Journalist/developer. Storytelling developer @ USA Today Network. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @frontlinepbs @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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How Do You Pronounce Qatar? Probably Incorrectly.

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Sarah Lyall’s last name is pronounced LYE-yull.

Nov. 21, 2022

Sooner or later the moment will arrive for everyone, or at least everyone who doesn’t speak Arabic but hopes to discuss this year’s World Cup without sounding like a total idiot.

What happens when conversational circumstance forces us to utter the word “Qatar” in public?

Is it Kuh-TAR, like guitar? Or Kuh-TAH, like the British pronunciation of catarrh, a phlegmy sore throat? What about the business executives who bang on about how you are 100 percent wrong and should be saying KUH-ter, like cutter (or gutter), or something that more approximates KAT-ar?

Learning From an Expert

Hear our reporter’s endeavor to find an answer — and (try to) get it right.

Why does everyone on TV seem to have a different answer? Can we trust random instructional YouTube videos? Is there a way to say it without adding “or however you pronounce it”? Why hasn’t FIFA issued a formal directive? It has been 12 years, after all, since soccer’s governing body started all this by awarding the sport’s biggest championship to a tiny Gulf nation.

Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, announcing in 2010 that “Ka-TAR” would host the 2022 World Cup. Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But while a four-page phonetic guide created for journalists traveling to Qatar does offer a degree of linguistic relief — offering step-by-step pronunciations of handy phrases like “Help!” and “I was robbed” — it is silent on the name of the place where you might need to say them.

Let us stipulate here that the problem isn’t willful ignorance or cultural arrogance, but that the Arabic pronunciation of “Qatar” — قطر in Arabic script — is very different from the English one:

If you’re an English speaker, you’re probably saying it incorrectly, but only in the sense that your pronunciation of “Paris” or “Chile” would be considered wrong from the point of view of a Parisian or a Chilean.

Which means that the real question is: What sort of wrong is right?

“There’s no real guidance,” said Neil Buethe, the chief communications officer for the United States Soccer Federation, whose team has slowly trickled in to the country with the name the players wish they could pronounce. “It’s definitely been a debate.”

Yes, it has. Online, a Qatari known as Mr. Q has posted a series of videos for visitors, including one that begins, “I’ve gone ahead and noticed that a lot of foreigners are teaching foreigners how to pronounce Qatar.” He then shows a few clips of people saying “Qatar” in various painful ways on American TV and adds: “I respect you, you respect me, we’re all respecting each other right now — but no.”

Hassan Al Thawadi leads Qatar’s organizing committee. Ramon Van Flymen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Hassan Al Thawadi, the head of the Supreme Committee directing the World Cup preparations, said in an interview that pronunciations of “Qatar” vary even inside the host country.

This has not helped alleviate the general confusion among visitors.

“People were saying ‘KUH-ter’ when we got there for the first time last December,” Buethe said of his trips to the country in advance of the World Cup. “But we had many conversations with individuals and with people in the federation, and they told us it wasn’t correct: Don’t say, ‘KUH-ter.’”

Jenny Taft, a sideline reporter for Fox Sports, which will broadcast the World Cup in the United States, said the network had made a command decision.

Jenny Taft is reporting for Fox Sports from Qatar. Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

“I don’t know who made the call, but we’re going with Ka-TAR,” she said in an interview. “I’m not sure why, but that was the decision made. And it is unique, right? Like, I probably was saying KUH-ter leading up to this. But Ka-TAR is, I guess, probably the more recognizable way the country is pronounced.”

Walker Zimmerman, a defender for the U.S. team, said that was what he planned to do, too. “I say Ka-TAR,” Zimmerman said in an interview in the fall. “I know it’s probably not the correct way — KUH-ter is for those who probably know what they’re talking about a little bit more — but I’m going with Ka-TAR.”

Walker Zimmerman of the United States national team knows he doesn’t say Qatar correctly. Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

The German television network ZDF has taken a different approach: Its employees were informed via email that they were to go with KAT-ar. Martin Tyler, the legendary Sky Sports broadcaster who is working his 12th World Cup this year, said he would do the same.

None of these idiosyncratic decisions resolves the main questions, however: What is the actual pronunciation of the word? And what is our problem?

