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August 30, 2007

Christmas in August at Costco

Filed under: fun, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:32 pm

Christmas decorations on sale at Costco before Labor Day

It’s not even Labor Day and my local Costco already has Christmas merchandise out, complete with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” playing nearby.

Only 116 shopping days left!

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Jayson Blair, Judith Miller and the New York Times archive

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:00 pm

Yesterday, I wrote about how The New York Times is having to look at handling corrections in an era where their archives are becoming increasing accessible to search engines. I decided to take a closer look at how the Times has handled two of the more egregious episodes in its recent history — the Jayson Blair scandal and the missteps in their coverage in the lead up to the Iraq War.

Blair was a young reporter who gave the Times a serious black eye, being forced to resign amid charges of plagiarism and making up facts in stories. The Times ended up running numerous corrections on his stories.

Take a look at this article about Silicon Valley investors, which is the first result that comes up for the term “Benjamin I. Goldhagen” in Google.

About half way down the story, you’ll see this quote:

”The way races work,” Mr. Goldhagen said, ”is that sometime along the way it’s going to be painful. But you just have to say that ‘it’s O.K., it’s painful, but you got to keep going to finish the race.’ But this is nearly impossible.”

If you just read this page, you’d miss the correction that was later applied:

In this article about the struggles of Internet entrepreneurs in obtaining funds,Mr. Blair quoted Benjamin I. Goldhagen, founder and former chief executive of Redtop, as saying, ‘The way races work, is that sometime along the way it’s going to be painful. But you just have to say that it’s O.K., it’s painful, but you got to keep going to finish the race.’ But this is nearly impossible.’ Mr. Goldhagen said that he did not say ‘But this is nearly impossible.’

That correction shows up on the second page of the story, along with an editor’s note talking about Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications. Given the seriousness of Blair’s violations, every page of every story he wrote should have that disclaimer.

The Times has expressed regret for its mishandling of its early coverage of the Iraq War, including work by former star reporter Judith Miller. In an editor’s note on May 26, 2004, the Times said:

[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

The editor’s note uses as an example a specific article by Miller:

On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.

The article itself doesn’t have any mention of a correction. Neither does this article about aluminum tubes. Nor does this article about a scientist who claimed that chemical and biological weapons were destroyed days before the war began. All of these examples are pulled straight from the editor’s note, so the Times clearly knows about them.

The core premise of each story is in serious doubt, but you’d never know about it from the article.

August 29, 2007

Googling all the news that’s fit to correct

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, research, search — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:12 pm

The New York Times public editor writes this week about an increasing problem: incorrect information from the Times that lives forever in search engines. The Times has started surfacing its archived content in a way that search engines can crawl. This presents problems for people who were treated unfairly.

The Times tells the story of Allen Kraus, a deputy commissioner for the New York City Human Resources Administration. The Times reported that he resigned under pressure because of an investigation. If you Google “Allen Kraus” today, the second link is for the Times archive with stories titled “6 Held in Welfare Fraud Scheme; Inquiry Uncovered Worker Bribes” and “A Welfare Official Denies He Resigned Because of Inquiry“.

That’s not the best impression to make on a prospective employer or client.

People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up. … Kraus is hardly alone in claiming real or potential harm. A person arrested years ago on charges of fondling a child said the accusation was false and the charges were dropped. The Times reported the arrest but not the disposition of the case.

The Times says that if they worked to correct errors, that’s all they would be doing:

But what can they do? The choices all seem fraught with pitfalls. You can’t accept someone’s word that an old article was wrong. What if that person who was charged with abusing a child really was guilty? Re-report every story challenged by someone? Impossible, said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of the newsroom’s online operation: there’d be time for nothing else.

Although Wikipedia is often slammed for having inaccurate information, at least with Wikipedia, you’ve got a more than fair chance of getting an error corrected. Bloggers are generally more than willing to fix genuine errors — and they are much more approachable than the Times to point them out in the first place.

A big part of the problem is that many newspapers consider their archives to be a permanent record of what was in print. Newspapers view themselves as the first draft of history.

Removing anything from the historical record would be, in the words of Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of maintaining Times standards, “like airbrushing Trotsky out of the Kremlin picture.”

In newsrooms, the archives are called “the morgue.” Now that the Times is bringing those dead stories to life, a different approach is needed. In the past, finding old newspaper articles required you to search through microfilm, dusty newspapers or expensive commercial databases made it clear that you were looking at something old. With one-click Googlability, ancient articles look as fresh as something published minutes ago.

Some news outlets still show the incorrect version of a story with a footnote at the bottom showing the correction. That is absolutely wrong. If you make an error and you know it, fix it where the error was made, not someplace people might not get to. (Especially if they’re just seeing an excerpt on a search results page.) The first thing someone should come across online is the best version the newspaper can offer.

