IMG_0116It is a little known fact that coffee improves your objectivity as a journalist. O.K., I'm kidding. I don't believe in "objectivity" and usually avoid the word. It sounds like an impossible God-like standard. Most people who use that term are setting up a straw man. I prefer terms like balance, neutrality, fairness. And conventional newspaper journalism can certainly reach conclusions, so long as they are supported by evidence, and qualified.

This just happens to be a topic on my mind and in my Twitter stream. The fairness/objectivity debate is in the air.

I work for a news organization that promises fairness and ethics. Like Buddhist enlightenment and perfection in general, they may not be attainable. The value to the reader comes from aiming for the worthy goal, without fear or favor, bias or prejudice. Even the best newspapers print corrections every day, but they still set accuracy as the standard. We don't give up because perfect accuracy is unattainable. A journalist who expresses political opinions risks abandoning the habit of keeping an open mind, risks losing the audience and access to sources that might give a more well-rounded picture of the debate, whatever it might be.

There's a risk that a decided mind is a closed one that overlooks facts and lacks empathy for all sides in a contested debate. Reserving judgment is a sound habit for a political journalist, and others who cover controversial topics.

For these reasons, I don't share my political opinions, when I have them. Most traditional journalists are the same. The work should speak for itself. A great reporter should be able to cover an atheists' convention or a Christian revival without drawing complaints of bias from any quarter and without revealing any beliefs about God. Who cares about one person's opinion, really? Opinions are plentiful and easy to come by. Reporting is hard work. It is a higher calling than argument and persuasion.

But we're here to talk about coffee. I have opinions about it. No contradiction there. I don't have a problem passing judgment on coffee, the quality of books and writing, TV shows, the usefulness of gadgets and other topics. For one thing, my day job does not involve reporting about or critiquing these things. They also fall in the realm of inconsequential opinions, right up there with "nice weather" and "you look great." So let's return to my coffee quest.

Name Blue Batak

Origin Mandheling, Sumatra

Roasted Sept. 1 by Verve Coffee Roasters of Santa Cruz.

Purchased Sept. 4 at Café Grumpy, 224 W. 20th St., Manhattan, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Description Chocolate and caramel biscuit tones, earthy graham-cracker graininess, citrus, dried pineapple and plum, tree bark, cinnamon stick, etc. (see below).

In the Cup The Verve Web site, alas, still seems to be a work in progress. All I know about Sumatra and Blue Batak are from this entry at Sweet Maria's:

We offer the top grade, specially-prepared Lintong coffees as Blue Batak in honor of the Toba Batak people. Blue Batak is a near-zero defect preparation, without the usual split beans, broken pieces and crud found in standard Sumatras. It is carefully density sorted and triple-hand-sorted. The dry fragrance has chocolate and caramel biscuit tones, but with a slight earthy and graham cracker graininess. Surprising fruits come forward in the wet aroma, even a momentary whiff of citrus, pineapple, dried plum, fig. It's got great rustic sweetness, aromatic tree bark, cinnamon stick, black tea, and mulling spice in the finish. The body is a bit lighter than the Onan Ganjang micro-lot we have as a sister lot, even though they come from areas that are very close to each other. It also has less of the herbal notes found in other Lintong coffees, which I think makes it a better choice for use in espresso.

So -- no crud -- got that? That's quite a laundry list of flavors. I can't speak to the tree bark, but there was a finish of black tea and certainly a sweetness. I liked this coffee quite a bit, as I often do when there's a hint of chocolate and caramel. I mostly drank it as an espresso. No crud. (Here's some more information about the Dutch term Mandehling)

Good coffee. Nice weather. You look great.

img_0621It was a busy week of catching up at work after vacation, then a busier weekend that included a children's birthday party by the Hudson River, with volunteer activities to benefit the Children for Children Foundation. Then last night it was off to Madison Square Garden for The Dead. It was a great show, musically. There were certainly some aging hippies in the crowd, but most of the audience had a middle-aged suburban feel to it. A lot of people who might have been dancing in the hallways and aisles 20 years ago seemed content to sit in their seats and suck on plastic bottles of Budweiser.

Toward the end of the night, I was thinking more about bedtime than the music never stopping, despite a couple of quick shots of this Intelligentsia espresso blend before the show. I've been drinking it all week.

Let's resume the coffee quest.

Name: Alphabet City Blend

Origin: Direct trade from Brazil

Roasted: April 6 or 9 Intelligentsia.

Purchased: April 13 at Ninth Street Espresso, Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets.

Description: "This classic, syrupy espresso features flavors of toasted almond and milk chocolate and a gentle citrus flourish in the finish."

In the Cup: Ninth Street Espresso switched to this coffee as its espresso blend in March. The name refers to the shop's main location -- the neighborhood with avenues named by letter (Avenues A, B and C) on the East Side of Manhattan that is sometimes described these days as part of the East Village or the Lower East Side.

Back in the 1980s, when I briefly fancied myself a Deadhead, Alphabet City referred to a scary, rundown area of junkies and crime. Now it's place of condos, indie bars and little shops, and a cute name for coffee. So it goes.

img_0623The coffee is described as a mix of Acaia, Icatu, Catuai, Rubi, Tupi, and Catucai beans grown at 950 to 1350 meters above sea level. Ninth Street's owner, Kenneth Nye, told The Times that Alphabet City Blend is a riff on Intelligentsia’s benchmark espresso, Black Cat, but that the blend would be adjusted soon. Here things get tricky, as there appears to be no single Black Cat espresso, and the blend is continually being adjusted. (See Ken's comment below; he says this blend is all Brazilian).

I don't think it's stretching a metaphor to compare this arcane world to that of Deadheads who used to argue about every variation of songs and set lists back in the old days. Trying to find information online about the relationship of these espresso blends was difficult.

The Black Cat project is related to Intelligentsia, but it has its own site and explains its mission here:

The Black Cat Project™ is by design a pursuit of something we’ll never catch: the perfect espresso in all of its manifestations. But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop chasing it. This project is rooted in our belief that espresso brewing is still coffee brewing and that only the best coffees can make the best espressos. We want to push the boundaries on flavor. We want you to experience amazing single origin, Micro-Lot and seasonal espressos with truly distinct flavor profiles that reach far beyond “chocolate” or “caramel”.