This sign in Doha provides no guidance on pronunciation. Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

To begin with, said Sarab Al Ani, who teaches Arabic at Yale University, the first consonant in the word Qatar doesn’t really translate into a K or a Q sound. It’s actually a glottal sound, meaning it emanates from the glottis, in the back of the throat — a muscle English speakers don’t get to exercise much.

“What’s happening is that the very back of your tongue is lightly and quickly touching the roof of your mouth, creating the initial sound,” Al Ani said.

She suggested flattening your tongue and tilting your head slightly forward, to shorten the distance between tongue and throat. “It makes the distance as close as possible,” she explained. “You have to push your tongue back a little bit to create the contact with the roof of your mouth — just a gentle touch, one second — and then make the sound.”

The word Qatar has its emphasis on the first syllable, she said. Following that, the T is quick and explosive — “a dark T,” she called it, slightly hollow. To make the correct sound, it helps to un-flatten your tongue by curving it down slightly. The A is pronounced rapidly, and the R, Al Ani said, is “closer in pronunciation to a Spanish R.”

She proceeded to demonstrate a couple of times, and then said, encouragingly, that English speakers, even World Cup reporters, might need a lot of practice before getting it right.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, sort of, what are we meant to do with our newly engaged glottis, and our newfound knowledge?

The author Mary Norris, an expert in proper usage who is a former copy editor at The New Yorker, said that foreign place names can be tiny little pronunciation minefields. Use the American pronunciation and you might seem deliberately ignorant; use the native one and you risk sounding aggressively pretentious.

She mentioned the Kabul conundrum — Ka-BOOL? Or COB-ble? — and admitted that she has no independent information about the pronunciation of “Qatar.” “I’m sure that in American English we’re not expected to come up with an Arabic pronunciation,” Norris said.

She did say she had once heard her doctor refer to a country he called “cotter” on the phone. “I think he was saying ‘cutter,’” she said, “but in a Brooklyn accent.”

If all of this is just adding to your anxious confusion, please take heart from the soothing message imparted by an official at the Consulate General of the State of Qatar in New York. The official, who asked that her name not be used because she is not supposed to speak to the news media, said that every day she has to listen to English speakers mangling the country’s name in a variety of baroquely inaccurate ways.

But if you’re going with Ka-TAR, you’re fine, she said. (“Cutter” is less fine.) “It’s not your fault,” she went on. “Some letters in Arabic you don’t have in English, so you cannot pronounce it the same way we do. We know you’re doing the best you can.”

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chrisamico
15 days ago
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The MGDO Stack

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Slow News by Forest Gregg

November 20, 2022

Over the past year, I’ve refined a stack for my personal projects that has been productive and fun.

  1. Makefile to produce a sqlite database
  2. Github Actions as an ETL and scraping platform
  3. Datasette as a public data warehouse
  4. Observable for data analysis and visualisation

Makefile for a sqlite Database

For each dataset, I’ll make a repository that turns source data into a sqlite database with a single make command. The repositories follow this template.

csvkit, sqlite-utils, and csvs-to-sqlite are often the workhouses of the ETL code. Thanks Christopher Groskopf, James McKinney and Simon Willison!

Here are some examples:

Github Actions for ETL and Scraping

GitHub Actions is almost the perfect platform for running ETL jobs and web scraping. It has just about everything you could want.

  • Schedulable jobs
  • Execution on demand
  • Red / Green dashboard for job success
  • Email notifications if something goes wrong
  • Execution lives next to code
  • Serverless
  • Simple management of secrets
  • Storage of large artifacts
  • Parallelism
  • A large user base
  • Free! (For public repositories)

The only real limitation I’ve run into is that execution time for a single job is limited to six hours, which can be constraining for large scrapes. Getting around this can take some creativity. Often the best solution is to split the job into smaller bites and run many parallel jobs.

Another small challenge is what to do with the large artifacts produced by an ETL. What I do is manually create a release on the github repository, and then use this github action to stuff the artifacts in the release. I bet I could smooth this over if I wrote a custom Github Action but I haven’t tried yet.

The limit on artifact size attached to a release is 100Gb which has been quite enough so far.

Here’s how I set up the Github Actions script.

Private Repositories

For private jobs, GitHub you get 2000-3000 minutes of execution time for free a month depending on your account type, and then Github charges $0.008/per minute after that.

That can get expensive, but GitHub allows you to dispatch github action jobs on your servers. Azure spot instances + cirun.io makes intensive use of GitHub actions on private repositories affordable.

