Shovel It Forward

Remember this?nopaththrusnow

And this?


And this?


I do, too, because I couldn’t get across THIS: Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 12.17.13 AM

That’s Cambridge Common, the 16-acre park I cross to get to my classes and to Lippman House, where our Nieman activities take place.

On an average day, some 10,000 people cross the park on foot or bicycle. 

But the park pathways don’t get plowed until all the priority plowing – and shoveling – is done.  In a winter like 2015, that meant crossing the park felt something like this:

Record setting deep snows block a doorway in North Cambridge.

What if there were a way – to help each other?  When the city has its hands full? 


That got me thinking:  what if we could all come together and lend a hand?  (you can see my first “Scratch” lesson if you click)

Instead of “paying it forward” … what if we “Shoveled it Forward?

Do you really want to keep trudging over this unplowed path? Of course you don’t!

Imagine Cambridge Common planted with three bright shovels. (Scratch #2, my art is priceless.)  

As you walk the path, your only task as a pedestrian is to shovel two steps ahead of you.  So you will have at least two shovel-wide paces that won’t be as narrow as those dodgy, one-step-at-a-time paths.

Then park the shovel for the next person, who will (we hope) shovel two paces ahead themselves.

Kind of like Boston’s Adopt-a-Hydrant program, only for pathways that don’t always get shoveled.


See how happy this hydrant is at being shoveled out?

It would probably be easy enough to tweak the Adopt-a-Hydrant app – in some form, with some very simple map or geo-coded details – for a few public pathways just for trial.  (If anyone is into this – I can volunteer to leave some snow shovels behind for next year!)

The social media aspect  – take a picture of yourself and your shoveling citizenship, and upload it? Get a badge? – could be done in Tumblr or Instagram.  

You could hastag it “CommonWealth-y”

Or, as I originally imagined, #Shovelitforward.  

Then I discovered there already IS a program like this – in friendly and polite Canada.   

They’ve already built this better than I could have pictured or built.  (Journalism lesson #1 – always check to see who else might have already written about your story!)  

Could we use their model – maybe even co-brand it?  We ARE neighbors, after all.  


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Trends in Cosmetic Surgery … as measured in Units of Real Housewives (Data Visualization Assignment)

In research for an NPR series on women and image last year I came across data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons that charts changes in cosmetic surgery procedures since 2000 – both surgical and “minimally-invasive” — generally fillers like Botox.

In 2013 Americans spent $12.6 billion on such procedures, almost all elective.  (The ASPS keeps separate data for medically-necessary procedures including reconstruction after cancer or injury.)

As you can imagine, this is pretty rich fodder.  There are numerous ways to compare or slice the data – some of which the ASPS does itself (by region, gender, age etc).  Below are some surprising discoveries, two of which we attempted to represent.

– Some procedures have seen dramatic changes in 13 years.

For example: there has been a 4,565% increase in “Upper Arm Lift Surgery” – a category or procedure that practically didn’t exist in 2000.

“Lower Body Lifts” are up 3,417% – a procedure the ASPS clarifies as “improv(ing) the shape and tone of the underlying tissue that supports fat and skin.” Basically, get rid of your sagging butt, your flabby belly, your dimpled thighs – all in one go!  Amazing, right?  If you like that kind of thing and are willing to spend some time in recovery.

– In the non-invasive sphere, “injectables” like Botox, and “soft-fillers” like Restylene show triple-digit increases.   These new substances have largely appeared since 2000, and are increasingly advertised in women’s publications and in the waiting rooms of dermatologists’ offices.   This stuff has become, in some cities, the “new normal” for women in certain industries, age groups or in the public eye.

There’s some good reporting to be done about how these chemicals have been created or repurposed, approved and brought to market as material that can be injected, absorbed and broken down by the body.

– There are also declines – nose jobs and liposuction are down.

I encourage anyone curious to simply look over the data, with a critical eye – as some things show dramatic growth by virtue of being new; and others –  like nose jobs, eye lifts and breast augmentation – still accounting for the lion’s share of these elective surgeries.