If this is close to Black Cat Classic, then this blog post explains the origins of that blend, at least as it stood in October, when this bag was roasted.

The blogger at Black Cat appears to be Kyle Glanville, director of espresso for Intelligentsia, and he explains that blend's origins here:

Brazil, Fazenda Santa Alina (Pulped natural yellow bourbon). Grown in the Grama Valley just outside Pocos de Caldas on the border of Minas Gerais and Sao Paolo state. The Grama Valley is blessed with volcanic soil, solid altitude, and a tremendous amount of sweet, yellow bourbon coffees.

El Salvador, El Borbollon (washed bourbon). This coffee was purchased as part of our “Los Inmortales” project and proves to be a ridiculously perfect compliment to the buttery caramel character of the Santa Alina, dropping in some fresh coffee cherry, citrus, and a floral, heady aroma.

You can expect the Cat to taste a little amped up recently due to the arrival of the new crop Brazil. Deep chocolate, caramel, cherries and citrus. Complete and sweet, just the way I like it.

So, to the Alphabet City tasting. Syrupy, check. Toasted almond, yeah, maybe. Milk chocolate, definitely. Citrus flourish at the finish, I guess so. Someone has been up to some interesting alchemy here, and it may be worth a trip to NInth Street to see how the fresher stuff tastes now, if the formula has been jiggered. It's a great espresso. The greatest espresso ever? This juror is not ready to vote on that. It is certainly the kind of thick, sweet cup, without distracting floral and citrus oddities, that I like as a regular shot. And it's better than 99 percent of what most people accept as good espresso at corporate chains.

img_0505Ah, the signs of spring -- Turbotax, Daylight Saving Time and warmer weather. What better time to jump-start a moribund blog? I've been kicking around some ideas for posts. For example, I am really grooving on the new Kindle for iPhone application. It is amazing to be reading a book on one device then have the phone call the same text up to the page where I left off. And the updated New York Times iPhone app is snappier than the original, which had grown slower and frustrating with new phone firmware updates. Now I can get depressing economic news right in my hand in a matter of seconds.

I also wanted to blog about some ideas I've been having about Twitter, and how to build a useful and effective personal network, but those thoughts haven't gelled yet.

In the end, it all comes back to coffee, without which nothing happens, especially on this blog. Name: Thunguri

Origin: Ndaorini Cooperative, Nyeri District, Kenya, harvested from November to January at 1850-2100 meters above sea level.

Roasted: Feb. 24 by Intelligentsia.

Purchased: March 4 at Café Grumpy, 224 W. 20th St., Manhattan, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Description: The bag declares, "There's nothing like it. WIth citrus fruit, lemongras and tropical fruit notes, this coffee remains one of the most recognizable and inspiring of our offerings." More extensive tasting notes at Intelligentsia elaborate: "Flavor: Jasmine, currant, guava. Acidity: Citrus-like, mellow. Finish: Soft, nougat, dark chocolate." The roaster also promises the coffee can leave one "speechless with wonder."

The Pour: Once again, I'm reminded of wine-tasting metaphors. That's quite a range of flavors, and this coffee certainly defies precision in description. In my quest for the perfect shot, I have not been a big fan of flowery citrus flavors, but I've come to see words like "currant," "mellow," "nougat" and "dark chocolate" as indicators of something special.

The pitch from Intelligentsia's expert, Geoff Watts, suggests the coffee has a broad appeal (and serves a good economic cause): "Its broad-ranging appeal is certain to excite the taste buds of both the adventuresome and casual sipper. This lot was purchased through Kenya’s newly opened 'Second Window,' which extends communication and purchasing privileges directly from the grower to the roaster." (I've noted before that much of coffee marketing is explicitly progressive in its politics. It's not just a beverage. It's a foreign policy.)

img_0495Watts gives a detailed description of Kenyan growing conditions and traditions, then explains that a mandatory auction system in Kenya allows roasters to purchase beans in single lots "at prices three to four times higher than the best coffees in other countries."

Because of local corruption, the extra money does not always end up in the pockets of the farmers, making their operations barely sustainable, he writes. This lot was purchased under an official "second window" that allows for direct relationships between growers and buyers. Watts, who is heading back there to meet with farmers this year, says the new system is under fierce debate.

I remember drinking a lot of Kenyan coffee, long before the current culinary coffee movement took off, and enjoying it. At $14 per half-pound, this was an expensive bag of beans, and the exotic-sounding description gave me some trepidation. When I first opened the bag, I was hit full in the face with a rich, delicious aroma.

I made a few shots of espresso, enjoying it while pondering the tax paperwork I had put off longer than usual. There was a hint of fruit, but the shot was mostly smooth, rich and almost sweet. (I do think I still prefer the sweet tooth Yellow Icatu from Ritual that I tried out a couple of weeks back, so perhaps that has become my new benchmark.)

Was I left speechless with wonder? Not really. Was I inspired to start on those other blog posts? Sadly, no.

The weather is too nice, and the taxes still aren't finished. But I have spent a pleasant number of minutes trying to figure out exactly what I'm tasting here. And reading about the tough lives of the Kenyan farmers who got it to my cup puts our economic troubles in perspective too.

monthlychart Since October I've been experimenting here with some personal blogging. Why, you might ask, when I already blog at my job? Isn't that a busman's holiday? Perhaps. But I had plunked down money for this domain, and I had some ideas and obsessions to explore that didn't fit in with my work. And I also wanted to conduct a few experiments. When a blog is housed within a major news site, the metrics get hard to sort out. With some great content and breaking news, and a huge built-in audience, it is a simple matter to draw millions of views. (Palafo.com has drawn under 5,000 views in its entire existence, with who knows how many hundreds of those clicks attributable to family and friends.)

Blogging alone is a lot tougher, as some smaller news outlets and out of work journalists may be discovering the hard way. You have to rely on tools found in the wild -- basic search, trackbacks, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, Google Reader, LinkedIn, Digg, reminding friends at parties that you have a blog, etc.

