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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007

Refinements in news services from and Yahoo!


Algorithms, as closely guarded as state secrets, buy and sell stocks and mortgage-backed securities, sometimes with a dispassionate zeal that crashes markets. Algorithms promise to find the news that fits you, and even your perfect mate. You can’t visit without being confronted with a list of books and other products that the Great Algoritmi recommends. Its intuitions, of course, are just calculations — given enough time they could be carried out with stones. But when so much data is processed so rapidly, the effect is oracular and almost opaque. Even with a peek at the cybernetic trade secrets, you probably couldn’t unwind the computations. As you sit with your eHarmony spouse watching the movies Netflix prescribes, you might as well be an avatar in Second Life. You have been absorbed into the operating system.

George Johnson. “An Oracle for Our Time. Part Man, Part Machine.” The New York Times September 23, 2007.

frame grab from the film

frame grab from the film “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames


“If it’s out there, it’s in here” claims in a paragraph describing refinements to its service. If I were to make a bold “I have seen the future of the media ... ” claim, I’d direct readers to The year old website hits every mark: It’s conceptually profound, based on co-founder Steven Johnson’s concept of “the long zoom”, taking the Google maps ability to be in a frame of mind, event or place that can be tagged with its geographic location and then “zoom” out to connect this dot to the rest of the world, and (in time, perhaps) the universe. The design is a timelessly sharp expression of form uniting with function that’s of the tradition that Charles and Ray Eames brought to the link between science, art and design. (Steven Johnson was inspired by the “zooming out” effect of their “Powers of Ten” movie.) The advertising has been rolled out slowly and in a way that doesn’t leave the deep fang marks of predatory marketing tactics seen on other news sites. It elegantly and clearly aligns all scales of information, from local bloggers to global news organizations. And it comes with an unofficial “media critic in residence”.

To mark the first anniversary of Steven Johnson has published an essay called “The Pothole Paradox: Why Building The Geographic Web Is Hard, and Why It’s Worth Doing” on his blog. 

At, we believe the answer is to build an information system modeled not after traditional newspapers or search engines, but rather the way that people intuitively think about the communities they live in. First, people have an extraordinary innate capacity for organizing their world spatially, which is precisely why pothole repair five blocks away is not interesting to us. And part of that spatial organization involves anchoring people and events in specific places. Think about the people you know socially, and the implicit place-based social networks that you carry around in your head: these are the folks I know from the local school, and these are the ones I know from the coffee shop, and these are the ones from my office…

I started writing this little essay in Brooklyn, but I’m finishing it in Barcelona. The day I arrived I wandered out into the Born neighborhood, a kind of Soho grafted onto a medieval street layout. There’s a distinctive feeling you get walking around a new city on your own—the guide books and review sites can tell you where the best restaurants and bars are, and give you the architectural history. But there’s always a feeling that you’re missing something, that the neighborhood is filled with another kind of data: all the debates and rumors and breaking news that make up the real social information of a community, from the true experts. Right now that layer is almost inaccessible to us—assuming we can’t always sit down and talk to an actual neighborhood maven. We can search a million servers scattered across the globe for a specific text string and get results within seconds. But we can’t do a search that tells us what people are saying about the street we’re currently standing on. It’s about time we changed that.

Steven Johnson


A new service called Your Street strips the functional components from and wraps regular opportunistic word-association Google ads around the content. The difference is in character and depth of community. Readers and writers provide and burnish the links to stories through and Your Street compiles the stories through RSS feeds.

CEO and founder James Nicholson says that what sets YourStreet apart is its extensive news service: the site collects 30,000 to 40,000 articles a day from more than 10,000 RSS feeds, mostly from community newspapers and blogs. “We’re not relying on the users to provide us with articles,” Nicholson says. The stories featured on the site aren’t of a specific type, and users will find the locations of murders marked alongside the locations of upcoming music shows. Stories featured on the site are teasers, and, if a user clicks to read further, she will be directed back to the source of the information.