That GitHub is owned by Microsoft, and that I can pay for GitHub actions and also have an option to pay someone else for the server-time are all some comfort on persistence of the service.

Datasette as a public data warehouse

If you are building things for the web, you need to take extraordinary care to prevent users of your website from making arbitrary queries against your database. The core conceit of Simon Willison’s Datasette project is “What if you didn’t?”

Datasette allows unauthorized users to make arbitrary SELECT queries against sqlite databases, and that ends up being a really powerful thing to do.

I use it to collect all the sqlite databases that I build into a publicly accessible data warehouses. Folks can ask their own questions of the data, share queries, or download the entire databases.

To my mind, the most important feature of Datasette is that for any query, you can get the results back as JSON. This means the websites provides an JSON API that uses SQL directly. It’s amazing.

I have GitHub Actions that run nightly to collect all the databases and pushes the data and code to Google Cloudrun, a scale-to-zero platform. I have CloudFlare set up in front of that, so I’m able to host and serve and 10s of Gb of data a month for less than $5/month.

Here’s what the Github Actions file looks like for the labordata.bunkum.us warehouse.

Observable for data analysis and visualisation

Observable is a lyrical platform for writing JavaScript notebooks for data analysis and visualisation. It has excellent support for working with databases and Datasette instances (using the JSON API I mentioned above).

Many of this notebooks are updated automatically, as the GitHub actions creates updated databases, which are pulled into the Datasette warehouses.

Being able to do arbitrarily complicated SQL queries across multiple tables and then working with the the analysis and visualisation all on a reactive front-end is very, very to fast to build.

Here are some examples:

I’m a bit worried about the free lunch ending with Observable some day, but for now it’s a pleasure.

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chrisamico
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“I’m working on my family tree” is a perfectly good excuse to swear at your ancestors ten times a day

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One night a few weeks ago, instead of working on the family tree — which I have been doing in my “free” time (ha), rather obsessively, tbqh, for the past, oh, five months or so, judging by the increments of “ryansholin+freetrial5” accounts I am running on various genealogy websites — I tweeted about it.

And it turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that many of you also enjoy swearing at your ancestors in your abundant free time.

I never wanted to do this.

When one previously unknown to me relative, many years and email addresses ago, first shared some details, questions, and answers about his branch of the “Sholin” line, I was intrigued and entertained and it stopped there.

When another previously unknown to me relative — let’s call them a “PUTMR” (there may be more of these, let’s make an awkward acronym) hit me up several years later with the news that there was a “Shalin” branch, and expanded it, hey, cool, neato. (It was probably pronounced more like that anyway, transliterated as Zoling/Zolin and sounding like Tzhallen, if you know what that sounds like?)

Somewhere in between there, in a story I’ve told many times about all the reasons I decided to leave New York City before I had any real reasons, one of them sent me the naturalization record of my great-grandfather Sholin, and it included an address that was approximately the length of one F train platform away from my apartment at the time, and ONE HUNDRED YEARS had passed, and I was all there was to show for it.

Fast forward maybe a decade, and my father worked on his mother’s side (Weis/Weiss/Weisman/Wiseman/heck-let’s-get-real-it-was-more-like-Vaysman) so diligently that I became a little uncomfortable with the whole idea, and was unfortunately quite dismissive of his efforts. I AM SORRY ABOUT THAT NOW. He made trips to the National Archives. There were bus trips for seniors doing the same thing. He took them. He interviewed his oldest living aunts and uncles, and took…. chaotic notes. And logged his findings, errors and all, in one of these genealogy website tree thingies.

And I got an account. And ignored it. Until he died last year. And then I started poking around, curious about some of the email he was getting with exciting sounding “record matches” and the like. Well, a “record match,” hey, maybe new information has come to light and I should take a l—- no, no, no, I’m not going to get sucked in.

Here’s how they sucked me in: We did 23AndMe for health reasons (I know, I know, it is weird to throw your DNA on the Internet and give corporations access to it, but here we are) and after I got bored nosing around my ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ health reports and obvious ancestry (98.4% Ashkenazi Jew, maybe more) I looked at the DNA “matches” and started trying to figure out who some distant relatives were.

And then it hit me.

I could use this DNA match stuff to figure out more about who the heck my most mysterious (and not coincidentally most conventionally problematic) maternal great-grandparents were, where they came from, where their other relatives are now.