I simply wanted to show some of these dramatic changes.  I could say this is “value-neutral” but obviously, I have some thoughts here about how we are reshaping the norms of female appearance (the vast majority of the procedures are done by women).   Thanks to classmate Celeste LeCompte, I wandered my way into exporting data to Excel and making charts, and then to Photoshop, to illustrate them.

We originally tried to render some of these comparisons in Excel charts but they were both visually boring and confusing when we tried to compare rates of growth in procedures.

So, we settled on some icons who’ve helped introduce America to the Brave New World of Surgical Enhancement:  the Real Housewives.

Below are two procedures:  the lower body lift, as represented by Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Jacqueline Laurita jacqueline-laurita-rhonj-reunion-finale

And the nose job as visualized here by Atlanta’s own Real Housewife Kim Zolciak.   article-2130709-12A07CED000005DC-489_306x423-2

Several caveats apply:   Data is available in 2000, not from 2001-2004, and picks up again in 2005-2013.  It’s self-reported, by the ASPS, not by any government agency (which classmate Gideon Gil says is not required).  The Photoshopped images are – to scale, sort of.  And probably a hundred other things that make this scientifically squishy.

Let’s start with what’s NOT happening as often:  nose jobs.


“Nose reshaping surgery” has fallen off from 389,155 performed in 2000 to only 221,053 in 2013 – a drop of 43% — or, only about half the Kim Zolciaks as once took place.  (The Reality Star has denied having rhinoplasty – as recently as last week).

Since there a few years of missing data, it’s hard to pinpoint when the decline started.  As to the why? That’s entirely speculative.  People happier with the noses God gave them? Who nose?

Let’s turn, instead, to a growth industry: the Lower Body Lift.


As you can (sort of) see, in 2000, it was almost non-existent – some 207 procedures.

By 2013, 7,281 people had this done in a year.  Interesting to note a drop from 2006 to 2007, a bump in 2010, then drops.   RHONJ Ms. Laurita has publicly discussed her several procedures, so we’re not casting aspersions by using her image.

There is so much value-laden here, and so many, many possible interpretations.  Among our questions:  did the economic meltdown of 2008 have an impact (it seemed to in some instances) given that these are essentially discretionary purchases? Could any tool show a predictive association? Is there a way to cross-reference around a marketing push by the pharmaceutical industry?  Will Joan Rivers’ death at a medical day surgery center have an impact on the safety of this kind of thing?

I’ve treated this as a light-hearted exercise simply to get practice in working with new tools (Thanks, Celeste!) like basic manipulation of tables, and Photoshopping.  But there are myriad possibilities for some serious news gathering here and some even more serious discussion of what we make normative.   Women have been enhancing their appearances at least since Cleopatra; so who am I to judge whether using surgery or fillers is somehow less acceptable than, say, wearing lipstick?  But I am left uneasy, seeing this data, and hope it’s something we as a society can consider.



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March 11 Debunking Assignment – Taking on Big Shampoo

Debunking Assignment – Big Shampoo

I took this assignment to mean “use persuasive media techniques” more than to factually challenge something.

I shot this with my Iphone while getting my hair done because I like these guys.  And I’ve always wondered what’s the real difference between salon shampoo and the CVS stuff.

I could have read ingredient labels and compared them, scientifically,  for some insight into what these products do.  But I was pressed for time and these salon owners really charmed me, so they made a better story – if not better actual science.

Also – I usually find my hair salons by word of mouth – as I think many people do.

I also thought a video would capture attention – it’s  easy to click through, and done with a little humor would keep me watching.  It was also a way to use a new technique, which I’m trying to do with each assignment.

The logical power of the argument here isn’t very strong; the fun was in making it with these guys.  Go give some business to Salon Continentale in Belmont.  They’ll make you look good.

(Tell a story that makes truth claims about a disputed subject
Using techniques from the Debunking Handbook,
and using what you know about motivated reasoning,
leading with values, persuade a broad audience
– including those hostile to your claims – of the truth of your assertions)

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Finding out what happened to UVa student


A UVa student was arrested and seemingly beaten by officials in a nightlife area near campus. I learned about it through social media Wednesday night, and Storified my discoveries.