Erica Naone. MIT Technology Review. November 9, 2007 co-founder John Geraci is quoted in the Technology Review story. He says that is focused on information and not maps because maps are interesting to people after information has drawn them in. has the complex jumble of information that gives life its context. A life lived in search of meaning, not “meaning” as a definition that can be effectively pinned to an advertising category. The reliance on human input, not algorithms is what sets it apart from other local news portals.

Geraci says that is built to rely heavily on human intervention, rather than on natural-language search algorithms, because, in his opinion, the algorithms don’t work well enough at this phase, and, with this type of service, stories are only useful if mapped accurately. “When you’re talking about location, there’s a low tolerance for noise,” Geraci says. “We believe you need people, that you always need that discernment.”

Technology Review

Your Street is underpinned by powerful algorithms.

The site’s main technological advance lies in its ability to mine geographical information from news stories. Using natural-language-processing algorithms developed in-house, as well as supplementary algorithms provided by the company MetaCarta, the site searches the text of regular news stories for clues about associated locations. The system searches particularly for entities within cities such as hospitals, schools, and sports stadiums, Nicholson says, relying on databases of entities created by the U.S. Geological Survey. YourStreet is currently working on some improvements to the system’s ability to recognize nicknames; for example, it should be able to interpret “GG Bridge,” as many bloggers refer to it, as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Technology Review map showing news stories clustering around a place. map showing news stories clustering around a place.


Buzztracker is software that visualizes frequencies and relationships between locations appearing in global news coverage. Buzztracker tries to show you how interconnected the world is: big events in one area ripple to other areas across the globe. Connections between cities thousands of miles apart become apparent at a glance. Buzztracker currently only tracks English-language news sources. website is software that’s a version of land art on the internet. The founders describe it as an art project. “Buzztracker is our attempt at adding some depth and beauty to the experience of engaging the news.” buzzmap buzzmap’s buzzmap is dynamic, with bloggers represented in orange and traditional news media in gray. The circles dynamically grow and recede as news gathers and subsides around a particular location. “The idea of requiring geographic metadata for information might strike some people as excessive, but I suspect in a few years we will look back at the first decade of the web and be amazed that we went for so long without it,” wrote Steven Johnson on his blog.

Eames poster for IBM. 1966. Photograph by fourflatfive at Flickr.

Eames poster for IBM. 1966. Photograph by fourflatfive at Flickr.


Way, way back in 2004 reported on Yahoo!s news search setting itself up to compete with Google’s news search, and in a report a year later noted that the difference between the service is Google’s reliance on algorithms: Google says in its news blog, that it directs “...readers to the professionally-written articles and news sources our algorithms have determined are relevant for a topic.” On September 28 the Google news blog reported that media organizations already tied into Google News can augment the algorithms and submit news articles directly “...via News sitemaps in all the languages we support. You can also specify keywords for each article to tell us more about them so we can better place them in the appropriate news section.”

The Google News homepage is fusty. It looks like it was designed by algorithms to appeal to algorithms. Yahoo!s news page has a vaguely retro newspaper front page design with big images running alongside story excerpts and soft features—photo of the day, cartoons—running down the side, while Google has a list style design separating the news into categories and listing them with thumbnail images. The battle for the news search engines reminds me of the battle between Apple and Microsoft / IBM at the dawn of the computer age. Once computers were machines designed by machines to appeal to the logic and operating needs of machines. Microsoft and IBM took the high ground and their machines and software implied that the logic of machines and the needs of machines were paramount and design was irrelevant. It was a long way from IBM’s glory days of linking design and science. Apple was smart, sexy and human focused. We know how this story ended.

Yahoo! appeared to be sinking fast a few months ago, forcing founder Jerry Yang to come back to take control of the company. In September Yahoo! bought Buzztracker (which seems to have no connection with In the “About” section on Buzztracker’s home page it says: “Our goal has been to launch a news site that leverages the power of the “head of the long tail” of the blogosphere to automatically generate news pages for a multitude of topics, both broad and narrow. We currently are tracking 1,000 topics and 90,000 blogs.”