Reader, I am five months down the rabbit hole, and have built a “family tree” (ha!) with 1,830 people in it. THIS IS A SMALL NUMBER. Honest. I have seen trees from PUTMRs with like tens of thousands of human records in them. Like, football stadiums full of tangentially related people. Right now I just have a large auditorium full. Not even a Sportatorium’s worth yet.

This is the most fun and frustrating puzzle I have ever attempted.

Oh, and I still don’t know who my great-grandmother’s parents were.

On to the swearing at our ancestors.

WTF:

  • Shoutout to the scribes who kept the birth, marriage, and death records in places like Russia and Ukraine and Poland and Romania and Moldova and did you know these are all the same place during some of the periods of time I’m working with here? More on that later.
  • The records are handwritten. The handwriting is TERRIBLE.
  • That makes OCR comical. And it makes manual translation and data entry rather variable.
  • Special kudos to the Montreal record keepers. I am not clear if it’s always the same Rabbi, or if it’s one scribe per synagogue, or if there was some central scribe to which the Rabbis called in their births, marriages, and deaths, because they are absolute butchers when it comes to names. Just, defying logic. And, yes, I am not surprised if an officiant forgets how to correctly spell the name of somebody’s mother when the babies just. keep. coming. so. relentlessly. So many babies.
  • Oh, an absolute gold star to the two guys living contemporaneously in Montreal named ESSIE and ISSIE with the same last name and the aforementioned Rabbis/scribes destroying both names differently every time. THEY ARE NOT RELATED. I think. For now. One of them was married to my great-grandfather’s sister for a few years? I think? For now. But on his third marriage record (there are so many marriages, anyone who tells you people get divorced more now has never seen the Ukraine-Brooklyn-Jersey-Montreal pipeline of Jewish couples in the 1920s-1950s) he says he’s widowed, and I’m like, whoops, GG Aunt Freda died, but… then she appears with A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LAST NAME many years later in someone else’s obituary.
  • I have no complaints about newspaper obituaries. They are giving me life these days. I also have no complaints about the people who photograph gravestones for fun and upload them to websites with reasonable databases, and many of them are reasonable. I am getting lots and lots of practice reading Hebrew on gravestones to validate or discover someone’s father’s name. Well, their Hebrew name, at least.
  • Back to sarcasm, though: Gotta appreciate the entire concept of all those scribes in the “old country” writing down Hebrew names and Yiddish names, neither of which might have anything to do with the name they used in secular life, and certainly neither has to have anything to do with what they name themselves after they migrate to North America.
  • Then again, I’ve learned a lot! Did you know Ariyeh (and many variations in Hebrew and Yiddish, like Leib) means “lion” and many of the men with that name chose “Louis” after migration. Trends like this make for some good educated guesswork, sometimes.
  • Then again again, sometimes it’s just a trend created because “there was a popular song about a girl named Tillie, so we liked that name, and chose it, and there’s no relation to our original names, sorry, descendants, good look figuring that one out.” I AM NOT MAKING THE TILLIE THING UP.
  • Speaking of Tillies, let’s talk about this one Brady Bunch Cubed branch where my other maternal great-grandfather leaves one wife and three kids in Lithuania (it might’ve been Belarus), comes to New York, marries a woman who has three kids from a previous marriage (divorced), THEY HAVE THREE MORE KIDS, and then, AND THEN, the first wife dies and the O.G. three kids show up in Brooklyn like “hi who are all these children and why are there so many” and to be fair, they get along eventually, but not immediately.

The point, if there is one, is that this stuff is messy AF.

WTAF

Speaking of messy, among the things I’ve learned while working on this puzzle include big geopolitical lessons, like:

  • It was WILLFUL IGNORANCE on my part to grow up thinking my “Russian” ancestors were unaffected by the Holocaust, because, dear reader, they were affected. It is dark. Many of my ancestors fled “Russia” after some truly awful and deadly pogroms (with their own geopoltiical impetus) in their towns, but for the most part, anyone who was left alive is later murdered in the Holocaust. (I’ve also observed that “murdered” is a particular and clear way these victims are described by the organizations that have done the hard, hard work of cataloging them all. And it’s accurate.)
  • The geopolitical impetus of the pogroms, at least in Ukraine in 1919, the push that sends my least organized great-grandparents across the continent? It has to do with power vacuums, the Bolshevik revolution, and who both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists blamed for their problems. GUESS WHO.
  • Wait, there were Ukrainian nationalists? Yes, because Ukraine was briefly independent for a minute after WWI, and, hey, so was Romania, but it went kinda poorly, and hey, this part of Poland is now part of Ukraine, and this part of Austria-Hungary is now part of Poland, and also there’s a place called Bessarabia for a short while? All of these details are literally academic in 9th grade World History, but for the people who lived it it was rather chaotic, with whole armies sloshing across their neighborhoods in one war and then another — and, dear reader, different generations living in these places had very different expectations of the Germans based on their previous experience. Prior results don’t predict future results. Hard lesson.
  • Reading some of this stuff is a little traumatic, and I don’t recommend it.
  • But it’s mildly joyful to map out the families of the survivors, where they exist. (If you’ve ever met a Holocaust survivor, you’ll know it, because it’s a bit like the old Ski Instructor joke — well, at least it was told to me by a skier as a Ski Instructor joke, but it works with just about anything: “How do you know if there’s a Ski Instructor at the bar? Oh, THEY’LL TELL YA!” Only this is a much more important thing to not shut up about.)
  • On the lighter side, geopolitical turmoil also makes finding some records a bit of challenge. These people really did live in four or five different nations over a very short period of time with little-to-no physical movement on their part, so YOU try and figure out whose current country to look ’em up in.
  • To that end, there are… complications in record-keeping, like, fires. That burn the records. But sometimes there’s another copy, and at the moment the current hero in the Ukrainian records world is the guy who rescued the other copy AS THE CURRENT WAR IN UKRAINE STARTED and is scanning it, book by book.
  • Oh, but no one has translated those records yet, so you’re going to need to learn some Hebrew AND Russian cursive to look through hundreds of handwritten entries from 120 years ago. Good luck with that.
  • Just because I haven’t mentioned them yet, a pox on all the houses of the shipping company staff who handwrote records, often in cursive, often in weird slanty cursive that must’ve been “professional” for the time period, because, no. It is not very readable. Dutch port workers, I am giving you some very orange side-eye.

Colophon?

I guess that night on Twitter, I said I would about how I’ve been doing this research, but so far, this is just an extended version of that rant thread.

If you haven’t messed around with any of these apps, I will tell you now that the technology is decent! Despite all my complaining about the quality and cleanliness of the data — and sometimes its existence in unburned digital form at all — the basic premise of a lot of these tools is good.

They work on some basic matching principles, like “Hey, there’s a census record with the name you said was your grandmother’s, in the city you said she lived in, and the other people in the record are the other people you said she lived with, so should we save this to her entry in your tree?”

Rinse and repeat a few thousand times.

Census records, birth, marriage, and death records, city directories, Social Security stuffs, other “public records” collections of dubious but directional quality (not too different from what you can find using Google)… all of these are theoretically free public records, but the apps pull it together in a useful relational way so they can tell you “hey there, it looks like you’re looking for a person with this name and birthdate, maybe this is her?” a hundred times a day.

