'The Tree of Life' Has No Clothes

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[Note: The following links contain spoilers for a film that I do not think can really be spoiled. Nonetheless, you've been warned.]

Here's Richard Schickel, calling out film critics for giving Terence Malick's Tree of Life a pass (via Kris Tapley):

[Malick] is, of course, famously reclusive and a famously slow worker. Over the course of 38 years he has made only five movies (an average of one every seven and a half years). The supposition among critics and audiences is that anyone proceeding at so ponderous a pace must be struggling to articulate truths that are at the least sublime and at most close to unspeakable. Aside from his first movie, the bleak and darkly witty “Badlands” (about a serial killer on the run with his dopily romantic girlfriend), that has not been the case. All of his subsequent efforts have been pretty, narratively empty and emotionally unengaging. You can admire his effort to find new methods of screen story telling, but it has proved impossible to involve yourself with his films at any level.

To put it bluntly, I think Schickel kind of completely misses the point of the film. Tree of Life is deeply flawed but taken on its own terms, it accomplishes far more than Schickel gives it credit for. For more even-handed (but still critical) takes on the subject, check out The Guardian or the LA Times.

Putting the Period Outside of the Quotation Marks

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It is not proper practice in American grammar to put the period outside of quotation marks, but that is the way the Brits do it. Should we change? Ben Yagoda says yes, we should (via Gruber):

If it seems hard or even impossible to defend the American way on the merits, that's probably because it emerged from aesthetic, not logical, considerations. According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order "to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space)." I don't doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn't carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.

True Fans

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Amber Karnes, writing about how her tweets helped to shame Urban Outfitters, after they ripped off the work of an independent artist:

A big corporation ripping off small businesses and independent artists is wrong. And in a time when it’s hard to find or keep a job, that’s an easy cause for people to get behind. I think another big reason this spread so quickly was because it was a genuine sentiment (stick it to the man, support this little guy) and that’s something that plenty of people believe in. When I worked at a big corporation, they were always asking how to “make something go viral” – but the truth is that nobody wants to retweet some lame press release that talks about what a great company you are, or asks people to buy your latest product. But something with meaning, something with a story behind it, something that people can identify with – now that’s an idea that spreads.

Karnes also points to this fascinating article, which I can't believe I hadn't already read, about how you only need 1,000 true fans to make a living:

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

According to this piece, if you have 1,000 fans, each willing to pay you $100 per year to do what you do, then you are pulling in $100,000 per year. Time for me to convert you "casual fans" into "True Fans," I suppose...

Who's Afraid of Fox News?

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Shortly after New York magazine published their profile of Fox News head Roger Ailes, Rolling Stone unleashed their own 10,000-word behemoth on the world, covering the same topic but with a different tone and focus. Ailes is portrayed as cunning, vicious, and incredibly powerful. But Slate's Jack Shafer doesn't see it that way:

There are few facts in Dickinson's well-reported pile that I'd take issue with—Ailes has worked hard to establish his credentials as a malicious man, absent of scruples. But I draw the line at "fearing" Ailes or being daunted by his Fox News "power," the two searing take-home messages in Dickinson's piece. Ailes can't be a very fearsome or powerful media monster if he failed to prevent the election of a freshman senator—a black, liberal freshman senator with an, um, exotic name—to the White House!

The Oral Tradition

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Zeynep Tufekci has written an extraordinary piece in response to Bill Keller's op-ed about what Twitter costs us. It is so good that I am compelled to write a piece synthesizing this with some other stuff that's been brewing in the back of my mind.

Hopefully coming soon...

The Rise of the Jokeless Comedy

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Adam Sternbergh, on how Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips have inaugurated the reign of the jokeless comedy (via Heather):

[T]hese movies are often enjoyable. If you were to list your favorite comedies of the last five years, I bet at least three of either Apatow’s or Phillips’s films would make the list. Yet can you recall a single famous gag from any of these movies? What was the absolute most hilarious joke in “The Hangover”? (My informal straw poll suggests that it was Galifianakis’s mispronouncing “retard.”) Tellingly, the most quotable sequence from any Apatow movie is the “You know how I know you’re gay?” exchange between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which was improvised on the sidelines, then stuck into the film, and which, trust me, does not benefit from being reproduced for posterity in print. Surely there must be at least one indelible gag, line, or scene from just one of these films? If there is, I can’t identify it, and don’t call me Shirley.

Graduation 2011

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Today I had the opportunity to witness many of my colleagues and classmates graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since I'm a part-time student, I won't graduate for another six months. For those who aren't familiar, Harvard holds several different ceremonies. At the beginning of the day, they do school-wide commencement exercises. Then each different school splits off to do its own, individual ceremony.

These are my photographs from both the Harvard school-wide commencement (which was impossible to get a seat for, and thus, which resulted in a fairly short, lackluster photo set), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement. Note that unlike with most of my photo sets, I tried to emphasize people I knew, since they might find the photos valuable later.



Dream of Chicago

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TV producer Shawn Ryan has mastered the art of the end-of-season montage. Last week's season finale for The Chicago Code continued to demonstrate this, as The Parlours "I Dream of Chicago" played over the show's final images.



A haunting, beautiful song that's made even better when you know the backstory.

