Thursday, December 31, 2009

The humbling

At the end of this annus horribilis magnus, you can find any number of yardsticks for malaise, the sad metrics of disappointments and disasters that have littered this year from almost its beginning. One event puts this year nearly over in real perspective.

Someone’s seen the face of Jesus in a Kit-Kat bar. That’s all you really need to know.

That, and how frequent these sightings have become. A woman in Tennessee discovers the face of Our Lord and Savior in an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich. Someone else sees Jesus in the lid of a jar of Marmite yeast spread.

(It’s happened before, too, of course. In 2006, in Fountain Valley, Calif., the Virgin Mary was detected in a hunk of chocolate at Martucci Angiano's gourmet chocolate company, Bodega Chocolates. AP reported that, “Angiano's employees have spent much of their time hovering over the tiny figure, praying and placing rose petals and candles around it.”)

These discoveries, theistic or nontheistic, depending on your point of view, have another dimension. This may be the undiscovered causal factor in the nation’s rising obesity levels. We’ve long thought of our religion as an abiding thing, yea, with us always — just like our other abiding everyday companion object: food.

More and more, we’re looking for divinity in a pan of divinity.

◊ ◊ ◊

What the hell. You had to start somewhere. And at some time. Back in January, many of us, most of us believed, to ourselves or out loud, that we were about to turn some major corner on the national experience. When Barack Obama won the election in November 2008, we had expressed the hope that, just maybe, the software of the American government could be re-engineered for populism instead of empire; that the governmental machinery could be retrofit from the inside.

In the closest thing to a truly national mandate any American president in modern times has ever enjoyed, Obama was swept into office by a nation of true believers (and their accidental enablers in the Republican Party).

Lotta water under the bridge since then. President Obama tried to close the political divide created in the contentious campaign. To celebrate the Super Bowl, our secular religion, Obama invited Republican members of Congress to a Super Bowl party, a spirited bid for Rah Rah Rah and Kum Ba Yah at the same time.

It pretty much went downhill from there. A congressional backbencher from South Carolina called the president a liar at a joint session of Congress. Arizona State University decided not to award Obama an honorary degree, essentially saying that his best and brightest days were yet to come. Chicago, Obama’s home city and political training ground, was rebuffed in its bid to host the Olympic Games — a rejection that the disloyal opposition in the GOP gleefully exploited to the fullest.

And then came the bigger ugly, the nastiness that seemed to define the year. The virulent right-wing tea party hate sessions, which emerged over the summer, put to rout any ideas that the Republicans (and their Blue Dog Democratic enablers) would offer any constructive contribution to the nation’s problems, especially the health-care reform debate.

The GOP leadership erected obstacle after obstacle, prolonging the process of making a change in health-care reform the country has needed for decades. While an average of 120 Americans die every day — more than 43,000 every year — for lack of health insurance.

That kind of insensitivity seemed to leach into everything for much of the year. Banks were indifferent to the crying needs of homeowners desperate for relief.


Credit card companies, eager to lock in their profit margins before credit-card reform goes into effect, jacked up interest rates even for their best customers. Millions of Americans just barely hanging on, torching their 401(k)s and IRAs to pay the mortgages, were tipped into financial oblivion.




Charitable donations were down from previous years. Food banks were stretched to the limit, faced with the newly dispossessed: professionals, blue-collar workers faced with loss of income and depleted savings. People were forced into homeless camps that sprouted up in American cities; the laws and customs of various municipalities forced many of those camps to move, creating mini-diasporas that largely went under the national radar.

States were beginning to run out of the unemployment funds that the unemployed had counted on. Looking for work was a waste of time — or seemed to be, since six people were looking for every job that was available. Every time you watch the news, it seems, there’s closed-circuit video footage of some idiotically desperate souls trying to effect a redistribution of wealth by chaining and dragging an ATM machine from a bank branch or a convenience store after hours. Call it a bailout for the folks who didn’t get one from Washington.

Drinking was big this year. The shares of LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton, a maker of wines and spirits, increased by 69 percent for the year. Shares in spirits maker Diageo PLC rose by more than 24 percent. People got scared.

People got desperate and angry. Six police officers were shot to death in Washington state in an eight-week period, four of them slain by one gunman who executed them as they sat at a coffee shop before their morning shift.

By the end of the year, a numbness of the senses appears to have taken hold; the national mood’s typified by a gnashing of the inner teeth, a deep discomfort with, well, WTF, everything.

In some deep-seated ways, we’re not even comfortable being human any more. Look at the titanic box-office success of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” whose hero assumes the guise of a being from another planet, at first for purely financial gain, but later for a deeper more basic desire to escape from the jail of his past, to be anywhere else, anyone else. Just for a while.

That’s a longing we’ve tapped into in the past, of course, but this film’s phenomenal returns so far suggest that that longing is something we’re trying to download a little more hungrily than before.

Very hungrily. The kind of hungry you have when you’re subconsciously looking for Jesus in a Kit-Kat bar.

The year’ll be over soon. For a lot of people, the year’s not enough; they want the decade over too, and they’ll do mental and mathematical gymnastics to achieve that, to reinforce the idea that the decade concludes at the end of the ninth year, instead of the tenth. With a year like 2009, you can hardly blame them. We’ve been humbled this year. Schooled. P’wned. Headbutted, suckerpunched … and still Bushed. We’ve invested so much energy getting out from under the floodtide of bullshit that laps at our ankles, and then at our knees, and we’re not done yet.