  • MyHeritage is where I paid for a year and have been housing the tree. It’s fine. It’s pretty good about surfacing stuff from JewishGen, but after a while I realized it was a good idea to get an account at JewishGen myself, make a donation, and use the database (and forums) over there.
  • JewishGen, yes, if you’re Jewish, it’s well worth the $100 donation to get access to use additional fields in the database search form. Yes, that’s how it works. No, there are no permalinks to the search results. Yes, you’ll be taking a lot of screenshots and pasting tables into Google Docs. This is the way, apparently. JewishGen is the central clearinghouse for what I call the “old country” database. If it was inscribed in a book in The Pale of Settlement in the 19th or early 20th century, AND it’s been microfilmed, AND it’s been translated, AND the data has been entered into the aforementioned database, then, yes, it’s there. FALSE POSITIVES will lead you astray here. Someone whose details kinda look like your great-grandmother if you squint and assume there’s some flexibility in the details over time due to various needs to lie to various governments to achieve various ends to survive and thrive? Yeah, it’s not actually her. And that’s fine, it’s probably a cousin. They’re all cousins. We’re all cousins. Hi, cousin.
  • Ancestry has a better search engine, and I think a better algorithm for surfacing the good stuff with less fiddling, but I’m not sure why. They also have more Canadian records, if you need those. If I’m still working on this (ha) after my first year of the MyHeritage subscription, I might move the whole tree over here.
  • FamilySearch is the LDS (yes, them) project cataloging as many humans as they can, and they are diligent about it. It’s designed to be a well-organized canonical list of people, but in reality, it is only as organized as people like you and me make it, because people who don’t know our great-grandmother will not transcribe her name correctly from a handwritten record. Or maybe they will, and we were looking for the wrong name all along, which is always a distinct possibility. FamilySearch is free, use it as a reference, and use it as an instructional guide to help figure out where to look for records from all over the world. There’s even a wiki with lots of helpful information about where to look for answers, depending on what countries you’re looking in!
  • FindAGrave.com — Gravestones are useful; especially if you have no information about someone’s father and are looking for a clue in the form of a Hebrew name. Obituaries often mention a burial location; the FindAGrave search engine works very well and has lots of filters; sometimes it might be wrong! Sometimes a gravestone has dates that are a little bit off, despite being literally carved in stone, and sometimes the names are not necessarily precisely what you were expecting. It helps to have a clue going into your search, and using FindAGrave to validate your theories. I’ve also had good luck getting cemetery names from here, and then searching for a cemetery website that might have a better, fuller index of graves with names and sometimes even pictures of gravestones.
  • DNA matches — Let’s talk generically about uploading your DNA to these sites, or taking the tests. Listen, it’s not for everybody, and I really don’t understand all the technical bits, but it opens up a very big world (you are related to tens of thousands of people, I promise) of distant relatives. You will politely shrug at some of them months before you figure out they could tell you lots you want to know about your great-grandfather’s family, and then they won’t check their messages for years. As mentioned previously, I did a 23AndMe test, and honestly, their “DNA Matches” feature is suboptimal, and obviously not intended to be a big part of their product. Others are better. What you really want to do is download your DNA — and let me tell you, I was humbled when it was delivered as a .txt file in a ZIP — and then you upload it to wherever you want. I uploaded mine to MyHeritage, and the whole matching scenario is very cool over there, including some tools to cluster overlapping matches together, which helps give you ideas about which family they’re from, mostly, if you know which family one of them is from, mostly. Outside of the big apps, there’s another place called Family Tree DNA that a PUTMR recommended so we could get a better look at our overlaps. Your genetic code mileage may vary.

Epilogue

This draft post has been open in my browser for a few weeks. In the interim, I have more or less quit Twitter for good, so don’t go looking for the aforementioned thread. Unless I haven’t deleted all my tweets yet when you’re reading this. Assuming you still follow me and I haven’t removed you as a follower yet. Anyway, RIP Twitter. I hear Tumblr is lovely this time of year.

During the weeks I’ve been (not so much) editing this post, I also took off a few hours during a work trip to New York City to visit four cemeteries, capturing photos of gravestones from a few different sides of the family.

Every cemetery was a little different, but my favorite was the first one, about halfway to Coney Island on the F train, where the train stop drops you in the middle of a big six- or seven- way intersection, and each triangle off the intersection is a part of the cemetery. There was no website or phone number online, so it was a bit of a leap of faith to go, but taped on the inside of the glass door of the big old weird house that was the home of the cemetery office, there was a phone number. The gentleman on the other end of the line was efficient, accommodating, and appeared at the door within minutes to deliver a map, instructions, and a Hebrew calendar or two.

The moral of the story? Ask questions, talk to people, and they’ll help you find the answers the algorithmic tools can’t know, because the data doesn’t exist yet in machine-readable form. Humans! Still helpful.



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chrisamico
22 days ago
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Datasette is 5 today: a call for birthday presents

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Five years ago today I published the first release of Datasette, in Datasette: instantly create and publish an API for your SQLite databases.

Five years, 117 releases, 69 contributors, 2,123 commits and 102 plugins later I'm still finding new things to get excited about with th project every single day. I fully expect to be working on this for the next decade-plus.

Datasette is the ideal project for me because it can be applied to pretty much everything that interests me - and I'm interested in a lot of things!

I can use it to experiment with GIS, explore machine learning data, catalog cryptozoological creatures and collect tiny museums. It can power blogs and analyze genomes and figure out my dog's favourite coffee shop.

The official Datasette website calls it "an open source multi-tool for exploring and publishing data". This definitely fits how I think about the project today, but I don't know that it really captures my vision for its future.

