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So long, Savannah, and a new entrepreneurial path

5 minute read

This week, I put in my two weeks’ notice at Savannah’s Morning News Media and our parent company, Morris Publishing Group, to move back after the holiday to New York City to join an up-and-coming NYC-based startup.

In my year-and-a-half at the helm of the SMN’s digital content and product development strategies, including launching dosavannah.com, I learned invaluable management skills, conflict resolution and the courage to push fearlessly for innovation, even when tradition and red tape got in the way.

“Newspapers are the new startups”

1 minute read

Newspapers are the new startups . . . we’re starting to see a lot of great changes as technologies improve and cultures change."
-John Levitt, Director of Sales and Marketing,  Parse.ly
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Levitt's is one of the most insightful takes on the publishing industry I've heard in a while. It's going to take a lot of restructuring and a ground-up approach, but I'm excited to be a part of it as we embrace the start-up culture in Savannah.

SavSwap: Tackling the online classified ads market

11 minute read

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Innovative, quality journalism takes money to produce. In the past, one of the largest revenue streams for news organizations has traditionally come from the classified ad market – a revenue stream that has all but dried up in today's era of Craigslist and eBay. As an online editor, developer, manager and digital strategist for Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com, a midsized news organization owned by Morris Publishing Group, I've sat through countless digital strategy meetings discussing how we as a company can win back a sliver of the online classified ad market, if for no other reason than audience growth, and with the longterm goal of driving revenue to support our company's journalistic efforts.

After brainstorming the issue with our V.P. of Audience Steve Yelvington, I identified a few key competitive advantages news organizations may still possess in the classified market:

  • Brand trust/recognition - Local news organizations still command considerable trust and boosterism in the markets they serve, adding an extra level of accountability to the classified ad process.
  • More secure social and physical verification - Unlike the major national competitors, we have the opportunity to verify users' identities using social, email and physical address verification, further weeding out spammers and scammers.
  • Mobile-centric technologies - The massive scale of national competitors has so far prevented them from implementing a more seamless mobile user experience using HTML5/responsive design strategies.
  • Print marketing - Local news organizations can still leverage their considerable print marketing footprint to add extra value to the online classified ad experience, including setting up a secure drop-off and pick-up point for transactions so that users don't have to go into the homes of strangers.
  • Social marketing - Strategic use of social channels tied in with existing larger social networks from local publishers targeting local buyers only. For example, each ad with an approved photo will be fed to an Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter account, which would serve as a second, highly visual storefront.

The following weekend, I built SavSwap, a prototype for the sort of product I believe could harness local news organizations' competitive advantages while at the same time creating a cleaner, more visual, simpler and more secure user experience than the national competitors have to offer. While still very much in beta state, SavSwap is now being proposed as a model for all Morris properties to adopt, and is slated for a local launch in the Savannah market this quarter.

Launch beta version of project

A few of the key features that make SavSwap stand apart from other classified ad attempts include:

  • A fully responsive, device-agnostic design that makes ad listing, browsing and submission easy and free from wherever you are, mo matter device you use.
  • Social media and email authentification of all users.
  • Premium listing options for paid members of savannahnow.com, including "Membership" badges and higher page prominence
  • An inherently visual experience, with infinite scroll as well as traditional taxonomy and keyword search.
  • Geolocation.
  • Confidential on-site messaging system, with the option for users to display further contact information if they so desire.

Features that we plan to implement include:

  • Options for users to pay a small additional fee for their listing to appear in the print edition of Savannah Morning News.
  • A native iOS and Android mobile app (xCode template has already been built and is currently being prepared for submission to iTunes and Google Play stores).

For a brief presentation outlining the SavSwap model, see my slideshare presentation here. To see SavSwap in its current development state, see here.

What we can learn about charts from The WSJ Guide to Information Graphics

12 minute read

Although geared primarily toward the production of static graphics for print publications, Dona M. Wong's The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics (2010provides a wealth of salient and time-honored tips and guidelines that any student of data visualization would be well-advised to follow. At the heart of Wong's book is the notion that data integrity trumps all else, and no matter how aesthetically pleasing or visually powerful an information graphic may be, if it doesn't communicate clear and accurate data to the reader/user, it doesn't do its job.

In the first two chapters of The WSJ Guide, Wong, a former student of data viz extraordinaire Edward Tufte, addresses the topic of charting. From a theoretical standpoint, Wong lays out four principle steps to the charting process:

  1. Research: Find your data source, and ensure that it's timely, authoritative and free of bias.
  2. Edit:  Figure out what the data says (essentially, determine what your story is), and conceive of how best to boil that data down in a way that's simple enough for your intended audience to understand without skewing its meaning.
  3. Plot: Determine the appropriate chart type for your data (e.g. bar, column, line, pie, stacked bar, etc.), choose the right settings (scale, increments, axes, etc.), labeling the chart (e.g. legends and source lines) and pick the best color and typography combinations to accentuate your key message.
  4. Review: When you're done, ask yourself the following questions: Does the data match up with what external sources say? Are there any outliers? Does the chart make sense? What would the average user/reader think upon first seeing the chart?

Regarding the finer points of charting, Wong does an excellent job at pointing out the various dos and don'ts of the presentation process.  She sets forth clear guidelines about when to use what type of chart. For example, when dealing with change over time, Wong says to always use a line chart instead of a bar chart, as bar charts should ideally be reserved for comparing several different series of data. Also, Wong asserts, pie charts usually aren't as good of a choice for displaying complex data as bar or line charts, primarily because they make it harder to discern discrete differences in size (later, she flat-out dismisses the donut pie chart for the same reason). A few of her other tips I found particularly relevant included: (a) avoiding high-contrast color schemes that draw attention away from the data, (b) shying away from icons with high detail so as to avoid visual overload, (c) never, under any circumstances, add cloying shadow or 3D-effects and (d) never rely on zebra patterns, dotted lines or other fancy methods of labeling. "A chart is not a piece of fine art," Wong says.

Most importantly, Wong sets forth some other general principles to help designers avoid creating misleading charts. For example, when creating a bubble chart, always plot the bubbles by area, not radi. Also, never plot two different data series on noncomparable scales, and when creating bar charts, always start at the zero baseline. Other steps to ensuring data integrity include putting numbers into their appropriate context (comparing apples to apples), holding off on rounding until the end of the data analysis process and avoiding charting predictive numbers alongside actual ones. As Wong so eloquently puts it, "Unlike a misspelled word in a story, one wrong number discredits a whole chart."

Although the new addition of interactivity to chart design adds another layer of complexity to the visualization process that Wong doesn't address here, most of the guidelines she sets forth hold true in both static and dynamic mediums. Yet it would be interesting to hear what she has to say about the vexing question of when and when not to add static labels to interactive charts...

Making the case for hover interactions in maps

19 minute read

In keeping with my recent spate of mapping nerdiness, I decided to take an interactive map I produced last month displaying statewide annual population changes a step further by adding mouseover/hover capabilities. Here's the hover-y, nicely-colored chloropleth map I came up with. But before I get into the nitty-gritty of how I created the map –– which I'll explain step-by-step in a later post –– let me exercise a bit of self-indulgence by defending my growing belief in the need for hover capabilities when visualizing geographic data.

Not too long ago, I was an avid believer in the no-frills, less-interactivity-is-more approach to mapping geographic data, espoused by the brilliant Brian Boyer (@brianboyer), News Applications Editor for NPR and a former member of the News Apps Team at The Chicago Tribune. Boyer's argument for the need to keep maps simple –– like they used to be back in the days of ink and paper –– certainly has its merits. After all, the process of bringing a physical map closer to one's eyes to get a better view is a natural, timeless user interaction, and maps like this one, which Boyer produced during his time at The Tribune, are far more intuitive in communicating information upon first glance than many of the infoWindow-laden Google maps being produced by news organizations these days, many of them simply for the sake of being called 'interactive' (for those of you fortunate enough not to be mapping nerds, infoWindow is just Google-speak for the clickable popup boxes you see in Google maps).

But Boyer's minimalist mapping aesthetic only really works when you have one or two pieces of textual data you want to display for each geographic area. What if you have multiple pieces of information you want to display for each polygon, such as in this snazzy map from The Texas Tribune? Or, less likely but equally problematic, what if you need to bind non-textual data to your geographic polygons, such as images or Google Charts? In cases such as these, you're going to need to provide some sort of interaction that allows the user to expand and collapse the data for each area individually, or you'll just end up with a chronic case of visual overload.

Not to mention, on a more abstract level, studies have repeatedly shown that users tend to spend more time on applications that provide direct feedback based upon their actions, even if that feedback sometimes makes their ability to consume information at first glance less efficient (see Donald Norman's 2005 book Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, in which Norman asserts that the feeling of emotional satisfaction and empowerment users receive from triggering an action not only puts them in a clearer state of mind, but also makes them more engaged in the information at hand). So, if we're trying to communicate geographic data to users as effectively as possible, it only makes sense that we'd want to have a certain degree of user interaction –– both for the sake of preventing visual overload and for making users feel more engaged. Such is the logic behind clickable infoWindows.

Still, clickable popups leave us with another problem: Users have to make the conscious and deliberate effort to click a polygon to see the data for that geographic area. Requiring clicks may sound like a trivial task to the designer or journalist-programmer, but for the short-attention span user, it can be an awful lot to ask for. To be fair, however, click-triggered popups may not be much of a problem for maps with only a few dozen polygons. But for maps with hundreds of small polygons –– say, census tracts or zip codes –– it can be very tedious to click the right polygon without first having to zoom into the map so far that you lose sight of the broader context.

That leads me back to a conversation I had a couple of months ago with a friend of mine from Columbia's J-School, Michael Keller (@mhkeller), who's now working as the Senior Data Reporter at The Daily Beast. Michael insisted to me after a Hacks/Hacker event that providing hover interaction for maps is almost always a good thing, because hovers require less work on the part of the user. I'll admit that I was dubious at the time, thinking of hovers as often unwanted, accidental triggers that can be distracting to the map and data at hand. But lately I've come around to his way of seeing things. If implemented correctly (i.e. no flashy interactions that cover up other parts of the map), hovers are almost always a good idea. For example, this recent map of New York Stop-and-Frisk data that Keller produced for The New York World using CartoDB and Leaflet is so detailed that it couldn't possibly have worked without infoWindows, and would have been unwieldy if it relied on click-triggered interaction. By including floating mouseover capabilities, the map allows the user to scan quickly through the chloropleth map to see individual Stop-and-Frisk data from each block, without having to attempt to click through minute geographic areas.*

I'm certainly not advocating interaction for interaction's sake (although such a case could be made, given the dynamics of the Web). But I am saying that hovers give more immediate visual feedback than click-triggered events, especially in maps. Hovers help draw users into the data without requiring them to seek it out consciously–– almost like a catchy lede would in a print narrative. So for the time-being, I'm pro-hover.

*Keller later messaged me letting me know that some examples which better illustrate the power of hovers include this map and this map, both of which use hover functionality to help highlight the effects of proposed redistricting efforts in the New York State Senate. What you'll also notice about Keller's maps is that they include hover states, which I also think is a necessity, especially for maps that include lots of small polygons.

Building a responsive site in less than 20 minutes

6 minute read

An ever-so-sleek responsive portfolio site I designed for a friend in less than 20 minutes using Skeleton as a foundation.[/caption]

With all this talk lately of the new era of responsive design, I realized today that I've yet to create anything that's actually responsive. Given that I've only pondered using it in the implementation of complex, database-driven news sites, the task of tweaking every level of CSS to fit perfectly into a responsive grid system has so far seemed too daunting to tackle.

But I got curious this afternoon, and found my way upon a cool new library called Skeleton, which bills itself as a "a beautiful boilerplate for responsive, mobile-friendly development." Essentially, Skeleton is a collection of CSS and JS files that makes the mystery of responsive design seem a little less illusive. Upon uploading the package to my server, I was pleased to find a neatly-coded, easy-to-understand responsive site that I could play around with and tweak to my own liking. I ended up adjusting the grid size and performing some minor customizations to the underlying Skeleton structural CSS, but other than that, the development kit was, as it promised, "style agnostic."

Since I didn't have any specific projects I needed to be working on today, I decided to give Skeleton a whirl by designing a new online portfolio as a favor for my friend Daniel Medina. I'm not kidding – within 10 minutes I'd coded a fully satisfactory responsive portfolio site that looks beautiful on my iPhone and tablet.

So, if you're feeling experimental, try Skeleton out. It's exciting to see how quickly this technology is catching steam, and to see the actual workings of the responsive CSS in action firsthand. My next goal is to integrate a responsive layout into a more-powerful database-driven site, perhaps one designed in Drupal.

Overlaying a bubble chart onto a Google map

25 minute read

Others may hate, but I'm a big fan of using bubbles to display data. When implemented correctly (i.e. scaled in terms of area instead of diameter), bubbles can be an aesthetically appealing and concise way to represent the value of data points in an inherently visual format. Bubbles are even more useful when they include interactivity, with events like mouseover and zoom allowing users to drill down and compare similar-sized bubbles more easily than they can in static graphics. So, when I was recently working on a class project on autism diagnoses in New York City, I decided to use bubbles to represent the percentage of students with individualized education plans at all 1250 or so K-8 New York City schools.

Almost by default, I turned to Google Maps JavaScript API V3, mainly because I'm quasi-familiar with its basic functions and event handlers (as I point out later in  this post, I didn't realize that a nifty new service called CartoDB would have automated most of what I was trying to do, albeit without nearly the level of customization). Nonetheless, based on a tutorial from Karl Agius, as well as some infoWindow help from my data viz professor, Susan McGregor, I created the following interactive bubble map of NYC schools based upon the number of special needs, or IEP, students at each school. The larger the bubble, the greater percentage of special needs students a school has. Click here to see the map full-screen, or here to download a .zip of my source files for your own customization purposes.

Each bubble on this map represents one of New York City's approximately 1,250 K-8 public schools, including charters. The larger the bubble, the higher the percentage of students with individualized education plans (IEP). Click on a bubble to find out more about the school, or click anywhere within a district boundary to see an overall average IEP rate for the district. Zoom and pan to see other parts of the city.

You'll notice the opacity for the bubbles is set to 40 percent. This allows us to get a quick visual of the locations with the highest density of special needs students, given that those areas on the map will naturally be darker because they have multiple semi-opaque layers that overlap. Setting a low opacity also prevents overlapping bubbles from covering up one another. You'll also notice that the map includes polygons for each school district, which you can click on to get an average IEP rate for the entire district. I decided against setting gradated fill colors for the school district shapes so as to avoid implying causation, as well as to lessen the visual clutter.*

Preparing the data

To create the map, I first had to download the underlying data from the New York City Department of Education database as a .csv, then import it into Excel to clean it up and leave only the relevant information. Although the dataset I had only included street addresses split into multiple columns, I was able to use the concatenate function in Excel to merge the street, city, state and zip columns to get a full street address. From there, I used my favorite batch geocoding service to convert the addresses into geographic coordinates that the Google Maps API can read. Check out my resulting .csv file here for an example. Then I imported the .csv into a Google Spreadsheet, and pasted the resulting spreadsheet's URL into dataSourceURL field in the JavaScript of my main index.html file. Here's how that looked in my code:

var dataSourceUrl = "https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Au4D8Alccn4xdHNJdXJmeTdYcEtpRXE1QXRucWtEN3c";
var onlyInfoWindow;

Why calculus matters when it comes to data-driven stories

7 minute read

A quick refresher from my data visualization professor here at Columbia a couple of weeks ago reminded me why I was forced to spend all those grueling hours calculating standard deviation back in high school.

See, when you're using a data set to tell a story, the first step is to understand what that data says. And to do that, you've got to have a good idea of the range and variation of the values at hand. Not only can figuring that information out help you determine whether there's any statistical significance to your data set, but it can also pinpoint outliers and possible errors that may exist within the data before you begin the work of visualizing it.

Thanks to powerful processing programs like Excel, we can figure out the variability of data sets pretty easily using the program's built-in standard deviation function (remember this intimidating-looking equation from calculus class?). Still, it always helps to know how to calculate the information out by hand, if only to get a conceptual idea of why numbers such as the standard deviation (the variability of a data-set) and the z-value (the number of standard deviations a given value is away from the mean) even matter in the first place when it comes to data visualization.

So, to brush up on my formulas and also better understand the numbers behind an actual story assignment for one of my classes, I recently hand-calculated the standard deviation and z-values for a set of data on state-by-state obesity rates. From my calculations, I was able to use the standard deviation (3.24) to determine that, on average, most states fell within the middle of the bell-curve for the average national obesity rate (27.1 percent) . In addition, the z-values helped me understand which states stood out from the pack as possible outliers (Mississippi is by far the most obese with a 2.13 z-value, Colorado the least obese with a -1.9 z-value). To get an idea of how those formulas look hand-calculated in Excel, check out my spreadsheet here. And keep these formulas in mind while working on your next data story. They can potentially save you time and effort by helping you figure out what your data set says before you have to go through the often-lengthy process of visualizing it.

What makes BostonGlobe.com “the world’s best designed website”

16 minute read

With the Pulitzer Price announcements coming up later this afternoon, you'd think I'd be writing about whose up for the "Best Deadline Reporting" or "Best Public Service Journalism" prizes. But instead I want to talk about a different media award doled out during the past week: BostonGlobe.com's designation as the "world's best designed website" by the Society for News Design. Put simply, I can't say I disagree.

Yet before I divulge in my effusive praise of the folks in Boston, let me point out that I'm still somewhat skeptical of the business-logic behind The Globe's decision to launch its paywall-only site last fall alongside its primary news portal, Boston.com. From a revenue standpoint, I can't see the full-paywall site, BostonGlobe.com, bringing in nearly enough subscription income to compensate for the traffic and ad dollars it will, and to some degree already has, leeched from Boston.com (at last count, in February, BostonGlobe.com had only recruited about 16,000 paid digital subscribers, many of whom had taken advantage of the site's introductory offer of 99 cents for the first four weeks but may not stick it out past the trial period). It might've been wiser for the paper to start out with a metered paywall to warm users to the idea of paying for content before erecting a full-blown ten-foot-tall paywall around its most valuable content under a new, separate domain name. But then again, who really knows – maybe it's a step in the right direction longterm? I'm not the one having to make the tough calls, so I'm in no position to judge.

At any rate, the segregation of the two sites has given the paper's parent company the freedom to make BostonGlobe.com a rich, immersive and interactive user experience that few other news organizations can match. Why, you ask? Because of a little trend gaining steam in the development world called "responsive design." See, BostonGlobe.com isn't only a standout site because of its sophisticated use of white space, its wholehearted embrace of web fonts and its visual-first approach to story art, but also because of its cross-platform capabilities. No matter what device you view BostonGlobe.com on – desktop, tablet or mobile – the site retains its same slick look and feel. The site's adaptive technology allows it to detect the screen size of the user, then adjust its layout to fit the exact resolution at hand. On desktops, that means content stretches to fill the entire browser window, and the grid restructures itself appropriately when you decrease or increase the size of the window. This eliminates the need for time-honored design standards like the 960 grid-system, which is based upon the Desktop-centric idea that all users have at least a 960px resolution. Now, the grid can be as big, or as small, as the user wants it to be.

The site's successful display of a dynamic range of real-time content on any-sized device also essentially eliminates the need for the "app-based" environment that's been the staple of the iOS5 and Android operating systems in recent years. To test it out, I gave the site a whirl on my iPad, and was pleased to see the front page neatly rearrange itself to fit the new orientation, just as any of the best platform-specific news apps out there do, including The New Yorker and Wired apps for iPad. But just because BostonGlobe.com doesn't need a native app to display its content beautifully on tablet and mobile devices doesn't mean that it won't be missing out on the growing app-centric marketplace for publishers. As Apple and Google continue to centralize digital consumption patterns into the app-based model, BostonGlobe.com may be a little too ambitious in thinking it doesn't need to play nice with the big-boy tech companies to reach its audience. On the other hand, however, it could prove to be a brilliant move for the paper, setting an example for other publishers and app-based companies in general who want to break free from the often constricting, not to mention pricey, cost of participating in the app marketplace.

For its design alone, BostonGlobe.com deserves any number of awards. Its bold, minimalist interface allows content to shine above all else, free from clutter and distraction. And with high-res horizontal photos, block-quotes, inline video and stylized headlines that grab your attention without hurting your eyes, that content stands out even more. What's more, the site has the functionality to back up its aesthetics. Its "Save" feature allows users to bookmark articles for reading offline on any device, which, even for sites without responsive design, is a brilliant feature for a news site to implement. Moreover, its "Story Flow" panel at the bottom of each article allows users to click seamlessly through to stories on similar subjects, just as readers would in an old-fashioned newspaper with physical sections. Which leaves me with one nagging question: Is BostonGlobe.com too imitative of physical newspapers to attain success in today's short attention-span digital audience? Is it too skewmorphic to succeed in an SEO-driven, hyperlinked news economy?

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Why does YouTube have a longer lifespan than other platforms?

5 minute read

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When trying to reach a mass audience, what's the best platform to share your content? Well, the obvious answer is as many places as you can. But according to a post by bitly analyzing traffic patterns, links shared on YouTube have a lifespan of 7.3 hours, compared to 2.8 hours on Twitter and 3.4 hours on Facebook. Why such the disparity? Why does YouTube have such a longer lifespan?

Is it because video has a longer lifespan than all other forms of content? Or is it because YouTube has a different user-experience than other social media platforms? While YouTube content is slower to peak, it lasts far longer in the online ecosystem than content posted on other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The most obvious answer for the cause of this phenomenon would be that video is a medium that inherently captures our attention for a longer, and slower, period of time. We tend to go back, rewatch and share video more than we do text-based content, causing video to have a longer lifespan.

But there's also another possible explanation for YouTube's lengthier half-life. It could just be the nature of YouTube's network structure. Facebook and Twitter are more of aggregators than YouTube, which is a platform for user-generated content rather than just a portal. So, because of their vast user base and high rate of captivity, Facebook and Twitter by their nature attract attention quicker. But that attention is often only surface attention, which is possibly a reason those networks have a shorter half-life than YouTube. People go to YouTube videos more frequently as a destination, whereas other social media platforms only act as a portal.

Why news organizations should stop differeniating blogs from articles

13 minute read

Andy Boyle (@andymboyle) of The Boston Globe made an┬áimpassioned┬áplea to news organizations earlier this week that they stop differentiating between blogs and articles because they’re both equally forms of content. Someone’s been needing to put this into writing for a while now, and I’m glad Andy said it so eloquently.

INTERACTIVE: Why is the South the most obese part of the country? Five theories

17 minute read

This map displays the obesity rate of each U.S. state in 2010. The darker shade red represents a higher percentage of obese residents, while the green represents states with lower obesity rates. Click on each state to see the exact totals of each state's obesity rate.* 

Southerners need to lay off of the Crisco, cut back on the processed foods and start spending more time on the treadmill to fight the growing epidemic of obesity, experts say.

According to 2010 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South is the most obese region in the nation, with about one in three of its residents classifying as chronically obese. That's far greater than the entire nation, where the figure is closer to one in four.

Of the 10 states with the highest rates of adult obesity, eight of them are in the South: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee. And that's only assuming you don't count West Virginia as being "southern."

Across the nation, the epidemic has grown worse in recent years. Twelve states now have obesity rates higher than 30 percent, compared to four years ago when only one state, Mississippi, ranked above the 30 percent threshold. The only state in the Deep South without an obesity rate of more than 30 percent today is Georgia, but that appears to be primarily because the more physically fit population of metro Atlanta offsets the rest of the state's obesity.

But what's making the South –– the region CDC Dr. William Dietz has dubbed "the heart disease and stroke belt" –– more chubby than the rest of the nation? Here are five possible explanations:

1. High poverty -– The South may be obese, but it's also poor. With a poverty rate of 14 percent, the South is easily the most impoverished region in the country. And according to data from the USDA, states with a higher poverty rate also tend to have a higher number of obese citizens. Experts say that's because people with a low income are more likely to purchase high-calorie inexpensive processed foods, which contribute to weight gain. "If you overlay a map of obesity onto a map of poverty, the two very clearly correspond," said David A. Davis, a professor of Southern Studies at Mercer University who has conducted extensive research on southern foodways. "The southern diet is a diet of poverty, and it's one based on cheap, fatty processed foods."

2. The "grocery gap" – Because the South is largely rural, many residents don't have quality access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and are forced to drive long distances to find anything healthier than potato chips and sodas at roadside gas stations. All five states with above average of what the USDA calls "food insecurity" levels are located in the South: Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. What's more, it's significantly more expensive to purchase low-fat items in the South than in the rest of the nation. For example, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia all topped the list of states where it costs the most to buy low-fat milk, USDA data says.

3. The grease-fed "southern" culinary tradition -– One of the easiest explanations for the South's staggering obesity rates is the region's tradition of fried chicken, sweet tea and gravy on top of everything – or what's commonly referred to by non-southerners as the "Paula Deen" effect. "To me, it's simply a cultural habit regarding what we eat, not an issue of poverty," says Andy Breck, director of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit group based out of the University of South Carolina that seeks to raise awareness about ongoing issues facing the region. "People are fat in Mississippi. People are fat in South Carolina. People are fat in Alabama. There's got to be something going on. And it's not just poor people. It's middle and upper-class folks who grotesquely overeat, because that's all they've ever known to do."

4. Lack of physical activity–– Southerners also tend to be less physically active than the rest of the country, burning off fewer calories and retaining more body fat, USDA data says. All five U.S. states where less than 60 percent of adults met the USDA's recommended physical activity guidelines in 2008 were located below the Mason Dixon Line: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Some researchers have speculated that the South's lack of physical activity may not be so much sheer laziness as it is a lack of access to places to exercise. Few rural areas have fancy private gyms for southerners to burn off their extra calories, and most of the year it's just too plain hot in the South to exercise outdoors.

5. Lack of quality education – Perhaps at the heart of the southern obesity epidemic, however, is the region's crippling lack of quality public education. "I don't buy the fact that the South is fat because of traditional southern foodways," said Davis, who teaches classes on southern poverty and culture and has written numerous articles on the subject. "To me, it's more of a poverty and an educational problem. If we don't educate people, especially in terms of health education, we're going to keep having obese citizens."

*Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 3, 2012

On the importance of localism

less than 1 minute read

A decade before the rise of the Internet set in motion the disruption of legacy news business models, Kaniss foresaw the growing need for local and regional news to unite increasingly fragmented, suburbanized communities.

Should data viz be a specialty or a commodity skill in the newsroom?

8 minute read

An interesting question came up at last Wednesday's Doing Data Journalism (#doingdataj) panel hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism here at Columbia's J-School: Should there be data specialists in the newsroom, or can everyone be a data journalist? For New York Times interactive editor Aron Pilholfer, who participated in the panel, the question is not so much should everyone do data as will everyone do data. And for Pilholfer, the answer to that question clearly seems to be no:

I kind of naively thought that at one time you could train everybody to be at least a base level of competency with something like Excel, but I'm not of that belief anymore. I think you do need specialists.

I've always hated the idea of having technology or innovation 'specialists' in a work environment that should ideally be collaborative. So, at first I tended to disagree with Pilholfer's argument. But what won me over was the reasoning behind his claim. For Pilholfer, it's not that the technology, human talent or open source tools aren't there for everyone to scrape, analyze and process data –– in fact, it's now easier than ever to organize messy data with simple and often free desktop applications like Excel and Google Refine. The problem is that there's a cultural lack of interest within newsrooms, often from an editorial level, to produce data-driven stories. As Pilholfer says in what appears to be an indictment of upper-level editors for disregarding the value of data,

The problem is that we continue to reward crap journalism that's based on anecdotal evidence alone . . . But truly if it's not a priority at the top to reward good data-driven journalism, it's going to be impossible to get people into data because they just don't think it's worth it.

I totally agree, but with one lurking suspicion. As with the top-level editors, many traditional users –– or 'readers,' as one might call them –– still at least think they like to read pretty, anecdotal narratives, and tend not to care as much whether the hard data backs them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is a managerial or institutional one. Some legacy news consumers just still aren't data literate. Because they're not accustomed to even having such data freely available to them, they don't even value having it. As the old saying goes, "You can't miss what you never had." Yet as traffic and engagement statistics continually confirm, as soon users have open data readily available to them through news apps and data visualizations, they spend more time accessing the data than they do reading the print narrative.

Aron Pilholfer at #doingdataj

less than 1 minute read

Totally agree, but harbor the lurking suspicion that many traditional readers still like to read pretty narratives and don't care as much if the facts back them up. In other words, it's an audience problem just as much as it is an editorial one.

Visualization/design critique: Guardian.co.uk

5 minute read

So I'll admit it: I've always kind of had a design crush on the Guardian's website, and I may or may not have tried to emulate it in various other news websites I've developed. What I love most about the Guardian's design is simply its proprietary typeface. That slightly "Georgia" looking serif with the curbed nodules and cut-off "G's" instantly alerts the user that they're interacting with the Guardian brand. Another strong aspect of the site is that it succeeds where  many legacy news organizations fail in that it successfully and cleanly integrates an array of different content, from videos, to mugshots for columnists, to vertical celebrity shoots and to landscape scenes of world political affairs and crises. Though it may seem obvious, the coordianted color schemes on the site allow the user to receive visual cues about which section she's reading or encountering. Color is perhaps the Guardian's strongest visual element.

What also makes the Guardian site in my view the almost perfect model for for-profit news sites is its interactivity. Designers don't have to worry about whether the body text of the articles will make the page look visually too distracting, as users can simply hover over a picture to read the excerpt. It also likely increases audience engagement, asssuming that people click or hover on stories who may not have otherwise.

I could go on and on for days about what a groundbreaking model the Guardian's website is––like how its use of white space around the header gives users a sense of minimalism, or the way in which the site displays its ads. But I won't. All I'll say is that it's so user-friendly that it's hopped over the pond to circulate in America.

Data visualization, infographic or illustration?

3 minute read

Check out this interactive graphic on the rise of Google recently produced by the folks over at OnlinePhD.org. It's an innovative example of how developers can use a responsive, single-page interface to convey a broad range of chronological information that would otherwise be crammed into a timeline. The interactivity of the graphic compels the user to click through to see what happens next, and provides a more engaging narrative than a simple linear flow would.

Based upon our various understandings of the terms data visualization, infographic and illustration, which category would this graphic fall into? I'd be most inclined to say it's an infographic rather than an illustration, given that its primary goal is to convey factual information (the chronological rise of Google) rather than just to provide an illustration, which it also does quite nicely. But I wouldn't call it a data visualization, because it's not immediately apparent from first glance what the graphic is trying to illustrate, and the story isn't data-driven. It has a more conventional narrative.

What do you think?

Data Visualization

What we can learn about charts from The WSJ Guide to Information Graphics

12 minute read

Although geared primarily toward the production of static graphics for print publications, Dona M. Wong's The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics (2010provides a wealth of salient and time-honored tips and guidelines that any student of data visualization would be well-advised to follow. At the heart of Wong's book is the notion that data integrity trumps all else, and no matter how aesthetically pleasing or visually powerful an information graphic may be, if it doesn't communicate clear and accurate data to the reader/user, it doesn't do its job.

In the first two chapters of The WSJ Guide, Wong, a former student of data viz extraordinaire Edward Tufte, addresses the topic of charting. From a theoretical standpoint, Wong lays out four principle steps to the charting process:

  1. Research: Find your data source, and ensure that it's timely, authoritative and free of bias.
  2. Edit:  Figure out what the data says (essentially, determine what your story is), and conceive of how best to boil that data down in a way that's simple enough for your intended audience to understand without skewing its meaning.
  3. Plot: Determine the appropriate chart type for your data (e.g. bar, column, line, pie, stacked bar, etc.), choose the right settings (scale, increments, axes, etc.), labeling the chart (e.g. legends and source lines) and pick the best color and typography combinations to accentuate your key message.
  4. Review: When you're done, ask yourself the following questions: Does the data match up with what external sources say? Are there any outliers? Does the chart make sense? What would the average user/reader think upon first seeing the chart?

Regarding the finer points of charting, Wong does an excellent job at pointing out the various dos and don'ts of the presentation process.  She sets forth clear guidelines about when to use what type of chart. For example, when dealing with change over time, Wong says to always use a line chart instead of a bar chart, as bar charts should ideally be reserved for comparing several different series of data. Also, Wong asserts, pie charts usually aren't as good of a choice for displaying complex data as bar or line charts, primarily because they make it harder to discern discrete differences in size (later, she flat-out dismisses the donut pie chart for the same reason). A few of her other tips I found particularly relevant included: (a) avoiding high-contrast color schemes that draw attention away from the data, (b) shying away from icons with high detail so as to avoid visual overload, (c) never, under any circumstances, add cloying shadow or 3D-effects and (d) never rely on zebra patterns, dotted lines or other fancy methods of labeling. "A chart is not a piece of fine art," Wong says.

Most importantly, Wong sets forth some other general principles to help designers avoid creating misleading charts. For example, when creating a bubble chart, always plot the bubbles by area, not radi. Also, never plot two different data series on noncomparable scales, and when creating bar charts, always start at the zero baseline. Other steps to ensuring data integrity include putting numbers into their appropriate context (comparing apples to apples), holding off on rounding until the end of the data analysis process and avoiding charting predictive numbers alongside actual ones. As Wong so eloquently puts it, "Unlike a misspelled word in a story, one wrong number discredits a whole chart."

Although the new addition of interactivity to chart design adds another layer of complexity to the visualization process that Wong doesn't address here, most of the guidelines she sets forth hold true in both static and dynamic mediums. Yet it would be interesting to hear what she has to say about the vexing question of when and when not to add static labels to interactive charts...

Making the case for hover interactions in maps

19 minute read

In keeping with my recent spate of mapping nerdiness, I decided to take an interactive map I produced last month displaying statewide annual population changes a step further by adding mouseover/hover capabilities. Here's the hover-y, nicely-colored chloropleth map I came up with. But before I get into the nitty-gritty of how I created the map –– which I'll explain step-by-step in a later post –– let me exercise a bit of self-indulgence by defending my growing belief in the need for hover capabilities when visualizing geographic data.

Not too long ago, I was an avid believer in the no-frills, less-interactivity-is-more approach to mapping geographic data, espoused by the brilliant Brian Boyer (@brianboyer), News Applications Editor for NPR and a former member of the News Apps Team at The Chicago Tribune. Boyer's argument for the need to keep maps simple –– like they used to be back in the days of ink and paper –– certainly has its merits. After all, the process of bringing a physical map closer to one's eyes to get a better view is a natural, timeless user interaction, and maps like this one, which Boyer produced during his time at The Tribune, are far more intuitive in communicating information upon first glance than many of the infoWindow-laden Google maps being produced by news organizations these days, many of them simply for the sake of being called 'interactive' (for those of you fortunate enough not to be mapping nerds, infoWindow is just Google-speak for the clickable popup boxes you see in Google maps).

But Boyer's minimalist mapping aesthetic only really works when you have one or two pieces of textual data you want to display for each geographic area. What if you have multiple pieces of information you want to display for each polygon, such as in this snazzy map from The Texas Tribune? Or, less likely but equally problematic, what if you need to bind non-textual data to your geographic polygons, such as images or Google Charts? In cases such as these, you're going to need to provide some sort of interaction that allows the user to expand and collapse the data for each area individually, or you'll just end up with a chronic case of visual overload.

Not to mention, on a more abstract level, studies have repeatedly shown that users tend to spend more time on applications that provide direct feedback based upon their actions, even if that feedback sometimes makes their ability to consume information at first glance less efficient (see Donald Norman's 2005 book Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, in which Norman asserts that the feeling of emotional satisfaction and empowerment users receive from triggering an action not only puts them in a clearer state of mind, but also makes them more engaged in the information at hand). So, if we're trying to communicate geographic data to users as effectively as possible, it only makes sense that we'd want to have a certain degree of user interaction –– both for the sake of preventing visual overload and for making users feel more engaged. Such is the logic behind clickable infoWindows.

Still, clickable popups leave us with another problem: Users have to make the conscious and deliberate effort to click a polygon to see the data for that geographic area. Requiring clicks may sound like a trivial task to the designer or journalist-programmer, but for the short-attention span user, it can be an awful lot to ask for. To be fair, however, click-triggered popups may not be much of a problem for maps with only a few dozen polygons. But for maps with hundreds of small polygons –– say, census tracts or zip codes –– it can be very tedious to click the right polygon without first having to zoom into the map so far that you lose sight of the broader context.

That leads me back to a conversation I had a couple of months ago with a friend of mine from Columbia's J-School, Michael Keller (@mhkeller), who's now working as the Senior Data Reporter at The Daily Beast. Michael insisted to me after a Hacks/Hacker event that providing hover interaction for maps is almost always a good thing, because hovers require less work on the part of the user. I'll admit that I was dubious at the time, thinking of hovers as often unwanted, accidental triggers that can be distracting to the map and data at hand. But lately I've come around to his way of seeing things. If implemented correctly (i.e. no flashy interactions that cover up other parts of the map), hovers are almost always a good idea. For example, this recent map of New York Stop-and-Frisk data that Keller produced for The New York World using CartoDB and Leaflet is so detailed that it couldn't possibly have worked without infoWindows, and would have been unwieldy if it relied on click-triggered interaction. By including floating mouseover capabilities, the map allows the user to scan quickly through the chloropleth map to see individual Stop-and-Frisk data from each block, without having to attempt to click through minute geographic areas.*

I'm certainly not advocating interaction for interaction's sake (although such a case could be made, given the dynamics of the Web). But I am saying that hovers give more immediate visual feedback than click-triggered events, especially in maps. Hovers help draw users into the data without requiring them to seek it out consciously–– almost like a catchy lede would in a print narrative. So for the time-being, I'm pro-hover.

*Keller later messaged me letting me know that some examples which better illustrate the power of hovers include this map and this map, both of which use hover functionality to help highlight the effects of proposed redistricting efforts in the New York State Senate. What you'll also notice about Keller's maps is that they include hover states, which I also think is a necessity, especially for maps that include lots of small polygons.

