Monthly Archives: January 2014

Crumbs of the Internet No. 4: Superbowl Sunday and Southern snow

'MetLife Stadium Prepares For Super Bowl 48 (XLVIII)' photo (c) 2014, Anthony Quintano - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This post is book-ended by two notable events: Superbowl Sunday and the snow that froze the South. Not surprisingly, the more interesting articles that I found online spoke to both these events.

Rebecca Burns, editor for Atlanta Magazine, explains in Politico Magazine the fault for the paralysis in Atlanta last week lies not with southern drivers, but by political moves made years before.

In Chattanooga, the snow is melted off the road. Today was warm, with remnants of snow clinging onto the sidewalks that lie in the shade. While Tuesday’s storm is now a cautionary tale on preparedness and snow driving, it’s the weekend. Superbowl weekend.

Every year, the game takes a backseat for me so that I can focus on what sport fanatics may see as the peripherals to the game: food and commercials. I see commercials as a window to the values of the audience. How is Coke defining what happiness is this year? How are filmmakers telling stories in 60 or 30 seconds?

So in that same vein of cultural analysis, I bring to you this post by Slate in which they “cover” the Superbowl as if it was held in a foreign country. The writer’s knife of wit is less than razor sharp but don’t let that dissuade you. The post brings an interesting perspective to the game.

This year’s game is the 10-year anniversary of “nipplegate,” the infamous half-time show with Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. This ESPN Magazine piece  says that performance was a watershed moment in American culture, that American media now is different than it was then. (A word of caution, the ESPN piece is intended for a mature audience.)

Rounding out this week, I was reading a bit of The Village Voice, the alt-weekly paper of New York City. While mainstream media zigs, the alternative publications zag, providing a fuller view of the world. The Voice’s profile of Dee Farmer, a transgender inmate whose Supreme Court case is a landmark case on how prisoners are treated, shows just how that is done.

Finally, I’ll finish with a piece about John McCandlish Phillips, a Christian journalist who was at one point the best reporter at the New York Times. I first learned about Phillips in the Introduction to Journalism at Bryan College, where he became one of the journalists I admired. I read more about him through his obituary when he died April 9, 2013. This feature written in the 90’s shows yet another side to the man.

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Knife transportation bill introduced to U.S. Senate

'Senator Mike Enzi' photo (c) 2011, AMSF2011 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The Knife Owner’s Protection Act of 2014 (KOPA), a bill designed to give legal protection to knife owners traveling through states with restrictive knife-carry laws,  was introduced to the U.S. Senate earlier this month.

You can read the entire text of the bill here.

The bill, introduced by Mike Enzi, a Republican senator from Wyoming, allows for the transportation of knives that are locked away and inaccessible during transportation. The bill also legalizes the “carry in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle a knife or tool designed for enabling escape in an emergency that incorporates a blunt tipped safety blade or a guarded blade or both for cutting safety belts.”

The bill does not override the Transportation Security Agency’s regulations for air travel.

In a press release on his website, Enzi said the bill was designed to give travelers consistency and prevent “government overreach”

“A few overzealous states or cities shouldn’t be in the business of punishing folks for what is legal in most parts of the country just because they passed through their jurisdiction,” he said.

KOPA is similar to the Firearms Protection Act passed by Congress in 1986 which protected the transportation of firearms across state lines.

While Enzi introduced the bill to senate, Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican from Arizona introduced a house version of the bill Nov. 13, 2013.

The text of the house bill can be read here.

Both bills have been referred to committees. The senate version was sent to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and the house bill was sent to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.

Last September, AKTI talked with legislators in Washington about the issue of transporting knives by telling them stories about travelers who got in trouble when they carried a knife through a place where it was illegal to do so, according to a press release by the organization.

Its contributing legal council, Dan Lawson, helped write the legislative proposal for KOPA.

“We sincerely thank Senator Enzi and his staff for taking the lead on our proposed legislation and we look forward to continuing to work with them through the legislative process,” said Jan Billeb, executive director of AKTI.

