Monthly Archives: December 2013

When the “ball drop” building housed the NY Times

By Christopher B. Daly 

Many eyes will be focused on the ludicrous famous “ball drop” tonight in Times Square to mark the arrival of the new year in the eastern United States. Many TV cameras and uncounted phone cameras will be aimed southward toward a narrow building. Here is an earlier view of the exact same building, taken in 1908. That’s when the building served as the recently finished headquarters of the New York Times newspaper. The paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, was proud of the landmark building as a reflection of the Times‘ growing profits and prestige. He was so proud that he prevailed on the New York city government to rename the spacious intersection of Broadway and 7th Ave. from Longacre Square to Times Square.

The Times soon outgrew this slender masterpiece and moved about a block away to a much larger, stouter French-style building for most of the 20th Century. (The paper, now published by Och’s great-grandson, is currently located a few blocks away on 8th Ave.)

So, as the ball drops tonight, show this picture to your guests and raise a glass to Adolph Ochs.

Oh, and happy new year!

NYT Bldg 1908





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Surveillance state: NSA reforms driven by Snowden (and Greenwald)

By Christopher B. Daly 

This may be obvious, but I think it bears repeating:

Absent journalists (and their sources, of course), President Obama would not have appointed a task force on the NSA, he would not have welcomed a debate over surveillance, and he would not be forced to consider reforms. From today’s Times:

While few in the White House want to admit as much in public, none of this would have happened without the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor now in asylum in Russia. While Mr. Obama has said he welcomes the debate about the top-secret-stampproper limits on the N.S.A., it is not one he engaged in publicly until the Snowden revelations began. Now the president has little choice — this week alone a constellation of forces is pushing for change: A federal judge called the bulk-collection program “almost Orwellian,” while some in Congress, many of his allies and Silicon Valley executives demanded change.

So, let’s give thanks to Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald for enabling us to act as citizens of a free country. In the end, Americans may decide that they like being spied on. If they do, I will still disagree, but I will say, So be it. What I cannot abide is the grasping for power that goes beyond the constitution, American laws, and common sense.


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No cheering in the pressbox, please.

By Christopher B. Daly 

Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy had a remarkable column on the front page of the paper today. It was remarkable for several reasons.

First, it was on page 1, which suggests to me that it was a newsroom decision to put this on the front page. I wonder why? That means, for one thing, that the Globe’s editors wanted this message to reach readers beyond those who read the sports pages.

Second, it makes a point about the methodology of writing columns, which is more “meta” than Dan usually gets. So, I wonder if this column was prompted by something specific. (Maybe the new Ted Williams biography by Dan’s former colleague, Ben Bradlee Jr., which reminds us of the feud Williams had with Boston sports columnists who were not sufficiently admiring.)

Perhaps it has to do with the Globe’s new owner, John Henry, who also happens to be the major owner of the Boston Red Sox. Was Dan declaring his independence from both the team and the new owner? Was the newsroom supporting him in this? Were they trying to tell Henry (who is new to the role of newspaper-owner) that he should not expect Shaughnessy — and, by extension, the whole Globe staff — to use their words and images to support the boss’s causes and interests? Does that extend to Henry’s business interests? To his politics?

Boston Globe image

Boston Globe image

Dan (full disclosure: he’s a friend, and our boys are friends) is making a case that should be self-evident. Years ago, the principle was established among the guild of sports writers that they attended sporting events not to root for the teams they were covering. This attitude was expressed quite well in the classic formulation: “No cheering in the pressbox.”

That goes for the hometown team, too. I believe the job of a sportswriter is to call them as he/she sees them. If my team stinks, I want to know why. I don’t want to be told that they don’t stink when they do.

Dan’s column got a lot of comments, many of which were the kind of harsh put-down that fills sports radio, the internet, and many a comments section. Turns out, a lot of guys want a columnist like Dan to agree with them. That, too, is not his job. As I understand the calling of columnist, the job is to be interesting, plain and simple. A columnist should write about things that are true in an interesting way and write about things that are interesting in a true way.

It’s not the same job as being a reporter or a beat writer. That is a more factual task, trying to answer the basic question: what happened? The columnist is trying to answer a different question: of the things that just happened, which ones are not obvious but would amuse, inform, challenge, provoke, or beguile my readers?

This has been true since the early days of column writing in the early 20th century and can be seen in the work of

Red Smith

Red Smith

the great Red Smith or in the tremendous columns churned out by the likes of Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Langston Hughes, and Ernie Pyle (see Covering America).

Keep ’em coming, Dan. And don’t pull any punches.


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Surveillance State: Don’t Spy on Me!