Using data-viz to make a wire story stand out from the pack

13 minute read

I've been interested lately in finding examples of online-only, collaborative, non-profit newsrooms who've utilized the power of data visualization techniques to give added value to stories that otherwise wouldn't necessarily be unique, and in doing so beat out legacy news organizations who published a text narrative alone. Take, for example, this data-rich story and interactive map displaying statewide testing results published by NJSpotlight Friday. While the news that only 8 out of 10 graduating seniors had passed New Jersey's current standardized test in 2011 was widely reported across the state last week, including by the Star-Ledger in Newark and by The Press of Atlantic City, only NJSpotlight took advantage of the story's strong data element to produce a more concise, data-driven visual narrative.

So NJSpotlight obviously deserves kudos for the gap they're filling in New Jersey journalism. What's more, the job they did on the interactive map was fairly sophisticated (I've still yet to figure out how to overlay such a highly customized legend onto a Google map). But as is always the case with any deadline project, there's room for improvement. Let's take a look at the good and the bad of NJSpotlight's Friday package on state test results.

First off, this is a classic example of a story where county and/or municipality polygons with a colored fill layered on top of a Google Map brings new insight to a widely reported story. Not only can we immediately see from the map that most of the state fell within the 75 to 90 percent range in terms of passing rates, but we can also clearly tell that the north-central region of the state, particularly near the Pennsylyvania border, earned significantly higher scores than the rest of New Jersey. The pop-up table with information on vocational and charter schools also adds an additional layer of nuance to the piece, and does a decent job of displaying the numbers in a table-like format.

The map colors follow a somewhat logical pattern, with green representing high-passing rates and red representing lower passing rates. But the orange, yellow and blue colors that fall in the middle do more to obfuscate than they do to help visualize. Without referencing the legend, how is the user supposed to know that blue is better than yellow, or that green is better than blue? What's more, the combination of such bright shades of colors from opposite ends of the color spectrum makes the map less pleasing on the eye than it would've been had the designer chosen more subtle, complimentary shades. I understand the desire to have red represent 'negative' and green represent 'positive,' but if NJSpotlight had went with a graduated color scale from red to green, with neutral-based mid-values such as the ones I used in this recent map on nationwide obesity rates, the map would've been not only aesthetically more appealing, but easier to read.

Another minor criticism I could make of the map is the designer's decision to set the polygon-fills to solid colors with 100 percent opacity. This obscures the underlying view of which cities and townships each shape contains. While I understand the thought-process that likely went into this decision – it's hard to make disparate colors, especially orange and yellow, stand out when layered on a slightly orange-tinted map with road and highway features – the designer could have easily used a tool such as colorbrewer2.org to generate some nice equidistant colors that would've looked fine set to an opacity of about 50 or 60 percent.

For the sake of thoroughness, I also want to address the included table that contains the charter and vocational school data. I like the fact that NJSpotlight chose to alternate the shades of background color for every other row in the table. It helps distinguish each row more easily from its neighbor, and gives an extra visual attribute to what easily could have been a stale grid. My only recommendations might be to split up every five or six rows with a dividing line, and to incorporate a bar chart, if possible, for one of the values in the cell (presumably, the most important value, the percent passing column).

Overlaying a bubble chart onto a Google map

25 minute read

Others may hate, but I'm a big fan of using bubbles to display data. When implemented correctly (i.e. scaled in terms of area instead of diameter), bubbles can be an aesthetically appealing and concise way to represent the value of data points in an inherently visual format. Bubbles are even more useful when they include interactivity, with events like mouseover and zoom allowing users to drill down and compare similar-sized bubbles more easily than they can in static graphics. So, when I was recently working on a class project on autism diagnoses in New York City, I decided to use bubbles to represent the percentage of students with individualized education plans at all 1250 or so K-8 New York City schools.

Almost by default, I turned to Google Maps JavaScript API V3, mainly because I'm quasi-familiar with its basic functions and event handlers (as I point out later in  this post, I didn't realize that a nifty new service called CartoDB would have automated most of what I was trying to do, albeit without nearly the level of customization). Nonetheless, based on a tutorial from Karl Agius, as well as some infoWindow help from my data viz professor, Susan McGregor, I created the following interactive bubble map of NYC schools based upon the number of special needs, or IEP, students at each school. The larger the bubble, the greater percentage of special needs students a school has. Click here to see the map full-screen, or here to download a .zip of my source files for your own customization purposes.

Each bubble on this map represents one of New York City's approximately 1,250 K-8 public schools, including charters. The larger the bubble, the higher the percentage of students with individualized education plans (IEP). Click on a bubble to find out more about the school, or click anywhere within a district boundary to see an overall average IEP rate for the district. Zoom and pan to see other parts of the city.

You'll notice the opacity for the bubbles is set to 40 percent. This allows us to get a quick visual of the locations with the highest density of special needs students, given that those areas on the map will naturally be darker because they have multiple semi-opaque layers that overlap. Setting a low opacity also prevents overlapping bubbles from covering up one another. You'll also notice that the map includes polygons for each school district, which you can click on to get an average IEP rate for the entire district. I decided against setting gradated fill colors for the school district shapes so as to avoid implying causation, as well as to lessen the visual clutter.*

Preparing the data

To create the map, I first had to download the underlying data from the New York City Department of Education database as a .csv, then import it into Excel to clean it up and leave only the relevant information. Although the dataset I had only included street addresses split into multiple columns, I was able to use the concatenate function in Excel to merge the street, city, state and zip columns to get a full street address. From there, I used my favorite batch geocoding service to convert the addresses into geographic coordinates that the Google Maps API can read. Check out my resulting .csv file here for an example. Then I imported the .csv into a Google Spreadsheet, and pasted the resulting spreadsheet's URL into dataSourceURL field in the JavaScript of my main index.html file. Here's how that looked in my code:

var dataSourceUrl = "https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Au4D8Alccn4xdHNJdXJmeTdYcEtpRXE1QXRucWtEN3c";
var onlyInfoWindow;

On Richard Boarman’s “Bubble Trees: The Visualization of Hierarchical Structure”

3 minute read

In his brief two-page paper "Bubble Trees: The Visualization of Hierarchical Structure," Richard Boardman proposes a new type of interactive presentation of hierarchical data that he calls the bubble tree. To bolster his argument, Boardman points out the difficulties inherent in the traditional "tree" structure, which suffers from the "breadth versus depth" problem by leading to information overload and taking up too much screen real estate. As a solution, he proposes a clickable bubble tree that leads to child and grandchild bubbles. Because of its interactive nature and nested structure, Boardman's bubble tree would "naturally allow the user to explore and work out relationships for themselves," he says.

Since the publication of Boardman's paper, this style of bubbletree has become somewhat ad nouveau in the information design community, with popular JavaScript libraries such as Bubbletree.js putting the creation of complex, hierarchical bubble trees into the hands of the general web development public. As its popular use has demonstrated, Bubbletree.js can be particularly handy when it comes to displaying Open Spending data.

Critique, “French wine map shows the best vintage, from 1978 to 2011”

4 minute read

It's nearing the end of the week, so what better way to relax than with a good bottle of wine and some leisure reading? Problem is, I'm not very skilled at buying wine that tastes any good. I always end up paying more for the bitter, expensive stuff. Fortunately,  there's a pretty cool news app for that. The Telegraph UK's recent interactive app on French wine ratings allows users to browse through the years to see which regions of the country produced the best-tasting wines in each year. With a handy HTML5 slider on the bottom, the user can locate the year of the bottle while in the store, then match that up with the region the bottle was harvested in. Then by mousing over the corresponding region labels, users can get an idea of that year and region's quality as rated by conniseaurs.

The only thing that concerns me is this app's use of mapping when mapping was not required. Granted, the geographical component to this topic is very important and likely justifies a map. But at the same time, the map feels bare with only the wine regions colored and the rest of France empty. What stands out more than anything, however, is the app's use of color. The deep red and pink colors combined with the light green shading not only represents white and red wine visually, but it also gives the app an aesthetically appealing and bright color scheme against the canvas-colored backdrop.

Should data viz be a specialty or a commodity skill in the newsroom?

8 minute read

An interesting question came up at last Wednesday's Doing Data Journalism (#doingdataj) panel hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism here at Columbia's J-School: Should there be data specialists in the newsroom, or can everyone be a data journalist? For New York Times interactive editor Aron Pilholfer, who participated in the panel, the question is not so much should everyone do data as will everyone do data. And for Pilholfer, the answer to that question clearly seems to be no:

I kind of naively thought that at one time you could train everybody to be at least a base level of competency with something like Excel, but I'm not of that belief anymore. I think you do need specialists.

I've always hated the idea of having technology or innovation 'specialists' in a work environment that should ideally be collaborative. So, at first I tended to disagree with Pilholfer's argument. But what won me over was the reasoning behind his claim. For Pilholfer, it's not that the technology, human talent or open source tools aren't there for everyone to scrape, analyze and process data –– in fact, it's now easier than ever to organize messy data with simple and often free desktop applications like Excel and Google Refine. The problem is that there's a cultural lack of interest within newsrooms, often from an editorial level, to produce data-driven stories. As Pilholfer says in what appears to be an indictment of upper-level editors for disregarding the value of data,

The problem is that we continue to reward crap journalism that's based on anecdotal evidence alone . . . But truly if it's not a priority at the top to reward good data-driven journalism, it's going to be impossible to get people into data because they just don't think it's worth it.

I totally agree, but with one lurking suspicion. As with the top-level editors, many traditional users –– or 'readers,' as one might call them –– still at least think they like to read pretty, anecdotal narratives, and tend not to care as much whether the hard data backs them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is a managerial or institutional one. Some legacy news consumers just still aren't data literate. Because they're not accustomed to even having such data freely available to them, they don't even value having it. As the old saying goes, "You can't miss what you never had." Yet as traffic and engagement statistics continually confirm, as soon users have open data readily available to them through news apps and data visualizations, they spend more time accessing the data than they do reading the print narrative.

Aron Pilholfer at #doingdataj

less than 1 minute read

Totally agree, but harbor the lurking suspicion that many traditional readers still like to read pretty narratives and don't care as much if the facts back them up. In other words, it's an audience problem just as much as it is an editorial one.

Data Visualization Thoughts

What we can learn about charts from The WSJ Guide to Information Graphics

12 minute read

Although geared primarily toward the production of static graphics for print publications, Dona M. Wong's The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics (2010provides a wealth of salient and time-honored tips and guidelines that any student of data visualization would be well-advised to follow. At the heart of Wong's book is the notion that data integrity trumps all else, and no matter how aesthetically pleasing or visually powerful an information graphic may be, if it doesn't communicate clear and accurate data to the reader/user, it doesn't do its job.

In the first two chapters of The WSJ Guide, Wong, a former student of data viz extraordinaire Edward Tufte, addresses the topic of charting. From a theoretical standpoint, Wong lays out four principle steps to the charting process:

  1. Research: Find your data source, and ensure that it's timely, authoritative and free of bias.
  2. Edit:  Figure out what the data says (essentially, determine what your story is), and conceive of how best to boil that data down in a way that's simple enough for your intended audience to understand without skewing its meaning.
  3. Plot: Determine the appropriate chart type for your data (e.g. bar, column, line, pie, stacked bar, etc.), choose the right settings (scale, increments, axes, etc.), labeling the chart (e.g. legends and source lines) and pick the best color and typography combinations to accentuate your key message.
  4. Review: When you're done, ask yourself the following questions: Does the data match up with what external sources say? Are there any outliers? Does the chart make sense? What would the average user/reader think upon first seeing the chart?

Regarding the finer points of charting, Wong does an excellent job at pointing out the various dos and don'ts of the presentation process.  She sets forth clear guidelines about when to use what type of chart. For example, when dealing with change over time, Wong says to always use a line chart instead of a bar chart, as bar charts should ideally be reserved for comparing several different series of data. Also, Wong asserts, pie charts usually aren't as good of a choice for displaying complex data as bar or line charts, primarily because they make it harder to discern discrete differences in size (later, she flat-out dismisses the donut pie chart for the same reason). A few of her other tips I found particularly relevant included: (a) avoiding high-contrast color schemes that draw attention away from the data, (b) shying away from icons with high detail so as to avoid visual overload, (c) never, under any circumstances, add cloying shadow or 3D-effects and (d) never rely on zebra patterns, dotted lines or other fancy methods of labeling. "A chart is not a piece of fine art," Wong says.

Most importantly, Wong sets forth some other general principles to help designers avoid creating misleading charts. For example, when creating a bubble chart, always plot the bubbles by area, not radi. Also, never plot two different data series on noncomparable scales, and when creating bar charts, always start at the zero baseline. Other steps to ensuring data integrity include putting numbers into their appropriate context (comparing apples to apples), holding off on rounding until the end of the data analysis process and avoiding charting predictive numbers alongside actual ones. As Wong so eloquently puts it, "Unlike a misspelled word in a story, one wrong number discredits a whole chart."

Although the new addition of interactivity to chart design adds another layer of complexity to the visualization process that Wong doesn't address here, most of the guidelines she sets forth hold true in both static and dynamic mediums. Yet it would be interesting to hear what she has to say about the vexing question of when and when not to add static labels to interactive charts...

Building a responsive site in less than 20 minutes

6 minute read

An ever-so-sleek responsive portfolio site I designed for a friend in less than 20 minutes using Skeleton as a foundation.[/caption]

With all this talk lately of the new era of responsive design, I realized today that I've yet to create anything that's actually responsive. Given that I've only pondered using it in the implementation of complex, database-driven news sites, the task of tweaking every level of CSS to fit perfectly into a responsive grid system has so far seemed too daunting to tackle.

But I got curious this afternoon, and found my way upon a cool new library called Skeleton, which bills itself as a "a beautiful boilerplate for responsive, mobile-friendly development." Essentially, Skeleton is a collection of CSS and JS files that makes the mystery of responsive design seem a little less illusive. Upon uploading the package to my server, I was pleased to find a neatly-coded, easy-to-understand responsive site that I could play around with and tweak to my own liking. I ended up adjusting the grid size and performing some minor customizations to the underlying Skeleton structural CSS, but other than that, the development kit was, as it promised, "style agnostic."

Since I didn't have any specific projects I needed to be working on today, I decided to give Skeleton a whirl by designing a new online portfolio as a favor for my friend Daniel Medina. I'm not kidding – within 10 minutes I'd coded a fully satisfactory responsive portfolio site that looks beautiful on my iPhone and tablet.

So, if you're feeling experimental, try Skeleton out. It's exciting to see how quickly this technology is catching steam, and to see the actual workings of the responsive CSS in action firsthand. My next goal is to integrate a responsive layout into a more-powerful database-driven site, perhaps one designed in Drupal.

Using data-viz to make a wire story stand out from the pack

13 minute read

I've been interested lately in finding examples of online-only, collaborative, non-profit newsrooms who've utilized the power of data visualization techniques to give added value to stories that otherwise wouldn't necessarily be unique, and in doing so beat out legacy news organizations who published a text narrative alone. Take, for example, this data-rich story and interactive map displaying statewide testing results published by NJSpotlight Friday. While the news that only 8 out of 10 graduating seniors had passed New Jersey's current standardized test in 2011 was widely reported across the state last week, including by the Star-Ledger in Newark and by The Press of Atlantic City, only NJSpotlight took advantage of the story's strong data element to produce a more concise, data-driven visual narrative.

So NJSpotlight obviously deserves kudos for the gap they're filling in New Jersey journalism. What's more, the job they did on the interactive map was fairly sophisticated (I've still yet to figure out how to overlay such a highly customized legend onto a Google map). But as is always the case with any deadline project, there's room for improvement. Let's take a look at the good and the bad of NJSpotlight's Friday package on state test results.

First off, this is a classic example of a story where county and/or municipality polygons with a colored fill layered on top of a Google Map brings new insight to a widely reported story. Not only can we immediately see from the map that most of the state fell within the 75 to 90 percent range in terms of passing rates, but we can also clearly tell that the north-central region of the state, particularly near the Pennsylyvania border, earned significantly higher scores than the rest of New Jersey. The pop-up table with information on vocational and charter schools also adds an additional layer of nuance to the piece, and does a decent job of displaying the numbers in a table-like format.

The map colors follow a somewhat logical pattern, with green representing high-passing rates and red representing lower passing rates. But the orange, yellow and blue colors that fall in the middle do more to obfuscate than they do to help visualize. Without referencing the legend, how is the user supposed to know that blue is better than yellow, or that green is better than blue? What's more, the combination of such bright shades of colors from opposite ends of the color spectrum makes the map less pleasing on the eye than it would've been had the designer chosen more subtle, complimentary shades. I understand the desire to have red represent 'negative' and green represent 'positive,' but if NJSpotlight had went with a graduated color scale from red to green, with neutral-based mid-values such as the ones I used in this recent map on nationwide obesity rates, the map would've been not only aesthetically more appealing, but easier to read.

Another minor criticism I could make of the map is the designer's decision to set the polygon-fills to solid colors with 100 percent opacity. This obscures the underlying view of which cities and townships each shape contains. While I understand the thought-process that likely went into this decision – it's hard to make disparate colors, especially orange and yellow, stand out when layered on a slightly orange-tinted map with road and highway features – the designer could have easily used a tool such as colorbrewer2.org to generate some nice equidistant colors that would've looked fine set to an opacity of about 50 or 60 percent.

For the sake of thoroughness, I also want to address the included table that contains the charter and vocational school data. I like the fact that NJSpotlight chose to alternate the shades of background color for every other row in the table. It helps distinguish each row more easily from its neighbor, and gives an extra visual attribute to what easily could have been a stale grid. My only recommendations might be to split up every five or six rows with a dividing line, and to incorporate a bar chart, if possible, for one of the values in the cell (presumably, the most important value, the percent passing column).

Overlaying a bubble chart onto a Google map

25 minute read

Others may hate, but I'm a big fan of using bubbles to display data. When implemented correctly (i.e. scaled in terms of area instead of diameter), bubbles can be an aesthetically appealing and concise way to represent the value of data points in an inherently visual format. Bubbles are even more useful when they include interactivity, with events like mouseover and zoom allowing users to drill down and compare similar-sized bubbles more easily than they can in static graphics. So, when I was recently working on a class project on autism diagnoses in New York City, I decided to use bubbles to represent the percentage of students with individualized education plans at all 1250 or so K-8 New York City schools.

Almost by default, I turned to Google Maps JavaScript API V3, mainly because I'm quasi-familiar with its basic functions and event handlers (as I point out later in  this post, I didn't realize that a nifty new service called CartoDB would have automated most of what I was trying to do, albeit without nearly the level of customization). Nonetheless, based on a tutorial from Karl Agius, as well as some infoWindow help from my data viz professor, Susan McGregor, I created the following interactive bubble map of NYC schools based upon the number of special needs, or IEP, students at each school. The larger the bubble, the greater percentage of special needs students a school has. Click here to see the map full-screen, or here to download a .zip of my source files for your own customization purposes.

Each bubble on this map represents one of New York City's approximately 1,250 K-8 public schools, including charters. The larger the bubble, the higher the percentage of students with individualized education plans (IEP). Click on a bubble to find out more about the school, or click anywhere within a district boundary to see an overall average IEP rate for the district. Zoom and pan to see other parts of the city.

You'll notice the opacity for the bubbles is set to 40 percent. This allows us to get a quick visual of the locations with the highest density of special needs students, given that those areas on the map will naturally be darker because they have multiple semi-opaque layers that overlap. Setting a low opacity also prevents overlapping bubbles from covering up one another. You'll also notice that the map includes polygons for each school district, which you can click on to get an average IEP rate for the entire district. I decided against setting gradated fill colors for the school district shapes so as to avoid implying causation, as well as to lessen the visual clutter.*

Preparing the data

To create the map, I first had to download the underlying data from the New York City Department of Education database as a .csv, then import it into Excel to clean it up and leave only the relevant information. Although the dataset I had only included street addresses split into multiple columns, I was able to use the concatenate function in Excel to merge the street, city, state and zip columns to get a full street address. From there, I used my favorite batch geocoding service to convert the addresses into geographic coordinates that the Google Maps API can read. Check out my resulting .csv file here for an example. Then I imported the .csv into a Google Spreadsheet, and pasted the resulting spreadsheet's URL into dataSourceURL field in the JavaScript of my main index.html file. Here's how that looked in my code:

var dataSourceUrl = "https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Au4D8Alccn4xdHNJdXJmeTdYcEtpRXE1QXRucWtEN3c";
var onlyInfoWindow;

Why calculus matters when it comes to data-driven stories

7 minute read

A quick refresher from my data visualization professor here at Columbia a couple of weeks ago reminded me why I was forced to spend all those grueling hours calculating standard deviation back in high school.

See, when you're using a data set to tell a story, the first step is to understand what that data says. And to do that, you've got to have a good idea of the range and variation of the values at hand. Not only can figuring that information out help you determine whether there's any statistical significance to your data set, but it can also pinpoint outliers and possible errors that may exist within the data before you begin the work of visualizing it.

Thanks to powerful processing programs like Excel, we can figure out the variability of data sets pretty easily using the program's built-in standard deviation function (remember this intimidating-looking equation from calculus class?). Still, it always helps to know how to calculate the information out by hand, if only to get a conceptual idea of why numbers such as the standard deviation (the variability of a data-set) and the z-value (the number of standard deviations a given value is away from the mean) even matter in the first place when it comes to data visualization.

So, to brush up on my formulas and also better understand the numbers behind an actual story assignment for one of my classes, I recently hand-calculated the standard deviation and z-values for a set of data on state-by-state obesity rates. From my calculations, I was able to use the standard deviation (3.24) to determine that, on average, most states fell within the middle of the bell-curve for the average national obesity rate (27.1 percent) . In addition, the z-values helped me understand which states stood out from the pack as possible outliers (Mississippi is by far the most obese with a 2.13 z-value, Colorado the least obese with a -1.9 z-value). To get an idea of how those formulas look hand-calculated in Excel, check out my spreadsheet here. And keep these formulas in mind while working on your next data story. They can potentially save you time and effort by helping you figure out what your data set says before you have to go through the often-lengthy process of visualizing it.

What makes BostonGlobe.com “the world’s best designed website”

16 minute read

With the Pulitzer Price announcements coming up later this afternoon, you'd think I'd be writing about whose up for the "Best Deadline Reporting" or "Best Public Service Journalism" prizes. But instead I want to talk about a different media award doled out during the past week: BostonGlobe.com's designation as the "world's best designed website" by the Society for News Design. Put simply, I can't say I disagree.

Yet before I divulge in my effusive praise of the folks in Boston, let me point out that I'm still somewhat skeptical of the business-logic behind The Globe's decision to launch its paywall-only site last fall alongside its primary news portal, Boston.com. From a revenue standpoint, I can't see the full-paywall site, BostonGlobe.com, bringing in nearly enough subscription income to compensate for the traffic and ad dollars it will, and to some degree already has, leeched from Boston.com (at last count, in February, BostonGlobe.com had only recruited about 16,000 paid digital subscribers, many of whom had taken advantage of the site's introductory offer of 99 cents for the first four weeks but may not stick it out past the trial period). It might've been wiser for the paper to start out with a metered paywall to warm users to the idea of paying for content before erecting a full-blown ten-foot-tall paywall around its most valuable content under a new, separate domain name. But then again, who really knows – maybe it's a step in the right direction longterm? I'm not the one having to make the tough calls, so I'm in no position to judge.

At any rate, the segregation of the two sites has given the paper's parent company the freedom to make BostonGlobe.com a rich, immersive and interactive user experience that few other news organizations can match. Why, you ask? Because of a little trend gaining steam in the development world called "responsive design." See, BostonGlobe.com isn't only a standout site because of its sophisticated use of white space, its wholehearted embrace of web fonts and its visual-first approach to story art, but also because of its cross-platform capabilities. No matter what device you view BostonGlobe.com on – desktop, tablet or mobile – the site retains its same slick look and feel. The site's adaptive technology allows it to detect the screen size of the user, then adjust its layout to fit the exact resolution at hand. On desktops, that means content stretches to fill the entire browser window, and the grid restructures itself appropriately when you decrease or increase the size of the window. This eliminates the need for time-honored design standards like the 960 grid-system, which is based upon the Desktop-centric idea that all users have at least a 960px resolution. Now, the grid can be as big, or as small, as the user wants it to be.

The site's successful display of a dynamic range of real-time content on any-sized device also essentially eliminates the need for the "app-based" environment that's been the staple of the iOS5 and Android operating systems in recent years. To test it out, I gave the site a whirl on my iPad, and was pleased to see the front page neatly rearrange itself to fit the new orientation, just as any of the best platform-specific news apps out there do, including The New Yorker and Wired apps for iPad. But just because BostonGlobe.com doesn't need a native app to display its content beautifully on tablet and mobile devices doesn't mean that it won't be missing out on the growing app-centric marketplace for publishers. As Apple and Google continue to centralize digital consumption patterns into the app-based model, BostonGlobe.com may be a little too ambitious in thinking it doesn't need to play nice with the big-boy tech companies to reach its audience. On the other hand, however, it could prove to be a brilliant move for the paper, setting an example for other publishers and app-based companies in general who want to break free from the often constricting, not to mention pricey, cost of participating in the app marketplace.

For its design alone, BostonGlobe.com deserves any number of awards. Its bold, minimalist interface allows content to shine above all else, free from clutter and distraction. And with high-res horizontal photos, block-quotes, inline video and stylized headlines that grab your attention without hurting your eyes, that content stands out even more. What's more, the site has the functionality to back up its aesthetics. Its "Save" feature allows users to bookmark articles for reading offline on any device, which, even for sites without responsive design, is a brilliant feature for a news site to implement. Moreover, its "Story Flow" panel at the bottom of each article allows users to click seamlessly through to stories on similar subjects, just as readers would in an old-fashioned newspaper with physical sections. Which leaves me with one nagging question: Is BostonGlobe.com too imitative of physical newspapers to attain success in today's short attention-span digital audience? Is it too skewmorphic to succeed in an SEO-driven, hyperlinked news economy?

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Critique: “Agreement Groups in the United States Senate”

6 minute read

Take a look at this fascinating visualization of U.S. senate agreement groups made by Ph.D. student Adrian Friggeri. Using a complex agreement algorithim based upon data from GovTrack.us, the visualization displays how much all 100 senators of each U.S. Congress during the last 15 years have crossed the aisle –– or stuck to party lines –– on senate-floor votes.

From a design standpoint, the visualization is nearly flawless. The thin red and blue lines help the user form an instant party association, and the light gray bars in the background distinguish each Congress from the next without leading to visual clutter. What's perhaps most impressive is that, despite the fact that the visualization contains far more than 100 different data points, the information is still fairly easy to access and the interface is stil simplistic in feel. Because each Senator's entire individual trajectory is highlighted on mouseover, users can get a glimpse at how willing their respective Senator has been to negotiate a compromise across party lines over the years.

Most of all, the visualization does what all good visualizations should do: tells a story without text. As we can see, the number of Democrats who have crossed the aisle is notably larger than that of their GOP counterparts. This becomes ever more clear when we drill down to look at each party's trajectory individually, where the connections can be seen more clearly. Perhaps what I would've liked to have seen in addition, however, is some sort of summary or average value of the disparity between the two parties on agreement rates, even if just a number at the bottom of the visualization. As it stands, the user has to dissect the visualization a good bit to tell that Democrats have a higher "agreement rate" than Republicans.

The networked line structure reminds me a lot of the Wall Street Journal's "What They Know" visualization, except that this visualization has a good bit less clutter and complexity, and much better styling choices.

Response to Norman, “Emotional Design”

5 minute read

Good aesthetics are more than just fluff when it comes to design. They are a core part of a product's functionality. Such is the argument Donald A. Norman makes in his insightful 2005 book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. For Norman, attractive things work better by boosting the mood of the user and therefore allowing him or her to think more clearly and operate it more efficiently.

Undergirding Norman's thesis that aesthetics directly influence operability is his distinction between the three basic levels of human cognition: the visceral (jumping at a sudden sound in a quiet room), the behavioral (relaxing in the solitude of a quiet room) and the reflective (thinking to oneself about why a quiet room is more enjoyable). As Norman asserts, these three levels of thought processing "interact with one another, each modulating the others" (7). You cannot escape the effect that one level of thought processing has on the other. As such, a visceral reaction to an external stimuli influences the subsequent behavioral reactions we have, which in turn influence our reflective conclusions about the stimuli itself. If we have a negative visceral reaction to a poorly design website, our mood is negatively affected in such a way that hinders our ability to navigate and use the site, even if there's nothing wrong with the navigation or user interface from a technical standpoint. All our brain can focus on is the poor design. This reaction is similar to the way humans form first impressions of others; if an individual makes a poor first impression (a visceral reaction), we are less likely to act on his or her future actions or speech (a behavioral reaction), which in turn affects the entire way we think about that person (a reflective reaction).

Respons to Saffer, “Designing for Interaction”

7 minute read

Interactive designer Don Saffer artfully captures both the practical and the theoretical aspects of his profession in his 2006 book Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications for Clever Devices. From its title, Saffer's book may sound like a simple "how-to" guide to creating web apps with interactivity. Yet while it is certainly that to an extent, the book is more broadly a treatise and exploration of the ideology and terminology behind interactive design.

Saffer sets out to answer seemingly simple questions such as "What is interaction design?" and "What is the value of interaction design?" with thoughtful, reflective analyses. The principle purpose of interaction design, he argues, is "its application to real problems" and its ability to "solve specific problems under a specific set of circumstances" (5). As such, interaction design is inherently attached to the physical world, and is "by its nature contextual," changing and evolving in its definition over the course of time and space (4). Paradoxically, however, Saffer argues that the core principles of good interaction design are "technologically agnostic," and don't change along with ebbs and flows of technological innovation: "Since technology frequently changes, good interaction design doesn't align itself to any one technology or medium in particular" (7). How can Saffer simultaneoulsy assert that interaction design is tethered to its particular context in time, while in the same breath arguing that it remains unchanging in its core values? Don't the two statements on some level contradict one another? Saffer would likely respond by saying that only the "principles" behind interaction design – helping people communicate with one another and, to a lesser degree, with computers – remain constant amid technological upheaval. But this view verges on downplaying the power of future technological change to fundamentally alter every known aspect of the way we communicate. What if, in ten years, a technology comes along that automates communication in such a way that leads to a paradigmatic shift in the role of the interaction designer? Although Saffer is correct in his assertion that even the rise of the Internet has not so far altered the core principles of interaction design, that doesn't mean that such constancy will always be the case.

Why does YouTube have a longer lifespan than other platforms?

5 minute read

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When trying to reach a mass audience, what's the best platform to share your content? Well, the obvious answer is as many places as you can. But according to a post by bitly analyzing traffic patterns, links shared on YouTube have a lifespan of 7.3 hours, compared to 2.8 hours on Twitter and 3.4 hours on Facebook. Why such the disparity? Why does YouTube have such a longer lifespan?

Is it because video has a longer lifespan than all other forms of content? Or is it because YouTube has a different user-experience than other social media platforms? While YouTube content is slower to peak, it lasts far longer in the online ecosystem than content posted on other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The most obvious answer for the cause of this phenomenon would be that video is a medium that inherently captures our attention for a longer, and slower, period of time. We tend to go back, rewatch and share video more than we do text-based content, causing video to have a longer lifespan.

But there's also another possible explanation for YouTube's lengthier half-life. It could just be the nature of YouTube's network structure. Facebook and Twitter are more of aggregators than YouTube, which is a platform for user-generated content rather than just a portal. So, because of their vast user base and high rate of captivity, Facebook and Twitter by their nature attract attention quicker. But that attention is often only surface attention, which is possibly a reason those networks have a shorter half-life than YouTube. People go to YouTube videos more frequently as a destination, whereas other social media platforms only act as a portal.

Critique: “Salubrious Nation: a game-y look at U.S. health”

10 minute read

In keeping with our recent weekly reading about the growing 'gamification' of data, I wanted to focus my critique this week on a map-styled data-driven game made my a group of researchers at Rutgers University called Salubrious Nation. The game attempts to engage users more deeply with public health data by luring them in with an addictive system of points and rewards.

In terms of functionality, the game play operates fairly simply. A map presents demographic data about every county in the 48 states of the continental U.S. The game then chooses one county at random and asks the player to guess a public health statistic about it, like binge drinking, teenage pregnancies, diabetes, obesity rates, etc. The game features two types of interaction: the user can mouse over any county to see demographic data about it (population, poverty rate, life expectancy, etc.), and a slider at the top to enter the player’s guess for the county up for play. As you moved the slider up and down, you can get hints about how close you are by looking at whether the surrounding counties are above or below the value you've chosen. Based upon how close the player's guess is to the actual statistic, the player earns a corresponding amount of points. After eight rounds of the play, the game ends, and the player is told how his or her performance matches up to others who've played the game before. Apparently, I scored higher than 62 percent of other players. Woohoo! Just enough of a dopamine rush to get me to play again.

What's cool about this game is that it makes data something to get immersed in for the fun of it, and you learn along the way. Over time, you begin to notice patterns emerging as you learn the tricks and strategies of the game. You figure out that the Western half of the country tends to have a higher rate of binge drinking. You learn that diabetes and obesity is the worse in the South. As one of the game's creator, Nick Diakopoulous, explains, the gamification of health data provides a good opporunity for users to focus on data they might otherwise ignore: "Considering the selective attention issue, where people are more likely to pay attention to things that they already agree with, this result suggests an opportunity to get players to look at aspects of the data that they might not otherwise be inclined to look at."

I can only find a few possible qualms with the game. One is that it operates off of flash, meaning that it can't be run on most smartphones or tablets. Another is that the yellow-to-orange color scheme seems to be a bit disorienting on the eyes. Perhaps the developers would've been wiser to choose softer colors – possibly even a red-to-green graduated scale with a neutral middle value. Another thing that irked me, although I see little simple solution, is that county-level guessing seems almost so geographically-specific that it's hard for most people (including myself) to have much knowledge of which specific counties in Oklahoma or Kansas have the highest obesity rates.

Critique: Curbwise.com

8 minute read

Lately I've been trying to get my feet wet with Django, an open-source Python web framework that's well-suited to producing complex news apps under  tight deadlines. I haven't had enough free time yet to get into the nitty gritty of it, but I'm getting there slowly. What first piqued my interest in Django was a brilliant news app I ran across a couple of months ago called Curbwise, which was built with Django by the news developer team at the Omaha World Herald/Omaha.com.

Curbwise advertises itself as "your one-stop shop for the latest on real-estate in Douglas County." But Curbwise is much more than your standard, run-of-the-mill real-estate section of most local news websites. It allows the user to fine-tune what neighborhoods he or she wants to view, and compare demographic data and housing prices side-by-side. Using a complex, clickable system of Google maps with a clean design and corresponding tables, you can drill-down to see all sorts of individual data charted out in an appealing red color-scheme, along with a listing of houses that are currently on the market in the neighborhood. You can even click on individual properties to see the historical and current valuations not only of the property in question,but of all the properties nearby. The warm yellow used to display the property tracts on the map invites the user to mouse over all the houses to see highly stylized infoWindows with more information. It's really hard to find anything about the navigation, interface and design to complain about. The only thing that might possibly make the app better is adding interactivity to the static charts on the neighborhood and property pages.

Obviously, all of this data is of immense value to users on an evergreen basis, not just a transitory news cycle. What's also impressive is that it's useful for both interested home buyers looking to browse the marketplace and for current home-owners who want to see the valuations of their home compared to nearby homes. For a small fee, the app even lets you download a custom report with all of that information contained within it upon entering your address. And, just in case a homeowner suspect his or her home may be overvalued, the interface includes a handy guide to protesting your valuation with local government agencies.

On a whole, Curbwise is the epitome of a solid, innovative app built by a news organization that works to protect consumers and inform the public. Even better, the money made off custom report sales provides the paper with an additional revenue stream that likely helps offset the loss in print advertising in recent years.

Critique, “Why is Her Paycheck Smaller?”

4 minute read

For my final critique, I decided to look at a more straightforward and well-known visualization on gender wage gaps created by The New York Times back in 2010. The "Why is Her Paycheck Smaller" visualization shows how simple, mostly static scatter plots can sometimes be the most efficient and informative way to tell a story.

Functionality-wise, the visualization is not terribly impressive. Not only does it run on clunky, often-inoperable Flash, but it has little in terms of interactivity. All you basically do is click on each of the occupations to see where the dots for that occupation fall, and then mouse over the dots to see more specific information. The clean, crisp design, on the other hand, makes the colored dots stand out, basking in the surrounding minimalism. The notations help explain possible outliers without cluttering the graph, and the charts on the bottom right put the data into a larger context neatly and concisely.

For its time, this visualization probably was cutting-edge. But despite its less sophisticated technologies looking back now, it communicates just as powerfully as any of the best visualizations do in 2012. The "Why is her Paycheck Smaller" visualization shows that, no matter what technology, good charting, design and editing makes for a strong story. It's easy to get caught up in the technologies, but sometimes less is more.

Should data viz be a specialty or a commodity skill in the newsroom?

8 minute read

An interesting question came up at last Wednesday's Doing Data Journalism (#doingdataj) panel hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism here at Columbia's J-School: Should there be data specialists in the newsroom, or can everyone be a data journalist? For New York Times interactive editor Aron Pilholfer, who participated in the panel, the question is not so much should everyone do data as will everyone do data. And for Pilholfer, the answer to that question clearly seems to be no:

I kind of naively thought that at one time you could train everybody to be at least a base level of competency with something like Excel, but I'm not of that belief anymore. I think you do need specialists.

I've always hated the idea of having technology or innovation 'specialists' in a work environment that should ideally be collaborative. So, at first I tended to disagree with Pilholfer's argument. But what won me over was the reasoning behind his claim. For Pilholfer, it's not that the technology, human talent or open source tools aren't there for everyone to scrape, analyze and process data –– in fact, it's now easier than ever to organize messy data with simple and often free desktop applications like Excel and Google Refine. The problem is that there's a cultural lack of interest within newsrooms, often from an editorial level, to produce data-driven stories. As Pilholfer says in what appears to be an indictment of upper-level editors for disregarding the value of data,

The problem is that we continue to reward crap journalism that's based on anecdotal evidence alone . . . But truly if it's not a priority at the top to reward good data-driven journalism, it's going to be impossible to get people into data because they just don't think it's worth it.

