The New York Times Public Editor on Obituaries

Granted, an obituary is not intended to be a tribute. It is a news story about the life of a notable person. And because of The Times’s reputation and its reach, its obituaries carry great weight for establishing a person’s legacy. They matter.

How does this comport with their Thatcher obituary?

Save the Rainforest, Google

In my last post championing a printable web, I rallied publishers to sort out their print.css, and shamed them, tongue in cheek, for destroying the rainforest1.

But yesterday, I had an idea that would circumvent this challenge. The idea is to get Google to take on the task of fixing our not-so-printable web. Here’s how.


When you choose to print an article on Chrome, this is the screen you get:

Screenshot of the printing prompt in the Chrome browser

First, just appreciate how much time Google have spent on designing their own printing prompt instead of just using the system default. Again, this is still on Windows 8, for what it’s worth.

The settings are so manageable to configure in this interface, for one because it’s all available in one simple sidebar; here is no labyrinthian back and forth between “Advanced” settings rabbit holes and section panes that oftentimes have been redesigned by the installed printer software. Two things stick out to me:

Screenshot of the printing prompt’s display of the number of sheets to be printed Screenshot of the printing prompt’s few output settings

The first image shows the number of pages (sheets) that will be printed—valuable information that is normally hidden in a sea of interface hell in the default system prompts. Its prominent display adjacent to the print button ensures that the user is as likely to see the statistic as humanly possible. In other words, it signifies that Google, too, think this is important to the user.


The second image shows the inklings of a customizable print output; here, you can decide whether to show or hide headers and footers, and background colours and images. In a sense, this is tantamount to overwriting the default print.css yourself.

Can you see where I’m going?


Summarized as briefly as possible, what I’m proposing is a programmatic equivalent of Instapaper/Readability for printing.

This is how I imagine it would work:

  1. A user decides to print a page, and the prompt pops up.
  2. Chrome processes the page to be printed programmatically.
    • It processes the default layout preview of the page, as it would appear in my previous post.
    • It processes a prettified layout preview that treats the default layout to an Instapaper/Readability-like script.
  3. Chrome then compares the two layouts to each by some basic parameters:
    1. Number of printed pages: num_sheets
    2. Number of text characters: num_chars
    3. Amount of “ink” (i.e. toner used): amount_ink
  4. If either of these parameters exceed a certain threshold—by percentage or hard number—Chrome issues a non-scary warning notification in the area of the first image:
  5. “Using an improved print layout, Chrome decreased the (number of printed pages to X)/(toner used by Y%)”—or something like that.2

    Immediately below is a checkbox where users can disable (and re-enable) the improved design; as they do so, they can see the values for the three parameters go up and down accordingly.

One of the things to be ironed out is how Chrome rules on the default design; at the very least, people should be able to use the prettified design, regardless of what Chrome thinks of the default design.

Google could improve on this by recording when users use and don’t use the prettified design, and feed a Bayesian algorithm that creates a naughty-and-nice list of print designs across all printed websites. This can be done on both a global and per-user basis.


Speaking of a per-user basis, Chrome has several core features it can leverage towards this goal:

  • First of all, the user share is one of the main reasons this has to be done in Chrome.
  • Second, Chrome allows users to store preferences across devices using its cloud synchronization.
  • Third, Chrome’s Fonts is a huge asset to be leveraged to deliver gorgeous print-outs to displace criminal typefaces like Arial in print.

    It would also protect us against print designs that require typefaces unavailable to a large number of users.

Furthermore, Google could improve the lives of people with dyslexia by including a print design specifically for them. They are already in talks with the author of OpenDyslexia, and this would be a great use for the typeface.


Consider these the rough sketches of an idea that not only helps save paper and toner, but also make the reading experience an infinitely more joyous experience.

What’s not to like?


  1. It’s an important read that will help you understand the urgency of a printable web, and why this is not just random feature creep. 

  2. Let’s not sweat the details of how this is going to read for now. You can A/B test this in development either way. 

Whither print.css? A Rallying Cry for a Web That’s Fit to Print

(Because this post has a lot of data-heavy content that will encumber people browsing on mobile networks, you have to view this post on the original post page.)

Read this article.

“Apple and Other Technology Companies”

Ironic that the Pulitzer Prize Board of all would provide the perfect summary and indictment of the way Apple is viewed and treated by journalists—here, in their argument for awarding the New York Times the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting:

Awarded to The New York Times Staff for its penetrating look into business practices by Apple and other technology companies that illustrates the darker side of a changing global economy for workers and consumers.