Stop Interrupting

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Noreen Malone makes the case against the em dash:

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate." Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period? (One colleague—arguing strenuously that certain occasions call for the dash instead of other punctuation, for purposes of tone—told me he thinks of the parenthesis as a whisper, and the dash as a way of calling attention to a phrase. As for what I think of his observation—well, consider how I have chosen to offset it.)

My reaction: yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

When Your Photos Are Too Good NOT To Steal

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Bob Sullivan, writing about that spectacular space shuttle photo that news organizations and blogs saw fit to jack last week:

The mere act of taking a photograph means the photographer holds the copyright for that picture. Sharing it on a social media site does nothing to limit or reduce that fundamental right, according to digital rights expert Mary Luria. "Unless (you) post the photo with a message that says, 'please copy this and pass it along,' the photographer holds the copyright," said Luria, a partner in Davis & Gilbert in New York.

Misuse of content isn't new, she points out -- famous photos have been copied without credit for 150 years -- but the Internet has made it easy and, in some circles, normal.
"The culture of the Internet is this concept of sharing everything. That things belong to us, not to a person," she said. "And they are surprised when someone says, 'You've taken this, it's mine."

Thoughts on the Rapture That Never Was

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May 21st has come and gone, and I'm experiencing a mix of different emotions towards those believers who thought that the end would arrive this past Saturday. As a Christian, I admire their conviction and willingness to surrender all earthly things in the pursuit of something better. But as a regular human being, I'm horrified by their recklessness and general inability to conceive of alternative viewpoints.

This brief, unplanned discussion with my brother about the topic helps to sum up some of my viewpoints:

Listen!

I've been reading a lot of stories about the rapture that never was. The NYTimes has a nice catch-all piece about those whose lives have been affected by years of false prophesying. New York magazine has a heartbreaking story about a marriage on the rocks due to the end times that never came. Many pieces also dealt with the aftermath, such as the LATimes, which wrote about a rapture-believer named Keith Bauer:

Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country. If it was his last week on Earth, he wanted to see parts of it he'd always heard about but missed, such as the Grand Canyon. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief.

Slate wrote about what happens to doomsday cults when the world doesn't end. Answer: they slightly modify their beliefs to overcome the cognitive dissonance of having devoted their lives to spreading the word about one rapture end-date. And sure enough, rapture-proponent Harold Camping has since come out and said that his original prediction was off by six months, and that the rapture will in fact be happening on November 21, 2011.

Perhaps my favorite piece about the whole topic is this letter to Harold Camping's followers, about what to do now that Judgment Day missed its mark. It addresses those who were wrong with grace, forgiveness, and encouragement:

When you want to believe something, and someone you respect tells you to believe something, and everyone around you also believes and wants to believe the same thing, those are extraordinarily powerful forces. I wish that you had not believed in the May 21st prediction, because I fear that it damaged the credibility of Christians in the eyes of some. But I see no reason now to belabor that point. Rather, I hope you have grace with yourselves.

The Tail Eats Itself

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Gabriel Sherman has a rather remarkable profile of Fox News head Roger Ailes in this month's New York magazine. I'm not crazy about the use of anonymous quotes to basically slander Ailes co-workers, but it does bring up a good issue: more than anything else, Ailes would love to make an impact. Fox News has certainly done that, but in the way opposite of how Ailes intended, in the sense that it may have cost the Republicans the next election. There's some tragic justice to that...

Bad Continuity

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Right on the heels of my birthday blog post comes this brilliant piece from The Onion:

Sources confirmed Friday that the life of local marketing associate Rich Hammond has been plagued by a series of glaring errors in continuity, leading many to believe it was poorly thought out, with little regard for basic logic or consistency. Critics said the lax attention to detail and sloppy sequencing throughout Hammond's life range from sudden, unexpected changes in dress and facial hair to total reversals in personality that seem to contradict his previously established thoughts and desires.

I can relate, Rich Hammond. I can relate.

Reflections: 2011 Edition

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Back when I was in college, a good friend of mine was going through a difficult period of her life. She was depressed and unable to get motivated about basically anything. When she spoke with her father, he didn't seem too concerned; he knew she was a hardy person, and she would survive this rough patch. But there is one thing he asked her that resonated with her, and with me:

"What happened to your dreams?"

Far more significant than temporary depression or the loss of motivation was the absence of dreams, of goals, of ambition. It is a lot less difficult to get through a trying time when you have a long-term end goal in mind, when your destination is in sight. Hope is easier.

For me, the past few years have been a story about falling into a deep pit, professionally and personally, and the journey that it has taken to climb my way out. I certainly had dreams and still have them, but maybe they have changed (dramatically) over time. Maybe they would no longer recognizable to a younger me. This makes me a little bit sad.

I'm grateful at what I've been able to accomplish a great deal with the generous resources I've been given. I've helped to grow two shows up from nothing, one of which is broadcast on one of the top public radio stations in the country. I've seen lots of movies, interviewed lots of heroes (save one), and written about things that I'm passionate about and gotten paid for it. All of these are things that I have enjoyed doing and been extraordinarily grateful for, but none of them are things I set out to do. As I look towards the horizon and see myself graduating from my Master's program in six months, it is natural for me to reflect on my future, and the direction in which my life is headed.

