Here comes everybody, copying

People are taking the old adage of faking it until you make it to its logical conclusion.

I often start writing with snatches of ideas from wherever I’ve found them, so I get it.

I scribble in my notes, kick off with bits of inspiration from whatever I’m reading. It’s a way to get the ideas flowing, to sidestep a dreaded blank page. As I work my way through and finesse the concepts, story, style into something that’s more my thing it usually takes its own shape.

But over the past year or so serious plagiarism has popped up again and again, and in unlikely quarters.

There have been countless other examples. Artists, authors, advertisers and virtually everyone else.

There have been plenty of big cases before now, the German science minister is even under pressure for plagiarism in a doctoral thesis over 30 years ago.

But with content farms and ‘curated’ blogs, under-resourced newsrooms and everyone being pushed to file more and more stories, it seems to be getting more prevalent.

There’s even a blog called Plagiarism Today tracking the issue. I love that Steve Buttry developed a quiz to make sure people in his newsroom get the attribution right.

Here’s one today. Dan Keogh picked up that Scientific American blogger Bec Crew‘s post had been plagiarised by a reporter from the Daily Mail.

Here’s Dan’s tweet: http://twitter.com/ProfessorFunk/status/261295777140338688/photo/1

He picked it up using a tool created to help Wikipedia pick up ‘duplicates’.

[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Fail like you’ve foreseen it

Think how quickly the global financial crisis spiralled out from a niche banking sector, and the likes of Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Morgan Lynch, to the larger US and global economies. And more recently, the way Spain’s tiny cajas banks collapsing is affecting the much stronger German and French economies.

Cajas started out as small local institutions that took deposits and made small loans, but when Spain entered the eurozone that changed. Suddenly everyone wanted to lend Spain money and the cajas starting financing large construction projects — one built an airport in La Mancha, another opened a theme park. Now many of these loans are going bad, and the future of these cajas is being questioned.

That’s from a Caitlin Kenney story on NPR’s Planet Money.

(Castilla La Mancha, snapped by Jacob Garcia)

The problem is we just don’t have buffers when we fail. We live in this increasingly interconnected world: investments don’t pause at our increasingly porous borders, and we’re personally connected through international freight and travel and social media. The relentless efficiency measures wherever you work mean that when someone gets sick, there’s noone left to cover.

My last post on failure raised but didn’t really explain why complex problems in the environment, health care and our cities are so prone to not being solved by intuitive, obvious solutions. And I’m not sure I’m ready to do it now, but the post triggered some really interesting discussions on Twitter, as well as some furious linking, and I thought it was worth a follow up.

The answer: it’s complicated. There’s not much fat and we’re all connected, so when something goes wrong, it spreads. It cascades. And solving problems in that kind of situation takes a broader view.

I guess the problem is that we don’t think about these complicated scenarios as being any different to other problems. We hammer politicians or managers because from everyone’s perspective there’s a self-evident answer – it’s just that often they’re completely different answers.

One of the links I was sent (thanks Ceri Donoghue) pointed to a Weh Yeoh post at WhyDev on how failure is being dealt with in international development and disaster relief, particularly in Haiti, where a fraction of the pledged relief funds have come through – and even if they were, are still dwarfed by the scale.

Failure is an unavoidable condition, risk and inherent part of disaster relief, reconstruction and development. It is not distinguishable from success, but one and the same. Success will not be achieved as soon as food aid arrives, temporary shelters are made available, medical treatment given, money is pledged or reconstruction begins. There will be many failures and success depends on our capacity to accept such in the knowledge that it will enable success.

It’s a question Planet Money (again!) has dealt with since the earthquake, looking at financial and other trade-offs on the road to recovery. It’s obviously a live debate in aid. For a good, fairly fiery wrap, you should read Shotgun Shack on mainstreaming complexity and failure. But it’s also worth spending a bit of time in Engineers Without Borders’ new website Admitting Failure.

This New Yorker profile of Rajeev Goyal, a US Peace Corps volunteer who became the organisation’s most persuasive voice in Washington DC, gives a very clear insight into some of the mixed blessings of foreign aid. It’s clear that some of his (and other volunteers’) greatest achievements had counter-intuitive effects. Atul Gawande, also in the New Yorker, looks at how complex problems in healthcare can be solved by thinking differently.

Inspired by law-enforcement techniques that zero in on clusters of crimes, Jeffrey Brenner, a physician in Camden, New Jersey, decided to combat excessive medical costs by treating the “super-utilizers.” (In Camden, one per cent of patients are responsible for thirty per cent of medical costs.)

On a very different front, Scott Spark (whose record is called Fail Like You Mean It, so should definitely know about failure) pointed out this Zadie Smith essay. It’s spectacular  and Scott tweeted that he wouldn’t have made his record without it. At the essay’s heart is something like an irreducible failure in writing, the gap between what’s in your head, and what makes it onto the page. I think.

There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called “The Great American Novel” and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation, not just of a man … Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible – it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve…

But there’s no reason to cry. If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do.

The idea of understanding and learning from failure is cliched, but it’s time-worn for a reason. If you’re not failing, at least some of the time, then you’re not trying something new. As futurist Jen Jarratt tweeted in reply, it’s:

counter intuitive because we no longer get results from doing what we always did.

In an interconnected, increasingly complex world, failure is proof we’re trying new things, it’s a way of coming up with non-incremental solutions, increasingly it’s just part of what we do.