As it turns out, the free host Wordpress.com offers some pretty good measurement tools on the back end. They won't let me use Google analytics -- how irritating -- but the stats they provide are interesting. (No measurement of time spent, unique users and repeat visitors, or other ways to judge engagement, alas,)

Take a look at the chart up top (click to enlarge it). It shows day to day traffic for the last few weeks. Basically, all you need to know is that the peaks are when I blogged. The valleys show up when I took a break. No content, no readers. Simple enough. Without posts, the traffic dives off a cliff. This is one reason big commercial sites (both mainstream and indie) often blog shotgun style, throwing as much content to the search engines and feed readers and social networks as they can, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over time, you do get some repeat visitors, but the Web audience is pretty fickle. They come for the content, and they don't care too much who you are.

The peaks and valleys are more obvious in this week to week chart (click to enlarge):

weeklychart

As you can probably guess from this chart, without looking around the blog, my posting dropped off in recent weeks, from about two or three times a week to once a week. Some work projects came to a head, and I found it more rewarding and easier to Twitter in 140 characters for a potentially large audience than research and write complicated posts requiring photos and so forth. So I never did the planned posts about the New York Comic Convention, the trip to the Spa Castle in Queens, and any number of food-oriented posts. (There's something about blogs and food.)

It was particularly labor-intensive because I was mostly writing about podcasts, which required hours of listening to audio, music (ditto), blogging/social media/books (hours of reading and Web surfing) and single-source coffees that required comparison shopping around town.

Before that wore me down I did learn a few things about what drives traffic to a little blog like mine in a far corner of the Web. Let's look at the all-time top posts (click to enlarge):

topposts

The all-time top post was my advice on a computer problem I encountered: how to get rid of annoying IM coho bots. More about that later.

The No. 2 spot is taken by a list post of my favorite blogs. Web readers love lists, and bloggers love to be put on lists. I had not quite realized the significance of automatic trackbacks, but a lot of blogs use them, so when you link to them, they link back to you. Bloggers themselves will pay you a visit to see what you are saying about them. It is still a thriving form of social media.

Then there was my bio. Not surprising. Just about everyone landing here probably looks at it once.

My list of iPhone apps, updated a few times, also proved surprisingly popular. I put it out at a time when people were having a lot of trouble figuring out which apps were worth using, and there were hundreds of new ones. Plenty of other bloggers had the same idea. It helps to be an early adopter. That list is probably getting a little stale now. I've lost interest in tracking down every single cool app, now that I've settled on the set I need.

The biggest overall topic is podcasting. There are many directories but few that approach the topic in a systematic fashion. My approach was entirely idiosyncratic, and I would have stopped if I hadn't discovered a small but interested audience out there. Podcasters, even commercially successful ones, are rather unreliable about posting reliable show notes or blog posts about their content. And as much as I love the iTunes store, the podcasting area is a bit of a disorganized mess, perhaps because the content is mostly free. That leaves a search void.

My coffee blogging also proved "popular" in the aggregate, because it was aimed at obsessives who are served by a network of blogs and sites that have been going out of business in the economic downturn. While many coffee experts have tried to blog, their expertise tends to be in making great coffee, not writing or blogging. There's definitely an opportunity out there for a good writer who loves coffee and knows more about it than I do.

Any blog post about Twitter is bound to be a hit, especially if you mention it on Twitter. I know, having clicked through to a bunch of them. (The Jan. 23 one about my rules for following on Twitter is the high starting peak in the chart at the top of this post.)

The only real surprises on this list were the N+1 post, about a slightly obscure literary magazine with Luddite pretensions, and the "thoughtprints" post, about a very obscure theater production. Neither had a particularly good Web presence, so these posts filled a void in search results, apparently.

On to the top referring sites. The results below (click to enlarge) taught me that I was better off depending on the curiosity of strangers than the kindness of my friends. The numbers don't lie. Twitter, an open, public platform, wins hands-down, over Facebook, a mostly closed platform where only my friends see my stuff.

referrers

Now, something doesn't quite add up here. These stats don't match the larger views listed by the post. But that's often the case with Web metrics. They are suspect.

During this period I had about the same number of Twitter followers as Facebook friends. I promoted links to my blog on both sites -- probably a little more often on Facebook, thinking people who knew me would show more interest in my stuff. Facebook is a closed system, and only my friends can see my profile. Twitter is open and even shows up in search. But Twitter followers far outperformed Facebook friends on click-throughs. Perhaps they prefer to stay on Facebook, chat and look at each others' pictures. Twitter users seem to be more actively seeking out content.

The biggest surprise may be that Mahalo referral, which keeps on giving. I posted an answer on Mahalo about how to get rid of the instant-message coho bots, with a link to my longer blog post about it. Not only did that answer drive a lot of traffic, but a link to my post has been posted on numerous other blogs. Happy to help.

The rest of the referrers are an assortment of individual Wordpress tags, people clicking links in email, Google reader RSS shares, stumbleupon links, and so forth.

Now, what about search? It doesn't seem to have driven a lot of traffic (click to enlarge):

searchterms

Not surprisingly, many lazy people just type the name of the blog in the search panel rather than bookmarking the site. I do the same thing. The top searched term on Google has been "Yahoo" for many years. This is one reason I picked a short, unusual name for my blog that (I hope) is easy to remember. The other terms are assorted podcast, coffee and blog topics that I briefly mentioned, including the unusual phrase "janky vegetables" from the "Faire du Camping" episode of You Look Nice Today, which is not janky at all.

Most of the few incoming links were trackbacks from posts or blogs I mentioned, and stuff related to the instant-message coho problem.

Now, of course, it is a truism on the Internet that if you send people away with links, they will come back. Where did this blog send people?

clicks

Click to enlarge the chart. The greatest beneficiary here is my own Twitter profile, followed by my Facebook profile.

The other links are mostly blogs from my list, podcast sites from the reviews, and assorted links that have appeared in the feeds at the left of the blog. (Wordpress makes it very easy to share links and feeds from Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Google Reader and so forth, without having to manually post anything here on the blog.)

