February 20, 2014
The Dark Power of Fraternities

A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
Read more. [Image: Phil Toledano]

The Dark Power of Fraternities

A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.

Read more. [Image: Phil Toledano]

January 21, 2014
Sit Back, Relax, And Read That Long Story — on Your Phone

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a story called “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500.” It ended up getting more than a million pageviews, which is notable because the story is also more than 6,000 words long. The other notable thing: 47 percent of those views came from people accessing the story on mobile devices. And while people who read the piece on tablets spent an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, those doing so on phones  spent more than 25 minutes—a small eternity, in Internet time. 
Those stats are, if not counterintuitive, then counter-conventional: The working assumption, among media executives and most of the public who cares about such things, has long been that phones are best suited for quick-hit stories and tweets rather than immersive, longform reads. And while content producers have attempted to take advantage of the “lean-back” capabilities of the tablet (see, for example, tablet-optimized products like The Atavist), phone use has generally been seen as flitting and fleeting—the stuff of grocery store lines and bus rides. ”The average mobile reader tends to skim through headlines and snackable content as opposed to diving into long-form articles,” Mobile Marketer put it in late October. 
Read more. [Image: kgnixer/Flickr]

Sit Back, Relax, And Read That Long Story — on Your Phone

Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published a story called “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500.” It ended up getting more than a million pageviews, which is notable because the story is also more than 6,000 words long. The other notable thing: 47 percent of those views came from people accessing the story on mobile devices. And while people who read the piece on tablets spent an average of more than 12 minutes with the story, those doing so on phones  spent more than 25 minutes—a small eternity, in Internet time. 

Those stats are, if not counterintuitive, then counter-conventional: The working assumption, among media executives and most of the public who cares about such things, has long been that phones are best suited for quick-hit stories and tweets rather than immersive, longform reads. And while content producers have attempted to take advantage of the “lean-back” capabilities of the tablet (see, for example, tablet-optimized products like The Atavist), phone use has generally been seen as flitting and fleeting—the stuff of grocery store lines and bus rides. ”The average mobile reader tends to skim through headlines and snackable content as opposed to diving into long-form articles,” Mobile Marketer put it in late October.

Read more. [Image: kgnixer/Flickr]

January 15, 2014
The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

Nighttime heists, Chinese knockoffs, and poisoned meatball-sabotage: the high-stakes pursuit of the world’s most-prized fungus,
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini]

The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade

Nighttime heists, Chinese knockoffs, and poisoned meatball-sabotage: the high-stakes pursuit of the world’s most-prized fungus,

Read more. [Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini]

January 2, 2014
How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

If you use Netflix, you’ve probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it’s absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?
If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of “personalized genres” need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?
This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix’s algorithm has ever created. 
Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies.
There are so many that just loading, copying, and pasting all of them took the little script I wrote more than 20 hours. 
We’ve now spent several weeks understanding, analyzing, and reverse-engineering how Netflix’s vocabulary and grammar work. We’ve broken down its most popular descriptions, and counted its most popular actors and directors. 
To my (and Netflix’s) knowledge, no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.
What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.
Read more. [Image: @darth]

How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

If you use Netflix, you’ve probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it’s absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?

If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of “personalized genres” need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?

This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix’s algorithm has ever created. 

Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies.

There are so many that just loading, copying, and pasting all of them took the little script I wrote more than 20 hours. 

We’ve now spent several weeks understanding, analyzing, and reverse-engineering how Netflix’s vocabulary and grammar work. We’ve broken down its most popular descriptions, and counted its most popular actors and directors. 

To my (and Netflix’s) knowledge, no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.

What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.

Read more. [Image: @darth]

December 25, 2013
Vacation Reading: 9 Great Education Articles from 2013

Sometimes, it takes a longer article to illuminate something as complex as education in America. Here are nine articles from 2013, covering everything from public policy to teaching practice. Many of the lessons highlighted by these writers will remain relevant in 2014 and beyond.
Read more. [Image: Bryan Snyder/Reuters]

Vacation Reading: 9 Great Education Articles from 2013

Sometimes, it takes a longer article to illuminate something as complex as education in America. Here are nine articles from 2013, covering everything from public policy to teaching practice. Many of the lessons highlighted by these writers will remain relevant in 2014 and beyond.

