stream of consciousness of an expert in economics. Very readable, and there are even swear words! His journalism mixes personal experiences of visits to these other countries, but he gets the interviews with the people that matter and is able to tell the story through a multitude of credible voices.

Overall it's top-notch journalism, very readable, and useful for anyone who wants to understand more about how we got into this economic mess we are still living in. Despite the fact that I felt I had read it all before, it's an essential part of the economic history of the modern world.

4 Stars

Saturday, February 23, 2013

What FastCompany missed about the MailOnline

As a former photo editor at the +Daily Mail, the Web's most highly-trafficked news website (since Jan. 2012) I was happy to see +Fast Company's take on what makes the site so damn successful [read it here].

But I think they missed the full story.

For FastCo, the MailOnline's success comes down to 4 design choices:

1. The homepage has a million stories and no ads
2. Sidebars on the story level point to a million other stories, eliminating dead ends
3. Stories are organized by category in vertical sections (duh)
4. Content targeted at women is especially successful

While these points are all true, I don't think you can explain the site's success without talking about its use of photos, which goes above and beyond what you see anywhere else on the Web (except for the NYDailyNews, which has basically adopted the Mail's design as its own).

PHOTO COMPOSITES are the MailOnline's killer app.

No photo on the MailOnline is just one photo. All of those stories in the right rail that deal with entertainment and celebrity news and other content targeted at women come with thumbnails that incorporate two or three other images.

The stories on the main page get composites as well, perhaps a crime scene and two mugshots, or a composite of the various main characters, and if the main story is big enough to occupy the entire width of the homepage, you might get a huge panorama that incorporates 5 images or more.

You get so much more content before even clicking on a story than you would on most other sites, which may offer one thumbnail/top image per story. For me this serves as a lure, to let readers know that they have the photos, they have the details, they will SHOW you the news as well as tell you the news.

Once you click in, you are rewarded many times over, as the MailOnline will break up the text every few paragraphs to give you photos of everything and everyone related to the story, and you become a return visitor.

Photo galleries are put together in the same way, as Buzzfeed does, by embedding dozens of images into the body text of a single article. All you have to do is scroll to see the photos, rather thank clicking through each one.

Granted, the use of photos isn't related to the website's design, but it is intimately related to the layout design and the editorial choices that the MailOnline makes, which FastCompany does address in its piece. Unfortunately it left the biggest part of the story out of the story.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Media Diet

I remember an elevator ride with Carl Lavin, the lead editor of, while I worked as an editor at TheStreet, when I asked him what he read; he looked at me with a quizzical expression that took me by surprise, as if he hadn't thought about the question in a long time.

"I read what comes across my desk," he said, "what friends send me or what makes its way into my Twitter feed, what people are talking about."

It was such a simple solution to the problem of information overload that so many of us suffer from, but as I have tried to follow that advice I have found that's it much easier said than done.

My media diet starts every day with the AP and Twitter apps on my iPhone, to see what is driving the conversation around the news, and quickly moves to the one piece of essential reading that Lavin did identify: Mike Allen's Playbook. The over-caffeinated genius behind Politico sends his daily digest of what is driving the day in Washngton to any Inbox that asks for it, and without fail I will see those stories In the major media by the afternoon.

In addition to Playbook, I rely on newsletters to catch up on anything I may have missed from the day before, including The Slatest from Slate, The New York Times's New York Today and the Muck Rack Daily for social media news.

I get my news about the media industry through daily newsletters from MediaBistro and IWantMedia at some point in the morning, and will read anything by the New York Times' David Carr, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman thanks to alerts set up on

Beyond that, I read what crosses my desk and what makes its way into my Twitter feed. I don't ever watch TV news, though I will occasionally catch an episode of the Daily Show or Colbert Report, and I rarely listen to the radio other than maybe 15 min to get the basics on my way to the office on Long Island. I simply can't stand the commercials.

Aside from getting caught up on the news of the day, I go out of my way to read some long-form journalism and magazine features, so my media consumption involves some "lean back" time as well.

I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek (brilliant features) and The Economist (essential for world and finance news), which I read throughout the week, and I will spend weekends on Vanity Fair, Wired, The New Yorker and the occasional Fast Company magazine. I read these almost exclusively on my iPad.

If I'm our running or riding my bike, I'm usually listening to a recent podcast from Brian Lehrer, Planet Money, the Moth or This American Life, all essential listening.

And somewhere in all of this I manage to read actual books (sometimes as audiobooks) to get immersed in narratives that take longer than a few minutes to read. It's amazing what a good feeling it is to take several days or weeks to read something.

If all of this sounds overwhelming, that's because it is. Staying informed is an exercise in triage and skimming. If a piece isn't written well, I move onto the next one. If the writing is good though, I read to the end.

