Missing graduate school

When I checked Twitter this morning, I came across a couple of tweets from my classmates, or more appropriately cohortmates:

@auwebmanager: @tmfulks You don’t like playing boss? And are you actually missing school right now like I am?

@tmfulks: @auwebmanager hate playing big bad boss and SOOO miss school right now. need to get back.

I’d been afraid to admit it to anyone for fear of being called crazy, but I miss school too! Even though I was overwhelmed and struggled to find balance between work, classes and everything else, I’ve really enjoyed my master’s program so far and can’t wait to get back to it on Saturday, January 15. You know you’re doing something you love when you look forward to it despite the chaos it creates!

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Must get more calcium

When I was home for the holidays, my mother urged me to drink a glass of milk at every meal. This was something I did as kid, mostly because I had no choice, but have long since abandoned the practice. As always, my mother asked me (I know it’s out of love!) how I get enough calcium. I answered that I probably don’t. In the fall, a friend had mentioned something about chocolate calcium chews at a wine and chocolate party. I didn’t think much of it until I was standing in line to check out at a Yes! Organic Market last week and saw a bag of the very chews she was talking about. With my mother’s words fresh in my mind (you don’t want weak bones when you’re my age), I picked up a bag and gave it a quick once over. Being overly tired and in a hurry to get home, I didn’t end up buying them. I’m too skeptical to try something without having first done my research. Today, I decided to see I could find out about twice-daily chocolate flavored chews and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1.) The calcium chew craze has proliferated quickly. I’m not sure if they are actually popular (I’ve never seen anyone consume one or heard people talking about them save my one friend) or if they are just another gimmick.
2.) With many options to choose from, taste seems to be the deciding factor. Aside from chocolate, vanilla and caramel are available.
3.) Caltrate and Viactiv have either corn syrup or sucrose listed within the first three ingredients. I’d rather not have a side of corn with my calcium.

Calcium chews available at CVS

4.) I’m not sure about 20-30 calories per chew. At that rate I would rather take a pill and have a piece of real chocolate.

That’s all for now. I’m going to stop at Yes! on my way home and check out the “natural” calcium chews for comparison.

Look for an update a little later!

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Snack attack!

After my workout today (the gym was packed!), I found myself in need of a snack. As I often do, I forgot to bring along one of the many snacks I keep at home for just such an occasion. I ended up picking up an orange mango Vivanno smoothie from Starbucks for my walk home, but got to thinking about my favorite, easily toteable snacks. The snacks below are good post-workout, at the office or to carry in your purse in case of a hunger emergency. Better to have something on hand than have to worry about finding a delicious and nutritious snack on the fly!

First up, True North Pecan Almond Peanut Clusters. A little salty, a little sweet and majorly crunchy these bit size squares are so good it’s hard not too finish the whole bag in one sitting!

Next, Luna Protein in Cookie Dough. Protein bars are always tricky, but this one doesn’t taste chalky or overly artificial. The little chocolate chunks inside break up the texture. The bar itself it small but packs 12 grams of protein.

Fiber One Bar in Oats & Chocolate. Moist and chewy, these bars are a perfect between meal snack. They keep energy up and satiate your sugar craving. Sweet and healthy!

KIND Bar Mango Macadamia + Calcium. With a mild crunch and a sweet, tropical flavor this bar reminds me of lying on the beach. Delicious and nutritious! A new kind (pardon, the pun) I want to try: Peanut Butter and Strawberry.

Last, but not least Peeled Snacks Apple-2-the-core. Dried organic apple rings with no added sugar in a resealable package. What could be better?

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Health and fitness in the New Year

The time to fulfill new year’s resolutions is upon us. Those promises that we make to ourselves to be happier or healthier or whatever quality we feel that we are lacking. Every year, Jan. 1 offers a fresh start for those who want to lose weight. Whether they want to be fitter, thinner, slimmer, stronger, leaner, etc., a new year presents a new opportunity. Or so people believe.

