Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mark Helprin: wonderful author, total tool

"Winter's Tale" is my second favorite novel of all time. And Mark Helprin's other novels are wonderful, too. But I hate loving his work when the guy is such a, well... dick.

I've known forever that we held different political views. He was a speechwriter for Bob Dole, among other conservative activities. That's cool. I can put up with disagreement, especially when a dude is so bloody brilliant at fiction.

But since his (in)famous op-ed piece in the NYT, "A great idea lives forever. Shouldn't its copyright?" came out, I've been hard pressed to put aside my dislike of the man. Most recently, what caught my attention (ire) was a story on NPR with a longish snippet from his recent book, "Digital Barbarism," a manifesto against, basically, the vaule of community.

I don't want to get into too much detail here. I need to sleep soon, and I'll just get all worked up.  But Helprin ends with the following, and it just makes me kinda throw up a little in my throat:

The assault on copyright is... based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair.

It is neither. It is, rather, a cowardly self-indulgence and a depredation of the public interest as much as it is destructive to the interest of the individual, for in truth these are in many respects one and the same: that is, the public interest is served when the rights of the individual come first rather than vice versa. When individual rights are pre-eminent, everyone is served. When they are not, the only thing that is served is an abstraction. Whereas community can be only an idea, concept, construct, or fiction, the individual actually exists in flesh and blood. One can claim to love the collective or the community, but it is the sterile, sick love of one who can love nothing, or, rather, no one. Love that is not echoed in a human heart is apt to petrify into tyranny, and so often in history a devotion to the abstraction of man has been a blind for hideous oppression.

Property is to be defended proudly rather than disavowed with shame. Even if for some it is only a matter of luck or birth, for the vast majority it is the store of sacrifice, time, effort, and even, sometimes, love. It is, despite the privileged inexperience of some who do not understand, an all-too-accurate index of liberty and life. To trifle with it is to trifle with someone's existence, and as anyone who tries will find out, this is not so easy. Nor has it ever been. Nor should it ever be.

Lots to disagree with here, but let's pull one out: " can only be an idea, concept, construct or fiction... the individual actually exists in flesh and blood."

First of all, the idea that ideas, concepts and constructs (and possibly fiction) are worthless (or at least "worth less") because they aren't individual, fleshy people is odd, especially when discussing property. Yes, my rights to my self -- my own body -- are the ultimate expressions of liberty. No other rights can be very important if you lock me up or kill me. But if the flesh-and-blood individual is all important, as Helprin argues, doesn't property only matter when it relates to your own personal, biological survival? And if that's the case, then property that doesn't improve the survival of the body is, I would argue, is as conceptual an idea, construct or fiction as Helprin says community is.

I mean, for example, property above-and-beyond basic necessity. I'll give you this: if I'm starving, and you have just enough food to live, and I steal it... my expropriation of your property is, indeed, infringing on the rights of your flesh. On the other hand... if I'm starving, and you have a big bag of gold coins that are abstract representations of wealth that can be used to, among other things, buy food... well, my taking of your gold (whose value is quite conceptual and constructed) in order to buy myself food would certainly be OK, right? Because your fictional property, as embodied in symbolic wealth, is "trifling" (to use H's word) with my existence.

Of course I'm yanking Helprin's argument way over to the left. But not illogically so. In some societies, the idea of *personal* property is downright offensive. Everything belongs to the group. In which case, the individual is more of a concept, inasmuch as property is concerned. If we share work, housing, food, material rewards, etc., then I am stealing when I try to force my own ownership over that of the group.

It just boggles my mind that somebody as smart as Helprin could say something about property so patently self contradictory as, "Love that is not echoed in a human heart is apt to petrify into tyranny, and so often in history a devotion to the abstraction of man has been a blind for hideous oppression."

Love of "stuff" is echoed in a human heart? I earned my paycheck, yes. I bought my house, my car, my toys, my food... but the only heart that love of those things would echo in is my own. That's a lonely love, I think.

And since when has property been anything but an "abstraction" built upon chains of abstractions. I take abstract value chits (money) to a place where an abstract entity (Wal-Mart) has applied abstract costs to various products. I pay for a thing and, by dint of my debit card working properly, take that thing and move it to my house. The only things about this process that aren't abstract are "me" and "the thing." My ownership of it depends on a collective concept. One that, ironically, is grounded in community.