I totally agree, but with one lurking suspicion. As with the top-level editors, many traditional users –– or 'readers,' as one might call them –– still at least think they like to read pretty, anecdotal narratives, and tend not to care as much whether the hard data backs them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is a managerial or institutional one. Some legacy news consumers just still aren't data literate. Because they're not accustomed to even having such data freely available to them, they don't even value having it. As the old saying goes, "You can't miss what you never had." Yet as traffic and engagement statistics continually confirm, as soon users have open data readily available to them through news apps and data visualizations, they spend more time accessing the data than they do reading the print narrative.

Aron Pilholfer at #doingdataj

less than 1 minute read

Totally agree, but harbor the lurking suspicion that many traditional readers still like to read pretty narratives and don't care as much if the facts back them up. In other words, it's an audience problem just as much as it is an editorial one.

Critique: The new (and improved) Macon.com

9 minute read

Today I'd like to critique the recent redesign of my former newspaper's website, The Telegraph/Macon.com, in Macon, Ga. For years we'd suffered with a cluttered, portal-styled homepage that devoted more screen real estate to aggregated national news and real estate widgets than it did to original, local content (see a small snippet of old site here). The share buttons were completely out of date, the commenting system was clunky and the overall feel of the site was one of chaos. Even when we did do special features including complex packages and maps, they looked out of place against the stark ad-cluttered grid of the site. While the deep red color at the top of the page gave the site a sense of branding, it ultimately left too much white space to make a strong impression.

The new Macon.com is a marked improvement over its predecessor. For one thing, The Telegraph masthead in place of the Macon.com header logo signals a greater emphasis on local reporting and a shift away from trying to be a portal to all things Middle Georgia. Not using the word 'Macon' also helps brand the site to users outside of the confines of the Macon city limits into the growing suburbs of Warner Robins, Centerville and North Bibb County.

From a design standpoint, the new site has a lot going for it. Perhaps most strikingly, the bold, gradated masthead gives a feeling of coherence and robustness to the site. I'm also a big fan of combining the traditional newspaper headline font alongside the modern-looking serif used for the phrase "Middle Georgia's News Source." What also stands out, though you can't see it at the current moment, is the decidedly photo-friendly nature of the new design. Images on articles fill the full column-width, creating a strong visual impact. On the homepage, the feature story usually includes a relatively large 600px by 400px image, with a black opaque strip along the bottom containing the headline and excerpt in a contrasting white text.  Going back to font choice, what also makes the site stand out is its mix of serif and sans-serif across the site. In addition, the grey bars that underlie section headings create an organized, grid-like feeling without being two distracting.

Most of all, unlike many other news sites, the new Macon.com doesn't feel like everything has been squished together. The content navigation bar is kept to a maximum of 8 items in a large sans-serif font, with a drop-down jQuery to display children categories. The top page-nav bar also reflects visual restraint by sticking to only six items, rather than a massive compendium of every single vertical the paper offers the community. Finally, the choice to move the "Latest headlines" section from the middle of the page to the right-hand column is a wise one, as our eyes naturally look to the left or right before the middle.

Critique: Michigan GOP Primary Visualization, via HuffPo

5 minute read

For a lot of self-indulgent reasons, I secretly love The Huffington Post. But well-designed visualizations and interactive interfaces have never been the news organization's strong suit. While their live coverage of Tuesday night's GOP primary in Michigan had all the flavor of a classic HuffPo report – updates faster than you can send a Tweet, snarky comments, and dramatic headlines – what stood out to me was how they integrated real-time election results into a mapping format. And not only was the map visually appealing, with clean lines, distinctive color choices and a refreshing sense of minimalism, but it also did a good job of allowing the user to know what was going on across the state as the results were being tallied. The legend makes it clear which candidates are leading using numbers, while the map allows viewers to see which part of the state Santorum and Romney have claimed.

Having this geographic breakdown is particularly important in Michigan. For one, the notorious swing-state is vastly different demographically from one area to another. People in unionized Detroit vote nothing like the more conservative folks on the Michigan panhandle. Moreover, knowing who received what votes where is even more important in Michigan because of the fact that it's Romney's home state. If Romney didn't come off with big margins in and around his hometown south of Detroit, it would have seriously hurt his momentum going forward. The importance of the Michigan vote to Romney becomes even more important in light of his recent insistence that the auto-companies should not have received a bailout and that the country "should let Detriot go broke." But it doesn't seem as though Romney's comments lost him the urban areas entirely, as he easily carried Detroit and Grand Rapids by huge margins.

INTERACTIVE: 2012 Michigan GOP primary results by county

1 minute read

This map displays the results from Tuesday night's Michigan GOP primary by county. The darker shade blue represents a higher percentage of voters for Mitt Romney, who narrowly won the race despite Michigan being his native state. Click on each county to see a breakdown of how Michigan Republicans cast their ballots.

SOURCE: Michigan Dept. of State, Feb. 28, 2011, 11:34 E.S.T.

Visualization/design critique: Guardian.co.uk

5 minute read

So I'll admit it: I've always kind of had a design crush on the Guardian's website, and I may or may not have tried to emulate it in various other news websites I've developed. What I love most about the Guardian's design is simply its proprietary typeface. That slightly "Georgia" looking serif with the curbed nodules and cut-off "G's" instantly alerts the user that they're interacting with the Guardian brand. Another strong aspect of the site is that it succeeds where  many legacy news organizations fail in that it successfully and cleanly integrates an array of different content, from videos, to mugshots for columnists, to vertical celebrity shoots and to landscape scenes of world political affairs and crises. Though it may seem obvious, the coordianted color schemes on the site allow the user to receive visual cues about which section she's reading or encountering. Color is perhaps the Guardian's strongest visual element.

What also makes the Guardian site in my view the almost perfect model for for-profit news sites is its interactivity. Designers don't have to worry about whether the body text of the articles will make the page look visually too distracting, as users can simply hover over a picture to read the excerpt. It also likely increases audience engagement, asssuming that people click or hover on stories who may not have otherwise.

I could go on and on for days about what a groundbreaking model the Guardian's website is––like how its use of white space around the header gives users a sense of minimalism, or the way in which the site displays its ads. But I won't. All I'll say is that it's so user-friendly that it's hopped over the pond to circulate in America.

Response to Manovich on “HCI: Representation versus Control”

5 minute read

In contrast with Norman –– who argues flatly for programmers to adopt a more immersive, task-centered approach to computer design rooted in cultural conventions ––Manovich contends in his paper on human-computer interfaces that designers should instead seek to embrace the new language of the computer medium, the language of the interface. The failure of programmers to make use of the full power of the interface as a language in and of itself, Manovich argues, can be traced back to two competing impulses: representation and control. The desire to make computing "represent" or "borrow 'conventions' of the human-made physical environment" often inevitably limits the full range of "control" or flexibility the computer interface can offer. But although Manovich clearly leaves some room for common ground between the impulses of representation and control, he tends to paint them at times as almost mutually exclusive to each other. While he is no doubt correct in his assumption that "neither extreme is  ultimately satisfactory by itself," he particularly laments the arbitrary shoveling of old cultural conventions onto the role of the computer as a control mechanism.

Rather than seek to imitate pre-existing forms of communication mediums, Manovich asserts that programmers should embrace the "new literary form of a new medium, perhaps the real medium of a computer – its interface" (92). Only when a user has learned this "new language" can he or she have a truly immersive computing experience. This stands in sharp contrast to Norman, who champions s more populist message of usability and rails against the notion that "if you have not passed the secret rites of initiation into programming skills, you should not be allowed into the society of computer users."

Response to “The Design of Everyday Things,” Chapter Six

5 minute read

Design is too often designer-centric instead of user-centric, argues Donald Norman in the sixth chapter of his book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman lays out the case that anyone acting as a designer – whether programmer, illustrator or developer – has an unconscious tendency to be device-oriented rather than task-oriented; that is, designers "become experts with the device they are designing," while users are "often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device." Instead, designers should place more attention on usability, which is not an easy task given the many challenges they face in terms of demands from profit-driven clients, users with special needs and users who seek features they don't needs. Indeed, as Norman admits, there is no one size fits all when it comes to creating user-centric designs, but flexibility helps.

One ever feels the echo of Steve Jobs' design philosophies echoed throughout Norman's work, particularly in his description of the "two deadly temptations for the designer." Designers too often fall prey to the allure of what he calls "creeping featurism" –– the tendency to pile on endless features to a device that needlessly complicate its use –– as well as the "worshipping of false images," referring to the temptation of valuing technological flashiness over end usability. Particularly in Apple's' later consumer entertainment products, beginning with the iPod, we see an acute awareness of these dangers taken into account. Unlike its rival digital music devices at the time, the iPod valued usability over featurism, and prized immersion over control.

Critique: Superbowl XLVI ads visualization

5 minute read

Take a look at this fascinating visualization of last weekend's Superbowl ads created using a new startup tool called Hotspots.io. What's unique about this visualization is that it provides an interactive, feature-rich multimedia presentation of social media reaction in real time as it relates to live events. The sheer amount of data displayed – from the total reach, to total mentions, to the amount of money each company spent on advertising – is impressive enough in its own right. What's more, because of the way the data is organized into the drop down menu on the left-sidebar, the user is able to view it in separate bits without having to split attention between multiple data points.

All of that goes without mentioning what's most unique about this visualization: Its ability to display Twitter data in a chronological timeline and line graph, complete with YouTube embeds of the ads that corresponded to each point on the timeline. From a programming standpoint, the visualization relies mainly on well-written javascript, which in itself is nothing novel. But what really makes this visualization stand out to me as a developer is its ability to tap into the Twitter API to display various statistics that may not be immediately scrapeable on the surface, such as the rate of increase of mentions and reach in real-time. I'm guessing the developers of the Hotspots.io tool that created this have built some sort of algorithm into their application that takes basic Twitter stream data, computes it into various user-defined statistics, then spits it back out on command. However the developers did it, though, it's impressive. I've submitted my email address to them in hopes that I can be a beta tester of the new tool. I'll let you know when I get my hands on it.

Response to “Opening the Political Mind,” Nyhan and Reifler (2011)

5 minute read

The job of a journalist is to convey the facts. But when the facts conflict with an individual's preexisting beliefs, they often tend to get pushed aside. That's where the research of Nyhan and Reifler comes into play. In their 2011 study "Opening the Political Mind," Nyhan and Reifler conduct a series of experiments to determine whether  the process of "self-affirmation" as well as graphical representations can help better break down the user's inherent biases so as to communicate the facts at hand regarding politically sensitive issues.

The study is particularly relevant as it applies to data journalism. First, the connection between self-affirmation and a more ready willingness to accept uncomfortable facts shows that emotion can often be an effective tool in helping to communicate data. As such, it reminds us that our job as data journalists is not only to convey the facts, but to deliver them in an intuitive, visually-pleasing package that will warm the user emotionally and subconsciously to being more accepting of the data itself. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the study demonstrates the powerful effects that graphical representations can have over text alone. Texts often have subtexts, at least in the perception of the audience, while an accurate graphical representation tends to come across as a more objective and authoritarian source of information. That's not to say that graphics can't skew the facts in many of the same ways as text can – indeed, an out-of-scale, poorly-designed chart can often be as unconsciously deceiving as a "he said, she said" news story  – but rather that users tend to be more convinced by 'seeing' the data than by reading it alone.

Response to “Six Provocations for Big Data,” Boyd and Crawford (2011)

3 minute read

Setting the guidelines for the social, political and human consequences of research in the database age is an issue that has yet to be fully explored. On one hand, the champions of publicness and digital democracy argue for absolute transparency and data freedom. On the other, privacy advocates consistently take issue with what they see as a potential threat to individual liberty. In their 2011 paper “Six Provocations for Big Data,” Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford attempt to bridge this divide by laying out the basic principles of  what they call ‘Big Data,’ as well as a broad set of principles that should guide researchers seeking to harness the power of that data for social good.

Perhaps most importantly, Boyd and Crawford enumerate the basic misassumption that researchers, academics and media professionals often make when interpreting Big Data: they treat data as an objective and infallible source of knowledge when it is really just a piece of the underlying story. Numbers do not speak for themselves, so we must adapt our methods of research to the demands of new technology. As Latour puts it, “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.”

Response to Tufte, “Data Analysis for Politics and Policy”

4 minute read

In the first chapter of his book Data Analysis for Politics and Policy, Yale researcher Edward R. Tufte demonstrates the opportunities as well as the challenges of using data to help inform decisions of public policy. First, Tufte sets forth the various terms and theoretical frameworks he will be using to analyze data. He advocates the use of what he calls a "multivariate analysis" which takes into account several describing variables to understand a problem rather than just one. In scientific settings, it is possible to isolate a single describing (independent) variable from others and provide a control by which to reach a conclusion regarding the cause of a given response (dependent) variable. But in the real world of social problems and political policy, it is often impossible to parse out the effects of the multitude of possible describing variables that may be at play in a given situation. For Tufte, that gives rise to the need for a "statistical technique" that "may help organize or arrange the data so that the numbers speak more clearly to the question of causality." The numbers cannot answer the question of causality, but they can help shed light on it if they are analyzed in such a way that takes into account as many different variables as possible.

 

Response to Ayres, Norman and Wolfe

12 minute read

Response to Ayres and Sweller, "The Split Attention Principle in Multimedia Learning"

Paul Ayres and John Sweller apply the split-attention principle to the design of multimedia instruction, asserting that it is "important to avoid formats that require learners to split their attention between, and mentally integrate, multiple sources of information" (135). This assertion is based on the theory of cognitive load, which refers to the amount of information the brain is able to process at any given point in time. The greater the number of sources of information in multimedia design, the higher the cognitive load required to understand it. An "extraneous" cognitive load, as Ayres and Sweller diagnose it, hinders the learning process by requiring users to split their attention and "mentally integrate the multiple sources of information" (135). As such, it is often necessary for the designer of a piece of multimedia instruction to do as much as possible to present the multiple sources of information in an integrated format.

With practice and expertise, the brain can be taught to expedite the process of piecing together disparate sources of information without need for additional visual aids, such as the algebra student being able to readily identify angle measures of a given shape. But for the novice learner, "substantial cognitive resources will need to be devoted to splitting attention between the disparate sources of information and mentally integrating them" (137). As a way to lessen the cognitive load, then, designers can employ visual cues or "referrents" that help integrate multiple sources of information. Other ways to help learners piece together multiple information sources is what Ayers and Sweller call the "dual mode" of multimedia design, which refers to the use of two different sensory cues, usually sight and sound, to lessen the cognitive load.

Response to Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman looks at the design of familiar items to explain how to construct effective visual aids. At the heart of all user-friendly designs, Norman asserts, lies two fundamental components: a good "conceptual model" and a logical "visible structure" (13). An effective conceptual model should allow us to predict the outcome of our actions by explaining how an item works in a theoretical manner. Ideally, conceptual models should be as simple as possible, but the presiding imperative must always be accuracy and clarity of explanation. The item itself must also employ a logical visual structure, including the intuitive use of what Norman calls affordances, constraints and mappings. It should be clear to the eye from visual cues what an item can do (its affordances), what it can't do (its constraints) and how to connect the various parts together to perform an operation (mapping).

Response to Wolfe, Visual Search

Jeremy M. Wolfe lays out the basic principles of visual search, shedding light on the often unconscious ways our brains process sensory information based upon certain visual cues. Perhaps most importantly, Wolfe defines the basic structural features of visual search, including color, orientation, motion, size and scale. While many such basic features may appear obvious, Wolfe goes a step further in pointing out the various psychological factors that can come into play in our processing of visual information. For example, in keeping with Plato's idea of forms, Wolfe asserts that an object is more than just the sum of its parts; it is an object in its own right. As soon as attention arrives, Wolfe contends, "an object is not seen as collections of features. It  is an object having certain featural attributes." An object carries with it certain mental associations that change the way users perceive it.

On Narrow-Minded Conceptions of What Makes One a “Journalist”

10 minute read

What constitutes a 'journalist' is a semantic debate I've had dozens of times, particularly in grad school and in my previous full-time job as "Digital Media Manager" (another vague term) at Savannah Morning News. Outside of professional spheres, though, the general public discourse goes something like this:

Random person: So tell me again: Where do you work?

Me: At [Insert Publication Name Here].

Random person: 'Oh, cool! So you're a reporter. What do you write or cover? [insert slight tone of self-righteousness from random person knowing now she makes more than me].

Me: Well, I write code.

Random person: So you're a developer?

Me: Yeah, in a way, but I build news apps and data projects for editorial purposes, so I'm a journalist, too.

Random person: 'Oh...."

Typography, design as discourse

In his essay on text and typography, Lupton touches on the fundamental ideological shift of the digital era: that "the dominant subject is neither reader nor writer but user, a figure conceived as a bundle of words and impairments" (73). In other words, we cannot continue to view the way we communicate with audiences in a traditional, two-dimensional form where only the information we communicate is important. We have to think about how it will be perceived by others. As designers, we cannot simply apply our own artistic sensibilities to the material we produce. We must always keep the user in mind. In the case of typography, this user-centric approach requires what Katherine McCoy calls "redefining typography as discourse." Design is more than a work of authorship. It is a work of communication that challenges "readers to produce their own meanings while also to elevate the status of the designer within the process of authorship" (73). Simply put, design is a conversation, not a sermon.

Response to Manovich on the Database

Manovich crystallizes the nature of the database-driven story and its applications to new media by describing them both as essentially dissolutions of the conventional narrative form. Stories told in database form need not follow a linear narrative structure with a beginning, middle and an end. Instead they are what Manovich calls "collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as the other" (218). For Manovich, this database-driven story might take the form of a Twitter stream, which allows stories to be conveyed in small bits rather than packaged into a predefined narrative. But he also makes sure to address the potential pitfalls of this sort of database-driven story: that we  may "have too much information and too few narrative that can tie it all together"; that we may have too many Tweets but no logical or convenient manner of piecing them into a usable format (217). Finding a balance between the competing impulses of  information and narrative, then, leads Manovich to his undergirding call to action: We must devise a system of what he calls "info-aesthetics," a sort of theoretical framework that helps us marry the aesthetic component of information access (i.e. the database-driven model) with the aesthetic components of processing or filtering that help us turn raw information into a coherent fashion (217).

 

INTERACTIVE MAP: Bronx unemployment by neighborhood

less than 1 minute read

This interactive map displays the 2010 unemployment rates for each Bronx neighborhood. The darker shade green represents a higher rate of unemployment. Click on each neighborhood to see its statistics and poverty rate.

SOURCE: 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

Deadline

Miss Molly trolley destroyed by flames

12 minute read

Trolley bursts into flames just moments after dropping off students - Link to story on MercerCluster.com

The Cluster - MercerCluster.com

By Carl V. Lewis, Online Editor

online@mercercluster.com

One of Mercer’s two student trolleys inexplicably burst into flames early Friday morning just moments after dropping off its last load of passengers at Greek Village.

The driver of the iconic “Miss Molly” trolley was traveling north on Stadium Drive near the University Center around 3:30 a.m. when he noticed smoke coming from the vehicle’s rear engine. He immediately pulled over and called 911, but the flames had spread too quickly for the trolley to be salvaged.

No students were injured in the incident, and the driver escaped from the smoldering vehicle unscathed.

Chief Gary Collins with the Mercer Police department said officers arrived at the scene within five minutes to find Miss Molly almost totally destroyed.

“Miss Molly didn’t make it out alive. When we got there, the trolley was smoking and you could still see some flames. What damage the fire didn’t do, the smoke and water did,” Collins said. “It was awful.”

NewTown Macon owns and operates the trolley service through a contract with the University.

NewTown spokesman Hal Baskin said it appears the fire started in the trolley’s rear engine, but the exact cause of the incident won’t be determined until insurance inspectors can conduct a full investigation next week.

Baskin said he does not believe the fire was caused by a manufacturer’s defect, or that students should have any reason to be fearful of using the trolley service in the future.

“I would expect that this is an isolated incident and not a problematic issue that affects all trolleys . . it was just something that happened,” Baskin said.

Investigators do not suspect foul play was involved in the incident.

NewTown has already begun making plans to replace Miss Molly with a new trolley.

“We’re looking at what other equipment is available to replace Miss Molly, and we’re just waiting to hear back from our insurance inspectors at this point,” Baskin said.

NewTown will continue to provide service in the meantime using its other trolley, “Sweet Melissa,” which is the same model trolley as Miss Molly. Baskin said Sweet Melissa was undergoing precautionary safety inspections on Tuesday to ensure that it is safe to operate.

The student trolley service to downtown should continue as scheduled this week, with Sweet Melissa shifted into full rotation for the time being, Chief Collins said.

“I’m just so grateful that no one was hurt. It could have been worse. I don’t think there’s any reason to worry, though. These sorts of things happen from time to time,” Collins said.

Collins added that he hopes the incident will remind students to remain vigilant and orderly while using the trolley service.

Dean of students Doug Pearson told The Cluster Tuesday afternoon that he’s not sure yet if the incident will have any significant impact on student trolley services in the future.

“It’s possible that because there’s only one trolley for now that there could be minor disruptions in service in the coming weeks. Obviously, we’ll notify students of any schedule changes via email and Bear Blurbs as soon as they happen,” Pearson said.

Miss Molly was purchased by the Macon Transit Authority in 2001 at a price tag of $127,000, then later sold to NewTown Macon for $160,000 in 2004. It had an estimated capacity of 40 people, and had been used in recent years to to give daytime tours of local historic sites as well as transport students to downtown Macon at night.

The trolley was named after Macon-born musician Little Richard’s 1958 hit song, “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Republicans trim Cagle’s powers

9 minute read

UPDATE: Story picked up by Augusta Chronicle, cited in AJC Jim Galloway's Political Insider

Republicans trim Cagle's powers -  (view published story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Saturday, Nov. 08, 2010

Following a heated day of closed-door meetings in downtown Macon, Georgia’s Senate Republican leaders decided Friday to strip some of newly re-elected Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s powers in the Senate.

Chamber leaders are calling it a new “power-sharing agreement.”

The Republican caucus gathered at Mercer University’s Woodruff House on Friday to discuss its rules and elect new leaders. Also at issue during the caucus meeting was a discussion of whether the lieutenant governor has too much power in the chamber.

Screen shot 2010-11-06 at 5.18.34 PM

After seven hours of deliberation, leaders reached the decision to peel back the lieutenant governor’s powers to assign committees, though the lieutenant governor will still retain some role in the committee-appointment process, said Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

A new seven-member committee of Republican legislators will be formed, and Cagle will have the power to choose two of the members of that committee.

Staton was one of the leaders who called Friday’s meeting, where he was elected as the caucus’ new majority whip.

Staton said the decision to take away some of Cagle’s power was not because of discontent with Cagle’s leadership. Staton maintained that the decision was a routine refinement of the caucus’ rules.

“This is not, in my view, any attempt to slight or take anything away from Lt. Gov. Cagle himself. He will still have quite a lot of power, and it has nothing to do with him personally. This is simply a routine rule change, and it’s a way to keep a good balance between the lieutenant governor and the Senate,” Staton said.

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, also was one of the legislators who called Friday’s meeting. Rogers insisted the decision was not meant to reflect the chamber’s view of Cagle personally.

“Every single member of this body not only supports Cagle’s leadership but considers him a personal friend,” Rogers said. “This is simply a new power-sharing agreement that we’ve come to.”

But Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said Friday afternoon that he wasn’t convinced the move to trim Cagle’s power was entirely fair.

“It’s certainly disappointing that they’re wanting to do this, especially given the fact that the voters so clearly expressed support of Cagle in Tuesday’s election,” Fry said.

Fry said he didn’t know what might have motivated the caucus to reach its decision, but that Cagle remained confident in the caucus’ judgment.

“We’re not ready to speculate on what might have led the caucus to be called, and we’re not going to get involved in the politics,” Fry said. “As always, Cagle is focused on doing what the voters overwhelmingly elected him to do, which is to serve this state.”

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

14 minute read

Picture 2

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

By Mike Stucka and Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Reflecting the broader national backlash against the Democratic Party this election season, voters denied U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon a fifth term in office Tuesday, choosing Republican Austin Scott as his replacement.

With 78 percent of precincts reporting, Scott led Marshall 52.5-47.5 percent in a bruising battle for Georgia’s 8th Congressional District seat.

Scott, the current state representative for Tift and Turner counties, celebrated his victory Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Tifton.

He said his campaign won on its own merits, not because of the national picture.

“We won this race because we had the better campaign team. We worked harder than they did,” Scott said.

Scott said his supporters had placed about 250,000 telephone calls.

“At the end of April, [Marshall] was unbeatable. And tonight, tonight, Georgians have spoken,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, a crowd of about 100 Marshall supporters and campaign workers at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon watched with disappointment as Marshall trailed Scott by 8 to 10 percentage points for much of the night.

Marshall said around 10:15 p.m. that it was “hard to see a clear path to victory,” but he refused to comment on the results specifically until he confirmed Scott’s win. He blamed Scott’s lead on Republican attacks against his party affiliation.

“It’s a national tide, and there’s not much I could do. We’ve done well, and I’ve had a good team. I don’t toe the party line, but many people haven’t been able to realize that,” Marshall said.

Marshall conceded to Scott late Tuesday.

Rusty Adams of Warner Robins was one of the Marshall supporters who showed up to support the campaign Tuesday night. He expressed his disappointment with Marshall’s loss.

“I can’t believe it. I’m gonna have to live with it, though,” Adams said.

Marshall drew criticism from the Scott campaign for some of his votes, and ads on Scott’s behalf tied Marshall to Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. Marshall launched his own campaign ads to distance himself from Pelosi.

But those efforts didn’t carry the day for Marshall. He needed critical support from swing voters such as Christine Gausche of Bonaire, wife of a retired U.S. Air Force officer. Gausche backed Marshall in 2008 — but shifted her support to the Republicans this year.

“I think he’s done some good things, but he’s part of a larger group that hasn’t done such good things,” Gausche said.

Marshall had trailed Scott in several recent polls, with some of them giving Scott an 8-point lead over the incumbent Democrat.

Marshall, who dropped out of Princeton University to fight in Vietnam, is a former Macon mayor and faculty member of Mercer University’s law school.

Scott appeared to have won in at least 16 of 21 counties in the district.

Marshall won in Bibb County by a wide margin, but the vote was nearly even in Houston County, with votes tilting slightly in Scott’s favor.

Bibb and Houston counties represent much of the 8th District’s population and voters, many of whom have ties to Robins Air Force Base. Late Tuesday, many of the votes in Twiggs and Houston counties had not been tallied.

House Republican Conference Secretary John Carter, a key member of the Republican Steering Committee that assigns House members to committees, said in a statement Tuesday night that he is excited over Scott’s election, and he would push the Steering Committee to assign Scott to committees most important to Georgia.

“Austin Scott has the common sense conservative fiscal values and life experience that are essential to winning a seat on critical committees,” Carter said.

“I am committed to use my influence in Republican leadership and on the Steering Committee to push Congressman-elect Scott for the seats that will do his district, Georgia, and the nation the most good.”

Scott told The Telegraph that voters wanted changes. And if the new Republican majority in the House doesn’t do the right thing, voters will vote for more changes in two years.

“It’s all about work now — jobs and the economy,” Scott said.

Scott’s mother, Becky, kept dancing with joy as she talked with a reporter. She said she knew the reason her son won, and thought it would translate well into Congress: “A lot of hard work.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251. To contact writer Carl Lewis, e-mail clewis@macon.com.

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K

12 minute read

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K (link to story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

Screen shot 2010-11-01 at 3.16.03 AM

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

Georgia’s Senate minority leader proposed one possible solution to the dwindling HOPE Scholarship fund Wednesday: Only give it to the students who need it the most.

Calling for a “return to the original intent” of the state lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program, state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, pushed for the family income cap to be reinstated for HOPE eligibility as a way to keep the program afloat and ensure it allows the most possible students to afford college.

Brown’s suggestion comes after it was projected this week that despite continued record lottery tickets sales, the HOPE Scholarship fund will fall short $560 million in the next two years as the number of eligible students attending college continues to soar.

“More and more students are going to college, and it’s becoming hard to keep up with demand for the scholarship,” said Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission that runs the HOPE program.

When then-Gov. Zell Miller first created the HOPE Scholarship in 1993, only families making less than $66,000 per year could qualify.

After a successful first year, that cap was raised in 1994 to $100,000, and in 1995 it was lifted altogether.

Brown said he's pushing for a new income cap of six times the federal poverty level, which he estimated would be about $150,000 for a family of four.

“I think it’s a lasting solution if we want to save HOPE, and it’s in line with the original purpose of the scholarship, which was to make a college education more affordable for Georgia students who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” Brown said.

Brown said his plan would not affect students already receiving the HOPE Scholarship, but at the earliest, it could impact students applying for the scholarship beginning in July 2011.

Brown said he doesn’t think the income cap will discourage students who don’t qualify financially from making the B average required for the scholarship.

“Those students are probably already discouraged from performing well,” Brown said.

As for families making just above the income cap who have budgeted with HOPE in mind, Brown said they’d have to “find other plans.”

“There are other institutions in the private sector that could offer students merit-based scholarships,” Brown said.

State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, said he disagrees with Brown’s proposal to reinstate the income cap for HOPE.

Harp said the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship wasn’t necessarily to make college affordable for low-income families, but to reward hard-working students for their achievement.

“The HOPE Scholarship isn’t, and never has been, a need-based scholarship,” Harp said. “It’s been based on maximizing academic achievement by rewarding students who make good grades. That’s why the income cap was removed once the program started being successful.”

Harp said he wants to wait and see what happens with the economy before making any cuts to HOPE or deciding to reinstate an income cap.

“It’s not at a crisis point. We still have $1.5 billion in reserve money, and HOPE is too important of a program to ruin, and has been too successful so far, not to evaluate other options first,” Harp said.

Brown said he knows his plan to reinstate the needs qualification for HOPE may be unpopular with many, but that the scholarship’s current budget situation leaves no other choice.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some resistance. People have come to view HOPE as an entitlement program, which it’s not. We’ve got to find a way to make it sustainable, and this is the best way,” Brown said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon home

8 minute read

UPDATE: Follow-up on autopsy report from Aug. 21

SPACE

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon homeScreen shot 2010-10-28 at 8.40.16 PM

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

Breaking news - Crime reports


A woman’s body was discovered in the backyard of a vacant south Macon home Thursday afternoon.


Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said police received an anonymous call about 2 p.m. that a fully-clothed, dark-haired white woman in her late 30s or early 40s was lying dead in the bushes at 1284 Glendale Ave., near Houston Avenue. She had severe lacerations on her body from what appeared to be dog bites and had been dead for between six and eight hours, Jones said.

Jones said a pack of pit bulls were found roaming around the yard of the home, but he would not say whether police suspected the woman was actually killed by the dogs.

“At this time, the cause of death is unknown, and police are investigating,” Jones said.

Jones said the woman had yet to be identified as of late Thursday afternoon. He said an autopsy to determine the cause of death would be performed Friday.

Neighbors said the home has been empty since the previous tenants moved about two weeks ago. They said people from the community often cut through the alley of the house as a shortcut to a nearby convenience store.

Kristia Hargrove, who lives down the street, said she’s seen the pit bulls outside the house for a few days now, and she knows of at least two people who have been bitten by them already.

“One of my best friends was bitten by one of those dogs the other day. She had teeth prints all over her. That’s why I don’t walk near that house or through that alley anymore,” Hargrove said.

Neighbor Peggy Johnson said she wasn’t convinced the dogs killed the woman. She said she recognized the woman’s body as someone she had seen walking around the neighborhood before.

“I think she was already dead and that the dogs just smelled blood and went ballistic. If the dogs had attacked her when she was alive, she would have screamed, and someone would have heard her,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what actually killed her, though.”

Macon police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet said police have yet to determine whether foul play was involved.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 751-7500 or Macon Regional CrimeStoppers at (877) 68-CRIME.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Foreign students vote fraudulently

17 minute read

By CARL V. LEWIS

News Editor, THE OXFORD STUDENT

Date: 13/05/2010

Contact: news@oxfordstudent.com

Some non-UK students had the chance to vote fraudulently in last week’s election because of lax safeguards and mistaken electoral rolls—and at least 13 foreign students claim to have actually voted illegally, an Oxford Student investigation has revealed.

Eight of the students interviewed declined to speak on the record or reveal their college affiliation publicly, citing concerns about revealing publicly that they broke the law or – more frequently – not wishing to speak negatively about College administrators who failed to compare for accuracy the data provided to them by local electoral officials.

Max Gallien, a German student at Queen’s College – who as an EU citizen was eligible to vote in the local council election but not in the general election – said he cast a ballot in the Oxford East parliamentary contest after election workers confirmed to him he could vote in both races.

Gallien said election workers handed him the national ballot even after he told them he was a German citizen and not allowed to vote: “It said on their list that I was allowed to vote for parliament, too,” he said. “So I did.”

Gallien said he assumed he was wrong about the rules. Later that day, he confirmed from a search online that he was indeed ineligible to vote for parliamentary races.

At least two EU students at Balliol and one American student at Queen’s also claimed to have voted illegally, providing their names and college affiliations to The Oxford Student on the condition that the information be used to verify the story, but not for publication. Administrators at both colleges confirmed the three students were inaccurately reported as British citizens in data provided to them by local electoral officials, but denied blame on their end.

A first-year American student at Queen’s – who should have been entirely ineligible to vote in any race as neither an EU nor a Commonwealth citizen – said he voted at the St Clement’s polling station after receiving both polling cards in the mail.

“When I handed them the polling cards I'd gotten, they handed me both ballots, and I didn’t really say anything,” the student said.

Both students at Queen’s had been mistakenly entered as British citizens on the electoral register.

An administrator at Queen’s blamed local authorities for the error. She said the College just exported data they already had on students.

“We don’t change anything – there is no opportunity for it to be corrupted,” she said. "It's not our job to clean up data given to us by officials."

To test the difficulty of verifying such electoral data, a reporter from this paper entered the personal data provided by the two Queens students into two separate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, one with the correct data and the other with the incorrect data. The paper then added in matching data for 800 different dummy records, similar to the records that would have been on file with the College internally.

A simple Excel 'Compare Sheets' function then identified the two inaccuracies out of all 802 entries within a few seconds' time.

The same Queens administrator who earlier acknowledged the inaccuracy was informed of the results of The Oxford Student's test, but refused to speak any further on the issue, saying she had already made clear that the College isn't responsible for errors made by local election officials.

A CLOSE RACE, BUT NO EASY WAY TO TELL HOW MANY INCORRECT POLLING CARDS WERE SENT

It is unclear how many foreign citizens might have been mistakenly allowed to vote in the general election, but the close margins of some contests mean any error could be significant.

Oxford West incumbent Evan Harris lost his re-election bid by just 176 votes. Harris’s campaign did not return questions about whether he would challenge the vote; his challenger, Nicola Blackwood, also did not respond to requests for comment by the time this paper went to print.

At least four undergraduate EU citizens at Harris Manchester College were mistakenly sent polling cards for both the local election and the general election, but were given the correct ballot at the polling station.

A spokesman for the national election commission confirmed that EU citizens eligible to vote only in local elections should have received polling cards – which tell voters what elections they are registered for, and where to go to vote – for those contests only. Local authorities were responsible for organizing voter registration and mailing polling cards, he said.

A worker at the Oxford election commission confirmed that EU citizens should not have been sent polling cards for the general election. If they were sent those cards, she said, there “wouldn’t be anything stopping them” from voting for a parliamentary candidate – “but they shouldn’t have done so.”

The confusion and apparent lack of safeguards raise worries about the integrity of last week’s elections in Oxford and elsewhere.

Multiple students told reporters of voting without being asked for identification, while national media reported “chaotic” scenes at polling stations around the country last week along with dozens of allegations of postal vote fraud.

OxStu reporters Winston Featherly-Bean and Matt Thompson-Ryder also contributed to this report. Additionally, the identities of all college officials and named sources were verified independently by the paper's legal counsel before publication of this story.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

 “The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.
“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

9 minute read

MA_01A

Midstate shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Jul. 31, 2009

 

Ready, set, shop. It’s a sales-tax holiday.

The four-day sales-tax holiday kicked off Thursday, and many area stores saw crammed parking lots and congested shopping aisles as a result.

So far, in 2009, retail sales nationwide have dropped about 5 percent, said John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association. But in Georgia, numbers could be better than in other states because of this weekend’s sales tax holiday, which promises to lure in cash-strapped consumers who might not otherwise make purchases.

“We believe that with the combination of strong discounts and the sales-tax holiday, Georgia can stay above the national retail average,” Heavener said.

It’s still early in the weekend, but area stores are bracing for the best, too.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and those in the Macon Mall said they expect to see full parking lots Saturday and Sunday.

Already, before the end of the workweek, some stores have noticed a frenzy of consumers reaping the discounts of the holiday.

At the Best Buy store on Presidential Parkway in Macon, hordes of shoppers came out Thursday to save money on high-ticket computers and accessories.

“We’ve seen a lot more customers than usual,” said store manager Eli Douglass. “We haven’t seen this amount of people in a while.”

One of those customers, Patricia Adams, bought a new laptop which she plans to use to communicate with her son, who is a Marine deployed in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been needing a computer so I can e-mail him, but I’ve been holding out to buy it until this weekend,” she said. “Now I’ll feel a little closer to him while he’s overseas.”

At Staples, back-to-school shoppers such as Adrienne Bershinski, took advantage of the sales-tax break to stock up on supplies.

“I’m on a tight budget lately, so I figured I’d get my school shopping out of the way when I can avoid the extra tax,” said Bershinski, who starts class at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law next month.

Clothing qualifies for the sales-tax holiday, too, and many area department stores have made the necessary preparations for the weekend.

At the Kohl’s on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins, 20 extra employees will be on hand to handle the spike in traffic, manager Derek Meredith said.

“We’re expecting a lot more shoppers, especially in the clothing and shoes departments,” Meredith said.

At the Target in Macon on Thursday, Peche Ellis, of Griffin, was one of the first of those shoppers. She filled her cart with new blouses and dresses for fall.

“I only meant to buy one dress coming in here. But after seeing what better deals I can get, I’m buying a lot more than I expected,” she said.

The tax-free weekend will last through Sunday. Only school supplies, clothing and certain electronics qualify.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

College officials: Enrollment up at midstate colleges

9 minute read

Click here to view article online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Enrollment at midstate colleges is higher than ever this fall as the sluggish economy compels students to work toward the safeguard of a college diploma, officials say.Picture 4

At Georgia College & State University, 6,665 students are set to start classes today. That’s a 15 percent increase from last year’s enrollment.