One of Ira Glass's quotes recently made its way around the internet (the quote was extracted from a video which is worth watching in its entirety):

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

The question I keep asking myself these days is: am I merely at the beginning of a long, fruitful career in being an online/media personality and broadcaster? Or am I already coming up to the end of it? Have I already completed most of my "character arc," as it were?

One of my podcast inspirations, Shane Bettenhausen, once said (and I'm grossly paraphrasing here) that being an online entertainment journalist doesn't cure cancer, doen't solve world hunger, doesn't change  the world in any radical way. He said this on a podcast guest appearance, months after he had left 1Up.com in the wake of that company's acquisition by UGO.

It was an eye-opener from me. Bettenhausen and his brethren had a podcast that was listened to by over 50,000 people per week. When they did panels at events like PAX, hundreds if not thousands of people would line up for hours just to hear them speak live. Yet Bettenhausen walked away from "the life" to go into video game development (it should be noted that "the life" probably does not pay that well for most people, so such a move is understandable on those grounds alone). I surmise that it was probably relaxing to stop being a public personality and resume life as a "normal" person.

Let's look at the converse of the equation. I've been very gratified to receive e-mails from people for whom our show has had a profound impact. I've also been the target of much criticism and hate. That's what I have not been able to get used to; not the fact that people don't like my work (this comes with the territory). It is the nature, character, and tactics of the hatred that have greatly discouraged me. Sure, people might not like what Filmspotting has to say, but you don't see disgruntled listeners launching repeated attacks on those guys through a variety of different platforms. And that's not even getting into the general toxicity of the community. The manner and extent through which people have chosen to make their attacks has truly taken my breath away and caused me to re-think my online presence. Maybe if it has done that much, they have already won.

It's the paradox of creating any form of long-term, periodical media: people who praise you only feel the need to do so a few times (as well they should...it would be weird if someone e-mailed in every single week with praise), while people who hate you will renew their attacks. On a long enough timeline, the hatred drowns out the love. It's exhausting enough that I frequently have to ask myself, "Is this worth it to me?"

***

One of the things I have found incredibly rewarding is my re-discovery of photography. I first studied photography at Amherst College under the tutelage of Justin Kimball, which is where I produced my first photo set. In the years since then, I let photography fall by the wayside, mostly because I was not able to produce images to the caliber that I desired, but also because I found carrying a DSLR everywhere to be a cumbersome proposition. Instead, I opted to take up iPhone photography, a legitimate art despite protestations to the contrary.

In February 2011, I acquired a new $120 lens and began playing around with depth-of-field more. Suddenly, I was producing images that I was actually pleased with, images that displayed actual technical proficiency. This led to the acquisition of a ton of new gear and several paying photography gigs. It's been a fun ride, and one that I intend to continue for as long as I can.

I think one of the biggest tragedies is that there are so many beautiful people in the world (men and women) who don't have a single decent photograph of themselves. My goal is to rectify this is frequently as I can. The moment when I hand or send someone a photograph of themselves and they see how nicely they can appear is a moment of pure joy for me. I hope to have many more of these moments in the years ahead.

***

Those of you who follow my audioblogs may have noticed that I have significantly cut down on the audioblogging in recent days. Most of that is because I have been crazily busy for the past nine months with classes, work, and podcasting (it is only with the end of the semester that I finally even have enough time to write this blog post). But I think it is also because that I have tried to spend more time enjoying my conversations rather than documenting them. I have tried to do more living rather than creating.

The results have been mixed - but mostly good. There have indeed been many instances where I've been sad to have missed documenting something and sharing it with the world. But there have been equally many times where I've just been happy to be in the moment, away from the online beast that threatens to consume all of my time, attention, and sanity.

All I can say is that I am extraordinarily grateful for those people who have helped me to live, those people in my life with whom I have shared the triumphs and the heartache. You have made this year a better one than the last. You know who you are.

Listen!

The Food Chain Ain't What It Used To Be

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James McWilliams has written a fascinating piece that asks us to re-examine our horrendous treatment of animals:

I wonder what we might discover if, somehow or other, we careened over the edge and seriously explored, in the popular press, the ethics of animal exploitation. What if we discussed the moral and legal rights of animals with the same level of detail we bring to discussion about where to find the best prosciutto?

Perhaps the most intellectually jarring conclusion we might reach is that our current philosophical justification for dominating the non-human world is embarrassingly antiquated. In fact, it's rooted in ancient ideas that ignore both Darwin and the science of genetics.

The Changing World of Elevators

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Newer elevators can do far more than you think is technologically possible:

New elevator systems and technology are making the pitch harder than ever—and upending the delicate rules of elevator etiquette. Elevators now route employees, sometimes according to rank. They can help corporations keep track of who is in the office and who isn't. They can be programmed so that a germophobe can simply wave an ID card in front of a reader and be shuttled to the proper floor without actually touching a button. They can redirect an unsuspecting employee to a different floor at the request of the boss.

Behind the changes is an increasingly common dispatch system that the two companies that dominate the industry, Otis Elevator Co. and smaller rival Schindler Elevator Corp. have installed in about 200 mid-to-high-rise buildings around the country. Employees select their floor on a keypad in the lobby and are sent to board a specific elevator. The dispatch systems result in fewer people per car and fewer stops, and can be configured to suit a company's particular needs.

