Archive for May, 2009

Fri 15 May 2009 8:51 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Technology

Buying bird food

“You have zero privacy… Get over it.” — Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems CEO, 1999

Take a minute and think about all the electronic data that exists about you.

The credit card company knows where I shop, and how often. The stores know which products I buy. The phone company has a record of all my travels—they know which celluar towers my phone is near, and I seldom go anywhere without my phone. The bank knows how often I get cash, how often I check my balance online, and at what times of day. Google knows which blogs I read and what I search for. My Internet provider and my employer, theoretically, can read every e-mail I write. Experian knows every addresses I’ve lived at since I was a kid. TransUnion knows where I’ve worked. Google Maps has a photo of my apartment on file for all to see. I still have copies of my academic records on my computer, and I bet my university has them backed up somewhere.

We haven’t even gotten to the stuff I voluntarily make public—my Twitter posts, my FaceBook profile, this blog, the stories I publish and the presentations I give as a journalist.

The New York Times Magazine has a story this week about what credit card mathematicians know about customers. Most companies are conservative about taking action based on what they know, but oh the things they know! Example: People who buy wild bird seed are likely to make their credit card payments on time.

Where does this lead? Under one scenario, companies or the government will gather as much information as they can and run it through complex algorithms to evaluate everyone. With every choice we make, we’ll have to think about how it would appear if examined by an outsider. Will buying a beer hurt my credit score? Life will be about cheezy, tedious, pointless rules: SAT prep or search engine optimization, but for real life. We’ll lose our freedom to be original.

But then there’s a second scenario, one that I think is more likely. For decades, banks and mortgage lenders have had access to credit scores and other predictive data about how people will spend money, and they still blew it. Hence the credit crisis. Company forecasts for 2009 have been wrong everywhere. Stock brokers, who trade in math and numbers, have lost heaps of money. The temptation to doubt statistics—and the fact that statistics can be manipulated and sometimes contradict each other—is too powerful.

Human nature means most of the data we collect is useless field of noise. Are we really to believe that we can process massive amounts of data and use it to predict human behavoir? Our digital record says a lot about us, but it still can’t predict what we’ll do next. We’re kind of random like that.

Thu 14 May 2009 7:19 am   //   Posted in: Music, Videos

Go folk yourself

I’m not sure what to make of the explosion of ukulele artists and homemade folk music acts on YouTube, but there’s definitely something real going on. Is it really so great that everyone can be a novelty music act? Are we going to be a nation of Weird Als? Doesn’t somebody actually have to create original stuff before the bored kids of the world can chew it over, mash it up, and record the parody kazoo version?

Eh. Whatever it is, let’s welcome it. If Glenn Beck gets his own show on national TV, then the guy with the kazookeylele deserves to be heard, too. Thank you, Internet, for giving homemade trash culture as loud a megaphone as mass-produced trash culture!

Wed 13 May 2009 8:41 am   //   Posted in: Media

Newspaper bailout? Bad idea.

I watched the Senate committee hearing on newspapers and journalism last week. Interesting to watch David Simon (who I think is a rock star) and Ariana Huffington (who I find annoying) fight about what’s killing journalism and how to save it. (Neither of them has plans that will work.)

The fact that the hearing happened at all (it was led by Sen. John Kerry) is a sign that we’re moving closer to some government action to help newspapers. Unless everyone has lost their minds, there won’t be a newspaper bailout. With government aid comes regulation, and regulating journalism would violate all of the traditions of American newspapers. The press needs to sort out its financial problems independently, or it will be doomed to forever beg for handouts.

Government intervention in newspapers has a history of failure. Richard Nixon signed the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1970 which allowed troubled newspapers in two-newspaper cites to enter into JOAs. How’d that work out for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News?

Mon 11 May 2009 8:56 pm   //   Posted in: Music

The saddest song ever written

A lot of things don’t make any sense. One of them is the persistence of the 1977 Jimmy Buffett song “Margaritaville.” The lyrics tell the following tale:

I may look relaxed as I play guitar on my porch, but don’t let my appearance fool you. I have been drunk for three months. I have lost the few simple things I had. I got so wasted that I got a tattoo of a Mexican woman and I don’t remember why. My sandals disintegrated and my foot is bleeding. The only thing I have to live for is the alcohol. And the sorriest part of my story? This sad descent into depression isn’t due to bad luck. Nor is it because a woman broke my heart. It’s a consequence of my own poor choices. And I have to live with that.

Yet people don’t think of “Margaritaville” as a lonely ballad of personal anguish. It’s the party anthem for every trip to the beach! It’s so popular at concerts that it has its own sing-along chant. And it’s a multi-million-dollar marketing concept, complete with a chain of theme restaurants. It’s surely one of the most lucrative recordings in pop music, in the same league as “White Christmas” and “I’m Proud To Be An American.” And even now, that easy tune is probably stuck in your head, and putting you in a good mood.