Abstractions aren't fictions, Mark. We drive on the right hand side of the road in this country. There's no scientific, empirical reason. Cars don't get better mileage on the right. But if you want to drive on the left, despite our collective, social, community construct... you'll end up with a real assault on your person.

Copyright is a tough nut, yes. I very much support the idea that the creator of a work should reap rewards from that effort. But *all* the rewards? Well, only inasmuch as the creation was enabled and affects just the creator. If I cook and eat an egg, I should, yes, get all the calories and protein. If I wear a coat, I get all the protection from the cold. But when the rewards of my efforts are generated further and further from my physical person... well, odds are that they are generated by someone else.

If you live on a farm by yourself on an island of your own... sure. What you sow is what you should reap. But if you live downstream from me, and I piss from my property in your drinking water... well, we'll have to have some conceptual, social, fictional constructs, I suspect.

Doctoral hunting

Another in my series that examines the rise of "hunting" behavior in our connected, mediated, informationalized world.

An op-ed piece in the NYT titled, "End the university as we know it," seemed, to me, to have lots of hints of my ongoing, multi-post rant about how we need more hunting behaviors in our current world, and less gathering ones. As I read through the piece, what struck me were the following phrases (all direct quotes from the piece, emphases mine):

  • Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

  • Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration

  • The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review... To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous.

  • The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.

  • Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.

  • Expand the range of professional options for graduate students...The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

It is a very interesting argument, even just taken at face value. When you look at it through the hunter-v-gatherer lens, though, it becomes even more startling.

Throughout the article, the things that Mark Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia, rails against are *all* essentially gathering behaviors. As I've said before, our ideas about productivity and industry come up to us through a history of agriculture and, later, the industrial revolution. The things that make farming and factories more productive often involve increased concentration, specialization and (ahem) silos. You don't plant nine kinds of grain in one field. You don't build a factory that makes toy trains and ball bearings. You don't have one worker on the treddle machine in the morning and the flay-rod in the afternoon. The assembly line is the ultimate expression of "put the round peg in the round hole" and generate efficiency through repetition.

Negative terms in Taylor's piece like "mass production," "division of labor," "separation," and "self-regulating" all have to do with advanced gathering behavior. The things he is in favor of -- "compexity," "adaptive," "network," "options," "adapting" -- are all hunting behaviors.

I've mostly thought about this issue in terms of my own experience with various industries; retail (wireless), the legal profession and (now) library services. In all of these, I have seen (and experienced) ongoing examples of how the principles of hunting are becoming more valued and valuable: flexibility, teamwork, a focus on goals over tasks, environmental awareness, multitasking, flatter organizations, "game like" behaviors, adaptability and a willingness to apply lessons from broad experiences.

I wonder what other industries and professions are going through similar reconsiderations of "gathering models," and who the new professors of huntology will be?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why conservatism isn't as funny

I don't know if you remember the (thankfully) short-lived Fox version of "The Daily Show," "The Half Hour News Hour." You shouldn't. It was awful. If you'd like a sample, try this on for size:


Yep. Nearly four minutes for one, prolonged sexual harassment gag. "Hey, look! That pretty lady is harassing that man. He clearly enjoys it. Isn't it funny how politically correct crap like sexual harassment is funny when you use irony to skewer the situation?"

Whatever. The point being, it bombed. Partly it was, I think, because the anchors were actors, and the material didn't actually use much real news as the fodder. Say what you want about "The Daily Show," you may actually learn something.

Now we hear, in a study from the Inernational Journal of Press/Politics, that liberal and conservative students find "The Stephen Colbert Show" equally funny... though conservative students think he's kidding. About his kidding. According to them, Colbert actually believes the outrageous things his character says, and is only pretending to be joking. The conservative students also believe that Colbert "dislikes liberalism."

Yeah. Right [note to conservatives... that was sarcasm]. From the "Newsweek" article on "truthiness,"

He's also got three kids he dotes on. He won't let them watch his show. "I say things in a very flat manner that I don't believe, and I don't want them to perceive Daddy as insincere," he says. "I basically tell them I'm professionally ridiculous." At one point while he's preparing for that evening's interview, his assistant comes in and says that Conan O'Brien wants him on his show. OK, says Colbert, but only if it doesn't conflict with taking his son to swim practice. "There couldn't be a huger difference between the character Stephen and the real Stephen," says Richard Dahm, one of the "Report" head writers. "The real Stephen is an amazing guy. The character Stephen--well, I wouldn't want to be working for him."

