this space intentionally left blank

October 1, 2015

Filed under: journalism»investigation

Shielded by the law

This weekend, The Seattle Times released our investigation into Washington's "evil intent" law, which makes it almost impossible to prosecute police officers for the use of deadly force: Shielded by law. This was a great project to work on, and definitely an issue I'm proud we could bring to a wider audience. The source code for it is available here.

This project is on a page outside of our CMS entirely to support the outstanding trailer video that our photo department put together, which plays at the end of the animation if your device supports inline video (sorry, iOS). We didn't want to jump directly into the video, because A) it has sound, and B) many readers might find its visuals disturbing. Using our common dot motif to pull people in first, and then give them a choice of watching the video, seemed like a nice strategy. The animation is all done in the DOM and is mostly done just by adding classes on a timer — the only real time that JS touches individual elements is to randomize the fade-in for the dots. Loading the page without JavaScript shows the final image of the animation, via a handy no-js class that the scripts remove before starting playback.

One of our interesting experiments in this story was the use of embedded quiz questions, asking people to test their preconceived notions of police shootings. Originally we intended to scatter these throughout the story to grab readers' attention, but a section on the numerical results of the investigation ended up spoiling the answers. Instead, we moved them to a solid block before that section, and it's been well-received. The interactive graphics were actually also a relatively last-minute addition: originally, we were just going to re-run the print graphics, but exposing all the data in a responsive way was just too useful to pass up.

Probably the most technically advanced part of the page is the audio transcript from the 1985 state senate hearing on the law. As the audio plays, the transcript auto-advances and highlights the current line. It also displays a photo of the speaker from the hearing, to help readers get an idea of the players involved. Clicking on the transcript scrubs the audio to the correct spot. We don't do a lot of audio work here, unfortunately, but I think having an interface that's friendly to readers and listeners alike is a really nice touch, and something I do want to take advantage of on future projects. We built it to generate the data from standard subtitle files, so it should be easy to revisit.

Lastly, one of the most important parts of the story is the least flashy: the table in the "by the numbers" section for deadly force rates by race/ethnicity. We had worked for a while with this information presented the same as the other trivia questions, via clickable dots, but found that the part we really wanted to stress (the relative rates of death proportional to the general population) didn't stand out as much as we wanted. We brainstormed through a few different alternate visualizations, including stacked bars and nested pie charts, but in the end it was just clearest to build a table.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, they may get no respect, but a well-designed table can often be the simplest, easiest way to get a point across. The question then is, what's a well-designed table? Personally, I think there's a whole post in that question — how you order the columns, effective sorting/filtering, and how to add extra features (embedded sparklines, detail expansion, and tree views) that add information without confusing readers. One day, maybe I'll write it. But in the meantime, if you're working on a similar project and can't quite figure out how to present your information, there's no shame in using a table if it serves the story.

September 15, 2015

Filed under: journalism»industry

Value Ad

Welcome to the block party:

The math is even starker for smaller publications and individual bloggers, who rely more heavily on display advertising—and who have already been battered by shifts in the advertising market; some longtime professional bloggers, like Heather Armstrong, have given up writing their blogs full-time. The Awl's publisher Michael Macher told me that "the percentage of the network’s revenue that is blockable by adblocking technology hovers around seventy-five to eighty-five percent." Currently, readers use an ad blocker on around twenty-five percent of all pageviews. Nicole Cliffe, one of the founders of The Toast, said that "adblocker is brutal for us. And people always break out the 'Subscribers model! I donate twenty bucks a year!' thing but it doesn’t add up."

I'm finding myself thinking about adblocking a lot this week, and about publishing platforms. I spend a lot of time thinking about this in general, because I enjoy working for a Seattle newspaper and I would like it to still be here (in one form or another) fifteen years from now (at least), something which was never guaranteed but looks noticeably more tenuous these days. And the upcoming launch of easy, widespread mobile ad-block software is a big part of that.

Bad apples

You can't say that the ad industry has not done anything to deserve this, because of course they have. Online advertising has always been the place where incompetent programming and delusional management meet in a nexus of terrible. You're not a bad person if you work in ads, but you work for a bad business and in all seriousness I will help you go work somewhere else if you get in touch with me. Contact info is on the right.