“Young people these days are starting to figure out that, in this economy, they’re going to need a college degree if they want to keep up,” Georgia College and State University spokeswoman Judy Bailey said. “And our dorms are filled to capacity."

To handle the spike in students, 13 additional professors have been hired and two buildings have been constructed, including a health sciences facility, which will house nine new classrooms.

Fort Valley’s State University’s enrollment is skyrocketing, too.

Between 3,800 and 4,200 students are expected to begin class at FVSU today, a massive jump from last year’s record enrollment of 3,106 students.

Terrance Smith, the university’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said FVSU is ready to accommodate the influx with recent improvements to the campus.

Wildcat Commons, one of FVSU’s new residence halls, will house 378 additional students, and University Villas, a nearby apartment complex, will house 138 students. A 10,000-seat stadium is expected to be completed within the next week.

“We’re poised for another successful year,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, officials expect more than 6,500 students will begin classes today. That’s a 2 percent increase from last year.

“It’s still early, but our numbers are definitely up,” said John Cole, the college’s vice president of advancement.

Of those 6,500 Macon State students, 2,000 of them will be attending classes at the college’s Warner Robins campus, where a new $5 million lecture hall will open.

At Gordon College in Barnesville, enrollment is expected to climb from 3,800 to more than 4,000 students .

“We are expecting a record-setting number of students,” said Ben Ferguson, director of admissions.

Gordon College has entered into an agreement with the city of Barnesville to use the football field parking area adjacent to campus to accommodate the increase in students.

Enrollment numbers for private schools such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College won’t be finalized for a number of weeks, but all signs point to similarly healthy gains in those institutions as well.

At Mercer, more than 600 new freshmen will move in on campus Saturday, making it the largest incoming class in a number of years.

“It’s looking like record enrollment for us, too,” university spokesman Larry Brumley said.

Brumley said he’s expecting about 8,000 students to be enrolled by the time classes start Aug. 25.

That’s a 19 percent increase from last year.

And at Wesleyan College, spokeswoman Susan Welsh said she’s expecting 20 percent more students to be enrolled this fall than last year.

“It’s going really well for us,” she said.

Tuition ammunition

16 minute read

MA.GIBILL

Tuition Ammunition

New G.I. bill offers midstate veterans a full ride to Mercer, Wesleyan

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

From a young age, Elyse Jones wanted to be a dermatologist.

But when she was called to active duty with the Air Force in 2002, Jones, who was 19 at the time, almost gave up her plans to go to college.

“I put everything on hold, and I wasn’t sure of what would happen or if I’d be able to go to school in the future at all,” she said.

Now, the 26-year-old may finally be getting the chance. Beginning next month, her classes at Wesleyan College should be covered under new benefits she earned from her military duty.

Jones is one of the many midstate service members who plans to reap the benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect in August.

Under the bill, a limited number of qualified Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans will be able to attend private colleges such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College for free or minimal tuition. And they will get expanded benefits at public institutions, too.

Dan Hines, a third-year Mercer law student, hopes to be one of the five students who will receive an additional $4,000 in financial assistance in the fall, half of which will come from federal coffers.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this program,” said Hines, who served 13 months in Iraq and is president of the Mercer Law Military Veterans Association.

In the past, the federal government has helped pay for veterans’ tuition and fees at private colleges, but only up to an amount that matched the tuition at the most expensive public college in the state.

Yet at pricier private institutions such as Wesleyan and Mercer University, tuition exceeds that cap, which in the past has often forced service members either to make up the difference themselves or choose a public school instead.

However, under the Yellow Ribbon campaign — a component of the new bill — the government and participating private colleges will jointly cover the remaining difference to pay the entire tuition cost. At Mercer and Wesleyan in Macon, that means qualified veterans will receive a full scholarship.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mercer will contribute $11,625 per student, per year for 17 undergraduate students, while Wesleyan will contribute $8,750 for 10 students. Veterans Affairs will then match those amounts.

Mercer also has committed to covering the difference for at least 28 veterans to attend its graduate schools and regional academic centers and will contribute $2,000 in assistance to five veterans attending its law school.

A number of other veterans already have expressed interest in taking advantage of the program to attend Mercer, said Rick Goddard, who’s heading up the program at the school.

“These are veterans who may not necessarily have been able to afford Mercer without this assistance,” Goddard said. “And Mercer’s glad to have them. They bring a world of experience to the university, and the university feels an obligation to serve them.”

At least six veterans plan to attend Wesleyan in the fall using Yellow Ribbon money, Susan Welsh, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

At public colleges, veterans can expect to see enhanced benefits, too, though not as dramatic of improvements as their peers in private institutions are seeing.

In keeping with past GI bills, all qualified service members at state schools would still receive free tuition, but they now can transfer their benefits to family members more easily and may, in some cases, receive higher living stipends, said Tammie Burke, who handles VA programs at Georgia College & State University.

But while the bill does provide some new advantages to students at state colleges, it’s not expected to be a major change.

“At GCSU, it’s going to improve the way in which student veterans receive benefits, but it’s not really going to affect the amount of benefits they receive,” Burke said.

Officials at Macon State College and Fort Valley State University echoed Burke’s sentiments, saying that while the bill is a great improvement, it should not cause any major influx in veteran enrollment.

The new bill does have stipulations. To qualify for full assistance, veterans must have served at least 36 months for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Waugh said. Other service — such as Homeland Security missions or participation in the Active Guard and Reserve Program — may not qualify for benefits under the bill.

As for Jones, she’s getting the chance to attend a school she might not have been able to afford otherwise.

“I love the small, private setting of Wesleyan,” she said. “It gives me opportunities I might not have gotten at a big state school.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Home schooling

10 minute read

 

Home schooling

Georgia College Foundation hopes to save home of pioneering black educator

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009

MILLEDGEVILLE — Fifteen-year-old Deandre Hooks crouched on the porch of a crumbling, wood-planked house Wednesday morning to complete a writing assignment.

The house was nothing special and the heat was blistering, but it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he felt perfectly at home.

“I’m meant to be here right now,” Hooks said. “It’s part of who I am.”

MA_01A2

It’s the same porch that black students like Hooks sat on 100 years ago.

Back then, the four-bedroom house on Clarke Street belonged to Sallie Ellis Davis, one of the first black educators in Georgia. Davis often mentored students at the house, which she lived in until her death in 1950.

But for many years, the historic home has been left to decay.

Now, officials from Georgia College & State University and the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation are trying to raise money to renovate the house and open it as an African-American cultural center.

In 2008, the Georgia Trust added the Davis house to its “Places in Peril” list because of the structure’s deteriorating condition.

“This is an important piece of African-American history that we desperately need to preserve,” Judy Bailey, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

Bailey said it will cost an estimated $380,000 to renovate the home and $25,000 to stabilize it. So far, the foundation has raised about $15,000.

“We’re looking for all the help we can get. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have to make sure we’re able to save this place,” Bailey said.

Davis was born in Milledgeville in 1877 to a black mother and an Irish father, Bailey said.

She attended the Eddy School, where she later served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years.

Her house, which was built in 1890, changed hands numerous times before Georgia College purchased it in 1989.

Bailey said she hopes the Davis house will inspire people to follow after Sallie’s legacy and enter the field of education.

“Sallie Davis educated black students during a period of time when they didn’t have access to education. Hopefully, this house will motivate people to become educators themselves,” she said.

Camille Tyson is the principal of Early College, a school for students in seventh through 12th grades that holds classes at Georgia College. Tyson took her students to see the Davis home Wednesday.

“Either you can be a pioneer or a settler,” Tyson said. “Sallie Ellis Davis was a pioneer, and these students can be pioneers, too. That’s what I want them to realize.”

Hooks, who is a 10th-grader at Early College, said Davis’ story has inspired him to pursue a more ambitious future.

“I’m going to go to college and be a professional when I grow up. (Davis) spent her entire life trying to make sure our ancestors could do that, and I don’t want to let her down,” he said.

To make a donation to the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation, call Lee Snelling at (478) 445-8129.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Peach of a party

9 minute read

MA_01E6

Peach of a Party

Opening event a big draw at Georgia Peach Festival

The Sun News

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009

Ask Andrew Mathis to name his favorite food and he’ll tell you in an instant.

“It’s peaches, no question,” he said.

Mathis, a 70-year-old from Fort Valley, worked at a peach farm earlier in life and hasn’t missed a single Georgia Peach Festival since the event was launched in 1986.

Saturday, he made it out once again to the festival’s annual kickoff celebration at the Peach Shops of Byron.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he said.

The celebration began at 5 p.m. and featured live music, arts and crafts vendors, a fireworks show and a foam party for the kids.

Festival director Rich Bennett said it was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen for the celebration.

Brandi Trivette, a vendor at the event who sells peach-scented candles she makes at her home in Warner Robins, said the crowd was good for business.

“The peach candle has been a real hit tonight. People here in Peach County sure do love their peaches,” Trivette said.

But for some people, such as Janet Wynne and her husband, David, this year’s Peach Festival isn’t just about the titular fruit.

“Peaches are great, but we’re more into motorcycles, which is why we’re here,” she said.

Wynne said she had never been to the Peach Festival before until she rode in the festival’s first Poker Run Saturday morning.

On the other hand, Wynne’s 3-year-old daughter, Erika, said she loved the foam party.

“It looks like snow,” she said.

J.B. Roberson, an author from Warner Robins, was at the celebration signing copies of her latest children’s book, “Cuddlee Bugs: Revenge o’ the Peach Potion.”

“It’s a book that’s actually a lot about the Peach Festival,” she said.

The bands 2 Finger Jester and The Skeeterz performed free shows during the celebration.

“I was a little worried Two Finger Jester might be too loud for the festival, but everybody seemed to love them,” Bennett said. Mathis, however, said he was holding out for The Skeeterz, a more traditional country band.

“I may be old, but I love to dance when they play my sort of music,” he said.

The festival concluded with a fireworks display shot off from behind the shopping center.

“The fireworks are always the best part,” Bennett said.

As the kickoff to the festival drew to a close, Bennett said he held high hopes for the rest of it.

“This is looking like it might be one of the best Peach festivals yet. We’ve already gotten more involvement than last year,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Seeds of community

11 minute read

MA_03A8

Seeds of community

Vegetable gardens help bring Macon neighbors together

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Jun. 15, 2009

Tucked away in a vacant lot behind Centenary United Methodist Church on College Street sits a humble plot where pole beans, tomatoes, eggplant and okra grow.

"But what we're really growing is hope," said Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the Beall's Hill Community Garden.

Volunteers broke ground for the garden in May as a joint project of the church and the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association.

The people who tend the garden share the food among themselves, and they donate much of the produce to the elderly and disabled in the community.

"The idea is to bring people in Beall's Hill neighborhood together through the garden. Everyone is the same when they have dirt on their hands," Vanderhoek said.

Vanderhoek got the idea for the garden last fall after hearing about a similar community garden in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Inspired by what the Pleasant Hill garden had accomplished, Vanderhoek, a Mercer University employee, pushed for a garden in the Beall's Hill neighborhood near his workplace.

In February, he brought the idea before a meeting of the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association, where it met across-the-board approval from residents.

Ellen Byron, the neighborhood association's president, then secured a $1,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March to fund the project.

Since it opened May 2, volunteers have planted seven different vegetables and four different herbs.

"We're going to be making food baskets soon to take out to the people in the neighborhood who need to eat," Byron said.

She said she's excited at how the garden has given the neighborhood a sense of unity.

"A lot of different people live in Beall's Hill. This has given them all a common purpose," she said. "The first day we came out to work the garden, people who had never come out for anything in the community before showed up."

Mary Anne Richardson, who heads up the outreach ministry at Centenary, said she hopes students from Mercer University, which is across the street from the garden, will get involved.

David Davis is a professor of English at Mercer whose class volunteered at the Pleasant Hill community garden this spring.

He plans to have his freshman seminar class work at the new Beall's Hill garden in the fall.

"The class will have an environmental focus, and I think it'd be great for us to work in the garden," he said.

Naomi Johnson and Peter Gizens, owners of the Pleasant Hill garden, have been tending a patch of land on Craft Street since 2004.

Over the years, they've recruited about 30 steady volunteers to help them work the garden and have produced more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables to donate to people in need.

"All of our vegetables that aren't picked by our volunteers are given free of charge to seniors and physically challenged people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood," Johnson said.

Johnson said that community gardens like the ones in Pleasant Hill and Beall's Hill not only help revitalize the area around them, but they also help people develop better eating habits.

"I had to tell the people helping us not to fry the tomatoes. I don't recommend eating fried green tomatoes. They're not very good for you at all," she said.

But perhaps the best part about neighborhood gardens, in Johnson's opinion, is that they bring people together.

"In the dirt, everybody's kin. And that's just something that money can't put a price tag on," she said.

Commemorating history

9 minute read

MA_01B7

Commemorating history

Annual Juneteenth festival celebrates liberation, educates about struggles of slavery.

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009

Four years ago, Nduta Mwangi, 39, lived in a small tenement apartment in Kenya, where she and her sisters sewed traditional African dresses for a living.

Saturday, she brought those dresses to Macon and put them on sale at the annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival at Tattnall Square Park.

“These dresses represent who I am and who we as African-Americans are. It’s our living symbolic legacy,” she said.

The festival was a daylong celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

“It’s sort of like an African-American Independence Day,” said Michelle Fitz, a festival organizer.

But Fitz said that Juneteenth isn’t just for African-Americans.

“It’s a way to educate people of all races about the struggles of slavery. So many people have no idea or they forget what our people went through,” she said.

The festival featured live jazz music, arts and crafts vendors and educational presentations.

Festival director George Muhammad said he expected as many as 1,000 people to attend the festival by the end of the day.

Baatin Muhammad, a member of the Middle Georgia Jazz Allstar Band, said the festival is one of the band’s best opportunities to play yet.

“We’re really excited to play at this event in particular because of what it means to us. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means everything jazz music is supposed to be about,” he said.

One of the festival highlights was a Civil War era re-enactment that demonstrated the black freedom struggle.

Clifford Price, who’s been putting on the re-enactment in his spare time for the past 22 years, said his lifelong mission is to teach people to appreciate the hardships faced by black Union soldiers.

“We want to teach people what our ancestors did during the Civil War, about how they gave up their lives for that elusive word called freedom,” Price said.

James Simpson, a 49-year-old from Macon, has been bringing his wife and five kids to the festival for as long as he can remember.

“We come every year with lawn chairs and a cooler of sodas and stay all day. It’s not only fun, but it’s a great way to teach my kids something,” he said.

Simpson said he was particularly impressed with the variety of merchandise being sold at this year’s festival.

“I just got me a brand new yard hat,” he said.

Ankur Patel, a junior at Mercer University, said he heard the music from the festival as he was walking down College Street and decided to see what the event was all about.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear all this history. Even though I’m not black, I can appreciate it. It’s important that we all support events like this that teach people history and will change the way they look at things today,” he said.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

Click here to view this story online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.Picture 5

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

“The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.

“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Enterprise

Kingsbridge neighborhood undergoes Jewish revival

39 minute read

A new wave of gentrification taking place in the area near 231st Street west of Broadway has begun to breath fresh life into KingsbridgeΓÇÖs long-declining Jewish community, and may signal a possible reversal to the nearly four decade long trend of Jews leaving the neighborhood for more affluent, outlying suburban areas.

The Bullet-Dodging Priest of the North Bronx

17 minute read

Jenik, 67, is the pastor at Our Lady of Refuge Church and School in the north Bronx. Over the past three decades, heΓÇÖs watched his parish slip into the throes of drug and substance abuse at an alarming rate.

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents

11 minute read

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents - (view story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010

It’s not just the rumble of garbage trucks past Tracie Fountain’s Twiggs County home each day that perturbs her.

It’s the odor.

Fountain lives just down the road from the Wolf Creek Landfill in Dry Branch, so close that she can smell the garbage dumped there. She’s one of the 779 Twiggs County residents who have signed a petition opposing a planned expansion of the landfill.

In July, the company that owns it, Advanced Disposal of Jacksonville, Fla., filed a rezoning and conditional use application with the Twiggs County Planning and Zoning office to expand the landfill by nearly tripling its size, from 135 acres to about 370 acres.

Last month, a group of residents found out about the company’s plan to expand and banded together to speak out against it.

The Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the planned expansion at its meeting Tuesday night, voting unanimously to recommend that the Twiggs County Commission reject the company’s proposal during its Aug. 17 meeting.

Now, the five-member commission will decide whether the company will move forward with its plans.

Three of the commissioners, Ray Bennett, Donald Floyd and Milton Sampson, said Wednesday that they’re not sure yet if they’ll approve the application, saying they don’t know all the details. The other two commissioners, Kathryn Epps and Tommie Bryant, did not return phone calls.

As part of the agreement with the disposal company, the county receives $1 for each ton of waste the landfill processes. The figure increases to $1.20 per ton if the amount surpasses 500 tons per day and to $1.40 if it exceeds 1,000 tons per day.

The landfill generally disposes of more than 1,200 tons of waste every day, according to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. That means for each day the landfill is in operation, the county brings in $1,400 to $1,700.

While that’s a large source of revenue for the county, resident Chris Bowen, who lives nearby, said he doesn’t think it’s enough money to justify keeping the landfill, which handles trash from several other counties, including Wilkinson, Jones and Bibb.

“We don’t want Twiggs County to be the dumping ground for the rest of the state. It doesn’t benefit anybody but the company and its pocketbook. Advanced Disposal is making a killing while killing our county,” Bowen said.

Virginia Villatoro, who works for Advanced Disposal in the landfill’s office, would not respond to specific concerns that the landfill could be getting too big. She did say she thinks the company has been aboveboard throughout the process.

“The required public notice postings and time frames have been complied with as required” by law, Villatoro said.

But for Fountain, who lives next door to the landfill with her two teenagers, the only thing that matters now is fending off the expansion proposal.

“I don’t want to smell trash at my house, and I don’t want my kids in danger and playing near the landfill,” she said. “Whether it’s only 20 people who live around here or 1,000, it affects everyone in the county.

“It’s a public problem, and it’s not the sort of thing we need if we want Twiggs County to grow.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

30 minute read

Original cover story as it appeared in The Oxford Student (link):


Sexist slurs at OUCA event

By Carl Lewis

News Editor

The Oxford Student

13/7/10

SPACE

Less than a week after reaffiliating with the University, Oxford’s Conservative Association has become entangled in a scandal over allegations of sexism at one of its events.oxstucover

Vitus van Rij, a Tory student from King’s College London, allegedly shouted “Kitchen, kitchen, shush up woman, go back to the kitchen” at a female speaker during OUCA’s Port and Policy event on Sunday night at the Oxford Union.

Following van Rij’s remarks, two OUCA members stood and condemned his comments as “despicable and unacceptable,” and Oxford Union President Laura Winwood assured the crowd that “misogyny is not tolerated” on Union premises.

Jocky McLean––an OUCA member who demanded an apology from van Rij in front of the 120 member audience––said he heard van Rij tell the female speaker, Isabella Burton, to stick to “pans and brooms” instead of giving speeches about politics.

“As she continued, [van Rij] started getting louder and louder in an attempt to shut her up. As soon as she finished, I stood up and asked him to apologise to her, and pointed to his disgusting behaviour,” McLean said.

Van Rij left the room after coming under fire from McLean and Winwood for the sexist statements, but returned a few minutes later to his seat.

Winwood said she and others asked van Rij to leave Union premises. The President of the UCL Conservative Association then escorted van Rij out of the room, and he did not return for the remainder of the night.

“The individual was promptly ejected from the room, order restored and the debate continued,” Winwood said.

Burton, the female OUCA member at the podium when van Rij allegedly made the remarks, said she heard about the commotion after it happened and was highly offended by van Rij’s comments.

---

WHO IS THIS GUY?

Multiple attempts to reach Van Rij by email and phone over the course of a three day period proved unsuccessful this week.

In addition, a Facebook account in van Rij’s name disappeared from search results after a reporter from this paper attempted to contact him via the social networking site on Monday afternoon.

On his Facebook profile, van Rij listed his favourite quotation as one from Hendrik Verwoerd, a pro-Apartheid Prime Minister from South Africa. The quotation calls for “the preservation of the white man and his state.”

Numerous students have also expressed concern that the way in which van Rij presented himself at the event might have been a deliberate nod to Adolf Hitler.

David Thomas, an OUCA member who attended the event and sat near van Rij, said van Rij was sporting a “Hitler-esque” groomed mustache and slicked back hair.

“It looked as though he was deliberately trying to imitate Hitler with his appearance,” Thomas said.

OUCA President Natalie Shina refused to comment on van Rij’s appearance.

Shina also said OUCA did not invite van Rij to the event.

Shina said van Rij tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to Oxford to celebrate OUCA’s reaffiliation with the University.

“The UCL Conservatives invited him without my knowledge,” Shina said.

But UCL Conservative Association President Will Hall also denied inviting van Rij.

“We didn’t invite him or anyone else from King’s College, but he may have found out about it from our Facebook group,” Hall said.

Hall said the incident demonstrates a “systematic failure” on the part of the society in ensuring that only invited individuals are allowed to attend events.

“Every group has at least one or two abhorrent individuals, and in the future we need to find a better way to identify ours and ban them from attending events,” Hall said.

---

OUCA SECRECY

OUCA President Shina initially refused to acknowledge the incident took place, claiming in an email on Monday that neither she nor 29 other OUCA members in attendance heard anything offensive said.

But after being presented with eyewitness evidence from a reporter, Shina acknowledged the derogatory comments may have been uttered.

Nine students have confirmed to The Oxford Student that they heard van Rij shout the sexist remark.

But many OUCA members refused to talk after the group’s President issued what one senior OUCA member called a “gag order” preventing members from talking about the event.

“She basically told us all to say that we hadn’t heard anything,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Poppy Simister, an ex-officer of OUCA who overheard van Rij’s remark, said she heard about the silencing order from other members and didn’t think it was a good move for OUCA.

“I don’t really understand the strategy of telling everyone not to talk, especially in a case like this where both OUCA and the Union dealt with the incident fairly quickly,” Simister said.

Shina dismissed the claim that she was deliberately gagging members from speaking, and said the society’s constitution dictates that as President only she is allowed to talk to the press.

Shina said both OUCA and the UCL Conservative Society have banned van Rij from all future events after conducting an internal investigation.

Michael Rock, president of the national party’s youth wing, said he did not think the evidence was strong enough to launch an investigation at the time.

Despite having been informed of the Union President’s statement on the event, Rock said he thought the allegations were simply part of a calculated attack on OUCA: “It seems to me that people are just making accusations to make OUCA look bad.”

The claims of sexism come at an unfortunate time for OUCA, which finally won back the “U” in its name and regained formal recognition from the University last Friday. The University had cut ties with OUCA last August after it was revealed that a member told a racist joke at the society’s officer hustings.

A spokeswoman for the National Conservative Party said the party was looking into the allegations, and wanted to stress OUCA is in no way affiliated with the Tory party nationally.

A University spokesman declined to comment on whether proctors would launch an investigation into the incident, or if the University would continue to allow OUCA to use the University’s name.

Story picked-up and co-authored as an exclusive in The Daily Mail (link):


Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

By Beth Hale and Carl Lewis

The Daily Mail

13/7/10

SPACE


If it was a celebration marking a return to the fold, it didn't quite work out as planned.

Picture 3A year ago Oxford University Conservative Association was banned from using the college title in its name because of a row over racism.

But with that in the past, it was time to resume its affiliation and move on. Or at least it would have been had the association not been plunged into a fresh controversy - this time over sexism.

As a female speaker gave forth in a debate about education, she was taunted by a student shouting 'kitchen, kitchen shush up woman, go back to the kitchen'.

According to one witness, when Oxford student Isabella Burton continued, Vitus van Rij, 18, suggested she stick to 'pan and brooms' instead of giving speeches about politics.

Given that the OUCA president is a woman and there were many women in the 120-strong audience, it is perhaps not surprising that van Rij was given a swift dressing down.

Two male students stood up and condemned his comments as 'despicable and unacceptable'.

Oxford Union president Laura Winwood, who was also present, said three female association members were 'quite distressed' by the outburst.

Van Rij is said to have left the room after coming under fire, but returned a few minutes later, only to be escorted from the premises.

The student sported a tiny moustache and slicked back hair in a severe parting for the evening, which had been billed as a 'port and policy' event.

Quite how he came to be there is something of a mystery. OUCA president Natalie Shina insisted she did not invite the student.

She said he must have tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to the event.

But UCL said it had not invited van Rij.

As for van Rij himself, he has kept a low profile since student journalists at Oxford University started trying to contact him.

Van Rij is understood to be a member of the War Studies Society at King's in London as well as a member of a university polo club.

OUCA was at the centre of a racism storm last June. During a drunken hustings for the next president for the body, candidates made racist remarks.

The group, whose former presidents include Margaret Thatcher and William Hague, was subsequently barred from using the university name.

Van Rij has since returned to his native Belgium but told about his behaviour, his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Kimman, 19, rolled her eyes and said: 'It sounds like something he would do.'

Foreign students vote fraudulently

17 minute read

By CARL V. LEWIS

News Editor, THE OXFORD STUDENT

Date: 13/05/2010

Contact: news@oxfordstudent.com

Some non-UK students had the chance to vote fraudulently in last week’s election because of lax safeguards and mistaken electoral rolls—and at least 13 foreign students claim to have actually voted illegally, an Oxford Student investigation has revealed.

Eight of the students interviewed declined to speak on the record or reveal their college affiliation publicly, citing concerns about revealing publicly that they broke the law or – more frequently – not wishing to speak negatively about College administrators who failed to compare for accuracy the data provided to them by local electoral officials.

Max Gallien, a German student at Queen’s College – who as an EU citizen was eligible to vote in the local council election but not in the general election – said he cast a ballot in the Oxford East parliamentary contest after election workers confirmed to him he could vote in both races.

Gallien said election workers handed him the national ballot even after he told them he was a German citizen and not allowed to vote: “It said on their list that I was allowed to vote for parliament, too,” he said. “So I did.”

Gallien said he assumed he was wrong about the rules. Later that day, he confirmed from a search online that he was indeed ineligible to vote for parliamentary races.

At least two EU students at Balliol and one American student at Queen’s also claimed to have voted illegally, providing their names and college affiliations to The Oxford Student on the condition that the information be used to verify the story, but not for publication. Administrators at both colleges confirmed the three students were inaccurately reported as British citizens in data provided to them by local electoral officials, but denied blame on their end.

A first-year American student at Queen’s – who should have been entirely ineligible to vote in any race as neither an EU nor a Commonwealth citizen – said he voted at the St Clement’s polling station after receiving both polling cards in the mail.

“When I handed them the polling cards I'd gotten, they handed me both ballots, and I didn’t really say anything,” the student said.

Both students at Queen’s had been mistakenly entered as British citizens on the electoral register.

An administrator at Queen’s blamed local authorities for the error. She said the College just exported data they already had on students.

“We don’t change anything – there is no opportunity for it to be corrupted,” she said. "It's not our job to clean up data given to us by officials."

To test the difficulty of verifying such electoral data, a reporter from this paper entered the personal data provided by the two Queens students into two separate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, one with the correct data and the other with the incorrect data. The paper then added in matching data for 800 different dummy records, similar to the records that would have been on file with the College internally.

A simple Excel 'Compare Sheets' function then identified the two inaccuracies out of all 802 entries within a few seconds' time.

The same Queens administrator who earlier acknowledged the inaccuracy was informed of the results of The Oxford Student's test, but refused to speak any further on the issue, saying she had already made clear that the College isn't responsible for errors made by local election officials.

A CLOSE RACE, BUT NO EASY WAY TO TELL HOW MANY INCORRECT POLLING CARDS WERE SENT

It is unclear how many foreign citizens might have been mistakenly allowed to vote in the general election, but the close margins of some contests mean any error could be significant.

Oxford West incumbent Evan Harris lost his re-election bid by just 176 votes. Harris’s campaign did not return questions about whether he would challenge the vote; his challenger, Nicola Blackwood, also did not respond to requests for comment by the time this paper went to print.

At least four undergraduate EU citizens at Harris Manchester College were mistakenly sent polling cards for both the local election and the general election, but were given the correct ballot at the polling station.

A spokesman for the national election commission confirmed that EU citizens eligible to vote only in local elections should have received polling cards – which tell voters what elections they are registered for, and where to go to vote – for those contests only. Local authorities were responsible for organizing voter registration and mailing polling cards, he said.

A worker at the Oxford election commission confirmed that EU citizens should not have been sent polling cards for the general election. If they were sent those cards, she said, there “wouldn’t be anything stopping them” from voting for a parliamentary candidate – “but they shouldn’t have done so.”

The confusion and apparent lack of safeguards raise worries about the integrity of last week’s elections in Oxford and elsewhere.

Multiple students told reporters of voting without being asked for identification, while national media reported “chaotic” scenes at polling stations around the country last week along with dozens of allegations of postal vote fraud.

OxStu reporters Winston Featherly-Bean and Matt Thompson-Ryder also contributed to this report. Additionally, the identities of all college officials and named sources were verified independently by the paper's legal counsel before publication of this story.

“Slay the Jews?!”

10 minute read

"Slay the Jews?!"

Police report contradicts Israeli minister's allegation of racist abuse by Union member (link to story on OxfordStudent.com)

Picture 2

By Carl Lewis, News Editor

news@oxfordstudent.com

6 May 2010

Police have found no evidence for the widely reported claim that a student protester yelled "Slay the Jews" during an Israeli minister's speech at the Oxford Union last term.

A video analysis of the event has revealed that Noor Rashid, a third-year at Teddy Hall, gave an accurate account to authorities concerning what he shouted at Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

It did not find any evidence that Rashid uttered the Arabic phrase “Idhbah al-yahud,” meaning "kill the Jews," as Mr. Ayalon told the audience, and other media outlets have previously suggested.

According to the report, Rashid's actual remark in Arabic translates as  "Khaybar, khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return," a phrase which is based on a classical Arabic chant concerning a seventh-century battle between Arabs and Jews at Khaybar, in the Arabian Peninsula.

A spokesman for Mr. Ayalon said the Deputy Foreign Minister stands by his original claim that Rashid made anti-Semitic remarks, but admits he may have misinterpreted or misheard what the student actually said.

"It was very loud, and a lot of people were shouting at once. But even if we misheard the student, what he claims he shouted still has the same threatening, violent and genocidal intent, and is highly inflammatory. We find it very unfortunate that he is not being found guilty," Ayalon's spokesman said.

Rashid said his remark may have been distasteful but it was not intended as anti-Semitic. He said he meant it simply as a metaphor for the Palestinian people overcoming adversity.

"I never said to kill the Jews. I think anti-Semitism is deplorable. Sure, what I shouted wasn't the nicest thing in the world, but it's entirely different than advocating genocide," Rashid said.

Otared Haidar, an Arabic scholar at Oxford's Oriental Institute, referred to Rashid's remark as an "outdated slogan that should not be used."

"It's better that we speak in modern terms, and a lot more civil," Haidar said.

The 8th February incident drew national media attention after Ayalon accused Rashid during the event of calling for the slaughter of Jews and later posted the accusation on his Twitter page.

Eyewitness accounts of the event varied widely as few of those in attendance spoke Arabic and could interpret or remember what Rashid said.

Rashid called coverage of the incident "provocative, inflammatory and slanderous to my name."

"Now when people Google my name, hate speech comes up that I didn't actually say," he said.

Rashid said he considered pressing charges against the Cherwell newspaper after it published an account stating the allegations against him as fact, but eventually relented because of legal costs.

Thames Valley Police have dropped their investigation into Rashid, citing a lack of evidence.

"We take accusations of racist hate speech very seriously, and we could not find any proof that such behavior took place in this incident," a police spokeswoman said.

An Oxford Union official has confirmed that Rashid will remain a Union member.

Cochran home infested with estimated 1,000 bats

16 minute read

 

Update: Follow-up story ran on Jul. 30.

Cochran home infested with bats

Owner can't afford $10,000 extermination price tag

By Carl Lewis

Saturday Jul. 18, 2009

COCHRAN — It smells foul on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Really, really foul.

Walking down the street toward Victoria Jackson’s home, the musky stench gets even worse. Stepping inside, it grows almost unbearable.

“It’s a very, very bad odor,” the homeowner said.

MA.BATS

It’s the scent of the droppings from what exterminators estimate are more than 1,000 bats that have made Jackson’s home their roosting spot.

Jackson, 70, has been living with bats since she moved into the house in 1983, but the problem’s gotten worse in the last six months.

She’s tried getting rid of the flying mammals, but the exterminator she consulted told her it would cost about $10,000 to complete the job.

“There’s no way I can afford to do it,” said Jackson, whose efforts to get government grants to help eliminate the bats have been rejected.

The bats are entering the house through gaps between the walls and roof, Jackson said. Usually, the nocturnal creatures stay in the attic, but more and more, particularly at nighttime, Jackson has noticed them squeezing their way into her kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom.

“I’ll see one flying around at least once a day,” she said.

One of the bats bit Jackson’s daughter, Ann Cumby, while she was staying at the house one night two years ago. Cumby was able to kill the bat with an iron, put it in a plastic bag and take it to the doctor’s office, where it tested negative for rabies.

But that doesn’t mean Jackson and her daughter are safe from the disease.

“Just because one bat tests negative for rabies doesn’t mean the others don’t have it,” Jacob Polsky, an environmentalist at the Bleckley County Health Department in Cochran, said. “It’s a huge risk to be living in a house like that.”

Polsky recommended that Jackson and her daughter receive rabies treatment if they continue staying at the home.

Jackson hasn’t been bitten by a bat yet — at least as far as she knows.

“It’s possible that she has been bitten in the middle of the night and never even knew it happened,” Polsky said.

Rabies isn’t the only health issue Jackson and her daughter have to worry about. Wade Green, an extension agent in nearby Twiggs County, said the mother and daughter are at risk for developing histoplasmosis, a serious respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows on bat droppings.

“When people breathe in the air from bat droppings that have developed the fungus, they can get fever, chest pains or even develop a chronic lung disease,” Green said. “In the elderly, it could even become fatal.”

Jackson’s neighbors who breathe in the air are at risk, too, Green said.

Tyrone Elvine, who lives down the street from Jackson with his wife and kids, said he can smell the bats from sitting inside his house watching TV.

And Rose Coley, the 84-year-old who lives next door, said she’s scared the bats will make their way into her house next.

“I can smell them really strong, especially when a breeze blows through,” she said. “But what really scares me is the thought that one will come here and bite me.”

The bats can be heard chirping above the walls of the house almost constantly. Next-door neighbor Coley said the chirping noises the bats can grow so loud at times that it interferes with her sleeping.

The creatures can be seen flitting around inside through cracks in the roof, and bat droppings and carcasses blanket the edges of the house's foundation.

Earlier this week, Jackson’s daughter had a friend try to plug up the holes on the outside of the house where the bats have been entering, but so far, she’s been unsuccessful in her efforts to eradicate the creatures.

“It’s going to take a professional,” Cumby said. “And that’s something I just don’t think we can pay for right now.”

Truetech Pest and Animal Control is one local company that specializes in bat removal.

Michael Pope, who manages the company, said bat removals can cost anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the structure and the type of bats roosting there. Rather than traditional pest removals, bats have to be siphoned out of homes through special tubes and equipment.

“We’d be glad to come out Monday and give her a free inspection and see what we can do to help her from there,” Pope said.

In the meantime, Jackson said she and her daughter are still trying to save up enough money to get the bats removed.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said. ”Hopefully, we’ll be able to do something about it soon.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Eyes on the ‘flies

12 minute read

Eyes on the Flies:

Annual Macon butterfly count keeps tabs on ecosystem

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Tuesday Jul. 7, 2009

The van rumbled along the damp clay road as Andy Rindsberg narrowed his eyes upon the thicket of verbena and kudzu scattered underneath the Georgia Power lines.

The vehicle screeched to a halt. Rindsberg grasped his camera, binoculars and field guide and leapt out of the car.

MA_01A Click to enlarge.

“Look at that!” he exclaimed, gesturing at what appeared to be a clump of average roadside weeds.

Nearly invisible to the naked eye sat a tiny, drab, mostly brown butterfly atop the leaf of a buttonbush.

“It’s so ornate,” Rinsberg said as he squinted into his binoculars. “It’s a Creole Pearly Eye. I’ve never seen one of those before.”

Rindsberg was one of eight volunteers who joined wildlife officials Monday for Macon’s annual butterfly count. Participants split into groups and counted as many different butterfly species as they could in one day to keep track of population trends.

The count surveyed a 7.5 mile radius, including parts of Bond Swamp, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Central City Park.

Early in the day, volunteers had a difficult time finding butterflies because of the drizzly wet weather.

“The butterflies don’t like to move around much when it’s rainy like this,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

At 11:30 in the morning, after walking down the banks of the Ocmulgee River for about two hours, a group of butterfly counters at Bonds View Road had only found 10 species.

“It’s really kind of dead right now,” Keyes said.

Just as volunteers prepared to retire for lunch, however, the sun emerged from behind the storm clouds and butterflies began to whiz around.

Keyes and his crew put off lunch until 1:30 p.m. because they kept finding more butterflies.

They found yellow Fiery Skippers flitting near the sycamore trees on the river’s banks, Red Admirals darting across the pathway and stately Hackberry Emperors sipping on the puddles in the road.

“The male butterflies like to have puddle parties right after a big rain. They’ll come out and drink up the water and take it back to the females,” said Rindsberg, who is a professor at the University of West Alabama.

By early afternoon, the group had counted 28 different species, but Keyes said he expected at least 40 species to be identified by the end of the day.

Identifying butterflies can be a cumbersome task, Keyes said. Usually, the two winged-insects zip by so quickly that a bystander isn’t able to get a good look at them.

To make the process easier, volunteers brought cameras to snap pictures of the butterflies before they flew into the bushes.

“Some of them are just naturally shy but others are paparazzi hogs and love to be photographed,” Rindsberg joked. “But, always, the first thing I do is try to get a picture.”

Once Rinsberg captures a photo on his digital camera screen, he can almost always identify which one of Georgia’s more than 120 native butterfly species the specimen belongs to within a matter of seconds.