The most interesting result had nothing to do with traffic here on the blog. I started posting a lot on Twitter in part to promote this blog, as well as share other links I found while looking for stuff to write about on the blog. Then people started following me there, I became part of a community, and I ended up with a bigger, more reliable audience there than here. Click on this Twittercounter chart, for the last three months:

twitcount

That's remarkable. I'll be thinking about Twitter some more and eventually share thoughts here on the blog that require more than 140 characters. I could obviously use the traffic. :)

updateUpdate: After two blog posts, four hours and some promotion on Facebook and Twitter the chart was happily spiking again (at right). Most of the clicks came from Twitter, followed by Facebook, Google Reader and assorted tags here on Wordpress blogs. Plus one click from Mahalo Answers to the IM coho post.

For several months, I had been getting mysterious instant messages from strangers. Somebody with an unfamiliar username ending in -coho would IM me "hey" or "who's this" or some bit of nonsense. I would typically answer "Do I know you?" or "Who's this?" Then the other person would answer: "What are you talking about? You IM'd me!" They turned out to be as equally baffled and suspicious as I was. It took me a while to conclude these people were not scammers or pranksters but victims of the prank too. Eventually, I searched for "coho" and "IM" and found the answer: It's an annoying but apparently harmless Web bot. It seems to be a social experiment, or a prank. Sometimes the IM-bot goes by names that are variations on -trout and -salmon. Mine have been strictly cohoe.

As best anyone can tell, the bot was created by something called Project Upstream, although its first victims on LiveJournal traced it to something called TheGreatHatsby. They typically cite a Wikipedia entry that has since been deleted. There's a fresh take at Mahalo Answers.

It appears that the prank first targeted IM handles harvested from LiveJournal blogs and other sites, before targetingTwitter users. Some people have been frightened that they were being stalked online, while others suspected a virus, spammers or hackers. Complaints to AOL proved fruitless.

Project Upstream describes itself this way:

Project Upstream is an organization dedicated to promoting social ideals through the use of exciting new technology. Our most well-known service is our swarm of robotic fish, which connects AIM users to each other. Robotic fish connections occur spontaneously, and also by request. If you would like to partake in the robotic fish experience, you are encouragd to enter your AIM name below. Your request will be filled as soon as possible.

So, first of all, coho can't spell. And second, there's no verification system. Presumably people can prank unsuspecting people. And what if you don't want to be part of the robotic fish experience? You won't find the answer on that page. But several of the coho-bloggers linked above described a procedure for opting out using a simple command -- $optout.

Once I found out the cause of the IMs, they seemed less alarming. I imagine there are even people who use these pings as an opportunity to goof on random strangers <a href="">with wacky nonsense. (You show up to the other user as something-coho.)

I hadn't decided whether I would opt out the next time I got a bite. And then I didn't hear from one for weeks and weeks and nearly forgot about it, until Monday. HotHeadedCoho interrupted a critical task, and I decided I'd had enough. Plus, I was curious to see if the $optout command actually worked:

3:33 hotheadedcoho I hope your day is wonderfully amazing, just like you! 3:34 [ME] $optout 3:34 hotheadedcoho is now known as HotHeadedCoho. 3:34 HotHeadedCoho OPERATOR: Are you sure you want to opt-out? If you do, you will *never* be contacted again on the account "[ME]". There is *no way* to opt back in and undo this. If you are sure, type "$optout F38A". Remember, this is permanent and irreversible! 3:34 [ME] $optout F38A 3:34 HotHeadedCoho OPERATOR: You have opted out. The accout "[ME]" will *never* be contacted again. Good bye! Feel free to email projectupstream@gmail.com with feedback, comments, complaints, etc.

Now we'll see if this actually works.

I subscribe to the feeds of hundreds of blogs through Google Reader (see shared links to some of them at left), but the list of blogs I actually enjoy reading is short. I'm always looking for additions to that list, and here are some strong contenders, in alphabetical order:

  • Cognitive Daily The "daily" part seems to be a misnomer, but the topics are always fun and interesting. How many tabs do you have open on your browser? Caffeine, memory and the brain. Is it sexist to think men are angrier than women? Another blog from the same site is The Frontal Cortex, also in the same vein and infrequently updated; the author was featured in last Sunday's NYT Magazine.
  • Consumerist This is was one of the best blogs in the Gawker Media empire (sold to Consumer Reports on 12/30). And it's only gotten better since the start of the Great Depression II, despite some staff cuts. Frugal tips from America's cheapest family. Customer call center horror stories. Crowd-sourcing rumors like the Wal-Mart iPhone. Abuses by the credit-card industry. How to write complaint letters to consumer-abusing corporations.
  • The Daily Beast Tina Brown's ripoff of The Huffington Post is better-written, better-designed, better edited and more provocative than the original. Brown attracts big-name talent, and there's a coherent editing philosophy (unlike the endless stream of often-predictable blah-blah at HuffPo -- 250+ items on Friday alone! More than 60 already today! I need an assistant to read it). The Beast is attractive and well-organized with some cute ideas. Too bad it launched on the eve of the Great Depression II. Just don't try to turn it into a magazine. I've canceled most of mine.
  • Dlisted and Last Night's Party My friend Louis, who is in the financial industry, recommended these. They seem to be for people who think Gawker and TMZ are too high-brow.
  • David Byrne Journal The personal observations of the former Talking Heads frontman. Updated at an erratic pace, and hard to pin down. Sometimes he posts about riding his bike around New York (I see him all the time). Sometimes he writes about about music and touring. Sometimes about art. Then there's this post about the newspaper business. David Byrne is the only cool celebrity. His secret? He remains a genuine human being.
  • Fail Blog The Web cliché comes alive. Bad math. Fail! More bad math. Fail! Video of an exploding VCR. Fail! Trying to look cool with naked guy behind you. Fail! Bad parking job. Fail! Etc.
  • kung fu grippe The personal Web log of Merlin Mann a k a @hotdogsladies on Twitter, frequent MacBreak Weekly podcast guest, and the mad genius behind the You Look Nice Today podcast. The title is a G.I. Joe reference, I'm pretty sure. Quotes and videos mostly. He is also behind the brilliant 5ives list blog, which has not been updated since August, but is funny as hell. And, of course, 43 Folders, get organized, blah blah blah.
  • Mashable Incredible amounts of practical information about apps, tech, social media, the Web, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, the iPhone, and the like. Sometimes too promotional but always enjoyable. Many many lists: 5 Reasons to Install Google Desktop Today, Twitter Lawsuits: 4 Reasons Your Tweets Might Be Trouble, The Year in Tweets: The 10 Most Memorable Twitter Moments of 2008, Career Toolbox: 100 Places to Find Jobs, and the 24 Most Underrated Web Sites of 2008.
  • The Official Google Blog. Because you have to know what they're thinking about over there.
  • Pinakothek A blog about pictures by the writer Luc Sante a k a The All Seeing Eye Jr. Updated irregularly, but each post is a polished gem, like "The Poetry of Ellery Queen" and "Debraining." Then there is this wonderful paragraph.
  • Portfolio's Mixed Media I don't read Portfolio the magazine. Is it still published? But I like its media blog. It's smart. It's sassy. It's a good guide to reports of the media meltdown, real and rumored. And possibly doomed. (Just a rumor!) Enjoy it while you can.
  • ScienceDaily Science is fun. And sometimes a little weird. Pain hurts more if the person hurting you means it. First U.S. patient gets face transplant. Whispering bats are shrieking 100 times louder than previously thought. Thanks, science!
  • Scobleizer Oh, Robert Scoble. So egocentric, so insane. Look at Scoble! Look at Scoble! But I do love his blog. And his multiple Twitter accounts. And his Friendfeed. Powerful critiques of blog comments. Deep thoughts about Twitter. And Friendfeed. And Facebook. And so forth. Fall into the Scoble vortex.
  • This Recording I'm not entirely sure what it is, or what it is trying to do, but I came across this while writing this post about N+1, and I like it. And in the end, that is all I ask from a blog. Recent posts: an appreciation of John Lindsay, working as a medical test subject, an essay on tattoos by somebody who does not care for them much (me neither -- nothing personal!), and something by Emily Gould.
  • Have a suggestion for a blog to follow? Add it in the comments. Thanks.