Emphases mine.

What is it about conservativism that, to be blunt, is less funny? And less likely to understand funny? I'm not being ironic here, or just peevish... I'm honestly interested.

My initial theory is that conservativism, being less flexible, leaves its adherents with less of an ability to see the absurd bends of reality necessary for much humor. In this case, I'm not digging on conservativism; it is, I think, a truism that a set of beliefs that wants to maintain something has fewer options than a belief set that embraces change. There are many ways to be liberal; many things to want to change. If you want things to stay the same, you focus on how they are (or were). Humor often requires the ability to see the object of the joke in at least two ways, or to see the irony in things... and irony requires two viewpoints (at least).

There may be other reasons. I'll think about it some more.

RIP, Bea Arthur, 1922-2009.

I was never a huge "Golden Girls" fan, but she was funny as heck on "All in the Family." And she did great stand-up.

Sorry to see you go, Bea.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Game show puzzle: we have a winner!

A few weeks back, I posted my favorite statistics puzzle... and Justin Horn is the winner of the, er... figure it out and post the right answer in the comments... contest. Sort of.

Not really a contest, but Justin got it right.

You can do the gag yourself with cards. Take three cards; two "2's" and a king (or a queen, your call... or an eight, if you're, well, *that* kind of person). Have a friend hold them up. You pick one, and he puts down one of the other "2's." You can then stay with your choice or switch. Do it each way a couple dozen times (I have). You will find that switching gets you the "good" card two times out of three.

This seems, of course, contrary to sense. That's the whole point of a puzzle, eh? You have a choice of two things. Stay with one or switch... sould be 50/50, right? Well, as Justin points out... no.

Your original choice was a 1/3 chance of getting the right card. If you elilminate one of the other bad choices, and switch, you've converted your chances to 2/3. Still not convinced?

Imagine this. Same game show, but the host has you pick from 100 doors. He then shows you crap behind all but two of them. Does it make sense to stay or switch? He's opened 98 doors of crap. What are the odds that the door you originally picked is the good one? That's right... 1%. What are the odds that the other one is the right door? 99%. Is it a 50/50 shot now?

I love this stuff.

BONUS PUZZLE: Imagine a string of lights stretching off into infinity, numbered 1 to infinity. Each has a trigger that, when touched, will switch its state. If the light is off and is touched, it turns on. If it's on, it turns off. So... an infinite number of bunnes lines up behind light #1, and the first one goes and jumps on every single light, turning them all on. Bunny number 2 jumps on every other light. Bunny number 3, on every third. Bunny 4, on every fourth. You get the pic... the bunnies jump on multiples of the light based on their place in line. QUESTION: Describe the set of lights that is on after every bunny takes his or her turn.

Box Cat is win

Awesome. Just awesome. This (and IMDB) are the real reasons for teh interwebs.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Truth vs. Fact

I had a discussion recently with a friend about the difference between truth and fact, and it occurs to me that this has an important place in my religious beliefs. I think that something can be "true," while not being a "fact."

For example, many of the morals espoused in fables seem, to me, to be true... though they are often based on stories that are clearly metaphoric. Tortoise and the hare, etc. Can a fictional story contain truth and wisdom? I was taught safety behaviors in grade school by an animated pony named "Patch." It was the first time I was exposed to the whole "don't take candy from strangers in large, black town cars" meme. Is the lesson false because the story is fiction? I don't think so.

On to religion.

Jesus taught in parables. This is stated explicitly. We also believe that Jesus always spoke the truth. So... Jesus told us stories (the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, etc.) that are both non-factual (in that they did not occur), and true (in that Jesus speaks the truth). This is complicated (or, as I believe, made compellingly poetic, powerful and beautiful) by the fact that Jesus himself is referred to as "the word." A word is not that which it describes, of course. I can't eat the word "pie" any more than I can ride in the words "black town car." But if Christ is the word, and the word is with God and the word is God... that's deeply (beautifully?) weird. And it says something about the power of metaphor, language, meaning, connections, relationships and conveyance.