But still. There’s reason for hope. The 2010 Optimism Poll from The Associated Press and GfK found that 82 percent of Americans are optimistic about the immediate prospects for the future. (Like everything these days, the results broke down along party lines: 87 percent of Democrats are optimistic; 53 percent of Republicans are. Make of that what you will).

There’s a sense starting to build in this country, a feeling that our lives may yet be the forward-looking statements we’ve been looking forward to for far too long.

◊ ◊ ◊

Tonight there’s a full moon, and it’s a blue moon, that astronomical rarity we’ve enshrined in the culture as a proxy for any rare event. Even more rare for all these elements to come together on New Year’s Eve.

Now (sweetly propitious circumstance), there’s a feeling that maybe some or much of this was ordained, that the wheel of the last two years was a process that had to play out, one it was required for us to experience, to grow from, to learn from … so being optimistic about 2010 can really mean something validating and positive, something that’ll make it almost painless buying gym memberships, Pilates classes, Nicorette by the carload ...

And Kit-Kat bars by the case.


Image credits: Wilson: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press. LVMH stock performance: corporateinformation.com. Still from Avatar: © 2009 20th Century Fox. Blue moon: via Huffington Post.

The GOP’s heavy weather

The Republicans in the Senate got out of Washington fast after the health-care bill got passed without them last week. With some of the most treacherous blizzards to hit the eastern half of the United States lighting up the weather maps the day before Christmas Eve, they admitted defeat was theirs and headed for Reagan National or Dulles.

But as the year ends, the Republicans as a party are flying into potentially heavier weather than the rain and snow that pummeled half the country for the holidays.

In spite of President Obama’s declining approval ratings; uncertainty about two high burn-rate wars; a domestic economy still dependent on the trickle charger of inorganic financial stimulus; and the sudden prospect of terrorism on a new geographic front, the Republicans remain seriously fractured as a party, plagued with scandals, philosophically and generationally divided, with a dogged resistance to outreach to many millions of the Americans they need to win.

The GOP ends 2009 willfully entrenched in a fortress manned by true believers, dead-enders and no one else. They’ve hardened their ideological definition and gone out of their way to alienate anyone outside the frame of their core beliefs. For months now, the Republican Party has been about thinning the herd, seeming to isolate those with a more conciliatory approach to politics — those with a vested interest in being as much loyal as opposition.

The result likely means a Republican Party that’s smaller, older, and more monochromatic and ideologically rigid than it already is.

◊ ◊ ◊

Chairman Michael Steele is attempting to ride, or walk, to the rescue. Steele is the signatory of a mass-mailing letter dated “Monday morning” and mailed this week, in an apparent indiscriminate fashion (there’s no other way it could have been, nestled among the bills, in the mailbox of a rock-ribbed Democrat).

“Your immediate action is required,” Steele intones in the four-page letter, which includes a “Registered Survey.” “I am sending out this questionnaire to gauge where you and other grassroots Republicans stand on the critical issues facing our nation — I need to hear back from right away.”

The letter (a battle cry that conveys much the same exhortation we’ve heard at various venues for the Michael Steele Live show) essentially discredits “the Obama agenda” and claims that response to the survey is a linchpin in a new beginning for the GOP. “We have been on the defensive,” Steele says. “In 2010 that all changes.”

Maybe. It’s a given that the Republicans are hoping to duplicate the midterm congressional impact of Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America, when the GOP stormed back into control of Congress in 1994. The discontent the GOP is hoping to exploit this time is largely of its own creation.

The auto and bank bailouts Obama was forced to implement were the concluding step in a process begun or exacerbated in the Bush administration. And Obama inherited the crushing responsibility for the stewardship of two expensive, expansive wars, and the job of undoing the diplomatic damage wrought by eight years of cowboy swagger. All in all, a lot like playing poker when your hand is dealt before you even get to the table.

◊ ◊ ◊

Most well-meaning Americans understand this, at some deep intuitive level. They reject the automatic aspect of party identification, the easy ideological label. Especially Republicans. That would explain the results of a Nov. 30 Washington Post poll that found 69 percent of Republican and GOP-leaning independents thought that taking moderate positions on some issues was entirely acceptable.

Some 42 percent of Republicans and independents surveyed thought the Republican party leadership in taking the party in the wrong direction, compared to 23 percent in 2005.

“Republicans are faced with significant discord within their ranks,” wrote Jon Cohen and Dan Balz of The Post. “They are divided over how much to work with Obama on energy and climate-change legislation. There are generational differences on the role of religion in public life and how much emphasis the party should put on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage. And the party's moderate and conservative wings have widely divergent views on a number of issues.”

The Republican leadership hopes the American people’s demand for results, its storied impatience will kick in next year, with an outraged populist rejection of the Obama administration and federal spending levels made necessary by the ruinous practices of the Bush League.

It’s a sad reflection of the vacancy of the current Republican message that once again the GOP is forced to return to defining itself by what it’s opposed to, rather than what it’s in favor of.

It’s a sad commentary that this strategy relies on the belief that the national recall of the origins of our current predicament is so brief, so attuned to the moment, that the American people won’t think back to when the decade really started, in 2001 … and reflect in sorrow and anger at how their lives changed and were changed in seven or eight brutal years, and who was governmentally responsible.

The year 2010 could be much like the year before for the GOP, and for the same reasons. Barack Obama has been president about three weeks short of a year. This nation’s memory of elephants in the White House goes back a hell of a lot further than that.

