social media’s obituary for Roger Ebert

I decided to track Roger Ebert’s death through social media. (Storify embedded below.)

I tried to limit myself to posts only by people rather than publications or organizations. I also tried to use information only contained in the post itself, rather than allowing myself to click-through a given link to get more info. This made it easy to curate the emotion around Ebert’s death, but hard to learn any actual information about his life.

Should I demand more from my daily horoscope?

Most mornings, I do the puzzles in the Boston Globe‘s g section. These happen to share a page with the horoscopes, which I like to read aloud to anyone within earshot. However, over time, I grew suspicious. The same predictions, even the same turns of phrase, seemed to pop up again week after week. Someone always needed to keep a careful eye on their assets. Love was always “on the rise” for one person or another.

I wanted to find out if I’m simply being sensitive, or if there really was meaningful repetition in the predictions.


The first drawback to starting with a question rather than a data set: I assumed that the online archive of horoscopes would be more robust. Unfortunately, I discovered that only the last two weeks (i.e., March 7 – 19) are accessible. I decided to go forward with my smaller set anyway — because I was still curious, and because two weeks seemed sufficient to at least explore my repetition hunch.

I wrote a small scraper to pull down all of the existing ‘scopes. (Shout-out to Harvard’s CS171 Visualization course and to the pattern.web Python module.) The data was then split two ways: by text alone, and by Zodiac sign.

If I wanted to do this more rigorously, I would need to a good algorithm to suss out all possible repeating phrases. As it stands, I wrote a quick and dirty program to sort the text by individual words, sentences, and phrase pairs.

The most common phrases were…
love is on the rise 7
love is highlighted 5
deception is apparent 4
romance is in the stars 3
love and romance are on the rise 2
love and romance are highlighted 2
love is in the stars 2
love and romance are in the stars 2

Then, using Many Eyes, I ran my text through a few different word visualizations. Many Eyes is an IBM site that allows novice data journalists to play with information in a fairly easy way.

Overall, it helped a lot that I knew exactly what I was looking for when I started this assignment. (Does a data story start with the data? Or with what you want out of the data?) However, I feel more like I excavated some fun facts than an actual “story.”

Regardless, I really want to scrape a whole year of horoscopes now.

attempting to fact-check the front page of reddit

This week, we were asked to assess the truth claims of a particular text. I decided to try tackling my favorite timesink:

For those who don’t know, Reddit is a website that bills itself as the front page of the internet. Users can vote links up or down, and the top-ranked links at any given time are listed on the homepage in descending order. I wanted to look at reddit/r/all at a random time and explore how accurate the top links were. This task ended up being fairly difficult – I may have monstrously overestimated my ability to assess a diverse array of information — but it was a fun experiment.

To start, I created a new account and unsubscribed it from a few of the main groups that tend to glut the front page, but are difficult or impossible to verify as truth claims: /r/funny (jokes), /r/pics (pictures), /r/WTF (horrifying pictures), /r/AdviceAnimals (memes), /r/AskReddit (discussion threads), and /r/aww (cats). I logged in on a Tuesday afternoon and looked at the top links:

1. Costco Proves Republicans Wrong By Paying a Living Wage and Watching Profits Soar [link] [thread]
description: Politicus USA article linking Costco’s profits to its CEO’s endorsement of a higher minimum wage, and comparing it to Wal-mart
assessment: The article’s numbers seem to hold up, but it definitely cherry-picks its facts. [1] [2] [3] [4] The title also exemplifies Wendell Potter’s ‘Deadly Spin,’ most notably the use of glittering generalities to make a point. As one commenter puts it, As usual, PoliticusUSA is arguing against a point of view that doesn’t exist. They say: ‘Costco is proof that the Republican idea that labor must be stomped on in order for our economy to prosper is wrong.’ THIS IS NOT WHAT REPUBLICANS BELIEVE! Generally speaking, Republicans believe that a more free market will do better than a less free market. Finally, there’s no clear definition in the article of what constitutes a living wage; some argue that $11.50/hour is still too low.

2. TIL that North Korea has less firepower than Thailand, and only slightly more than Ethiopia. [link] [thread]
description: link to a website that ranks countries based on their “Power Index Score”
assessment: The site pulls data from numerous reputable sources, including the U.S. Library of Congress, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the CIA Worldbook. However, the post ends up being tagged by the /r/TIL moderators as misleading, since the assessment is based on a narrow definition of “firepower” (no accounting for nuclear weapons or military training, as well as some estimations in place of hard data) and leans on a popular misunderstanding of the military power of Thailand and Ethiopia for shock value.

3. Why hasn’t this game resurfaced [link] [thread]
description: OP misses the 90s motorcycle-racing video game Road Rash.
assessment: EA last released a Road Rash game in 2003, when they adapted their 1999 Road Rash: Jailbreak installment for Game Boy. [1] Since then, 9.5 years have passed, which seems like a long time to wait for a new video game.

4. A Collection of Movie Matte Paintings [link] [thread]
description: an album of different background paintings used in famous films
assessment: Verifying this properly would include tracking down the origin of each picture, which I… did not do. Knock me off a couple of points for this one.

5. Not too proud of this… [link] [thread]
description: In a Confession Bear meme, OP admits that he assumes religious people are less intelligent
assessment: This is obviously an opinion post. However, I did dig up at least one study on OP’s side.

