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For the past ten days I’ve been using a free trial of the social web monitor app ThinkUp. ThinkUp trolls your Facebook and Twitter feeds for highlights, changes, and bits of data you may find interesting and wraps it up in a pretty html daily email. According to the site, ThinkUp “gives you daily insights about you and your friends you can’t get anywhere else.” Here are some of the insights it sent me about Twitter (I didn’t hook it up to FB).

My friend Heather, a journo in NYC whom you should follow, changed her bio. You can see what she’s removed by what is indicated in the red strikethrough text. You can also see it is merely a dumb algorithm and not Artificial Intelligence noting the changes, because a smart robot wouldn’t cross out “@aajanewyork” when Heather obviously added it again.
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My question is this: What if Heather wanted to quietly make the changes? Is there no such thing as hiding in plain sight anymore? It used to be that one could do pretty much anything online with little notice just for the sheer amounts of data flooding everything. Privacy in numbers, and all that. It seems like even those days are over. Big data is no cover from the bots.

That question being asked, I can see how this particular bot, despite it’s obvious bugs, could prove useful in deepening relationships. If Heather put a major change in her bio, e.g., she got a promotion at work, she probably wouldn’t mind that a bot had to point it out for me to notice. She’d just be happy to hear my “Congrats!”

The bugginess has to get fixed, though. I can see how these notices would pile up when you follow 12K users and the bot picks up every typo or tiny deletion. Perhaps a little bit of code to scan for exact-match text strings could help keep down the detritus.
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Other “read later” algorithms exist for Favorites but I did like this feature. ThinkUp provides a graphic of the entire tweet with a clickable link, giving you the context in which you originally found the info.

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The most worrying effect from the ThinkUp emails for me was the ego-boosting “Your tweet got these users SO MUCH MORE exposure” alerts. I can see how this information is crucial to a commercial account – it can be used to sell more in-stream ads, for example. But for me all it does is say I have more followers than users who are certainly more deserving. It almost elicits a “Ha. I’m better than you” sentiment that makes a person want to humblebrag to the users she retweeted.

Also, a point about math: “2x more people” is very, very deceptive.  That is simply math between follower counts of the retweeter and the tweeted and not the click rate. If I had a commercial account with a million followers, ThinkUp would say I boosted a tweet to 1000x more people. But if no-one clicks on a link I tweet out, that million-follower account is useless to advertisers. Click rates are where the real influence measure is.
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ThinkUp encouraged me to share a photo, which I actually ended up doing, surprisingly enough. I’d actually consider paying for the service if I could add Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr and G+, where I want to build accounts but I have no habit formed around doing so. My FB and Twitter accounts are already well tended and need no help.
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I don’t really have any use for the ThinkUp service as of right now, but I do like where it is going. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable acting on any of the collected info without owning up to using a service, though. I don’t want users I contact thinking I just happened upon their tweet in my stream when I didn’t. Although in the job promotion example above, Heather probably would simply be happy to hear my congratulations, I can see where other communications could seem manufactured or disingenuous if they were spurred on by a bot. Letting someone think that you pay so close attention to them that you naturally notice minuscule changes in their bios is false friendship. I’d feel more comfortable owning up to using an algorithm (not that it’s shameful!) than trying to pass myself off as online Wonder Woman.

Check out the free trial. I happened upon it myself (I wasn’t contacted or paid for this review) and it was a fun ride that provided a lot of food-for-thought about how we are to handle bot-enhanced personal relationships online.


Today I took my first dip in the Describli pool. At first I assumed the extent of Describli was a daily email with 5 writing prompts to get your imagination started, as a writer. Today I discovered it’s a flash-writing game, with scores and votes and sharing and crazy creative people throwing words around daily. The limit is 5000 words, and the title is allowed only a few characters. Of course, I started writing without logging in, so my first post is anonymous. The prompt was “The Wife, The Mistress and The Ex.” I didn’t bother to look at rules. I just started writing. The prompt reminded me of the nicknames we’d given to the various pizza shops throughout our relationship, mostly in our very early years together as new live-in lovers in Philadelphia.