2009: JibJab weighs in

It’s gotten to where the year isn’t officially over until we’ve heard from the boys and girls at JibJab. The Venice, California-based digital entertainment studio and conclave of wiseasses, musicians and techies is back in fine form with their 2009 retrospective. “Never a Year Like ’09,” animatedly performed to the tune of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," surveys the year about to end in the classic over-the-top JibJab style.

In two minutes and change, it’s a recap of what was important this year, and much that wasn’t (which didn’t stop people from talking and tweeting about it).

JJ’s bottom line is much like everyone’s: for all kinds of reasons, this is one we’re glad to have in the rear-view mirror … laughing through the tears.



Image credit: © 2009 JibJab Media Inc.

MJ thrills again

On Wednesday there was another proper sendoff for Michael Joseph Jackson; it was a gesture that told us what we already knew, that his was a singular and irreplaceable talent. But still. It was a welcome validation of his ubiquity in and impact on the culture. And it’s based on something you’ve seen a hundred times.

“Thriller,” the 14-minute video directed in 1983 by John Landis and choreographed, inspired and animated by Michael hisself, was named to be the first music video to join the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. The video, which merged scripted dialogue common to longer features with the short-form dictates of the music video, joins 24 other films selected this year, bringing the total to 525 films selected since the registry was established in 1989.



Despite its brevity, “Thriller” was recognized by the Library of Congress for its cultural, aesthetic or historical significance. Its elevation makes it equal in historical heft to such full-length motion picture classics as “Ben-Hur,” “Casablanca,” “Annie Hall” and such woefully overlooked treasures as Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust.”

“I'm thrilled,” Landis told The Washington Post from his home in Los Angeles. “And it's nice for Michael, because he was always striving to be bigger and better. ...”

“It was nobody's brilliant idea,” he says. “Nobody thought, Gee, why don't we do this? It's a genius business plan. Mike just wanted to turn into monster.”

It’s flashes of the imagination like that — a tapping of the wellspring of fears and nightmares, wishes and dreams — that summons genius from time to time. When we're lucky. Some have said that the addition of “Thriller” to the film registry makes it officially timeless. Watch it and recognize, all over again: Anyone saying that with a straight face is officially 25 years too late.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MSNBC: The place for making changes

MSNBC, that cable network whose propensity for making changes around the house emerges about as frequently as The New York Times raises its newsstand rates, is about to moult again. But this time, it may be change demanded by viewers who’ve for years put up with a half-on, half-off approach to covering the news — one that just won’t fly anymore.

The Associated Press reported Dec. 28 that “MSNBC is shuffling its daytime lineup early next year because its strategy of spreading personality-driven programming throughout the schedule isn't working. The new approach will emphasize a fast-paced review of the day's big stories as they break.”

The MSNBC strategy of peppering dayparts with spiky, opinionated personalities saw fruition early this year, when the network trotted out new shows hosting by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, former CNBC business blowhard Dylan Ratigan, and “Morning Joe” co-co-host Willie Geist. Now, there’s new thinking afoot.

It’s already claimed one casualty outright. “Dr. Nancy,” hosted by physician and Snyderman, NBC’s medical editor, was recently cancelled. Snyderman, whose on-air demeanor made you feel like you were in a doctor’s office, didn’t resonate with viewers. Its placement (at noon eastern) may be one reason why.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ratigan was another victim of the shuffle preceding the one to come. Ratigan, the beneficiary of an hourlong spot in the morning lineup, went off the rails more than once as the blustery, caffeinated host of “Morning Lineup,” bringing the swaggering style he once brandished on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to a soundstage at 30 Rock.

It didn’t rock. Just last week, Ratigan apologized for being rude to Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz during a Dec. 18 interview about health-care reform.



On Dec. 21, by transcript and Twitter, he apologized for the outburst. From his on-air mea culpa: “Our mission and my mission on this show is to shine the light on what is really happening ... the way I went about that on Friday was a disservice to our viewers. ... I have some work to do.”



Not as much of that “work” will be done on the air. AP reports that MSNBC is cutting his show in half and moving it to the 4 p.m. eastern time slot before “Hardball,” Chris Matthews’ political-news franchise.

MSNBC will also feature NBC News political director Chuck Todd and White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie for a 9 a.m. eastern program meant to survey the day's upcoming news. Much of the rest of the day, MSNBC will present general news anchored by David Shuster, Tamron Hall, Contessa Brewer and Andrea Mitchell (this from Phil Griffin, MSNBC CEO).

◊ ◊ ◊

Through these changes upon changes, you come away with a sense of MSNBC like some mad scientist in a laboratory, mixing potions and swirling solutions in glass beakers, desperately holding them up to the light from time to time, the better to glimpse the right formula.

The one thing that apparently won’t change at MSNBC is the stature of its two destination-viewing tentpoles — “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” — or “Morning Joe,” the early-morning opinionfest helmed by former Florida GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough. Early morning and early evening seem to be solid at the network; it’s the daytime mix that still eludes the cable arm of NBC News.

MSNBC must be doing something right. AP reported: “Even after the election, MSNBC's prime-time has run neck-and-neck with CNN for second place behind the dominant Fox News Channel. MSNBC will beat CNN among its target demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds in 2009 for the first year ever, according to the Nielsen Co.”