The problems that advertising causes for web pages are well documented. Ads slow pages down. They're heavy and disruptive. They cause security risks and drive-by hacks. There is a strong argument that a lot of the (admittedly welcome) improvements in web programming technique comes from having to work around these issues: lazy-loading content, async scripts, module systems that can't be stomped by leaky ad code globals.

As a side note, in these discussions, one of the big elephants in the room is that Google (and Facebook, and Apple, and Twitter) are all ad companies. Which is true, but it's true in the way that we might say that insects are a good source of protein — you're still not going to sell me a grasshopper sandwich. Lumping Google in with the average fly-by-night agency may be technically correct, but anyone who has interacted with regular ad code will tell you that the two are miles apart. If Google were actually the people writing the ads you see on an average media site, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.

Well, we might. Apple might still have decided to stick their thumb in Google's eye out of pure spite, because they're a nasty little gang of capitalists, and that's kind of what they do. But it doesn't matter, because the really smart people at Google aren't writing actual ads. They write very elegant, high-performing auction software that distributes other people's horrible, horrible code, thus undermining quite a bit of their moral high ground. It's a little hard to get mad at readers who want to run content blockers or Greasemonkey scripts or whatever. Of course you want to block these ads! Who wouldn't?

Disruption and its discontents

We have a bad habit in the news industry, which is that we have no faith in our ability to run a business, even though we speculate on it endlessly. Allison Hantschel has been writing posts like this for literally a decade now as a result. One word for the embrace of clear management-led self-sabotage is "trusting." Another word is "suckers."

Newsrooms are very good at grilling other organizations about their plans, and very bad at interrogating our own, in part because we're supposed to have a "wall" between the business and editorial sides of the enterprise. These days that wall is often porous, but the tradition is still there. So when the business half of a paper tells editors and reporters that running obnoxious ads are necessary, we don't often push back, even though we don't want to run them any more than readers want to see them.

This is an explanation, not an excuse. That said, it is inescapably true that the business models we chose, as an industry, are not proving to be as solid as they once were — and it is worth remembering that journalism really was (and in many cases, still is) wildly profitable. Craigslist killed off the classifieds, and content blockers will probably suck all the profit out of the banner-ad revenue stream. Ironically, the one strategy that's still surprisingly sound is printing the previous day's events into a complicated stack of folded paper and selling it for a buck or two. It's not a growth industry, but it seems to be relatively disruption-proof so far. Nobody seems very clear on how to take that model online, though, except by digitizing old people a la Kurzweil and counting on them to pay for content (probably a long shot).

The thing about Silicon Valley's lust for disruption is that, absent of any principles other than a libertarian belief in market power, it tends to just recentralize or recreate the pre-disruption problems. So instead of having a corrupt taxi bureacracy, now we have a corrupt Uber oligarchy, where half the cars you see in the app are fake and they're probably selling your ride history to data merchants in Russia for pennies on the dollar. You don't have to like the taxi system to think that this is kind of a bum deal. Similarly, you don't have to be a fan of advertising, or of advertising-supported journalism, to think that the inevitable outcomes of blocking display will range from bad to worse.

Personally, I think it's healthy to feel wildly uneasy with this entire dynamic, in which tech companies decide to target one bad actor and inflict collatoral damage on an entire industry with a nonchalant wave of their hand. I think it's normal to believe that publishers are getting what they deserve for decades of bad management, and still feel like wiping them out is overkill. It's reasonable to think we should have control over the experience as users, while also arguing that media companies need to pay the bills somehow. But then, I'm not exactly disinterested, myself.

Brought to you by everybody, and nobody

I have a post that's been incubating for about two months now, about riot grrrl and open source. I started thinking about it when I watched The Punk Singer, a shockingly-good documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. And the story of the whole movement that she founded (along with a number of other influential women) is fascinating, because it's based on an entire ethic of self-publication and self-determination. They didn't like the commercial media that they had, so they made new media of their own and taught people how to do the same. To me, that's how open source should feel: undermining centralized power and giving the means of production back to the people.

But there's another way of looking at that, which is to say that riot grrrl zines never changed much of anything and the old open web got lost in the shuffle. We can romanticize both of them as much as we want, but at the end of the day they weren't capable of surviving against moneyed interests, and no amount of self-mythologizing is going to change that. That doesn't mean we should give up, but we need to be realistic about the gap between "should be" and "is," because we're in the middle of it now: readers should pay for journalism; they actively don't want to do so.