While I applaud any and all attempts to eat well and exercise no matter what the motivation, I do have some qualms with a new year’s resolution as the starting point for long-term success. Physical well-being, working out and eating right, is a lifestyle choice. You have to continue to make good choices long after you reach your goals or else you back slide to where you started or worse. The decision to take better care of yourself has to be about the big picture, not just your physical appearance. While looks are the reason most people start on an exercise routine and/or a diet, you must find reasons beyond the way you look to stay on the healthy living wagon. It’s easy to fall off or think you’ve made it and stop, but the reality is that to be healthy you have to live healthy day in and day out. Being aware of what you eat, getting enough sleep and staying active will eventually become second nature much like brushing your teeth. Perfection is not required (we all need rest days and who can live without cookies or pizza?), but the right attitude and a belief that even when mistakes are made tomorrow is another chance to get back on track.

The new year is a perfectly good reason to start down the path to good health. And I wish everyone who is going for it today the best of luck. Just remember it’s not just about this year, it’s about the rest of your life. You’ll sleep better, feel less stressed, heal faster, be in brighter spirits and function better overall if you treat your body well. Here’s to healthy living in 2011 and beyond!

Some of my favorite websites for tips and motivation:

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Chicken bones divide a neighborhood

The new H Street Connection

7-Eleven and an Advisory Neighborhood Commission squabble over the sale of chicken wings in the H Street Corridor.

The chicken bone saga is officially over. Oh thank heaven, but not for 7-Eleven, which is at the center of the tale.

Flickr photo from nist6ss

The issue revolves around a 7-Eleven at 957 H Street NE in Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood struggling with gentrification. The controversy has been brewing since the store opened in August, when the community began expressing its concerns about the 7-Eleven’s 24-hour operation in the H Street Connection, including late night hours, added litter, loitering, sales of tobacco products, and sales of fast food items.

For the last four months, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A and community residents have been trying to get 7-Eleven reclassified as a fast food establishment in an effort to subject the store to additional controls and ultimately keep trash off the streets.

Chicken wings—the discarded bones are a choking hazard for dogs and attract vermin according to ANC 6A—were the one point of contention that kept 7-Eleven and ANC 6A from reaching a voluntary agreement about operations.

The culprit (Flickr photo by scaredykat)

7-Eleven tried to throw ANC 6A a bone by saying that it would switch to selling boneless wings as soon as they became available, but ANC 6A insisted that the community did not want boned chicken wings to be sold for any period of time.

And thus, the chicken bone narrative was born.

“It is unfortunate that the controversy has been characterized by chicken bones,” said Margaret Holwill, a resident of Capitol Hill for 35 years. “It’s a zoning issue.”

7-Eleven, chicken bones and zoning

At a hearing on Dec. 7, the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) decided to reclassify the 7-Eleven, store #34488, in the H Street Connection as a grocery store not as a fast food establishment stating that the sale fast food was “clearly subordinate” to the convenience store’s identity as a grocer.

Despite admitting that 7-Eleven’s original C of O for a market was inaccurate, the BZA refused to hear testimony from local residents at the hearing. Only the method by which the zoning administrator, Matt LeGrant, arrived at his decision to grant 7-Eleven a certificate of occupancy could serve as evidence for the appeal. Without having asked to review the materials that LeGrant used to make his original decision, ANC 6A’s appeal—and its hopes to mitigate trash from grab-and-go offerings—was denied three to two by the BZA.

SCLinDC tweeted from the hearing:

“Ouch! Board took an ugly swipe at the case. ANC requests 60 day continuance. #HSt”

“Continuance denied. ANC proceeds with 7-11 case w/o ability to discuss ops since opening.”

Timeline of Events

After negotiations between ANC 6A, 7-Eleven franchisee Bob Martz and 7-Eleven Corporate broke down in mid-November, ANC 6A asked the BZA in an appeal filed on Nov. 19 to force 7-Eleven to reapply for a fast food establishment license citing that the store derives more than 15 percent of its sales from fast food items.

Fast food establishments are permitted only by special exception of the BZA according to Rule: 11-1320 of the H Street Northeast Neighborhood Commercial Overlay District, a plan that designates use and development requirements for lots fronting H Street NE.