◊ ◊ ◊

At other times, though, MSNBC’s programming philosophy has a lot to answer for. Like weekends. And holidays. And in the eternity of the eight hours between the end of its prime-time Olbermann/Maddow tandem (which ends at 10 p.m. eastern) and the half-hour preceding “Morning Joe” (which goes on at 6 a.m. eastern).

That’s when MSNBC changes its identity completely. You’ll look in vain for live news in that eight hours five days a week, as well as on the weekends and for most holidays. Instead of any real-time news reporting on weeknights, MSNBC repeats the day’s “Hardball,” “Countdown” and “Maddow” programs.

For weekends and holidays, MSNBC consistently reanimates old feature-programming Frankensteins, presenting documentaries, murder mysteries and its interminable “Lockup” series, which gives viewers the blow-by-blow accounts of life behind bars at several U.S. prisons — much of the footage years old.

There’s no escaping the cost-effectiveness of this strategy. It costs MSNBC next to nothing to air and re-air and re-re-air programs and documentaries they’ve already paid for, compared to the expense of paying on-air talent and staff to actually be on the air for late-night duty, weekends and holidays. MSNBC won’t admit it, but that’s one of the reasons why they do it.

But that strategy causes problems when you’re expecting the public to take your seriously as a newsgathering operation, one with an ostensible fidelity to the idea of news as a 24/7 phenomenon. MSNBC paid the PR price for that on Christmas Day.

◊ ◊ ◊

When the news broke that day that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a disaffected 23-year old Nigerian and self-described al-Qaida partisan, apparently attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound Delta airliner with three ounces of an exotic explosive concealed in his underwear, you didn’t get it from MSNBC. Not at first.

CNN and the Fox News Channel — Fox News! — covered the event from almost the beginning, grasping both the gravity of the story itself and its wider implications for the U.S. global campaigns against terrorism. Greta van Susteren and Ali Velshi stayed with it, while MSNBC did live cut-ins once an hour, monitoring the situation with snapshots, compared to the portraits CNN and Fox were building.

(To be sure, CNN and Fox use tape from earlier in a given day’s programming like MSNBC does, but the institutional mindset, especially at CNN, is geared to maintaining an active news presence round the clock, ready to jump in on literally breaking news with an immediacy that MSNBC doesn’t have.)

MSNBC came back on Monday, updating what happened over the weekend, essentially backing and filling on a story that exploded without them. What happened over the Christmas weekend wasn’t just a one-off mistake; it underscored what’s long been one of the problems with looking at MSNBC as a reliable source of news in a 24/7 age.

MSNBC’s schedule of coverage suggests they’ve been trying to be a cable news network that keeps to the schedule of broadcast news. It’s a wonder this attempt to have cake and eat it too has lasted as long as it has.

◊ ◊ ◊

The blogosphere has noticed. The network caught much grief there earlier in the year when it used taped feature programming during the dramatic and potentially game-changing election-related protests in Iran, conceding the high ground to CNN, Fox, and even The Huffington Post, whose Nico Pitney monitored the protests in a marathon display of 21st-century journalism.

The Daily Kos Web site slapped MSNBC for that: “What are they, a high school radio station left on autopilot from Friday night to Monday morning? ... If MSNBC wants to be a force, when will they wake up?”

Rachel Sklar, a blogger for the Mediaite Web site, weighed in strong on Christmas night:

"Tonight, the White House is calling an attempt to detonate a bomb aboard Northwest Flight 253 an attempted terror attack, by a man who himself claims to have been sent by al Qaeda — and MSNBC is showing “Disappearance at the Dairy Queen. ...

"If you're going to call yourself a news network, then cover the news.”

Also on Mediaite, Sklar commenter I’m Not Blue observed: “MSNBC blew it… they don’t have good weekend coverage, and virtually no holiday coverage. They should have been on this story… at least for a little while. The fact that they didn’t even go to a local affiliate for programming shows that when they leave for the holiday, they take all the decision makers and producers along with them. There should have been someone who could have made that decision, and change sources… but there wasn’t.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Like a lot of Americans who’ll use the occasion of the New Year for doing everything from joining a yoga class to giving up cigarettes, the cerebrators at MSNBC might do well to give up some old bad habits.

In an era of relentless event, MSNBC has institutionalized a newsgathering model that’s more casual and convenient than these times demand. Goes without saying: in the evolving news and information age, you can’t be a player if you don’t show up.

There are moves pending that indicate the network’s prepping for another of its ritual makeovers. There’s also a growing groundswell of popular opinion: If a makeover just skims the surface, it’s not a makeover. MSNBC’s long overdue for a real one.


Image credits: MSNBC log: © 2009 NBC Universal. Ratigan: Still from MSNBC. Mad scientist: via blogs.poz.com. Lockup title card: MSNBC. Abdulmutallab: Via New York Daily News.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Basseball and integrity: Curt Flood's stand on principle

It's a very rare thing when standing for principle is a nationally seismic thing, with ripples felt long after you're gone, everywhere in your profession, felt so long and deeply that newcomers to that profession almost take its fruits for granted.

Curt Flood took such a stand 40 years ago today, with a letter that amounted to pro sports' equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation, one man's statement of a singular and necessary self-possession. Others in the same era pursued the same or similar objectives, but Curt Flood's effort resonates in its solitariness, its sense of one man against the system that resonates emotionally, no matter how doomed or quixotic it's believed to be.

My take on this personal broadside on pro baseball's "reserve clause" runs in full in today's edition of theGrio. Here's part of the tribute:
While today's attention to the game of baseball is focused on off-season trades -- in this the time of the so-called hot stove league -- major league baseball marks a milestone on Dec. 24, one that may fly under the radar, but one that truly contributed to something in the DNA of professional sports.