Our grim meathook media future

Here's one difficult truth: if you are a reporter, editor, or other news human in the year of our lord 2015, your fate is almost certainly on the web. The New York Times and the hot youth flavor of the day (Vox, Vice, Buzzfeed) may get invited into Instant Articles or Apple News, but everyone else is on their own. App-only publications have been tried, and failed, even with the force of Rupert Murdoch behind them. That leaves the web as the place where a diverse, free press can exist, especially once those print revenues finally dry up.

Here's another: the web is always going to grapple with hostile ads, because it's a platform built on remixing and embedding third-party content. The same things that let advertisers abuse your mobile connection also allow us to host comments via Disqus, or embed media from Twitter or Youtube, or create neat interactive features. Open platforms are messier, which is part of why they grow so effectively, and also why they have a hard time competing with closed, curated platforms. Nobody's going to make it easy for us.

Between those two difficult truths is a spectrum of uncomfortable options, ranging from paywalls to subscriptions to (most likely) bankruptcy. As Casey Johnston says in the Awl piece that opens this post, the likely outcome is the rapid eradication of many sites that currently scrape by on Doubleclick revenue. The small and the quirky are going to take the hit here, even if they're not so small: The Dissolve was shuttered earlier this year, despite a pretty impressive stable of contributors and support, and they won't be the last.

In the very long term, we all die alone. I hesitate to make any other predictions. But I suspect that the eventual fallout of these changes is the hollowing-out of the American media: two big national papers at the top; a horde of niche publications clinging, white-knuckled, to subsistence at the bottom; and not very much in the middle except the non-profits who have opted out of the entire rat race. That this arrangement parallels our national economic inequality is probably not a coincidence, but we're long past the point where anyone wants to hear a systemic critique. Will your favorite publication survive? It's time to spin the wheel and find out.

September 3, 2015

Filed under: tech»web

Codes of Conduct

Rachel Nabors writes that that you literally cannot pay her to attend a conference without a code of conduct:

When I promised not to go to conferences without Codes of Conduct, I wasn’t paying lip service to a trend, doing the popular thing to gain brownie points with my feminist besties. I meant every word. It is my greatest fear in life that something bad would happen to someone attending a conference I attracted them to.

It was weird the other day to realize that I'm actually becoming a mentor figure for some people: I have interns, I teach classes, I'm now the co-organizer of the local Hacks/Hackers chapter. I'm still basically nobody, but I will also make this pledge: if a conference does not have a code of conduct (or its equivalent), I won't go, as a speaker or an attendee. It's important to me that industry gatherings be places where people are comfortable and safe, no matter who they are. Everyone deserves that much consideration, and while a code of conduct is not a guarantee of safe behavior, it's a good start.

It's disappointing, but perhaps to be expected, that several high-profile white dudes have decided that the most important thing they can do this year is fight against codes of conduct. Many of them feel attacked and want to circle the wagons instead of listening to voices from the community. That's too bad for people who attend conferences — but part of the point of the pledge is that it should punish organizers who don't think creating a standard framework for conference behavior is a priority. If they can't get speakers or attendees to come, sooner or later they don't have an event.

Let's be clear: nobody is entitled to run a conference, and helping people with their careers once upon a time does not excuse you from being a good citizen. If the pressure causes people like Jared Spool and Mike Monteiro to change their mind, everyone benefits. If it doesn't, and they go the way of the dinosaurs, well... that's how evolution works. We'll survive without them.

But I think this is a great opportunity to re-examine one particular community role that I see a lot, both in tech and outside. You know the one: that guy (almost always a man) whose schtick is being the "honest teller of truth," which really means "rude, petty, and abusive in kind of a funny way about stuff we all agree on." A lot of times, we tolerate that behavior because honestly, it is satisfying to have someone saying what we're all thinking about clients who won't pay, or bad design, or ugly code. I have sometimes thought of myself as that person, but I'm trying not to be anymore.

The problem with the "angry truth-teller" is that it stops being funny when they suddenly turn those tools on their allies. When that happens, you realize that it was never actually funny: you just didn't care about being respectful, because you didn't think the target was worthy. Unfortunately, a lack of empathy is not the same as a sense of humor. There might be a thin line between "comedian" and "jerk," but unless you're Don Rickles I don't really see the point in intentionally crossing it.

