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:

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 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.

Woolloomooloo’s original green roof

If you’ve been to Woolloomooloo, you’ve probably seen these apartments. But have you walked over their incredible roof?

To get from the Domain to Woolloomooloo, you can take a series of steps down to the Finger Wharf. If you want to stay up high and walk through a glorious rooftop garden though, I recommend walking across a connecting bridge to the roof of the Wharf 11 apartments (a lift at the Cowper Wharf Road end of the apartments takes you down to the wharf).

There are a couple of mentions of the Wharf 11 apartments in Land & Environment Court proceedings. It’s listed among landscape artist Peter McQueeney’s commissioned works, on his website, but it’s unclear whether he painted the scene or laid out the garden. There’s also a Bikely bike path running from Bronte through the city via the rooftop garden.

For such a spectacular rooftop garden, it’s remarkable how little coverage there is online. I thought the developers/landscape architects responsible would trumpet it from their various websites. But there’s not much out there.

It first appears in a 1989 Sydney Morning Herald story, ‘Victory claimed over wharf plan’:

Pivot would be allowed, however, to build a five-storey, 424-room hotel, with basement parking for 300 cars, on the western side of the bay, where Wharf 11 now stands. The hotel would be set back from the water’s edge, providing space for a landscaped promenade along the foreshore.

For a long time the wharf was a battle zone between naturalists, who wanted to strip away the Boy Charlton Pool and wharves, and redevelopers. Friends of the Finger Wharf (with the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and the National Trust) campaigned for years against a series of hotel proposals. By 1994, it seems to have settled down with Peddle Thorp architects, according to another SMH piece, ‘Finger Wharf development plan soon to be unveiled to public’:

Under the proposal, the development – “predominantly masonry and glass” – would comprise 33 apartments, parking for 372 cars (88 for residents, the rest for visitors), a recreation centre, a 29-berth marina, landscaped roof areas and an eight-metre-wide boardwalk along the foreshore.

By the time it went to DA several years later, they’d swapped architects to Buchan Group, in the SMH again:

New to the basin will be a 32-unit residential complex on Wharf 11, the concrete slab across from the Finger Wharf, to be known as the Wharf Terraces. Originally by Andersons, this too has undergone “design development” by Buchan. Stapleton said Andersons had, during DA stages, made a lot of effort to keep the new building very low, and non-obtrusive from the Art Gallery of NSW. There would, he said, be almost “100 per cent access” for the public to the roof garden above the terraces, which would have two connecting bridges to the Botanic Gardens. There will also be a wide public walkway in front of the units, continuing to the Finger Wharf.

Response from architects has been qualified. The Dean of Architecture at the University of Sydney, Professor Neville Quarry, said the Finger Wharf was “not a bad job” considering it had to be altered from storage to residential.

The Wharf Terraces, however, were “pretty ordinary … repetitious glass-fronted quadrant balconied apartments.” Also, he was critical of the “out of character” facade pattern of the new block at the wharf’s end. Each apartment read as an individual rectangle, “utterly different” to the wharf’s pattern which was broken into quite small-scale square elements.

Construction began on August 20, 1997.

You can see why the developers and others involved haven’t trumpeted the story, but 12 years after the first bricks were laid on the site, it might be time to reevaluate. The gardens on top of Wharf 11 must be among Sydney’s earliest green roofs. The rich mix of native plants is accessible by anyone, and that’s pretty great.