Curtis Charles Flood, the stellar St. Louis Cardinals center fielder and seven-time Gold Glove winner, was to be traded with three other players to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 season. ...

Flood objected, citing personal and family reasons, as well as reasons pertaining to outside business interests. On Dec. 24, 1969, Flood sent Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn a simply worded letter making his desires clear. ...

The letter — a deft balance of emotion and devastating logic — was one of the first direct challenges of major league baseball's infamous reserve clause, by which a player was bound body and soul to a team regardless of the player's wishes ...

The era of free agency ushered in by Flood’s stand on principle was a confirmation of the national drive for progress, change and the power of the new.


Image credit: Curt Flood: symonsez.files.wordpress.com. Excerpts © 2009 NBC Universal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Algorithms and blues: HP, Google and people who don’t look like them

With a day left in the holiday shopping season, there’s just the thing for that last-minute stocking stuffer (or party gag gift, depending on your point of view) courtesy of no less than Hewlett-Packard, a company now in a defensive crouch over the workings of a product that stands in for human experience, maybe more comfortably than we might admit.

The Black Spin blog at AOL Black Voices announced recently that the new HP webcams, built into the latest generation of MediaSmart computers, have a little … bias problem. The cameras, which were intended to foster live online conversations, were supposedly designed to follow the movements of the camera subject.

But not for everyone. Earlier this month, the matter was widely publicized with a video posted to YouTube by two employees at an electronics store — a black man (“black Desi”) and a white woman (“white Wanda”) who tested the face-tracking technology with curious results.

The video showed the HP webcam working properly when "White Wanda" stepped in front of the camera, tracking her movements without fail. But not for black Desi. The camera, whose field of vision is the content of the video, doesn’t budge.



“I think my blackness is interfering with the computer's ability to follow me," Desi says in the clip.

"As you can see the camera is panning to show Wanda's face, it's following her around, but as soon as my blackness enters the frame ... it stops."

"I'm going on record, and I'm saying it: Hewlett-Packard computers are racist,” Desi says. “And the worst part is, I bought one for Christmas.”

HP performed timely, and seemingly sincere, damage control. Tony Welch, lead social media strategist in HP's PC division, said the company was investigating the issue. "The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose," Welch wrote on a company blog.

"We believe that the camera might have difficulty 'seeing' contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting."

To be fair, HP has tried to correct the problem, or at least illuminate people as to why it happens: Welch inserted a webpage with information “on the impact of lighting on facial tracking software, and how to optimize your webcam experience.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But there’s no escaping the echoes of events in the recent past, other instances of intolerance by algorithm. In early December, Google was under fire for a controversy that erupted when a racist image of First Lady Michelle Obama briefly led Google's image search results. The same thing happened a handful of years ago when people searching on Google for images of two prominent African Americans got pictures of animals instead.

Then and this time, Google gamely (and justifiably) defended the randomness of the search experience as fundamental to free expression. But still. There are other ways of seeing this. Joho, blogging at Hyperorg.com, poses one of the more solid arguments:

“Google’s algorithms are undoubtedly tuned by looking at the relevancy of the results. If they come up with a new wrinkle, they check it against the results it returns. So, the algorithms are already guided by Google’s own sense of what are good, useful and relevant results. If they tested a tweak of their ranking algorithm and it turned out always to put all the porn and pro-Nazi literature on top, Google would judge that algorithm as faulty.

“So, Google is already in the business of building algorithms that match its idea of what’s useful and relevant. When those algorithms occasionally turn up racist crap like that photo of Michelle, why not improve the algorithm’s results by intervening manually?”

◊ ◊ ◊

The HP and Google faux pas may be precursor evidence of what Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity,” a fast-approaching and epochal transformation of the boundaries between biology and technology. Maybe they’re examples of technology doing what technology, what machines have always done: achieving in minutes then seconds then nanoseconds, becoming faster and more efficient at performing a given task. This is proof that they’re just faster in understanding human behavior — and its inherent biases — than we are in understanding them.

For people darker than a paper bag, what happened with HP’s product and Google’s service may or may not be racism, but it is evidence of consumer technology adopting a cultural meme of rendering people with dark skin as abstract, ahistoric, insubstantial. We have been here before: Ralph Ellison’s justly celebrated “Invisible Man” observes the pain and perils of a black man’s apparent invisibility to the wider world.

Homo ex machina: Today, that “peculiar disposition of the eyes” Ellison attributed to humans three generations ago may well be a camera lens or a passive-aggressive algorithm. The broad and longstanding cultural act of not seeing, not really seeing blacks and minorities outside the HTML governing one’s personal, inner software, has finally been distilled, albeit accidentally, in the functions of our technology.

Image credits: HP camera: Via amazon.com. Google logo: © Google. Invisible Man cover: © Random House.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tiger’s rough lie IV: Character assassinations

Longer than I’d have thought possible, the late-night crew has generated brutal laughs at the expense of Tiger Woods. The self-caged Tiger, now said to be staying at home eating cereal, watching cartoons and practicing his golf swing at night, remains behind the curve, the butt of too many jokes. A trip to France has reportedly been considered.

You can’t help but think of that legendary April 1968 Esquire cover that featured a full-body shot of an in-his-prime Muhammad Ali (the subject of public hatreds of a completely different kind), his body punctured with arrows a la St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes. But the Tiger debacle has other dimensions. There’s been more than one kind of character assassination going on.