    I jumped into an esoteric debate Wednesday evening: What is the most effective way mainstream media can use social media like Twitter? Should they never post RSS feeds automatically? Must every tweet be crafted by human hands? Notice that I don't say "old media," because I happen to think that term is bull. Plenty of supposedly "old media" outlets have been on the Web since the earliest days and produce innovative multimedia content that is as good as or better than anything found elsewhere in the "new media." But that doesn't make for a good story. (Yes, plenty of old media practitioners still have their heads in the sand. And I don't claim to have figured it all out -- my point is, nobody has figured it out. The Web is 20 minutes old. Nobody knows anything.)

    Anyway, the first thing I re-learned was how hard it is to have an extended discussion on Twitter. My Tweets are in one place, under my updates. The other person's replies are somewhere else, and I can't even link to them easily on Twitter. I have to use this search tool. Messages are limited to 140 characters. We're surrounded by a cloud of unrelated tweets by others, in varying degrees of engagement, who also might get annoyed if you're posting every 30 seconds. There is no threading, and Twitter lacks other tools we expect in messaging/commenting software. (Direct messages on Twitter are even worse, as Robert Scoble notes.)

    So for the sake of preserving this record, here's the discussion I had with somebody Twittering for the MediaTricks blog about media organizations that put up RSS feeds using services like Twitterfeed.

    NYT is a culprit, with many automatic headline feeds, including one for the City Room blog, where humans also tweet sometimes. I follow MediaTricks on Twitter (they return the favor), and butted into a conversation about Twitterfeed. I have, with some labor, turned the tweets into a conversation:

    [@mediatricks to] @baltimoresun: Congrats on turning off Twitterfeed. Thanks for the mention, too. Turning it off has been a winning formula for media so far.

    [@palafo (me)] to @mediatricks: What's the argument against using Twitterfeed?

    @mediatricks This is our argument: [MediaTricks blog link] Twitter is not a push medium. On Twitter, do you prefer following RSS over following people?

    @palafo I follow both RSS and people on Twitter. I find it useful to have them in the same place. No need for rules; market decides.

    @mediatricks Not rules, just advice based on our experience. We think media misses out on the "social" part of social media w/RSS via Twitter.

    @palafo Really? Then why do 14,000-plus people follow CNN and NYT rss feeds? They're getting something out of it.

    @mediatricks Check out @news8Austin or @kvue (RSS) vs. @kxan_news (human) to see apples-to-apples. Same market, same size operations.

    @palafo Will do. I have posted a longer comment on your post, because Twitter is simply not a useful tool for an extended chat.

    @mediatricks Followers are not getting social interaction still. People follow them b/c they're large & established. They're the exceptions.

    @palafo Hm. It's not just media. There are power Twitter users who get personal but follow few people themselves. It's not that social.

    It's possible there was some cross-talk here. The conversation continued over on the Old Media New Tricks blog. (The comments there are in reverse-chronological order, yet threaded, which I find a little jarring, personally.)

    Here's my take. As I mentioned in my tweets, I use my personal Twitter account to talk to real people and to follow RSS feeds of selected news organizations and blogs. It is handy to have them all in one place.

    Patrick LaForge: Twitter is too young for its users to start making up rules on how it should be used. Nobody knows until different approaches are tried. Let the market decide. CNN has about 14,000 followers for its feed. Someone gets value from that. Nobody's making them follow. Likewise, NYT has a variety of feeds for its sections and blogs that people follow, or don't. There are also many individuals who work there who have personal Twitter accounts (like me) who dive into the social interaction.

    What I prefer is truth in labeling. If you are an individual on Twitter, use an individual's name or handle, and we can chat. Don't call yourself "IndyStar" or "MediaTricks." I expect an institutional name like that to be an RSS feed with only occasional human updates, and I don't really want it pestering me for feedback or crowdsourcing or sharing the views of an unnamed person who is paid to "keep it real" under the outlet's name.

    Twitter is still a very small audience, not worth a lot of staffing resources for a large media organizaiton. It is also a flawed tool. No threading, poor archiving, inadequate search. I am posting on your blog because 140 characters was simply too limiting and bound to get lost in the flood of Tweets, not from RSS feeds, which are predictable, but from the umpteenth individual telling me what's for dinner tonight. (Don't get me wrong, I do get a kick out of that stuff.)

