Being the New York Times's Complaint Department
Question: What stands out from your stint as New York \r\nTimes public editor?
Daniel Okrent: Well, the thing that I learned while I was\r\n there, much to my surprise, was the—well there were several things. \r\nOne was the defensiveness of journalists, which I should have known \r\nhaving been a journalist myself for several decades. Secondarily, the \r\nimpact of what’s said in The Times is enormous. And I think even moreso\r\n today, even though the paper is under attack, than it was five or 10 \r\nyears ago. Because as other news organizations are weakened, as you see \r\nyet another cut in the staff of this newspaper or that television \r\nnetwork, The Times, which has had very few cuts relatively speaking, \r\nbecomes yet more important. It’s the place where the rest of the news \r\nindustry turns for its news. It’s where the rest of the news industry \r\ngoes to get its leads on what’s important to the day. And that came on \r\nto me very, very clearly during the time that I was there.
All \r\nthe more reason why it is essential for The Times to do the best \r\npossible job and all the more reason for its journalists not to be \r\ndefensive about it because as the best of them will say, if I make a \r\nmistake, I want to know, I want to be able to correct it.
Question:\r\n Did you encounter any hostility from the paper's staff?
Daniel Okrent: When I arrived, people were very, very \r\ndubious, and in some cases openly hostile. A few remained hostile for \r\nthe entire period I was there, but by and large, I think they learned \r\nthat though I could say whatever I wished to say in my column in the \r\npaper, I was not speaking for their bosses. I was speaking only for \r\nmyself. Though it could be embarrassing, it could be enraging, they’d \r\ncome in, in the morning on Monday after my column would appear on Sunday\r\n and it was still their newspaper, it wasn’t my newspaper. So, the more\r\n extreme hostility did begin to fade away, although, you know, no one \r\nlikes a cop. I was Internal Affairs, except I was not representing the \r\ninstitution. I was internal affairs from the outside. No one wanted to\r\n see my name on the caller id’s box because I couldn’t be calling about \r\ngood news. No one wanted to see me walk up to their desk; I wouldn’t be\r\n there because somebody had written to me to say what a good job the \r\njournalist did. I was the bearer of bad tidings.
\r\n Question: What was the toughest issue you had to deal \r\nwith as public editor?
Daniel Okrent: Well the toughest thing was not about \r\nsomething that had happened while I was at the paper. The toughest \r\nthing was dealing with The Times’ coverage of the weapons of mass \r\ndestruction and the Bush Administration’s reason for going to war in \r\n2003. I arrived at the paper in December, 2003, after the scandal, the \r\nJayson Blair scandal. I like to refer to myself as the unwanted love \r\nchild of Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, after Raines was replaced by \r\nBill Keller, they then created this job. They brought me in. But the \r\nthing that seemed to continue to nag at a huge portion of the readership\r\n and a very large portion of the people on the staff was what had \r\nhappened before. And I had established as a rule when I began: I can’t \r\nwrite about things that happened before I came to The Times, because I’d\r\n be writing about the coverage of the Holocaust, which The Times did a \r\nvery bad job on. I’d be writing about The Times’ coverage of Stalin, \r\nwhich they did a horrible job on. It would disappear into the mists of \r\nhistory.
Nonetheless, over a period of months, after I arrived \r\nthere, I realized that the absence of The Times’ own coverage of its own\r\n mistakes wasn’t fair for me to comment on. The Times should have been \r\nwriting about what it had gotten wrong, what it and the press had gotten\r\n wrong. So, the absence, The Times’ failure to cover that became, I \r\nthoughti justification for me to write about it. And that was without \r\nquestion, the most controversial issue among readers and also people at \r\nthe paper.
As it happened, it was received pretty well at the \r\npaper. There were very few people who are proud of that coverage. It \r\nwas also true that the management, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, they \r\nwere gone from the paper. But there were still a few people in important\r\n positions who had been responsible for some for the bad coverage and \r\nthey weren’t very happy with what I did.
