Sunday, October 31, 2010

Biggest surprise on Tuesday's ballot?

What could be the biggest surprise awaiting voters on Tuesday’s election ballot?

All the names listed that are unfamiliar to anyone but lawyers.

On my sample ballot, nine of the 15 contested races are for judgeships.

There are also races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Mecklenburg County commissioners, Mecklenburg sheriff and Mecklenburg district attorney. Chances are, you’ve had some exposure to these candidates campaigning, debating and advertising.

That’s less likely to be true in races for North Carolina Supreme Court, the N.C. Court of Appeals, Superior Court and District Court, all of which are on this ballot. Judicial campaigns are low-key by nature, with candidates often appearing only on yard signs and occasional image ads.

This means that most voters go to the polls with little or no idea why they should vote for one judicial candidate over another.

Don't be one of them. Check on the qualifications of these judicial candidates. Just go to the Observer’s online Voter’s Guide.

There you can link to your own sample ballot, based on your home address. Then, you can match the names on your ballot to the profiles we’ve prepared on each candidate.

You can also read stories we've published about the most competitive races. One describes political opponents' unusual attempt to unseat Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell.

Not sure where to vote? We have a quick search feature that will locate your polling place when you type in your address.

For those interested, the guide is also where you'll find a complete list of editorial endorsements by the Observer's editorial board.

Don't let the prospect of obscure names discourage you from voting at all on Tuesday. It’s a privilege that others who came before you fought and died for. A privilege that millions of people all over the world will never experience.

But before you vote, spend a few minutes with this guide. Then, when you step into the booth, you can vote with confidence that you did your part to elect the best candidate.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Check out our new look for news by phone

If you can get onto the Web with your smartphone, you can follow the news on anywhere you go.

We’ve offered news over the phone for at least two years now. But we recently upgraded our mobile site. It’s cleaner, easier to navigate and filled with more news and information.

The site is most responsive to smartphones like the iPhone, Droid and Evo. But it also can be read easily on the newer generations of Blackberry, and even older phones that have Web access.

If you have a Web-based phone, simply direct it to Your phone’s screen will go straight to the Observer’s top stories at that hour. Keep scrolling and you’ll get to local news, business, sports, entertainment – even movie showtimes.

If you use a smartphone regularly, you’ll notice that this is not an “application,” which is a framework you must download to your phone before you can view a specific site. This address takes you directly to our mobile site.

Applications, or “apps” as they are commonly called, enable you to take advantage of additional characteristics unique to your particular make of phone.

An application for iPhone readers of the Observer is now in the works. And I expect applications for other popular phones to follow.

I personally use a Droid X. We also have a number of iPhone and Blackberry users in the newsroom. One pointer I offer to fellow Droid users is that you sometimes need to hit the refresh button to pick up the latest headlines as you enter the site. It’s a quirk we are working on that does not appear to be an issue for iPhone users.

So, read us via a printed newspaper, a Website and your phone. All of it is the Observer, the most widely read source of news in the Carolinas. You choose the format that works best for you at any given time. Our goal is to be there for you.

If you have other questions or suggestions, post them here, or send us an email at

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why 3-D? Just because it could be fun

We live in a very serious world. That makes for some very serious content.

So, excuse us, but how about taking a break this Sunday and putting on some silly-looking glasses?

I’m talking about the 3-D glasses inside the Sunday Observer (Oct. 10th edition). They are tucked inside a special 3-D section, called “Comin’ at You,” that pays tribute to Charlotte’s Race Week.

We created this section just for fun. It also happens to feature some of the most compelling photography the Observer has shot at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Our sports and photo staffs sifted through hundreds of great racing moments from our archives for shots of legendary drivers, faithful fans, grinding competition on the track and furious action in the pits.

This is our first experience working with 3-D images. In choosing photos, our director of photography, Bert Fox, says he looked specifically for depth, action and simplicity.

“As 3-D images, foreground objects come at you and background objects fall off,” Fox says.

Fox and the Observer’s advertising creative manager, Chuck Cole, worked with an outside firm to transform the existing photos into 3-D images (a process explained in the section on page 18Z).

If you’ve watched a 3-D movie, you know that the effect is more obvious in some scenes than in others. The same is true in print. On top of that, the experience will vary from person to person.

“Any nuance specific to your eyes can affect how well you see a particular photo,” Cole says. “And color-blindness may prevent you from seeing (3-D) because of we use a specific red and a specific blue to create the 3-D effect.”

Color is also why you are likely to see a more dramatic effect when you use your glasses to view the same photos on Most computer monitors are set to emit a much heavier saturation of color.

While they are paper, we figure these funky glasses are good for at least a few more days of fun. So, hang onto your glasses to view a 3-D photo we’ll publish in each day’s newspaper and online this week. These photos will feature scenes of Charlotte and the surrounding region.

Now, for those of you with a smartphone (such as an iPhone, Droid or Evo), I have one more experiment at hand.

With my column in the newspaper, you’ll notice something called a QR code. It looks somewhat like the bar code on products you buy. The QR stands for “quick response.”

To use this code, you must first download a free application that enables your phone to scan it. (Just search for “QR” in your phone’s online app store.)

Then, when you use your camera to scan the code, it should link you automatically to a slideshow of these 3-D images online.