    Robert Quigley: Thanks, Patrick, for the comment. I our defense of @mediatricks, our real names are listed in the bio. There's no hiding our identities.

    We have found Twitter to be worth staffing, despite its flaws. It doesn't take that much to staff, and the feedback we've received is overwhelmingly positive.

    You're right - the market can decide. I personally unfollowed @NYTimes (despite loving the paper) because it's an RSS feed, which I get from Google Reader. People can unfollow our account because they WANT an RSS feed. It's just our experience that people prefer a human-staffed account, therefore it's our advice. The NYT, WSJ, CNN are exceptions because they're mammoth national outlets.

    You may call social interaction "pestering," but our followers (of @statesman and @ColonelTribune) haven't complained. Check out some the feedback from @statesman's followers. It's as much about brand-building (or more) than it is about getting people to click our links.

    Twitter is still a small audience, but it is a social media tool. I don't think anyone doubts that. If your paper is going to use social media (Twitter or elsewhere), our advice (just our advice, not a rule) is to use it for *social* media.

    Patrick LaForge: ... I don't think Twitter is all that social. Even the individuals on it are broadcasting their likes/dislikes, links, blog posts, what they had for dinner. There's a little back and forth but not a lot of tolerance for an ongoing conversation. It's not that social. There are big names on Twitter who are definitely humans posting, but they only follow a few people and have very little social interaction. The tool itself creates this asynchronous community, with very little to encourage more than passing interaction. It's not THAT social.

    Quigley: Sure, it is what you want it to be. We happen to get quite a bit of useful social interaction out of it (beyond what you're eating). It has its limitations, but we don't think it should be dismissed because of them. And news organizations CAN benefit from that social exchange.

    LaForge: Individuals within a news organization can benefit. I really don't see any value in WKRP pretending to Twitter like a live person. Because the examples you've sent me just look like a slightly more sophisticated version of a feed, maintained by a low level producer or assistant. It would be better for the on-air personalities and reporters to all get their own Twitter accounts and be themselves. And keep a feed out there, why not. That's my advice, based on my experience.

    The only thing I would add here is that many people have no idea what Twitter is. Compared to Facebook or blogs or plain old Web sites, it is a niche Internet service with a small number of users. Even fewer people could tell you what an RSS feed is. So this debate is really esoteric nerdstuff.

    There are other comments worth reading over there, probably more enlightening than my own unedited ramblings. I commend them to you, and the ether. Some day someone will make sense of it all, I'm sure. And someone else will pop up to disagree, in 140 characters or less, in a streaming video blast from his or her Mark V brain plug.

    I read blogs for my job. I used to read them for fun. There was a certain satisfaction circa 2002 in answering the question, "where did you hear that?" with the name of a blog the other person had never heard of, which by now is a blog that person is sick of reading. Of course, now dogs have blogs. Dogs. Have blogs. This is deplorable. One good thing about the old Internet was that we didn't know they were dogs. And we thought they were fascinating. Good blogs have a few things in common. They are the often the product of an obsession, or a collection of obsessions. They are reported. And, yes -- well-curated links count as reporting. Good blogs are surprising. They are fresh. They break news. They are visually interesting. They make us laugh. They make us email our friends. They are sometimes deep. They update frequently. In other words, they are nothing like the lame personal blog you are reading.

    The true test is whether you return. Here are 10 blogs that get my repeat business. That means their feeds are in my top folder in Google Reader, and I scroll through the headlines every day, even if I don't read every post. They are not, generally, mean-spirited or political or full of opinion.

    • BoingBoing I used to read BoingBoing when it was a print zine. By many measures, this group blog is consistently ranked at the top. Mark Fraunfelder, Corey Doctorow and Xeni Jardin, among other writers here, are some of the clearest thinkers about the Web and digital media. Obsessions include gadgets, steampunk, comics, copyright, robots, still and moving images, games, puzzles, madness, art. Chances are, if you come across something fresh and wild online, if it didn't originate on BoingBoing, it will be posted there within the next 10 minutes. If I could read just one blog, this is the one.
    • Cool Tools One new tool recommendation a day. I have bought utensils, eco-friendly shoes, toys and gadgets recommended here. The blog was started by Kevin Kelly, former editor of the Whole Earth Review, Wired and the subject of one of the most interesting interviews ever to be broadcast on "This American Life," in 1995. Go listen to it.
    • kottke.org Jason Kottke has been serving up fine hypertext products at his blog about the liberal arts since March 1998. He has his finger on the pulse of the Internet. Chances are, if you are about to blog it, Kottke has already blogged it. He has a nose for online innovation, curiosities, important trends and goofball concepts.
    • Metafliter A community site started by Matt Haughey when blogs were still called weblogs. It is still going strong. It's hard to define what makes a good FPP, and I haven't tried in ages, but skip the newsfilter; the real action is in the comments, which are witty, intelligent and only sometimes brutal. And if you have a question about anything -- anything -- Ask Metafilter, and get multiple answers, in a feature badly copied by Yahoo, Google and others.
    • Fimoculous Rex Sorgatz reads the Web so I don't have to, then he links to the best stuff. Short, to the point, prolific, on hot topics. He makes it look easy, but -- it isn't.
    • Streetsblog If you don't ride a bike or walk on sidewalks in New York City, you may not want to read this blog, but I do and I do, so I do.
    • The Unofficial Apple Weblog There must be 10,000 Apple and Mac news/rumor blogs, and I've read them all, but in the end you only need one, and this is the one I picked, because it taught me how to jailbreak my iPhone.
    • Ephemeral New York "Chronicling an ever-changing city through fading and forgotten artifacts." I don't know how she finds this stuff, but it's all cool.
    • Dvorak Uncensored Weird crime. Bizarre health claims. Why read it in tomorrow's Post or Daily News when you can read it at John C. Dvorak's WTF-news site first?