By Christopher B. Daly     top-secret-stamp

[Update: here’s the report. More later. ]

As the White House moves to speed up its response to overreach by the NSA, it is worth reviewing exactly what the issue is. I write a lot on this blog about the First Amendment, because press freedom is one of my big themes. But press freedom is all of a piece with our other freedoms — freedoms which, by the way, we have as citizens. We don’t get them from the government; we don’t even get them from the Constitution. (We assert or articulate them in the Constitution, but that’s all). We have rights because we were endowed with them by our Creator, or because they are our birthright as free citizens of a free country.

One part of the Constitution that we need to keep in mind during the revelations about the NSA spying is the Fourth Amendment. Here is the text (as maintained by the National Archives):

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

At a minimum, that begins to define my relationship with the government by saying, Hands off. I have the right to be secure (not just to feel secure, but to actually BE secure) in my body, my house, and all my paper and electronic records. We start, then, with the premise that the government should LEAVE ME ALONE. If the need should arise to search me, or my place, or my stuff, then the government must first go to court and secure a warrant from a judge. To get such a warrant, some government agent must swear that there is “probable cause” to believe that it would be fruitful to search a particular person, place, or thing.

In my view, that single sentence should have kept me (and the rest of us) secure from surveillance and record-keeping about my activities, movements, affiliations, and all the rest. Instead, the Bush and Obama administrations embarked on a peacetime program of data-gathering about every U.S. citizen without so much as a by-your-leave — no warrants, no subpoena, no notice. If the president and Congress think this is a great idea, then they need to come to us, the people, the sovereign rulers of this country, and ASK US. They need to say, “Hey, would it be OK with you if we collect data about your every phone call and email and keep it indefinitely?And we won’t tell you when it starts or ends, and the legal rationale for it will be a secret, and we will get approval from a secret court that only hears from the government. Would that be OK with you?”

I would say, NO. I would say, LEAVE ME ALONE. I would say, DON’T SPY ON ME.

Thanks again to Judge Leon for his recent decision knocking the legal legs out from under the government’s position. And here is a fine analysis of that ruling by TNR’s Jeffrey Rosen.

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Million+ historic photos put online

By Christopher B. Daly 

Don’t miss: if you are a historian, researcher, or dedicated browser, visit the new flickr site of The British Library. The library recently made news by posting more than 1 million historic images — all digitized, all in the public domain, and all available for use now. Plus, there’s metadata for each one. The site is not as easy to navigate (it’s actually a bit overwhelming) as the U.S. Library of Congress site for the Prints & Photographs Division, but I’m hardly complaining.

It’s also based on flickr, so you need to have an account to take full advantage. (I tried to re-activate my old Yahoo account — Yahoo bought flickr a few years ago — but it was so cumbersome and annoying that I gave up, for now. I got these images by dragging them in from news sites.)

British Library Flickr



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Read the judge’s ruling in the NSA case!

By Christopher B. Daly 

OK, my fellow Americans, here’s the chance to empower yourself for the coming debates over secrecy and surveillance and security. READ the judge’s ruling in the NSA case

After you’ve read it, leave comments and let others know what you think.

That, it seems to me, is the least we can all do as free citizens of a free country.

Now, I gotta get back to reading it.

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Alternatives to leaf-blowing

By Christopher B. Daly

In an earlier post, I laid out some of the case against getting rid of all the leaves that may fall on your land in the fall. This time, I want to explore some alternatives.

1. Do nothing. This is pretty extreme, I will grant you, especially in certain suburbs. It is the first step in a process that would logically culminate in turning your yard into a forest (at least here in New England). The trees on your land not only want to live, they want to pass on their DNA. To do that, they will produce thousands of seeds, and they will also try to shape the environment to favor their own kind. Thus, white pines will drop needles in profusion, changing the chemistry of the soil and physically blocking many of the pine’s rivals. So, if you really do nothing about your yard in this part of the world, it will soon look like the nearest patch of forest near where you live. This would not be the worst thing, but it will attract some notice, especially from neighbors who think the neighborhood should look like a golf course or a corner of Versailles. (Plus: you should probably not do absolutely nothing, or else you could end up with a forest of Norway maples, which would not be a really great outcome. See: alien invasives.) Still, if you’re up for it, go ahead to do nothing. Please let me know how that works out.

2. Fire your landscaper. Most landscapers are really not on your side. The ones I observe here in the New England suburbs are profit-maximizing businesses like any other. They want to sell you services and materials. So, they are not really interested in cutting back on the number of visits or applications of stuff like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. If you decide to keep your landscaper around, then at least take charge of the relationship. Tell your landscaper exactly what you want (and do not want). You can begin by telling your landscaper not to use leaf-blowers on your place any more. Tell him (or her?) that you request the use of rakes and brooms instead. Your guy may grumble, but remember: the customer is always right.