Considering the froth, general factoids and celebrity gossip published below the toolbar (the online equivalent of “above the fold”) on Yahoo!s home page, the solid and serious tone of the Yahoo! News page is a pleasant surprise. The news is broken into categories, but there are tabs listing stories grouped by the media source from the Associated Press, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, McClatchy newspapers and NPR, among others. The OP-ED section links to The Nation, The Huffington Post and The Weekly Standard. 

Yahoo executives told The Associated Press that The Columbus Dispatch and 16 regional newspapers owned by The New York Times Co. have joined the consortium, bringing its total number to about 415 dailies and another 140 weeklies. The New York Times itself, however, hasn’t joined. Lem Lloyd, who runs the consortium for Yahoo, said the partnership has already been bearing fruit both for newspaper publishers as well as Yahoo, but he declined to provide specific dollar figures.

Seth Sutel. Associated Press. 17 November, 2007.

While this sounds like a step forward for the year-old local news ad sharing project, it comes in the wake of wider disarray. Newspapers are based on an ethic of competition: competition for readers, for stories, and for advertising revenue. This competitive spirit was encouraged to drive papers to spend money on the improvement of content, to produce news most pertinent to its readers, and to keep newsstand prices as low as possible. In an era when the medium must integrate into the “new media” paradigm, the competition that once drove newspapers to improvement is only driving their integration projects into the ground.

Tim Conneally. Associated Press. November 19, 2007.

I suspect that the Yahoo! News homepage is the ground that the New York Times ceded while it was hiding its premium content behind a subscription wall. I still go to The New York Times homepage but I suspect that’s mostly because I’m sentimental about newspapers. If The New York Times and International Herald Tribune were a part of Yahoo!‘s news service I’d probably go to their stories through the portal. Right now I can only select The New York Times as one of “My Sources” if the stories fall into the Yahoo! News categories. So now The New York Times faces a new conundrum, does it protect its brand by holding out? Or does it isolate itself further? The motto on the print edition of The New York Times is “all the news that’s fit to print.” On the website it’s “all the news that’s fit to remix.” The World Wide Web can sometimes seem like a massive covalent bond, held together by permalinks to New York Times articles posted in blogs and stories from other news organizations. The bringing down of the subscription wall also opened up the archive to The New York Times and provided permalinks for stories going back a couple of decades for stories that previously needed to be purchased. It’s a phenomenal resource.


It’s self-evident that all successful online media businesses grow by acquiring companies as well as developing their own innovations. Yahoo! purchased two services I can no longer work without: the bookmarking site,, and the photo sharing website, Flickr. is now four years old. In 2004 Steven Johnson wrote a story about emerging web services for Discover magazine. Using an example of a poodle breeder being alerted to a new book, by, and posting a review on her blog, Steven Johnson follows a chain of information to’s creators call the program a social bookmarking service, and one of its key functions is to connect people as readily as it connects data. When our poodle lover checks in on the dog-breeding tag, she notices that another user has been adding interesting links to the category over the past few months. She drops him an e-mail and invites him to join a small community of poodle lovers using Yahoo’s My Web service. From that point on, anytime she discovers a new poodle-related page, he’ll immediately receive a notification about it, along with the rest of her poodle community, either via e-mail or instant message.

Now stop and think about how different this chain of events is from the traditional Web mode of following simple links between static pages. One small piece of new information—a review of a book about poodles—flows through an entire system of reuse and appropriation within hours. The initial information value of the review remains: It’s an assessment of a new book, no different from the reviews that appear in traditional publications. But as it ventures through the food chain of the new Web, it takes on new forms of value: One service uses it to help evaluate the books with the most buzz; another uses it to build a classification schema for the entire Web; another uses it as a way of forming new communities of like-minded people. Some of this information exchange happens on traditional Web pages, but it also leaks out into other applications: e-mail clients, instant-messenger programs.