In the end, life is too short to give money and attention to people who can't have a little empathy over something as silly as tech conference administration. We are not required to make them leaders in our community, nor are we required to keep them as leaders if we decide that the negatives of their input outweigh the positives. There are lots of technically-skilled people out there who can be right about an issue — or wrong on it, even — without being entitled, nasty jackasses about it. Let's boost them instead.

August 18, 2015

Filed under: gaming»design

Free Electron

When GitHub released Atom last year, there were a lot of people who thought the underlying technology — a web-based mashup of Chromium and NodeJS — was a terrible idea. They may yet be right, but Atom has gotten steadily better, to the point where I can recommend it to my students. Meanwhile, GitHub made the app runtime, Electron, available for hacking around, and it's becoming increasingly common (along with NW.js) as a way to build simple, network-savvy desktop applications.

While I'm hardly sympathetic to the people who complain about web-over-native, one complaint that does seem reasonable is the size of these applications. Electron takes up 113MB even before any user code gets loaded, and while that's not a huge footpint in today's world of terabyte hard drives, it may seem redundant when users probably already have a browser installed. If you run multiple Electron apps, they don't share runtimes, either.

That said, there is one genre of software that routinely ships its own dependencies this way, and nobody bats an eyelash: games. Looking at my Steam library, there's at least five titles there that run on Unreal Engine, each with its own copy of the engine and supporting libraries. And engines like Unreal or Unity are huge cross-platform monoliths these days, used by AAA studios and small teams alike. Many of these games probably embed a web browser anyway, since it's a great way to build UI. What if we flipped that around? Could Electron be a viable development platform for independent games?

I started thinking about this question earlier this year, after reading a post by Greg Tavares, one of the WebGL architects for Chrome. He points out that as platforms go, the browser is pretty good: features like GL are well-tested and reliable, JavaScript is a great rapid prototyping language, and cross-platform support is pretty decent. If your needs are relatively humble, or you're already well-versed in web development, why not use something like Electron, paired with Three.js or another framework as your "engine?"

I've been meaning to test out Electron anyway, so I spent some time tonight trying to answer that question. The result is You Don't Know Electron. It's a simple party-style trivia game, with a twist: instead of crowding around a keyboard or using controllers, players scan a QR code to use their phone as a "buzzer." Everything is in sync, so when the first person presses the correct answer, everyone else's device will switch to a "get ready for the next question" screen almost instantly.

Behind the scenes, the app opens up a native-looking window on the host computer for displaying questions and scores, but it also spawns a hybrid HTTP/WebSocket server for the mobile clients. The result is a little slapdash, but surprisingly responsive in practice. UI is all done through a super-simple Angular thin client, with most of the state living in the persistent Node server. And while the look of it isn't anything fancy, it's also only the result about about 3 hours of work — a little extra polish, and I legitimately think it could be a fun party game. Feel free to clone it and try for yourself.

If you know Node, Electron turns out to be an surprisingly pleasant development experience. I'm no indie game dev, but based on tonight's experiment, I'd seriously consider it if I wanted to start a new project. For casual games, WebGL (or even 2D canvas) and HTML are a solid foundation, especially since Electron's browser window is up-to-date with features like flexbox and web components. It's no Unity, but it is free and built on well-documented standards.

The fact that it's web-based under the hood opens up a whole range of exciting possibilities around little custom servers: phones or tablets could be used to show hidden information to each player (a hand of cards, personal inventory, secret messages, etc.), or additional computers could instantly turn a single player session into multiplayer. All with no installation friction: just connect to the host with a browser and start playing.

(In fact, I've had a long-standing idea for an asymmetric "virtual board game" of Alien vs. Nostromo crew that would work perfectly with this setup. If only I had the time...)

Meanwhile, we're seriously considering this at the Seattle Times as a way to package up our tools for newsroom users. We're not the first people to do it — NPR's Lunchbox bundles up some of their social tools — but since our workflow is almost entirely Node-based, we're in a much better place to take advantage of everything Electron can do (NPR basically just bundles the static output of their Flask apps). Don't be surprised if you see more Electron-based tooling news from us in the future!

August 6, 2015

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Mess Affect

There's probably not a better modern space opera than the Mass Effect games, which is what makes its wildly incoherent plot all the more bizarre. Replaying the first title, it's hard to miss that the way that it eventually gets undercut by everything in the third. I can't decide which one looks better in hindsight — Mass Effect 1 is less ambitious (and not nearly as good mechanically), while 3 is ultimately lazier and, I think, more dishonest — but I think it does point out a really interesting problem in the way that Bioware builds their big, tentpole franchises.