Fundamentally, it all comes down to what Lavin told me: the best way to be informed is to read what comes to you. It's filtered by your network, curated by the people you know, trust and are in some way connected to. After that it's about taking pleasure in learning new things.

Otherwise what's the point of any of it?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jeff Jarvis on his BBC rant and post-rant Twitter rant

After leading author and journalism professor ranted on-air to the BBC, and afterwards to the world of Twitter, I asked the man a few questions about the lessons to be learned from it all. True to form, he was candid.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: The Red Market by Scott Carney

The Red Market, by Scott Carney (2011)
[Cover image courtesy of]

If you, like me, are fascinated with the corners of human society that one rarely hears anything about, The Red Market goes above and beyond the voyeuristic appeal of the subject matter and presents a nuanced view of the business of the human body in different corners of the world.

Scott Carney is a great writer, but most importantly The Red Market is an amazing piece of journalism. Exposing the very different ways that value is placed on the many different parts of the human body that the world needs (and uses), the book gives an inside look at the trade in human flesh that is extremely compelling.

The story touches on the completely criminal, the quasi-grey-market, and the completely-aboveboard markets for human hair, blood, organs and adoptive children, to name a few, and what is most amazing is that in each case Carney gives us a look at how it works on the ground – because he went to these places and talked to the people who make their livings off of these markets.

He doesn't tell you "hospitals in India make you bring your own supply of blood if you are going to have an operation that requires a transfusion", he tells you "I went to a food vendor across the street from the hospital, who took me into a back alley and offered to sell me a pint of B- for $20" (not an exact quote but you get the idea).

In some cases, people are abused and exploited. In some cases people are just meeting a need that the legal market is not meeting because our society has established a philosophy that voluntary donation (of kidneys, blood, etc) is the only ethical way to manage the supply. Meanwhile a whole host of middlemen (doctors, hospitals, "adoption counselors") make a ton of money off of those donations.

The result is a nuanced view of the global trade in human flesh that argues above all for transparency in the existing systems that, as they are set up now, offer too many opportunities for profit and exploitation to be of much good to people.

It's a brilliant work of journalism that addresses the micro-level and the big-picture view of the subject matter, which makes it both fascinating and useful.

5 stars.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
[Photo courtesy of]

Writing about "outliers" (above-average people who somehow achieve some level of greatness), Malcolm Gladwell takes a fresh look at the subject of success that proves his own outlier status as someone who sees the world differently than those who came before him. 

He's not the first writer to write about success and the secret to what makes great people great, but he is the best I have read and certainly the most honest. 

Outliers is not a debunking as much as it's a demystifying; it's not a "myth of success" type of book. Yes, Gladwell acknowledges that successful people have certain qualities (passion, drive, perseverance) that give them a good chance at accomplishing things in life, but his main point is that they owe as much if not more to their particular circumstances. 

Luck, sure, but birth and history and the legacy of the things that came before them over which they could not possibly have any influence are what pave the path to greatness for these people.

Gladwell's main purpose seems to be to dispel the magical aura of success caused by our society's obsession with individualism. Americans tend to assume that successful people have some genius that is unique to them, and that is what makes them great. By looking at some specific riveting case studies (Bill Gates, Canadian hockey players), he makes it clear that intangible individual genius is simply not the case.

Most interestingly, he is candid about the heights he has reached in his career as a writer and 'thought leader', if there is such a thing, noting that he is the beneficiary of a lineage and lucky circumstances that brought his Jamaican family to Canada at just the right time for him to have opportunities that would not have been possible had some initial conditions been slightly different.

The result is an understanding of success and achievement that is richer and more real, because of its reliance on history, environment, and destiny. It's a whole new way of looking at the world. Fantastic reading for anyone.

5 stars.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: America the Book by Jon Stewart

America (The Book) by Jon Stewart (2004)
[Photo courtesy of]

I had high hopes for America (The Book), but that's probably because I already read/listened to Colbert's "America Again". Jon Stewart's book is smart and very true in its assessment of U.S. politics, but it's a bit too real to be funny. 

It's not so much a satire. It's more a bunch of honest truth about our messed up political system, delivered with swear words and tongue-in-cheek observations about the way things actually are.

In a way that mirrors the difference between Stewart and Colbert - Jon Stewart is full of one-liners and funny assessments of the goings-on of the day in U.S. politics and media. Colbert, on the other hand, plays the long game, constructing an all-encompassing satire that will occasionally venture into the absurd. Stewart's comedy is somewhat tame in comparison.

Strangely, America (The Book) really seems to work as an actual textbook of American politics, as it points out the many illogical characteristics of our system. It does so though with a bit of negativity and cynicism that mean it isn't as lighthearted and funny as it could be.