Without a signed agreement not to sell boned chicken wings, ANC 6A chose to throw around its “great weight” and challenge 7-Eleven’s operations with zoning regulations.

“Whatever idea you have about a 7-Eleven, that’s not what this 7-Eleven is,” said ANC 6A02 commissioner and chair of the Economic Development and Zoning Committee Drew Ronneberg, who wrote and led the appeal.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissions consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods and are the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.

Margaret Chablis, a spokesperson for 7-Eleven said in an e-mail: “We maintain that we are not a quick-serve restaurant, but a convenience store. There are no tables and chairs in our establishment, and most of the space is devoted to convenience products.”

If the appeal to have 7-Eleven reclassified as a fast food establishment had been successful, 7-Eleven would have been given a grace period to either stop selling fast food items or appeal the BZA’s reclassification.

“7-Eleven is expanding into fast food and being reclassified would have hurt their business,” Ronneberg said. “But, there would have been less trash in the neighborhood.”

Ronneberg said on Dec. 9 at an ANC 6A public meeting that no further action will be taken by ANC 6A regarding 7-Eleven’s C of O or its operations.

TBD TV captures community opinions in a video: Northeast residents upset over trash, chicken bones.

“7-Eleven is going to be a part of the H Street Connection,” said Sharee Lawler, commissioner-elect for ANC 6A05 and an owner of the blog, The Hill is Home. “Now we just have to hope that they are going to be a good neighbor.”

The chicken or the bone?

Despite a national campaign to promote boneless wings, the 7-Eleven in the H Street Connection is not yet part of the movement.

To combat the sale of chicken wings, ANC 6A voted 5-0-0 to appeal the administrative decision of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to grant 7-Eleven C of O #CO1002994 for a “market.” While ANC 6A agrees that one aspect of 7-Eleven’s operations is a grocery store, the commission believes it has a secondary operation as a fast food establishment.

The District of Columbia Business Resource Center defines a C of O as a document that certifies that the use of a building complies with zoning regulations and building codes.

“You can always run in and get what you need on the go,” Holwill said. “7-Eleven serves a purpose. If there are enough people that will patronize the store then it should be allowed to survive.”

In an effort to prove that the 7-Eleven was functioning as a fast food establishment, ANC 6A community members sat outside the store over a number of days at various times and recorded how many customers went into the store and how many of those customers came out with fast food, such as pizza slices, hot dogs and nachos. Their findings were the basis of the appeal.

“It contrasts starkly with two other new businesses within a block of it—Liberty Tree and the Atlas Room which are two fantastic, neighborhood-serving restaurants,” said Phil Toomajian, a resident of the H Street community in an e-mail. “7-Eleven has been frank that they are more interested in serving commuter traffic than local residents.”

A tweet from the Nov. 11, ANC 6A public meeting elucidates the controversy: “We’re back to the 7-11, fast food, trash. Nobody has mentioned chicken bones. Yet.”

“I believe that 7-Eleven is a good tenant for the space,” said Gary Rappaport, President and CEO of Rappaport Companies, the owner and developer of the H Street Connection. “Not only does 7-Eleven offer a service, they are professional operators and know what they are doing.”

The H Street Connection

Aside from the issue of chicken bones, many local residents argue that 7-Eleven doesn’t fit into the vision of H Street that was approved by the DC Zoning Commission on Nov. 8.

This vision includes “a high-end architecturally designed building that will help stimulate other growth in the corridor and serve as an anchor for future growth,” said Rappaport. High-density, mixed-use space will define the new H Street Connection and set an example for further redevelopment.

Rappaport likened the coming changes to the recent transformation of P Street NW.

Rappaport Companies owns 87,000 square feet of land on the south side of H Street between 8th Street and 10th Street NE where the existing H Street Connection is situated. The land offers a tremendous amount of frontage relative to depth, frontage that will likely include 7-Eleven.

“We will try to negotiate a lease with 7-Eleven over the next year that will allow them to move back into the space after construction,” said Rappaport.