“It’s really not that hard to do. Anyone can do it if they spent a few days studying (butterflies),” he said.

Rinsberg said butterfly counts are important not only because they keep tabs on how butterflies are doing, but because they indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole. “We absolutely must keep doing these counts, because they’re the first warning sign if something bad is about to happen,” he said.

To volunteer to be a butterfly counter in next year’s count, call the Department of Natural Resources office in Macon at 994-1438 or visit the Web site of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Outside the big box

17 minute read

MA_01A5

Outside the big box

Macon Mall turns to arts, entertainment to fill empty space

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Instead of showcasing his art in a downtown gallery like other artists, Michael Paul has chosen a different, less obvious place to share his work: the Macon Mall.

Paul is taking part in a new program called Artspace, which, along with a laser golf course, is one of the mall’s recent efforts to help reinvent itself.

The mall will offer 18 of its vacant stores in the east wing to artists, who can then transform the space into galleries, studios and offices. Three artists already have been recruited to display their work at the mall.

Mall manager Brian Olivi said he hopes the program will attract more people, increasing foot traffic and hopefully increasing sales for other mall retailers.

“We want to make the mall an art destination, to make it a fully functioning art colony for Middle Georgia with artists working on and showcasing their work around the clock,” Olivi said.

The idea for the program came from a sister mall in St. Louis, Olivi said. That mall was able to fill 45 empty stores with paintings, sculptures and dance studios.

“It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” Olivi said. “It helps retailers, it helps artists and it even helps the community by providing a place to view local artwork,” Olivi said.

As part of the program, artists will receive discounted rent, flexible lease terms and 24/7 access to their spaces.

Paul said the mall is a perfect place for him because, unlike other galleries, it allows him to keep 100 percent of the profits from his paintings rather than being charged a portion of the sale.

“I’ve considered putting my art in some of the galleries downtown, but this makes a lot more financial sense,” Paul said.

Another benefit of locating at the mall, he said, is that it makes his artwork accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see it.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a downtown art gallery but who would go to Macy’s or Sears on Eisenhower Parkway will see my art and get inspired,” Paul said.

Artspace is not the mall’s only effort to increase its traffic. In April, the mall recruited Lunar Mini Golf, a laser putt-putt company out of Akron, Ohio, to open a location in the second level of the east wing, near the former Dillard’s. Olivi said the business has already brought a new demographic to the mall.

“We’ve seen so many parents bring their kids there that the (Lunar Mini Golf) course is now our No. 1 store in the whole mall,” he said.

Despite the traffic from the laser golf course and other retailers, Macon Mall may not have an easy time getting artists to invest in the program.

The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center has at least 40 vacant storefronts and its sale is pending after going into foreclosure last July.

In 2007, Parisian, a 104,000-square-foot department store, closed its location in the mall. A year later, Dillard’s, another anchor store, relocated to the Shoppes at River Crossing, an outdoor shopping center in north Bibb County.

Macon Mall’s current management company, Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc., is “constantly out trying to attract new tenants,” Olivi said.

But in the past year, more than 35 stores have left the mall, according to the mall’s June 2008 directory compared with the June 2009 directory.

Some of the stores that have closed include Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Ruby Tuesday.

Last January, Dallas, Texas-based Movie Tavern Partners LP announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot dinner theater in a portion of the former Parisian store, but after further consideration, backed out of plans for the location.

“The initial plans for the theater didn’t turn out to be cost-effective, so the ownership decided to table the project and look elsewhere,” Olivi said.

Olivi maintains, however, that Macon Mall still has the ability to attract new tenants in the future, especially if the condition of the national economy continues to improve.

“Last year alone, the mall had 13 million visits from a 22-county area. We are still the premier shopping center of Middle Georgia, and our losses have been mostly because of the national recession,” he said.

Olivi said the mall houses the only Macy’s department store in the region and that a new Verizon Wireless store just opened in the shopping center this month.

Melissa Goff, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, said the company has no plans to close its store in Macon Mall at the current time.

Unlike other retailers at the mall who lease their space, Macy’s owns the property where its store is located. At least seven of the mall’s retailers have duplicate stores at The Shoppes at River Crossing, including Aeropostale, American Eagle, Belk and Sunglass Hut.

Olivi said he is not worried that The Shoppes will replace the mall anytime soon.

“Nobody wants to spend two or three hours outdoors in the summer heat shopping there. Here at Macon Mall, it’s 72 degrees year-round,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Longform

Kingsbridge neighborhood undergoes Jewish revival

39 minute read

A new wave of gentrification taking place in the area near 231st Street west of Broadway has begun to breath fresh life into KingsbridgeΓÇÖs long-declining Jewish community, and may signal a possible reversal to the nearly four decade long trend of Jews leaving the neighborhood for more affluent, outlying suburban areas.

Mapping

Media Business Models

“Newspapers are the new startups”

1 minute read

Newspapers are the new startups . . . we’re starting to see a lot of great changes as technologies improve and cultures change."
-John Levitt, Director of Sales and Marketing,  Parse.ly
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Levitt's is one of the most insightful takes on the publishing industry I've heard in a while. It's going to take a lot of restructuring and a ground-up approach, but I'm excited to be a part of it as we embrace the start-up culture in Savannah.

SavSwap: Tackling the online classified ads market

11 minute read

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Innovative, quality journalism takes money to produce. In the past, one of the largest revenue streams for news organizations has traditionally come from the classified ad market – a revenue stream that has all but dried up in today's era of Craigslist and eBay. As an online editor, developer, manager and digital strategist for Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com, a midsized news organization owned by Morris Publishing Group, I've sat through countless digital strategy meetings discussing how we as a company can win back a sliver of the online classified ad market, if for no other reason than audience growth, and with the longterm goal of driving revenue to support our company's journalistic efforts.

After brainstorming the issue with our V.P. of Audience Steve Yelvington, I identified a few key competitive advantages news organizations may still possess in the classified market:

  • Brand trust/recognition - Local news organizations still command considerable trust and boosterism in the markets they serve, adding an extra level of accountability to the classified ad process.
  • More secure social and physical verification - Unlike the major national competitors, we have the opportunity to verify users' identities using social, email and physical address verification, further weeding out spammers and scammers.
  • Mobile-centric technologies - The massive scale of national competitors has so far prevented them from implementing a more seamless mobile user experience using HTML5/responsive design strategies.
  • Print marketing - Local news organizations can still leverage their considerable print marketing footprint to add extra value to the online classified ad experience, including setting up a secure drop-off and pick-up point for transactions so that users don't have to go into the homes of strangers.
  • Social marketing - Strategic use of social channels tied in with existing larger social networks from local publishers targeting local buyers only. For example, each ad with an approved photo will be fed to an Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter account, which would serve as a second, highly visual storefront.

The following weekend, I built SavSwap, a prototype for the sort of product I believe could harness local news organizations' competitive advantages while at the same time creating a cleaner, more visual, simpler and more secure user experience than the national competitors have to offer. While still very much in beta state, SavSwap is now being proposed as a model for all Morris properties to adopt, and is slated for a local launch in the Savannah market this quarter.

Launch beta version of project

A few of the key features that make SavSwap stand apart from other classified ad attempts include:

  • A fully responsive, device-agnostic design that makes ad listing, browsing and submission easy and free from wherever you are, mo matter device you use.
  • Social media and email authentification of all users.
  • Premium listing options for paid members of savannahnow.com, including "Membership" badges and higher page prominence
  • An inherently visual experience, with infinite scroll as well as traditional taxonomy and keyword search.
  • Geolocation.
  • Confidential on-site messaging system, with the option for users to display further contact information if they so desire.

Features that we plan to implement include:

  • Options for users to pay a small additional fee for their listing to appear in the print edition of Savannah Morning News.
  • A native iOS and Android mobile app (xCode template has already been built and is currently being prepared for submission to iTunes and Google Play stores).

For a brief presentation outlining the SavSwap model, see my slideshare presentation here. To see SavSwap in its current development state, see here.

Print

Kingsbridge neighborhood undergoes Jewish revival

39 minute read

A new wave of gentrification taking place in the area near 231st Street west of Broadway has begun to breath fresh life into KingsbridgeΓÇÖs long-declining Jewish community, and may signal a possible reversal to the nearly four decade long trend of Jews leaving the neighborhood for more affluent, outlying suburban areas.

The Bullet-Dodging Priest of the North Bronx

17 minute read

Jenik, 67, is the pastor at Our Lady of Refuge Church and School in the north Bronx. Over the past three decades, heΓÇÖs watched his parish slip into the throes of drug and substance abuse at an alarming rate.

Miss Molly trolley destroyed by flames

12 minute read

Trolley bursts into flames just moments after dropping off students - Link to story on MercerCluster.com

The Cluster - MercerCluster.com

By Carl V. Lewis, Online Editor

online@mercercluster.com

One of Mercer’s two student trolleys inexplicably burst into flames early Friday morning just moments after dropping off its last load of passengers at Greek Village.

The driver of the iconic “Miss Molly” trolley was traveling north on Stadium Drive near the University Center around 3:30 a.m. when he noticed smoke coming from the vehicle’s rear engine. He immediately pulled over and called 911, but the flames had spread too quickly for the trolley to be salvaged.

No students were injured in the incident, and the driver escaped from the smoldering vehicle unscathed.

Chief Gary Collins with the Mercer Police department said officers arrived at the scene within five minutes to find Miss Molly almost totally destroyed.

“Miss Molly didn’t make it out alive. When we got there, the trolley was smoking and you could still see some flames. What damage the fire didn’t do, the smoke and water did,” Collins said. “It was awful.”

NewTown Macon owns and operates the trolley service through a contract with the University.

NewTown spokesman Hal Baskin said it appears the fire started in the trolley’s rear engine, but the exact cause of the incident won’t be determined until insurance inspectors can conduct a full investigation next week.

Baskin said he does not believe the fire was caused by a manufacturer’s defect, or that students should have any reason to be fearful of using the trolley service in the future.

“I would expect that this is an isolated incident and not a problematic issue that affects all trolleys . . it was just something that happened,” Baskin said.

Investigators do not suspect foul play was involved in the incident.

NewTown has already begun making plans to replace Miss Molly with a new trolley.

“We’re looking at what other equipment is available to replace Miss Molly, and we’re just waiting to hear back from our insurance inspectors at this point,” Baskin said.

NewTown will continue to provide service in the meantime using its other trolley, “Sweet Melissa,” which is the same model trolley as Miss Molly. Baskin said Sweet Melissa was undergoing precautionary safety inspections on Tuesday to ensure that it is safe to operate.

The student trolley service to downtown should continue as scheduled this week, with Sweet Melissa shifted into full rotation for the time being, Chief Collins said.

“I’m just so grateful that no one was hurt. It could have been worse. I don’t think there’s any reason to worry, though. These sorts of things happen from time to time,” Collins said.

Collins added that he hopes the incident will remind students to remain vigilant and orderly while using the trolley service.

Dean of students Doug Pearson told The Cluster Tuesday afternoon that he’s not sure yet if the incident will have any significant impact on student trolley services in the future.

“It’s possible that because there’s only one trolley for now that there could be minor disruptions in service in the coming weeks. Obviously, we’ll notify students of any schedule changes via email and Bear Blurbs as soon as they happen,” Pearson said.

Miss Molly was purchased by the Macon Transit Authority in 2001 at a price tag of $127,000, then later sold to NewTown Macon for $160,000 in 2004. It had an estimated capacity of 40 people, and had been used in recent years to to give daytime tours of local historic sites as well as transport students to downtown Macon at night.

The trolley was named after Macon-born musician Little Richard’s 1958 hit song, “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Republicans trim Cagle’s powers

9 minute read

UPDATE: Story picked up by Augusta Chronicle, cited in AJC Jim Galloway's Political Insider

Republicans trim Cagle's powers -  (view published story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Saturday, Nov. 08, 2010

Following a heated day of closed-door meetings in downtown Macon, Georgia’s Senate Republican leaders decided Friday to strip some of newly re-elected Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s powers in the Senate.

Chamber leaders are calling it a new “power-sharing agreement.”

The Republican caucus gathered at Mercer University’s Woodruff House on Friday to discuss its rules and elect new leaders. Also at issue during the caucus meeting was a discussion of whether the lieutenant governor has too much power in the chamber.

Screen shot 2010-11-06 at 5.18.34 PM

After seven hours of deliberation, leaders reached the decision to peel back the lieutenant governor’s powers to assign committees, though the lieutenant governor will still retain some role in the committee-appointment process, said Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

A new seven-member committee of Republican legislators will be formed, and Cagle will have the power to choose two of the members of that committee.

Staton was one of the leaders who called Friday’s meeting, where he was elected as the caucus’ new majority whip.

Staton said the decision to take away some of Cagle’s power was not because of discontent with Cagle’s leadership. Staton maintained that the decision was a routine refinement of the caucus’ rules.

“This is not, in my view, any attempt to slight or take anything away from Lt. Gov. Cagle himself. He will still have quite a lot of power, and it has nothing to do with him personally. This is simply a routine rule change, and it’s a way to keep a good balance between the lieutenant governor and the Senate,” Staton said.

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, also was one of the legislators who called Friday’s meeting. Rogers insisted the decision was not meant to reflect the chamber’s view of Cagle personally.

“Every single member of this body not only supports Cagle’s leadership but considers him a personal friend,” Rogers said. “This is simply a new power-sharing agreement that we’ve come to.”

But Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said Friday afternoon that he wasn’t convinced the move to trim Cagle’s power was entirely fair.

“It’s certainly disappointing that they’re wanting to do this, especially given the fact that the voters so clearly expressed support of Cagle in Tuesday’s election,” Fry said.

Fry said he didn’t know what might have motivated the caucus to reach its decision, but that Cagle remained confident in the caucus’ judgment.

“We’re not ready to speculate on what might have led the caucus to be called, and we’re not going to get involved in the politics,” Fry said. “As always, Cagle is focused on doing what the voters overwhelmingly elected him to do, which is to serve this state.”

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

14 minute read

Picture 2

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

By Mike Stucka and Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Reflecting the broader national backlash against the Democratic Party this election season, voters denied U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon a fifth term in office Tuesday, choosing Republican Austin Scott as his replacement.

With 78 percent of precincts reporting, Scott led Marshall 52.5-47.5 percent in a bruising battle for Georgia’s 8th Congressional District seat.

Scott, the current state representative for Tift and Turner counties, celebrated his victory Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Tifton.

He said his campaign won on its own merits, not because of the national picture.

“We won this race because we had the better campaign team. We worked harder than they did,” Scott said.

Scott said his supporters had placed about 250,000 telephone calls.

“At the end of April, [Marshall] was unbeatable. And tonight, tonight, Georgians have spoken,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, a crowd of about 100 Marshall supporters and campaign workers at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon watched with disappointment as Marshall trailed Scott by 8 to 10 percentage points for much of the night.

Marshall said around 10:15 p.m. that it was “hard to see a clear path to victory,” but he refused to comment on the results specifically until he confirmed Scott’s win. He blamed Scott’s lead on Republican attacks against his party affiliation.

“It’s a national tide, and there’s not much I could do. We’ve done well, and I’ve had a good team. I don’t toe the party line, but many people haven’t been able to realize that,” Marshall said.

Marshall conceded to Scott late Tuesday.

Rusty Adams of Warner Robins was one of the Marshall supporters who showed up to support the campaign Tuesday night. He expressed his disappointment with Marshall’s loss.

“I can’t believe it. I’m gonna have to live with it, though,” Adams said.

Marshall drew criticism from the Scott campaign for some of his votes, and ads on Scott’s behalf tied Marshall to Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. Marshall launched his own campaign ads to distance himself from Pelosi.

But those efforts didn’t carry the day for Marshall. He needed critical support from swing voters such as Christine Gausche of Bonaire, wife of a retired U.S. Air Force officer. Gausche backed Marshall in 2008 — but shifted her support to the Republicans this year.

“I think he’s done some good things, but he’s part of a larger group that hasn’t done such good things,” Gausche said.

Marshall had trailed Scott in several recent polls, with some of them giving Scott an 8-point lead over the incumbent Democrat.

Marshall, who dropped out of Princeton University to fight in Vietnam, is a former Macon mayor and faculty member of Mercer University’s law school.

Scott appeared to have won in at least 16 of 21 counties in the district.

Marshall won in Bibb County by a wide margin, but the vote was nearly even in Houston County, with votes tilting slightly in Scott’s favor.

Bibb and Houston counties represent much of the 8th District’s population and voters, many of whom have ties to Robins Air Force Base. Late Tuesday, many of the votes in Twiggs and Houston counties had not been tallied.

House Republican Conference Secretary John Carter, a key member of the Republican Steering Committee that assigns House members to committees, said in a statement Tuesday night that he is excited over Scott’s election, and he would push the Steering Committee to assign Scott to committees most important to Georgia.

“Austin Scott has the common sense conservative fiscal values and life experience that are essential to winning a seat on critical committees,” Carter said.

“I am committed to use my influence in Republican leadership and on the Steering Committee to push Congressman-elect Scott for the seats that will do his district, Georgia, and the nation the most good.”

Scott told The Telegraph that voters wanted changes. And if the new Republican majority in the House doesn’t do the right thing, voters will vote for more changes in two years.

“It’s all about work now — jobs and the economy,” Scott said.

Scott’s mother, Becky, kept dancing with joy as she talked with a reporter. She said she knew the reason her son won, and thought it would translate well into Congress: “A lot of hard work.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251. To contact writer Carl Lewis, e-mail clewis@macon.com.

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K

12 minute read

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K (link to story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

Screen shot 2010-11-01 at 3.16.03 AM

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

Georgia’s Senate minority leader proposed one possible solution to the dwindling HOPE Scholarship fund Wednesday: Only give it to the students who need it the most.

Calling for a “return to the original intent” of the state lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program, state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, pushed for the family income cap to be reinstated for HOPE eligibility as a way to keep the program afloat and ensure it allows the most possible students to afford college.

Brown’s suggestion comes after it was projected this week that despite continued record lottery tickets sales, the HOPE Scholarship fund will fall short $560 million in the next two years as the number of eligible students attending college continues to soar.

“More and more students are going to college, and it’s becoming hard to keep up with demand for the scholarship,” said Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission that runs the HOPE program.

When then-Gov. Zell Miller first created the HOPE Scholarship in 1993, only families making less than $66,000 per year could qualify.

After a successful first year, that cap was raised in 1994 to $100,000, and in 1995 it was lifted altogether.

Brown said he's pushing for a new income cap of six times the federal poverty level, which he estimated would be about $150,000 for a family of four.

“I think it’s a lasting solution if we want to save HOPE, and it’s in line with the original purpose of the scholarship, which was to make a college education more affordable for Georgia students who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” Brown said.

Brown said his plan would not affect students already receiving the HOPE Scholarship, but at the earliest, it could impact students applying for the scholarship beginning in July 2011.

Brown said he doesn’t think the income cap will discourage students who don’t qualify financially from making the B average required for the scholarship.

“Those students are probably already discouraged from performing well,” Brown said.

As for families making just above the income cap who have budgeted with HOPE in mind, Brown said they’d have to “find other plans.”

“There are other institutions in the private sector that could offer students merit-based scholarships,” Brown said.

State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, said he disagrees with Brown’s proposal to reinstate the income cap for HOPE.

Harp said the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship wasn’t necessarily to make college affordable for low-income families, but to reward hard-working students for their achievement.

“The HOPE Scholarship isn’t, and never has been, a need-based scholarship,” Harp said. “It’s been based on maximizing academic achievement by rewarding students who make good grades. That’s why the income cap was removed once the program started being successful.”

Harp said he wants to wait and see what happens with the economy before making any cuts to HOPE or deciding to reinstate an income cap.

“It’s not at a crisis point. We still have $1.5 billion in reserve money, and HOPE is too important of a program to ruin, and has been too successful so far, not to evaluate other options first,” Harp said.

Brown said he knows his plan to reinstate the needs qualification for HOPE may be unpopular with many, but that the scholarship’s current budget situation leaves no other choice.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some resistance. People have come to view HOPE as an entitlement program, which it’s not. We’ve got to find a way to make it sustainable, and this is the best way,” Brown said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon home

8 minute read

UPDATE: Follow-up on autopsy report from Aug. 21

SPACE

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon homeScreen shot 2010-10-28 at 8.40.16 PM

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

Breaking news - Crime reports


A woman’s body was discovered in the backyard of a vacant south Macon home Thursday afternoon.


Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said police received an anonymous call about 2 p.m. that a fully-clothed, dark-haired white woman in her late 30s or early 40s was lying dead in the bushes at 1284 Glendale Ave., near Houston Avenue. She had severe lacerations on her body from what appeared to be dog bites and had been dead for between six and eight hours, Jones said.

Jones said a pack of pit bulls were found roaming around the yard of the home, but he would not say whether police suspected the woman was actually killed by the dogs.

“At this time, the cause of death is unknown, and police are investigating,” Jones said.

Jones said the woman had yet to be identified as of late Thursday afternoon. He said an autopsy to determine the cause of death would be performed Friday.

Neighbors said the home has been empty since the previous tenants moved about two weeks ago. They said people from the community often cut through the alley of the house as a shortcut to a nearby convenience store.

Kristia Hargrove, who lives down the street, said she’s seen the pit bulls outside the house for a few days now, and she knows of at least two people who have been bitten by them already.

“One of my best friends was bitten by one of those dogs the other day. She had teeth prints all over her. That’s why I don’t walk near that house or through that alley anymore,” Hargrove said.

Neighbor Peggy Johnson said she wasn’t convinced the dogs killed the woman. She said she recognized the woman’s body as someone she had seen walking around the neighborhood before.

“I think she was already dead and that the dogs just smelled blood and went ballistic. If the dogs had attacked her when she was alive, she would have screamed, and someone would have heard her,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what actually killed her, though.”

Macon police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet said police have yet to determine whether foul play was involved.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 751-7500 or Macon Regional CrimeStoppers at (877) 68-CRIME.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents

11 minute read

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents - (view story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010

It’s not just the rumble of garbage trucks past Tracie Fountain’s Twiggs County home each day that perturbs her.

It’s the odor.

Fountain lives just down the road from the Wolf Creek Landfill in Dry Branch, so close that she can smell the garbage dumped there. She’s one of the 779 Twiggs County residents who have signed a petition opposing a planned expansion of the landfill.

In July, the company that owns it, Advanced Disposal of Jacksonville, Fla., filed a rezoning and conditional use application with the Twiggs County Planning and Zoning office to expand the landfill by nearly tripling its size, from 135 acres to about 370 acres.

Last month, a group of residents found out about the company’s plan to expand and banded together to speak out against it.

The Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the planned expansion at its meeting Tuesday night, voting unanimously to recommend that the Twiggs County Commission reject the company’s proposal during its Aug. 17 meeting.

Now, the five-member commission will decide whether the company will move forward with its plans.

Three of the commissioners, Ray Bennett, Donald Floyd and Milton Sampson, said Wednesday that they’re not sure yet if they’ll approve the application, saying they don’t know all the details. The other two commissioners, Kathryn Epps and Tommie Bryant, did not return phone calls.

As part of the agreement with the disposal company, the county receives $1 for each ton of waste the landfill processes. The figure increases to $1.20 per ton if the amount surpasses 500 tons per day and to $1.40 if it exceeds 1,000 tons per day.

The landfill generally disposes of more than 1,200 tons of waste every day, according to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. That means for each day the landfill is in operation, the county brings in $1,400 to $1,700.

While that’s a large source of revenue for the county, resident Chris Bowen, who lives nearby, said he doesn’t think it’s enough money to justify keeping the landfill, which handles trash from several other counties, including Wilkinson, Jones and Bibb.

“We don’t want Twiggs County to be the dumping ground for the rest of the state. It doesn’t benefit anybody but the company and its pocketbook. Advanced Disposal is making a killing while killing our county,” Bowen said.

Virginia Villatoro, who works for Advanced Disposal in the landfill’s office, would not respond to specific concerns that the landfill could be getting too big. She did say she thinks the company has been aboveboard throughout the process.

“The required public notice postings and time frames have been complied with as required” by law, Villatoro said.

But for Fountain, who lives next door to the landfill with her two teenagers, the only thing that matters now is fending off the expansion proposal.

“I don’t want to smell trash at my house, and I don’t want my kids in danger and playing near the landfill,” she said. “Whether it’s only 20 people who live around here or 1,000, it affects everyone in the county.

“It’s a public problem, and it’s not the sort of thing we need if we want Twiggs County to grow.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

30 minute read

Original cover story as it appeared in The Oxford Student (link):


Sexist slurs at OUCA event

By Carl Lewis

News Editor

The Oxford Student

13/7/10

SPACE

Less than a week after reaffiliating with the University, Oxford’s Conservative Association has become entangled in a scandal over allegations of sexism at one of its events.oxstucover

Vitus van Rij, a Tory student from King’s College London, allegedly shouted “Kitchen, kitchen, shush up woman, go back to the kitchen” at a female speaker during OUCA’s Port and Policy event on Sunday night at the Oxford Union.

Following van Rij’s remarks, two OUCA members stood and condemned his comments as “despicable and unacceptable,” and Oxford Union President Laura Winwood assured the crowd that “misogyny is not tolerated” on Union premises.

Jocky McLean––an OUCA member who demanded an apology from van Rij in front of the 120 member audience––said he heard van Rij tell the female speaker, Isabella Burton, to stick to “pans and brooms” instead of giving speeches about politics.

“As she continued, [van Rij] started getting louder and louder in an attempt to shut her up. As soon as she finished, I stood up and asked him to apologise to her, and pointed to his disgusting behaviour,” McLean said.

Van Rij left the room after coming under fire from McLean and Winwood for the sexist statements, but returned a few minutes later to his seat.

Winwood said she and others asked van Rij to leave Union premises. The President of the UCL Conservative Association then escorted van Rij out of the room, and he did not return for the remainder of the night.

“The individual was promptly ejected from the room, order restored and the debate continued,” Winwood said.

Burton, the female OUCA member at the podium when van Rij allegedly made the remarks, said she heard about the commotion after it happened and was highly offended by van Rij’s comments.

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WHO IS THIS GUY?

Multiple attempts to reach Van Rij by email and phone over the course of a three day period proved unsuccessful this week.

In addition, a Facebook account in van Rij’s name disappeared from search results after a reporter from this paper attempted to contact him via the social networking site on Monday afternoon.

On his Facebook profile, van Rij listed his favourite quotation as one from Hendrik Verwoerd, a pro-Apartheid Prime Minister from South Africa. The quotation calls for “the preservation of the white man and his state.”

Numerous students have also expressed concern that the way in which van Rij presented himself at the event might have been a deliberate nod to Adolf Hitler.

David Thomas, an OUCA member who attended the event and sat near van Rij, said van Rij was sporting a “Hitler-esque” groomed mustache and slicked back hair.

“It looked as though he was deliberately trying to imitate Hitler with his appearance,” Thomas said.

OUCA President Natalie Shina refused to comment on van Rij’s appearance.

Shina also said OUCA did not invite van Rij to the event.

Shina said van Rij tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to Oxford to celebrate OUCA’s reaffiliation with the University.

“The UCL Conservatives invited him without my knowledge,” Shina said.

But UCL Conservative Association President Will Hall also denied inviting van Rij.

“We didn’t invite him or anyone else from King’s College, but he may have found out about it from our Facebook group,” Hall said.

Hall said the incident demonstrates a “systematic failure” on the part of the society in ensuring that only invited individuals are allowed to attend events.

“Every group has at least one or two abhorrent individuals, and in the future we need to find a better way to identify ours and ban them from attending events,” Hall said.

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OUCA SECRECY

OUCA President Shina initially refused to acknowledge the incident took place, claiming in an email on Monday that neither she nor 29 other OUCA members in attendance heard anything offensive said.

But after being presented with eyewitness evidence from a reporter, Shina acknowledged the derogatory comments may have been uttered.

Nine students have confirmed to The Oxford Student that they heard van Rij shout the sexist remark.

But many OUCA members refused to talk after the group’s President issued what one senior OUCA member called a “gag order” preventing members from talking about the event.

“She basically told us all to say that we hadn’t heard anything,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Poppy Simister, an ex-officer of OUCA who overheard van Rij’s remark, said she heard about the silencing order from other members and didn’t think it was a good move for OUCA.

“I don’t really understand the strategy of telling everyone not to talk, especially in a case like this where both OUCA and the Union dealt with the incident fairly quickly,” Simister said.

Shina dismissed the claim that she was deliberately gagging members from speaking, and said the society’s constitution dictates that as President only she is allowed to talk to the press.

Shina said both OUCA and the UCL Conservative Society have banned van Rij from all future events after conducting an internal investigation.

Michael Rock, president of the national party’s youth wing, said he did not think the evidence was strong enough to launch an investigation at the time.

Despite having been informed of the Union President’s statement on the event, Rock said he thought the allegations were simply part of a calculated attack on OUCA: “It seems to me that people are just making accusations to make OUCA look bad.”

The claims of sexism come at an unfortunate time for OUCA, which finally won back the “U” in its name and regained formal recognition from the University last Friday. The University had cut ties with OUCA last August after it was revealed that a member told a racist joke at the society’s officer hustings.

A spokeswoman for the National Conservative Party said the party was looking into the allegations, and wanted to stress OUCA is in no way affiliated with the Tory party nationally.

A University spokesman declined to comment on whether proctors would launch an investigation into the incident, or if the University would continue to allow OUCA to use the University’s name.

Story picked-up and co-authored as an exclusive in The Daily Mail (link):


Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

By Beth Hale and Carl Lewis

The Daily Mail

13/7/10

SPACE


If it was a celebration marking a return to the fold, it didn't quite work out as planned.

Picture 3A year ago Oxford University Conservative Association was banned from using the college title in its name because of a row over racism.

But with that in the past, it was time to resume its affiliation and move on. Or at least it would have been had the association not been plunged into a fresh controversy - this time over sexism.

As a female speaker gave forth in a debate about education, she was taunted by a student shouting 'kitchen, kitchen shush up woman, go back to the kitchen'.

According to one witness, when Oxford student Isabella Burton continued, Vitus van Rij, 18, suggested she stick to 'pan and brooms' instead of giving speeches about politics.

Given that the OUCA president is a woman and there were many women in the 120-strong audience, it is perhaps not surprising that van Rij was given a swift dressing down.

Two male students stood up and condemned his comments as 'despicable and unacceptable'.

Oxford Union president Laura Winwood, who was also present, said three female association members were 'quite distressed' by the outburst.

Van Rij is said to have left the room after coming under fire, but returned a few minutes later, only to be escorted from the premises.

The student sported a tiny moustache and slicked back hair in a severe parting for the evening, which had been billed as a 'port and policy' event.

Quite how he came to be there is something of a mystery. OUCA president Natalie Shina insisted she did not invite the student.

She said he must have tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to the event.

But UCL said it had not invited van Rij.

As for van Rij himself, he has kept a low profile since student journalists at Oxford University started trying to contact him.

Van Rij is understood to be a member of the War Studies Society at King's in London as well as a member of a university polo club.

OUCA was at the centre of a racism storm last June. During a drunken hustings for the next president for the body, candidates made racist remarks.

The group, whose former presidents include Margaret Thatcher and William Hague, was subsequently barred from using the university name.

Van Rij has since returned to his native Belgium but told about his behaviour, his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Kimman, 19, rolled her eyes and said: 'It sounds like something he would do.'

Foreign students vote fraudulently

17 minute read

By CARL V. LEWIS

News Editor, THE OXFORD STUDENT

Date: 13/05/2010

Contact: news@oxfordstudent.com

Some non-UK students had the chance to vote fraudulently in last week’s election because of lax safeguards and mistaken electoral rolls—and at least 13 foreign students claim to have actually voted illegally, an Oxford Student investigation has revealed.

Eight of the students interviewed declined to speak on the record or reveal their college affiliation publicly, citing concerns about revealing publicly that they broke the law or – more frequently – not wishing to speak negatively about College administrators who failed to compare for accuracy the data provided to them by local electoral officials.

Max Gallien, a German student at Queen’s College – who as an EU citizen was eligible to vote in the local council election but not in the general election – said he cast a ballot in the Oxford East parliamentary contest after election workers confirmed to him he could vote in both races.

Gallien said election workers handed him the national ballot even after he told them he was a German citizen and not allowed to vote: “It said on their list that I was allowed to vote for parliament, too,” he said. “So I did.”

Gallien said he assumed he was wrong about the rules. Later that day, he confirmed from a search online that he was indeed ineligible to vote for parliamentary races.

At least two EU students at Balliol and one American student at Queen’s also claimed to have voted illegally, providing their names and college affiliations to The Oxford Student on the condition that the information be used to verify the story, but not for publication. Administrators at both colleges confirmed the three students were inaccurately reported as British citizens in data provided to them by local electoral officials, but denied blame on their end.

A first-year American student at Queen’s – who should have been entirely ineligible to vote in any race as neither an EU nor a Commonwealth citizen – said he voted at the St Clement’s polling station after receiving both polling cards in the mail.

“When I handed them the polling cards I'd gotten, they handed me both ballots, and I didn’t really say anything,” the student said.

Both students at Queen’s had been mistakenly entered as British citizens on the electoral register.

An administrator at Queen’s blamed local authorities for the error. She said the College just exported data they already had on students.

“We don’t change anything – there is no opportunity for it to be corrupted,” she said. "It's not our job to clean up data given to us by officials."

To test the difficulty of verifying such electoral data, a reporter from this paper entered the personal data provided by the two Queens students into two separate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, one with the correct data and the other with the incorrect data. The paper then added in matching data for 800 different dummy records, similar to the records that would have been on file with the College internally.

A simple Excel 'Compare Sheets' function then identified the two inaccuracies out of all 802 entries within a few seconds' time.

The same Queens administrator who earlier acknowledged the inaccuracy was informed of the results of The Oxford Student's test, but refused to speak any further on the issue, saying she had already made clear that the College isn't responsible for errors made by local election officials.

A CLOSE RACE, BUT NO EASY WAY TO TELL HOW MANY INCORRECT POLLING CARDS WERE SENT

It is unclear how many foreign citizens might have been mistakenly allowed to vote in the general election, but the close margins of some contests mean any error could be significant.

Oxford West incumbent Evan Harris lost his re-election bid by just 176 votes. Harris’s campaign did not return questions about whether he would challenge the vote; his challenger, Nicola Blackwood, also did not respond to requests for comment by the time this paper went to print.

At least four undergraduate EU citizens at Harris Manchester College were mistakenly sent polling cards for both the local election and the general election, but were given the correct ballot at the polling station.

A spokesman for the national election commission confirmed that EU citizens eligible to vote only in local elections should have received polling cards – which tell voters what elections they are registered for, and where to go to vote – for those contests only. Local authorities were responsible for organizing voter registration and mailing polling cards, he said.

A worker at the Oxford election commission confirmed that EU citizens should not have been sent polling cards for the general election. If they were sent those cards, she said, there “wouldn’t be anything stopping them” from voting for a parliamentary candidate – “but they shouldn’t have done so.”

The confusion and apparent lack of safeguards raise worries about the integrity of last week’s elections in Oxford and elsewhere.

Multiple students told reporters of voting without being asked for identification, while national media reported “chaotic” scenes at polling stations around the country last week along with dozens of allegations of postal vote fraud.

OxStu reporters Winston Featherly-Bean and Matt Thompson-Ryder also contributed to this report. Additionally, the identities of all college officials and named sources were verified independently by the paper's legal counsel before publication of this story.

“Slay the Jews?!”

10 minute read

"Slay the Jews?!"

Police report contradicts Israeli minister's allegation of racist abuse by Union member (link to story on OxfordStudent.com)

Picture 2

By Carl Lewis, News Editor

news@oxfordstudent.com

6 May 2010

Police have found no evidence for the widely reported claim that a student protester yelled "Slay the Jews" during an Israeli minister's speech at the Oxford Union last term.

A video analysis of the event has revealed that Noor Rashid, a third-year at Teddy Hall, gave an accurate account to authorities concerning what he shouted at Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

It did not find any evidence that Rashid uttered the Arabic phrase “Idhbah al-yahud,” meaning "kill the Jews," as Mr. Ayalon told the audience, and other media outlets have previously suggested.

According to the report, Rashid's actual remark in Arabic translates as  "Khaybar, khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return," a phrase which is based on a classical Arabic chant concerning a seventh-century battle between Arabs and Jews at Khaybar, in the Arabian Peninsula.

A spokesman for Mr. Ayalon said the Deputy Foreign Minister stands by his original claim that Rashid made anti-Semitic remarks, but admits he may have misinterpreted or misheard what the student actually said.

"It was very loud, and a lot of people were shouting at once. But even if we misheard the student, what he claims he shouted still has the same threatening, violent and genocidal intent, and is highly inflammatory. We find it very unfortunate that he is not being found guilty," Ayalon's spokesman said.

Rashid said his remark may have been distasteful but it was not intended as anti-Semitic. He said he meant it simply as a metaphor for the Palestinian people overcoming adversity.

"I never said to kill the Jews. I think anti-Semitism is deplorable. Sure, what I shouted wasn't the nicest thing in the world, but it's entirely different than advocating genocide," Rashid said.

Otared Haidar, an Arabic scholar at Oxford's Oriental Institute, referred to Rashid's remark as an "outdated slogan that should not be used."

"It's better that we speak in modern terms, and a lot more civil," Haidar said.

The 8th February incident drew national media attention after Ayalon accused Rashid during the event of calling for the slaughter of Jews and later posted the accusation on his Twitter page.

Eyewitness accounts of the event varied widely as few of those in attendance spoke Arabic and could interpret or remember what Rashid said.

Rashid called coverage of the incident "provocative, inflammatory and slanderous to my name."

"Now when people Google my name, hate speech comes up that I didn't actually say," he said.

Rashid said he considered pressing charges against the Cherwell newspaper after it published an account stating the allegations against him as fact, but eventually relented because of legal costs.

Thames Valley Police have dropped their investigation into Rashid, citing a lack of evidence.

"We take accusations of racist hate speech very seriously, and we could not find any proof that such behavior took place in this incident," a police spokeswoman said.

An Oxford Union official has confirmed that Rashid will remain a Union member.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

 “The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.
“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

9 minute read

MA_01A

Midstate shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Jul. 31, 2009

 

Ready, set, shop. It’s a sales-tax holiday.