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While gathering data, I learned Google doesn’t know everything

'Google Logo in Building43' photo (c) 2010, Robert Scoble - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Simply collecting the data for this story about the Berlin Police Department is more complicated than I first suspected. 

It’s my first data journalism story and I wanted something challenging — a project where I would learn — but something doable. Studying my hometown police department’s daily blotter for the month of January seemed reasonable and interesting.

In last week’s post, I told you Google’s search engines turned up valid entry after valid entry in its results. At first, it was easy: I went from one .pdf to another, downloading the files to my computer. But after downloading the 13th .pdf, I found out Google did not bring up all the results.

The last page of the search results had three documents that were irrelevant. I needed something more that a search engine to get all this data.

The last page of the search results had three documents that were irrelevant. I needed something more that a search engine to get all this data.

At first, I thought it was the police department, so I waited a few days before running the search again. But the same search a few days later on Jan. 23 gathered the same results.

That’s when I decided to manipulate the URL of one of the documents that was there in hopes of finding documents not retrieved by Google.

I started with the URL to the daily police blotter for Jan. 7:   http://www.berlinpd.org/images/pdfs/DAILY%20BLOTTER%201-07-2014.pdf

Since the date is in the address, I simply changed the date to a document I didn’t have. The document loaded; I downloaded it and I kept changing the date until I got an error message.

Apparently, the police department did not upload that document to the server at the time that I looked for it.

Apparently, the police department did not upload that document to the server at the time that I looked for it.

Here’s the lesson: A search engine is a good starting point when looking for information, but it has limitations.

The next step was converting the data into something I could use. 

You can’t use data in .pdf format because .pdfs are designed for reading and publishing. You have to have it in a .xls format, something malleable so that it can be played with, measured and counted.

Reading about data journalism, I learned there are ways to convert .pdfs into something usable, but by the sounds of it, a person needed to know a bit of code.

I instead opted for the easy way out and Googled “convert pdf to excel” and found a few websites that do it for free.

After combining 22 .pdf documents into one with merge.smallpdf.com and converting the 37-page document into an Excel workbook with pdftoexcelonline.com, I had an Excel file I could use.

The only problem? The .pdf converter made each page of the .pdf into a separate sheet in the Excel workbook. After trying to find a quick solution online today, I simply copy and pasted each sheet into a “Master List” in the workbook.

It probably needs copyediting, but I have three weeks worth of data that I can start exploring.

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Crumbs of the Internet no. 3: toast, photos and a Sundance film

When toast is more than a piece of bread (Longform) — I like this food story. It goes deeper than a fun story on high-end toast (How fluffy! How silly!) and digs into the heart and raw past of the trend starting on the West Coast. (h/t Buzzfeed) 

The sentence that created the national security policy we have today (Longform)  — This is the PSA article for the week. This story by Buzzfeed helped me understand the start of it all: NSA spying, Edward Snowden, Guantanamo Bay, drones.

How the Internet changed writing — Let’s get past the obvious: the Internet has made it easier to get something — anything — onto a page. This Q&A with the founder of The Awl shows the more things progress, the more they stay the same. Work hard, my friend!

Photographed breaking news? That picture may be worth more than you think — I wish I knew about this back at the beginning of 2012 when I photographed the National Park Service evicting Occupy protesters from McPherson Square. Time to start reading up on copyright law. 

Notes on Blindness,’ a selection from the Sundance Film Festival (Video) — This New York Times film explores the meditations of John Hull, who lost his sight in 1983. Like a good film, it has many layers. Instead of spoiling any part of it for you, I’ll let you watch it.

Crumbs of the Internet is a weekly post where I link to the notable stories that I read the week before. Its a mix of longform pieces, journalism advice and other things I found on the Internet which I found helpful. 

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How I’m teaching myself data journalism

'I Love Spreadsheets' photo (c) 2012, Craig Chew-Moulding - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Lol. Not yet.