Of course, you can also just type into your phone or computer.

But we’re intrigued with the potential uses of the QR code as a bridge between your printed newspaper and the Observer’s digital content.

If you try it, we’d like to know how it worked for you. We’d also like your ideas for how this technology might be used to benefit you as an Observer reader.

Reach Rick Thames at,, and 704-358-5001. You can also ask him a question at

Thursday, October 7, 2010

See Sunday's newspaper for 3-D section

When we explain an eye-catching photo in the newsroom, we often say that it "pops off the page."

We take that sensation to the new level Sunday, when The Observer presents its first 3-D section to mark the beginning of race week at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

We call the section "Comin' at you," and we think you'll enjoy this novel view of life at the track.

Our sports and photo staffs sifted through hundreds of great racing moments from our archives for this 20-page section. It includes legendary drivers, faithful fans, grinding competition on the track and furious action in the pits.

Some photos work better in 3-D than others. Director of photography Bert Fox had that in mind as he finalized his picks for the section. He looked specifically for depth, action and simplicity.

"As 3D images, foreground objects come at you and background objects fall off," Fox says. "In the photos, race cars stretch far into the background, a pit crew looks like they’ll jump into your lap, drivers jump in the arms of race fans and helicopters fly off the page.“

With each Sunday paper comes a pair of 3-D glasses. Until you put those on, all of these photos will be as blurry as a 3-D movie to the unaided eye.

The same glasses will work very well with a slideshow of these racing photographs that goes up Sunday on and That’

And since you’ll have these funky glasses, anyway, we’ve decided to include a 3-D photo in each day’s newspaper next week. These photos will feature scenes across Charlotte and the surrounding region.

So, find those glasses in Sunday’s newspaper, enjoy the section and hang onto them for at least the next week.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Everybody's talking about the new commenting system

Hundreds of you made the transition to our new commenting system Tuesday, and many more will make that journey today. I’ll try to answer a few of the questions popping up along the way.

Want to upload your own Avatar? You’ll need a Disqus account for that. The simplest way to set that up is to go to Once you have an account, you’ll get an option to upload or change your Avatar.

This account will also allow you to keep track of your previous comments and post other information about yourself. However, the options to post personal information are not as detailed as what you found in the former system.

One user described having to log off and log on to the system for it to activate each time. If you block “cookies (essentially, memory that is stored on your PC when you visit a site so the site recognizes you on repeat visits),” you may have to log in again.

Another commenter reported seeing “no difference” with the new system. My guess is that you weren’t yet looking at the new system. All stories and comments posted before mid-morning Tuesday arrived in the framework of the old system.

A couple of people asked if we can allow individual settings of more than 10 comments per page. The system has only one uniform setting. We chose 10 comments because that’s a full screen and then some. We realize that this is not ideal for everyone, but for most users it seems to be a reasonable amount.

We were asked if we can provide an “ignore” button that allows someone to stop seeing the comments of specific commenters. The system does not allow that as configured, but we will let the vendor know that some users like that idea.

You may find the Q & A we’ve prepared helpful in answering other questions.

Thanks for the questions, the suggestions and the patience. Now, it’s on to Day Two of the transition.

New story commenting features debut today

You’ll see a new look today at the bottom of stories on as we transition to an article commenting service that offers several new options.

(The new feature appears on stories created after 10 a.m. For stories created before then, you will see our old commenting system.)

We’ve prepared a Q&A to answer questions being asked most often about the change. I won’t repeat a lot of that here. But as a user, let me tell you some of what I like best about this new service.

Before, when you responded to another comment, your response often showed up amid a stream of unrelated comments. That could be very difficult to follow. Now, your response will be grouped with the original comment regardless of when you enter it.

The new feature also lets you go back into your comments and edit them at any time. Nice to know in case you see an error or have, uh, second thoughts.

Many of you are avid users of Facebook. The new feature gives you the capability of sharing your comments with friends on your Facebook page.

While this is a new commenting feature, you won’t have to re-register if you are already registered with Your existing login information will still work. If you have forgotten your user name and password, you can have them resent to you by visiting

Here is one downside we could not avoid. Your old Avatar will not migrate to the new system. We have a default Avatar that will appear unless and until you upload another. But we’ll make that easy enough to do.

Some users reading about the new system say they hope that this "fresh start" to commenting will lead to more inviting and enriching conversations. It’s no secret that a few rude and unruly voices can ruin the dialogue for everyone.

We've kept some features in place to help discourage that. The "report abuse" button still exists beside each comment to allow you to quickly alert us that someone has violated our rules for civil conversation.

We’ve also expanded the rules to expressly forbid some frequent forms of abuse. This includes the practice of camouflaging profanity with asterisks or abbreviations, and posting comments that bear no relation to the story. Go here to read the full policy.

Of course, only a small percentage of the thousands of comments each day violate these standards. And with your help, we can shrink that percentage still more. So, let us know when someone tries to mess up what is essentially your house and our house.

Oh, I should mention that this blog is a new look for me, too. For years, I’ve communicated through a Q&A column. I’ll still be answering questions about the Observer as you submit them through the link to the right. But I’ll also use this blog, as well as occasional columns, to keep you up to date on happenings in the newsroom.

So let me hear from you.