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IMDB’s Top 20: Data Visualization

IMDB Top 20 Data(Click to enlarge)
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You Can Achieve Anything

You Can Achieve Anything(Click to Enlarge)

Better Writing: Cut the Abstractions

This is the tip that gave me a light-bulb moment about writing in general. The late Rene J. Cappon tackled abstractions in several books while working for the Associated Press. He had a more narrow definition of abstractions than some other writing gurus, but it actually makes the concept easier to digest.

Abstractions are vague, abstract nouns that usually force you to add even more unnecessary words.

Here’s a compilation from several corporate press releases. Yes, it really gets this bad. You’ll see many of the worst abstractions here, highlighted in bold type. I made up a disaster: A natural gas company’s supply line broke at a relay station, resulting in a massive fire that can’t be contained. Ten employees were injured, some critically.

The facility in question posed a condition that is the basis for this current situation. We are deeply concerned over this serious incident at the affected site and our thoughts and prayers are with the staff members and all of their beloved families and friends. The matter is being dealt with by our highly trained experts in the engineering field as well as outside responders and we are waiting for updates from all of them. The company is launching a full investigation related to the problem and is working very closely with all of the necessary authorities on this issue.

There are more than abstractions here. Note the run-on sentences, the passive tone and the hyperbolic words (deeply, beloved, highly, full, very). Below is an example of more direct writing. Keep in mind that this version won’t work for press releases, since corporations can face lawsuits if they admit to incompetence or guilt.

A pipe seal failed at our outdated relay station, which led to an explosion and uncontrolled fire. It pains us to say that seven employees were injured. Three others were critically wounded, and we’ve contacted their families. Local and federal experts have already joined us in our investigation, although we can’t enter the building until firefighters put out the flames.

59 words versus 100, with much more clarity and detail. If you wrote the first example and had to keep the vague tone, you can still cut at least 38 unnecessary words.

Shorter Examples
Before: Additional funding is needed for advertising purposes.
After: The company needs more money for advertising.

Before: She’s close to a decision in the matter.
After: She’s close to a decision.

Before: Roads are closed due to snowy conditions.
After: Roads are closed due to snow.

Before: The standoff situation is continually escalating.
After: The standoff is growing more tense by the hour.

Before: The detective is on administrative leave while they launch an investigation.
After: The detective is on leave while they investigate.

Before: We meet with other staffers on a daily basis.
After: We meet with staff daily.

Before: He’s an expert in the medical field.
After: He’s a medical expert. Or… He’s an expert in medicine.

Before: Another worrisome matter is the issue of de-escalating business activity.
After: Another worry is a drop in spending.

Before: Investors are experiencing serious problems due to the present conditions.
After: Investors are struggling with lower returns and higher fees.

Before: The company pledged improvements in terms of union communications and cost overruns.
After: The company promises to cut spending and negotiate with union leaders.

Before: The current issue at hand is the sign-in process.
After: Users can’t sign in.

Before: App maker Happy Snappy Industries says it will once again have the best-performing applications in the cell phone and tablet market.
After: Happy Snappy Industries says it will have the best-performing apps on the market.

Before: In this specific case, officers face the task of clearing the area where passionate protesters are congregating.
After: Officers are trying to clear the park full of shouting protesters.

Insane Question of the Day

Overheard on the subway:

“Does water have gluten in it?”

 

Gluten Flour. Also known as Happiness Flour.

Gluten Flour. Also known as Happiness Flour.

 

Gluten-Free Flour. Also known as Sadness Flour.

Gluten-Free Flour. Also known as Sadness Flour.

 
Source #1: Me.
Source #2: Time Magazine.

When NYC Taxi Drivers Break the Law

There are many city laws that taxi drivers have to obey. Here’s one that a lot of people don’t know about, especially tourists: Drivers are not allowed to ask you where you’re going before you get into the cab. Also, once a passenger is in a cab, a driver is generally not allowed to refuse service. Breaking either of these laws can result in a fine starting at $200.

One big problem: Driver shifts end during the afternoon rush hour. This is apparently so the next driver for the day can also make a little more money. But this leaves less cabs on the road when they’re most needed. Some drivers returning their cabs will avoid announcing they’re off duty right away (via their lights). The goal is to squeeze in one more fare by asking people where they’re going. If it’s on the way, and not too far, they might let you in.