Construction to replace the existing one-story strip mall will begin in 2014. The new H Street Connection will have 52,000 square feet of retail space below 384 residential units. The structure will be eight stories tall and fill two city blocks.

“We’ve gone through the ins and outs and ups and downs to ensure that the new H Street Connection is compatible with the community’s vision for H Street,” said Rappaport.

Well supported by transit the new H Street Connection will be the anchor of the Central Retail District or “The Shops” as outlined in the H Street NE Strategic Development Plan Summary.

“It will add to an already growing cadre of business along H Street’s eastern end, and will provide attractive new spaces for additional businesses to open and provide neighborhood-serving retail,” said Toomajian. “I believe it will be as important as any development along H Street in furthering its rebirth.”

H Street Main Street, a nonprofit created in 2002 to implement comprehensive revitalization in the H Street Corridor, said on its website that the redevelopment underway is “a powerful indicator of the desirability of H Street.”

“We’re all rooting for each other,” said Sandra Basanti, an owner and manager of Dangerously Delicious Pies on H Street. “We all want the street to do well and we all want each other to succeed.”

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The Content Crisis: Really a Crisis?

Idea-spawning algorithms are fast supplanting professional journalists for some types of online content.

A mathematical equation is professed to better predict human wants and needs than humans themselves can. Journalistic instinct and experience are losing out to raw data.

According to Demand Media, every mathematically generated idea produces 4.9 times the revenue of an idea thought up by professional editors.

A combination of science and art, in the words of Demand Media’s Executive Vice President Steven Kydd, virtual factories aim to produce content that can survive and even turn a profit in today’s market.

These content farms — Demand Media, AOL’s Seed and Yahoo’s Associated Content are the largest and most prolific — are the fastest growing sectors of the journalism industry alongside hyperlocal networks.

Likened to assembly lines, content farms churn out hundreds of stories per day on everything from how to wear a sweater to how to make gin at home.

Demand Media currently produces more than 4,000 articles per month, and hopes to reach 1,000,000 articles a month by early 2011 according to founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt.

At the current rate of growth, payout to freelancers, including writers, copyeditors, filmmakers, and fact-checkers, could reach $200 million, less than a third of what The New York Times pays its employees to create just 5,000 articles per month.

Robertson Barrett, chief strategy officer at Perfect Market, said in his article Lessons From the Content Farm: “As much as it taxes journalistic sensibilities, publishers need to embrace the fact that some articles have more value in terms of advertising than others.”

How It Works

To determine what stories need writing, Demand Media utilizes a two-part algorithm.

The first algorithm analyzes search terms, the ad market and competitors to ascertain what terms users are searching for, how much advertisers will pay to appear on pages that include those terms, and how many Web pages already include them.

Seed and Associated Content parse the same data and use a similar algorithm.

After terms are derived from the first algorithm, the second algorithm, called the Knowledge Engine, attempts to figure out what users want to know about those terms. Demand Media has discovered that “best” and “how to” bring in the highest ad rates, while “history of” is less lucrative.

A term and its lifetime value, or LTV, is born. Enter humans to nurture it to maturity.

After freelance “title proofers” finalize the headline of a story, it is placed on a password-protected section of Demand Media’s website called Demand Studios. Freelancers can then select stories to fill their assignment queue.

On the farm, freelance contributors are known as “content creators.”

Editors and fact-checkers follow behind content creators to fix only the most glaring errors. The business model, quick, dirty and cheap, does not allow for extensive revisions or rewrites.

“Stories read like first drafts, poorly organized and indifferently written,” said Jason Fry, a former Wall Street Journal Online reporter, in Dylan Stableford’s article Content ‘Farms’: Killing Journalism — While Making a Killing.

Professional writer Anne Gentle shared her experience in a post titled Workin’ on a Content Farm on her blog Just Write Click: “The guidelines were very clear — the About type required five sections with one-word section headers and the first section had to be titled Overview and contain about 75 words. The rest of the sections could contain more than 75 words but at least 50 words were necessary, and overall the article was targeted for 400-500 words.” She went on to say: “To my relief, the article I submitted by noon on a week day was approved by early morning the next week day.”