The four-day sales-tax holiday kicked off Thursday, and many area stores saw crammed parking lots and congested shopping aisles as a result.

So far, in 2009, retail sales nationwide have dropped about 5 percent, said John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association. But in Georgia, numbers could be better than in other states because of this weekend’s sales tax holiday, which promises to lure in cash-strapped consumers who might not otherwise make purchases.

“We believe that with the combination of strong discounts and the sales-tax holiday, Georgia can stay above the national retail average,” Heavener said.

It’s still early in the weekend, but area stores are bracing for the best, too.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and those in the Macon Mall said they expect to see full parking lots Saturday and Sunday.

Already, before the end of the workweek, some stores have noticed a frenzy of consumers reaping the discounts of the holiday.

At the Best Buy store on Presidential Parkway in Macon, hordes of shoppers came out Thursday to save money on high-ticket computers and accessories.

“We’ve seen a lot more customers than usual,” said store manager Eli Douglass. “We haven’t seen this amount of people in a while.”

One of those customers, Patricia Adams, bought a new laptop which she plans to use to communicate with her son, who is a Marine deployed in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been needing a computer so I can e-mail him, but I’ve been holding out to buy it until this weekend,” she said. “Now I’ll feel a little closer to him while he’s overseas.”

At Staples, back-to-school shoppers such as Adrienne Bershinski, took advantage of the sales-tax break to stock up on supplies.

“I’m on a tight budget lately, so I figured I’d get my school shopping out of the way when I can avoid the extra tax,” said Bershinski, who starts class at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law next month.

Clothing qualifies for the sales-tax holiday, too, and many area department stores have made the necessary preparations for the weekend.

At the Kohl’s on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins, 20 extra employees will be on hand to handle the spike in traffic, manager Derek Meredith said.

“We’re expecting a lot more shoppers, especially in the clothing and shoes departments,” Meredith said.

At the Target in Macon on Thursday, Peche Ellis, of Griffin, was one of the first of those shoppers. She filled her cart with new blouses and dresses for fall.

“I only meant to buy one dress coming in here. But after seeing what better deals I can get, I’m buying a lot more than I expected,” she said.

The tax-free weekend will last through Sunday. Only school supplies, clothing and certain electronics qualify.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

College officials: Enrollment up at midstate colleges

9 minute read

Click here to view article online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Enrollment at midstate colleges is higher than ever this fall as the sluggish economy compels students to work toward the safeguard of a college diploma, officials say.Picture 4

At Georgia College & State University, 6,665 students are set to start classes today. That’s a 15 percent increase from last year’s enrollment.

“Young people these days are starting to figure out that, in this economy, they’re going to need a college degree if they want to keep up,” Georgia College and State University spokeswoman Judy Bailey said. “And our dorms are filled to capacity."

To handle the spike in students, 13 additional professors have been hired and two buildings have been constructed, including a health sciences facility, which will house nine new classrooms.

Fort Valley’s State University’s enrollment is skyrocketing, too.

Between 3,800 and 4,200 students are expected to begin class at FVSU today, a massive jump from last year’s record enrollment of 3,106 students.

Terrance Smith, the university’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said FVSU is ready to accommodate the influx with recent improvements to the campus.

Wildcat Commons, one of FVSU’s new residence halls, will house 378 additional students, and University Villas, a nearby apartment complex, will house 138 students. A 10,000-seat stadium is expected to be completed within the next week.

“We’re poised for another successful year,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, officials expect more than 6,500 students will begin classes today. That’s a 2 percent increase from last year.

“It’s still early, but our numbers are definitely up,” said John Cole, the college’s vice president of advancement.

Of those 6,500 Macon State students, 2,000 of them will be attending classes at the college’s Warner Robins campus, where a new $5 million lecture hall will open.

At Gordon College in Barnesville, enrollment is expected to climb from 3,800 to more than 4,000 students .

“We are expecting a record-setting number of students,” said Ben Ferguson, director of admissions.

Gordon College has entered into an agreement with the city of Barnesville to use the football field parking area adjacent to campus to accommodate the increase in students.

Enrollment numbers for private schools such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College won’t be finalized for a number of weeks, but all signs point to similarly healthy gains in those institutions as well.

At Mercer, more than 600 new freshmen will move in on campus Saturday, making it the largest incoming class in a number of years.

“It’s looking like record enrollment for us, too,” university spokesman Larry Brumley said.

Brumley said he’s expecting about 8,000 students to be enrolled by the time classes start Aug. 25.

That’s a 19 percent increase from last year.

And at Wesleyan College, spokeswoman Susan Welsh said she’s expecting 20 percent more students to be enrolled this fall than last year.

“It’s going really well for us,” she said.

Cochran home infested with estimated 1,000 bats

16 minute read

 

Update: Follow-up story ran on Jul. 30.

Cochran home infested with bats

Owner can't afford $10,000 extermination price tag

By Carl Lewis

Saturday Jul. 18, 2009

COCHRAN — It smells foul on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Really, really foul.

Walking down the street toward Victoria Jackson’s home, the musky stench gets even worse. Stepping inside, it grows almost unbearable.

“It’s a very, very bad odor,” the homeowner said.

MA.BATS

It’s the scent of the droppings from what exterminators estimate are more than 1,000 bats that have made Jackson’s home their roosting spot.

Jackson, 70, has been living with bats since she moved into the house in 1983, but the problem’s gotten worse in the last six months.

She’s tried getting rid of the flying mammals, but the exterminator she consulted told her it would cost about $10,000 to complete the job.

“There’s no way I can afford to do it,” said Jackson, whose efforts to get government grants to help eliminate the bats have been rejected.

The bats are entering the house through gaps between the walls and roof, Jackson said. Usually, the nocturnal creatures stay in the attic, but more and more, particularly at nighttime, Jackson has noticed them squeezing their way into her kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom.

“I’ll see one flying around at least once a day,” she said.

One of the bats bit Jackson’s daughter, Ann Cumby, while she was staying at the house one night two years ago. Cumby was able to kill the bat with an iron, put it in a plastic bag and take it to the doctor’s office, where it tested negative for rabies.

But that doesn’t mean Jackson and her daughter are safe from the disease.

“Just because one bat tests negative for rabies doesn’t mean the others don’t have it,” Jacob Polsky, an environmentalist at the Bleckley County Health Department in Cochran, said. “It’s a huge risk to be living in a house like that.”

Polsky recommended that Jackson and her daughter receive rabies treatment if they continue staying at the home.

Jackson hasn’t been bitten by a bat yet — at least as far as she knows.

“It’s possible that she has been bitten in the middle of the night and never even knew it happened,” Polsky said.

Rabies isn’t the only health issue Jackson and her daughter have to worry about. Wade Green, an extension agent in nearby Twiggs County, said the mother and daughter are at risk for developing histoplasmosis, a serious respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows on bat droppings.

“When people breathe in the air from bat droppings that have developed the fungus, they can get fever, chest pains or even develop a chronic lung disease,” Green said. “In the elderly, it could even become fatal.”

Jackson’s neighbors who breathe in the air are at risk, too, Green said.

Tyrone Elvine, who lives down the street from Jackson with his wife and kids, said he can smell the bats from sitting inside his house watching TV.

And Rose Coley, the 84-year-old who lives next door, said she’s scared the bats will make their way into her house next.

“I can smell them really strong, especially when a breeze blows through,” she said. “But what really scares me is the thought that one will come here and bite me.”

The bats can be heard chirping above the walls of the house almost constantly. Next-door neighbor Coley said the chirping noises the bats can grow so loud at times that it interferes with her sleeping.

The creatures can be seen flitting around inside through cracks in the roof, and bat droppings and carcasses blanket the edges of the house's foundation.

Earlier this week, Jackson’s daughter had a friend try to plug up the holes on the outside of the house where the bats have been entering, but so far, she’s been unsuccessful in her efforts to eradicate the creatures.

“It’s going to take a professional,” Cumby said. “And that’s something I just don’t think we can pay for right now.”

Truetech Pest and Animal Control is one local company that specializes in bat removal.

Michael Pope, who manages the company, said bat removals can cost anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the structure and the type of bats roosting there. Rather than traditional pest removals, bats have to be siphoned out of homes through special tubes and equipment.

“We’d be glad to come out Monday and give her a free inspection and see what we can do to help her from there,” Pope said.

In the meantime, Jackson said she and her daughter are still trying to save up enough money to get the bats removed.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said. ”Hopefully, we’ll be able to do something about it soon.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Tuition ammunition

16 minute read

MA.GIBILL

Tuition Ammunition

New G.I. bill offers midstate veterans a full ride to Mercer, Wesleyan

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

From a young age, Elyse Jones wanted to be a dermatologist.

But when she was called to active duty with the Air Force in 2002, Jones, who was 19 at the time, almost gave up her plans to go to college.

“I put everything on hold, and I wasn’t sure of what would happen or if I’d be able to go to school in the future at all,” she said.

Now, the 26-year-old may finally be getting the chance. Beginning next month, her classes at Wesleyan College should be covered under new benefits she earned from her military duty.

Jones is one of the many midstate service members who plans to reap the benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect in August.

Under the bill, a limited number of qualified Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans will be able to attend private colleges such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College for free or minimal tuition. And they will get expanded benefits at public institutions, too.

Dan Hines, a third-year Mercer law student, hopes to be one of the five students who will receive an additional $4,000 in financial assistance in the fall, half of which will come from federal coffers.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this program,” said Hines, who served 13 months in Iraq and is president of the Mercer Law Military Veterans Association.

In the past, the federal government has helped pay for veterans’ tuition and fees at private colleges, but only up to an amount that matched the tuition at the most expensive public college in the state.

Yet at pricier private institutions such as Wesleyan and Mercer University, tuition exceeds that cap, which in the past has often forced service members either to make up the difference themselves or choose a public school instead.

However, under the Yellow Ribbon campaign — a component of the new bill — the government and participating private colleges will jointly cover the remaining difference to pay the entire tuition cost. At Mercer and Wesleyan in Macon, that means qualified veterans will receive a full scholarship.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mercer will contribute $11,625 per student, per year for 17 undergraduate students, while Wesleyan will contribute $8,750 for 10 students. Veterans Affairs will then match those amounts.

Mercer also has committed to covering the difference for at least 28 veterans to attend its graduate schools and regional academic centers and will contribute $2,000 in assistance to five veterans attending its law school.

A number of other veterans already have expressed interest in taking advantage of the program to attend Mercer, said Rick Goddard, who’s heading up the program at the school.

“These are veterans who may not necessarily have been able to afford Mercer without this assistance,” Goddard said. “And Mercer’s glad to have them. They bring a world of experience to the university, and the university feels an obligation to serve them.”

At least six veterans plan to attend Wesleyan in the fall using Yellow Ribbon money, Susan Welsh, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

At public colleges, veterans can expect to see enhanced benefits, too, though not as dramatic of improvements as their peers in private institutions are seeing.

In keeping with past GI bills, all qualified service members at state schools would still receive free tuition, but they now can transfer their benefits to family members more easily and may, in some cases, receive higher living stipends, said Tammie Burke, who handles VA programs at Georgia College & State University.

But while the bill does provide some new advantages to students at state colleges, it’s not expected to be a major change.

“At GCSU, it’s going to improve the way in which student veterans receive benefits, but it’s not really going to affect the amount of benefits they receive,” Burke said.

Officials at Macon State College and Fort Valley State University echoed Burke’s sentiments, saying that while the bill is a great improvement, it should not cause any major influx in veteran enrollment.

The new bill does have stipulations. To qualify for full assistance, veterans must have served at least 36 months for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Waugh said. Other service — such as Homeland Security missions or participation in the Active Guard and Reserve Program — may not qualify for benefits under the bill.

As for Jones, she’s getting the chance to attend a school she might not have been able to afford otherwise.

“I love the small, private setting of Wesleyan,” she said. “It gives me opportunities I might not have gotten at a big state school.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Eyes on the ‘flies

12 minute read

Eyes on the Flies:

Annual Macon butterfly count keeps tabs on ecosystem

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Tuesday Jul. 7, 2009

The van rumbled along the damp clay road as Andy Rindsberg narrowed his eyes upon the thicket of verbena and kudzu scattered underneath the Georgia Power lines.

The vehicle screeched to a halt. Rindsberg grasped his camera, binoculars and field guide and leapt out of the car.

MA_01A Click to enlarge.

“Look at that!” he exclaimed, gesturing at what appeared to be a clump of average roadside weeds.

Nearly invisible to the naked eye sat a tiny, drab, mostly brown butterfly atop the leaf of a buttonbush.

“It’s so ornate,” Rinsberg said as he squinted into his binoculars. “It’s a Creole Pearly Eye. I’ve never seen one of those before.”

Rindsberg was one of eight volunteers who joined wildlife officials Monday for Macon’s annual butterfly count. Participants split into groups and counted as many different butterfly species as they could in one day to keep track of population trends.

The count surveyed a 7.5 mile radius, including parts of Bond Swamp, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Central City Park.

Early in the day, volunteers had a difficult time finding butterflies because of the drizzly wet weather.

“The butterflies don’t like to move around much when it’s rainy like this,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

At 11:30 in the morning, after walking down the banks of the Ocmulgee River for about two hours, a group of butterfly counters at Bonds View Road had only found 10 species.

“It’s really kind of dead right now,” Keyes said.

Just as volunteers prepared to retire for lunch, however, the sun emerged from behind the storm clouds and butterflies began to whiz around.

Keyes and his crew put off lunch until 1:30 p.m. because they kept finding more butterflies.

They found yellow Fiery Skippers flitting near the sycamore trees on the river’s banks, Red Admirals darting across the pathway and stately Hackberry Emperors sipping on the puddles in the road.

“The male butterflies like to have puddle parties right after a big rain. They’ll come out and drink up the water and take it back to the females,” said Rindsberg, who is a professor at the University of West Alabama.

By early afternoon, the group had counted 28 different species, but Keyes said he expected at least 40 species to be identified by the end of the day.

Identifying butterflies can be a cumbersome task, Keyes said. Usually, the two winged-insects zip by so quickly that a bystander isn’t able to get a good look at them.

To make the process easier, volunteers brought cameras to snap pictures of the butterflies before they flew into the bushes.

“Some of them are just naturally shy but others are paparazzi hogs and love to be photographed,” Rindsberg joked. “But, always, the first thing I do is try to get a picture.”

Once Rinsberg captures a photo on his digital camera screen, he can almost always identify which one of Georgia’s more than 120 native butterfly species the specimen belongs to within a matter of seconds.

“It’s really not that hard to do. Anyone can do it if they spent a few days studying (butterflies),” he said.

Rinsberg said butterfly counts are important not only because they keep tabs on how butterflies are doing, but because they indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole. “We absolutely must keep doing these counts, because they’re the first warning sign if something bad is about to happen,” he said.

To volunteer to be a butterfly counter in next year’s count, call the Department of Natural Resources office in Macon at 994-1438 or visit the Web site of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Home schooling

10 minute read

 

Home schooling

Georgia College Foundation hopes to save home of pioneering black educator

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009

MILLEDGEVILLE — Fifteen-year-old Deandre Hooks crouched on the porch of a crumbling, wood-planked house Wednesday morning to complete a writing assignment.

The house was nothing special and the heat was blistering, but it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he felt perfectly at home.

“I’m meant to be here right now,” Hooks said. “It’s part of who I am.”

MA_01A2

It’s the same porch that black students like Hooks sat on 100 years ago.

Back then, the four-bedroom house on Clarke Street belonged to Sallie Ellis Davis, one of the first black educators in Georgia. Davis often mentored students at the house, which she lived in until her death in 1950.

But for many years, the historic home has been left to decay.

Now, officials from Georgia College & State University and the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation are trying to raise money to renovate the house and open it as an African-American cultural center.

In 2008, the Georgia Trust added the Davis house to its “Places in Peril” list because of the structure’s deteriorating condition.

“This is an important piece of African-American history that we desperately need to preserve,” Judy Bailey, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

Bailey said it will cost an estimated $380,000 to renovate the home and $25,000 to stabilize it. So far, the foundation has raised about $15,000.

“We’re looking for all the help we can get. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have to make sure we’re able to save this place,” Bailey said.

Davis was born in Milledgeville in 1877 to a black mother and an Irish father, Bailey said.

She attended the Eddy School, where she later served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years.

Her house, which was built in 1890, changed hands numerous times before Georgia College purchased it in 1989.

Bailey said she hopes the Davis house will inspire people to follow after Sallie’s legacy and enter the field of education.

“Sallie Davis educated black students during a period of time when they didn’t have access to education. Hopefully, this house will motivate people to become educators themselves,” she said.

Camille Tyson is the principal of Early College, a school for students in seventh through 12th grades that holds classes at Georgia College. Tyson took her students to see the Davis home Wednesday.

“Either you can be a pioneer or a settler,” Tyson said. “Sallie Ellis Davis was a pioneer, and these students can be pioneers, too. That’s what I want them to realize.”

Hooks, who is a 10th-grader at Early College, said Davis’ story has inspired him to pursue a more ambitious future.

“I’m going to go to college and be a professional when I grow up. (Davis) spent her entire life trying to make sure our ancestors could do that, and I don’t want to let her down,” he said.

To make a donation to the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation, call Lee Snelling at (478) 445-8129.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Outside the big box

17 minute read

MA_01A5

Outside the big box

Macon Mall turns to arts, entertainment to fill empty space

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Instead of showcasing his art in a downtown gallery like other artists, Michael Paul has chosen a different, less obvious place to share his work: the Macon Mall.

Paul is taking part in a new program called Artspace, which, along with a laser golf course, is one of the mall’s recent efforts to help reinvent itself.

The mall will offer 18 of its vacant stores in the east wing to artists, who can then transform the space into galleries, studios and offices. Three artists already have been recruited to display their work at the mall.

Mall manager Brian Olivi said he hopes the program will attract more people, increasing foot traffic and hopefully increasing sales for other mall retailers.

“We want to make the mall an art destination, to make it a fully functioning art colony for Middle Georgia with artists working on and showcasing their work around the clock,” Olivi said.

The idea for the program came from a sister mall in St. Louis, Olivi said. That mall was able to fill 45 empty stores with paintings, sculptures and dance studios.

“It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” Olivi said. “It helps retailers, it helps artists and it even helps the community by providing a place to view local artwork,” Olivi said.

As part of the program, artists will receive discounted rent, flexible lease terms and 24/7 access to their spaces.

Paul said the mall is a perfect place for him because, unlike other galleries, it allows him to keep 100 percent of the profits from his paintings rather than being charged a portion of the sale.

“I’ve considered putting my art in some of the galleries downtown, but this makes a lot more financial sense,” Paul said.

Another benefit of locating at the mall, he said, is that it makes his artwork accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see it.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a downtown art gallery but who would go to Macy’s or Sears on Eisenhower Parkway will see my art and get inspired,” Paul said.

Artspace is not the mall’s only effort to increase its traffic. In April, the mall recruited Lunar Mini Golf, a laser putt-putt company out of Akron, Ohio, to open a location in the second level of the east wing, near the former Dillard’s. Olivi said the business has already brought a new demographic to the mall.

“We’ve seen so many parents bring their kids there that the (Lunar Mini Golf) course is now our No. 1 store in the whole mall,” he said.

Despite the traffic from the laser golf course and other retailers, Macon Mall may not have an easy time getting artists to invest in the program.

The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center has at least 40 vacant storefronts and its sale is pending after going into foreclosure last July.

In 2007, Parisian, a 104,000-square-foot department store, closed its location in the mall. A year later, Dillard’s, another anchor store, relocated to the Shoppes at River Crossing, an outdoor shopping center in north Bibb County.

Macon Mall’s current management company, Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc., is “constantly out trying to attract new tenants,” Olivi said.

But in the past year, more than 35 stores have left the mall, according to the mall’s June 2008 directory compared with the June 2009 directory.

Some of the stores that have closed include Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Ruby Tuesday.

Last January, Dallas, Texas-based Movie Tavern Partners LP announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot dinner theater in a portion of the former Parisian store, but after further consideration, backed out of plans for the location.

“The initial plans for the theater didn’t turn out to be cost-effective, so the ownership decided to table the project and look elsewhere,” Olivi said.

Olivi maintains, however, that Macon Mall still has the ability to attract new tenants in the future, especially if the condition of the national economy continues to improve.

“Last year alone, the mall had 13 million visits from a 22-county area. We are still the premier shopping center of Middle Georgia, and our losses have been mostly because of the national recession,” he said.

Olivi said the mall houses the only Macy’s department store in the region and that a new Verizon Wireless store just opened in the shopping center this month.

Melissa Goff, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, said the company has no plans to close its store in Macon Mall at the current time.

Unlike other retailers at the mall who lease their space, Macy’s owns the property where its store is located. At least seven of the mall’s retailers have duplicate stores at The Shoppes at River Crossing, including Aeropostale, American Eagle, Belk and Sunglass Hut.

Olivi said he is not worried that The Shoppes will replace the mall anytime soon.

“Nobody wants to spend two or three hours outdoors in the summer heat shopping there. Here at Macon Mall, it’s 72 degrees year-round,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Peach of a party

9 minute read

MA_01E6

Peach of a Party

Opening event a big draw at Georgia Peach Festival

The Sun News

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009

Ask Andrew Mathis to name his favorite food and he’ll tell you in an instant.

“It’s peaches, no question,” he said.

Mathis, a 70-year-old from Fort Valley, worked at a peach farm earlier in life and hasn’t missed a single Georgia Peach Festival since the event was launched in 1986.

Saturday, he made it out once again to the festival’s annual kickoff celebration at the Peach Shops of Byron.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he said.

The celebration began at 5 p.m. and featured live music, arts and crafts vendors, a fireworks show and a foam party for the kids.

Festival director Rich Bennett said it was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen for the celebration.

Brandi Trivette, a vendor at the event who sells peach-scented candles she makes at her home in Warner Robins, said the crowd was good for business.

“The peach candle has been a real hit tonight. People here in Peach County sure do love their peaches,” Trivette said.

But for some people, such as Janet Wynne and her husband, David, this year’s Peach Festival isn’t just about the titular fruit.

“Peaches are great, but we’re more into motorcycles, which is why we’re here,” she said.

Wynne said she had never been to the Peach Festival before until she rode in the festival’s first Poker Run Saturday morning.

On the other hand, Wynne’s 3-year-old daughter, Erika, said she loved the foam party.

“It looks like snow,” she said.

J.B. Roberson, an author from Warner Robins, was at the celebration signing copies of her latest children’s book, “Cuddlee Bugs: Revenge o’ the Peach Potion.”

“It’s a book that’s actually a lot about the Peach Festival,” she said.

The bands 2 Finger Jester and The Skeeterz performed free shows during the celebration.

“I was a little worried Two Finger Jester might be too loud for the festival, but everybody seemed to love them,” Bennett said. Mathis, however, said he was holding out for The Skeeterz, a more traditional country band.

“I may be old, but I love to dance when they play my sort of music,” he said.

The festival concluded with a fireworks display shot off from behind the shopping center.

“The fireworks are always the best part,” Bennett said.

As the kickoff to the festival drew to a close, Bennett said he held high hopes for the rest of it.

“This is looking like it might be one of the best Peach festivals yet. We’ve already gotten more involvement than last year,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Seeds of community

11 minute read

MA_03A8

Seeds of community

Vegetable gardens help bring Macon neighbors together

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Jun. 15, 2009

Tucked away in a vacant lot behind Centenary United Methodist Church on College Street sits a humble plot where pole beans, tomatoes, eggplant and okra grow.

"But what we're really growing is hope," said Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the Beall's Hill Community Garden.

Volunteers broke ground for the garden in May as a joint project of the church and the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association.

The people who tend the garden share the food among themselves, and they donate much of the produce to the elderly and disabled in the community.

"The idea is to bring people in Beall's Hill neighborhood together through the garden. Everyone is the same when they have dirt on their hands," Vanderhoek said.

Vanderhoek got the idea for the garden last fall after hearing about a similar community garden in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Inspired by what the Pleasant Hill garden had accomplished, Vanderhoek, a Mercer University employee, pushed for a garden in the Beall's Hill neighborhood near his workplace.

In February, he brought the idea before a meeting of the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association, where it met across-the-board approval from residents.

Ellen Byron, the neighborhood association's president, then secured a $1,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March to fund the project.

Since it opened May 2, volunteers have planted seven different vegetables and four different herbs.

"We're going to be making food baskets soon to take out to the people in the neighborhood who need to eat," Byron said.

She said she's excited at how the garden has given the neighborhood a sense of unity.

"A lot of different people live in Beall's Hill. This has given them all a common purpose," she said. "The first day we came out to work the garden, people who had never come out for anything in the community before showed up."

Mary Anne Richardson, who heads up the outreach ministry at Centenary, said she hopes students from Mercer University, which is across the street from the garden, will get involved.

David Davis is a professor of English at Mercer whose class volunteered at the Pleasant Hill community garden this spring.

He plans to have his freshman seminar class work at the new Beall's Hill garden in the fall.

"The class will have an environmental focus, and I think it'd be great for us to work in the garden," he said.

Naomi Johnson and Peter Gizens, owners of the Pleasant Hill garden, have been tending a patch of land on Craft Street since 2004.

Over the years, they've recruited about 30 steady volunteers to help them work the garden and have produced more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables to donate to people in need.

"All of our vegetables that aren't picked by our volunteers are given free of charge to seniors and physically challenged people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood," Johnson said.

Johnson said that community gardens like the ones in Pleasant Hill and Beall's Hill not only help revitalize the area around them, but they also help people develop better eating habits.

"I had to tell the people helping us not to fry the tomatoes. I don't recommend eating fried green tomatoes. They're not very good for you at all," she said.

But perhaps the best part about neighborhood gardens, in Johnson's opinion, is that they bring people together.

"In the dirt, everybody's kin. And that's just something that money can't put a price tag on," she said.

Commemorating history

9 minute read

MA_01B7

Commemorating history

Annual Juneteenth festival celebrates liberation, educates about struggles of slavery.

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009

Four years ago, Nduta Mwangi, 39, lived in a small tenement apartment in Kenya, where she and her sisters sewed traditional African dresses for a living.

Saturday, she brought those dresses to Macon and put them on sale at the annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival at Tattnall Square Park.

“These dresses represent who I am and who we as African-Americans are. It’s our living symbolic legacy,” she said.

The festival was a daylong celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

“It’s sort of like an African-American Independence Day,” said Michelle Fitz, a festival organizer.

But Fitz said that Juneteenth isn’t just for African-Americans.

“It’s a way to educate people of all races about the struggles of slavery. So many people have no idea or they forget what our people went through,” she said.

The festival featured live jazz music, arts and crafts vendors and educational presentations.

Festival director George Muhammad said he expected as many as 1,000 people to attend the festival by the end of the day.

Baatin Muhammad, a member of the Middle Georgia Jazz Allstar Band, said the festival is one of the band’s best opportunities to play yet.

“We’re really excited to play at this event in particular because of what it means to us. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means everything jazz music is supposed to be about,” he said.

One of the festival highlights was a Civil War era re-enactment that demonstrated the black freedom struggle.

Clifford Price, who’s been putting on the re-enactment in his spare time for the past 22 years, said his lifelong mission is to teach people to appreciate the hardships faced by black Union soldiers.

“We want to teach people what our ancestors did during the Civil War, about how they gave up their lives for that elusive word called freedom,” Price said.

James Simpson, a 49-year-old from Macon, has been bringing his wife and five kids to the festival for as long as he can remember.

“We come every year with lawn chairs and a cooler of sodas and stay all day. It’s not only fun, but it’s a great way to teach my kids something,” he said.

Simpson said he was particularly impressed with the variety of merchandise being sold at this year’s festival.

“I just got me a brand new yard hat,” he said.

Ankur Patel, a junior at Mercer University, said he heard the music from the festival as he was walking down College Street and decided to see what the event was all about.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear all this history. Even though I’m not black, I can appreciate it. It’s important that we all support events like this that teach people history and will change the way they look at things today,” he said.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

Click here to view this story online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.Picture 5

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

“The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.

“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

The Daily Mail

Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

30 minute read

Original cover story as it appeared in The Oxford Student (link):


Sexist slurs at OUCA event

By Carl Lewis

News Editor

The Oxford Student

13/7/10

SPACE

Less than a week after reaffiliating with the University, Oxford’s Conservative Association has become entangled in a scandal over allegations of sexism at one of its events.oxstucover

Vitus van Rij, a Tory student from King’s College London, allegedly shouted “Kitchen, kitchen, shush up woman, go back to the kitchen” at a female speaker during OUCA’s Port and Policy event on Sunday night at the Oxford Union.

Following van Rij’s remarks, two OUCA members stood and condemned his comments as “despicable and unacceptable,” and Oxford Union President Laura Winwood assured the crowd that “misogyny is not tolerated” on Union premises.

Jocky McLean––an OUCA member who demanded an apology from van Rij in front of the 120 member audience––said he heard van Rij tell the female speaker, Isabella Burton, to stick to “pans and brooms” instead of giving speeches about politics.

“As she continued, [van Rij] started getting louder and louder in an attempt to shut her up. As soon as she finished, I stood up and asked him to apologise to her, and pointed to his disgusting behaviour,” McLean said.

Van Rij left the room after coming under fire from McLean and Winwood for the sexist statements, but returned a few minutes later to his seat.

Winwood said she and others asked van Rij to leave Union premises. The President of the UCL Conservative Association then escorted van Rij out of the room, and he did not return for the remainder of the night.

“The individual was promptly ejected from the room, order restored and the debate continued,” Winwood said.

Burton, the female OUCA member at the podium when van Rij allegedly made the remarks, said she heard about the commotion after it happened and was highly offended by van Rij’s comments.

---

WHO IS THIS GUY?

Multiple attempts to reach Van Rij by email and phone over the course of a three day period proved unsuccessful this week.

In addition, a Facebook account in van Rij’s name disappeared from search results after a reporter from this paper attempted to contact him via the social networking site on Monday afternoon.

On his Facebook profile, van Rij listed his favourite quotation as one from Hendrik Verwoerd, a pro-Apartheid Prime Minister from South Africa. The quotation calls for “the preservation of the white man and his state.”

Numerous students have also expressed concern that the way in which van Rij presented himself at the event might have been a deliberate nod to Adolf Hitler.

David Thomas, an OUCA member who attended the event and sat near van Rij, said van Rij was sporting a “Hitler-esque” groomed mustache and slicked back hair.

“It looked as though he was deliberately trying to imitate Hitler with his appearance,” Thomas said.

OUCA President Natalie Shina refused to comment on van Rij’s appearance.

Shina also said OUCA did not invite van Rij to the event.

Shina said van Rij tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to Oxford to celebrate OUCA’s reaffiliation with the University.

“The UCL Conservatives invited him without my knowledge,” Shina said.

But UCL Conservative Association President Will Hall also denied inviting van Rij.

“We didn’t invite him or anyone else from King’s College, but he may have found out about it from our Facebook group,” Hall said.

Hall said the incident demonstrates a “systematic failure” on the part of the society in ensuring that only invited individuals are allowed to attend events.

“Every group has at least one or two abhorrent individuals, and in the future we need to find a better way to identify ours and ban them from attending events,” Hall said.

---

OUCA SECRECY

OUCA President Shina initially refused to acknowledge the incident took place, claiming in an email on Monday that neither she nor 29 other OUCA members in attendance heard anything offensive said.

But after being presented with eyewitness evidence from a reporter, Shina acknowledged the derogatory comments may have been uttered.

Nine students have confirmed to The Oxford Student that they heard van Rij shout the sexist remark.

But many OUCA members refused to talk after the group’s President issued what one senior OUCA member called a “gag order” preventing members from talking about the event.

“She basically told us all to say that we hadn’t heard anything,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Poppy Simister, an ex-officer of OUCA who overheard van Rij’s remark, said she heard about the silencing order from other members and didn’t think it was a good move for OUCA.

“I don’t really understand the strategy of telling everyone not to talk, especially in a case like this where both OUCA and the Union dealt with the incident fairly quickly,” Simister said.

Shina dismissed the claim that she was deliberately gagging members from speaking, and said the society’s constitution dictates that as President only she is allowed to talk to the press.

Shina said both OUCA and the UCL Conservative Society have banned van Rij from all future events after conducting an internal investigation.

Michael Rock, president of the national party’s youth wing, said he did not think the evidence was strong enough to launch an investigation at the time.

Despite having been informed of the Union President’s statement on the event, Rock said he thought the allegations were simply part of a calculated attack on OUCA: “It seems to me that people are just making accusations to make OUCA look bad.”

The claims of sexism come at an unfortunate time for OUCA, which finally won back the “U” in its name and regained formal recognition from the University last Friday. The University had cut ties with OUCA last August after it was revealed that a member told a racist joke at the society’s officer hustings.

A spokeswoman for the National Conservative Party said the party was looking into the allegations, and wanted to stress OUCA is in no way affiliated with the Tory party nationally.

A University spokesman declined to comment on whether proctors would launch an investigation into the incident, or if the University would continue to allow OUCA to use the University’s name.

Story picked-up and co-authored as an exclusive in The Daily Mail (link):


Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

By Beth Hale and Carl Lewis

The Daily Mail

13/7/10

SPACE


If it was a celebration marking a return to the fold, it didn't quite work out as planned.

Picture 3A year ago Oxford University Conservative Association was banned from using the college title in its name because of a row over racism.

But with that in the past, it was time to resume its affiliation and move on. Or at least it would have been had the association not been plunged into a fresh controversy - this time over sexism.

As a female speaker gave forth in a debate about education, she was taunted by a student shouting 'kitchen, kitchen shush up woman, go back to the kitchen'.

According to one witness, when Oxford student Isabella Burton continued, Vitus van Rij, 18, suggested she stick to 'pan and brooms' instead of giving speeches about politics.

Given that the OUCA president is a woman and there were many women in the 120-strong audience, it is perhaps not surprising that van Rij was given a swift dressing down.

Two male students stood up and condemned his comments as 'despicable and unacceptable'.

Oxford Union president Laura Winwood, who was also present, said three female association members were 'quite distressed' by the outburst.

Van Rij is said to have left the room after coming under fire, but returned a few minutes later, only to be escorted from the premises.

The student sported a tiny moustache and slicked back hair in a severe parting for the evening, which had been billed as a 'port and policy' event.

Quite how he came to be there is something of a mystery. OUCA president Natalie Shina insisted she did not invite the student.

She said he must have tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to the event.

But UCL said it had not invited van Rij.

As for van Rij himself, he has kept a low profile since student journalists at Oxford University started trying to contact him.

Van Rij is understood to be a member of the War Studies Society at King's in London as well as a member of a university polo club.

OUCA was at the centre of a racism storm last June. During a drunken hustings for the next president for the body, candidates made racist remarks.

The group, whose former presidents include Margaret Thatcher and William Hague, was subsequently barred from using the university name.

Van Rij has since returned to his native Belgium but told about his behaviour, his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Kimman, 19, rolled her eyes and said: 'It sounds like something he would do.'

The Mercer Cluster

Miss Molly trolley destroyed by flames

12 minute read

Trolley bursts into flames just moments after dropping off students - Link to story on MercerCluster.com

The Cluster - MercerCluster.com

By Carl V. Lewis, Online Editor

online@mercercluster.com

One of Mercer’s two student trolleys inexplicably burst into flames early Friday morning just moments after dropping off its last load of passengers at Greek Village.

The driver of the iconic “Miss Molly” trolley was traveling north on Stadium Drive near the University Center around 3:30 a.m. when he noticed smoke coming from the vehicle’s rear engine. He immediately pulled over and called 911, but the flames had spread too quickly for the trolley to be salvaged.

No students were injured in the incident, and the driver escaped from the smoldering vehicle unscathed.

Chief Gary Collins with the Mercer Police department said officers arrived at the scene within five minutes to find Miss Molly almost totally destroyed.

“Miss Molly didn’t make it out alive. When we got there, the trolley was smoking and you could still see some flames. What damage the fire didn’t do, the smoke and water did,” Collins said. “It was awful.”

NewTown Macon owns and operates the trolley service through a contract with the University.

NewTown spokesman Hal Baskin said it appears the fire started in the trolley’s rear engine, but the exact cause of the incident won’t be determined until insurance inspectors can conduct a full investigation next week.

Baskin said he does not believe the fire was caused by a manufacturer’s defect, or that students should have any reason to be fearful of using the trolley service in the future.

“I would expect that this is an isolated incident and not a problematic issue that affects all trolleys . . it was just something that happened,” Baskin said.

Investigators do not suspect foul play was involved in the incident.

NewTown has already begun making plans to replace Miss Molly with a new trolley.

“We’re looking at what other equipment is available to replace Miss Molly, and we’re just waiting to hear back from our insurance inspectors at this point,” Baskin said.

NewTown will continue to provide service in the meantime using its other trolley, “Sweet Melissa,” which is the same model trolley as Miss Molly. Baskin said Sweet Melissa was undergoing precautionary safety inspections on Tuesday to ensure that it is safe to operate.

The student trolley service to downtown should continue as scheduled this week, with Sweet Melissa shifted into full rotation for the time being, Chief Collins said.

“I’m just so grateful that no one was hurt. It could have been worse. I don’t think there’s any reason to worry, though. These sorts of things happen from time to time,” Collins said.

Collins added that he hopes the incident will remind students to remain vigilant and orderly while using the trolley service.

Dean of students Doug Pearson told The Cluster Tuesday afternoon that he’s not sure yet if the incident will have any significant impact on student trolley services in the future.

“It’s possible that because there’s only one trolley for now that there could be minor disruptions in service in the coming weeks. Obviously, we’ll notify students of any schedule changes via email and Bear Blurbs as soon as they happen,” Pearson said.

Miss Molly was purchased by the Macon Transit Authority in 2001 at a price tag of $127,000, then later sold to NewTown Macon for $160,000 in 2004. It had an estimated capacity of 40 people, and had been used in recent years to to give daytime tours of local historic sites as well as transport students to downtown Macon at night.