3. Mulch your lawn. This may sound technical, but it is about as easy as falling out of bed. All mulching means is that you shred your leaves (somehow) and keep them on your own property. First, the shredding. This can be accomplished in a pretty good fashion with a regular lawn mower. You will need to mow pretty often in the fall to stay ahead of the accumulating leaves, but this is better than nothing. You can even tell your landscaper to do this. Better is to get a “mulching mower,” which is specially adapted to shredding imagesleaves into a nice small size, which encourages them to rot, which is just another term for recycling. Rotting is a great thing for your yard — both lawn and gardens. In fact, without rotting, we would be buried in stuff that never got properly recycled. So, you shred the leaves, and if the pieces are small enough and there are not too many leaves, you can just let them drop. They will drop down to the base of your grass. There, the mulch will retain water in the soil (thus sparing you from another racket — irrigation systems. If you live in New England, you do not need an irrigation system, certainly not for the typical lawn and gardens. We get plenty of rain here.) The mulch will also rot into the soil, thus enriching it. There you go: no need to water, no need to fertilize.

4. Mulch your gardens. As the leaves pile up in the fall, you may find that they outrun your capacity to mulch them right into the lawn. That’s OK. You can run your mulching mower with the bag attachment andimgres collect the shredded leaves. When the bag is full, you walk over to a nearby garden bed and just shake the contents into the garden. Let them pile up two to three inches deep. Here, they are your friends. They will rot and enrich the soil; they will limit evaporation and help retain rainwater; they will also help to suppress certain weeds. Depending on the ratio of garden beds to lawn at your place, you might be able to use all your shredded leaves on your own property. Never buy any more mulch from the nursery. You don’t need it.

5. Compost. This too may sound arcane or just daunting. It’s not. Composting is just a fancy name for a program of deliberately encouraging organic material to rot. When you compost, you accomplish several good things at once: you create your own free, natural fertilizer; you reduce your flow of garbage and other waste that has to be dealt with; and you will capture more and more of your own organic material. Composting can be ridiculously simple. You can just start a pile on the ground behind your garage. Toss grass clippings and shredded leaves on the pile, in alternating layers. From time to time, mix them up. Come back a few months later, and — voila! — there will be a load of dark, rich material that looks like a composting-how-tocross between plain old dirt and peat moss. Help yourself to a shovel-ful. Take it to a flower or vegetable bed, pour it on, and mix it in. Or, you can shake it lightly over your lawn. Anything you want to grow will grow better with compost. Once you get the hang of it, you can add kitchen scraps to your compost pile (but no meat or fish, please, or you will get every raccoon and skunk in the neighborhood spending the night behind your garage having a real hooey!). You can also buy a composter, which is a container for all this stuff, or make your own. Oh, yes, one more thing: it will all go better if you can divert some rainwater from your garage roof and keep your compost pile nice and moist.

6. Start a hedgerow. Huh? This too is easy. Here’s the idea: in many parts of the world (Ireland, England, France and elsewhere), farmers traditionally divided their fields by allowing or encouraging certain shrubs to grow up along the borders. Think of it as a living fence. The hedgerow not only marks boundaries, it was also used to control livestock in the centuries before barbed wire. But there’s one more benefit, too: the hedgerow is a patch of land on your property that you can essentially leave alone forever. The leaves that fall on it can just be left alone. Oh, and there’s a super bonus, too: a healthy, established hedgerow is also a home for lots of beneficial wildlife, which will appreciate the leaf litter on the ground, the cover provided by the shrubbery, the possibilities for making homes, and the food provided by any fruit or seeds yielded by the plants in your hedgerow. Here’s a way to start: go out to the back boundary on your land. Pace off 10-12 feet. Mark that line. Then, just stop mowing or weeding that zone. In a few years, you will find all kinds of “volunteers” — plants that show up all on their own, thanks to the wind or animals that disperse the seeds, and set about growing. You might want to do a bit of sorting, so that you get a good mix of native plants about the right size. Evergreens like yews and holly will get you through the winter. Fruiting shrubs like viburnums provide color and fruit. Now, if you back neighbor would do the same thing, the two of you would have a hedgerow more than 20 feet wide, which will really transform your neighborhood.



So, there you go. These are all cheap, low-tech, proven techniques. Try them all. And see if you don’t find yourself running a more natural landscape.