Bloggers do this all the time. When an error is pointed out, they correct the main blog entry and usually indicate that a previous version contained incorrect information. If the error was pointed out in the comments, they usually point readers at the comment.

For newspapers worried about the “permanent historical record”, that can be maintained as a separate link off the current page with a prominent disclosure that shows that the article has been superseded.

The archives of the Times presents another problem: you have to pay to see the archived story. The free headline and excerpt might say “John Smith arrested in connection with fondling neighbor’s child”. But someone would have to pay $4.95 to see the update that says “The Times incorrectly reported the name, it was Justin Smith.”

August 28, 2007

Mooving beyond the boring business card

Filed under: flickr, fun, photography — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:49 pm

After leaving AOL, I decided to get some personal cards printed. Instead of going the conventional route, I went with Moo. It’s a great little company out of the UK that lets you print cards with full-color pictures on the back.

The cards are printed on high quality stock and the overall ordering experience is as pleasant as I’ve seen. You can pull in your pictures from many of the leading photo sites. Each order is 100 cards and costs $25; every card can have a different picture on it.

The cards are a great conversation starter. People love to guess where the pictures were taken. A friend was in town on Sunday and managed to guess 3 of 4. (I didn’t have the third card shown here on me.) See how you do. Click through to flickr to see the location.

card1.jpg

card2.jpg

card3.jpg

card4.jpg

card5.jpg

How satisified are you with…?

Filed under: customer service — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:23 pm

I find that increasingly companies are asking me to answer surveys after speaking to their call center agents. Whether it’s a credit card company, insurance company or travel provider, they want to know how satisfied I am.

Many times, I can’t answer the question because they haven’t fully addressed the issue. They’ve told me that they will, but until I see the credit on my credit card statement or they pay my health insurance claim I don’t know if I’m satisfied.

I called Bank of America and the agent promised me a credit for an erroneous finance charge. About all I could comment on after the initial call was whether I had to wait on hold excessively or the agent was polite. The credit never showed up. I am not satisified.

The best thing they can do to increase my satisfaction (aside from applying the credit immediately and letting me see it online), is to send me clear information about what they did. AOL’s internal employee help desk was great at this. After each call, I’d receive a summary of our call and any pending next steps. If something went awry, I had an easy reference.

Most of the companies I deal with already have my email on file. If they sent me an email automatically with a case number, time of the call and who I spoke with, it would increase my satisfaction. Even better if they could inform me that my issue was resolved successfully.

When I call American Express customer service, I soon get an email:

You recently called American Express with questions about your XXXXXXXX account. Did you know that as a Cardmember registered to Manage Your Card Account online all you have to do is log in to access your account information?

Never mind that I wouldn’t have called if I could actually have solved my problem online.

August 27, 2007

Cutting the cord on the home phone

Filed under: statistics, wireless — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:48 pm

Cutting the cordThe Times reports today that the percentage of homes with cell phones and no landline now exceeds the percentage of homes that have a landline and no cell phones.

It’s been about four years since I paid a landline phone bill. (And for the previous three years, I only had a landline so my DVR could call for program listings.)

I’d love to know what the landline sign up rate in dorm rooms is these days. With the proliferation of cell phones, I suspect that it won’t be long before it’s not worth the expense of maintaining campus phone networks.

This stat from the University of Virginia provides a little insight:

In the 1997-98 academic year, students spent more than 5 million minutes making long-distance calls. That rate fell to 600,000 minutes [in 2004], bringing in only $30,000.

With free long distance, unlimited nights and weekends on most plans and unlimited in-network calling on many wireless plans, it certainly doesn’t make sense to make long distance calls on a dorm phone.

Let Google Maps do the walking

Filed under: city guides, google, local search, maps, mashups — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:05 pm

Matt Cutts points out a great mashup for apartment hunters: Walk Score. One of the most important criteria I have when looking for a place to live is whether I can walk to (or stumble back from) places. Walk Score provides an easy way to answer that question. You specify an address and it calculates a walkability score. The score takes into account things like the proximity of grocery stores, restaurants and bars.

More than that, it also auto-generates a great little neighborhood guide. Most local search tools require you to search for a business name or category. Walk Score makes it easy to get a feel for a neighborhood by showing the nearest bars, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries and schools.

Here’s a Walk Score map of my neighborhood:

Walk Score map of Clarendon

Walk Score doesnt’ take into account hills, so those looking for housing in San Francisco may want to consult a topographic map.

August 26, 2007

The strategy of the Feud

Filed under: fun, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:54 pm

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the Family Feud.

