Writing Rules and Advice from the New York Times Features

In this meta post, the writers of New York Times distill the writing advice they’ve offered or featured in various recent columns:

Rule 8: Nobody’s Perfect

Yes, Times writers and editors do make mistakes and the in-house feature “After Deadline,” which the public can view, too, takes them to task by highlighting and correcting errors in grammar, usage and style that appear in print.

Use this blog to understand grammatical points, like subject verb agreement. Then, become a better editor of your own work by taking the After Deadline Quiz.

Rule 9: Fail

Learn from your mistakes and failures, a topic Augusten Burroughs tackles in How to Write How-To”:

… to pass along the knowledge of how to succeed, first you must know how to fail. A great deal, if possible. This is essential because it’s far more common (and easier) to make mistakes than to enjoy success. Being aware of potential points of derailment helps to better and more accurately navigate your readers past your own missteps so they can succeed where perhaps you first failed quite miserably.

The post is a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your writing. Still curious? Continue here.

A Violin Once Owned by Goebbels Keeps Its Secrets

The setting was Berlin; the gift an 18th-century instrument said to be from the hands of a master luthier whose works mark the apex of three centuries of violin making. The ceremony a chance to cement an alliance and to thank the violinist for playing for Germans wounded in World War II.

Much is documented — if little remembered — about Goebbels’s gift on Feb. 22, 1943. But the origins of the violin itself remain a mystery. Was it confiscated property, one of thousands of musical instruments plundered by the Nazis, or otherwise obtained under duress from those persecuted during the Nazi era?

When Ms. Suwa and her violin returned to Japan, the whispers followed. They have trailed the instrument for nearly 70 years.

That’s from this fascinating piece in The New York Times, penned by Carla Shapreau, a violin maker and lawyer, who writes that she is:

conducting a project on musical losses, file by file, name by name. The analysis of authenticity and the history of ownership and possession, the provenance, are essential to the mission. 

The lady that’s the subject of the piece is Nejiko Suwa. Born in 1920, she was a prodigy by 10 and studying with the Russian violinist Anna Bubnova-Ono, Yoko Ono’s aunt by marriage. She risked her life to protect the Stradivarius violin, eventually making it back to Japan.

Mark Cuban on the Business of Wall Street

Mark Cuban dishes out a lot of questions in his latest blog post:

The important issue is recognizing that Wall Street is no longer serving the purpose  what it was designed to. Wall Street was designed to be a market to which companies provide securities (stocks/bonds), from which they received capital that would help them start/grow/sell businesses. Investors made their money by recognizing value where others did not, or by simply committing to a company and growing with it as a shareholder, receiving dividends or appreciation in their holdings.  What percentage of the market is driven by investors these days ?

I started actively trading stocks in 1992. I traded a lot. Over the years I’ve written quite a bit about the market. I have always thought I had a good handle on the market. Until recently.

Over just the past 5 years, the market has changed. It is getting increasingly difficult to just invest in companies you believe in. Discussion in the market place is not about the performance of specific companies and their returns. Discussion is about macro issues that impact all stocks. And those macro issues impact automated trading decisions, which impact any and every stock that is part of any and every index or ETF.  Combine that with the leverage of derivatives tracking companies,  indexes and other packages or the leveraged ETFs, and individual stocks become pawns in a much bigger game than I feel increasingly less  comfortable playing. It is a game fraught with ever increasing risk.

This was the most important reasoning from Cuban, I thought:

My 2 cents is that it is important for this country to push Wall Street back to the business of creating capital for business.  Whether its through a use of taxes on trades (hit every trade on a stock held less than 1 hour with a 10c tax and all these problems go away), or changing the capital gains tax structure so that there is no capital gains tax on any shares of stock (private or public company) held for 1 year or more, and no tax on dividends paid to shareholders who have held stock in the company for more than 5 years. 

Full post here.

On Another Type of Tournament, Magic: The Gathering

Noah Davis has a long feature about the three day Magic: The Gathering tournament in Seattle. As he recounts, it’s not just the nerds who enter this event:

The tournament at Showbox is both unusually intense and unusually laid back for a high-level Magic event. The pressure comes from the cash at hand and the extremely high quality of play, while the intimate feeling stems from the small group involved. Normal Pro Tour events — there are three every year — feature upwards of 400 players. The Grand Prix, tournaments that anyone can pay to enter, routinely draw more than 1,500 contestants and are played in massive convention spaces. “The laid back feel is nice. It’s nice not to have to walk around a big event hall,” David Ochoa says of the Players Championship, although he and others will admit they miss being recognized by adoring fans.

After a photo op of the entire group, the day kicks off with a Cube draft, one of the many formats of the game. Individual players are better at different variations of Magic, so the tournament features three varieties: Cube draft, booster draft, and Modern constructed. For our purposes here, the specific details of each format are not really important. Basic ones include which cards are allowed to be chosen and whether the decks are constructed before the tournament or drafted in a fantasy football-esque manner the day of the event.