The trolley was named after Macon-born musician Little Richard’s 1958 hit song, “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

The Oxford Student

Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

30 minute read

Original cover story as it appeared in The Oxford Student (link):


Sexist slurs at OUCA event

By Carl Lewis

News Editor

The Oxford Student

13/7/10

SPACE

Less than a week after reaffiliating with the University, Oxford’s Conservative Association has become entangled in a scandal over allegations of sexism at one of its events.oxstucover

Vitus van Rij, a Tory student from King’s College London, allegedly shouted “Kitchen, kitchen, shush up woman, go back to the kitchen” at a female speaker during OUCA’s Port and Policy event on Sunday night at the Oxford Union.

Following van Rij’s remarks, two OUCA members stood and condemned his comments as “despicable and unacceptable,” and Oxford Union President Laura Winwood assured the crowd that “misogyny is not tolerated” on Union premises.

Jocky McLean––an OUCA member who demanded an apology from van Rij in front of the 120 member audience––said he heard van Rij tell the female speaker, Isabella Burton, to stick to “pans and brooms” instead of giving speeches about politics.

“As she continued, [van Rij] started getting louder and louder in an attempt to shut her up. As soon as she finished, I stood up and asked him to apologise to her, and pointed to his disgusting behaviour,” McLean said.

Van Rij left the room after coming under fire from McLean and Winwood for the sexist statements, but returned a few minutes later to his seat.

Winwood said she and others asked van Rij to leave Union premises. The President of the UCL Conservative Association then escorted van Rij out of the room, and he did not return for the remainder of the night.

“The individual was promptly ejected from the room, order restored and the debate continued,” Winwood said.

Burton, the female OUCA member at the podium when van Rij allegedly made the remarks, said she heard about the commotion after it happened and was highly offended by van Rij’s comments.

---

WHO IS THIS GUY?

Multiple attempts to reach Van Rij by email and phone over the course of a three day period proved unsuccessful this week.

In addition, a Facebook account in van Rij’s name disappeared from search results after a reporter from this paper attempted to contact him via the social networking site on Monday afternoon.

On his Facebook profile, van Rij listed his favourite quotation as one from Hendrik Verwoerd, a pro-Apartheid Prime Minister from South Africa. The quotation calls for “the preservation of the white man and his state.”

Numerous students have also expressed concern that the way in which van Rij presented himself at the event might have been a deliberate nod to Adolf Hitler.

David Thomas, an OUCA member who attended the event and sat near van Rij, said van Rij was sporting a “Hitler-esque” groomed mustache and slicked back hair.

“It looked as though he was deliberately trying to imitate Hitler with his appearance,” Thomas said.

OUCA President Natalie Shina refused to comment on van Rij’s appearance.

Shina also said OUCA did not invite van Rij to the event.

Shina said van Rij tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to Oxford to celebrate OUCA’s reaffiliation with the University.

“The UCL Conservatives invited him without my knowledge,” Shina said.

But UCL Conservative Association President Will Hall also denied inviting van Rij.

“We didn’t invite him or anyone else from King’s College, but he may have found out about it from our Facebook group,” Hall said.

Hall said the incident demonstrates a “systematic failure” on the part of the society in ensuring that only invited individuals are allowed to attend events.

“Every group has at least one or two abhorrent individuals, and in the future we need to find a better way to identify ours and ban them from attending events,” Hall said.

---

OUCA SECRECY

OUCA President Shina initially refused to acknowledge the incident took place, claiming in an email on Monday that neither she nor 29 other OUCA members in attendance heard anything offensive said.

But after being presented with eyewitness evidence from a reporter, Shina acknowledged the derogatory comments may have been uttered.

Nine students have confirmed to The Oxford Student that they heard van Rij shout the sexist remark.

But many OUCA members refused to talk after the group’s President issued what one senior OUCA member called a “gag order” preventing members from talking about the event.

“She basically told us all to say that we hadn’t heard anything,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Poppy Simister, an ex-officer of OUCA who overheard van Rij’s remark, said she heard about the silencing order from other members and didn’t think it was a good move for OUCA.

“I don’t really understand the strategy of telling everyone not to talk, especially in a case like this where both OUCA and the Union dealt with the incident fairly quickly,” Simister said.

Shina dismissed the claim that she was deliberately gagging members from speaking, and said the society’s constitution dictates that as President only she is allowed to talk to the press.

Shina said both OUCA and the UCL Conservative Society have banned van Rij from all future events after conducting an internal investigation.

Michael Rock, president of the national party’s youth wing, said he did not think the evidence was strong enough to launch an investigation at the time.

Despite having been informed of the Union President’s statement on the event, Rock said he thought the allegations were simply part of a calculated attack on OUCA: “It seems to me that people are just making accusations to make OUCA look bad.”

The claims of sexism come at an unfortunate time for OUCA, which finally won back the “U” in its name and regained formal recognition from the University last Friday. The University had cut ties with OUCA last August after it was revealed that a member told a racist joke at the society’s officer hustings.

A spokeswoman for the National Conservative Party said the party was looking into the allegations, and wanted to stress OUCA is in no way affiliated with the Tory party nationally.

A University spokesman declined to comment on whether proctors would launch an investigation into the incident, or if the University would continue to allow OUCA to use the University’s name.

Story picked-up and co-authored as an exclusive in The Daily Mail (link):


Go back to your kitchen, woman! Sexist heckler in row at Oxford Tories meeting

By Beth Hale and Carl Lewis

The Daily Mail

13/7/10

SPACE


If it was a celebration marking a return to the fold, it didn't quite work out as planned.

Picture 3A year ago Oxford University Conservative Association was banned from using the college title in its name because of a row over racism.

But with that in the past, it was time to resume its affiliation and move on. Or at least it would have been had the association not been plunged into a fresh controversy - this time over sexism.

As a female speaker gave forth in a debate about education, she was taunted by a student shouting 'kitchen, kitchen shush up woman, go back to the kitchen'.

According to one witness, when Oxford student Isabella Burton continued, Vitus van Rij, 18, suggested she stick to 'pan and brooms' instead of giving speeches about politics.

Given that the OUCA president is a woman and there were many women in the 120-strong audience, it is perhaps not surprising that van Rij was given a swift dressing down.

Two male students stood up and condemned his comments as 'despicable and unacceptable'.

Oxford Union president Laura Winwood, who was also present, said three female association members were 'quite distressed' by the outburst.

Van Rij is said to have left the room after coming under fire, but returned a few minutes later, only to be escorted from the premises.

The student sported a tiny moustache and slicked back hair in a severe parting for the evening, which had been billed as a 'port and policy' event.

Quite how he came to be there is something of a mystery. OUCA president Natalie Shina insisted she did not invite the student.

She said he must have tagged along with members of the Conservative Association of University College London, who she had invited to the event.

But UCL said it had not invited van Rij.

As for van Rij himself, he has kept a low profile since student journalists at Oxford University started trying to contact him.

Van Rij is understood to be a member of the War Studies Society at King's in London as well as a member of a university polo club.

OUCA was at the centre of a racism storm last June. During a drunken hustings for the next president for the body, candidates made racist remarks.

The group, whose former presidents include Margaret Thatcher and William Hague, was subsequently barred from using the university name.

Van Rij has since returned to his native Belgium but told about his behaviour, his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Kimman, 19, rolled her eyes and said: 'It sounds like something he would do.'

Foreign students vote fraudulently

17 minute read

By CARL V. LEWIS

News Editor, THE OXFORD STUDENT

Date: 13/05/2010

Contact: news@oxfordstudent.com

Some non-UK students had the chance to vote fraudulently in last week’s election because of lax safeguards and mistaken electoral rolls—and at least 13 foreign students claim to have actually voted illegally, an Oxford Student investigation has revealed.

Eight of the students interviewed declined to speak on the record or reveal their college affiliation publicly, citing concerns about revealing publicly that they broke the law or – more frequently – not wishing to speak negatively about College administrators who failed to compare for accuracy the data provided to them by local electoral officials.

Max Gallien, a German student at Queen’s College – who as an EU citizen was eligible to vote in the local council election but not in the general election – said he cast a ballot in the Oxford East parliamentary contest after election workers confirmed to him he could vote in both races.

Gallien said election workers handed him the national ballot even after he told them he was a German citizen and not allowed to vote: “It said on their list that I was allowed to vote for parliament, too,” he said. “So I did.”

Gallien said he assumed he was wrong about the rules. Later that day, he confirmed from a search online that he was indeed ineligible to vote for parliamentary races.

At least two EU students at Balliol and one American student at Queen’s also claimed to have voted illegally, providing their names and college affiliations to The Oxford Student on the condition that the information be used to verify the story, but not for publication. Administrators at both colleges confirmed the three students were inaccurately reported as British citizens in data provided to them by local electoral officials, but denied blame on their end.

A first-year American student at Queen’s – who should have been entirely ineligible to vote in any race as neither an EU nor a Commonwealth citizen – said he voted at the St Clement’s polling station after receiving both polling cards in the mail.

“When I handed them the polling cards I'd gotten, they handed me both ballots, and I didn’t really say anything,” the student said.

Both students at Queen’s had been mistakenly entered as British citizens on the electoral register.

An administrator at Queen’s blamed local authorities for the error. She said the College just exported data they already had on students.

“We don’t change anything – there is no opportunity for it to be corrupted,” she said. "It's not our job to clean up data given to us by officials."

To test the difficulty of verifying such electoral data, a reporter from this paper entered the personal data provided by the two Queens students into two separate Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, one with the correct data and the other with the incorrect data. The paper then added in matching data for 800 different dummy records, similar to the records that would have been on file with the College internally.

A simple Excel 'Compare Sheets' function then identified the two inaccuracies out of all 802 entries within a few seconds' time.

The same Queens administrator who earlier acknowledged the inaccuracy was informed of the results of The Oxford Student's test, but refused to speak any further on the issue, saying she had already made clear that the College isn't responsible for errors made by local election officials.

A CLOSE RACE, BUT NO EASY WAY TO TELL HOW MANY INCORRECT POLLING CARDS WERE SENT

It is unclear how many foreign citizens might have been mistakenly allowed to vote in the general election, but the close margins of some contests mean any error could be significant.

Oxford West incumbent Evan Harris lost his re-election bid by just 176 votes. Harris’s campaign did not return questions about whether he would challenge the vote; his challenger, Nicola Blackwood, also did not respond to requests for comment by the time this paper went to print.

At least four undergraduate EU citizens at Harris Manchester College were mistakenly sent polling cards for both the local election and the general election, but were given the correct ballot at the polling station.

A spokesman for the national election commission confirmed that EU citizens eligible to vote only in local elections should have received polling cards – which tell voters what elections they are registered for, and where to go to vote – for those contests only. Local authorities were responsible for organizing voter registration and mailing polling cards, he said.

A worker at the Oxford election commission confirmed that EU citizens should not have been sent polling cards for the general election. If they were sent those cards, she said, there “wouldn’t be anything stopping them” from voting for a parliamentary candidate – “but they shouldn’t have done so.”

The confusion and apparent lack of safeguards raise worries about the integrity of last week’s elections in Oxford and elsewhere.

Multiple students told reporters of voting without being asked for identification, while national media reported “chaotic” scenes at polling stations around the country last week along with dozens of allegations of postal vote fraud.

OxStu reporters Winston Featherly-Bean and Matt Thompson-Ryder also contributed to this report. Additionally, the identities of all college officials and named sources were verified independently by the paper's legal counsel before publication of this story.

“Slay the Jews?!”

10 minute read

"Slay the Jews?!"

Police report contradicts Israeli minister's allegation of racist abuse by Union member (link to story on OxfordStudent.com)

Picture 2

By Carl Lewis, News Editor

news@oxfordstudent.com

6 May 2010

Police have found no evidence for the widely reported claim that a student protester yelled "Slay the Jews" during an Israeli minister's speech at the Oxford Union last term.

A video analysis of the event has revealed that Noor Rashid, a third-year at Teddy Hall, gave an accurate account to authorities concerning what he shouted at Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

It did not find any evidence that Rashid uttered the Arabic phrase “Idhbah al-yahud,” meaning "kill the Jews," as Mr. Ayalon told the audience, and other media outlets have previously suggested.

According to the report, Rashid's actual remark in Arabic translates as  "Khaybar, khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return," a phrase which is based on a classical Arabic chant concerning a seventh-century battle between Arabs and Jews at Khaybar, in the Arabian Peninsula.

A spokesman for Mr. Ayalon said the Deputy Foreign Minister stands by his original claim that Rashid made anti-Semitic remarks, but admits he may have misinterpreted or misheard what the student actually said.

"It was very loud, and a lot of people were shouting at once. But even if we misheard the student, what he claims he shouted still has the same threatening, violent and genocidal intent, and is highly inflammatory. We find it very unfortunate that he is not being found guilty," Ayalon's spokesman said.

Rashid said his remark may have been distasteful but it was not intended as anti-Semitic. He said he meant it simply as a metaphor for the Palestinian people overcoming adversity.

"I never said to kill the Jews. I think anti-Semitism is deplorable. Sure, what I shouted wasn't the nicest thing in the world, but it's entirely different than advocating genocide," Rashid said.

Otared Haidar, an Arabic scholar at Oxford's Oriental Institute, referred to Rashid's remark as an "outdated slogan that should not be used."

"It's better that we speak in modern terms, and a lot more civil," Haidar said.

The 8th February incident drew national media attention after Ayalon accused Rashid during the event of calling for the slaughter of Jews and later posted the accusation on his Twitter page.

Eyewitness accounts of the event varied widely as few of those in attendance spoke Arabic and could interpret or remember what Rashid said.

Rashid called coverage of the incident "provocative, inflammatory and slanderous to my name."

"Now when people Google my name, hate speech comes up that I didn't actually say," he said.

Rashid said he considered pressing charges against the Cherwell newspaper after it published an account stating the allegations against him as fact, but eventually relented because of legal costs.

Thames Valley Police have dropped their investigation into Rashid, citing a lack of evidence.

"We take accusations of racist hate speech very seriously, and we could not find any proof that such behavior took place in this incident," a police spokeswoman said.

An Oxford Union official has confirmed that Rashid will remain a Union member.

The Sun News (Houston County)

Peach of a party

9 minute read

MA_01E6

Peach of a Party

Opening event a big draw at Georgia Peach Festival

The Sun News

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009

Ask Andrew Mathis to name his favorite food and he’ll tell you in an instant.

“It’s peaches, no question,” he said.

Mathis, a 70-year-old from Fort Valley, worked at a peach farm earlier in life and hasn’t missed a single Georgia Peach Festival since the event was launched in 1986.

Saturday, he made it out once again to the festival’s annual kickoff celebration at the Peach Shops of Byron.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he said.

The celebration began at 5 p.m. and featured live music, arts and crafts vendors, a fireworks show and a foam party for the kids.

Festival director Rich Bennett said it was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen for the celebration.

Brandi Trivette, a vendor at the event who sells peach-scented candles she makes at her home in Warner Robins, said the crowd was good for business.

“The peach candle has been a real hit tonight. People here in Peach County sure do love their peaches,” Trivette said.

But for some people, such as Janet Wynne and her husband, David, this year’s Peach Festival isn’t just about the titular fruit.

“Peaches are great, but we’re more into motorcycles, which is why we’re here,” she said.

Wynne said she had never been to the Peach Festival before until she rode in the festival’s first Poker Run Saturday morning.

On the other hand, Wynne’s 3-year-old daughter, Erika, said she loved the foam party.

“It looks like snow,” she said.

J.B. Roberson, an author from Warner Robins, was at the celebration signing copies of her latest children’s book, “Cuddlee Bugs: Revenge o’ the Peach Potion.”

“It’s a book that’s actually a lot about the Peach Festival,” she said.

The bands 2 Finger Jester and The Skeeterz performed free shows during the celebration.

“I was a little worried Two Finger Jester might be too loud for the festival, but everybody seemed to love them,” Bennett said. Mathis, however, said he was holding out for The Skeeterz, a more traditional country band.

“I may be old, but I love to dance when they play my sort of music,” he said.

The festival concluded with a fireworks display shot off from behind the shopping center.

“The fireworks are always the best part,” Bennett said.

As the kickoff to the festival drew to a close, Bennett said he held high hopes for the rest of it.

“This is looking like it might be one of the best Peach festivals yet. We’ve already gotten more involvement than last year,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

The Telegraph

Republicans trim Cagle’s powers

9 minute read

UPDATE: Story picked up by Augusta Chronicle, cited in AJC Jim Galloway's Political Insider

Republicans trim Cagle's powers -  (view published story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Saturday, Nov. 08, 2010

Following a heated day of closed-door meetings in downtown Macon, Georgia’s Senate Republican leaders decided Friday to strip some of newly re-elected Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s powers in the Senate.

Chamber leaders are calling it a new “power-sharing agreement.”

The Republican caucus gathered at Mercer University’s Woodruff House on Friday to discuss its rules and elect new leaders. Also at issue during the caucus meeting was a discussion of whether the lieutenant governor has too much power in the chamber.

Screen shot 2010-11-06 at 5.18.34 PM

After seven hours of deliberation, leaders reached the decision to peel back the lieutenant governor’s powers to assign committees, though the lieutenant governor will still retain some role in the committee-appointment process, said Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

A new seven-member committee of Republican legislators will be formed, and Cagle will have the power to choose two of the members of that committee.

Staton was one of the leaders who called Friday’s meeting, where he was elected as the caucus’ new majority whip.

Staton said the decision to take away some of Cagle’s power was not because of discontent with Cagle’s leadership. Staton maintained that the decision was a routine refinement of the caucus’ rules.

“This is not, in my view, any attempt to slight or take anything away from Lt. Gov. Cagle himself. He will still have quite a lot of power, and it has nothing to do with him personally. This is simply a routine rule change, and it’s a way to keep a good balance between the lieutenant governor and the Senate,” Staton said.

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, also was one of the legislators who called Friday’s meeting. Rogers insisted the decision was not meant to reflect the chamber’s view of Cagle personally.

“Every single member of this body not only supports Cagle’s leadership but considers him a personal friend,” Rogers said. “This is simply a new power-sharing agreement that we’ve come to.”

But Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said Friday afternoon that he wasn’t convinced the move to trim Cagle’s power was entirely fair.

“It’s certainly disappointing that they’re wanting to do this, especially given the fact that the voters so clearly expressed support of Cagle in Tuesday’s election,” Fry said.

Fry said he didn’t know what might have motivated the caucus to reach its decision, but that Cagle remained confident in the caucus’ judgment.

“We’re not ready to speculate on what might have led the caucus to be called, and we’re not going to get involved in the politics,” Fry said. “As always, Cagle is focused on doing what the voters overwhelmingly elected him to do, which is to serve this state.”

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

14 minute read

Picture 2

Scott topples Marshall in 8th district congressional race

By Mike Stucka and Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Reflecting the broader national backlash against the Democratic Party this election season, voters denied U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon a fifth term in office Tuesday, choosing Republican Austin Scott as his replacement.

With 78 percent of precincts reporting, Scott led Marshall 52.5-47.5 percent in a bruising battle for Georgia’s 8th Congressional District seat.

Scott, the current state representative for Tift and Turner counties, celebrated his victory Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Tifton.

He said his campaign won on its own merits, not because of the national picture.

“We won this race because we had the better campaign team. We worked harder than they did,” Scott said.

Scott said his supporters had placed about 250,000 telephone calls.

“At the end of April, [Marshall] was unbeatable. And tonight, tonight, Georgians have spoken,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, a crowd of about 100 Marshall supporters and campaign workers at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon watched with disappointment as Marshall trailed Scott by 8 to 10 percentage points for much of the night.

Marshall said around 10:15 p.m. that it was “hard to see a clear path to victory,” but he refused to comment on the results specifically until he confirmed Scott’s win. He blamed Scott’s lead on Republican attacks against his party affiliation.

“It’s a national tide, and there’s not much I could do. We’ve done well, and I’ve had a good team. I don’t toe the party line, but many people haven’t been able to realize that,” Marshall said.

Marshall conceded to Scott late Tuesday.

Rusty Adams of Warner Robins was one of the Marshall supporters who showed up to support the campaign Tuesday night. He expressed his disappointment with Marshall’s loss.

“I can’t believe it. I’m gonna have to live with it, though,” Adams said.

Marshall drew criticism from the Scott campaign for some of his votes, and ads on Scott’s behalf tied Marshall to Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. Marshall launched his own campaign ads to distance himself from Pelosi.

But those efforts didn’t carry the day for Marshall. He needed critical support from swing voters such as Christine Gausche of Bonaire, wife of a retired U.S. Air Force officer. Gausche backed Marshall in 2008 — but shifted her support to the Republicans this year.

“I think he’s done some good things, but he’s part of a larger group that hasn’t done such good things,” Gausche said.

Marshall had trailed Scott in several recent polls, with some of them giving Scott an 8-point lead over the incumbent Democrat.

Marshall, who dropped out of Princeton University to fight in Vietnam, is a former Macon mayor and faculty member of Mercer University’s law school.

Scott appeared to have won in at least 16 of 21 counties in the district.

Marshall won in Bibb County by a wide margin, but the vote was nearly even in Houston County, with votes tilting slightly in Scott’s favor.

Bibb and Houston counties represent much of the 8th District’s population and voters, many of whom have ties to Robins Air Force Base. Late Tuesday, many of the votes in Twiggs and Houston counties had not been tallied.

House Republican Conference Secretary John Carter, a key member of the Republican Steering Committee that assigns House members to committees, said in a statement Tuesday night that he is excited over Scott’s election, and he would push the Steering Committee to assign Scott to committees most important to Georgia.

“Austin Scott has the common sense conservative fiscal values and life experience that are essential to winning a seat on critical committees,” Carter said.

“I am committed to use my influence in Republican leadership and on the Steering Committee to push Congressman-elect Scott for the seats that will do his district, Georgia, and the nation the most good.”

Scott told The Telegraph that voters wanted changes. And if the new Republican majority in the House doesn’t do the right thing, voters will vote for more changes in two years.

“It’s all about work now — jobs and the economy,” Scott said.

Scott’s mother, Becky, kept dancing with joy as she talked with a reporter. She said she knew the reason her son won, and thought it would translate well into Congress: “A lot of hard work.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251. To contact writer Carl Lewis, e-mail clewis@macon.com.

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K

12 minute read

Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K (link to story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

Screen shot 2010-11-01 at 3.16.03 AM

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

Georgia’s Senate minority leader proposed one possible solution to the dwindling HOPE Scholarship fund Wednesday: Only give it to the students who need it the most.

Calling for a “return to the original intent” of the state lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program, state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, pushed for the family income cap to be reinstated for HOPE eligibility as a way to keep the program afloat and ensure it allows the most possible students to afford college.

Brown’s suggestion comes after it was projected this week that despite continued record lottery tickets sales, the HOPE Scholarship fund will fall short $560 million in the next two years as the number of eligible students attending college continues to soar.

“More and more students are going to college, and it’s becoming hard to keep up with demand for the scholarship,” said Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission that runs the HOPE program.

When then-Gov. Zell Miller first created the HOPE Scholarship in 1993, only families making less than $66,000 per year could qualify.

After a successful first year, that cap was raised in 1994 to $100,000, and in 1995 it was lifted altogether.

Brown said he's pushing for a new income cap of six times the federal poverty level, which he estimated would be about $150,000 for a family of four.

“I think it’s a lasting solution if we want to save HOPE, and it’s in line with the original purpose of the scholarship, which was to make a college education more affordable for Georgia students who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” Brown said.

Brown said his plan would not affect students already receiving the HOPE Scholarship, but at the earliest, it could impact students applying for the scholarship beginning in July 2011.

Brown said he doesn’t think the income cap will discourage students who don’t qualify financially from making the B average required for the scholarship.

“Those students are probably already discouraged from performing well,” Brown said.

As for families making just above the income cap who have budgeted with HOPE in mind, Brown said they’d have to “find other plans.”

“There are other institutions in the private sector that could offer students merit-based scholarships,” Brown said.

State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, said he disagrees with Brown’s proposal to reinstate the income cap for HOPE.

Harp said the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship wasn’t necessarily to make college affordable for low-income families, but to reward hard-working students for their achievement.

“The HOPE Scholarship isn’t, and never has been, a need-based scholarship,” Harp said. “It’s been based on maximizing academic achievement by rewarding students who make good grades. That’s why the income cap was removed once the program started being successful.”

Harp said he wants to wait and see what happens with the economy before making any cuts to HOPE or deciding to reinstate an income cap.

“It’s not at a crisis point. We still have $1.5 billion in reserve money, and HOPE is too important of a program to ruin, and has been too successful so far, not to evaluate other options first,” Harp said.

Brown said he knows his plan to reinstate the needs qualification for HOPE may be unpopular with many, but that the scholarship’s current budget situation leaves no other choice.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some resistance. People have come to view HOPE as an entitlement program, which it’s not. We’ve got to find a way to make it sustainable, and this is the best way,” Brown said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon home

8 minute read

UPDATE: Follow-up on autopsy report from Aug. 21

SPACE

Woman’s body found in backyard of vacant Macon homeScreen shot 2010-10-28 at 8.40.16 PM

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

Breaking news - Crime reports


A woman’s body was discovered in the backyard of a vacant south Macon home Thursday afternoon.


Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said police received an anonymous call about 2 p.m. that a fully-clothed, dark-haired white woman in her late 30s or early 40s was lying dead in the bushes at 1284 Glendale Ave., near Houston Avenue. She had severe lacerations on her body from what appeared to be dog bites and had been dead for between six and eight hours, Jones said.

Jones said a pack of pit bulls were found roaming around the yard of the home, but he would not say whether police suspected the woman was actually killed by the dogs.

“At this time, the cause of death is unknown, and police are investigating,” Jones said.

Jones said the woman had yet to be identified as of late Thursday afternoon. He said an autopsy to determine the cause of death would be performed Friday.

Neighbors said the home has been empty since the previous tenants moved about two weeks ago. They said people from the community often cut through the alley of the house as a shortcut to a nearby convenience store.

Kristia Hargrove, who lives down the street, said she’s seen the pit bulls outside the house for a few days now, and she knows of at least two people who have been bitten by them already.

“One of my best friends was bitten by one of those dogs the other day. She had teeth prints all over her. That’s why I don’t walk near that house or through that alley anymore,” Hargrove said.

Neighbor Peggy Johnson said she wasn’t convinced the dogs killed the woman. She said she recognized the woman’s body as someone she had seen walking around the neighborhood before.

“I think she was already dead and that the dogs just smelled blood and went ballistic. If the dogs had attacked her when she was alive, she would have screamed, and someone would have heard her,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what actually killed her, though.”

Macon police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet said police have yet to determine whether foul play was involved.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 751-7500 or Macon Regional CrimeStoppers at (877) 68-CRIME.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents

11 minute read

Landfill expansion opposed by some Twiggs County residents - (view story on Macon.com)

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010

It’s not just the rumble of garbage trucks past Tracie Fountain’s Twiggs County home each day that perturbs her.

It’s the odor.

Fountain lives just down the road from the Wolf Creek Landfill in Dry Branch, so close that she can smell the garbage dumped there. She’s one of the 779 Twiggs County residents who have signed a petition opposing a planned expansion of the landfill.

In July, the company that owns it, Advanced Disposal of Jacksonville, Fla., filed a rezoning and conditional use application with the Twiggs County Planning and Zoning office to expand the landfill by nearly tripling its size, from 135 acres to about 370 acres.

Last month, a group of residents found out about the company’s plan to expand and banded together to speak out against it.

The Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the planned expansion at its meeting Tuesday night, voting unanimously to recommend that the Twiggs County Commission reject the company’s proposal during its Aug. 17 meeting.

Now, the five-member commission will decide whether the company will move forward with its plans.

Three of the commissioners, Ray Bennett, Donald Floyd and Milton Sampson, said Wednesday that they’re not sure yet if they’ll approve the application, saying they don’t know all the details. The other two commissioners, Kathryn Epps and Tommie Bryant, did not return phone calls.

As part of the agreement with the disposal company, the county receives $1 for each ton of waste the landfill processes. The figure increases to $1.20 per ton if the amount surpasses 500 tons per day and to $1.40 if it exceeds 1,000 tons per day.

The landfill generally disposes of more than 1,200 tons of waste every day, according to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. That means for each day the landfill is in operation, the county brings in $1,400 to $1,700.

While that’s a large source of revenue for the county, resident Chris Bowen, who lives nearby, said he doesn’t think it’s enough money to justify keeping the landfill, which handles trash from several other counties, including Wilkinson, Jones and Bibb.

“We don’t want Twiggs County to be the dumping ground for the rest of the state. It doesn’t benefit anybody but the company and its pocketbook. Advanced Disposal is making a killing while killing our county,” Bowen said.

Virginia Villatoro, who works for Advanced Disposal in the landfill’s office, would not respond to specific concerns that the landfill could be getting too big. She did say she thinks the company has been aboveboard throughout the process.

“The required public notice postings and time frames have been complied with as required” by law, Villatoro said.

But for Fountain, who lives next door to the landfill with her two teenagers, the only thing that matters now is fending off the expansion proposal.

“I don’t want to smell trash at my house, and I don’t want my kids in danger and playing near the landfill,” she said. “Whether it’s only 20 people who live around here or 1,000, it affects everyone in the county.

“It’s a public problem, and it’s not the sort of thing we need if we want Twiggs County to grow.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

 “The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.
“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

9 minute read

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Midstate shoppers turn out for sales-tax savings

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Friday, Jul. 31, 2009

 

Ready, set, shop. It’s a sales-tax holiday.

The four-day sales-tax holiday kicked off Thursday, and many area stores saw crammed parking lots and congested shopping aisles as a result.

So far, in 2009, retail sales nationwide have dropped about 5 percent, said John Heavener, president of the Georgia Retail Association. But in Georgia, numbers could be better than in other states because of this weekend’s sales tax holiday, which promises to lure in cash-strapped consumers who might not otherwise make purchases.

“We believe that with the combination of strong discounts and the sales-tax holiday, Georgia can stay above the national retail average,” Heavener said.

It’s still early in the weekend, but area stores are bracing for the best, too.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and those in the Macon Mall said they expect to see full parking lots Saturday and Sunday.

Already, before the end of the workweek, some stores have noticed a frenzy of consumers reaping the discounts of the holiday.

At the Best Buy store on Presidential Parkway in Macon, hordes of shoppers came out Thursday to save money on high-ticket computers and accessories.

“We’ve seen a lot more customers than usual,” said store manager Eli Douglass. “We haven’t seen this amount of people in a while.”

One of those customers, Patricia Adams, bought a new laptop which she plans to use to communicate with her son, who is a Marine deployed in Afghanistan.

“I’ve been needing a computer so I can e-mail him, but I’ve been holding out to buy it until this weekend,” she said. “Now I’ll feel a little closer to him while he’s overseas.”

At Staples, back-to-school shoppers such as Adrienne Bershinski, took advantage of the sales-tax break to stock up on supplies.

“I’m on a tight budget lately, so I figured I’d get my school shopping out of the way when I can avoid the extra tax,” said Bershinski, who starts class at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law next month.

Clothing qualifies for the sales-tax holiday, too, and many area department stores have made the necessary preparations for the weekend.

At the Kohl’s on Watson Boulevard in Warner Robins, 20 extra employees will be on hand to handle the spike in traffic, manager Derek Meredith said.

“We’re expecting a lot more shoppers, especially in the clothing and shoes departments,” Meredith said.

At the Target in Macon on Thursday, Peche Ellis, of Griffin, was one of the first of those shoppers. She filled her cart with new blouses and dresses for fall.

“I only meant to buy one dress coming in here. But after seeing what better deals I can get, I’m buying a lot more than I expected,” she said.

The tax-free weekend will last through Sunday. Only school supplies, clothing and certain electronics qualify.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

College officials: Enrollment up at midstate colleges

9 minute read

Click here to view article online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Aug. 17, 2009

Enrollment at midstate colleges is higher than ever this fall as the sluggish economy compels students to work toward the safeguard of a college diploma, officials say.Picture 4

At Georgia College & State University, 6,665 students are set to start classes today. That’s a 15 percent increase from last year’s enrollment.

“Young people these days are starting to figure out that, in this economy, they’re going to need a college degree if they want to keep up,” Georgia College and State University spokeswoman Judy Bailey said. “And our dorms are filled to capacity."

To handle the spike in students, 13 additional professors have been hired and two buildings have been constructed, including a health sciences facility, which will house nine new classrooms.

Fort Valley’s State University’s enrollment is skyrocketing, too.

Between 3,800 and 4,200 students are expected to begin class at FVSU today, a massive jump from last year’s record enrollment of 3,106 students.

Terrance Smith, the university’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said FVSU is ready to accommodate the influx with recent improvements to the campus.

Wildcat Commons, one of FVSU’s new residence halls, will house 378 additional students, and University Villas, a nearby apartment complex, will house 138 students. A 10,000-seat stadium is expected to be completed within the next week.

“We’re poised for another successful year,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, officials expect more than 6,500 students will begin classes today. That’s a 2 percent increase from last year.

“It’s still early, but our numbers are definitely up,” said John Cole, the college’s vice president of advancement.

Of those 6,500 Macon State students, 2,000 of them will be attending classes at the college’s Warner Robins campus, where a new $5 million lecture hall will open.

At Gordon College in Barnesville, enrollment is expected to climb from 3,800 to more than 4,000 students .

“We are expecting a record-setting number of students,” said Ben Ferguson, director of admissions.

Gordon College has entered into an agreement with the city of Barnesville to use the football field parking area adjacent to campus to accommodate the increase in students.

Enrollment numbers for private schools such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College won’t be finalized for a number of weeks, but all signs point to similarly healthy gains in those institutions as well.

At Mercer, more than 600 new freshmen will move in on campus Saturday, making it the largest incoming class in a number of years.

“It’s looking like record enrollment for us, too,” university spokesman Larry Brumley said.

Brumley said he’s expecting about 8,000 students to be enrolled by the time classes start Aug. 25.

That’s a 19 percent increase from last year.

And at Wesleyan College, spokeswoman Susan Welsh said she’s expecting 20 percent more students to be enrolled this fall than last year.

“It’s going really well for us,” she said.

Cochran home infested with estimated 1,000 bats

16 minute read

 

Update: Follow-up story ran on Jul. 30.

Cochran home infested with bats

Owner can't afford $10,000 extermination price tag

By Carl Lewis

Saturday Jul. 18, 2009

COCHRAN — It smells foul on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Really, really foul.

Walking down the street toward Victoria Jackson’s home, the musky stench gets even worse. Stepping inside, it grows almost unbearable.

“It’s a very, very bad odor,” the homeowner said.

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It’s the scent of the droppings from what exterminators estimate are more than 1,000 bats that have made Jackson’s home their roosting spot.

Jackson, 70, has been living with bats since she moved into the house in 1983, but the problem’s gotten worse in the last six months.

She’s tried getting rid of the flying mammals, but the exterminator she consulted told her it would cost about $10,000 to complete the job.

“There’s no way I can afford to do it,” said Jackson, whose efforts to get government grants to help eliminate the bats have been rejected.

The bats are entering the house through gaps between the walls and roof, Jackson said. Usually, the nocturnal creatures stay in the attic, but more and more, particularly at nighttime, Jackson has noticed them squeezing their way into her kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom.

“I’ll see one flying around at least once a day,” she said.

One of the bats bit Jackson’s daughter, Ann Cumby, while she was staying at the house one night two years ago. Cumby was able to kill the bat with an iron, put it in a plastic bag and take it to the doctor’s office, where it tested negative for rabies.

But that doesn’t mean Jackson and her daughter are safe from the disease.

“Just because one bat tests negative for rabies doesn’t mean the others don’t have it,” Jacob Polsky, an environmentalist at the Bleckley County Health Department in Cochran, said. “It’s a huge risk to be living in a house like that.”

Polsky recommended that Jackson and her daughter receive rabies treatment if they continue staying at the home.

Jackson hasn’t been bitten by a bat yet — at least as far as she knows.

“It’s possible that she has been bitten in the middle of the night and never even knew it happened,” Polsky said.

Rabies isn’t the only health issue Jackson and her daughter have to worry about. Wade Green, an extension agent in nearby Twiggs County, said the mother and daughter are at risk for developing histoplasmosis, a serious respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows on bat droppings.

“When people breathe in the air from bat droppings that have developed the fungus, they can get fever, chest pains or even develop a chronic lung disease,” Green said. “In the elderly, it could even become fatal.”

Jackson’s neighbors who breathe in the air are at risk, too, Green said.

Tyrone Elvine, who lives down the street from Jackson with his wife and kids, said he can smell the bats from sitting inside his house watching TV.

And Rose Coley, the 84-year-old who lives next door, said she’s scared the bats will make their way into her house next.

“I can smell them really strong, especially when a breeze blows through,” she said. “But what really scares me is the thought that one will come here and bite me.”

The bats can be heard chirping above the walls of the house almost constantly. Next-door neighbor Coley said the chirping noises the bats can grow so loud at times that it interferes with her sleeping.

The creatures can be seen flitting around inside through cracks in the roof, and bat droppings and carcasses blanket the edges of the house's foundation.

Earlier this week, Jackson’s daughter had a friend try to plug up the holes on the outside of the house where the bats have been entering, but so far, she’s been unsuccessful in her efforts to eradicate the creatures.

“It’s going to take a professional,” Cumby said. “And that’s something I just don’t think we can pay for right now.”

Truetech Pest and Animal Control is one local company that specializes in bat removal.

Michael Pope, who manages the company, said bat removals can cost anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the structure and the type of bats roosting there. Rather than traditional pest removals, bats have to be siphoned out of homes through special tubes and equipment.

“We’d be glad to come out Monday and give her a free inspection and see what we can do to help her from there,” Pope said.

In the meantime, Jackson said she and her daughter are still trying to save up enough money to get the bats removed.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said. ”Hopefully, we’ll be able to do something about it soon.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Tuition ammunition

16 minute read

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Tuition Ammunition

New G.I. bill offers midstate veterans a full ride to Mercer, Wesleyan

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

From a young age, Elyse Jones wanted to be a dermatologist.

But when she was called to active duty with the Air Force in 2002, Jones, who was 19 at the time, almost gave up her plans to go to college.

“I put everything on hold, and I wasn’t sure of what would happen or if I’d be able to go to school in the future at all,” she said.

Now, the 26-year-old may finally be getting the chance. Beginning next month, her classes at Wesleyan College should be covered under new benefits she earned from her military duty.

Jones is one of the many midstate service members who plans to reap the benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill that takes effect in August.