Those who know the show can skip the rest of this paragraph. The Family Feud is an American TV show that pits two families (in teams of five) against each other to answer questions based on surveys. For each question, 100 people are surveyed and the goal is for your family to guess the answer that the most people said. A sample question would be “Other than love, what’s a reason a woman would marry a man?”  (money, sex, fame, looks). Each round beings with a “face off” where one member of each team answers the question. The person with the more popular answer can decide between two options:

  • Play – By choosing to play, the family must guess all of the remaining answers on the board. In each round, there are typically between four and eight answers. Each person must answer individually. If they get all the answers on the board before they get three wrong, they win the round.  If not, the other team gets a chance to steal.
  • Pass – If the winning team chooses to pass, the other team must get all the answers before they get three wrong. In the meantime, the winning team can talk amongst themselves and decide on one answer to steal the round.

Almost always, the team that wins the faceoff chooses to play. But it’s incredibly rare that a team gets all of the answers on the board; the vast majority of the time, they strike out and the other team gets a chance.

I’ve never understood why the teams that win the face off don’t pass. I’d pass every time. It’s much easier to guess one answer as a team than it is to individually guess 3 to 7 answers. Maybe it’s the desire to be on TV longer or the feeling of being in control of your own destiny.

Or maybe it’s the families they get. This is one of my favorite clips from the show. It’s worth watching all the way to the end.

August 24, 2007

NY Times launches My Times

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, rss, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:27 am

The New York Times has opened its My Times customized home page to the public. (via Techcrunch) Anyone who has used My Yahoo!, Pageflakes, Netvibes or iGoogle will find the look and feel very familiar. The default modules include Journalist’s Picks, stories from the NYT Home Page, NYT most emailed articles, Yahoo! News, BBC News, Bookmarks, Weather, Movie Showtimes, Flickr and Stock Quotes. You can add and delete modules, including content from the Times, outside sources and any RSS feed. (The Times seems to be using its own RSS feeds under the hood.)

It’s the best execution of The Daily Me that I’ve seen from a news company. But it’s at least two years too late. Aside from serious Times junkies, I don’t see many people using this page. The Times, like many news sites, gets most of its traffic horizontally. Of all the people who visit nytimes.com in a month, only 18% (1.4 million) visit the home page. By contrast, My Yahoo! gets 22.3 million unique visitors and iGoogle gets 6.8 million.

My Times journalist picksThe most interesting part of My Times is that you can pick from modules selected by Times journalists. Want to know what David Pogue is reading? You can click to see that he recommends Engadget, AppleInsider, Slashdot, Gizmodo and his own stuff. (Unfortunately, I can’t link to this page.) These pages are good resources that would be even more useful if they provided direct links to the RSS feeds so that you could subscribe with your preferred personal home page or news reader.

More on: journalism, newspapers

See also:

August 23, 2007

iPhone as your social network

Filed under: apple, facebook, iphone, social networking, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:45 pm

I had a chance earlier this week to try the new Facebook application for iPhone. The app, developed by Joe Hewitt, is a version of Facebook optimized for the iPhone. Many of the core features of Facebook are available on the iPhone, including your profile page, messages, pictures, status messages and your friend’s contact information.

It’s a very well done app that shows off the capabilities of the iPhone as well Facebook. (If you have an iPhone, go to http://iphone.facebook.com to try it out; you can also go to that URL in a Web browser to see the functionality.) A video demonstration is at the bottom of this post.

Currently all of this is done within the phone’s Safari browser; it’s not integrated into the phone’s contacts, pictures or other capabilities.

As much as I love my computer, my phone is where the most important “social networking” happens. The social network needs to be embedded deeply into the phone.

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Pick up a new phone and enter your account information. Your contacts are automatically populated, complete with pictures of your friends. No need to fiddle with re-entering all your data.
  • Check the status of your friends before you make a call. If you see that your friend is on the phone, you can call later or send a text message. (Similar to presence on IM.)
  • When a contact changes their phone number, the new information is automatically updated. You don’t have to worry about outdated phone numbers.
  • Pull up a map of where your friends are when you’re trying to meet up.
  • Take pictures and videos and upload them straight to your social network. (flickr, Facebook and others have developed workarounds that accomplish a limited form of this today.)
  • Get reminded of events in your network without having to manually add them to another calendar. The reminder leads straight to maps and directions.

All of this is technically possible. The biggest challenges revolve around who “owns” the customer. In the U.S. market, this has historically been the wireless carriers. Some carriers deliberately make it hard to do things like move contacts because that raises the switching costs for customers. Most restrict access to key phone capabilities (such as the camera, GPS) to internal developers.

Doing something like this would mean breaking a lot of the traditional rules. But Apple has done that before.

More on: facebook, iphone

(Video from Rodney Rumford)

Recommended reading:

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