After drafting, the players get 30 minutes to build their decks, then the action begins. Except it doesn’t. There’s a problem with the audio on the Internet stream. The Players Championship is a spectator experience, but it’s an online spectator experience. Fans are welcome inside the Showbox, but there will only be a handful throughout the weekend. The event isn’t promoted as an in-person experience. There’s little room because the space is dedicated to creating the Internet experience. Seven thousand viewers consistently watch the stream at all times, peaking just below 9,000 on the final day. The stage holds three tables, while five tables sit stage right for the other games. Equipment for the broadcast takes up the entire left side of the venue. Staff responsible for getting the tournament online outnumber the players nearly two to one. Two announcers at a time — over the course of three days, six men total will offer play-by-play and color — provide commentary throughout the tournament, focusing on the on-stage “feature match.” A large boom camera on the floor and two other cameras offer the producers three different angles on the action, allowing commentators and the audience at home to see into the players’ hands. But the game cannot start until the audio is ready. Brian Kibler suggests the group “hurry up and wait.” An organizer responds, “That’s what an event like this is about.” Everyone laughs, then sits patiently at their tables while the techs scramble to fix the issue. Soon, they do. Game on.

A fascinating read, even if I’ve never played a full game of Magic in my entire life.

Hacking the Voters’ Brains

With the U.S. presidential election less than two months away, we are exposed to more and more political coverage day by day. Sasha Issenberg (author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns), reporting for The Wall Street Journal, pens an interesting post about hacking the voters’ brains:

4. Get them to confess (indirectly) to bias.

Throughout 2008, Barack Obama’s advisers never entirely trusted polls that showed their candidate to be ahead. There was, after all, a long history of white voters misleading pollsters about their willingness to vote for a black candidate. The phenomenon was known as “the Bradley effect,” after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who did far worse at the polls in his 1982 gubernatorial race than polls had predicted. Obama’s advisers didn’t want to risk such an election-night surprise and used their statistical-modeling prowess to hedge against one.

The challenge was separating voters who were resisting Obama (or remained undecided) because of his race from those who were drawn toward John McCain for other reasons. Obama’s top microtargeting consultant, Ken Strasma, focused on a small group of white voters who reported themselves to be supporting John McCain at a much higher rate than the campaign’s scores predicted they should. Mr. Strasma looked for variables that defined this group and found one when he tried a new question in his surveys: “Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American for president?”

People who answered “no” were likely to be Mr. Strasma’s problem voters. Everything his databases signaled about their political attitudes—based on their partisanship, age or socioeconomic status—suggested they would be likely to support Mr. Obama, but they said they planned to vote for Mr. McCain. So Mr. Strasma created a new category in his microtargeting: a so-called “openness score,” measuring the likelihood that someone was open to voting for a black candidate.

The campaign could isolate those with low scores and deal with them in one of two ways. They could be ignored or, if they looked like habitual voters who were likely to turn out, the campaign could approach them with targeted communications that focused on urgent economic themes rather than on Obama’s charisma (“hope and change”) and the historic nature of his candidacy.

5. Let them know (gently) that they are being watched. Few campaigns want to be associated with tactics like Mark Grebner’s threat to expose nonvoters to their neighbors, because it looks a lot like blackmail. But campaigns have figured out how to soften such approaches. One version widely used today tells a voter “our records indicate that you voted in the 2008 election” and says that the sender hopes to be able to thank the recipient again after this election day for his or her “good citizenship.”It may fail to meet Mr. Grebner’s goal of shaming those who don’t go to the polls, but it still works. It’s been tested.

You should read items 1 to 3 here.

John Gruber’s iPhone 5 Review

I am very happy with my iPhone 4S, so I don’t think I will be upgrading to the new iPhone 5. Still, I enjoyed this thorough review of the iPhone 5 from John Gruber. Bottom line? The phone is nice:

iPhone 5 in my hand, this talk of micron-precision, fine watch craftsmanship, and the computerized selection of best-match inlays sounds not the least bit bullshitty or blustery. It simply sounds like an explanation of the level of obsession that it takes to create a mass-produced device that feels this, well, nice. It even feels as though they’ve put some serious work into the iPhone’s one historical weak spot: the home button.

The iPhone remains the flagship of Apple’s entire product line. It exhibits not merely the highest degree of fit and finish of any smartphone, but the highest degree of fit and finish for anything Apple has ever made. When first you hold it — where by you I mean “you, who, like me, is intimately familiar with the feel and heft of an iPhone 4 or 4S” — you will be struck by how light it feels, yet in a premium, not chintzy way. Within a week, it will feel normal, and your old iPhone 4/4S will feel like a brick.

On Apple choosing to offer only one version (in terms of screen size) of the iPhone:

In an ideal world, perhaps Apple would offer two iPhone sizes — like they do with products such as MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, and iMacs. A smaller one with the classic 3.5-inch display, and a larger (say, 4.5-inch?) one for people who want that. On the logistics side, this doesn’t align with Apple’s interests — economies of scale and the marketing simplicity of just one new iPhone per year.