The waitresses union (if there is one) should sue for defamation of character; as the list of Tiger’s conquests has grown, we’ve come to hear their occupations in the service and leisure industries spoken of and written about in sordid, unflattering light.

Robin Givhan of The Washington Post got it right on Sunday: “[T]he way in which jobs such as waitress and model have been tossed about in the Woods story, with a kind of wink and a nod, one would think there is something inherently tawdry about carting pancakes or martinis around on a tray.”

◊ ◊ ◊

One of the underexplored aspects of this rolling tragedy has been the reaction of black Americans, notably black women. For blacks, Tiger’s predicament has generated a barely submerged schadenfreude, a sense of serves-you-right-to-suffer that’s animated by the persistent sense of racial betrayal.

On Dec. 6, the New York Daily News explored the issue in a story that laid bare the hurt, and the willingness within the community to pile on.
On the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner radio show, Woods was the butt of jokes all week.

"Thankfully, Tiger, you didn't marry a black woman. Because if a sister caught you running around with a bunch of white hoochie-mamas," one parody suggests in song, she would have castrated him.

"The Grinch's Theme Song" didn't stop there: "The question everyone in America wants to ask you is, how many white women does one brother waaant?" …

On the one hand, Ebonie Johnson Cooper doesn't care that Tiger Woods' wife and alleged mistresses are white because Woods is "quote-unquote not really black."

"But at the same time we still see him as a black man with a white woman, and it makes a difference," said Johnson Cooper, a 26-year-old African-American from New York City. "There's just this preservation thing we have among one another. We like to see each other with each other."

Black women have long felt slighted by the tendency of famous black men to pair with white women, and many have a list of current transgressors at the ready.

"We've discussed this for years among black women," said Denene Millner, author of several books on black relationships. "Why is it when they get to this level ... they tend to go directly for the nearest blonde?"

◊ ◊ ◊

Left unexplored in these ad hominem broadsides is any discussion of the broader social damages of Tiger’s civil transgressions, not just those ostensibly racial ones. The impact of the violation of his marital vows isn’t even discussed; the only unacceptable line Tiger’s crossed in their eyes is a racial one. Curiously, there’s no mention of the signal his marital infidelity sends to generations to young and impressionable Americans across the racial spectrum.

There’s a sense of possessiveness in these comments that suggests Tiger, and by extension all black people, are necessarily bound by the racial tradition of marrying within the race. There’s a dismissal here of Tiger’s civil responsibility as husband and father that’s all the more curious, given black America’s historically proven reverence for the traditions of marriage in general. Where’s the outrage about that?

◊ ◊ ◊

If Tiger is in fact hunkering down with the attorneys and the Cheerios, he's certainly planning how to dampen the trajectory of a scandal achieving a life of its own. But for the rest of us, the Tiger in the wild has been an inviting target. Sometimes too inviting.

For every label you can throw at him, justified and otherwise — philanderer, cheat, womanizer, racial traitor, ethical apostate, self-centered athlete for the ages — there’s another one available. And the willingness or unwillingness to apply it says as much about us as it says about him: the label of human being.

Image credit: Esquire April 1968 cover: Esquire Magazine. Tiger: Public domain.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The change

As the nation gears up to mark another New Year’s Eve, more than a few million Americans are also putting big emotional energy into the “end” of the first decade of the 21st century. Which it’s not, of course, not for another year. But don’t tell them that. Custom and practice and The Way It’s Always Been have disabused them of the idea that maybe, just maybe, their longstanding certainties are wrong.

The National Journal gave us a proper launch into the new year with an exhaustive study of voter demographics in the United States — a report that overturns the lingering mostly conservative orthodoxies and assumptions about who and where the power blocs of voters in this country really are.

The Journal’s package — written by the reliable Ron Brownstein and graphically designed by Charlie Szymanski, in a display of maps, districts and stats that has to be seen to be believed — clearly documents the vast change that’s underway in the United States, change illustrated, but in way defined, by the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

“With Hispanics providing the principal engine, the nation's minority population is not only increasing but also dispersing beyond the big cities where it traditionally congregated. And as minorities enlarge their numbers in the suburbs and even the exurbs, the number of House members representing districts with heavily diverse populations is soaring -- probably to unprecedented heights.”

A quote from Simon Rosenberg, president of a Democratic group that monitors electoral trends, puts it in even clearer perspective. “We're entering a new era which is being defined to a great degree by the incredible explosion of the nonwhite electorate and its distribution around the country … The growth of this nonwhite population is creating a fundamentally new politics in the United States.”


◊ ◊ ◊

With incisive, muscular quotations from demographers and political analysts, and a visual breakdown of where the big changes are taking place, the Brownstein-Szymanski project calls on readers to embrace a new idea of what immigration 2009 is: not the familiar Ellis Island exercise of patriation, specific to a handful of states. Immigration is wider than the contours we’ve grown comfortable with.

The Journal’s analysis of Census Bureau data “found that 205 members in the House--almost half of the chamber--represent districts in which minorities constitute at least 30 percent of the population. That's nearly double the one-fourth of members who hailed from districts that diverse during the 1990s.”
“Two dynamics are driving the spread of heavily diverse districts. One is the sheer growth in the nonwhite share of the population, defined as everyone except non-Hispanic whites. In 1980, those nonwhites, including Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians, constituted 20 percent of the population; that figure rose to 24 percent in 1990, 31 percent in 2000, and 34 percent in 2008, according to Census Bureau figures.