Here’s my latest rush-hour experience with a fellow commuter I’ll call Cynthia. We were in Manhattan, in the 60’s near the West Side Highway. Our destination was 5 miles away; basically a straight shot up the Highway.

Cab Driver #1
Driver: “Where are you going?” Cynthia told him. Driver: “I can’t.” The driver then mumbled excuses and said something about needing cash for the ride. We that one go.

Cab Driver #2
Driver: “Uptown?” Cynthia said yes. Driver: “How far?” Cynthia told him. Driver: “That’s too far. I need to turn my car in.” Cynthia, half yelling: “If you’re not going to give people rides, turn your light off!” We watched him drive away. He turned his light off. We laughed, and then waited an uncomfortably long time for a cab with a light on. We considered walking to the subway, but were now morbidly curious how long this would take.

Cab Driver #3
Driver: “Uptown?” Cynthia said yes. He let us in the car.
Driver: “Where are you going?” Cynthia told him.
Driver: “That’s too far. I have to turn in the cab.”
Cynthia: “But you found out where we were going and let us in.”
Driver: “Yeah, but I can get fined if I don’t turn in the car on time.”
Me: “That’s cool. We’ll just leave and take your medallion number…”
Cynthia: “No. We’re in your cab. You kick us out and you’re breaking the law. We have your medallion number and I’ll call you in.”
Driver: “Well, if you’re going to get me in trouble, I’ll take you.” The guy started driving.
Driver: “Do you want the West Side Highway?”
Cynthia: “Yes.”
Driver: “Well, there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”
Cynthia: “Great. Traffic is awesome.”

Obviously, this guy had too much luck breaking the rules and was used to the average 2.6-mile trip. (About 75% of rides are 2 1/2 miles or less. 20% of rides are a mile or less.) He definitely wasn’t used to passengers calling him out.

Random Tips
–Always get a receipt when you pay for a cab. It has all the juicy information on it, including the driver’s medallion number.
–If you’re in a really bad mood, get info off the cab if the driver turns you away.
–If a driver pulls over for you, never look into the window and tell him where you’re going. Get in first and then tell him.
–If you have luggage with you at the curb, be prepared to have some available cabs drive by you. Drivers generally don’t like taking people to the airport.
–If you’re in Manhattan, “Uptown?” can mean “Are you going north?” It doesn’t necessarily mean “Are you going to the physical area known as Uptown?”
–Look online for a bazillion other websites that have tips.

NYC Cab Rules. NYC Cab Stats.

Dear WordPress

There is a sad amount of negativity here. So before the ranting begins, here’s a picture of a bunny.
Bunny Wiki
Dear WordPress:
Looking at your horrific site update makes me feel like I just saw an insanely difficult algebra equation: Very, very confused. I have no problem with change in general; just when changes are useless, ugly and complicated. More on that after the next cute picture.

Have You Learned Nothing?
Oh, WordPress, why haven’t you learned from the previously horrific mistakes of others?

You’re likely familiar with the mega-tech corporation that starts with the letter G. This company loves to “fix” its software when it isn’t broken. G makes the most used map software in the world. (Really. Look it up.) But G’s progressive leaders are so worried about becoming obsolete, they change everything they can, as quickly as they can, even if they’re taking a step backward to do it. Take G Maps for example. The desktop/laptop version has devolved to a point where it’s not even usable anymore. Many features are hidden or have completely disappeared. Just one of many examples… you can no longer find a store and then overlay subway information over it so you can figure out how to get there. But here’s the thing: G Maps is free. All you can do is hang your head low, sigh and find a work-around.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know more people are working off smart phones and tablets. Is that a reason for this nasty update? Well, there will always be a subset of people who avoid shifting 100% of their focus on tiny screens. People who want to watch video on something that’s not the size of a deck of cards. Gamers. Me… someone who has a gorgeous 26″ HD monitor that makes him feel like a king.

Now for a picture of an internet mainstay: A kitten.

Kitten Wiki

This Makes No Sense #1:
Some announcements of your new features are coming from a gentleman with the title “Happiness Engineer.” And we see the words “Beep Beep Boop” instead of an hourglass while waiting for information to process. What are we, 10 years old? This isn’t Candy Crush. Some of your users are highly intelligent adults paying you to host professional websites.

This Makes No Sense #2:
The Stats page. It used to be user-friendly and quite pleasing to the eye. But you squeezed everything into a thread-sized column. Ironically, you then increased the size of every graphic and piece of text. On top of that, you added more white space around everything. Take a deflated balloon and write some pretty text on it. Now blow up the balloon. If you can imagine pretty text that’s now ugly, there’s your perspective.