Let's recap: in the first chapter, Commander Shepard (that's you) stumbles across a galactic double-agent named Saren while on a rescue mission, and is given carte blanche to hunt the traitor down. Eventually, it's revealed that Saren is working for a giant murderbot right out of central casting, and their plan is to open a gateway that lets all the other murderbots into this universe from whatever pocket dimension they've been hiding in. But surprise! the gateway is actually the ancient space station that galactic civilization picked as its center of government (living in Seattle after that New Yorker article, I know how they feel). Lots of stuff explodes.

By the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around, it would make sense for people to have thought, geez, maybe living on a massive, prehistoric portal to robot doom-town might not be a good idea. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. In fact, during the plot of the final game, not only are people still living on the Citadel, but Shepard finds out that it doubles as the power source for the super-weapon that will wipe out the bad guys. Handy! And by handy, I mean tremendously lazy in a narrative sense.

Truthfully, the overarching plot is the weakest parts of the Mass Effect franchise. The first game is too small to sell "epic scope" — when characters like Wrex die, they haven't been around long enough to feel important, or for many players to even realize they can be saved. The third spends too much time trying to wrap up plot threads instead of actually telling a story.

By contrast, Mass Effect 2 is a heist flick. The beginning is nonsense, as is the ending (the less said about the giant glowing skeleton boss, the better), partly because those are the pieces that connnect to the other storylines. But the middle 95% of the game is brilliant, because it mostly tosses the Reapers and their Robot Death Party out the window. Instead, you wander from planet to planet, assembling your crew and settling their debts so they can join you in the final mission. It's in these smaller stories that the writers can actually explore the universe they've built, with all its weird little corners and rivalries.

At some point, it starts to feel like the quest for spectacle is not helping Mass Effect, or Bioware games, or games in general, in much the same way that the "huge crashing object" finale is the worst part of our society's superhero movie infestation. Maybe it's a broken record to say that we need more AAA games that are more about character and less about saving the city, country, world, or galaxy. It's still true, though, and the best evidence for it is the games themselves.

July 22, 2015

Filed under: journalism»industry

Covering letters

It's a low bar to clear, but I think I can honestly say that journalism has a better diversity record compared to tech. If there were a newsroom the size of Facebook, chances are high it would have hired more than 7 black people last year. But that doesn't mean we can't do better. And if we're going to talk about hiring in journalism, we need to talk about interns.

NPR's visuals team has decided to try making internships more diverse, by being transparent about their requirements. Basically, they want to be clear about the expectations around cover letters and interviewing, so that people from non-privileged backgrounds know to prepare for them. I know and like several members of the team there, so I'm going to give them the benefit of a doubt when they say that there's more to come, but as a diversity program this seems a bit thin.

Firstly, a post on a little-trafficked blog is not exactly a high-visibility broadcast (said post isn't linked from any of the open internship positions as far as I could tell). It's easy for people to miss. More importantly, if the team is finding that cover letters and interviews are excluding good candidates, maybe the point should be to change the way that those are evaluated (or drop them entirely). Perhaps cover letters are not a great criteria for picking interns, or the way you're looking at them is biased in some way.

My own thoughts on this are complicated, not least because I see the playing field being artificially manipulated from all sides. I'm always amazed when I teach workshops at UW and hear that students may be on their fourth or fifth internship. They're behaving rationally — a lot of journalism careers are founded on student internships — but it's still bizarre to think that the path to a newsroom job might require literally years of unpaid or low-paying labor. If nothing else, there are a lot of people for whom that's just not an option.

Perhaps this is why, as CJR noted in a just-published report, minority journalists aren't finding jobs at rates proportional to graduation. In fact, minorities who graduate with a degree in journalism were 17% less likely to find a print journalism job compared to their white counterparts, compared to only 2% difference in advertising. As Alex Williams states:

Overall, only 49 percent of minority graduates that specialized in print or broadcasting found a full-time job, compared to 66 percent of white graduates. These staggering job placement figures help explain the low number of minority journalists. The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn’t seem to be the problem after all. The problem is that these candidates are not being hired.

I think the lessons from this are two-fold. First, I think we should be better about spreading internships out to a wider range of students. That's partly about selecting more diverse candidates, but it's also about turning down interns many-times-over in favor of candidates who need more of a boost. Internships are about experience, but they're also a way of pre-selecting who we want in the newsrooms of the future by burnishing their resumes. It's great to see NPR taking some responsibility, small or not, for their role in the pipeline. Hopefully other organizations will follow suit.