Anyway, here it is.

Pine Street


As 2 young 20-somethings, my college boyfriend and I had exactly one summer day to spend in Philadelphia securing an apartment for the quickly approaching fall and the coming year. We walked up and down Pine, Spruce, Lombard, between 24th and 16th. We found a small back apartment on the first floor of a brownstone at Pine and 18th. It had no light. It had, we discovered later, at least one mouse. Back in Pittsburgh we were living – officially – apart. We were making the leap after three years of college dating to living together. His parents protested. Mine shrugged. I’d find a job and he’d attend graduate school at Penn. It was a plan.

All of our belongings from 2 different apartments fit into a small rental truck. Family hand-me-down furniture would fill up the tiny dark rooms we had waiting for us in Philly. When we moved everything in and returned the truck, the first thing we did was look for a pizza joint. We had the best pizza joint back in Pittsburgh, a tiny spot in South Oakland with an immigrant Italian behind the counter and the crispiest crust, smoothest mozz, and fullest-bountied sauce you could imagine. We still echo the owner’s heavily-accented lilt, these two decades later. We were regulars; they knew us. They had our order always waiting. Our love was built in that hot little eatery, one block down from my boyfriend’s one-room hole-in-the-wall roach palace of an apartment.

But life makes you say “Ciao” more often than not, it seems, and we found ourselves standing on a quiet residential city street, wondering where the good pizza was. We chose the closest option, a place within a block of our new hole-in-the-wall mouse palace. It wasn’t like home, but it would do. It was our new home, and it was close.

Inertia and busy schedules and the strain of living with someone who could barely live with themselves kept us going to the corner pizza, always good in a storm, always good in an argument. A break in school finally came and we could wander a bit more around the neighborhood. We tentatively took a few steps into another corner shop, this one to the south and east, past our normal corners. He got pizza and I had a cheesesteak, a staple for me as I grew up in Poconos where we ate them with marinara sauce. This place was smaller, more for takeout than sitting. Cramped and unwelcoming. But the food was so much better than the first stop we’d grown used to.

I’m terrible with names, all sorts of names. Although I will forever remember the name of our Pittsburgh Pizza place, I couldn’t for the life of me remember even the first letter on the doors of the new pizza joints. So the southeast girl became “The Mistress,” as we felt as though we were cheating on our first chick and her staff that came to treat us as regular pests. She was the Wife. The new one, the Mistress. And painfully, and although we never said it aloud, our Pittsburgh pleasure the bittersweet Ex.

The next year we found a 3rd floor walkup 6 doors down on Pine Street, with a skylight and double the floor space. We got married. We got a dinky little kitten from Morris Animal Refuge who grew to a very tall and long 18-pounder and just died last year at age 18. They make the cats quite hardy in Philly. That cat made it through two more moves, one around the corner onto Naudain and one out of the city entirely into the close western ‘burbs, where the poor cat endured then loved 2 little humans who came into our lives. We all miss him terribly. Now we’re learning to live with and love a puppy. Our Ex-pet and the once-unimaginable pup. Each in their own time, each in their own season.

We’ve found a new pizza place, out here, so close but so far away from the city life we once loved. But no pizza or greased 4-walls can compare to that original lover, that little Italian sweat-bomb of a shop where we were first seen as one order, never one half without the other half, tucked away in a booth on the sunny side of a forgotten Pittsburgh street.


"Veterans Trail" Artwork by Christine CavalierMemory is a bit of a bitch, isn’t it? It never quite works the way we want it to, pushing up irrelevant details in front of good ones, or even making up whole scenes on a whim. The line between fact and fiction is usually the messy demarcation of memory blurring the boundaries beyond recognition.