I am reminded of the criticism of Pulitzer journalism; what—or who—was the focus of the reporting?

The Absurdity and Chronology of a Thatcher Obituary in the Paper of Record

I found it necessary to bring back the blog from stasis to scratch an itch, since no one else in the media have decided to do it for me.


The theoretical audience of people who read my recent tweets must have been awfully confused the day Margaret Thatcher passed away:

You’ve got to be shitting me: http://t.co/Su6keKTYb5.1

and

Only a matter of time before a #FakeNYTobit reaction:

“To enemies, GWB’s war in Iraq, torture, and trillions in new debt were bad policy.”2

and

Worst part of that Thatcher obit in the New York Times is that it is one they must have prepared years ago.3

The paragraph link in the first tweet no longer works, but thanks to the fine folks at NewsDiffs, you can read the original article I was commenting on here or in a syndicated column at the Sydney Morning Herald. Turns out, this may not have been the article the Paper of Record had on hand in preparation for the seemingly predictable expiration of a carbon-based lifeform4; the initial obituary was written by Alan Cowell and read:

LONDON — Margaret Thatcher, a towering, divisive and yet revered figure who left an enduring impact on British politics, died on Monday of a stroke, her family said.

“It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning,” a statement from her spokesman, Lord Tim Bell, said.

Lady Thatcher had been in poor health for months. She served as prime minister for 11 years, beginning in 1979. She was known variously as the ‘Iron Lady,’ a stern Conservative who transformed Britain’s way of thinking about its economic and political life, broke union power and opened the way to far greater private ownership.

She was leader of Britain through its 1982 war in the Falklands and stamped her skepticism about European integration onto her country’s political landscape for decades.

This is is a fairly sober and innocent article. Albeit anodyne, it is hardly one to ruffle the feathers of the likes of yours truly.

The Revisionists!

Cowell’s work was later replaced by the object of my tweets, penned by Joseph R. Gregory. This was a different beast whose uncompromising, bellicose tone mirrored that of the Iron Lady. Behold the first paragraph I originally intended to link to:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialism, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died Monday. She was 87.

What. The. Fuck.


Without a clue as to what the “35 years of socialism” refers to, let’s proceed to count some of the ways she changed the world:

A party revolt was thwarted, the Tories hunkered down, and Lady Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives, long associated with the status quo, into the party of reform. Her policies revitalized British business, spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

Sounds swell.

At home, Lady Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.

Yay!

In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Prime Minister Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor, undermining the middle class and courting chaos. At the Conservative Party conference that month, the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise. To Lady Thatcher, they could not have been more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.” In an address to the party, she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s popular play “The Lady’s Not for Burning” in insisting that she would press forward with her policies. “Turn if you like,” she told the faltering assembly. “The lady’s not for turning.” Her tough stance did the trick. A party revolt was thwarted, the Tories hunkered down, and Lady Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives, long associated with the status quo, into the party of reform. Her policies revitalized British business, spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

Did you notice how the last emphasized part of that quote was the exact same as the first one? What the hell is up with that? Sounds like a robotic talking point in defence of Thatcherism.


Moving on, though, let’s take a look at the attempts at a critical assessment of her reign:

Britain’s arts and academic establishments loathed her for cutting their financing and considered her tastes provincial, her values narrow-minded. In 1985, two years into her second term, she was proposed for an honorary doctorate at Oxford, a laurel traditionally offered prime ministers who had attended the university, as she had. The proposal, after debate among the faculty, was rejected.

“The uppity people within the arts and academia found her to be be an unwashed rube” is, I’m sure, a completely fair characterization of their problems with Thatcher’s policies.


The ending paragraph of the obituary is an example of “the view from nowhere” for the history books:

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”

What a fucking weird note to end on, considering that you might just as well use this description in the obituary for her chums Pinochet and Pol Pot, none of whom are mentioned in the context of her foreign forrays, mind.


Another thing I noticed is that while Thatcher is cheered on as a figure who won the Falklands War and led the West through the Cold War while parroting that one weird snippet, this is the only authorial criticism of Thatcher in the obituary:

By the time she was ousted in another Tory revolt — this time over her resistance to expanding Britain’s role in a European union — the economy was in a recession and her reputation tarnished.