There used to be a month-long graph of site views. Now there are 10 gigantic days. It takes up the whole screen. You need to scroll below that to find the next Stats feature. Then you scroll and scroll and scroll to find other features, all of which used to be beautifully arranged together and easily viewed.

There has been a rule among web designers since the beginning of web pages: Don’t make readers scroll. Maybe you missed that memo. Maybe you missed the other memo that states you should never make upgraded web pages look like they were designed 10 years ago.

This Makes No Sense #3: No matter where you’re working, you can’t sign out.

This Makes No Sense #4: The top toolbar is now massive, but only has five icons. Two of them don’t even have mouse-over text. I shall dub those “mystery icons,” which are popping up in an increasing number of apps and web pages. Mystery icons aren’t edgy. They’re a mystery. I had to search on the internet to learn where to sign out. Surprise. You click on a mystery icon and it takes you to another page, where you can then sign out. If there’s no design rule stating you should be able to sign out easily, there should be.

This Makes No Sense #5: One of the icons on the top toolbar used to be a link to Stats. Despite the gigantic toolbar, that link is now gone. It’s been replaced by a link to “Reader,” which is where you can scroll and scroll and scroll to read what other WordPress users have posted. Um… Reader automatically loads when you log in. You don’t need a link to it.

This Makes No Sense #6: This should be another rule: Unless you’re an evil behemoth like Microsoft, you should never take a feature that’s right at your fingertips and suddenly force users to wade through four, five, even six pages or pop up windows to find it. Stat detail from “yesterday” used to be a one-click operation. Now there’s no way to find it. The WordPress help page still references the old stats page. The only option is to post a question in a forum and hope for an answer.

This Makes No Sense #7: Users who go to forums and seem upset essentially get scolded. Users who post multiple questions get petulant replies. “We’re still working on it” isn’t an acceptable answer. Work on it before releasing it, and have WordPress employees who didn’t design the update try to navigate through the mess.

This Makes No Sense #8: There are three versions of the Stats page available on WordPress. 1) A really old one. 2) The beautiful, user-friend one. 3. The new, ugly one. If you follow enough links, you can find #1 (old) and #3 (ugly). But the only way to get to #2 (eye-friendly/user-friendly) is to copy-and-paste a link from a help forum and save the link as a browser bookmark.

This Makes No Sense #9: This is my favorite. You have removed any way to contact you. I can’t even find a phone number for people who want to PAY YOU to buy services. All contact has to come through FAQs and forums, and you’ve made that perfectly clear on numerous pages. I’ve seen other companies leave out contact information, but at least they have a form to fill out and send.

Summary
You slapped an ugly, confusing shell on top of everything and gave users no way to find their features, assuming there’s even a way to get to them anymore. I don’t know, because the help pages don’t help.

And Finally
“We’re still gathering feedback from users” isn’t good enough. People who have sites on WordPress are paying you. They are customers. It makes no sense to push a bizarre “update” without a beta version so your customers can decide whether you’ve turned into another G. I know this rant will do no good, because tech companies never revert back to an older software version, even after a massive public outcry. But maybe this post, along with the other rants from WordPress users will help you learn some sort of lesson if you get another silly idea in the future. Even if the rants sink in, I get the feeling you still won’t care, because you know some people like me don’t have either the time or patience to find another provider and move all their content.

This Article Needs Some Fixin’

Here’s a news article about the most recent Supreme Court decision. It’s from someone working for a legitimate website. The post butchers the English language and leaves out some important facts. If I had to talk with the writer, here’s what I’d tell her. I’m leaving out the name of the website and writer on purpose.

FIRST WORDS
Editors have different ways of changing copy. Some rewrite a lot. Others try to keep as much of the original as possible. I lean toward working with what’s there, changing
headlines and sentences only if theyre confusing or misleading. Then I add facts as necessary. Just remember that anyone can debate how a published article is written. Everyone has a different style. That said, there are many mistakes that editors will acknowledge across the board.