Memory also is not very strong. Any emotion can come in and overwhelm it. Depression, for example, is a vicious filter on memory, locking away any nurturing feelings and enlarges any bad-natured events, so all one can access is act after act of depravity, anger, indifference. When depression works its way into one’s memory files, it’s close to impossible to break free of the invading darkness. Chemical jump-starts are needed to unlock the connection with past joy and the possibility of future happiness.

I’ve been struggling with my fiction projects this week so thoroughly I’ve been teetering on the verge of questioning my very existence. Depression is often guised in Frustration and can quickly clear all bits of satisfaction from view. In attempts to fight it off, I found myself making a deal of sorts with the Matrix Devil. In the Matrix movies, The Architect tells Neo everything about Neo’s existence is is fake and none of Neo’s actions really matter. Writers have a version of this Matrix Devil in the form of Doubt and Damaged Self-Consciousness. The Matrix Devil gnaws at your ego and exploits its weaknesses until you give up. “Nothing in your life matters,” it says.

But Neo chooses to keep fighting. Why? Because if “nothing matters” then it won’t matter if he fights; Neo realizes there must be something to fight for, even if he can’t fully grasp what that is. He sees something matters to The Architect, so therefore there must be something that matters in his own life (which is probably in conflict with The Architect’s). Neo sees through the Matrix Devil’s message. Things matter, even if only a slight bit, and they more than likely matter more than he himself can ever know.

I need to drop the depressive self-consciousness all writers seem to fight off and simply write. Thinking my actions (mostly) don’t matter can be liberating, actually. In fact, I am obligated to think they don’t matter much or I won’t write at all. I must remember those times it felt good to write.

But that’s the secret, isn’t it? Liberating memory’s hold on the joyous times, the rewards, the pretty –but useful– delusions. This whole writing life may all be fake, but it’s my fake. It’s my delusion. And I can memorialize it any way I want.

And ye who would judge, judge away. Away, away, from here.


Photography and Artwork by me, Christine Cavalier. Creative Commons with Credit, Please.

BarCamp News Innovation 2015 Review


Because I had to leave early, this is only half a review of half a day of Saturday, May 2nd’s BarCamp News Innovation (BCNI, BCNI15) put on for the 7th year in a row by Christopher Wink and friends, supported by many sponsors including Temple’s Center for Public Interest Journalism. The other half is rant, which I’m sure you could predict. It’s shortish, I promise.

A Dunbar’s number-like 150 people showed up to BCNI Philly, which was a smaller attendance number than at last year’s BCNI run in conjunction with Content Camp (an unconference dedicated to writing for online–mostly commercial–outlets. Disclosure: I was on the organizing committee of Content Camp, which was headed up by David Dylan Thomas).

Since I’ve been streamlining in order to work on creative projects, I debated whether or not to attend BCNI this year. I’m trying to protect not only my time but my concentration by attending only those events that further the purpose of my professional and personal wellbeing. Since lately I don’t see myself with much of a chance in essay, op-ed, or science reporting, I’m walking away from full participation in the newspaper world for now. But I’m glad I went, even if only for a little bit. Here are some highlights:

*Seeing friends

*Making new friends

*The keynote

*A GF lunch! (Thanks, Chris! What a nice surprise!)

*Philly.com session
I have friends whom I only see once yearly at the BCNI conference, so I’d probably go to just have a cup of coffee with them. This year I had a charity event at 3pm in King of Prussia, so I had to bail out at 2 and miss happy hour (the best part of BCNI), but I still managed to check in with all of my favorite BCNI regulars.