When Photography Determines The Path of Your Existence

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During the next month, Brooklyn's Atlantic Terminal will have high-quality photographic images of 50 foster children looking for homes. The NY Daily News reports:

Life-sized portraits of the kids taken by renowned photographers were unveiled yesterday as part of a "Heart Gallery" on display in hopes of enticing potential parents. Malik, 14, moved into his latest foster home in Canarsie a week ago - his sixth since he was taken away from his parents at age 6 after they left him home alone for weeks, he said. "I never found the right place," said Malik, an eighth-grader who has had to change schools four times while being shifted among foster homes all over the city. "I don't feel like a normal teenager. I'm hoping to find a nice family...I never felt loved by a parent before."

The project was set up by Heartshare. The project raises a few ethical issues, the most potentially troubling of which is (what I'm guessing might be) the use of aesthetically attractive children to entice parents to adopt. That being said, any project that gets more foster children into loving homes is not something I care to take a stand against.

Jacob Hall Resigns from Yahoo! Movies After They Asked Him To Tone Down a Review

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Less than one week after film critic Jacob Hall became Yahoo! Movies "Featured Critic," Hall is leaving the site because they asked him to tone down a review. As John Gholson put it, "If you are the corporate overlord of a movie news/opinions website, 2011 is not shaping up to be your year."

The FilmPulse Guys Respond

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Remember that whole FilmPulse brouhaha from about a month ago? The guys who created it are back with a piece of video apologia (via Vic):



First of all, I'm not sure the video does the hosts any favors. It obviously eschews the glitzy production values of their actual show, but depicting them just casually shooting the breeze and reading off of hand-written notes while re-living the pilot episode doesn't exactly instill a desire for me to take them seriously. That being said, they clearly heard the overwhelming criticism and wanted to respond in a productive fashion. That is more than I can say for many of the people in our industry (or many industries).

Mostly, though, I'm both confused and saddened by the video. First of all, why the abrupt ending? It comes out of nowhere and makes me think that I could have done a better job editing this video on my iPhone.

The guys talk about how expensive it was to create FilmPulse and how ComingSoon wanted to see if they could attract enough viewers to make it economically viable. Ultimately, despite all the controversy, they could not justify the cost of running the show.

I am a bit baffled that a) they thought this would be economically feasible in the first place, and b) that they (ComingSoon) are willing to give up after the first episode. With very few exceptions (Film Riot and its brethren come to mind), it is insanely difficult to create film-commentary media that is profitable. The only thing more insane than that is believing that you can do it after one episode. Unlike conventional weekly shows on television and the like, online shows are often additive in their attraction for new viewers because they require buy-in from listeners in the form of downloading/subscribing. In other words, shows generally become more popular over time, and constantly add to their viewership.

In the end, these guys are right: shows like FilmPulse, derided as they were, are usually labors of love. And when the whole internet takes a huge steaming dump on your labor of love, it can be reasonably taken as an indication to hang up your spurs, regardless of the economics.

What Makes a Place Home?

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I usually don't read sports columnists but Joe Polanski's meditation on what makes a place home was thought-provoking and moving (via longreads).

Flickr Is In Desperate Need of a Re-Design

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As a photographer, I find Flickr incredibly useful for several functions, the most prominent of which is its ability to easily share an entire large-format slideshow using a single link. But Flickr has a ton of shortcomings on the design side, which Timoni West (via Gruber) is quick to point out:

Flickr can have a serious competitive advantage if they make photo uploads easy to see and navigate: everybody likes photos, and likes seeing themselves in photos, and it’s even nicer to see photos all arranged on a page without visual cruft like status interruptions and article links. It’s also crucial to have different ways of viewing the photos: chronological is important, but so are groupings by date and contact type.

In other words, Flickr still has the ability to kick ass in this arena. They just have to build it.

Flickr has experienced significant failures on the social side of their business. But West's post is also a good reminder of how social strategy and design must work together, especially in an industry where competition is so fierce (see: Facebook Photos).

The History of the Showrunner

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Emily Nussbaum has written a wonderful history of showrunners, and how their status has waxed and waned over time:

[I]t wasn’t until 1990 that TV experienced a truly cataclysmic cultural event: the premiere of Twin Peaks, a series that was described, again and again, as being “like nothing else on TV.” The show stood out not merely for its style but for the way it was made, as the product of one big, weird brain, conceived by the intimidating David Lynch, he who had directed Blue Velvet (middle-aged ­nudity, bug-covered ear). At this point, I’d graduated from college, and my friends and I would gather to watch, thrilling at ­David Duchovny in drag, retro brunettes with bruises, dwarves, cherry pie, and a general air of adult perversion. Within a few episodes, we all agreed the series had gone off the rails (a flash-forward to future TV fanhoods), but it was the first time I’d watched a show while thinking—with worship and anxiety and eventually a twinge of betrayal—about the person who had created it.

Did Google Kill the Witty Headline?