Additionally, maybe we should be less interested in internships as hiring criteria in the first place. Although my corner of the field is a little atypical, many of the best digital journalists I know didn't enter the field through a traditional career path (myself included). If our goal is to diversify our newsrooms, being accepting of a variety of different backgrounds and experiences is part of how we get there. So a candidate didn't have an internship. So what? Can they write? Can they edit? Can they code?

I often worry about over-stressing credentials in journalism. Sure, it helps separate the wheat and the chaff, but it also brushes over the fact that what we do just isn't that hard. We go places, talk to people, and then write it down and give to other people to read. You don't need a degree from that (as Michael Lewis aptly chronicled more than 20 years ago), and you shouldn't necessarily need an internship. As a community, we mourned the passing of David Carr, but we haven't learned the lessons he taught to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, about hiring "knuckleheads" and molding them into the industry we want to be. And until we do, we will still struggle to find newsrooms that reflect modern American diversity.

July 9, 2015

Filed under: gaming»software»zachtronics


It seems vaguely ridiculous to spend my days working on a computer, and then come home and write assembly code for an hour or two, much less enjoy it. That's how good TIS-100 is: a deranged simulator for a broken alien computer, it's the kind of game where the solutions are half inspiration, half desperate improvisation.

Here's the idea: the game boots up a fake computer, which immediately fails POST and dumps you into the debugger. Inside, it's made up of chips arranged in a grid, each of which can be programmed with up to 15 instructions in an invented assembly language. In a series of puzzles, you're given a set of inputs and a list of expected output, and it's up to you to write the transformation in the middle.

Complicating matters is the fact that TIS-100 processors are designed to be as eccentric as possible. Nodes have no RAM, just a single addressable register and a second backup register that can be swapped out. They're also severely limited in what they can do, but very good at communicating with each other. So each solution usually involves figuring out how to split up logic and shuffle values between nodes without deadlocking the CPU or writing yourself (literally) into a corner. There's a bunch of tricks you learn very quickly, like using a side node as a spare register or sending bits back and forth to synchronize "threads."

It's not perfect. Once I beat TIS-100, I didn't feel an urge to start back up the way I do for something more "game-like" (say, XCOM or Mass Effect). But it does have the wonderful quality that you can solve most of its puzzles while you're away from the computer, and actually typing them in is a bit of an anticlimax. For all its exaggeration and contrivance, I'm not sure you could get a better simulation of programming than that.

June 24, 2015

Filed under: tech»web

A good (virtual) walk spoiled

Earlier today I took the wraps off of the private repo for our Chambers Bay interactive flyover. You can find the source code here, and a post on our dev blog about it here. It was a really fun challenge, and a rare example of using WebGL in a news capacity (the NYT did the Dawn Wall, but that's the only one I can remember recently).

From a technical standpoint, this was my first three.js project, and the experience was largely positive. I think there's a strong case to be made that three.js is basically jQuery for WebGL: sure, you don't need it, but it only takes a couple of features to make it worthwhile. In this case, I didn't particularly feel like writing a model loader or a scene graph. There are still plenty of hooks to write the parts that I do enjoy, like the fragment shader for the landscape (check out that sweet dithering), or the UI for directing the camera. Sure, three.js is a relatively large library, but I'm loading 4MB of textures and another 4MB of gzipped landscape model, so what's a few more hundred KB of code?

WebGL itself runs surprisingly well these days, although failure modes do not seem to be its strong suit. For example, the browser may have WebGL support enabled, but then crash when it tries to render (or it may be lying about support, as with the remote VM sessions used in Times meeting rooms). That said, I was astonished to find that pretty much everything (mobile included) could run the landscape at a solid frame rate, despite the fact that it's a badly-optimized mesh with 150,000 triangles. Even iOS, which usually falls over and dies when WebGL pushes past its skimpy RAM limits, was able to run smoothly once I added a low-res texture for it to use.

This was an ambitious project using some pretty cutting-edge web technology, which makes it interesting in light of arguments that the web suffers from "featuritis". After all, when you're talking about feature overkill, WebGL is a barnstormer. But this story would have been tough to tell another way, and it would have never had the same reach siloed in an app store.