Filed under Environment

Interrogation: Jack Bauer v. Frank Columbo

By Christopher B. Daly

Recently, my colleague Doug Starr has gotten a good deal of deserved attention for his work on the subject of interrogation, including a fact piece in the New Yorker and an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Doug is an experienced science journalist who has written important books on the history of the global trade in blood (Blood)  as well as the birth of forensic science in late 19th C. France (The Killer of Little Shepherds). In turning his attention to the science of interrogation, Doug found that actually there is no science to support a widespread suite of interrogation techniques. The approach most commonly used by U.S. police departments is prone to producing false confessions.

Turns out, there is a better way:

What works best is to calmly ask a suspect some open-ended questions. That forces the suspect to generate a narrative. So far, so good. Then, you check the parts that you can against any external sources. Then, you have the suspect tell the “story” again, looking for discrepancies, even tiny ones. Repeat as needed.

No shouting, no threats. No good cop/bad cop routine. No torture.

What strikes me is that this interrogation technique corresponds to the approach used by another occupational group: journalists. This is essentially what reporters do: ask questions, listen to the answers, check the information against other sources, then go back over the same ground again — as many times as necessary.





The model that I try to steer my students toward is not Jack Bauer on the TV series “24.”




Instead, I recommend Frank Columbo on the eponymous TV show from the 1970s and 80s. Never in a hurry, forever dressed in that rumpled trenchcoat, Frank Columbo was always willing to appear to be the dumbest guy in the room and never hesitated to admit

ColumboDVD3 that he just couldn’t understand a case and ask a suspect to run through a story just once more.

Here’s a glimpse from Wikipedia:

Columbo is polite. He has a keen intellect and good taste which he hides very well. Though a bit dated, his clothes are high quality. Columbo never divulges his first name. His absent-minded approach to cases, his distracted outbursts and constant pestering of suspects is his modus operandi. He is gifted at lulling anyone guilty into a false sense of security. Often he would pursue a line of question that brings about minimal information, not pressing enough to cause the suspect any alarm. Columbo would thank the suspect, and turn to leave – only to turn back at the last second, claiming to suddenly have remembered something (stating, “Oh, uh, one more thing…” or some variant thereof), and present the suspect with a far more serious and vital question, catching the suspect off guard. This is referred to as “the false exit”.

But I don’t think that quite captures Columbo’s genius. Like a good, veteran reporter, Columbo approaches each case serene in the knowledge that if he asks enough questions and listens carefully enough, the suspect will eventually tell him everything he needs to know.

That’s really all there is to it:



Ask again.






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The online life

Here is a new piece by MIT prof and internet theorist Sherry Turkle.

Here is a new piece by NYTimes tech columnist Nick Bilton.

Here is a new piece about the NSA.

All of which prompt this reflection, from Ben Franklin, writing under a pseudonym as Poor Richard:

Three can keep a secret — if two of them are dead.

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Hyper-local news: a $300 million bust?

By Christopher B. Daly

Now comes word that AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, is putting the finishing touches on the finale of, the online local news sites. In his column today, NYTimes‘ David Carr reports that Armstrong is throwing in the towel on what used to be his baby. Too bad it didn’t work out.

There was a time when Patch looked like it might be an important part of the journalistic future. It was based on a key insight: more people were getting their news and information online, so why not local news? (Plus, there are a lot of local pizza parlors and nail salons that might advertise in such a site but would not be bothered advertising on a bigger site, because they would be paying to reach a lot of people who would never wander into their shops.)

While it lasted, Patch was a source of entry-level jobs for our journalism students, and I am worried about what will replace it.

Here’s Carr’s take:


The theory was that Patch would use a single news person and a single advertising person, at least initially, to create a digital maypole in hundreds of communities at a cost of about $100,000 annually per site. Patch sites popped up across the country, like Calabasas, Calif., and Nashua, N.H., covering high school sports, city elections and other local fare.

The execution risk was large — Patch was all moving parts, many undermanaged. At its peak, some 900 sites employed 1,400 people. Much of the journalism was pedestrian, while some of it, especially during Hurricane Sandy, was deeply important, but the decision to start at such a large scale was crippling. And all local efforts, digital or not, confront the tyranny of small numbers. Both the journalism and the ad sales were hand-to-hand, a retail effort that required spending a lot of money to go after pretty small revenue.

In August, it was clear that the math would not work. More than 350 people at Patch were laid off and hundreds of sites were shuttered.

What strikes me is the amount of money Armstrong was able to shovel into it — $300 million. Even for corporate moguls, that’s not nothing. Maybe that’s what was wrong all along: if you want to live online, keep your costs down.

I look forward to the experiment in this space that gets it right.


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