#NPRreads: Social Concern And The Drought In California : The Two-Way Also this week, a profile of plus-sized model Tess Holliday, algorithms in plain(ish) English, and suicide clusters in Palo Alto, Calif.

#NPRreads: Social Concern And The Drought In California

#NPRreads is a feature we're testing out on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers throughout our newsroom will share pieces that have kept them reading. They'll share tidbits on Twitter using the #NPRreads hashtag, and on occasion we'll share a longer take here on the blog.

This week, we bring you four reads.

From reporter Sam Sanders:

I've reported my fair share of drought stories, being based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. I've done ride-alongs with Los Angeles' "water cops," interviewed multiple experts about just how dry California really is, and asked a number of policymakers and enforcers how they plan to get Californians to conserve more water.

What's struck me through all of those conversations is a realization that a lot of people won't conserve water even after they're told they should, often even after they're punished for not doing so. I chose this New York Times opinion piece because it gets at that point perfectly, and suggests another way:

"In a recent review of field experiments that promote cooperation in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, we found that changing the material costs and benefits of cooperation often doesn't work. Researchers have tried various forms of payments — paying cash, handing out T-shirts — and they've tried providing information on how to cooperate, with only limited success.

"What does consistently work may be surprising: interventions based not on money, but on leveraging social concerns.

"There are two ways to do this, both building on people's desire for others to think highly of them. One is to make people's cooperative (or selfish) choices more observable to others, like neighbors or co-workers. The second works in the opposite direction, providing people with information about how others around them are behaving (this is called a 'descriptive social norm')."

This article is basically saying that human beings aren't just irrational, they're also very concerned about keeping up appearances. Understanding those things just might help us get through this drought.

From Tracy Wahl, executive editor of Morning Edition:

I can't say that I read Buzzfeed all that much, although apparently it is really popular among women my age.

This time, I was drawn in by a picture on Twitter or Facebook — a very arresting photo of a large (she would describe herself as fat) woman with great tattoos and a beautiful smile. The picture was gorgeous, part illustration and part photograph.

It turned out it wasn't just the picture that was great bait to a great bit of writing.

The reporter, someone I hadn't heard of, was Amanda Shapiro. She started this piece with a great bit of action. Tess Holliday had just received a call from a friend who needed to go to the doctor:

"When we meet she's Tess Holliday, plus-size model and social media phenomenon, and she's sitting with her fiancé and her stylist in her stylist's Burbank, California, apartment with clips in her auburn hair. 'We have an issue,' she says as soon as I walk in.

"Her apartment manager Terri just called. Terri needs to get to the doctor — something about emphysema and juniper bushes — but she's stuck out in Pasadena with no ride and no cash, and there's been some kind of insurance snafu.

"Holliday has a photo shoot at BuzzFeed's Hollywood studio in two hours, before which she needs to be transformed into Venus, the Roman goddess of sex and fertility. Her fiancé Nick Holliday (she's been using his last name professionally since January) is from Australia and can't drive. There's talk of Ubers, traffic, routes, and other logistical schema.

" 'Let's just go,' she says, and within seconds she's out of the chair and hair clips are flying. Because sometimes Holliday is a savior, despite her best intentions. She'll grab her keys, her fiancé, and the reporter she met two minutes ago, and she'll take a woman to the doctor, modeling career be damned."

Over the course of the piece, I learned about a fascinating woman, trailblazer in many respects. A few days later, I read about her in People magazine, too. And in the next few days, I would read her name over and over again, so much so that I thought our listeners would love to hear a piece about her, including a conversation with her. One is on the way from NPR's Elizabeth Blair, by the way.

In a fashion industry mainly driven by skinny women in high heels, this woman definitely stands out as different, and the profile was a refreshing and incredibly engaging piece of writing.

From Peter Kenyon, NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey:

If you're like me, algorithms are a bit like the title entity in John Buchan's novel (and Alfred Hitchcock's film) The 39 Steps — a mysterious but incredibly powerful thing that drives the plot forward and makes stuff happen. That's why I very much like Raymond Li's blog post about the Top 10 data-mining algorithms.