Most Christians believe in the mystery of the trinity; Father, Son, Holy Ghost. So we know that saying "Jesus is God" may be a holy paradox, but it's not an obfuscation. To say, though, that Christ is "the word," and that he was at once with God and the same as God seems... oddly (lyrically?) vague. After years of thinking about this passage, however, I find it to be comforting and helpful. If Christ is the word, and the term can be said to have anything to do with what we think of as a word, then Christ is a way of conveying meaning. Which makes perfect sense. God sent his son to convey meaning to us. But if he is also God, then that which was spoken (Christ) is also that which spoke. Which means that the thing that brings meaning can be the same as the meaning. We're breaking down semantic bricks here, of course, but I find it interesting.

This is what happens when you study poetry, technical writing, and scripture in school.

So if the thing that conveys the meaning can be the meaning itself, then the metaphor can be the truth that is intended. OK... that didn't come out so cleanly. Let's try again. If Christ is the word of God, and also God, then the Bible can be the thing that conveys truth, and the truth itself. The line between the metaphor and that which it conveys becomes blurred.

Not sure if I'm explaining this well. I may try again later.

So... the parts of the Bible that everybody gets bent about (one way or the other) in terms of whether or not it's "true," are (imho), more about whether or not they are "fact." But if Christ can teach in true metaphor (not fact), and the bringer of truth (Jesus) can also be the truth itself (the word)... then why can't the Bible be true, regardless of whether or not it is fact?

Maybe the things God wanted to teach the early writers/readers of the Bible weren't teachable in terms of fact. Maybe they still aren't. Maybe you need metaphor to understand (in a meaningful way) the beginnings of the world. Maybe the stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Job, etc. are true in that they convey real, powerful, important wisdom about the nature of the universe. Maybe the things that actually, factually happened are less important than the stories?

I believe God gives us what we need to understand him (enough). I also believe that the universe is a few billion years old or so. I can reconcile those beliefs -- and not just with chicanery, but with some (I feel) elegance -- by keeping the definitions of truth and fact a bit... separated. Some of the most important truths in my life, after all -- love, beauty, music, peace -- are hardly explainable factually.

Seth Godin: the new Andy Rooney?

I have mixed feelings about Seth Godin. On the one hand, he's clearly a very smart, funny, creative guy with lots of good ideas about media, technology, marketing and social systems. On the other (and he has this in common with many pundits), he often says either: a) obvious things in a fun/smart way that kind of imply he thought of them first, or; b) things that don't make much sense, but are vague and slippery enough that they fit into a kind of overall belief-system-fugue.

What really crimps my scrunchie about Seth, though, is is refusal to have comments on his blog. Yes... one of the leading proponents of social marketing and transparency... no comments. Even if he doesn't want to respond at all, his audience might like to have a discussion based on his often thoughtful and entertaining insights. But we can't. At least, not on his blog. It's just, well... for me, it's a giant turn-off to anything else he does.

Which predisposed me to watch this next video with more than a grain of salt. I try not to prejudge. Really, I do. And it's a funny and entertaining video, as usual. Seth is a really, really good presenter. But his main point -- some things are broken, and there are some main reasons why -- falls into that "a" category (above) for me. OK... things are broken. Sometimes for similar reasons. Your point?

By the end, the video reminded me of Andy Rooney's schtick on "60 Minutes," where he takes a common issue, product or service and delves into a whiny, mini-rant about how it's not what it should be. In my family, whenever somebody starts doing this -- complaining about something trivial or really trying hard to find something bad in a good or neutral thing -- we whine, in a bad Andy Rooney imitation, "You ever notice how paperclips are all bent? And not just once! They bend around, and around, and around again. That's not a 'clip.' It's more of a 'paper spiral.' Why don't they call it what it looks like?" And so on. My record for complaining about paper clips in the Andy Rooney style is about 30 minutes.

Yes, Andy (and Seth). There are some stupid things out there. There are some broken things. Seth, at one point, bemoans the fact that the guy who makes a stupid sign isn't the one who's empowered to fix the thing that the sign warns of. His point being (I think) that if we were more concentrated on overall goals, rather than on our own specific jobs, fewer things would be broken.