Last week, I discovered myself staying up late and getting a little too excited over Excel spreadsheets.

The amount of nerdiness disgusted me at first, but I’ve come to terms with it. Data journalism jobs are in demand, and they fit into an evolving world of 21st Century media, of Wikileaks, PGP encryption, social media and SEO rankings.

Database journalism, from what I understand, is the process of analyzing data to find stories that serve the public interest. To do the job effectively, journalists need to learn a whole new toolbox of skills: Microsoft Excel, code, a bit of statistics and, *gasp* math.

But after the learning curve comes the ability to present better information to the public. Sometimes, journalism feels like parroting the he-said, she-said of politics and business.

While Mark Twain would argue “there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” statistics and numbers bring a logical weight to news stories, a grounding.

Last week, I googled “data journalism.” The first hit was this free e-book, created by The European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

After reading how data journalism is important for 21st Century journalism, how the marriage of the press and data has already changed the world, I skipped to the pith of the book — a step-by-step guide to doing data journalism.

And this is where I decided to get involved. It’s one thing to read how to do something, but then the skill is then mostly forgotten, unpracticed. It’s another to actually go out and do it.

So I lined up a possible project analyzing data I get on my hometown of Berlin, Conn.

The first step was to get some data. 

I searched by file type (a .xls document is ideal) and I narrowed my search down until I was searching a specific website. Finally, I found something promising when I typed “2014 site:berlinpd.org filetype:pdf” into Google.

Bingo

Bingo

I found a promising vein of information on the Berlin Police Department’s website. They publish their daily activity blotter to the Internet in a .pdf document.

I figure I could collect data for a time  and then quantify it, figuring out the most dangerous streets, what the police do on an average day, find out when the department was most busy.

There are some challenges, like converting .pdf documents to .xls pages, filling in missing data and actually making sense of it all.

Meanwhile, I will keep you updated.

P.S. Are a data journalist reading this post? Could you give me any advice? Maybe I missed a really good resource. Let me know in the comments below, or through Twitter. My handle is @jcksndnl.

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Crumbs of the Internet no. 2: Cookies, bounty hunting and mad skilz

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the second time that I compile a bunch of articles that I found helpful or interesting, just in time for the weekend.

A history of everyone’s favorite cookie — Thought the chocolate-chip cookie was always part of American food culture? Think again because the idea of paring cookie and chocolate has been around for less than 100 years. The New Yorker dives into the history of this cornerstone cookie.

Bounty hunting in the 21st Century (Longform) — Wired Magazine called Michelle Gomez the best bounty hunter in the world. The 4-foot, 11-inch-tall woman does not appea like she could track down and turn in criminals on the run. However, her expertise in computers makes her able to crack the toughest cases. This article shows us how.

Should you type two spaces after a sentence? — This article should settle once and for all why you should never type two spaces after a sentence. (Hint: it’s because they  said so.) The correction at the end of the article is pretty interesting, too.

Skills you can learn for free right now — I included this story because I want easy access to this link and I figured you would too. While you could always Google “how to code Ruby” or “how to learn Excel,”  this Buzzfeed article has it all on one page. Sure, this article came out at the beginning of the year when everyone was making New Year resolutions, but I’m going to return to it when I want to learn about game theory.

How to fight death (Essay) — New York-based writer and paramedic Daniel José Older muses about saving life, fighting death and coping with the pressure. It’s a gritty read.

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In which I offer you some of the interesting crumbs of the web

While in college, I tried to create an email blast which gathered interesting stories from around the web. It went out a few times to all the students on the Bryan College campus before the school official in charge of managing the college’s enrollment shut the project down.

You can read how this started here.

Well, the whole episode is in the past. I have that piece of parchment paper somewhere in my room and I’m on my own.

I enjoyed those precious few weeks of pouring over longform journalism, sharing what moved me with the rest of campus.

I decided that I’ll do the same here on this blog. Every week, I’ll post a list of stories, videos and infographics that I found helpful and well done.