“Accompanying this growth has been a dispersal of the minority population from its historical concentration in the largest cities across a much broader landscape of communities of every size, in almost every region of the country. That trend has been powered primarily by immigrants, especially Hispanics, notes Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of New Faces in New Places, a 2008 book on the phenomenon. ‘That's the big story starting in the 1990s: Immigration shifted from being a regional phenomenon affecting a handful of states to truly being a national phenomenon,’ Massey says. ‘That's for the first time in 100 years--or maybe for the first time in all of American history.’"
◊ ◊ ◊

There was another assault on certainties of population the day before the Journal report. Updating a 2008 prediction, the Census Bureau released figures on Wednesday that tweaked the time when white people will no longer make up the majority of U.S. citizens.

Now, the bureau says, whites will become the minority in America in 2050 — a pullback of eight years from the previous forecast of 2042 as the tipping-point year. The impact of the recession and stricter immigration policies in the wake of 9/11 are the reasons why.

The bureau predicts that white children will become a minority in 2031 and the overall white population would follow in ‘50.

◊ ◊ ◊

Since such changes don’t happen in a vacuum or overnight, it’s proof again, as if such were really needed, that President Obama’s election was merely the most emphatic announcement of a process that’s been underway here for generations.

And we’ll see that process play out soon: Once the champagne and aspirin of New Year’s Eve are behind us, we can start getting ready for the two events likely to define 2010 as a bellwether political year: the decennial census, the results of which determine the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives; and the 20120 midterm elections, likely to be not so much a referendum on President Obama or either political party as a survey of the political process, and the impact on that process, courtesy of the America taking shape before our eyes.

“It used to be the exception [when members] said, ‘My district has really changed,’” said California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra, to The Journal. “Now that's the rule. If you are in a district that is not accustomed to seeing a lot of diversity, the rule now is that you are going to see it. And you can't ignore it: That is the face of America tomorrow.”

Image credits: Map and graph: Charlie Szymanski, The National Journal.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tiger’s rough lie III: A sand trap in the desert

It’s gotten so out of hand in the last week, it’s difficult to know where to start: the number of extramarital dalliances attributed truthfully or falsely to Tiger Woods has spiraled higher with (literally) every passing day. The latest number — 13? 14? 16? — doesn’t matter to Tiger’s wife, Elin Nordegren, who has reportedly set the machinery of divorce in motion. The lawyers are circling for the expected redistribution of wealth to come.

“It’s what you do next that counts,” the message of the Accenture Web site recently read — a message removed before Dec. 13, when Accenture dropped Tiger as its highest-profile endorsement action figure. Accenture is just one of the companies Rethinking Its Relationship with the world’s greatest golfer.

Last week, Gatorade dropped its Tiger Focus brand of theanine-and-electrolyte-laden flavored water, claiming that the move had been discussed internally well before the wheels fell off the Escalade in the driveway. Gillette, the epitome of a clean-shaven American brand, has also suspended its endorsement deal.

And announcing his intent to step away from the pro game for an indefinite period, Tiger issued a statement of full-on contrition. “I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children,” he said. “I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try.”

Then, just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, news came reflecting the irony of public recognition, something seemingly unlikely but true just the same: On Tuesday, Tiger was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade, in recognition of his posting 64 victories during the last 10 years, including 12 major tournaments. (Given what was happening in his private life over that time, and the prodigious energy those distractions must have demanded, his tour victories are even more impressive. When did this guy sleep?)

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite the flights to respectability that some companies have made, Nike is sticking with him — the company no stranger to the controversies of athletes and their various antics off the court or the field.

Nike Chairman and apparel emperor Phil Knight told SportsBusiness Journal last week: “When his career is over, you’ll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now.”

But it’s more than the media making a big deal out of it. It’s a big deal for the companies considering walking away from Tiger and a scandal of a size we still can’t get dimensions for yet. It’s a big deal for the PGA Tour, as professional golf comes to grips with an immediate future without its most visible and bankable component. And it’s more quietly a big deal for African American men, forced to contend with another stain on their existential reputation (one that polite company would likely exclude from the current discussion, saying it’s not pertinent).

To this point, Tiger hasn’t been seen in public, apparently content to hunker down at his Florida Xanadu and plot his options. He’s still very much in the rough right now. It’s worse than that. Tiger’s in a sand trap of public perception and all he’s got is his Scotty Cameron putter.

We’re a forgiving nation — hell, look at the break we cut Richard Nixon. But Tiger’s got to stand trial in the court of public opinion. He’s called on to do the public stations of the cross he bears. It’s still what he does next that counts. Until the public hears from him again (not in dry, professionally bloodless statements, but from him directly); until he undertakes to move the media machinery with the consummate skill he’s shown before, the bunker he’s in will stretch from here to the clubhouse.

It’s time for Focus he can’t get out of a bottle.

Image credits: Tiger: Associated Press. Gatorade Tiger Focus: Via ozbo.com

Saturday, December 12, 2009

FutureNews at the FTC

Yeah, we missed it. There was just so much else going on. Tiger imploded, the health-care reform debate reached its latest fever pitch, and the death by a thousand cuts that is our economy kept doing what it’s doing.

So we almost forgot about a two-day panel discussion on Dec. 1 and 2, at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. This spirited discussion, "From Town Crier to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" focused on the future of news, a topic approached from a variety of perspectives that definitely represent where we’ve been coming from, and should represent where we’re going.