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Over at The Atlantic, David Wheeler has written about how difficult is it to write goofy, punny headlines in a time when Google values facts and keywords in headlines more than wit:

In a widely circulated 2010 article criticizing SEO practices, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten made the same point by citing a Post article about Conan O'Brien's refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC. The print headline: "Better never than late." Online: "Conan O'Brien won't give up 'Tonight Show' time slot to make room for Jay Leno."

The dearth of witty headlines on the Web is enough to make a copy editor cry. But rather than settle for a humorless future, some online editors are fighting back by refusing to embrace SEO guidelines for every story. "It's not about getting the most readers; it's about getting the 'most best' readers," says David Plotz, editor of the influential online magazine Slate.

But Jake Brooks points out that, on a technological level, Wheeler is just plain wrong:

Since clicks are still every sites’ currency, copywriters online have to write one headline that will sell the story to the search engines and one headline that will sell the story to human beings. Turns out, doing the latter is not so easy. For print people, think about it this way: Every headline on a homepage is a wood headline. Every headline needs to sell. On any given day, a newspaper has to write at most 3 headlines to compel someone to buy the paper at the newsstand. Online, you have to do it FOR EVERY STORY.

Meanwhile, Dominic Litten delves more deeply into the villification of SEO in Wheeler's article:

For many journalists, SEO = headline + keyword stuffing. It’s all they know. However, if journalists really want to know and understand how SEO can help them and their publications they should worry a lot less about the importance of headlines and focus on their company’s sitemaps, site architecture, endless duplicate content, internal linking and the like. But they won’t. Many journalists opine about headlines and keyword stuffing because that’s all the information their SEO team is giving them. And it’s all most care to know.

Steve Prokopy's Review of 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'

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It contains the phrases "best entry in the Michael-Bay-directed franchise," "clever script," and "strong effort." This movie just became one of my most-anticipated films of the summer.

Stephen Colbert Uses His Powers for Good

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Stephen Hoban describes how Stephen Colbert is using his platform to illustrate the ridiculousness of our political finance system:

This new reality that Stephen Colbert and his lawyer Trevor Potter keep bringing up in Stephen's run-ins with Viacom is the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision from 2009, because Citizens United allows corporations to make unlimited political donations. Where once we feared that corporate money could be misused to buy elections, now we honor corporate money as free speech. (It's not hard to predict that the effects of Citizens United could be as destructive as the deregulation of the banking industry in 1999. Many economists believe that deregulation led directly to the "Too Big to Fail" banks, the global financial crisis, and the bailout. Imagine something like that happening in politics.)

The Most Expensive Photograph Ever Sold

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Cindy Sherman's Untitled recently sold for almost $3.9 million, the most expensive photograph ever. Why is it worth so much? Cachet.

The Bloodbath at Fox

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Last night, Fox canceled a ton of "bubble" shows (that is, shows whose ratings made their chances of renewal questionable), including The Chicago Code, one of my favorite new shows of the year (see my interview with creator Shawn Ryan). Alan Sepinwall tries to speak out against the Fox hate:

[H]ere is what I'll say in FOX's defense, even as I'm sad that my two favorite network pilots of this season - "Lone Star" and "The Chicago Code" - both failed in the same FOX timeslot (again, more on that in a bit): FOX takes chances. FOX tries the kinds of shows the other broadcast networks simply won't. Because of the institutional legacy of "The X-Files," for instance, FOX has continually tried to make science-fiction work in primetime to an extent that none of its competitors will try. Though the names of the people in charge of the network change, FOX consistently puts on shows that have more ambitious concepts than anyone else in broadcast. Yes, they canceled "Lone Star," and "Firefly," and "Arrested Development" and far too many other great (or potentially great) shows in the last decade alone, but they put those shows on the air in the first place, when NBC, ABC and CBS likely wouldn't have.

Walter White's Most Memorable Science Experiments

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Breaking Bad, whose fourth season is coming up, is one of the best shows on television. AMC has just run a list of its protagonist's most memorable science experiments. Major spoilers lie within.

We Don't Spike the Football

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David Remnick has written reflections on what Osama Bin Laden's death means for our society. He also believes Obama handled this whole thing perfectly. I'm inclined to agree:

To some, it has seemed that Obama’s determination to avoid the vulgar and the cheap is a form of superiority, a bearing designed to make everyone else seem vulgar and cheap. But his seriousness is a welcome antidote to a political culture infected with self-congratulation, delusion, and paranoia. The United States has, at long last, dealt with Osama bin Laden. Dealing with his legacy will pose a still greater challenge. We remember the dead, as more die every day as a result of his example. Even now, on a clear day, far distant from the battlefield, we can still detect the smell of destruction that came through our windows for weeks after the towers fell. We hear the roaring of the jets. The political future should be entrusted only to those who honor that memory and refrain from exploiting it.

The U.S. and Pakistan: A Brief History

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Lawrence Wright has a fairly lengthy, but very readable history of the U.S.' relationship with Pakistan. Fascinating and enlightening, and given our now-awkward relationship with Pakistan with regards to Osama Bin Laden, it's a must-read.