In "x for y" terms I've started thinking of it as Wordpress for Data.

Wordpress powers 39.5% of the web because its thousands of plugins let it solve any publishing problem you can think of.

I want Datasette to be able to do the same thing for any data analysis, visualization, exploration or publishing problem.

There's still so much more work to do!

Call for birthday presents

To celebrate this open source project's birthday, I've decided to try something new: I'm going to ask for birthday presents.

An aspect of Datastte's marketing that I've so far neglected is social proof. I think it's time to change that: I know people are using the software to do cool things, but this often happens behind closed doors.

For Datastte's birthday, I'm looking for endorsements and case studies and just general demonstrations that show how people are using it do so cool stuff.

So: if you've used Datasette to solve a problem, and you're willing to publicize it, please give us the gift of your endorsement!

How far you want to go is up to you:

  • Not ready or able to go public? Drop me an email. I'll keep it confidential but just knowing that you're using these tools will give me a big boost, especially if you can help me understand what I can do to make Datasette more useful to you
  • Add a comment to this issue thread describing what you're doing. Just a few sentences is fine - though a screenshot or even a link to a live instance would be even better
  • Best of all: a case study - a few paragraphs describing your problem and how you're solving it, plus permission to list your logo as an organization that uses Datasette. The most visible social proof of all!

I thrive on talking to people who are using Datasette, so if you want to have an in-person conversation you can sign up for a Zoom office hours conversation on a Friday.

I'm also happy to accept endorsements in replies to these posts on Mastodon or on Twitter.

Here's to the next five years of Datasette. I'm excited to see where it goes next!

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chrisamico
23 days ago
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Boston, MA
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Who's the audience for our graphics? Not the people who need them the most

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Disinformation in the United States is an asymmetrical phenomenon: prevalent and central to the political right, and peripheral elsewhere. Liberal and left-wing disinformation exists, but it's not as dominant, virulent, or violent.

It you are a conservative, the previous paragraph might make you cringe and stop reading; you might feel prompted to call me a left-wing partisan and ignore anything else I have to say—even if I'm hardly on “the left” on several matters.

You'll also ignore the multiple studies and books that warn against this phenomenon, calling them “biased”. This includes my own How Charts Lie.

That's the problem with stories such as this investigation by The New York Times. It describes how conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi spread on the right-wing alternative reality, fueled by politicians, online influencers, media personalities, and even the thin-skinned new owner of Twitter.

Who's the audience for this type of investigative reporting? Who will read it and explore its beautiful graphics, such as the long beeswarm plot that reveals the ebb and flow of conspiratorial narratives?

I bet it won't be the audiences who need to read it the most. They'll dismiss it before even taking a look at it—precisely because it was published by The New York Times.

Instead, the audience for stories like this is me —and most of you, I guess. But we aren't the ones who need to be told that it's scary that half of the U.S. population is being fed a systematic diet of ignorance, fear, and hatred. We know that already. Just yesterday I saw the famous podcaster Joe Rogan offering his massive platform to a white supremacist who is also one of the main superspreaders of disinformation against LGBTQ people in this country. Shame on Rogan; he ought to know better.

None of this is a reason to stop doing research, writing, denouncing, and visualizing relevant subjects such as disinformation. But it is a reason to think about how to reach seemingly unreachable or unpersuadable audiences. Maybe through education, new platforms, and new voices, but I'm hardly optimistic.

Note: I'm scaling down my presence on Twitter. You can add this blog to your RSS reader (let's go back to the good old days!) or follow me on Mastodon. If you don't have a Mastodon account, here's a guide to get started.

Read some updates on my work here.

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chrisamico
28 days ago
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Boston, MA
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Rings of Power season 1 explained some secrets, but didn’t tell a story - Polygon

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The Rings of Power is the work of mapmakers, not storytellers. Maps are, after all, works of hubris: You can only make one if you are foolish enough to believe the world is known. Yet most of the most memorable moments in the grand story of Middle-earth lie in what is not shown in the map that precedes Tolkien’s work. The things that happen in Mirkwood, the haunted halls of Moria, the fields of Rohan. Whose stories diverge or end there, and how they are changed afterward. Something is moving these characters to travel, whether it is treasure or adventure or simply a deep desire to do the right thing, because someone must.

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chrisamico
29 days ago
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Boston, MA
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