Every other criticism accorded Thatcher continues the rhetorical trick of “the view from nowhere” in the ending paragraph through a “people say” proxy, proxies emphasized by me:

After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. But during her first years in power, even many Tories feared that her election might prove a terrible mistake.
In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Prime Minister Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor, undermining the middle class and courting chaos.
At the Conservative Party conference that month, the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise.
To her enemies she was — as Denis Healey, chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government, called her — “La Pasionaria of Privilege,” a woman who railed against the evils of poverty but who was callous and unsympathetic to the plight of the have-nots. Her policies, her opponents said, were cruel and shortsighted, widened the gap between rich and poor and worsened the plight of the poorest.
Despite her being the first woman to lead a major political party in the West, she rubbed many feminists the wrong way.
Britain’s arts and academic establishments loathed her for cutting their financing and considered her tastes provincial, her values narrow-minded.

Once again, just for the hell of it:

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”

At the end of the day, this is the authoritative legacy according to the authoritative Author who does not need to defer to “others” to write her hagiographic epitaph:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialism, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died Monday. She was 87.

“People might say” this is a tad myopic, but who are we to question the New York Times.

Do you see the narrative this creates? It is one in which Thatcher is the author’s favoured protagonist who overcomes the “critics”, the “skeptics”, “the others”, and “the doubters” who stand between her and her vision, resolute and unwavering as she is; keep in mind that she defied “even close advisers” who did not see the light. Thatcher was never wrong—only held back and ever so rarely forced to compromise on her vision.

To Lady Thatcher, they could not have been more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”

What to us may sound like the stubborn monomania of a rogue missile is spun into a story of an Iron Lady who knows what’s right and gets her way—until she is tragically displaced by the mutinous “others”. Euripides wept.

The subsequent extensive additions to the obituary did nothing to betray this narrative—I love how the only depiction of the strike violence details how “a taxi driver taking a miner to work was fatally injured when a concrete slab was dropped on his cab.” I also have to quote this amazing line:

After speaking to the Queen, calling world leaders and making a final speech to the House of Commons, she resigned on Nov. 28, 1990, leaving 10 Downing Street in tears and feeling betrayed.

The Corrections

One of the highlights of hilarity is the editorial circus of polishing this turd, epitomized by this later revision:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialismleft-wing government, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

I repeat:

socialismleft-wing government

This wound up getting changed (again), adding to the amateurishness of it all:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who pullturned her country back from 35 years of left-wing governmentin a sharply conservative direction, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

One more time!

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who turnedput her country ion a sharply conservative directionrightward economic course, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

The constant revisionism was at its most active in the ever-shifting headlines, however. Make up your minds, already.


The Paper of Record, never one to linger by its mistakes, went on to finally bring a correction at the end of their article:

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


Correction: April 8, 2013


An earlier version of this obituary misquoted Lady Thatcher when, in an address to her party, she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s play “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” She said: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” She did not say, “Turn if you like.”

All sorted out, then.


The New York Times’ slogan is “All the news that’s fit to print”—it says as much in the top-left corner of its front page. This obituary, however, is just for burning.


  1. First tweet

  2. Second tweet

  3. Third Tweet

  4. Lab results still pending. 

The World’s First Geo-Vigilante

George’s unilateral action was deplorable, premature, and violated several international laws and United Nations covenants. (Well, unilateral may be harsh. He apparently convinced the council of an indigenous village to approve the project.) There was no scientific assessment attached to the experiment, which does carry potential risks.

I may be wrong, but I am fairly certain that no village on earth should have the power to approve a project the consequences of which, for the entire planet, cannot possibly be foreseen.

The 2012 Polls in Perspective

Mark Blumenthal explains how variance is inherent to poll results, and something we must always take into account in order to grasp the underlying science behind polling.

The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952–2012

An invaluable resource after Citizens United.

“A Few Words On Reddit, Gawker, and Anonymity”

Level-headed dissection of the debacle with a follow-up to the cognitive dissonance in reddit’s public comments on the matter.

Quote of the Day: SEK

Is there anything more odious than conservatives pretending to do the work of a class for which they don’t care one whit in order to secure the votes of those who spit on the very people these conservatives are pretending to be?

Hitchcock’s Storyboards

Hitchcock was known for his extensive storyboarding down to the finest detail of production. He was reported to have never even bothered looking through the viewfinder, since he didn’t need to do so. Looking at his storyboards versus the finial film it’s safe to say that is a vast overstatement.

Hitchcock trained as a draughtsman and worked in advertising before his first job in the film industry; designing title cards for silent films. Perhaps this influenced his pre-visual style. While he was an experienced illustrator he always hired a storyboard artist. These included legendary artists as Saul Bass, Harold Michelson, among others.