Under the bill, a limited number of qualified Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans will be able to attend private colleges such as Mercer University and Wesleyan College for free or minimal tuition. And they will get expanded benefits at public institutions, too.

Dan Hines, a third-year Mercer law student, hopes to be one of the five students who will receive an additional $4,000 in financial assistance in the fall, half of which will come from federal coffers.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this program,” said Hines, who served 13 months in Iraq and is president of the Mercer Law Military Veterans Association.

In the past, the federal government has helped pay for veterans’ tuition and fees at private colleges, but only up to an amount that matched the tuition at the most expensive public college in the state.

Yet at pricier private institutions such as Wesleyan and Mercer University, tuition exceeds that cap, which in the past has often forced service members either to make up the difference themselves or choose a public school instead.

However, under the Yellow Ribbon campaign — a component of the new bill — the government and participating private colleges will jointly cover the remaining difference to pay the entire tuition cost. At Mercer and Wesleyan in Macon, that means qualified veterans will receive a full scholarship.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mercer will contribute $11,625 per student, per year for 17 undergraduate students, while Wesleyan will contribute $8,750 for 10 students. Veterans Affairs will then match those amounts.

Mercer also has committed to covering the difference for at least 28 veterans to attend its graduate schools and regional academic centers and will contribute $2,000 in assistance to five veterans attending its law school.

A number of other veterans already have expressed interest in taking advantage of the program to attend Mercer, said Rick Goddard, who’s heading up the program at the school.

“These are veterans who may not necessarily have been able to afford Mercer without this assistance,” Goddard said. “And Mercer’s glad to have them. They bring a world of experience to the university, and the university feels an obligation to serve them.”

At least six veterans plan to attend Wesleyan in the fall using Yellow Ribbon money, Susan Welsh, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

At public colleges, veterans can expect to see enhanced benefits, too, though not as dramatic of improvements as their peers in private institutions are seeing.

In keeping with past GI bills, all qualified service members at state schools would still receive free tuition, but they now can transfer their benefits to family members more easily and may, in some cases, receive higher living stipends, said Tammie Burke, who handles VA programs at Georgia College & State University.

But while the bill does provide some new advantages to students at state colleges, it’s not expected to be a major change.

“At GCSU, it’s going to improve the way in which student veterans receive benefits, but it’s not really going to affect the amount of benefits they receive,” Burke said.

Officials at Macon State College and Fort Valley State University echoed Burke’s sentiments, saying that while the bill is a great improvement, it should not cause any major influx in veteran enrollment.

The new bill does have stipulations. To qualify for full assistance, veterans must have served at least 36 months for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Waugh said. Other service — such as Homeland Security missions or participation in the Active Guard and Reserve Program — may not qualify for benefits under the bill.

As for Jones, she’s getting the chance to attend a school she might not have been able to afford otherwise.

“I love the small, private setting of Wesleyan,” she said. “It gives me opportunities I might not have gotten at a big state school.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Eyes on the ‘flies

12 minute read

Eyes on the Flies:

Annual Macon butterfly count keeps tabs on ecosystem

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Tuesday Jul. 7, 2009

The van rumbled along the damp clay road as Andy Rindsberg narrowed his eyes upon the thicket of verbena and kudzu scattered underneath the Georgia Power lines.

The vehicle screeched to a halt. Rindsberg grasped his camera, binoculars and field guide and leapt out of the car.

MA_01A Click to enlarge.

“Look at that!” he exclaimed, gesturing at what appeared to be a clump of average roadside weeds.

Nearly invisible to the naked eye sat a tiny, drab, mostly brown butterfly atop the leaf of a buttonbush.

“It’s so ornate,” Rinsberg said as he squinted into his binoculars. “It’s a Creole Pearly Eye. I’ve never seen one of those before.”

Rindsberg was one of eight volunteers who joined wildlife officials Monday for Macon’s annual butterfly count. Participants split into groups and counted as many different butterfly species as they could in one day to keep track of population trends.

The count surveyed a 7.5 mile radius, including parts of Bond Swamp, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Central City Park.

Early in the day, volunteers had a difficult time finding butterflies because of the drizzly wet weather.

“The butterflies don’t like to move around much when it’s rainy like this,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

At 11:30 in the morning, after walking down the banks of the Ocmulgee River for about two hours, a group of butterfly counters at Bonds View Road had only found 10 species.

“It’s really kind of dead right now,” Keyes said.

Just as volunteers prepared to retire for lunch, however, the sun emerged from behind the storm clouds and butterflies began to whiz around.

Keyes and his crew put off lunch until 1:30 p.m. because they kept finding more butterflies.

They found yellow Fiery Skippers flitting near the sycamore trees on the river’s banks, Red Admirals darting across the pathway and stately Hackberry Emperors sipping on the puddles in the road.

“The male butterflies like to have puddle parties right after a big rain. They’ll come out and drink up the water and take it back to the females,” said Rindsberg, who is a professor at the University of West Alabama.

By early afternoon, the group had counted 28 different species, but Keyes said he expected at least 40 species to be identified by the end of the day.

Identifying butterflies can be a cumbersome task, Keyes said. Usually, the two winged-insects zip by so quickly that a bystander isn’t able to get a good look at them.

To make the process easier, volunteers brought cameras to snap pictures of the butterflies before they flew into the bushes.

“Some of them are just naturally shy but others are paparazzi hogs and love to be photographed,” Rindsberg joked. “But, always, the first thing I do is try to get a picture.”

Once Rinsberg captures a photo on his digital camera screen, he can almost always identify which one of Georgia’s more than 120 native butterfly species the specimen belongs to within a matter of seconds.

“It’s really not that hard to do. Anyone can do it if they spent a few days studying (butterflies),” he said.

Rinsberg said butterfly counts are important not only because they keep tabs on how butterflies are doing, but because they indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole. “We absolutely must keep doing these counts, because they’re the first warning sign if something bad is about to happen,” he said.

To volunteer to be a butterfly counter in next year’s count, call the Department of Natural Resources office in Macon at 994-1438 or visit the Web site of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Home schooling

10 minute read

 

Home schooling

Georgia College Foundation hopes to save home of pioneering black educator

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009

MILLEDGEVILLE — Fifteen-year-old Deandre Hooks crouched on the porch of a crumbling, wood-planked house Wednesday morning to complete a writing assignment.

The house was nothing special and the heat was blistering, but it didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he felt perfectly at home.

“I’m meant to be here right now,” Hooks said. “It’s part of who I am.”

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It’s the same porch that black students like Hooks sat on 100 years ago.

Back then, the four-bedroom house on Clarke Street belonged to Sallie Ellis Davis, one of the first black educators in Georgia. Davis often mentored students at the house, which she lived in until her death in 1950.

But for many years, the historic home has been left to decay.

Now, officials from Georgia College & State University and the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation are trying to raise money to renovate the house and open it as an African-American cultural center.

In 2008, the Georgia Trust added the Davis house to its “Places in Peril” list because of the structure’s deteriorating condition.

“This is an important piece of African-American history that we desperately need to preserve,” Judy Bailey, a spokeswoman for the college, said.

Bailey said it will cost an estimated $380,000 to renovate the home and $25,000 to stabilize it. So far, the foundation has raised about $15,000.

“We’re looking for all the help we can get. We’ve got a long way to go, but we have to make sure we’re able to save this place,” Bailey said.

Davis was born in Milledgeville in 1877 to a black mother and an Irish father, Bailey said.

She attended the Eddy School, where she later served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years.

Her house, which was built in 1890, changed hands numerous times before Georgia College purchased it in 1989.

Bailey said she hopes the Davis house will inspire people to follow after Sallie’s legacy and enter the field of education.

“Sallie Davis educated black students during a period of time when they didn’t have access to education. Hopefully, this house will motivate people to become educators themselves,” she said.

Camille Tyson is the principal of Early College, a school for students in seventh through 12th grades that holds classes at Georgia College. Tyson took her students to see the Davis home Wednesday.

“Either you can be a pioneer or a settler,” Tyson said. “Sallie Ellis Davis was a pioneer, and these students can be pioneers, too. That’s what I want them to realize.”

Hooks, who is a 10th-grader at Early College, said Davis’ story has inspired him to pursue a more ambitious future.

“I’m going to go to college and be a professional when I grow up. (Davis) spent her entire life trying to make sure our ancestors could do that, and I don’t want to let her down,” he said.

To make a donation to the Sallie Ellis Davis Foundation, call Lee Snelling at (478) 445-8129.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Outside the big box

17 minute read

MA_01A5

Outside the big box

Macon Mall turns to arts, entertainment to fill empty space

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

Instead of showcasing his art in a downtown gallery like other artists, Michael Paul has chosen a different, less obvious place to share his work: the Macon Mall.

Paul is taking part in a new program called Artspace, which, along with a laser golf course, is one of the mall’s recent efforts to help reinvent itself.

The mall will offer 18 of its vacant stores in the east wing to artists, who can then transform the space into galleries, studios and offices. Three artists already have been recruited to display their work at the mall.

Mall manager Brian Olivi said he hopes the program will attract more people, increasing foot traffic and hopefully increasing sales for other mall retailers.

“We want to make the mall an art destination, to make it a fully functioning art colony for Middle Georgia with artists working on and showcasing their work around the clock,” Olivi said.

The idea for the program came from a sister mall in St. Louis, Olivi said. That mall was able to fill 45 empty stores with paintings, sculptures and dance studios.

“It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” Olivi said. “It helps retailers, it helps artists and it even helps the community by providing a place to view local artwork,” Olivi said.

As part of the program, artists will receive discounted rent, flexible lease terms and 24/7 access to their spaces.

Paul said the mall is a perfect place for him because, unlike other galleries, it allows him to keep 100 percent of the profits from his paintings rather than being charged a portion of the sale.

“I’ve considered putting my art in some of the galleries downtown, but this makes a lot more financial sense,” Paul said.

Another benefit of locating at the mall, he said, is that it makes his artwork accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see it.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a downtown art gallery but who would go to Macy’s or Sears on Eisenhower Parkway will see my art and get inspired,” Paul said.

Artspace is not the mall’s only effort to increase its traffic. In April, the mall recruited Lunar Mini Golf, a laser putt-putt company out of Akron, Ohio, to open a location in the second level of the east wing, near the former Dillard’s. Olivi said the business has already brought a new demographic to the mall.

“We’ve seen so many parents bring their kids there that the (Lunar Mini Golf) course is now our No. 1 store in the whole mall,” he said.

Despite the traffic from the laser golf course and other retailers, Macon Mall may not have an easy time getting artists to invest in the program.

The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center has at least 40 vacant storefronts and its sale is pending after going into foreclosure last July.

In 2007, Parisian, a 104,000-square-foot department store, closed its location in the mall. A year later, Dillard’s, another anchor store, relocated to the Shoppes at River Crossing, an outdoor shopping center in north Bibb County.

Macon Mall’s current management company, Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc., is “constantly out trying to attract new tenants,” Olivi said.

But in the past year, more than 35 stores have left the mall, according to the mall’s June 2008 directory compared with the June 2009 directory.

Some of the stores that have closed include Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Ruby Tuesday.

Last January, Dallas, Texas-based Movie Tavern Partners LP announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot dinner theater in a portion of the former Parisian store, but after further consideration, backed out of plans for the location.

“The initial plans for the theater didn’t turn out to be cost-effective, so the ownership decided to table the project and look elsewhere,” Olivi said.

Olivi maintains, however, that Macon Mall still has the ability to attract new tenants in the future, especially if the condition of the national economy continues to improve.

“Last year alone, the mall had 13 million visits from a 22-county area. We are still the premier shopping center of Middle Georgia, and our losses have been mostly because of the national recession,” he said.

Olivi said the mall houses the only Macy’s department store in the region and that a new Verizon Wireless store just opened in the shopping center this month.

Melissa Goff, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, said the company has no plans to close its store in Macon Mall at the current time.

Unlike other retailers at the mall who lease their space, Macy’s owns the property where its store is located. At least seven of the mall’s retailers have duplicate stores at The Shoppes at River Crossing, including Aeropostale, American Eagle, Belk and Sunglass Hut.

Olivi said he is not worried that The Shoppes will replace the mall anytime soon.

“Nobody wants to spend two or three hours outdoors in the summer heat shopping there. Here at Macon Mall, it’s 72 degrees year-round,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Seeds of community

11 minute read

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Seeds of community

Vegetable gardens help bring Macon neighbors together

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Monday, Jun. 15, 2009

Tucked away in a vacant lot behind Centenary United Methodist Church on College Street sits a humble plot where pole beans, tomatoes, eggplant and okra grow.

"But what we're really growing is hope," said Mark Vanderhoek, founder of the Beall's Hill Community Garden.

Volunteers broke ground for the garden in May as a joint project of the church and the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association.

The people who tend the garden share the food among themselves, and they donate much of the produce to the elderly and disabled in the community.

"The idea is to bring people in Beall's Hill neighborhood together through the garden. Everyone is the same when they have dirt on their hands," Vanderhoek said.

Vanderhoek got the idea for the garden last fall after hearing about a similar community garden in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Inspired by what the Pleasant Hill garden had accomplished, Vanderhoek, a Mercer University employee, pushed for a garden in the Beall's Hill neighborhood near his workplace.

In February, he brought the idea before a meeting of the Beall's Hill Neighborhood Association, where it met across-the-board approval from residents.

Ellen Byron, the neighborhood association's president, then secured a $1,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March to fund the project.

Since it opened May 2, volunteers have planted seven different vegetables and four different herbs.

"We're going to be making food baskets soon to take out to the people in the neighborhood who need to eat," Byron said.

She said she's excited at how the garden has given the neighborhood a sense of unity.

"A lot of different people live in Beall's Hill. This has given them all a common purpose," she said. "The first day we came out to work the garden, people who had never come out for anything in the community before showed up."

Mary Anne Richardson, who heads up the outreach ministry at Centenary, said she hopes students from Mercer University, which is across the street from the garden, will get involved.

David Davis is a professor of English at Mercer whose class volunteered at the Pleasant Hill community garden this spring.

He plans to have his freshman seminar class work at the new Beall's Hill garden in the fall.

"The class will have an environmental focus, and I think it'd be great for us to work in the garden," he said.

Naomi Johnson and Peter Gizens, owners of the Pleasant Hill garden, have been tending a patch of land on Craft Street since 2004.

Over the years, they've recruited about 30 steady volunteers to help them work the garden and have produced more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables to donate to people in need.

"All of our vegetables that aren't picked by our volunteers are given free of charge to seniors and physically challenged people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood," Johnson said.

Johnson said that community gardens like the ones in Pleasant Hill and Beall's Hill not only help revitalize the area around them, but they also help people develop better eating habits.

"I had to tell the people helping us not to fry the tomatoes. I don't recommend eating fried green tomatoes. They're not very good for you at all," she said.

But perhaps the best part about neighborhood gardens, in Johnson's opinion, is that they bring people together.

"In the dirt, everybody's kin. And that's just something that money can't put a price tag on," she said.

Commemorating history

9 minute read

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Commemorating history

Annual Juneteenth festival celebrates liberation, educates about struggles of slavery.

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009

Four years ago, Nduta Mwangi, 39, lived in a small tenement apartment in Kenya, where she and her sisters sewed traditional African dresses for a living.

Saturday, she brought those dresses to Macon and put them on sale at the annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival at Tattnall Square Park.

“These dresses represent who I am and who we as African-Americans are. It’s our living symbolic legacy,” she said.

The festival was a daylong celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the liberation of slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.

“It’s sort of like an African-American Independence Day,” said Michelle Fitz, a festival organizer.

But Fitz said that Juneteenth isn’t just for African-Americans.

“It’s a way to educate people of all races about the struggles of slavery. So many people have no idea or they forget what our people went through,” she said.

The festival featured live jazz music, arts and crafts vendors and educational presentations.

Festival director George Muhammad said he expected as many as 1,000 people to attend the festival by the end of the day.

Baatin Muhammad, a member of the Middle Georgia Jazz Allstar Band, said the festival is one of the band’s best opportunities to play yet.

“We’re really excited to play at this event in particular because of what it means to us. It means freedom. It means liberty. It means everything jazz music is supposed to be about,” he said.

One of the festival highlights was a Civil War era re-enactment that demonstrated the black freedom struggle.

Clifford Price, who’s been putting on the re-enactment in his spare time for the past 22 years, said his lifelong mission is to teach people to appreciate the hardships faced by black Union soldiers.

“We want to teach people what our ancestors did during the Civil War, about how they gave up their lives for that elusive word called freedom,” Price said.

James Simpson, a 49-year-old from Macon, has been bringing his wife and five kids to the festival for as long as he can remember.

“We come every year with lawn chairs and a cooler of sodas and stay all day. It’s not only fun, but it’s a great way to teach my kids something,” he said.

Simpson said he was particularly impressed with the variety of merchandise being sold at this year’s festival.

“I just got me a brand new yard hat,” he said.

Ankur Patel, a junior at Mercer University, said he heard the music from the festival as he was walking down College Street and decided to see what the event was all about.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear all this history. Even though I’m not black, I can appreciate it. It’s important that we all support events like this that teach people history and will change the way they look at things today,” he said.

State colleges, universities hit with furloughs

10 minute read

Click here to view this story online at Macon.com

By Carl Lewis

clewis@macon.com

Aug. 13, 2009

Public college students in the midstate may experience canceled classes, longer lines at the cafeteria and less one-on-one time with their professors this fall.Picture 5

As part of a new cost-cutting measure approved Wednesday by the Georgia Board of Regents, faculty and staff at Georgia’s colleges and universities will take six furlough days during the upcoming academic year. The measure is expected to save the state $42 million.

“The university system is no more immune from the impacts of this economy than any other organization,” Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said. “There will be impacts, but we will try to keep the impacts on students to a minimum.”

Still, it won’t be easy to cushion all students from the cuts.

At Fort Valley State University, officials will most likely close the campus altogether during the furlough days, spokeswoman Vickie Oldham said.

“Closing down is something we hate to do, but it’s best to do it that way because it saves on energy and utility costs,” Oldham said.

Terrance Smith, FVSU’s vice president of student affairs, said he hopes the university won’t be forced to shut down. If it does, officials will try to schedule closures during days that will impact students the least, he said.

“We’re looking at maybe a day or two during the Thanksgiving holiday or Christmas break,” Smith said.

At Macon State College, classes won’t be canceled, but students could have a harder time scheduling appointments with their academic advisers, spokesman Bill Weaver said.

“We’re hoping the impact upon students will be negligible ... but it is possible that there could be some very minimal time delays in getting seen,” he said.

Weaver said Macon State officials are trying to schedule professors’ days off during weekdays when they don’t teach classes, but plans are still preliminary.

“There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet. Does everybody have to take the same day off? Could we take half days?” Weaver said.

At Middle Georgia College in Cochran, quality of student services will be impacted across the board, President Michael Stoy said.

“It’s going to cause us to stagger our workload, which could cause students to see longer lines at places like the registrar’s office,” Stoy said.

Georgia College & State University hasn’t decided yet how it will implement the furloughs, but university operations will be impacted significantly, Georgia College President Dorothy Leland said.

“Collectively, the furloughs represent the loss of approximately 37,000 people hours during the fiscal year,” Leland said. “Our challenge is to find ways to continue to operate the university effectively and educate its students under these circumstances.”

Leland said she’s confident Georgia College faculty and staff will pull together during these tough times and find creative ways to do as little harm to the university’s 6,600 students as possible.

“Fortunately, the university has a history of people pulling together,” Leland said. “There is a creative, entrepreneurial spirit here. I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.

Written Articles

consumerjournalism

INTERACTIVE: Why is the South the most obese part of the country? Five theories

17 minute read

This map displays the obesity rate of each U.S. state in 2010. The darker shade red represents a higher percentage of obese residents, while the green represents states with lower obesity rates. Click on each state to see the exact totals of each state's obesity rate.* 

Southerners need to lay off of the Crisco, cut back on the processed foods and start spending more time on the treadmill to fight the growing epidemic of obesity, experts say.

According to 2010 data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South is the most obese region in the nation, with about one in three of its residents classifying as chronically obese. That's far greater than the entire nation, where the figure is closer to one in four.

Of the 10 states with the highest rates of adult obesity, eight of them are in the South: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee. And that's only assuming you don't count West Virginia as being "southern."

Across the nation, the epidemic has grown worse in recent years. Twelve states now have obesity rates higher than 30 percent, compared to four years ago when only one state, Mississippi, ranked above the 30 percent threshold. The only state in the Deep South without an obesity rate of more than 30 percent today is Georgia, but that appears to be primarily because the more physically fit population of metro Atlanta offsets the rest of the state's obesity.

But what's making the South –– the region CDC Dr. William Dietz has dubbed "the heart disease and stroke belt" –– more chubby than the rest of the nation? Here are five possible explanations:

1. High poverty -– The South may be obese, but it's also poor. With a poverty rate of 14 percent, the South is easily the most impoverished region in the country. And according to data from the USDA, states with a higher poverty rate also tend to have a higher number of obese citizens. Experts say that's because people with a low income are more likely to purchase high-calorie inexpensive processed foods, which contribute to weight gain. "If you overlay a map of obesity onto a map of poverty, the two very clearly correspond," said David A. Davis, a professor of Southern Studies at Mercer University who has conducted extensive research on southern foodways. "The southern diet is a diet of poverty, and it's one based on cheap, fatty processed foods."

2. The "grocery gap" – Because the South is largely rural, many residents don't have quality access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and are forced to drive long distances to find anything healthier than potato chips and sodas at roadside gas stations. All five states with above average of what the USDA calls "food insecurity" levels are located in the South: Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. What's more, it's significantly more expensive to purchase low-fat items in the South than in the rest of the nation. For example, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia all topped the list of states where it costs the most to buy low-fat milk, USDA data says.

3. The grease-fed "southern" culinary tradition -– One of the easiest explanations for the South's staggering obesity rates is the region's tradition of fried chicken, sweet tea and gravy on top of everything – or what's commonly referred to by non-southerners as the "Paula Deen" effect. "To me, it's simply a cultural habit regarding what we eat, not an issue of poverty," says Andy Breck, director of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit group based out of the University of South Carolina that seeks to raise awareness about ongoing issues facing the region. "People are fat in Mississippi. People are fat in South Carolina. People are fat in Alabama. There's got to be something going on. And it's not just poor people. It's middle and upper-class folks who grotesquely overeat, because that's all they've ever known to do."

4. Lack of physical activity–– Southerners also tend to be less physically active than the rest of the country, burning off fewer calories and retaining more body fat, USDA data says. All five U.S. states where less than 60 percent of adults met the USDA's recommended physical activity guidelines in 2008 were located below the Mason Dixon Line: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Some researchers have speculated that the South's lack of physical activity may not be so much sheer laziness as it is a lack of access to places to exercise. Few rural areas have fancy private gyms for southerners to burn off their extra calories, and most of the year it's just too plain hot in the South to exercise outdoors.

5. Lack of quality education – Perhaps at the heart of the southern obesity epidemic, however, is the region's crippling lack of quality public education. "I don't buy the fact that the South is fat because of traditional southern foodways," said Davis, who teaches classes on southern poverty and culture and has written numerous articles on the subject. "To me, it's more of a poverty and an educational problem. If we don't educate people, especially in terms of health education, we're going to keep having obese citizens."

*Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 3, 2012

Apple App Store’s “Walled Garden” Overrun With Weeds

64 minute read

By CARL V. LEWIS

In 1894, advertisers claimed snake oil could cure “all aches and pains." But by the time you realized it didn’t, it was too late. Your money was gone.

 

It's a predicament similar to the one facing thousands of customers at Apple's iTunes App Store, where unscrupulous app developers often lure unsuspecting consumers into buying misleading, knockoff and even downright scam apps for their iPhones and iPads. To make matters worse, Apple offers no guaranteed refund policy for app-store purchases, often leaving the consumer stuck with a flawed or bogus product and with only the bill to pay for it.

For just $12.99, you can get an app that magically heals warts!

Despite the fact that Apple bans apps that contain foul language, the company has approved dozens of dubious and often blatant scam apps in the four years since it opened. Many of these apps have made unrealistic, if not impossible, claims to health, beauty and emotional wellbeing. Take the $1.99 'AcneApp,'  for example, which – before the Federal Trade Commission ordered that Apple remove it from the marketplace in 2010 – sold 11,600 downloads with the promise to remove zits by projecting blue and red light onto the face. Or there's the 'Wart Healer' app, which, at a price tag of $12.99, claimed  "to provide wart removal via mental healing," according to its description in the iTunes store. It was removed in early 2011 after the blog Gizmodo posted about it.

Other apps Apple has approved for sale and subsequently pulled from market after pubshback include the 99-cent app called Baby Shaker, which simulated the violent shaking of an infant, as well as the app 'Less Cigarette!,' which claimed to help smokers ditch their tobacco habit by changing the taste of cigarettes using different colored lights.

To be fair, Apple has removed most of these bogus applications in a swift manner after coming under fire from the blogosphere. But in some cases, the worst scamming took place before the apps were removed, costing not only the consumer, but tarnishing the integrity of the entire App Store.

On Feb. 20, 2012, the fake Pokemon Yellow app was the second-highest grossing paid app in the entire App Store.

Take the case of the Pokemon Yellow app released in the App Store in mid-February. Upon its launch, the app ignited widespread fervor among fans of the popular Nintendo-owned Pokemon franchise. Within three days, the app skyrocketed to the top of the charts, selling more than 2,000 copies at 99 cents a pop and earning its developers more than $10,000 in profits. At its peak, Pokemon Yellow ranked as the second most popular paid-app in the entire 750,000-strong iTunes app marketplace, just behind the iconic 'Grand Theft Auto' game and four spots ahead of 'Angry Birds.'

But it didn't take long for users to figure out that something wasn't quite right about Pokemon Yellow. Despite the vast array of glowing five-start reviews suggesting otherwise, more than 1,500 users complained that the app  would only load one picture, then crash.

As it turns out, the app was a fake – an unusable knock-off of the real thing which duped thousands of loyal Pokeman fans into buying what they were led to believe was the genuine brand-name game. The app wasn't even made by Pokemon's copyright holder, Nintendo, but instead by a shady development company called House of Anime, which blatantly misrepresented its product and infringed on copyright laws.

Yet it was only after the popular gaming blog ArsTechnica blew the whistle on the fake Pokemon Yelllow app on February 19 –– causing the story to go viral –– that Apple took any action to remove the app from the store.

When Apple first launched the App Store in 2008, CEO Steve Jobs promised consumers the store would uphold a “walled-garden policy” in which Apple would screen all third-party apps before they made their way into the marketplace. No profanity, no pornography and no copyright infringements would be allowed to be distributed through the hallowed App Store gates, and no app would be given the green light without rigorous review and inspection by Apple developers and product testers.

But what began as a walled garden has now become overrun with weeds, with hundreds of flimsy, fraudulent and full-blown scam apps sprouting up in the iTunes store in 2011 and early 2012.

"Recently there's been a dramatic rise in the number of fraudulent apps getting attention – even top sales positions – in the iPhone and iPad store," wrote iMore Editor-in-Chief Rene Ritchie in February. "For consumers, it's just one more hurdle face when trying to find the good apps."

While outcry from the FTC, consumer advocacy groups and an army of indignant bloggers like Ritchie has led Apple to ban many fraudulent applications, scam-like apps continue to exist in various, but less obvious, forms today.

Dozens of apps in the App Store claim to do one thing, yet deliver another. Despite repeated efforts by Apple to purge the store of ripoff apps, dozens still exist today, with app developers continuously figuring out ways to game the system by artificially boosting product ratings.

Here are five of the most egregious apps we found that are currently in the App Store:

1. Microsoft Word 2010 - Mastering in 24h (view)

As you can see here, the reference guide apps from FutureMedia look like the actual applications on an iPhone screen.

Looking to download a copy of Microsoft Word on your device so you can edit on-the-go? If so, don't be fooled into shelling out $11.99 for this app that appears at first glance to be a functional copy of Word 2010, bearing the Office 2010 and Microsoft Word logos in its iconography. We downloaded this app to give it a whirl, only to find out that it's merely a 20-page guidebook of free tips and instructions on how to use Microsoft Word, not an actual installation of the popular word-processing software.

The developers may try to claim that this app falls under appropriate App Store guidelines, as it includes the phrase "Mastering in 24h" at the end of its title in an apparent, albeit feeble, attempt to indicate that it's a reference app only. But on an iPhone 4S screen, that part of the title gets chopped off, and can only be seen after the jump. Seeing the familiar Word logo and the title 'Microsoft Word 2010' would likely be enough for many users to click 'Buy Now' on the item without even bothering to click through to see the product specifications on the next page. And judging by the product reviews, at least 231 customers have fallen for the trick, and then giving the product the lowest-possible rating of one star to warn others (that number only counts the customers who actually took the time to write a review, not the total number). One reviewer, Pdubz23457, framed the app's tactics fairly eloquently: "No one would buy this unless they thought it was Word. This company is taking advantage of how fast paced people are today."

FutureMedia sells similarly deceptive "reference" guides to other popular software.

According to information from the iTunes store, the company that sells the Microsoft Word 2010 app, FutureMedia Studio, offers similar reference apps for programs including Microsoft Excel 2010 ($11.99), Adobe Photoshop CS5 ($14.99) and Microsoft Office 2010 ($22.99). All three of these apps, too, use the same deceptive tactics and product logos to give off the appearance that they are actual copies of the software at hand. One customer, Jewiz B., bought both the Word and Excel apps at the same time, and was incensed to find out they were only guidebooks: "I just wasted $26 because I thought this was Word AND I bought Excel."

Scott Ruben, an app developer who hosts a daily webcast called "App-a-Day," said that Apple's "one-click" purchasing system makes consumers particularly vulnerable to scams such as this, which aren't technically lying but present themselves in a misleading context.

"Because it’s only one click away, it’s so easy for someone to say, you know what, I’m going to try it," Ruben said.

But if apps such as these from FutureMedia are so obviously worthless, then why do all four of them have such a large amount of five star ratings? And how do they end up so high in search rankings? The answer is simple: The company selling the apps sets aside a large amount of money to buy separate copies of their own app, so that they can then leave five-star reviews that bump the app up in the rankings. This allows the apps to go relatively undetected by Apple. According to Apple's guidelines for developers, this tactic is a clear violation of App Store rules: "“If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.”  However, Apple hasn't bothered to remove any of FutureMedia's apps, despite the barrage of one-star ratings from disgruntled customers that should tip Apple developers off.

After purchasing the bogus Word 2010 app, we placed a refund request with Apple (we'll explain how you can do that, too, later in this post) to see if we could recoup our losses. It's been five business days now, and so far we've yet to hear back from Apple. We also visited FutureMedia's website, which makes no mention of any of the apps in question and provided no contact information except for a form. Using the contact form, we made the following request for a refund using the company's contact form:

 

Dear FutureMedia,

I recently purchased your product "Microsoft Word 2010 - Mastering in 24h," thinking it was a copy of the actual MS Word processing program. It was not made clear in Apple's App Store description that this product was only a reference guide, and the marketing was misleading. As such, I'd like to request a refund. If you could, please get in touch with me as soon as possible.

-Carl V. Lewis

 

That message was sent on Thursday, April 31. We've yet to hear anything back from the company.

2.  LockScreen (see)

At just $1.99, the Lock Screen app promises, well, to lock your screen. There's just one little problem with it, however: it doesn't actually lock anything. In its description, the app promises an array of impressive security features such as "voice recognition," "fingerprint scan" and "Android-like 'connect-the-dots' security" to "keep your data private and secure."  But upon purchasing the app, you find out that it's actually a collection of poorly-designed background wallpapers with designs that only pretend to lock your screen. "They're just ripping you off. It's a picture, not a lock. It does nothing at all to lock your iPhone," posted one reviewer, Greg, from California.

The huge disparity between five-star and one-star ratings reflects the developer's gaming of the system with purchased reviews.

The app has received 41 customer ratings –– 22 of those ratings give the app glowing five-star reviews, while the remaining 19 of them call the scam out with the lowest possible one star-rating.  Another scorned reviewer, Mikeywhatsgood, said: "I can't believe the App Store would even allow this app to be available to buy." But because the app has been artificially boosted by so many scam five-star ratings, it has an average rating of three stars, once again allowing it to go largely undetected by Apple and remain available for purchase by unsuspecting consumers.

The company that sells the app, Fox Mobile, did not appear in Google search results, and had no traces online of its existence. According to the iTunes store, the company sells two other apps –– one called 'Lockitizer' that is an exact duplicate of LockScreen except under a different name, and another called 'Live Themes' that promises to jazz up your phone with custom wallpapers.

An earlier version of the LockScreen app was released in March under the title "LockYourScreen" and for a short period sat among the top 10 paid-apps list. But the app was pulled from the store in late April after receiving more than 1,000 abysmal one-star ratings from angered customers. It didn't take the makers of the app long, however, to sneak the scam app back into the store under a different titlel Just eight days later, on May 3, 'LockScreen' was released in the store, where it remains today.

3. Anger Birds (see)

[caption id="attachment_2646" align="alignright" width="300"] Yet another in a line of Angry Birds copycats[/caption]

Sounds familiar, right? Well, that's because it's one of the multitude of copycat apps of the most popular iPhone game to date, Angry Birds. Most of the past copycat apps (Angry Ninja Birds, Cut the Birds, etc.) have already been banned at the request of Rovio Mobile, the creators of Angry Birds. For the same 99 cents as Angry Birds, this app has an almost identical-looking icon and color-scheme,, but is nowhere nearly as high a quality of a game. We tested it out to see how similar the game play was to its name-brand counterpart. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as fun as Angry Birds, with a low-resolution user-interface and an unclear game mission. In fact, Anger Birds is so bad that even its copycatting efforts haven't helped it gain much steam. So far, it's only received six reviews, with four of them giving one-star ratings. But at least one consumer has fallen for Anger Birds' tricks.  Don, a reviewer who gave the app a one-star rating, said: "I think the developer has deceptively named their app to trick people into purchasing it. Well, it worked on my son. He purchased this when he really wanted Angry Birds. Shame on you."

4. iGrow Male Enhancement (see)

The first two lines of this app's description says perhaps all that need to be said: "ACHIEVE AN INCREASE IN SIZE IN 2 WEEKS!! NO BLUE PILLS…….NO COMMERCIALS." For just $4.99, male consumers can get "REAL RESULTS"  that will "vastly enhance your male performance," and are "as good as taking a Viagra." What's more, the image attached to the app's description claims the app will "Add 1-4 inches to your PENIS" with a 100 percent guaranteed stamp.

To evaluate iGrow's rather bold marketing claims, we downloaded the app to see how it operated. Not surprisingly, all the app contained was a few lines of text that spouted off common-sense tips that anyone could easily find on Google. Nothing within the app itself provided any actual mechanism to increase male stamina.

5. WartRemoval (see)

Another wart removal app has cropped up in the iTunes App Store, although this time with slightly more legitimacy as it doesn't explicitly claim to remove warts, only to give tips "to helping you get rid of that ugly stubborn wart that just won't go away." Once again, though, the actual content of the app is nothing unique that couldn't be found through a simple Google search. And at $2.99, this app carries a hefty price to pay for a simple list of do-it-yourself tips.

What's particularly troubling is that both the iGrow and War Removal apps are listen in the "Medical" category on the iTunes store. Unless the app is providing actual medical services, such as measuring heart rate or allowing you to communicate to a real doctor, these apps are technically not 'medically' valid.

"As far as these spps claiming to help your health, the technology is just not there yet." says Dr. Matthew Keefer, a physician and app developer at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. "Bottom line: We cannot remove warts by our phones. We cannot increase penis size from an iPhone. So, if you’re hoping to get these things, see a doctor. Don’t spend your money thinking an app will do this for you, it won’t."

But despite the lack of science behind such apps, some naive consumers are still willing to fork over money for them, whether they know they're being ripped off or not.

“If people are willing to buy these apps, app developers will create them," Ruben said.  "Just as there are people scamming you in the real world, there are people scamming you in the app world. The difference is, as an app user, you really can't go back into the store and yell at the manager." In the app world, developers can hide behind their laptops.

"My advice is to know what you’re getting into, beforehand. Read the reviews, read the comments, every single time that’s the key right now." Ruben said.

Getting back your money (or at least trying)

Now what? Apple seemingly does its best to make the App Store refund procedure a bit of a mystery. Here is a find a step-by-step guide on how to request a refund for an app that wasn’t quite what you expected. But even if you take the proper steps, there's no guarantee you'll get your money back. In fact, we tried submitting a refund request with Apple for the $11.99 purchase of the fake ‘Microsoft Word 2010’ app one week ago, and we've yet to hear back, let alone receive a refund.

  1. Open the iTunes Application on your computer.
  2. Open the iTunes tab, located in the left-hand column of iTunes.
  3. Next click the arrow next to your username (email address) on the top right and select ‘Account’.
     
  4. Scroll down to ‘Purchase History’ and click ‘See All’.
     
  5. Find the iTunes invoice with the application you would like a refund for. Click Report a problem.
     
  6. Fill out the form that follows and be sure to be as detailed as possible. Click Next when finished.
  7. That’s it. Once your request is submitted, you’ll have to wait for Apple to get back to you.

What about Androids?

It used to be that you had 24-hours in the Android App store to evaluate an App and request a refund if you weren’t satisfied. In December of 2010, Google changed the policy – you better act quickly. Now, you only have 15 minute from the time the App is downloaded to request a full refund.

But, the good news is, if you’re using a DROID phone, your chances of getting a refund for unsatisfactory App might be a little higher. If you request a refund in that 15-minute window, Google says it will return your money in a 48-hour window.

If you downloaded an App within the past few minutes, hurry up and:

  1. Launch the Android Market app on your phone.
  2. Press your phone's Menu button.
  3. Touch the My apps option.
  4. Touch the app you want to "return."
  5. Touch the Uninstall & Refund button. This is important. If you only have an Uninstall button and don't see the & Refund part, either this was a free app or your 15 minutes has already expired.

Confirm that you want a refund, your app will be uninstalled, and you'll receive your refund. If you’ve missed the 15 minute window, Google suggests that you contact the vendor directly. Just know that the vendor isn’t under any obligation to give you a refund.

UPDATE, Fri., May 18, 2012: It's been more than three weeks since we submitted a refund request from Apple. We've still heard nothing.