HEADLINE

Amazon will not pay Workers for Time Spent to pass through Security Checks: Supreme Court

–“Will not pay” is confusing. “Doesn’t Have to Pay” is more accurate. How about this: “Amazon Workers Won’t Get Paid for Time Spent at Security Checkpoints: Supreme Court.” That’s shorter and clearer.
–Your headline is the main piece of your article that will catch a reader’s eye.
Your first words should resonate with the reader. So it’s a good idea to focus on the employees.
–You have a mixture of “title case” and “sentence case” in this headline. I hope your employers chose a style guide for you to use. If not, pick one up. AP, API, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.

PARAGRAPH #1

On Tuesday, Supreme Court ruled out that Amazon workers who fill orders for electronic commerce company Amazon. com will not be paid for the time that they spent waiting to pass through security checks. Before the decision, the company had to pay the warehouse workers for that time that they spent during security checks at the end of their shifts.

–Avoid starting your article with non-essential facts you can push down, like “On Tuesday.”
–It’s “the Supreme Court” or “Supreme Court Justices.”
–“Ruled out that” isn’t the best wording.
Neither is “will not be paid.”
–“That they spent” suggests this case is only about retroactive pay. Also, the word “that” can often be removed from sentences.

–You have a space between “Amazon” and “.com”
It forced “com” down to a new line, creating an “orphan.”
–You use “Amazon” twice in the first sentence. That’s a signal you should rework it.
–I can understand why you’d want to explain what Amazon.com is, but most readers already know, and “electronic commerce company” is a little bloated, especially right off the top.
–Amazon never had to pay workers for the screenings. That’s why the lawsuit came about in the first place. If you mean “had to pay” because of the Circuit Court decision, you need to make that clear.

P
ARAGRAPH #2

The decision would be beneficial for retail companies that routinely check workers to avoid employee theft. According to the court, the federal law does not need retail companies to pay their employees for extra time they spend in the companies as because it is unrelated to their primary job duties.

–This is so confusing, it makes me think English isn’t your first language. Or that you were so pressed for time, you published your first draft.
–It’s “federal law,” not “the federal law.”
–The phrase “does not need” is bizarre. A federal law doesn’t need anything.
–“Retail companies” can be shortened to “retailers.”
–“For extra time they spend in the companies” is missing a word or two.
–It’s not “as because.” Just “because.”
–“Primary job duties” sounds wrong to the ear. Like corporate jargon. Could just be me. Either way, as you rewrite that whole sentence, think about using a different phrase.

P
ARAGRAPH #3

The employees who brought the lawsuit have been employed by Integrity Staffing Solutions Inc. According to some employees, they used to wait for more than 20 minutes to clear security before they can go their homes. Amazon had disputed those claims.

–“Have been employed by” includes the wrong verb tense.
–It’s not “they used to wait.” It’s “they wait.”
–All the other articles I’ve read on this decision have said “25 minutes” or “more than 25 minutes.”
–Your last sentence should be worded differently. Try “Amazon disputes the claim.”
–It
would be nice to know that Amazon not only disputes the claim, but that it also estimated employees spend “less than 90 seconds” in line.

P
ARAGRAPH #4

Before Supreme Court’s decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had announced that workers should be paid for screening process as it has been performed for the company’s benefits. But, according to Justice Clarence Thomas, the security checks are not principle activities of the company.

–Again, it’s “the Supreme Court.”
–It’s “U.S.” Not “US”
–It seems you
have a problem with “the.” In this paragraph, it’s “the screening process.”
–The last half of your first sentence is a little mangled. Example… As it has been” uses the wrong verb tense. Also, it’s “company’s benefit,” not “company’s benefits.”
–You can remove the comma between “But” and “according.”
–Your last sentence is redundant. You explained this
fact earlier. Use another quote from Thomas or a different Justice.

P
ARAGRAPH #5

Thomas said, “Integrity Staffing did not employ its workers to undergo security screenings, but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package those products for shipment to Amazon customers”.

–This quote should be lower, or removed entirely. You need to explain the Portal-to-Portal Act first.

P
ARAGRAPH #6

According to Thomas, his decision is based on a federal law called the Portal-to-Portal Act. The law exempts a company from paying for pre-work or post-work activities. The case was filed by Amazon warehouse’s two former workers, Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro. Lawyer of the workers had argued that spending time during security checks was work because the company required the workers to do that.