Then the next most \r\nconsequential thing was when I was there during the 2004 Presidential \r\ncampaign, and of my advice to all who had contemplated becoming public \r\neditor of The Times, don’t do it during a Presidential campaign because \r\nhalf the people are going to be displeased with absolutely everything \r\nthat appears in the paper. So, in one day, there would be this picture \r\nof John Kerry looking foolish, let’s say, a stupid grin on his face. And\r\n there would be this wave of emails and phone calls and people visiting \r\nthe office saying, “this proves that The Times is anti-Kerry.” They \r\ndidn’t notice the picture of Bush looking foolish the day before because\r\n they expect Bush to look foolish, and vice versa. If there were a \r\npicture of a smiling John Kerry, looking great and heroic, the Bush \r\nsupporters would complain that, “See, you’re supporting Kerry,” not \r\nhaving noticed that they had run a similar picture of Bush the day \r\nbefore.
So headlines, captions, photographs, everything \r\ndispleased, angered half the people. And I came up with kind of a \r\nphilosophical construct about it, which is that people, particularly \r\nabout things they care about, as they read the newspaper and encounter \r\nnews from any other source, what they think, how it conforms to their \r\nview of the world, they accept as fact. And that which does not conform\r\n to their view of the world they think is biased; not different, they \r\nthink it’s biased. And in these divided times, it makes it very, very \r\nhard to put out a newspaper and not be perceived as following one way or\r\n the other.
\r\n Question: What issues were readers most concerned about?
\r\nDaniel Okrent: There’s a great displeasure about anonymous sources, \r\nand though The Times has made an effort to put that phrase after, \r\n“according to a source who choose to remain anonymous because he didn’t \r\nwant to make is boss angry,” or whatever it might be, or "didn’t have \r\npermission to talk." That mitigates a little bit, but what I found, and\r\n this did surprise and dismay me—because even though I’ve always been \r\nsuspicious about anonymous sources myself I have, in fact, used them in \r\nmy career as a journalist—is that readers thought that the reporter was \r\nmaking that up. Readers... "here’s a quotation about what went on \r\nbehind closed doors in the White House and according to a highly placed \r\nsource." And readers thought, well that was the reporter wanting to get\r\n his or her thoughts into the piece. It really didn’t happen.
And\r\n that, if you stop to think about it, I mean I can’t imagine anything \r\nthat is more destabilizing and potentially ruinous to the reputation of \r\njournalists than people thinking the journalist is making things up.
I\r\n have come to believe that we’re much better off if the journalist puts \r\nit in his or her own voice. Makes the assertion without quotations that\r\n this is what was discussed behind closed doors. Then we know who it’s \r\ncoming from and whom to blame. I see that name at the top of it and I \r\nsay, "Do I trust that person?" Well, you know, if it’s David Sanger, \r\nfor instance, you bet I trust it because he has a wonderful record of \r\nbeing right. And I don’t need to have this invented... or not invented,\r\n I’m sorry. I don’t need to have this ghost, this scepter, this unnamed\r\n source be there as an authority because that source is not an authority\r\n if he or she does not have a name.
There’s a lot of \r\nquestioning among readers about the relationship of journalists and \r\ntheir sources. So that, for instance, when I was at the paper, two very\r\n senior journalists and the Washington Bureau Chief, several people at \r\nthe Washington Bureau, had dinner with Condoleezza Rice. And it was \r\nreported and I don’t know where it showed up, but it was a friendly \r\ndinner. It shows up in a society column, a gossip column, whatever it \r\nmight be. And that led a lot of readers to say, "Wait, I thought you \r\nwere supposed to be policing these guys. I thought you were supposed to\r\n be holding Condoleezza Rice and her policies at arms length. But if \r\nyou’re palling around with them, if you’re buddy-buddy with them, then \r\ncan we really trust you?" So, there was a lot of anger from the left, \r\nfrom Democrats, over that, just as I imagined there would be if it were \r\nnow, if it were Hillary Clinton sitting down and having a pleasant \r\ndinner with people.
There is a lot of doubt among readers about\r\n whether journalists can really be honest about people with whom they \r\nhad decent social relations. And I think in some cases, they’re right \r\nto have that doubt. Although generally not. I think that it is a \r\nmeasure of a good journalist that you are willing to, not stab your \r\nfriends in the back, but if you stab them in the front, that’s okay.
Recorded on: April 16, 2010
Readers of the "paper of record" took issue with perceived bias in everything from headlines to photo captions. But they were most concerned about the use of anonymous sources.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.