Like in many journalism meet-ups, innovators were all over the place. VOX.com’s Lauren Rabaino showed some of the genius reactionary design objects the site put together, e.g. a meme generator, along with some usage statistics. Super adorable: Ms. Rabino showing VOX’s very human thinking process in developing a ticket system for editorial help. As a person who was on a team to create, setup, populate and implement an internal tiered tech help desk system for a major worldwide manufacturer, I thought Vox’s editorial-helpdesk effort was super cute. Helpdesk is an instinct, and they carried it out naturally and plainly, like toddlers learning to walk. No instructions needed. Of course, if they had time for a good consultant Vox.com would’ve already had a ticket system in place (Lesson: If you’re out there and you service requests of any nature – not just tech- then look into the concept of a ticketed helpdesk system!). I was tickled by the editors’ “innovation,” how they stumbled upon it, and how Ms. Rabaino presented it like it was new. I’m both encouraged and dismayed at this, as on one side it’s evidence of human adaptation, but on the other side, it’s evidence that journalism is way too insular.
Which brings me to my next point, a rant you’ve all heard before from me: the powers-that-be in journalism are still lost in their own little world. This may be biased and wrong, but my impression of world of traditional journalism is that it suffers greatly from myth. As I am not a J-school grad I’m officially an outsider, so take this as you may: the delusion surrounding journalism seems so utterly complete that any new products or services that bounce off mainstream media, e.g., web-only news sites, news aggregator apps, etc., are labeled as marketing, content creation, or perhaps even Computer Science instead of “journalism” and are seen by old school newspaperers as wholly separate from journalism and its purpose.

BCNI15 felt very newsroomy. Unlike last year, the marketing folks weren’t around. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a marketer; I’m a behavioral analyst and writer. The marketers, though, do seem to inject a certain kind of “What’s next?” energy into a conference. In this year’s sessions I attended up until 2pm, I heard and/or felt the old newsroom mantras of “Hail the almighty longform!” and “Print is still king!”

Increasingly I find myself filled with only harsh assessments of journalism to share. Despite what you may read in my tweets and this blog, I really don’t want to be a critic. I can’t help being annoyed, though, each time I hear a great idea followed by some newsroomer saying why it won’t work. I mean, I get it. They are basing their opinions on evidence collected through a lifetime of reporting. But when a print side of a newspaper tells the web side they can’t publish a lifestyle feature until after 6pm so as not to get scooped by broadcast news, I want to pull my hair out.

Usually, when a person gets this level of miffed at anything – as I am with the seemingly slow rate of change in journalism – it signifies a lack of understanding of the issue. I’ll fully admit I lack understanding. But from where I sit, there are many, many real innovators in the journalism world, yet I still can’t customize my Philly.com page or pay the New York Times for a la carte verticals. Even old school ogre CABLE is switching over to a la carte channels. Newspapers seem far, far away from phasing out print or realizing they are a customer service organization.

Yes, “customer” service, not public service. Newspapers definitely fill a public service, but they are not immune to customer satisfaction levels. There seems to be a basic lack of knowledge about the mechanisms of human behavior and how to design a product around those mechanisms. People don’t read the paper to be informed. They read news because it is a habit developed around their self-identity. Many times, the habit is formed in young years and beyond the conscious knowledge of the reader. Now that GenX and Millennials aren’t buying day-old news delivered in inky, non-ergonomic, bulky systems, the business of journalism is finally waking up to the fact they were wrong for centuries about why people read the newspaper. Surprise!

Look up how procrastination is tied to mood, how behavior and habits form a self, and how the underlying Internet cultural values of wit and humor influence users, and you’ll get an idea of why people have the HuffPo or Buzzfeed as their homepage instead of Philly.com. The inherent, die-hard belief that journalism’s main purpose is to further democracy is working against it’s own mission. If newspapers (now called news sites) continue to refuse to play a part in the identity and daily habits of the individual, then democracy will be dammed because no-one will read the free speech you’ve put up on a paid firewall site. If your main purpose is to serve the public, then find out who your public is and how they work. Your broadcast agenda only works if there is someone on the other side to absorb it.


Sorry. I feel like I’ve said this all before. My own personal news cycle is on repeat.