I don't buy it. If that were the case, MORE things would be broken. Yes, Web stations in many airports are borked. Yes, some warning signs for devices make it sound like, gee... maybe, rather than a stern warning, we should have safer devices. Yes, the legal waivers we have to sign are sometimes ridiculous. But you know what? 99 times out of 100, when I go into a public restroom in a major chain store (or even a small BP in the middle of Kentucky), it's clean and there's plenty of toilet paper, paper towels, and soap. 999 times out of 1,000, my wait-person brings me the food I asked for, cooked within a reasonble degree of how I like it. My mailman brings me my mail. My dog remembers to pee outside. My eggs don't break between the store and my fridge. The drinking fountain at work provides decent, cold water. Traffic lights do their job.

Are there things that need improving? Sure. But some things are broken because, really, we're all just very busy, distracted, conflicted and (sometimes) careless. And sometimes things are broken because the universe tends towards chaos, gravity pulls things down hard, and everything on earth is oxidizing.

I'd like Seth to spend more time on smart, savvy marketing stuff. The paperclips are bendy, Seth. Yes. We get that.

Oh... and turn your blog comments on. If Cory and Co. over at BoingBoing and Kos can handle it, so can you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Smashing Monday Poetry #1:

If you're not familiar with Smashing Magazine, you need to check it out. If you're a designer, artist, photographer, or just love any of those things... you REALLY need to RSS it. They have a ton of lessons, collections of free fonts/icons/stuff, links to tutorials by theme, general "how-to's" on all-things-graphic, and, on Mondays, inspiration.

On Mondays, Smashing puts together a set of art that is just, well... inspiring. Or, at least, it's supposed to be. Here is where I will admit to a certain cynicism. I am, to be blunt, hard to inspire. Being on the inside of the marketing/advertising game, as well as a writer, means that I tend to over analyze art, especially from the point of view of, "What is the creator *trying* to get me to think/feel?" And, because I'm also a bit orn'ry, I tend to not want to do as I am bid. To wit, if thou wouldst inspire me, either bring thy A-game, or do so without artifice.

But... I had a small epiphany tonight, courtesy of Smashing Magazine. Inspiration need not be automatic, nor need it be instant and without work. If the goal of being inspired is to do something... which, from an artist's point of view, I think is the point... then it's not going to (usually) come at you with a bolt of lightning, etc. If you want to be inspired (I'm talking to you, Havens), maybe you have to *work* at it a bit.

So, OK. I've always enjoyed the Monday inspirations at Smashing. I've just never found them that... inspiring. And there's the rub: "found." I didn't look very bloody hard, now did I? And while some things are, I admit, immediately inspiring, I am going to heave-ho a little on this one.

Thus, when Monday comes out, and Smashing hits my RSS with inspiration, I will endeavor to *work* at inspiration, using one of their images as the kernel of a poem. Today's comes from, "The Beauty of Street Photography." It is the photo above. Here we go.

Over the line

Every night we give up, so easily,
the battle with Mother Gravity.

The Earth, this Gaia, so often shown
in strokes of giving green and hallowed brown.
The wheezy, water-eyed painters
they forget that she is also sharp stone, grey ash,
flowing lava, desert grit and empty, arid waste.

How do you worship your god? How do we
pray to She Who Turns Us?

We acknowledge. We abase. We drop.

The earth is under us. Every day until
we are under her.
We serve her best when marching,  horizontal,
beat by beat
into that clay.

There is no shame in falling down.
It is the way
we know. The way we pray.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bad editing, sensational reporting, hypocrisy and inattention to irony may lead to Armageddon

Language can be very powerful. Well, duh. We are moved by words every day of our life, governments have risen and fallen because of good writing, and people have died for their belief in one set of words over another.

Why, then, do we put up with such bad language from those we pay (sometimes indirectly) to be our filters?

An excellent article from Ars Technica details how the media take scientific results/reports, and make them, well... wrong... in order to generate better entertainment value. That news should be entertaining is no longer even questioned, apparently. I, personally, don't mind an enjoyable news show... as long as the entertainment value is suborniate to the information, and (perhaps more importantly) explicitly maintained. By this I mean, for example, The Daily Show... yes, it is intended as entertainment (primarily so, some would say), but that value is explicit. It is entirely up-front, and you are free to laugh, knowing that you are intended to laugh by writers who are using language appropriately.

One example from the Ars' piece struck me as particularly noteworthy. Short version... A study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science tested how people responded to various moral/ethical situations, both positive and negative; eg, watching people being hurt physically and emotionally, or doing good deeds. The speed of the response was measured, and they said:

If replicated, this finding could have import and implications for the role of culture and education in the development and operation of social and moral systems; in order for emotions about the psychological situations of others to be induced and experienced, additional time may be needed for the introspective processing of culturally shaped social knowledge. The rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information, which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions, with potentially negative consequences.