Obama Discusses the Plan To Capture/Kill Bin Laden

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Fascinating interview by 60 Minutes. Among the interesting tidbits:

As outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did...at the end of the day this was still a 55/45 situation. We could not say definitively that Bin Laden was there. Had he not been there, then there would have been significant consequences. Obviously, we're going into the sovereign territory of another country and landing helicopters and conducting a military operation. And so if it turns out that it's a wealthy, you know, prince from Dubai who's in this compound, and, you know, we've spent Special Forces in -- we've got problems. So there were risks involved geopolitically in making the decision.

Don't Get Left Behind

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Frédéric Filloux breaks down some lessons from the coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death:

[B]eat reporters now need a new skill: they must master the microblogging service in the most professional of ways. Tweeter has now reached a new status: main alert feed – as long as (and that is a big “if”) a proper credibility index is used to qualify the source. Such capability is supposed to be the key differentiation between a pro and an amateur.

Your Phone Can Tell Researchers Who You Are

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Fascinating research from MIT.

Hannah Vassallo Scammed Me Out of $570

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This is a photo of Hannah Vassallo. 

You may or may not know who Hannah Vassallo is, but by the end of this post, you will know all the details you need to know about Hannah Vassallo.

Here is what I know about Hannah Vassallo:

- At one point, Hannah Vassallo lived in the Boston area, which is when I encountered her.

- Hannah Vassallo came from Australia, and speaks with a noticeable Australian accent.

- She is not the actress/dancer of the same name.

Why am I so interested in the life of Hannah Vassallo? Because on Saturday, April 9, 2011, Hannah Vassallo scammed me out of $570. The details are below.

***

On the morning of April 9, 2011, I responded to an ad on Craigslist advertising a Canon 50D. The Canon 50D is an older model, positioned by Canon as part of its "prosumer" line between its amateur and professional lines of cameras. I had been looking for a camera of this type to be able to take with me to photo gigs and the 50D fit my requirements nicely. The link to the original ad is probably no longer functional, but I've screencapped it for posterity. The ad reads that she "purchased this camera in August last year" and that it's "still in perfect working order." The quoted price was $1600 for the camera and lens, but Hannah said she was "open to negotiate."

I didn't need a lens, so I asked Hannah if she'd be willing to sell me the camera body only for $600 (they are going for between $500 and $700 on eBay, so I thought $600 was a fair price). Hannah agreed. In a separate e-mail, she mentioned that she was missing the body cap on the camera, so she was willing to shave off $30 off the price. Even better. 

I brought $570 in cash with me and met her in Davis Square. We exchanged pleasantries and ended up talking about photography for a few minutes. I was really impressed with the photos on her website and told her so.

I tested the camera out and took some practice photos. I did NOT have a compact flash card with me, so I took several photos with the camera in "No Card" mode, which allows you to take photos and see them on the screen without actually saving them. Everything seemed in working order. Hannah behaved completely normally during the entire process. It was just a regular conversation between two people transacting business on Craigslist. During our conversation, I learned all the information I referenced above about Hannah. We parted on good terms, her with the cash, me with the Canon 50D and a camera bag that Hannah generously decided to throw in with the purchase. 

When I got home, I noticed one problem immediately: the battery charger used a different type of plug. I assumed this was since Hannah had purchased the camera in Australia, a detail she mentioned when we spoke. This meant I'd need to purchase a new battery charger, or an adapter. A minor annoyance, but not a deal breaker.

The more significant problem was when I tried to save photos to one of my compact flash cards. I kept getting a card-reading error. I formatted my cards and tried again. Nothing worked. After a little bit of Google detective work, I discovered that this is something that happens when the compact flash card reader is broken. I was unable to save any photos to compact flash. 

So, in essence, I had just purchased a $570 broken camera.

I called Hannah immediately. No answer. I left a message. I e-mailed her and explained there might be an issue with the camera, and could you please call me when you have a chance? No response.

The next day (Sunday), I did the exact same thing. I told her I was willing to be reasonable. I could pay her for her time, if we could just trade back the money for the camera. I was even willing to still keep the camera, so long as she fronted the repair costs. But Hannah never responded.

So now I'm sitting here in my room with a broken camera, $570 poorer, and trying to explain exactly why it is that Hannah Vassallo vexes me. Ideally, I should have tested the card reader, but honestly the thought never occurred to me. The camera appeared to be working fine and was almost perfect, cosmetically. I've purchased things of this magnitude off Craigslist before and never thought someone would be so brazen in selling me a lemon, especially someone who used her real name and phone number and (I'm guessing) e-mail address, and who invited me to check out more of her photos on her Facebook page (I offered to send her my photos too. I like supporting local photographers).

The money I can make back, eventually. My steadily eroding trust in humanity will be harder to regain. If you know Hannah Vassallo, please tell her that, won't you?

Update: Hannah ended up responding to my e-mail. Her e-mail was suspicious, unconvincing, and unsatisfying. Here it is in part:

***

Hi David,

I apologise so much for not replying to this sooner. My fiance and I are currently in the process of moving interstate so we have not been connected to the internet. I imagine you have been trying to contact me via my cell phone which has been misplaced during the move. [...]

I've never had this problem before. My suggestion is to try another memory card as some of the cheaper brands can be almost useless. I apologise profusely for any inconvenience this has caused you, but I really encourage you to try another memory card as I have encountered that type of problem with
cheaper cameras and friends cameras.