3 Stars.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mashable redesign: 5 Pros, 1 con, 1 caveat

[Screenshot of from Jan. 16, 2013]
+Mashable redesigned its website in December, and while I don't think it does everything right, the folks at the popular tech site made some very interesting decisions about how to present content that I think reflect some new realities about how people navigate content on the Web.
It's a bold redesign that is almost consciously different than anything that currently exists on the Web. Here are the takeaways for me. [tl;dr at the bottom]

3-COLUMN LAYOUT: Using the eye's natural tendencies

Mashable has chosen to believe that the eye will gravitate to the right naturally, so instead of putting the biggest stories top left, they put their newest stories on the left, with small thumbnails that ensure more new content is visible above the fold in that column. 

In the second column you get the fastest-growing content (a friend at Mashable confirms these are the ones most rapidly growing in traffic) to see what's buzzing right now. Think of it like a Rally-car race: these stories haven't gone as far as the ones that went before them, but they are going the fastest. Each one even comes with a tiny line graph showing its speed.

On the right, with the biggest images and therefore most editorial weight, are the biggest stories on the site right now. Most-viewed overall.

INFINITE SCROLL: The killer app

While a bit buggy and jumpy, the most important thing about the redesign (though of course not unique to Mahsable) is the dynamic loading of content as you scroll down. This creates literally endless pages. The more you scroll the more content you get. Readers can go as deeply as they want.

And while this is great for section fronts, it is most innovative on the story level - if you read to the bottom of a story, the site basically loads the section front for that category below. Reading a lifestyle story or a story about social media? Well when you're done you'll get a basically endless amount of other stories in that category without clicking back to any section fronts. Very nice.

MINIMAL NAVIGATION: Goodbye stacks of subnavs

While you can navigate by content type along the top of the page, where a simple rollover will load links and images for 5 top stories, there are not a million subnavs and buckets breaking things up on the page. 

To me this reflects a new philosophy of what people look for when they come to your homepage. They don't come thinking "I wonder what the latest lifestyle/business/video game content is on Mashable", rather they are thinking "I wonder what's new, I wonder what's trending, I wonder what I should know about because everyone else does."

Adjusting to this reader mindset is a very smart move.

MOBILE-FRIENDLY: Perfect integration with a phone or tablet, whichever way you hold it

Consistent design is important in our multi-screen lifestyles now, and Mashable now delivers the exact same experience no matter what device you are using to access it. Stories are all easy to click and navigate on iPhone (1 column at a time) and iPad (2 columns in portrait mode, 3 in landscape), and everything works the same way.

IMAGES EVERYWHERE: Gives readers something to click on 

No plain headlines anywhere on the page, which is very satisfying. Click-maps that I have seen at several websites that I have worked show that people click on the thumbnail way more often than they click on the headline.

~There is one drawback~

NO CLEAR CATEGORIES: All stories look the same

When you have pages with infinite scroll, I believe it's important to give more at-a-glance information for people skimming the whole page. 

Some visual cues so you could see which stories are in which category (if you want to scan for the latest social-media-specific content, e.g.) would be helpful. The topnav, which follows you down the page, takes care of that to some extent, but they have to look somewhere else to get it.

THE CAVEAT: It's Mashable

While this type of design makes more sense for a narrowly focused site like mashable than a truly general-news website, I do think it's smart in some of the ways it adapts to the way people consume content online (coming in one story at a time instead of navigating section fronts), which I think is a relevant lesson for any news website.

Verdict: 5 stars, once they fix the laggy loading.

Mashable's redesign succeeds in 5 big ways: Infinite scrolling, 3-column layout that emphasizes new content and works perfectly on mobile devices, minimal navigation menus and photo-heavy layout. It has one drawback in that categorization of stories is not very clear, but there are lessons to be learned for all news websites from the new

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (2012)
[Photo courtesy of the Penguin Group]

A book about statistics is always going to be a book about statistics, but in the same vein as Freakonomics, The Signal and the Noise is definitely packaged for broader social appeal. 

While it does go into some wonky detail about the academic underpinnings of probability theory, Nate Silver's book is an interesting look at how prediction and probability works and doesn't work when applied to a variety of real-world issues. That is both useful and entertaining.

He looks at earthquake prediction, hurricane prediction, probability in poker, predicting elections, and most of it is interesting. Some of the themes repeat - some predictions fail for the same reasons, which leads to some repetitive moments - but overall the vignettes are engaging. 

And the thread that ties it all together is a valuable takeaway: trying to make a specific prediction is impossible, but looking at the overall probability of events occurring is incredibly effective, provided there is enough data to look at.

It's no Freakonomics, but it's definitely worth reading.

4 Stars.