<div><iframe src=”//” width=”100%” height=”750″ frameborder=”no” allowtransparency=”true”></iframe><script src=”//”></script><noscript>[<a href=”//” target=”_blank”>View the story ” MIT Social Story – Martese Johnson Arrest UVA” on Storify</a>]</noscript></div>

Meet Gideon Gil

Kitty Eisele / MAS 700 / Profile Classmate



Meet Knight Science and Journalism Fellow Gideon Gil.


The Boston Globe is his professional home, where he’s been Health and Science Editor since 2003.

In Boston, where the health, science and tech industries have enormous footprints, that’s no small task.  He has a lot to tell us about, among other things, whether Harvard can clone humans or what happens to unused embryos, stories about which helped his editorial team win the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Do you remember the many medical stories that came out of the Boston Marathon bombings?  Those were was under his watch, too.

As at many news organizations, the Globe has contended with cutbacks — its dedicated science section was eliminated in 2009, and Gideon’s reporters’ stories now appear throughout the paper and online.

He points out that you can always argue for strong science stories – but concedes the paper may not be doing as much to cover the non-life, and more basic, sciences.


This year at MIT Gideon is looking at how Big Data from health care can inform the stories his journalists tell.

He’s also challenging himself in the classroom:  he teamed with some bio-engineering and MBA students to build a version of the Eye-Wire project that works with Minecraft.

You can see some of that fusion of science and art as far back as the mid-1970s, when he wrote lively columns about on-campus speakers for the Harvard Crimson (“I’m afraid to go back and look”) as an undergraduate bio-chem major.

(That’s an undergraduate Gideon, below, doing something important with pipettes for a professor at Harvard Med).

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 9.46.49 PM.png

In fact Gil thought he’d become a scientist.  But he spent the summer before his senior year at the Quincy Patriot Ledger, and discovered it was “a blast.”  And journalism had one other big benefit.

“Myself and another (Crimson) columnist had a following of groupies.  Some Wellesley women tracked us down – and that was tough to do in those pre-Internet days.  So the dating potential of these columns was my first recognition of the non-journalistic purpose of newspapers,” he said in a recent interview.

Gil went on to study for a master’s in journalism at Columbia before giving up the side benefits of the profession to marry Lisa Huber in 1985.  The family lives in Wellesley with this guy



while their 21 year-old daughter Liana is off at Syracuse, getting a degree in television, radio and film and doing some other neat things.

Want to know Gideon better?  If you want to fish out the microfilm, you can read through two decades of his stories for the Louisville Courier Journal, where he covered the development and use of the artificial heart.  Online or in print you can check out some of his own Globe reporting from here in Boston; or from this class, enjoy his compelling portrait of a Massachusetts ER at night.

Or you could just scan his Twitter feed @GlobeGideon to see the range of his interests and the many science topics he follows.

“What I try to do,” he explains, “is to help staff do deep narrative and explanatory pieces about what’s happening in the world of medicine and science.”

Does he succeed?  Let’s hear from Beth Daley, a former Globe science and environment writer, who calls herself one of his biggest fans.

The best anecdote about Gideon is being edited on a series many initially pooh-poohed at the Globe: Lyme disease.  Gideon, in his calm, thorough and mellow way went to bat for me, doing his own research to convince the higher-ups this seemingly odd story to focus a year on was one of the most important of our time. Not because we were writing about a disease, but because Lyme Disease represented a far more important point: A reluctance by the medical establishment to try and deal with uncertainty. It was classic Gideon – taking a small point to illustrate something even bigger.

He is also incredibly thorough – maddeningly so, virtually every reporter who works for him will tell you. For years, I would be tapping my foot at 9:30 p.m., front page editor yelling for copy before the presses ran, and Gideon would, ever calm, be going through a story line by line. He invariably would catch major errors, and add in context from some recess of his brain.

He’s very gentle, incredibly loyal.


That’s high praise from a reporter for an editor.   If you’re interested in good science writing, you should probably try to get to know him too.