(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘facts

“Context is everything”*…

Figure and ground… do all grounds make bad stories, and only figures make good ones?

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

1. Character

2. Problem

3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way…

… we do have two big fails for journalism here:

1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible…

Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without a story, statistics are cemeteries of facts.

Sure, academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists) can exhume those facts. But Big-J journalism will always be preoccupied with stories. Including, unavoidably, the genius for generating them who currently occupies the White House…

We traffic in stories because people can’t help being interested in them. But stories also fail at telling truths that don’t fit a tale. Presupposition is part of the problem; but only part. More fundamentally it is the privileging of strong (pure) emotion over messy reality, of “narrative impact” over understanding. Doc Searls (@dsearls) on “Where Journalism Fails,” eminently worth reading in full.

For some practical advice, follow Searls’ link to Jay Rosen’s suggestions.

And for a painful case-in-point, consider the wise Patrick Wyman‘s thoughts on the horrors of January 6:

We have a strong tendency to understand events unfolding as a story, a narrative, with all the structural beats we expect from a story: beginning, rising action, climax, resolution. Even as we’re consciously aware that there will be a tomorrow, a next week, and a next year, it’s hard to avoid treating the most recent big thing – in this case, the riot on the Capitol – as either the end or beginning of one particular story.

Narrative is how we process information and give the world some shape and meaning. But it’s deeply misleading as an attempt to understand the complex interactions between past and present that define a political system…

Do read it in full here.

[Searls’ piece via friend MS]

* In this phrasing and others closely linked, many, many authors/speakers, including Mary Beard, Margaret Atwood, Mary Catherine Bateson, and A.D. Garrett

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As we only connect, we might send circumscribed birthday greetings to Edmund Burke; he was born on this date in Dublin on this date in 1729.  An author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, he moved to England and served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.  He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions.  While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire:  Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.

“You can never plan the future by the past.” – “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)

“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”. – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds

source

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school”*…

You can learn to make these at a terrariums workshop

It’s that time again

In Warsaw’s Gruba Kaśka water plant there are eight clams with sensors attached to their shells. If the clams close because they don’t like the taste of the water, the city’s supply is automatically shut off. [Judita K]

When bar codes were patented in 1952, they were round [Sarah Laskow]

A 70% dilution of isopropyl alcohol is better at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses than ‘pure’ 99% isopropyl alcohol, for several distinct reasons. [Mitch Walleser]

Epidemiologists at Emory University in Atlanta believe that raising the mimimim wage in the US by $1 would have prevented 27,550 suicides since 1990. [John A Kaufman & Co, via The Economist]

Games Workshop, owner of Warhammer, is worth more than Centrica, owner of British Gas. [Allister Thomas]

Numbers 30-34 of this year’s list from Tom Whitwell of Fluxx: “52 things I learned in 2020.”

* Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones

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As we have fun with facts, we might send fascinatingly-illustrated birthday greetings to David Brewster; he was born on this date in 1781. A physicist, inventor, author, and academic administrator, he is best remembered for his work in optic (especially the phenomenon of polarization). Brewster was a pioneer in photography; he invented an improved stereoscope, which he called “lenticular stereoscope” and which became the first portable 3D-viewing device. He also invented the binocular camera, two types of polarimeters, the polyzonal lens, the lighthouse illuminator, and (perhaps most relevantly to today’s post) the kaleidoscope. For this work, William Whewell dubbed him the “father of modern experimental optics” and “the Johannes Kepler of optics.”

source

Written by LW

December 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things”*…

 

Wikipedia

 

Even in so-called “normal” times, Wikipedia is a tremendous resource and a reminder that the internet doesn’t have to be terrible. Launched in January 2001, the now massive online encyclopedia, which can still be edited by anyone and remains an ad-free nonprofit, provides easy access to information to people who need answers to some of life’s most important, challenging, and difficult questions. It’s also still a great way to kill a few hours.

With so many people stuck indoors and looking for ways to pass the time during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there’s never been a better time to brush up on some classic strange Wikipedia articles and perhaps discover a new bizarre favorite. You might not have the willpower required to write your own version of King Lear while in lockdown, but you definitely have the energy to skim this “List of titles of works taken from Shakespeare.” From pro wrestling drama and mythical creatures to disastrous roller-skate musicals and unsolved hijacking mysteries, these are some of our favorite Wiki wormholes…

Can one ever know too much about too little?  For your sheltered-at-home amusement: “10 Outrageous Wikipedia Articles That Will Send You Down a Rabbit Hole.”

* Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

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As we dig digging, we might recall that it was on this date in 2010 that, thanks to a massive Facebook campaign by her fans, Saturday Night Live announced that Betty White would host the May 8 show that year– which she did, becoming, at 88, the oldest host in the show’s history.  Lorne Michaels and the production staff were sufficiently concerned about her age that they had Tina Fey, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler on standby to replace her; White went on to appear in every sketch… and won an Emmy for her performance.

C.F. Wikipedia’s “List of Saturday Night hosts.”

200px-BettyWhiteJune09 source

 

Written by LW

May 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I’m still learning”*…

 

learned

 

1)  Each year humanity produces 1,000 times more transistors than grains of rice and wheat combined. [Mark P Mills]…

24)  “Mushrooms and truffles are fungi, more closely related to humans than they are to plants.” [Lynne Peskoe-Yang]…

51)  Fast fashion is hitting the wiping rags businesses, because some clothing is just too badly made to be sold as rags. [Adam Minter]…

From Tom Whitwell (@TomWhitwell) of Fluxx, the sixth of his annual lists: “52 things I learned in 2019.”

[image above: source]

* “Ancora imparo,” Michelangelo

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As we continue our educations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that John William Draper took a daguerreotype of the moon, the first celestial photograph (or astrophotograph) made in the U.S.  (He exposed the plate for 20 minutes using a 5-inch telescope and produced an image one inch in diameter.)   Draper’s picture of his sister, taken the following year, is the oldest surviving photographic portrait.

An 1840 shot of the moon by Draper– the oldest surviving “astrophotograph,” as his first is lost

 source

 

Written by LW

December 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information”*…

 

Instructions for carrying heavy equipment at the Columbia University Computer Music Center

  1. In Silicon Valley, startups that result in a successful exit have an average founding age of 47 years. [Joshua Gans]
  2. Traders in Shenzhen electronics markets now rely on smartphone translation apps to communicate — not just with foreigners, but with people speaking other Chinese dialects. [Mark Pesce]
  3. “Artificial intelligence systems pretending to be female are often subjected to the same sorts of online harassment as women.” [Jacqueline Feldman]
  4. Laser Snake is a writhing robotic arm with a 5kw laser mounted on one end. It’s first job: cutting up old nuclear power stations. [James Condliffe]…

The beginning of a fascinating list from Tom Whitwell at Fluxx— a collection of “varied” (if not random) gleanings from science and tech through commerce to society and culture.  They’re immediately fascinating… and ultimately– that’s to say, with some thought, and in the fullness of time– useful [the very effect for which (Roughly) Daily strives :]  Enjoy it in its entirety: “52 things I learned in 2017.”

* Oscar Wilde

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As we read it and reap, we might recall that on this date in 1732 Benjamin Franklin published the first edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanack,”  a similarly not-so-randomly-fact-filled pamphlet series that he continued, to great success, annually through 1757.  (Indeed, with print runs typically numbering 10,000, the series made Franklin’s fortune, allowing him to spend the bulk of his time on scientific experiments, diplomacy…  and in his own consciousness-altering experiments in The Hellfire Club.)

The first edition (published in 1732 for 1733)

 

Written by LW

December 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

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