But there’s another factor. I believe many people would choose poorly. Bigger looks better. It’s like the old chestnut about TV sets in big box stores — side-by-side, standing in the store, people tend to choose TVs that are oversaturated, the ones with the boldest colors, rather than the ones with the better, more accurate colors. I can’t help but think that many people would choose the big-ass iPhone in my hypothetical two-sizes scenario, and later regret it with tired thumbs sore from stretching. (My thumbs feel sore just by looking at photos like this one of the LG Optimus G.) Design is making decisions, and Apple has always decided what the best size is for an iPhone display.

If you can afford the iPhone 5, John concludes, you should buy it.

Why Do So Many People Die Trying to Summit Mount Everest?

Grayson Schaffer’s “Take a Number” is an excellent piece in Outside Magazine, profiling the challenges climbers face in ascending Mount Everest in the modern era. As he notes, scores of people die attempting to climb the world’s highest peak not because of weather conditions, but due to other elements (overcrowding, for-profit-companies that won’t refuse the cash, etc.):

What I saw was a situation that resembled ’96 in some respects but in most ways did not. As happened back then, some of the 2012 teams lost precious time waiting in long lines in the Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, and summited too late in the day. But 2012’s victims weren’t caught by a freak, fast-moving storm. Their deaths were the result of exhaustion, climbing too slowly, ignoring serious altitude sickness, and refusing to turn around—which is to say, the steady toll of human error. Nobody was killed by the mountain’s roulette wheel of hazards such as rockfall, avalanches, and blizzards.

This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.

But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.

Worth reading in its entirety. And if you’ve never read Jon Krakaeur’s Into Thin Air, you must put it on your reading list.

Google’s Acquisition of Nik Software

Yesterday, Google made a huge acquisition in the photography space by purchasing Nik Software. However, many news outlets got it wrong, focusing on the SnapSeed app rather than Nik’s more feature-worthy products (such as Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro, which I use in my post-processing).

Here is Trey Ratcliff on Google’s acquisition, a power user of Nik Software:

This is an exciting move from Google, and another indication that Google takes photography very seriously. Most of the silicon-valley-bubble-press probably does not know much about Nik Software, and doesn’t realize that this is a company built by and for professional photographers. Even though their software is designed for “pros”, I’m confident in saying that 90% of their customers are amateurs who are using these same tools to make them look like pros! Nik makes amazing tools, and I am really looking forward to seeing them bleed into my daily life of using Google+.

Now, the significance of this acquisition should not be overlooked. This is not like, say, the United States acquiring Puerto Rico (think FB and Instagram – where Facebook is a social-network of people acquiring a smaller social-network of people) but instead, this is like the United States buying Lockheed Martin.

It will be interesting to see what Google does with this acquisition. Nik’s software isn’t cheap (i.e., comparable to prices offered for stand-alone products such as Adobe’s Lightroom), and I am looking to see whether the products will become more affordable in the future.

Reddit’s Mind Blowing Sentences

This is a great thread on Reddit: “What is the most mind-blowing sentence you can think of?”

To start things off:

No one is going to remember your memories.

This one is my favorite:

The difference between billion and trillion is equivalent to the difference between your lifetime and the entirety of human history.

This rings close to home:

“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

On exploration:

We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor.

I like this explanation of pi:

Pi is an infinite, nonrepeating decimal – meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi. Converted into ASCII text, somewhere in that infinite string of digits is thename of every person you will ever love, the date, time, and manner of your death, and the answers to all the great questions of the universe.

What would be your mind-blowing sentence?

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(via SciencePopularis)

Los Angeles, Ideal City of Transit?

Matt Yglesis recently visited Southern California. And he was impressed by the public transportation system he witnessed, calling the public transport in Los Angeles a revolution:

But the city that’s defined in the public imagination as the great auto-centric counterpoint to the traditional cities of the Northeast has quietly emerged as a serious mass transit contender. It’s no New York and never will be—Los Angeles was constructed in the era of mass automobile ownership, and its landscape will always reflect that—but it’s turning into something more interesting, a 21st-century city that moves the idea of alternative transportation beyond nostalgia or Europhilia.

 

Perhaps most importantly of all, the city is acting to transform the built environment to match the new infrastructure. A controversial plan to rezone the Hollywood area for more density has passed. The city has also moved to reduce the number of parking spaces developers need to provide with new projects, following the lead of the smaller adjacent cities of Santa Monica and West Hollywood. A project to reconfigure Figueroa Boulevard running south from downtowntoward Exposition Park as a bike-and-pedestrian friendly byway is in the works, and pending the outcome of a November ballot initiative, a streetcar may be added to the mix. At the northern end is the massive L.A. Live complex of movie theaters, restaurants, arenas, hotels, condos, and apartments—the biggest downtown investment the city had seen in decades, constructed between 2005 and 2010. At the southern end of the corridor is the University of Southern California, which is planning to redevelop its own backyard to look a bit more like a traditional urban university village.

I lived in Pasadena for 1.5 years while I went to Caltech. I didn’t need a car while there as most everything I needed was within walking distance. However, I never fully ventured to explore the public transportation system. Perhaps the system is growing in Los Angeles, but I doubt it will ever reach the scope of New York or Boston.