Emphasis mine. Now... not having read the details of the study, I'm not sure I'd even agree with the last sentence. The "rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information" is not new to the digital age, though our tools certainly provide more chances for us to indulge. But I'll take it as a given at this point for the purposes of my displeasure at the press. That bolded sentence above got picked up by the media under the following headline:

"Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists."

That was Britain's Daily Mail. Fantastic. The irony just makes me itch. In taking a lengthy, heavily-qualified report, and dumbing/juicing it down/up to suit their needs, the paper did exactly what they are accusing Twitter of doing. Get it? Let me put it this way:

Short, rapidly processed, nanobytes of stimulus that don't provide enough context can leave us without enough psychological or situational information to make a reasoned, humane response.

But does that statement apply to Tweets? or to Daily Mail headlines?

That Daily Mail headline is, frankly, insane. Let's parse it a bit. Twitter (which wasn't mentioned specifically in the report) can make you (causality not just implied, but explicit) immoral (giant judgment call and hyperbole) claim scientists (straight out falsity; that claim isn't made anywhere). The path from the paper to the headline is clear... but it travels through a set of editorial intentions that leave all kinds of subtlty and truth by the wayside. If I take this string, and add my own angle, I could come up with the following:

"Daily Mail headlines can make you more ignorant, claim professional writers."

Now, I'm only one writer. But if I ask nicely, I'm sure one of the other twenty-or-so that I know would agree with me.

This rant of mine is not new. I know that. I'm just more and more amused and, at times, concerned that the very forces that opine against new media are so inextricably linked to the vices they ascribe to it. The financial news networks didn't see the global economic collapse coming because they were functioning as cheerleaders for Wall Street. Mainstream news didn't ride the Bush administration near hard enough about the Iraq war until it was too late. The AP sues a guy over the use of a photo in an Obama poster, while having hundreds of photos of artistic works in their own library, for sale.

You can't get to relevance through hypocricy. The hand you bite always ends up being your own.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sharp rise in nuclear toaster mentions

nuke_toasterHow many times have you heard the term "nuclear powered toaster" in your life? Maybe once? I think you're lying. I don't think you ever have. I know that, until last Monday, I never had either.

Then, in the space of 72 hours, I heard it twice.

The first time was in the book, "The Pig Scrolls," which I'm reading to my son at night. In that book, the main character -- Gryllus the Pig, Odysseus' shipmate who was turned into a talking pig by Circe -- encounters a sorceror/scientist who has developed a toaster powered by "Pluto's Iron..." Yep. Plutonium. As you might expect, breakfast ends badly. We read that chapter at approximately 10pm (eastern) on Monday night.

Then, last night, I watched the Tuesday night episode of "The Daily Show." One of the segments was about how Goldman Sachs is doing very well (thank you) with various bail-out moneys... possibly because tons of the folks in charge of said monies are old Goldman cronies. Lehman Brothers, on the other hand... not doing so well. Gone away, pretty much. But, according to news sources, Lehman has some huge amount of "yellow cake uranium" (where? in a vault? not specified). John's point was that the upside may be that now, when you open an account, you get a nuclear toaster.

I understand that "The Daily Show" is taped in the early afternoon. So if this segment was originally put together on Tuesday, around 2pm let's say, that would be about 14 hours after I read aloud the section of "The Pig Scrolls" that had the nuclear toaster.

I don't know if this means anything. It's just pretty weird.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy in Lala-land

Just signed up (a few days ago, anyway) for the service Lala. This is an online music service similar, at first glance, to Pandora, which I have now loved for years. Lala, though, may be my new best friend. Pandora plays you a kind of personalized, web radio station based on songs, artists or genres you select. Which is cool. I've discovered a few new artists that way. But, to be truthful, each individual "station" ends up being somewhat repetitive after awhile.

Lala will put together a music set for you, too... but the real distinction of the service is the ability to "upload" your at-home collection to "the cloud." What that means, functionally, is that Lala searches your hard-drive for your songs, matches them to their library, and then lets you play those songs that match from any browser, anywere. Of my 1,500-ish songs, Lala matched about 1,200.  Now... don't fret. They don't actually upload all those songs (which would take days). They just, automatchically, figure out that, "Hey... Andy's got the 'White Album.' He can listen to that online, too."