    O.K., that's only 9. There are several tied for 10th place. I'll save them for another post.

    img_0298

    When the news of the day seems particularly big, I wonder what my parents would think about it all. They're dead, and gone with them are all the stories and family lore that I only half-listened to when I was younger. Rattling around in my head are half-remembered snippets of conversations about their childhoods in the Great Depression, long-ago presidents and wars, those scary Beatles with their rock and roll, pulp fiction and radio dramas. They lived through World War II, the atom bomb, the invention of television, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, pet rocks, disco and the bad old 70's, the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis, recessions and more. They never saw my journalism career leap beyond the small-town stage. They never met their granddaughter. Then again, they haven't had to live through the worry of my blood-clot scares nor their other son's repeated deployments to wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I wish they had kept journals, or blogged, so I could show what they wrote to my daughter. But they didn't keep diaries, and there were no blogs then, and I can only make out every other word in my mother's cursive script in letters that she wrote. She had me late in life, and she died in 1986, when I was 24, just starting out. Leukemia, after she beat colon cancer.

    My father, Ed, or Eddie, depending on who was talking, lived about 11 years longer than my mother, Kay, a surprise to him, considering his fondness for booze, cigarettes and red meat, and her abstention from most vices. He was a man of the old school, reserved when it came to affection, but often loud, angry, not always kind to her, or any of us. Before he retired, he worked as a bureaucrat for the national security state, and the cold war defined his adult life, as the war in the Pacific had defined his youth. He flew to then-exotic places like California and Florida when jet travel was still in its golden age, returning with stories of the Magic Castle, the Playboy Club, and beaches in January. He was a wit, sometimes the life of the party, always ready with a joke, the center of attention. My brother and I were his TV channel changers, his butlers. "Get your old man a beer out of the fridge." Indeed.

    My old man kicked the bucket from lung cancer complications in 1997, and my uncle was the executor of his estate.

    Long after the paperwork was done, my uncle mailed me a package of documents -- Army records from my father's Philippines tour, various vital documents, security clearance forms for the job with the Defense Department, a weathered brown wallet with a Playboy Club card, a stopped watch. And there was a spiral notebook, too, of some jottings, from mid-1986, not long after Ma died, leaving him rattling around alone in that big old house up in the frozen wastes in that rural air force town that he thought would be a great place for us to grow up (it was) and maybe even stick around (boring and in decline, so we didn't). They had lived for several years in the vicinity of New York City, but I know little about those years, apart from left-over photos (like the $1.25 souvenir shot above from Nick's in Greenwich Village, a jazz joint) and stories of living in Shanks Village, an outpost of former barracks turned into housing for veterans in Rockland County.

    Ed was never a good investor, lost his shirt in mutual funds once, but stuck with the old standbys of passbook savings, mortgages, pensions, certificates of deposit, a federal pension. In the end he ran up a lot of credit card debt, and nursing home expenses, and my uncle sold off the house to pay off the bills. But creditors can't touch life insurance, and it isn't taxed, and that nest egg got me seriously started as an investor.

    He wanted to be a writer once, so maybe I got that bug from him. He used to write wonderful jeremiads against banks and utility companies and, after he retired, politicians and the like. When he was young, he wrote some short stories. One was about a World War II veteran who was suffering from what today we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. The guy blew his head off at the end, sort of an obvious ending, and Salinger did the same thing better, but his prose was just fine.

    After he quit the fiction game for a salaryman's life of paperwork, my old man spent the rest of his life reading impossible stacks of books and magazines (Gourmet, Playboy, Esquire), with the TV on most of the time, from the moment he walked in the door until he went to bed. His other hobbies were outdoor activities without a lot of talking -- golf, fly-fishing and ice-fishing, hunting with bow, rifle and shotgun. If there was a gutted deer hanging in the garage in the fall, it was a good year.

    He was the one who told me to learn about computers, there's money in it, and he logged me onto the Arpanet back in the 1970's with a terminal from work. It didn't have a screen -- it had a roll of paper. It connected through couplers that you screwed onto the telephone handset. The only people on the pre-Internet were military types and academics, sharing research and occasionally furtively playing text-based games and chatting. I caught the bug then. Networking. Talking. BBS's and Usenet newsgroups, eventually the Web when it was just a handful of sites. People looked at me funny when I talked about how it was going to change the world. Yeah, right.

    But then came the 90s, and the Web explosion, and I put my money in tech before it was a bubble. And when I got out, it was partly dumb luck and partly the old man's voice telling me this was a little crazy, slow down, they'll skin you if they can. He knew about hardship. When he was growing up in the Great Depression, his parents shipped some of the kids off to an aunt because there wasn't enough food for all of them at home.

    When I want to remember his voice, I read the few words he ever bothered to set down in his later life, mailed to me in that envelope from my uncle, painstakingly printed by hand, a blog before there were such things:

    4-28-86

    +Four weeks yesterday (27 April 86). Still seems unreal. Mass cards/ letters are trickling after the initial flood.

    +My feelings are more in check except when answering a letter or note from a close friend. Better than letting it build up destructively, I guess. Still having trouble concentrating on the job, or the so-called important things (ie. income tax, bills, refinancing the house.)

    +Worked in the garden yesterday for a while -- too hot. Planted some broccoli. Nabbed the boy next door to cut the grass -- explained the do's and don'ts. Trying to civilize this barbarian was probably one of my better ideas -- he won't kill the golden goose. Maybe!

    +My favorite fishing rod and reel (the ultra lite) has disappeared -- no idea where to! Must replace!

    +Got to get things sorted out.

    12 May 86

    +I never said this was a diary. It's a way of me communicating with myself, I guess. Mr. Y--- of C--- and Sons and I have struck a bargain of sorts. The head stone should be ready in about 6 weeks ($875). That, plus the funeral, took about $5,000, which is what I had figured. Another 20 years, it will be triple!

    +I planted some Impatiens on the plot on Mother's day -- she always loved them -- it would be nice if someone could do it every year.

    +I scared the shit out of E---- the other night, I suppose. I told her and B-- if it wasn't for you guys, the obvious solution to my grief, at first, was the obvious one. I think I meant it but when you're in deep distress, what the hell do you really know. I still cry every day! Oh God, how I miss her.

    13 July 86

    +All it takes sometimes is a little thing; a song that reminds me or a phrase in an old movie (e.g. "Chapter 2" when James Caan says "How dare she die -- I'd never do that to her"). Jesus!

    It ends there. I am impressed by the economy of language. He had a need to say something, write it down, and he did for a while. Then he moved on.