How will this look? Well, look below:

How to use the F-word (opinion) — This comes courtesy of one of my friends on Facebook. Writing coach Roy Peter Clark writes on CNN about the history, grammar and use of the F-word. (And yes, this link is one that could not have been distributed on a Christian college campus.)

The real secret life of Walter Mitty (short story) — The movie starring Ben Stiller has been out for a few weeks now. This is the second time that Walter Mitty has graced the silver screen, with his first time being portrayed by Danny Kaye. However, this is short story is where it all began. Less is more in this instance, because I found the short story more thought-provoking than either film.

The shadow-king of e-commerce — This long read from The Atlantic delves into the life and business practices of Jesse Willms, the man behind the internet ads touting that “One weird trick to a slimmer belly” and other ads offering items and services that look too good to be true.

How to do better food journalism — I expect only the journos will be interested in this article. Yes, this article is old (2004), but I think it sets a vision for what food journalism could be.  Around that time, the coverage of food changed from recipes to something more substantial.

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My journalism: a look back and some news

It’s been a big year for me and journalism. When the ball dropped last night, the mind didn’t have the whole picture. Standing there with a plastic cup with half-melted ice cubes, I had that experience of not fully realizing what had gone on the year before, no idea what will happen in the future.

A lot happened. I had not kept time from Jan. 1 to Jan. 1. Moments early on were forgotten and re-remembered again. This post is to chronicle what all went down this year.

  1. Sandy Hook — I still have not visited Newtown, Conn., but the effects of Dec. 14, 2012 carried over into the new year. There were the stories of how other Connecticut towns responded, stories about school security upgrades and an anniversary piece that I’m quietly proud to have written. Just kidding. I mentioned it on here.
  2. Bryan College — In May, I walked. In August, I finally finished all the required courses and got the paper that said I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Communication with an emphasis in Journalism. The diploma represents a chapter in life, of struggling through student media, late nights of despair as we pulled together paper after paper, censorship and The Washington Journalism Center.
  3. The Berlin Citizen — From freelancer in January between semesters at college to reporter, this year has been the year of The Citizen. In May, I worked as reporter for Town Times, then moving beats to North Haven and eventually back to The Berlin Citizen. It’s been a full circle, writing for my hometown paper.
  4. Freedom of Information Act Requests — In November, I worked on the story of the anniversary of Sandy Hook where I served six FOIA requests. Having never written a FOIA letter in college, this was all learned in the school of hard knocks. Mistakes were made, which may or may not be recounted in a future post.
  5. A licence… to drive — People were always shocked to learn I did not have a car. No so any longer! My stick-shift Nissan Sentra carries me to stories and is dear to my heart.
  6. Code — At the end of college, I watched a video on the importance of coding. A few weeks later, I was eking out my first few lines of HTML. I read that knowing code is a skill journalists should know. However, I didn’t see much application, working at the paper. It wasn’t until I was talking to another co-worker and he showed me his free WordPress website, showing me what he did with SEO and code that I realized the potential. Code is the way to own a website. In a way, it’s customizing and creating your printing press.
  7. Photography — In a way, nothing has changed. I still take photos on the same point and shoot that I purchased freshman year of college. A few days ago, I pressed the shutter for the 20,000th time. I know more about light, composition and timing. Still waiting for the DSLR, though…
  8. Town Elections — This year, I was able to cover a full election season in Connecticut, from the first primaries, to political theory, to the final outcomes. These lessons in the fight for power could not be learned by reading about it in a book, but experienced on the front lines.
  9. This Blog — In January 2013, I started this blog, telling readers and myself that this would be the blog that I keep for a while. I have not abandoned it yet.

And now, on Jan. 1, 2014, I set out on a new adventure. Yesterday was my last day at the paper that gave me the chance to start doing local journalism. I am moving to Chattanooga. I know not yet what I will be doing, although I have some leads. I’m going down to live closer to my fiancee, who said yes on Aug. 17, 2013 and made that moment by a lake in Connecticut the best moment of the year.

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