That is just plain, freakin' cool. For one thing, I can now listen to my entire library at work, or on my wee, lil' netbook computer from any room in the house, rather than just on my PC. Nice, nice, nice.

The way they sell new music, too, is pretty cool. You can listen to any track, for free, in its entirety, once. After that, you can pay fairly standard retail-freight for downloadble MP3s ($.60-$1.25/song) -- which, of course, can then be listend to from your Lala account. Or you can buy the right to listen to the song as many times as you want on Lala (they call this the "web song" version) for about 1/10th the price. So, for example, an entire MP3 album mist cost you $8-10, but the "web album" only 89-cents. A great deal, yes... assuming Lala doesn't go belly-up and take your subscription pennies with it.

Signing up gets you 50 "web song" credits, though. So that's my current incentive to play around, find new stuff, add it to my collection and get more addicted.

I like the model. It's clever. And I *really* like being able to listen to songs I've already bought from any Web connection.

Two A-sharps for Lala.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cirque du Cafe

So I'm thinking about the difference between Cirque du Soleil and Starbucks. I went, along with my wife, son and dad, to see the Cirque show Saltimbanco last weekend. As always, it was great. Not their best show (which is Corteo, imho... of the four we've seen), but certainly great.

At one point, during the show, I thought to myself, "Gosh, I like this. And I really hate the regular Ringling Bros. style circus." And I began to count off the reasons in my head:

  • No creepy animal acts

  • No creepy clowns (that aren't creepy to be funny or artistic)

  • No creepy ringleader (saa)

  • No creepy fire gags

  • Better music (though sometimes creepy, but in a good way)

  • Drama as spectacle rather than spectacle as drama

  • Better use of tension

  • Irony (there is nothing as woefully un-ironic as a classic circus)

  • A coherent theme (what is the theme of a classic circus? was there ever one?)

  • Actual choreography

  • Humor (funny stuff that's really funny, rather than creepy clown humor)

And of course, amazing acts of physical prowess, rather than just somebody standing on an elephant.

Cirque is, of course, a roaring success and everybody (almost) loves them and I say (literally and figuratively), "Bravo!" It's good stuff. They took a tired, creepy (are you sensing a theme in my anti-circus rant?), ailing genre and gave it back to the world as something totally unexpected and fantastic.

Is Cirque, though, the "Starbucks of Circuses?" Have they taken an old, un-sexy beverage and turned it into an "experience brand?" I mean... even the old style circus was an experience, wasn't it?

I'm not sure. The old circus was maybe an experience in the generic; ie, "I went to the circus." Or maybe even the dreaded, "a." As in, "I went to a circus." It doesn't matter which one. They're all "small 'c' circuses." Cirque du Soleil is entirely it's own thing. You can't see one of their shows and not know it. You wouldn't ever say, "I went to the circus last weekend" about going to a Cirque show. You say, "I saw cirque last weekend." It's clearly a brand.

Is Starbucks the same thing, kinda? I mean... it's coffee, right? But what does it have that the "old coffee" didn't? It's an experience, yes. It's the store and the music and the baristas and the flavors and the feeling of treating yourself to something almost naughtily grande (or venti).

Which makes me wonder to my marketing self... what other old, tired products, services, entertainments, experiences, etc. are waiting to be Starbucked or Cirqueified? What does it take to look at [whatever] and think, "I can take this thing that people sortta don't give a rat's ass about anymore, and turn it into..."


And this one doesn't count

I haven't blogged much recently. Partly I blame WordPress crashing a few times and being busier at work than normal. Partly I blame the self-censoring mini-me who lives in my brain. Partly I blame not really having a theme. Not that I've ever had a theme, but it couldn't hurt. With no theme, nothing seems important enough to blog about some days.

I think the phrase, "important enough to blog about" is funny, but only if you're OK w/ self-directed irony.

I'm going to try to blog something... anything... every day for a month. No theme, no self-censoring elf, no excuses for being busy. I'll do it before I go to bed, even if it's a 3 minute post about cats.

We'll see. Couldn't hurt, eh?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Another day, another theme

Hmmm... thought I had it all worked out with the WordPress thing. Not so much. Trying again.

I begin to suspect bloglins.