    But he kept on living, for years, in that old house, giving up fishing and hunting eventually, slowly losing his lungs to emphysema, driving down to his favorite Italian restaurant with an oxygen tank on a little wheeled cart, breaking his hips a couple of times, calling me with me updates on the upstate weather (136 inches of snow!). When I showed him the early Web, he was impressed, but he waved off my offers of a computer. By then, it was too complicated to learn something new. He spent most of his spare time gardening and running VCRs in every room to tape all his shows. He would have loved TiVo.

    My parents' relatively early deaths, their setbacks, their stories of growing up when everyone was poor, the 1970s with their cultural chaos -- all these experiences have made me skeptical of progress, not quite believing the balance in my 401K or that the good jobs would last, that my health would hold out, that anything awaits any of us at the end of the line besides a shrinking circle of pain. It's the kind of outlook that leads my father, a proud atheist married to a daily church-going woman, to let a priest mumble by his deathbed, I suppose.

    It was a few years ago that I got this stuff in the mail. My daughter was young, and I was inspired to write down some thoughts on my laptop:

    I spent part of this night sitting up with a toddler who had been throwing up periodically for hours. She will never know her grandparents, though she has her grandfather's eyebrows, as do I, and a little of her grandmother's smile.

    After she finally fell asleep, I sat for a while on my little bench in the darkness, listening to her breath, listening to mine, then to hers, then to mine, hers, mine, inhale, exhale, our mortal bodies sharing certain pieces of code, strands of DNA, mixed up and handed down through the generations, destined one day for cold stillness.

    But not yet

    The top aide to New York's governor has quit in a scandal over his failure to file his taxes since 2001. His lawyer says he suffers from something called "late-filing syndrome." A paper by a lawyer and a psychiatrist says people with the syndrome are perfectionists and workaholics, who have difficulty talking about their problems with others and cannot ask for help until their secret is exposed. Furthermore:

    1. They are sophisticated, both financially and with respect to taxes.
    2. The reality of ultimate discovery of the failure to file is obvious to them.
    3. The potential penalties, both financial and professional, are clear to them.
    4. They acknowledge that these penalties will likely occur.
    5. There is often no clear benefit to not filing, in that either (a) there is no significant tax due, or (b) they have the money to cover their tax liability, or (c) they can easily borrow the money to cover the liability.
    6. They usually have a history of filing in the past.
    7. They sometimes get extensions and make some estimated payments.
    8. They often are anxious and obsessed about not filing.

    9. And yet, exhibiting self-destructive behavior like lemmings rushing to the sea, they do not file until the I.R.S. is upon them.

    That's from a New York Law Journal article from 1994 titled "'Failure to File' Syndrome: Legal and Medical Perspectives," by Elliot Silverman, a lawyer, and Dr. Stephen J. Coleman, a practicing psychiatrist

    Nicholas Confessore of The Times reports that the syndrome has not yet received widespread recognition among psychiatrists. City room readers are skeptical. And yes, there were plenty of jokes in the newsroom on deadline about reporters with "late filing syndrome."

    Posted
    AuthorPatrick LaForge
    CategoriesBlogging

    City Room has posted a chart showing the most popular baby names in New York City in 2007. Most of the popular names have the whiff of daytime dramas (Madison? Justin?), even among those from non-European backgrounds. The No. 1 name for Asian boys? Ryan. For Hispanic girls? Ashley. But, I wondered, what happens when you dig deeper into the health department's full list [pdf]? You find boys with somewhat unusual names for this day and age, like Achilles, Shemar, Shiloh, Orion; and small clusters of baby girls with names like Dakota, Essence, Heaven, Serenity, Shiloh again, Treasure, Precious and Princess.

    Somewhere in this city, 13 baby girls were named Harmony (No. 148 on the list) and 12 were named Lyric (No. 149).

    There were 17 girls given the name London (No. 144) and 24 named Paris (No. 137). For the city, we hope, and not the presidential candidate.

    Just 18 were named for Milan (at No. 143).

    And, continuing a trend first noticed a couple of years ago, there were 126 baby girls given the name Nevaeh (No. 53) last year -- "Heaven" backwards.

    And, underscoring the importance of spelling even early in life, 10 were named Neveah.

    Posted
    AuthorPatrick LaForge

    There are just 24 side-by-side seats at the long communal table at Socarrat Paella Bar on 19th Street in Chelsea, as Frank Bruni noted last week in The Times, and they don't take reservations. So when our party of eight -- including four kids -- showed up on Sunday night, the math was against us, even though we were arriving before 6. We would have needed a third of the entire restaurant. The place was already jammed, but the owner had a soft spot for kids and saw our dilemma as we were about to wander off in search of a different place. It was a warm October night, an unseasonable 70 degrees. We were walked through the kitchen to a big table on a back, open-air patio. The kids ran around while we ate. The paella was as great as billed, according to one in our party, who grew up eating the home-made stuff. I doubt we would get this lucky again, but I definitely plan to go back (probably with just a party of 2 this time).

    Posted
    AuthorPatrick LaForge

    Updated  Sept. 16, 2012.

    When I started working on the metropolitan desk of The New York Times in 1997, the newsroom was using a publishing system known as Atex for text editing. Usernames were six characters long. The naming convention at the time was to take the first two letters of the staffer's given name and the first four letters of the surname. Patrick+LaForge=Palafo.

    Not every Atex username had a mellifluous combination of consonants and vowels, but mine did. On a whim, I used it as a username on various sites in the early years of the Web and as an e-mail address with a succession of Internet service providers. The vaguely Italian-sounding but non-existent name was usually available, while my actual name was already being snapped up by my French-Canadian-Irish doppelgängers.

    The Atex naming convention used by The Times was abandoned (along with Atex), but a few of us still use the naming convention in e-mail addresses.

    I have been a computer nerd and geek since a time before there was a Web, and I was a bit of an early Web pioneer, but I did not use the name for a blog until I started the earliest version of this one in 2008. Here's hoping I don't besmirch it in the permanent record for all time.

    Regarding the pronunciation: Some people have been known to say PAL-ah-foe, but I prefer to stress the syllable that is also the first syllable of my surname: puh-LAAF-oh. Sort of like palazzo.