***

Two things to note: 1) I called Hannah's cell phone several times, beginning one hour after we initially met. If her claims are to be believed, she must have lost the phone almost immediately after we spoke. 2) Obviously I tried all manner of high-end compact flash cards on this thing. It wasn't my flash cards that were the problem. It was the camera.

I e-mailed Hannah two more times: once to re-explain the situation and another time after $200 worth of repairs had been completed by Canon's New Jersey service center to provide her proof that the camera had in fact been broken in the way I described. Both times, I asked for some sort of compensation for my troubles (I would have accepted virtually any amount). She never responded. I would not have either, if I were her.

The bottom line is that buying this camera has been one of my biggest mistakes of the past few months. My lesson learned? As a friend of mine put it, cameras are such delicate devices. As a result of this experience, I'll probably never buy used again.

When Algorithms Determine Your Fate

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Liz Robbins writes about the labyrinthine system that New York City teens have to navigate to get into high school.

In a Land of Lists, This One Is Great

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I love this piece by Alex Leo, who assesses the four kinds of NYTimes headlines.

Please Die

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Scott Weinberg asks 3D to die:

3D sucks, and even when it doesn’t suck (Avatar and Beowulf come to mind) (fine, and My Bloody Valentine), it’s a glitzy little light show that exists just to make your tickets 30% more expensive. And the 3D blu-ray? That’s about 50% pricier than the “plain” option. If only a similarly revolutionary new advancement in the craft of screenwriting took place, then maybe we’d be somewhere. As long as our huge leaps in filmmaking lie solely within the realm of technology, we’re missing something. A studio will spend millions to make a film “look 3D,” but they won’t spend a fraction of that to make sure their shooting script is kicking ass on all cylinders.

I agree with most of what Scott says, although I would say that films like Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon by themselves are almost enough to justify the unfortunate rise of 3D in recent times. I actually specifically chose my Thor screening to avoid seeing it in 3D. Seeing Thor at its optimal luminance without the need for cumbersome glasses felt good, but it was also sad that I had to go out of my way to ensure that experience.

Post-Credits Sequences

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I recently watched Fast Five and Thor, then discovered after the fact that I missed post-credits sequences for both films. This frustration reminded me of Eric D. Snider's rant about this very topic three years ago (almost to the day):

It has been well established that when a list of names starts scrolling up against a black screen, the movie is OVER. You're done. Whatever story you had to tell, you told it. That's the way movies work. You want to put something cute after the credits, fine. Knock yourself out. A lot of times that stuff is fun. But it doesn't count as an actual part of the story. If it's something we need to know, tell us. Don't hide it after the list of gaffers and production assistants and humane society certifications.

George W. Bush's Role in the Capture of Osama Bin Laden

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Media Matters breaks it down.

The Team That Took Down Osama Bin Laden

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A fascinating look at Seal Team 6, who personify the term "badass."

Justified, Season 2

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In between photography, taking classes, work, and /Film, I've managed to totally catch up with the FX show Justified this season. Justified had its season finale last night, and it capped off what I believe to be one of the finest seasons of television I've ever seen in my life.

Recommended reading: Alan Sepinwall's and Myles McNutt's dissections of the episode. Spoilers, obviously.

Google's "It Gets Better" Ad

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Caught this on TV tonight and thought it was worth sharing:



I found it to be brave and moving. Moving, because Google knows just the right combination of light piano music and computer GUI to pull the heartstrings, and brave because I'm sure there are a bunch of conservative Google users out there who might not appreciate the message of the ad. Still, it's one that's worth spreading, and clearly Google believed in it.

Celebrating the Death of a Human Being

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In the wake of Osama Bin Laden's death, several pundits have spoken out against what they perceive to be a brutish response from many Americans. What do such celebrations say about any society, even one that has been profoundly wronged by someone as despicable as Bin Laden?

I linked to this earlier, but it's worth mentioning again: Alexis Madrigal took to the streets on the eve of the announcement and had this to report:

In the wee hours of Monday morning, I did hear a half-assed version of "America the Beautiful" sung once. A "Thank you troops! Thank you troops!" chant momentarily popped into existence, too. But there were no transcendent moments, no times when the crowd united to consider the greater significance of a free society's battle with its enemies and all the costs and victories thereof. Perhaps people did their own private accounting, but as a public, we were loud and boorish and silly. We treated the killing of a man who promoted the killing of thousands of Americans like a game with no consideration of the past or future costs. In other words, on night one in our nation's capital, Osama bin Laden's death did not change the face of the American body politic. We'll see if it has a greater impact on our politics.

Joan Walsh took the opportunity to reflect on how much we've lost in Bin Laden's pursuit:

After years of Catholic school, I am constitutionally unable to feel joyous about anyone being killed, but I got close tonight with bin Laden. He killed thousands of innocent people -- and again, it was that incomparable American tableau: Muslims, Jews, Catholics; waiters, firefighters, investment bankers; gays and straights; mothers and fathers of every race. For months, reading the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" felt like a responsibility of American citizenship; every day you'd find someone almost exactly like you, but also as different from you as possible -- except they also loved Bruce Springsteen (a lot of them did) or had a child your age or were born on your father's birthday. We saw the beauty and bravery and diversity of America in that tragedy, and I wish it didn't take a tragedy for us to do so.