Content farms, much like real farms, are capable of producing economical, passable crops. The question becomes whether they can manufacture anything of significant or memorable value.

The Truth About the Future

Despite flipping the traditional journalism model on its head, the intention of content farms is not to replace journalism as it currently exists. Like citizen journalism, high-volume, low-cost content is another experimental business venture that may or may not find a permanent place among mainstream media.

In any market, where there is demand, supply that can yield a profit is sure to follow. Content farms have stepped in as the willing supplier.

The value of breaking news and investigative journalism is not comparable to the work coming out of content farms. Quality and relevance are not necessarily the same thing.

One is a database of human knowledge, with short-term, high-impact, mass audience value, and the other is a database of human needs with long-term, categorical value.

News is not based on algorithms or search term. It is not predictable or quantifiable and thus never will be created in the same fashion.

Content farms are not here to replace, but do have the potential to overpower quality work.

“The problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre content,” said Dan Gillmor, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, in an article written by The Economist.

A recent survey conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 70 percent of Americans are overwhelmed by the amount of news and information available from different sources.

“To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer,” Daniel Roth said in an article he wrote for Wired.com. “He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.”

Further Reading:

AOL’s Latest Dumb Business Plan
Are Content Farms “Demonic”?
The Content Farm Model: How Crap Succeeds
Journalists Worried About Content Farms Are Missing The Point: The Web Has Always Been Filled With Crap
Can So-Called “Content Farms” Maintain Quality and Reader Trust?

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How low can you go?

Stores use bold advertising to lure customers to bold sales on Black Friday.

The checkout line at Banana Republic around 11:30 a.m.

Extensive advertising and 25 percent to 50 percent savings on full price and sale items brought in high numbers at The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City on Friday, November 26.

The official start to the holiday shopping season, Black Friday is expected to generate good, but not great sales figures this year.

Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $688.87 during the holidays, up $7.04 from last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association.

Although shoppers may not be spending significantly more, early signs point to bigger crowds at many stores across the country. If the scene at Pentagon City mall this morning is any indication, retailers will make up for less money spent, with greater numbers spending.

“It definitely seems busier than last year,” said Brian Kear, guest services manager at Pentagon City mall. “There wasn’t a line at the door, but people started pouring in as soon as the mall opened.” Kear works from 5:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Black Friday and said that the peak time is usually around 8:00 a.m.

The deals

View from the second floor outside of Nordstrom's.

With three levels, plus a food court, Pentagon City mall has over 170 stores and restaurants in 990,000 square feet.

Multiple laps around the three levels of the mall revealed that certain stores were much busier than others.

Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle, Express and other large corporate retailers offered 30, 40, and even 50 percent off the “entire store.” The highest concentrations of shoppers were in stores that offered discounts on everything.

Time limits on these sales heightened the need for shoppers to spend fast or miss out.

GAP offered 50 percent off of everything in the store until 10:00 a.m. Banana Republic and Express ended 40 percent off “your entire purchase” at noon. Lines snaked around these stores throughout the morning, but grew rapidly in the last 30 minutes of the sale.

Sale signs being taken down five minutes before 10:00 a.m.

One GAP customer said that she started shopping on Black Friday in recent years and felt able to spend a little more money this year than last because her husband is gainfully employed again.

The steals

Ann Taylor offered 40 percent off “your entire purchase” through noon and then extended the sale for all stores through the end of the day.

“We’re a higher-end brand, so when customers see that they can get 40 percent off their entire purchase, nearly half off, they tend to buy more,” said Paris Jones, a sales associate at Ann Taylor. “On a normal day our goal is $20,000; today our goal is $60,000.”

When asked if she thought the store would reach its $60,000 sales goal, Jones said yes without hesitation.

Signs and greeters at store entrances were followed by printed sales cards or presentations of sample freebies. Customers knew exactly what they were getting before they walked in, before they checked out and as they left the store.

You get what you advertise

Many knew what to expect before they arrived at the mall. Promotional advertisements were rolled out up to 11 days ago.