–Your first sentence makes it sound like only Thomas made this decision. He’s not the only Justice. In fact, this was a unanimous decision. You should have added that.
–“
Pre-work or post-work activities” is a little vague. “Activities” is an abstraction. 
–Your second sentence is passive. That forced you to mangle the wording.
–If you name the two employees, do your readers a solid and say they’re from Nevada. And you really need to mention that this is a class-action lawsuit.
–“
Lawyer” should be “Attorneys.” Plural. There’s never a single attorney working on a class-action lawsuit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Also, all attorneys are lawyers, but not all lawyers are attorneys. But for conversational purposes, they’re often used interchangeably.

OVERALL COMMENTS
–You need to work on verb tense and
overall grammar.
–You also need to work on structuring your sentences so you can avoid saying the same word repeatedly. “Workers” is an example here. You use it far more than “employees.” Mix them up, especially in the same paragraph.
–You need to help readers follow the story. This will require you to move
some facts around. Start with the big picture, but avoid using the same wording as your headline. Your first sentence can include something about this being a blow to employees. In the next sentence, think about adding what the broad implications might be for companies in general. They could be saving billions upon billions of dollars… retroactively and in the future.
–Important: Nowhere in your article do you explain that this lawsuit was brought against Integrity. It’s Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. You also don’t add that there are similar class-action lawsuits against companies. This new decision will have an impact on them.
–Knowing more about the justice system in general will help you avoid some of these errors and omissions. Focus on how cases are appealed and pushed up the ladder.

Why Are There So Many Small Dogs In NYC?

Here’s a question from reader “Just Curious.” He recently moved to Manhattan and is wondering about the dog population here.

“I guess I noticed the crazy amount of tiny dogs right away, but now it’s cold out and so many of them are dressed in sweaters/sweatshirts. They stand out more. If you put my dog up against a Great Dane he seems small, but he towers above these lap-sized things. What’s up with the small dogs?”

The answer you hear most often is that living space in NYC is a little tight, so smaller dogs are easier to “deal with.” Even people who don’t live in the city can come to that conclusion. But there’s another very important factor: Numerous landlords put a weight limit on dogs they’ll allow in their apartments. A few people who I’ve talked to say a 20-pound limit is a good average. So if you move to the city with a bigger dog, you might run into the frustration of looking around for a long time before you can find a place for you and your pet. (Plenty of landlords won’t allow dogs at all.) I hope you’re not going to ask me why there’s a restriction on dog size. It makes no sense. First off, humans that sign rental agreements weigh more than 20 pounds. It shouldn’t have anything to do with dog hair because it doesn’t cause any damage, and some larger dogs can shed less than smaller ones. It can’t be about urine, because it’s possible for both small and large dogs to pee in the house AND there’s nothing worse than cat urineSeriously.

There’s also a semi-joke answer: Considering the high rent prices, it might be nice to spend less money on dog food. But did you know small dogs typically need to consume more calories per pound of body weight than larger breeds?

You might end up wanting to know what the most popular breeds are. If you ask the American Kennel Club, NYC’s top 5 dog breeds for 2013 were: Bulldog, French Bulldog, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. BUT… If you check the city’s own numbers, the top dogs are:  Yorkie, Shih Tzu, Chihuahua, Maltese and Labrador Retriever. If you check the top breeds by zip code, small dogs are the ones that consistently show up all over the five boroughs. Not only are the Yorkie, Shih Tzu, Chihuahua and Maltese rather small, they’re also among breeds that don’t shed, or shed very little. Less hair for people to vacuum up.

Since I’m on the subject, NYC requires dogs to be licensed. The city estimates only one in five dogs actually are, which would mean 80% of owners are risking a minimum fine of $200. The licenses aren’t too pricey: $8.50 per year if you can show documentation that your dog is spayed or neutered. If you want your dog to keep its reproductive organs, the price jumps to $34.

New York City Weather Records

NYC Snow Feb 2006

Most Snow, Single Storm
February 11-February 12, 2006
26.9 inches

Most Snow, Single Season
1995-1996
75.6 inches (6.3 feet)

Most Rain, 24 Hours
October 8-October 9, 1903
11.17 inches

Most Rain, One Year
1983
80.56 inches

Highest Storm Surge
Oct 29, 2012
14 feet (recorded at The Battery during Hurricane Sandy)

Highest Recorded Wind Gust
October 14, 1954
113+ m.p.h.

Coldest Day
February 9, 1934
-15 F.

Hottest Day
July 9, 1936
106 F.

Records date back to 1869. Measurements taken from Central Park unless noted.

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Do You Want a Tattoo… Or Not?

St. Marks Pl. between 2nd and 3rd Ave., NYC

 

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