Read more. [Image: Bryan Snyder/Reuters]

December 12, 2013
Against ‘Long-Form’ Journalism

I have had it with long-form journalism. By which I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little? Would you feel drawn to a movie or a book simply because it is long? (“Oooh—you should really read Moby-Dick—it’s super long.”) Journalists presumably care about words as much as anyone, so it is mysterious that they would choose to promote their stories by ballyhooing one of their less inherently appealing attributes. Do we call certain desserts “solid-fat-form food” or do we call them cakes and pies? Is baseball a long-form sport? Okay, sure—but would Major League Baseball ever promote it as that? So why make a ripping yarn or an eye-popping profile sound like something you have to file to the IRS?
Read more. [Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm/Flickr]

Against ‘Long-Form’ Journalism

I have had it with long-form journalism. By which I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little? Would you feel drawn to a movie or a book simply because it is long? (“Oooh—you should really read Moby-Dick—it’s super long.”) Journalists presumably care about words as much as anyone, so it is mysterious that they would choose to promote their stories by ballyhooing one of their less inherently appealing attributes. Do we call certain desserts “solid-fat-form food” or do we call them cakes and pies? Is baseball a long-form sport? Okay, sure—but would Major League Baseball ever promote it as that? So why make a ripping yarn or an eye-popping profile sound like something you have to file to the IRS?

Read more. [Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm/Flickr]

December 10, 2013
Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad

How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.
Read more. [Image: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad

How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.

Read more. [Image: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

December 4, 2013
The Vigilante of Clallam County

On a morning last fall, Patrick Drum sat quietly in his black and white striped uniform and handcuffs as he awaited his fate. The sleeves of his top were short enough to reveal a tattoo reading “Win Some” on his right forearm and one reading “Lose Sum” on the left. From the court’s gallery where dozens of reporters and community members sat, he seemed barely to move as the families of the two men he had killed four months before came forward to speak.
 “The only thing I’ll say is I don’t has no sympathy for the man who shot and killed my son,” said Jerry Ray’s father, Paul, his voice breaking. The wife of the other victim, Gary Blanton, said Drum’s followers were harassing her and her family—spitting at them, parking at night outside her home. “Tell your supporters to stop,” she said. “My children and I don’t deserve this… I think we’ve suffered enough.”
Read more.

The Vigilante of Clallam County

On a morning last fall, Patrick Drum sat quietly in his black and white striped uniform and handcuffs as he awaited his fate. The sleeves of his top were short enough to reveal a tattoo reading “Win Some” on his right forearm and one reading “Lose Sum” on the left. From the court’s gallery where dozens of reporters and community members sat, he seemed barely to move as the families of the two men he had killed four months before came forward to speak.

 “The only thing I’ll say is I don’t has no sympathy for the man who shot and killed my son,” said Jerry Ray’s father, Paul, his voice breaking. The wife of the other victim, Gary Blanton, said Drum’s followers were harassing her and her family—spitting at them, parking at night outside her home. “Tell your supporters to stop,” she said. “My children and I don’t deserve this… I think we’ve suffered enough.”

Read more.

December 3, 2013
The Things You’ll Miss

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was “lucky,” at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.
Psychologists call this drawn out period “anticipatory grief.” Anticipating a loved one’s death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.
A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.
Read more. [Image: Arkadiusz Benedykt/flickr]

The Things You’ll Miss

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was “lucky,” at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.

Psychologists call this drawn out period “anticipatory grief.” Anticipating a loved one’s death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one’s long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Read more. [Image: Arkadiusz Benedykt/flickr]

November 21, 2013
Why Are Prison Riots Declining as Prison Populations Explode?