Known as “Christmas creep,” retailers are trying to grab and hold the attention of shoppers earlier and longer.

Ads, used to build momentum and excitement as well as remind customers that this store or that has the biggest and best deals, are often the reason customers decide to visit a store at all.

Macy’s was among the many retailers to promote the bargains it would feature today. Accidental leaks gave customers a pre-preview of the sale.

A sea of sale signs at Macy's.

With items on sale in practically every department through close of business plus an in-store savings pass and free shipping, a steady flow of customers streamed into Macy’s all morning. Other stores such as Steve Madden had customers “on-and-off traffic,” said Aida, a sales associate.

“It’s been a good day so far,” said Senait, a Macy’s employee working in the Impulse department. “Last year it wasn’t busy at all; anything is better than that.”

If it wasn’t obvious that a retailer was selling items at a discount, customers didn’t look twice.

J.Crew, Nine West, and The Limited, among others, were practically empty. These stores didn’t appear to be offering discounts on much, if anything. Shoppers, expecting to be wooed, chose to give business to retailers that went to greater lengths to entice them.

A big weekend ahead

Approximately 138 million people are expected to hit stores over the Black Friday weekend, 60 million more than last year. Holiday sales are predicted to increase 2.3 percent to $447.1 billion this year.

The food court just before noon.

In 2009, sales increased only 0.4 percent during the holiday season and declined 3.9 percent in 2008.

As a bellwether of the overall health of the economy, holiday sales will be watched closely.

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The Power of Community News

News is developing into a form of collective thinking, a knowledge network, in the words of Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director who spoke to graduate journalism students at American University on November 20.

Jan Schaffer, J-Lab Executive Director, speaking to AU’s Interactive Journalism cohort 13 on November 20.

Schaffer launched J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism in 2002, and is one of the leading thinkers in the journalism reform movement. J-Lab is a center of American University’s School of Communication.

Game Changer

Social media, any interactive dialogue, is game changing. This sentiment was voiced by TBD Social Media Producer, Mandy Jenkins a week ago when speaking to Interactive Journalism cohorts 12 and 13 on November 13 and echoed again today by Schaffer.

As more and more content moves online, community news sites are taking advantage of the growth of active contributors.

Hong Eun-taek of ohmynews.com, based in South Korea, believes that news is something that is made not just by public figures, but by people who are allowed to think together.

Today, social return, in the form of a participatory audience, is a greater mark of success than monetary return. Community news sites are not mass market purveyors, but facilitators, curators and sharers of desirable information. A passive audience can break a site, while an active audience can catapult a site.

Engage, Engage, Engage

Engagement is key: “Engagement is more important than the content itself,” said Schaffer. The attitude “if I put it out there, readers will come” isn’t applicable to a community audience in the same way it might be for mainstream mass media.

Community level coverage is often done by those living in or at least extremely familiar with the community itself. They know the issues and can present them in a way that is not only engaging, but meaningful. Relevance plays an active role in spurning interactivity.

As hyperlocal sites develop, communities have the opportunity to shape how and what issues are covered. “It’s not that there is now a gap to be filled, but that no one was ever reporting in those communities,” Schaffer said.

A stewardship model — a supportive structure that doesn’t expect financial return — is emerging, and will likely carry community journalism outlets into the future.

An Endangered Species May Require a New Species to Survive

Metro dailies are an endangered species — they’ve lost their portfolio and are left with only sports and enterprise stories. Enter community news.

For community news makers, innovation is ripe and demand is fierce. “There is a lot cooking in this space,” said Schaffer.

At this stage, “you’re either in the game or you’re not,” said Schaffer.

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Thank you people of Delaware!

Despite being the most covered candidate of the 2010 election (http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_upshot/20101102/el_yblog_upshot/odonnell-receives-most-coverage-of-2010-candidates) Christine O’Donnell lost to Christopher Coons yesterday. Phew! While I’m not happy with the overall outcome of last night’s elections, at least I can rest easy that she won’t play a part in Washington in the coming years. As for Republicans gaining control over the House, that’s something that may have me tossing and turning…

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at least 10 million people…

Thanks Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert!

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