Or take Paul Ford's mind-boggling What is Code? in Businessweek this month: behind Bloomberg's Trapper Keeper design aesthetic, it's a powerful article that integrates animations, videos, and interactive demonstrations with the textual message. Ironically, I saw many of the same people that criticize web apps going wild for Ford's piece, a stance that I can only attribute to sophistry.

My team at the Seattle Times has gradually abandoned the term "news apps," since everyone who hears it assumes we're actually writing iPhone clients for the paper. As a term of art, it has always been clumsy. But it does strike at a crucial quality of what we do, which occupy a gray area between "text" and "program." And if it seems like I'm touchy about pundits who think we should abandon the web, this is in large part the reason why.

Arguments that browsers should just go back to being a document viewers ignore the fact that HTML is not just a text format: it's a hypermedia format, and those have always blurred the already-fuzzy lines between data and code (see also: Excel, Hypercard, and IPython notebooks). It's true that the features of the web platform are often abused. Nobody likes slow navigation, ad popups, or user tracking scripts. But it's those same features that make new kinds of storytelling possible — my journalism is built on the same heavily-structured, "over-tooled" web platform that critics find so objectionable. I wouldn't give that up for all the native apps in the world.

June 8, 2015

Filed under: journalism»professional

Paper Anniversary

It's ironic, I guess, that I was so busy at the Seattle Times a couple of weeks ago I forgot to write about my one-year anniversary here. Anyway: it's been quite a year! I've done real estate visualizations, provided an overview of Oso Valley development, and covered the Washington state elections. I did much of the development on our major investigative pieces, Loaded with Lead and Sell Block (not to mention graphs and narrative interactives for the Warren Buffett mobile home investigation). I made a Seahawks fan map so good that the team outright stole it for themselves. For the local architecture buff, I worked on a building quiz, and for the beer fans I helped build the landing page for our Brew with Us project. Want to know where the May Day protests went? I built a map for that. And this is just the big stuff.

In addition to the externally-facing development, I've been working on building tools that are used by the rest of the newsroom. I think our news app scaffolding is as good as anyone's in this business. We're leading the industry in custom element development, with responsive frames, Leaflet maps, and more. The watermarking tool I made on my second day is still in use, and will probably outlive me entirely at this point.

I have always had a low threshold for boredom, a character flaw that's led to overpacking for every trip I've ever taken and a general inability to read literary fiction. I love working in a newsroom for many reasons, but one of the greatest has always been that I am rarely bored here, and it never lasts more than two weeks when it does happen. I cannot recommend this job highly enough for technical people who want to have an impact, or journalists who want to break out of a single beat. Working at the Seattle Times has been the most fun I've had a job in a long time. I can't wait to see what the next year brings.

"As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings."

--H.L. Mencken

May 20, 2015

Filed under: journalism»industry

Instant Noodles

Like all Facebook's attempts to absorb the news industry, there's a probable timeline their new Instant Articles will follow, and it basically looks like this:

  • 2015: Facebook introduces Instant Articles, in which a few media partners push their content directly into Facebook's servers, and (in the iPhone app only) it gets rendered without leaving the application. "Content," in this case, even includes the publisher's own ad and tracking systems.
  • 2016: The program expands to other publishers, albeit possibly with a few more "refinements" (read: restrictions) on what those publishers are allowed to do. It becomes fashionable in the newsroom to harass me about it.
  • Late 2016: Once Instant Articles gets some traction, Facebook finds a way to sabotage or undercut it. Either they'll introduce more restrictions on allowable features, or they'll lower the frequency at which the posts appear and charge newsrooms to "promote" them (or both — why take half measures?).
  • 2017: Noting that the magical promised ad dollars have not materialized (or are eaten up by tithes back to The Algorithm), media organizations start quietly reducing their Instant Article publishing rate. Jeff Jarvis writes a sad editorial about it.
  • 2018: Claiming it was an "educational" experiment, Facebook shuts down the program. Rumors begin circulating about its VR news platform, in which the New York Times will publish for Oculus Rift.

Instant Articles is not the first time Facebook has tried to take over the web, and it won't be the last. They're very bad at it, probably because they're the original kings of empty promises: working with Facebook is a constant stream of exasperation, until either you realize that they're incapable of maintaining a stable API/business relationship, or you slit your wrists. They've done it to game developers (goodbye, Farmville), to other newsrooms (remember Washington Post Social Reader?), and to anyone else who's tried to build on the various Facebook "platforms."