Steven Johnson. 10.24.2005. Discover.

It’s rare to find a story published online by a major media organization these days that doesn’t have a tag button in its “share this story” menu. And during the fire in Griffith Park that started on May 8 this year the Los Angeles Times ran links to photographs of the fire taken by residents and posted on Flickr. Citizen journalism is a great, ancillary resource but it doesn’t replace traditional journalism. On October 10 last year The Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece by Susan D. Moeller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at The University of Maryland, and Moises Main, the Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy Magazine.

OVER THE WEEKEND, at almost the same time that the world was informed that Google was vying to pay $1.65 billion for YouTube, a 2-year-old video-sharing website, famed Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in Moscow. Politkovskaya covered human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was also a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and Russian authorities consider her death a political assassination.

YouTube’s acquisition and Politkovskaya’s killing are unrelated events. Yet both offer powerful clues about the forces shaping the way information is produced, distributed and consumed in today’s world. YouTube epitomizes “new media” — their immense potential and surprising effects. Politkovskaya represents “old media” — their literal struggle for survival and also their historical, indeed indispensable, value….

YouTube, Google, Flickr and many other websites offer valuable tools for keeping the world informed. But they are not a substitute for Politkovskaya and her colleagues. Societies are judged on how they treat their most vulnerable citizens. We suggest that added to that calculation should be whether journalists have been threatened, assaulted and killed. Tell us how many journalists were assassinated in your country last year, and we will tell you what kind of society you have.

Susan D. Moeller. Moises Naim. Los Angeles Times. 10 October, 2006.

Flickr and haven’t been integrated into the Yahoo! News website but it would be a bold and profound editorial decision to find some way of making them part of the reader’s experience and toolkit alongside the solid news resources they already have.



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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Every Tuesday PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

This week: A computer is found that dates back all the way to dinosaur times.  All it takes is an enterprising friend and some weird science for this week’s episode to become truly bizarre.

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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007

It’s amazing the things one runs into in the neighborhood.

Wherever you are. Just open the door and step outside. Take a stroll, give it a little walkabout. You’re bound to run into something extraordinary.

And informative. If not life-changing.

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Monday, Nov 19, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

With Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist hitting theaters tomorrow, it’s time to reflect on the other Stephen King works in desperate need of a big screen translation.

Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.

At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.

But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:

The Long Walk

As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.

The Regulators

Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.

Eye of the Dragon

Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.


Gerald’s Game

Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.


It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.


Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

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Monday, Nov 19, 2007

Punk 365 by Holly George-Warren [$29.95]

Silent Pictures by Pat Graham [$22.95]

Coffee table books are always a good bet for that person who has everything. At least you can bet they already have a coffee table to put the books on. This season brings three excellent volumes spanning rock history from the 1960s up to the indie present. Lynn Goldsmith is a brand name in rock photography and this simply titled tome, Rock and Roll, begins simply with a 1964 snap of the Fab Four’s Cuban boot- heeled feet and ends with the 1980 John Lennon vigil following the Beatle’s assassination. In between, Goldsmith photographed every legend in the biz and branched out into blues, soul, and reggae, as well.  Mostly bypassing punk for rock and pop and then new wave, Goldsmith nevertheless documented decades worth of great musicians. For that punk dose, head on over to Punk 365, which features the shutter work of seminal talents like Bob Gruen, Roberta Bayley, and a dozen or more leading lights, as well as the fine writing of Holly George-Warren. Equally strong on documenting both UK and US punk, Punk 365 is chock full of classic and illuminating images. Meanwhile, for the indie obsessive hipster of today, Pat Graham brings us Silent Pictures, a collection documenting nearly 20 years of American indie musical history. From Fugazi to Ted Leo and Bikini Kill to Modest Mouse, the major touchstones are all mostly here and accounted for. [Amazon: Rock and Roll | Punk 365 | Silent Pictures]

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