BCNI is always a great conference and next year I hope we can get even more attendees. BCNI is the place to hear about the next and new in news, even if there are 1 or 2 of the traditional anchors to drag into the 21st century. Come next year. I’ll be the one tweeting in the front row.

Hashtag: #BCNI15




Watch this 1 scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off & you’ll instantly “get” art

“I don’t get art.”

As Internet culture seeps into every aspect of our lives, it’s becoming more acceptable to admit our shortcomings in the quest to connect to similar souls. A search for “I don’t get art” turns up post after post of shrugged sentiment and unrepentant prejudice. A few decades ago, a person would only whisper it to a friend while trying to hide his confusion. Now the phrase will find you a whole community of confused compadres.

“I don’t get art” is kind of a valid position. If art is what the art industry tells you art is, then yes, none of us really get art. The art industry (yes, it’s an industry, and quite a dirty one at that) has a vested interest in keeping art esoteric and elite. Very few museums curate for real humans. Curators curate for rich patrons and mostly — other curators. It’s like they’re secretly competing for the most obscure and unrelated piece groupings to see who can confound, shock and awe the best of the best.

Most people make the logical choice to keep away from the whole endeavor. I don’t visit museums often myself. Instead, I turn to more accessible media for those days when I’m on a hunt for deep meaning: the library; photography; movies. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the 1991 movie Grand Canyon:

“That’s your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

So true. Ironically yet fittingly, this riddle about how to “get” art is answered in a minute-and-a-half scene in the great John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What, you may ask, does this iconic ‘80s senioritis skip session have to do with anything, let alone the lofty world of art? Lots. Let’s take a look.

In The Museum

When we come upon this scene, Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his uber-worrywart, super-hypochondriac best friend Cameron Frye, are halfway through their romp through Chicago’s mean very clean streets. Lots has happened already, including Ferris’s reckless absconding of the prized vintage Ferrari of Mr. Frye, Cameron’s dad. The trio stop by the famous Art Institute of Chicago to check out some paintings and sculpture.

Take a watch first of the clip and then we’ll discuss:

Don’t get art yet? It’s OK. I have some things to tell you about this scene. Stay with me.

All the Feels

The Director and writer of the film John Hughes is amazing here. Hughes employs everything at his disposal, the shot angles, the art, the juxtaposition of the pieces and people, the soundtrack, the lighting, etc. to reflect what is happening inside the characters themselves, especially Cameron’s internal struggle to break free of his father and find his own path in life. (Some might say the entire film is really Cameron’s story, and Cameron is a reflection of John Hughes himself, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The music is The Dream Academy’s instrumental version of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” Here are the very simple lyrics of the song:

“Good times for a change /see, the luck I’ve had /can make a good man /turn bad //So please please please /let me, let me, let me /let me get what I want /this time

Haven’t had a dream in a long time /see, the life I’ve had /can make a good man bad /So for once in my life /let me get what I want

Lord knows it would be the first time

Lord knows it would be the first time”

Any kid growing up in a horribly dysfunctional home like Cameron’s could relate to those words. But the lyrics and their relevance are there to find only for the keen investigator. Hughes’s decision to do an instrumental version of the song was definitely the right one for the scene’s tone, but we can also interpret it as the director telling us Cameron was so deep under the thumb of his terrorizing father that he had no ability to even think about it, let alone express it in words. Indeed later in the movie, Cameron lapses into a catatonic state of abject fear when he realizes a nasty confrontation with his dad is imminent.

Let’s take a quick look at the scenes, without getting all wrapped up in the deeper relevance of each art piece (you’re welcome to look up each piece’s name and history. Knowing John Hughes, there are more nuggets of wisdom awaiting anyone willing to dig deeper. Consider sharing in the comments if you do).

After we see the “big kids” entering the museum with a bunch of little kids, with a smattering of adults standing around, ignoring the children, we see Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks.


Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Notice in the painting there is also a trio, a man and a woman together, and another man sitting alone and perhaps stealing glances of the couple from across the bar. This same set-up is repeated throughout the movie, with Cameron being a third wheel to Ferris’s and Sloane’s intimacy:

Ferris2 Ferris3 Ferris4

Continuing through the museum:

The next few pieces further convey the concept of “contrast,” to reflect Cameron’s internal struggle: Smooth and soothing versus excited and sharp; warm and comforting vs. cold and concrete; round vs. angular; young vs. old; intimate vs. distant.

The camera moves to icons of The Mother, pieces symbolizing motherly devotion and feminine love. Cameron is a very defensive person; He has a dad who hates his mother, he has no girlfriend, he isn’t even close to know how transformative the love of a partner can be, and he hasn’t cared to know about any of it. Cameron could be the represented by the stubborn-man sculpture (which all three characters reflect in their crossed-arm poses).

In a confusing mess of spite and desperate attempts to garner any type of care from anyone — especially from his cruelly negligent parents — Cameron resorts to affecting constant physical ailments. Throughout the course of the film, Cameron starts to use Sloane as a kind of fill-in girlfriend, and Sloane does deliver some of that feminine caring that Cameron so painfully lacks. The feminine art pieces hint at how Sloane somewhat fills this role for Cameron, but they also lead up to the transformative effect the art has on Cameron’s life.

While Ferris and Sloane are having a mock-kiss-your-bride scene, Cameron (with his pertinent double-entendre “Howe” jersey on — “How will I live? What kind of person will I be?”) takes in a detail in the 1884 pointillism painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat. Cameron looks closer and closer at the baby holding its mother’s hand. What at first glance appears to be a face turns into a mere smattering of tiny dots. No distinguishable identity exists for the baby. In this moment, Cameron realizes no real Cameron exists either. He is merely a collection of tiny colored dots, like the endless prescription pills he’s been given as a substitute for love.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. 1884. Seurat.

The walls of Jerico come tumbling down

This realization breaks a pillar of Cameron’s defense system. When the next blow comes (the Ferrari’s odometer has doubled), Cameron’s defenses are gone. When the final blow comes (Cameron accidentally kills the Ferrari), the old Cameron dies. A new Cameron rises from the ashes, standing with the help of Ferris’s and Sloane’s love and compassion. He gives a monologue of epic proportions. “I gotta take a stand,” Cameron says, and the transformation is complete.

Here’s the scene (not the greatest quality, sorry):

So, back to the art.

Hughes used film, paintings, sculpture and sound to show us that all of life’s riddles are answered in art. Advanced art degrees aren’t necessary to appreciate artwork. We don’t need to know “the artist’s intent” for a piece to speak to us. Art is there to answer the specific questions that haunt us at the time when we are viewing it. People throw so much money at fortune tellers and Magic 8 balls when they could just offer up their question to an art museum. Ask yourself the biggie metaphorical Q “what do I want?” before you enter a collection and see what pieces catch your eye. The big A to your big Q is hiding in there somewhere.

Art is a medium through which you discover yourself. Museums aren’t about the artists or the collections or even the exclusive curators. They are about you. Think of it: A whole building, filled with stuff all about you. Some things may not make sense to you right now. In fact, most art in life will not grab you. So what if you don’t feel anything from that particular piece? Leave it for another time in your life. Leave it for another human. Or, maybe the fact that you are turned off by it is insight in itself? Take a second to ask why it turns you off or confuses you. But other pieces may just be the thing that takes that part of you buried deep inside and pulls it out, asking — and maybe answering — exactly what you needed to know.

The best, most beautiful aspect of art? THERE. ARE. NO. WRONG. ANSWERS. There is no “getting it” or “not getting it.” There’s nothing to get. There’s no one right way to interpret it. Art is all about you, and only you can know what it means for you.

Get it?

So go discover some parts of yourself you’ve lost. Go invent parts of yourself you’ve been missing. Go answer your life’s riddles with some art.

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