7. AMA Request: Neil Gaiman
discussion thread – skipped

8. Penguins Being Penguins
video – adorable, but skipped

9. Guy hacks into Florida State University’s network and redirects all webpage visitors to [link] [thread]
description: story in the News Herald about the arrest of Benjamin Blouin
assessment: Plenty of other news outlets in the area covered the story, although the Miami New Times gets a bonus point for going the extra mile and describing meatspin to its readers. [1] Most of these news outlets link back to the original News Herald piece, though. The best way to nail this one down would be to solicit the original arrest report from the campus police.

10. NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars [link] [thread]
description: scientists found signs of S, N, H, O, P, and C in a Curiosity rock sample
assessment: I’m not sure how one would go about fact-checking this one. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the only one with access to such samples, so I can’t go to another source for corroboration. Thoughts?

11. Earl Sweatshirt – WHOA [link] [thread]
song – skipped

12. /u/anandam1de describes the negative effects of habitual Methamphetamine use in an clinical but terrifyingly easy to understand way, managing to scare redditors on /r/Drugs. [link] [thread]
The comment in question had been deleted by the time I got to this link.

13. bvman gives some touching advice to a man who is worried about his widow [link] [thread]
advice – skipped

14. TIL Because of its popularity as a midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has the longest theatrical run in history (almost 38 years and counting). [link] [thread]
description: link to the Wikipedia page for ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’
assessment: This fact checks out. [1] [2] [3] ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ started showing in 1975, and can still be seen in theatres around the world. [4]

15. Clogged arteries are seen as the quintessential symptom of an unhealthy modern lifestyle. But the condition was common across the ancient world, even among active hunter-gatherers with no access to junk good, a study of mummies has found. [link] [thread]
description: Nature study finds signs of atherosclerosis in mummies
assessment: The study performed whole body CT scans on 137 mummies from different geographical regions and time periods, and found signs of atherosclerosis in 47 of them, or 34%. In modern day, atherosclerosis is found in well over 60% of people above age 50. The article is correct, although the headline (which fully lifts from the Nature article lede) is a little misleading in that it implies that the numbers are equivalent.


Writing for an audience, or why science is not like football

This week, we were asked to write about what it is that we want news to do.

I am a science writer. A lot of science writers are, for lack of a better word, reformed scientists. They used to study C. elegans or neutron stars out on a lab bench somewhere, until realizing one morning that they infinitely preferred learning and talking about science to actually doing it. Consequently, the field is full of journalists who are exceptionally passionate about their chosen subject matter. They love biology (or chemistry or geology or whatever the case may be), and aspire to cultivate that same powerful fascination in others.

This is mostly a good thing. But sometimes the blanket desire to communicate to “the people” can be overwhelming. At this year’s ScienceOnline unconference, I attended a fantastic session called ‘Opening Doors: Science Communication for Those that Don’t Care/Don’t Like Science’ (co-led, incidentally, by MIT professor Tom Levenson). During the conversation, it quickly became clear that many of us shared the same desire to communicate with “the people,” and the same confusion over how to do it.

Check out more tweets in this Storify created by David Ng.

I also heard several people at the session compare writing about science and writing about football. For example, two attendees debated how broad an audience the NFL reached, and whether they shared our idealistic goal of getting the message out to everybody. Later, I hear another writer express concerns that he was tripping the line between journalist and activist; someone else pointed out that sports journalists never had to worry if they were going to be conflated with sports activists.

This was confusing to me. A science article and a football article are two totally different kettles of fish. Just I would never pick up a recap of a Cowboys-Giants game, there are people out there who would never read an update on the search for exoplanets. There are occasional pieces of media that transcend the divide, sure, but those tend to be exceptional cases, and often involve the recommendation of a source that the reader already relies on and trusts. And yet, many seemed to think that the solution to our audience problem was to combine a single kind of high-level content with masterful social media trickery, thus sneaking knowledge into the hands of every member of the unsuspecting public.

“Citizens have become an abstraction, something the press talks about but not to,” write Kovacs and Rosenstiel. Many of the writers at that SciO session were so ardent about communicating their science that they hadn’t considered too closely who they want to communicate it to. I am equally guilty. Whenever I work on a piece for my graduate seminar, I spend a lot of time thinking about the lay reader. But I never really stop to ask myself who exactly that lay reader is.

One audience member, Danielle N. Lee, was ahead of the curve on this problem. Lee is a biologist by day, and she writes about biology/ecology for minority audiences at Scientific American’s The Urban Scientist. She’s designated a particular sector of the public who she wants to communicate to, and customizes her work for them by, e.g., using hip-hop analogies. “Speak their language,” she said. “And if you can’t, don’t feel bad or obligated.”

I think, now more than ever, science writers need to heed this advice. We have far more control on the internet than we ever could in a newspaper or magazine. Anyone with a decent internet connection has the power to publicize their ideas, and to promote their work through social media to those who they suspect will be interested in it. Bloggers like Ta-Nehisi Coates openly cop to deleting deleterious comments on their posts in order to cultivate a particular atmosphere of discussion. YouTube vloggers like the Green brothers literally give their audience its own name.

With this control, we relinquish the claim to be all things to all people. One of lessons I took away from last week’s media diet exercise was that I rely on very specific sources for my daily news — blog networks rather than magazines, news trackers rather than print newspapers, reddit rather than Facebook. Even publications that might have once been described as belonging to the general audience now have their own defined demographic. (Last week my father forwarded me a USA TODAY article about a golfer who had been bitten by a black widow spider. Perfect example of something I would probably never read on my own finding its way to me.)

I’d like to see newsmakers embrace this freedom of choice. Think not only about what we’re saying, but who we’re saying it to. Accept that to say yes to one audience may mean saying no to another. Let news be a personal experience.