Seriously, does anything in life make sense?

Fri 8 May 2009 7:09 am   //   Posted in: Failure, Hard times

R.I.P. Duke Nukem

In the early 1990s, a software company called Apogee released a series of totally addictive side-scroller games for MS-DOS. (See my good friend Commander Keen above.) Since my parents thought a PC was more educational than a Nintendo, DOS was the gaming platform of choice for my brother and me. We played and beat many of these games. Great fun.

One of the best was called Duke Nukem. Duke was some kind of commando with a huge arsenal of bulky, cartoonish weapons. The game was set, as Wikipedia notes, in the “near future” of 1997. A vastly refined and more violent sequel called Duke Nukem 3D came out a few years later. Then, in April 1997, the developer behind Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms, announced another sequel: Duke Nukem Forever. It was going to be the best video game of all time.

They’ve been working on it ever since.

This week, various tech blogs including this one at the Wall Street Journal report that development of Duke Nukem Forever is finally over and the game may never be released. 3D Realms has been shut down. The greatest setup in video game history has ended with no payoff.

What happened here? Were they really even serious about this game? Can you imagine working on the same project for 12 years, only to have it be scrapped?

Wed 6 May 2009 7:25 am   //   Posted in: Movies, Videos

“A real slap in the face for Trek fans”

This Onion video is pretty funny:

Tue 5 May 2009 9:50 pm   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media, Technology

“Content” is a dirty word

This Tom Tomorrow cartoon (a portion of which appears above) articulates how insulting the phrase “content provider” sounds to creative people. A stooge in the cartoon asks, “Who do these storytellers think they are, expecting to be paid for their so-called work?”

It’s not a small point. Today, Web sites refer to all the information they publish as “content.” Yet it’s a degrading word and it’s has caused a serious branding problem. “Content” is a commodity shoveled out of a grain silo. It evokes packaged cereals, where the only variance is the difference between Fruit Loops and Grape Nuts. No wonder consumers think anything published online is cheap and interchangeable!

This label has proven impossible to shake. Tribune newspapers are handing out new titles like “content editor” and “director of content.” WNBC recently changed the name of the newsroom to the “content center” (then, to their credit, changed it back). Once you start listening for content, you’ll hear it everywhere, like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t mean to over-inflate what I do for a living, but I don’t generate content. I write stories or articles, I edit videos, I create presentations. I acknowledge the word “content” when I’m in a meeting or dealing with internal communication, but only because I don’t want to sound out of step.

By the way, the “This Modern World” cartoon I linked to above? It was published in March 1997. The more things change…

Mon 4 May 2009 8:15 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media

Headline writing is… TK TK TK

Headline writing is a tough job, and I salute anyone who can reliable do it well. I suck at it.

Yesterday I was working on a short item for work about a photographer who shot a portrait of a trombone player. I was trying hard to come up with a concise, pithy headline to slap on it. (The item is part of a department in the magazine, so it doesn’t demand a full headline. Short headlines are hardest to write.) The best I could come up with was “The Music Man.” Weak.

The instant my alarm clock went off this morning, I had a curious phrase in my head: “Top Brass.” There’s my headline. Not great, but 10 times better than “The Music Man.” It’s crazy the things that go on in your brain while you sleep.

Sun 3 May 2009 9:30 pm   //   Posted in: Hard times

The year of down 30%

Over time we expect most things to get a little bigger, a little better. Not this year. Right now, stuff is down 30 percent.

Stock prices. Car sales. New York City tax revenue. Advertising at newspapers and some magazines. The list goes on. If you read a lot of business news you’ll the number 30% a lot (often in parenthesis).

There are some good things about this sinking decline. Suppose you do ten things every day. Now you have a free pass to re-prioritize and only do the seven things you’re best at, and do more of them. But for the most part, the situation sucks. Everybody who still has a job is working really hard, and it’s frustrating to do that and see 7/10 of last year’s results.

Here are some things I wish were down 30 percent:

  • Rent.
  • The cost of a Nintendo Wii.
  • Traffic merging from 17th Street onto the Prospect Expressway.
  • Panhandling in the subway.
  • The amount of coffee I drink every day.
  • The cost of renting a car in New York City.
  • The number of TV news helicopters.
  • The volume of the music in most bars and restaurants.

Fri 1 May 2009 7:16 am   //   Posted in: In the news, It's a trap!

How can we exploit this scary disease?

I was reading The Daily News online this morning and saw this advertisement:

Let’s break down this ad pitch: “Have you self-diagonsed yourself or your kids with a rare but scary disease? We can help get you cheap drugs from another country.”

I wonder what gets more clicks, this or Canadian Viagra?