Li is a software engineer from Seattle who takes the time to describe how data-mining algorithms work in relatively easy to understand terms. Not that the concepts are always simple, especially for non-software engineers, but he gives us helpful examples that open the door to some pretty complicated ideas.

Here's an example from No. 6 on his list: PageRank, the most famous example of which is the Google search engine's process for deciding what pages to show you when you submit a search query. Li starts off by explaining that PageRank ranks Internet pages based on how many other pages link to it, and the relative importance of the linking sites. He then goes on to show how else PageRank can be used:

"What does a PageRank of 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. mean? Although the precise meaning of a PageRank number isn't disclosed by Google, we can get a sense of its relative meaning.

"And here's how:

"Website (Page Rank): twitter.com (10), facebook.com (9), reddit.com (8), stackoverflow.com (7), tumblr.com (6), crucial.com (5), programmingzen.com (4), dearblogger.com (3)

"You see?

"It's a bit like a popularity contest. We all have a sense of which websites are relevant and popular in our minds. PageRank is just an uber elegant way to define it.

"What other applications are there of PageRank? PageRank was specifically designed for the World Wide Web.

"Think about it:

"At its core, PageRank is really just a super effective way to do link analysis.The objects being linked don't have to be web pages.

"Here are 3 innovative applications of PageRank:

  1. Dr Stefano Allesina, from the University of Chicago, applied PageRank to ecology to determine which species are critical for sustaining ecosystems.
  2. Twitter developed WTF (Who-to-Follow) which is a personalized PageRank recommendation engine about who to follow.
  3. Bin Jiang, from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, used a variant of PageRank to predict human movement rates based on topographical metrics in London."

Li explains other data-mining algorithms using examples from health care, marketing and other areas. Some will be more interesting than others, depending on where your curiosity tends to lead you. But with Big Data — a popular though not well understood topic these days — this blog post contains a wealth of information that could get a lot of people thinking about new ways to use data.

From Sarah Handel, producer at Weekend Edition:

Suicide clusters are incredibly rare. But four teenagers in the Palo Alto, Calif., school district have killed themselves since October of last year. And it's the second time in recent years a cluster has formed in Palo Alto. Last time, in 2009-10, reporter Diana Kapp says she was totally shut out — that when she asked for comments from public officials and residents, they were too scared to even say the word "suicide," lest it "spread the contagion."

This time, students, parents and community members spoke much more freely with Kapp. It's heartbreaking to read about what the new normal is like for kids in Palo Alto, where it feels like the next suicide is always right around the corner. The story opens at a house party full of students from Gunn High School.

"Suddenly someone notices that a classmate — a junior we'll call Joe — is missing. He had a fight with his girlfriend, one person says. He could be suicidal. Terrified, 16-year-old Martha Cabot sounds the alarm, alerting two kids beside her, who tell two others. Instantly, there's a commotion. The yard and the living room empty, the sober kids jumping in cars, everyone else swarming down the tree-lined street toward the railroad tracks at East Meadow Drive — not far from where two Gunn classmates recently leapt in front of a speeding Caltrain. Martha, slowed by a bum knee, nominates herself to stay back at the house in case Joe returns. She walks back inside — and there, sitting on the den sofa, alone and clueless, is Joe. 'Where were you?' Martha blurts. 'I was in the bathroom,' he says, confused. 'I was taking a piss.'

"While the story, as Martha tells it, is mordantly funny, the anxiety and terror that underlie it are anything but. It's been like this for months around Palo Alto — everyone on edge, leaping to conclusions, flipping out, fearing the worst. New stories arise on a near-daily basis: A hotheaded senior argues with his dad and takes off, igniting a chain reaction that mobilizes neighbors up and down his street. Among them is a psychiatrist named Daniel Saal, who searches the Alta Mesa cemetery by flashlight while others station themselves at nearby train crossings. (The senior returns, unharmed, several hours later.) Saal's daughter, Lauren, a Gunn junior, has been having regular nightmares and has started sleeping with her mother. Teachers dissolve into tears mid-class; students describe feelings akin to those of soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Just hearing a voice on the classroom loudspeaker, or seeing some teachers gathered in a huddle, is enough to set off internal alarms: 'I always think,' says junior Lisa Hao, 'did somebody else kill himself?' "