Lots of people have written very smart reactions to the Instant Articles announcement — I'm partial to Josh Marshall's behind-the-scenes take, John Herrman's spiral of bemused horror, and Zeynep Tufekci's reminder that Facebook cannot be trusted to engage honestly with its role as gatekeeper.

It's probably more fun to engage with the self-proclaimed "controversial" opinions, like this profoundly dumb thought-leadering from MG Siegler:

With Instant Articles, Facebook has not only done a 180 from what Mark Zuckerberg has called the company's biggest mistake, they've now done another lap just to prove a point.

They did a 180, and then took a lap, so... they ran the race backwards, which is a good thing? Somewhere, Tom Friedman feels a twinge of jealousy.

Not only is the web not fast enough for apps, it's not fast enough for text either. And you know what, they're right.

"They're right" that an app loading pre-cached text can be faster than a web browser downloading that same text from the network, yes. Apparently our plan now is just to restrict your reading material to what Facebook can download ahead of time. I hope you like Upworthy lists.

Though, in a way, Facebook itself really is just a web browser. It's just a different, newfangled one for a new era. A mobile era.

A different, newfangled web browser that only goes to Facebook, apparently. Who would want to read anything else? In the future, all websites are Facebook. (Ironically, according to the Instant Articles FAQ, they're fed from HTML anyway, so they're not even really that "new." But it's probably too much to expect Siegler to do research.)

Siegler's not the only person I've seen celebrating Facebook's move as an end to the open web (by which we mean HTML/CSS/JavaScript), although he's certainly one of the most gleeful (he also thinks Facebook should shut down its website entirely, in case you were wondering the general quality of his business advice). Of course, you'll notice that these hot takes are not themselves published to Facebook, or to a native app somewhere. If that were the case, no-one would have heard of them. They get posted to the web, where they can get linked and shared across social media, and read regardless of platform or hardware.

Even without without bringing in ideology, the "native apps instead of the web" idea faces a tremendous number of problems once you think about it for more than thirty seconds. How do new publications like The Toast or FiveThirtyEight get traction when you have to manually download them from an app store to read them? If they get popular through the web first, why bother transitioning to native? Nobody makes "reader" apps for desktops and laptops, so what happens to them? Does anyone really want to write long-form on Facebook, a service that only recently added an "edit post" button? Who cares: punditry is hard, let's go shopping!

It's easy to pick on shallow people who think Instant Articles represent a grand utopian state, but I'd also like to celebrate people who are actually building in the opposite direction. This weekend, I went to a Knight-Mozilla code convening in Portland, which included a ticket to the Write the Docs convention. I'm not a documentation writer, really, so most of the conference went right past me. But the keynote on the second day was by Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, and it was a fascinating look at what it would really look like to reinvent the web.

For the past few years, Cunningham's been working on "federated" wikis, which store content on multiple servers instead of using a single database. If you link to another person's wiki page and you want to change the content, you fork it a la GitHub, and edit the new local copy (which remembers its origin) right there in your browser. You can also drag-and-drop content into a new page, if you want to merge text from multiple sources. It's pretty neat. The talk isn't online, but he did another presentation at New Relic that covers similar material.

Parts of Cunningham's pitch can sound kind of crankish, although I'm sure I would have said the same thing for the original wiki. But other parts are really interesting, such as the idea of creating a forkable attribution trail for data and reporting. Federated wikis are another attempt to decentralize and diversify the Internet, instead of walling it up behind a corporation's control. And a lot of it is inspired by the main insight that wikis had in the first place: on a wiki, you create a page by first creating a hyperlink to it, then following that link.

As a result, even though users don't directly type HTML into the window, this form of authorship is profoundly of the web, and it's the kind of thing that's never going to exist in a native application somewhere. The fact that Cunningham can experiment with adding new markup features in JavaScript — and even turn a browser into a new kind of hypertext reader, with a different interface paradigm — is what the web platform does best. Like water, it can flow, or it can crash.

And that's why it's ultimately ridiculous to act like some pre-cached news articles are the herald of a new media age. What the web gives us — a freedom for anyone to publish to everyone, a wildly cross-platform programming environment, a rich multimedia container where your plain-text article can live right next to my complex news app — is not going to be superceded by a bunch of native apps, and certainly not by Facebook. Instant Articles won't even be the future of news. Future of the web? Give me a break.

Future - Present - Past