I also wish this achievement could mean we get our country back, the one before the Patriot Act, before FISA, before rendition and torture and Guantánamo; before we began giving up the freedom and belief in due process that makes us Americans, out of our fear of totalitarians like bin Laden. It won't happen overnight, but I'm going to choose to think this could be a first step.

And Mona Eltahawy describes the scene from Ground Zero:

[I]t was a shock to find hundreds of others had turned that hallowed ground into the scene of a home crowd celebrating an away victory they hadn't attended, the roots of which they were probably not there to experience or were too young to remember.

There was always something sickening about tourists taking pictures of themselves posing in front of that big gaping hole called Ground Zero. "Me at site of mass slaughter, NYC" as holiday photo caption is wrong in every language, surely. It didn't take 10 minutes for the frat party atmosphere to sicken me. Olympic-style chants of "USA! USA!" I could just about take as a freshly minted American, as of Friday. But "Fuck Osama! Ole ole ole!" crushed any ambition of dignity for the thousands killed, many of whom had jumped hundreds of stories to their deaths, their bodies shattered to pieces close to where we stood.

As for me, I didn't really celebrate Bin Laden's death. Despite its temporary comforts, there is something that feels troubling to me about jingoistic chanting in response to the killing of a human being. I can only hope that it may bring some measure of peace to those who have been brutally robbed of it over the course of the past decade.

The Bin Laden Saga, in Taiwanese Animation Form

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(via Kevin)

How We Found Osama

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The NYTimes explains that it was by tracking down Osama's courier:

A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden’s whom American spies had been hunting for years was finally located in a compound 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The property was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

Reviews of Osama Bin Laden's Compound in Pakistan

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Some are kind. Others, less so. A sampling:

Heat sources are undeniable. This place is blazing!

I can't see anything there' s 18 foot walls all around me and no windows facing anything good. This place is a dump, plus it smells like old laundry. I guess I feel pretty secure tho with the 18 foot walls, oh wait here comes 40 navy seals with sub-machine guns

Located in cozy, quiet neighborhood. Interrupted only occasionally by machine gun fire. Lacking in ameneties, but an up and coming area. Handyman special. One satellite phone available with smoking bullet hole for comms back home. CIA helicoptors offering complimentary air lift service for corpses. Great property to get away from it all. Must See!

I heard that this place is now available (prior residents left suddenly and unexpectedly).

Heard this used to be an amusement park, now it's a historical site? Aside from the complimentary dialysis machine use, easy underground access to Pakistan's beautiful vast cave system, and free toaster waffles, it's a pretty big dump. The food wasn't organic, the wifi was spotty at best, absolutely no cell coverage, (yelp reviews were so wrong on that one) and no one spoke English. To make it worse, the country's best basketball player, some 6'7" dude with a turban, gets shot our first night there. And the coffee was cold. We're so not coming back.

Photographing The Cast of 'The Wire'

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I had the privilege of being the photographer of the Advanced Leadership Initiative's "Revitalizing Cities" Think Tank, held this past weekend at Harvard Law School. One of the main events at this conference was a panel featuring many members from the cast of The Wire. Some of you may know that Harvard Law School actually offers a class based on the series (side note: I regard it as the best television show ever made). That class's professor was able to wrangle the cast to join us for a moving panel about the need for change in urban areas all across the country.



All of these photos were shot using a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM II lens on a Canon 7D. A few quick notes:


  • The Canon 7D's low-light performance is pretty great. Even at ISO 1600, images are still quite usable (or at least, up to my standards). The same can't be said of the Canon 50D, which I also shoot with.
  • Some people argue that shooting in JPG saves time. But in a situation where you are shooting a lot of different lighting set-ups in rapid succession, even the camera pre-set white-balance options may not encompass your white-balance needs. I am glad to shoot in RAW and edit the images afterwards at my leisure.
  • I've found that even with image stabilization activated, it is difficult for me to get a clear shot at a shutter speed of anything under 1/125th of a second. Hopefully, I will continue to improve this rate as time goes on.

Osama Bin Laden Is Dead

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Alan Sepinwall has some heartfelt analysis of the sentiment of the news coverage surrounding Osama Bin Laden's death.

It didn't matter where you turned on the dial: the reactions, the footage (including the celebratory throng outside the White House), the tone was all remarkably similar.

I suspect that sense of unity will last about as long as it did after 9/11 - maybe even less. But just as an act of mass murder orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden brought us all together on that terrible day, a calculated act by the US military against Bin Laden for at least one night created the illusion that we can still all be one nation.

Over at TechCrunch, you can read about how the news spread through Twitter before the actual announcement, and how one guy unwittingly live-tweeted the raid itself.

The New York Times also has some pretty exhaustive coverage, with its announcement piece, an obituary, and a round-up of official reactions. There's also a fascinating piece featuring reactions from 9/11 survivor Harry Waizer, who isn't as ecstatic about Osama's death as others may be.

The Atlantic has a pretty good live blog. Also, sad reflections on the scene outside the White House following the announcement.

Here's the video and below you can find the full text of Obama's announcement:

Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda — an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort. We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense. In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support. And around the globe, we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot.

Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

(image above via Reddit)