On New Year’s Day in 1986, a group of 20 prisoners bearing shanks stormed the dining hall at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, where inmates had just been seated for dinner, and took hostage the correctional officers on duty. After ordering the stunned diners to “leave the fucking food alone,” the instigators ranged through the prison’s South Hall, freeing whole cellblocks and eventually capturing 16 staff members. They stripped the hostages to their underwear, dressed them up as inmates, blindfolded them, and placed them in separate rooms around the facility, to give themselves enough time to kill at least some of them in the event of a rescue attempt. What motivated the rioters were living conditions and sanitary standards inside the prison, which were inhumane. “You quit treating us like dogs,” one rioter screamed, “and this wouldn’t happen … We don’t want this any more than you do!” During the harrowing 52-hour standoff that ensued, things grew grisly: the rioters not only threatened violence against their hostages but also murdered three inmates thought to be either informants or the authors of especially repugnant crimes. One hostage, forced to watch the killing of a prisoner—Jeff Atkinson, a suspected informant who had been convicted of murdering a pregnant woman—reported that an inmate cut out Atkinson’s heart and said to a friend, “It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.”

Responding to the crisis, the governor of West Virginia cut short a vacation in Florida and hastened to the prison. He and his staff eventually negotiated an end to the standoff; 13 participants, including two leaders of the riot, were transferred to the maximum-security wing, and the rest were returned to their cells. Most of the hostages went back to work after their release, but the riot had taken its toll. “My nerves are shot,” one officer said before returning to work. “I can’t even write without shaking. I quit smoking 15 years ago and started again five minutes after I was released.”

In its length and brutality, the West Virginia riot was no anomaly. In 1980, a two-day riot in New Mexico had killed 33 people, and in 1971, the infamous four-day riot in Attica, New York, had killed 43. But here’s what’s significant about the West Virginia riot: it was among the last of its kind in this country. Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen here anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.
These are eye-opening statistics—especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system.
Read more. [Image: West Virginia Division of Corrections]

Why Are Prison Riots Declining as Prison Populations Explode?

On New Year’s Day in 1986, a group of 20 prisoners bearing shanks stormed the dining hall at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, where inmates had just been seated for dinner, and took hostage the correctional officers on duty. After ordering the stunned diners to “leave the fucking food alone,” the instigators ranged through the prison’s South Hall, freeing whole cellblocks and eventually capturing 16 staff members. They stripped the hostages to their underwear, dressed them up as inmates, blindfolded them, and placed them in separate rooms around the facility, to give themselves enough time to kill at least some of them in the event of a rescue attempt. What motivated the rioters were living conditions and sanitary standards inside the prison, which were inhumane. “You quit treating us like dogs,” one rioter screamed, “and this wouldn’t happen … We don’t want this any more than you do!” During the harrowing 52-hour standoff that ensued, things grew grisly: the rioters not only threatened violence against their hostages but also murdered three inmates thought to be either informants or the authors of especially repugnant crimes. One hostage, forced to watch the killing of a prisoner—Jeff Atkinson, a suspected informant who had been convicted of murdering a pregnant woman—reported that an inmate cut out Atkinson’s heart and said to a friend, “It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.”

Responding to the crisis, the governor of West Virginia cut short a vacation in Florida and hastened to the prison. He and his staff eventually negotiated an end to the standoff; 13 participants, including two leaders of the riot, were transferred to the maximum-security wing, and the rest were returned to their cells. Most of the hostages went back to work after their release, but the riot had taken its toll. “My nerves are shot,” one officer said before returning to work. “I can’t even write without shaking. I quit smoking 15 years ago and started again five minutes after I was released.”

In its length and brutality, the West Virginia riot was no anomaly. In 1980, a two-day riot in New Mexico had killed 33 people, and in 1971, the infamous four-day riot in Attica, New York, had killed 43. But here’s what’s significant about the West Virginia riot: it was among the last of its kind in this country. Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen here anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.

These are eye-opening statistics—especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system.

Read more. [Image: West Virginia Division of Corrections]

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