Crucial insight into the master’s process.

The Digg Deal

$500,000 for 1,700,000 hits in two months. Doesn’t sound like the worst deal.

How To Opt Out of Interest-Based iAds

Really simple. You basically just visit http://oo.apple.com/ on an iOS device while logged in.

Louis C.K. on Fighting Ticket-Scalpers

So every time we’ve done that, the scalper starts yelling and cursing at us, and they say scalping’s not illegal, man. And we go, well, I know. We’re just beating you because it’s fun and we like to get our - that ticket now gets to go to a fan for $45. You know, we just saved somebody $200. So it’s fun. I like doing this.

And also, when I first announced the tour in the press, I told people you shouldn’t buy scalper tickets, because they may be deactivated by the time you get to the show because we have the power to do that. And that really hurt the scalper market a lot, just the perception that our tickets are not - may not be good.

How his team did it:

  1. They hired two former scalpers.
  2. They didn’t announce when the tickets went on sale.
  3. When they identified a scalper, they required that the credit card owner pick up the ticket in person and show the credit card.

Listen to the entire podcast or read the transcript—it’s great.

“A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque”

You know you’ve had a bad trip, when when your treatment might just be illegal.

“Army Ditches Failed Combat Iniform That Put a Target on Grunts’ Backs for 8 Years”

Shameless.

Errol Morris’s “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” on Radiolab

A master of the visual medium visits the masters of the auditory medium for an exhilarating discussion you don’t want to miss.

Why Not Program When You Are 50?

What else do you want to be doing when you’re 50? Give me a profession remotely close to programming in the following ways:

  • Little or no required education
  • Good compensation, even for mediocre performers
  • Millions of jobs
  • No physical effort
  • No health or legal risks

“Apple Acknowledges iPhone 5 Camera Problem, Says You’re Holding It Wrong”

I can’t shake the feeling that, after the “Antennagate” that barely was, the media shirk from investigating something with all the trappings of an actual problem with Apple’s new products.

The scruffing on the iPhone 5 looks like a legitimate problem, but there is something keeping journalists from just looking into the situation to issue a final verdict on what could be a good story.

Microsoft’s New Website

It’s hard to just get the words across your lips: Microsoft now has a better-looking and (much) more mobile-friendly website than Apple.

Further Reading

Quote of the Day: Frank Rich

But when the dust on 2012 has settled, it’s time we look into the old boys’ network that calls itself the debate commission and demand an accounting. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we are paying for these microphones.

Connecticut State Supreme Court Acquit Man of Sex with Mentally 3-Year-Old Woman

Rape culture as clear as can be. It’s unbelievable that state supreme court judges can hold views so antediluvian of what is and isn’t rape. “No means no” is and never was a valid policy.

European Entrepreneurs versus American

The first chart is profoundly disturbing.


(Via Hacker News.)

“Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False”

Using the case of ADHD research as an example, the publication by Gonon, Konsman, Cohen, and Boraud found that newspapers misrepresent the research on areas of interest due to a bias that favours positive findings over those reporting no effect. Add to this that “initial observations are often refuted or attenuated by subsequent studies” in studies that don’t receive the same attention as the original positive reporting.

I am reminded of the cautionary tale of when a false story stating Joe Paterno had died circulated, and how poorly the media responded both to the initial story and to retracting their statement. I wrote:

Half of good journalism is getting it right. The other half is admitting when you were wrong—and granting the retraction as much attention as the original article.

We don’t hold reporting on (biomedical) science to the same standard as political reporting, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t see something parallel to a corrective article. We chastise pundits who cherry-pick the polls that agree with their predictions and ideology (to little effect), so applying this ethical code to scientific reporting shouldn’t be much of a transition.


I probably shouldn’t be too sanctimonious about this, since I am inclined to get excited over Star Trek-esque findings indicating leaps in medical science in particular. I’ll approach these articles with more caution from now on.

Dave the Mindreader Campaign Brings Attention to Data Privacy

Dave the mindreader is only as psychic as you allow him to be. Rather than tapping the mysterious workings of the universe to establish a link with your innermost thoughts, he taps the Internet to gain access to your social network pages and financial transactions. At the end of each session, when he’s mesmerized his unsuspecting guest, Dave the mindreader reveals the secret to his powers. The Ozian curtain comes down and the clockwork of computers, Facebook pages and banking websites are revealed.

A perfect information campaign that explains the problem plainly, and embraces viral media to get out the message.


(Via Hacker News.)