Bryan Monroe, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, editorial director of Ebony Magazine (and a former colleague from the San Jose Mercury News), made some telling points about the persistence of old-media thinking in the new media age, especially as it relates to minorities cracking the industry’s various institutional ceilings.

“Firstly, I think it's important to acknowledge where we are today. Fresh exciting digital news initiatives are cropping up all over the country, but in most cases these new media ventures looking a whole lot like old media, only less diverse in more ways.

“Look no further than the 17 of 17 white staff members of Aol.'s new sphere.com, or the single African-American reporter at the Politico. Or the initial lack of diversity at Chicago's new co-op journalism venture. You know, we're starting off on the wrong foot. With the recent closures, bankruptcies, declining circulation, layoffs and the legacy media business, it's proven that cutting its way to success won't work. We know we can't grow from a crouched position. But journalism is not dead, by a long shot. It is, however, in the process of painfully shedding its old skin for a new one.

◊ ◊ ◊

“But in that battle for its soul between old media and new media, something important is being lost. We are now living [in] a new America. For the underlying DNA of journalism, accuracy, inclusion, clarity, storytelling, fairness and truth, to live on, it must find a new host. To succeed, we must make sure diverse voices, all voices, are represented in digital and on the web. It's time for media to start to play offense not just defense.

“Part of it is fundamentally that it's access to the circles where the money is happening, to the venture capitalists, to the angels, to the conversations when the deals get made or the ideas get floated. They're not just journalists of color, but entrepreneurs of color need to be in those rooms, need to be in those -- when you're at school you have your friends and your buddies that you come up with.

“The circle needs to be wider, and I think by that, you'll see more ideas go from just a back room thought to a full-fledged venture, and the closer they get to becoming a venture, the better the chance for their success will be.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Mark Contreras, E.W. Scripps senior vice president, picked up on a trend that’s becoming the norm in online editorial: an evolving paradigm that obeys the power of the headline — maybe even the primacy of the headline — as a way to reach the reader.

“[T]he consumption of headlines is much more prevalent than a deep vertical reading of a news story. So consumers are consuming much more horizontally. And by that I mean nuggets, headlines, even a word in a headline represents consumption, far less consumption deep and vertically, and that, to me, indicates that the headline is just as valuable, and the content that we originate and create is just as valuable for the Internet world as the depth of the reporting.

“Both are critical to what journalism is, but the consumption indicates that there's far more sporadic consumption than in the print product.”

◊ ◊ ◊

And leave it to the disturber in chief, Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and new-media firebrand, to impart the overall sense of where things are going. By way of going upside the head of media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, Huffington set the table, if not the agenda, for the future of online editorial media:

“[T]his is inarguably a brave new media world and there's no use living in digital denial. The information superhighway is a busy thoroughfare, and there is going to be some roadkill along the way, but only among those who insist on merging into traffic riding a horse and buggy.”

“These contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers and others who are not paid to cover the news — it's constantly mocked and derided. It's as though people in the old media cannot really understand that technology has enabled millions of consumers to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation. From coach potato to self-expression. You know, writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook, editing photos, uploading videos and making music are just a few of the active entertainment options now available to people. But when they dare to begin to show a significant shift in consumer habits, traditional media responded by belittling web journalism.

“The same people who never question why consumers would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight, can't understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues great and small that interest — and even though this is not the way they make their living. They don't understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, they really don't. They don't understand the people who maintain their own blogs for free.

“They don't understand people who write blogs for The Huffington Post for free, we constantly get that. They don't understand people who Twitter for free, they constantly don't understand people who update their Facebook pages for free — who want to tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities for free.

“And they need to understand that, if they are to understand the future of journalism.”

Image credits: Monroe: © Johnson Publishing Co. Sphere logo: © 2009 Aol. Inc. Contreras: Associated Press. Huffington: Associated Press via paidcontent.org

Friday, December 11, 2009

Here’s to Big Thinking

In a blogosphere honeycombed with knuckleheads and mountebanks aiding and abetting a level of discourse that delights in bad spelling, bad manners and shouting in capital letters, you come to treasure the oasis of a Web site that offers a place to think, and to enjoy the company of others who do, fiercely, imaginatively, the same thing.

It’s been almost two years since the launch of BigThink, a "global forum connecting people and ideas." The Web site started in January 2008 by Victoria Brown and Peter Hopkins, two former producers of PBS' "Charlie Rose," has garnered a sturdy following with smart, polished design; a comfortable look & feel; and more than 700 video-driven commentaries from some of the more consequential writers, artists and scholars of our time. The result: a genuine refuge for anyone seeking to put distance between themselves and the CAPS LOCK cognoscente.

Two recent examples indicate where BigThink has been going from the beginning. There’s an interview with Dr. Cornel West, the dearly beloved scholar, author, intellectual and cultural flamethrower. In the November interview, West holds forth on the blues, intellectuals’ betrayal of the poor, and the leadership of President Obama in a 33-minute interview you don’t have to digest all at once; BT has broken it down into bite-size chunks, any of which is an intellectual meal of itself.

John Irving, the celebrated novelist and essayist whose fiction is among the creatively sturdiest work in contemporary American literature, is asked what advice he’d give a young untried writer today.

Irving, interviewed in November, is downbeat, which is to say more than you might expect from one of today’s more critically and commercially recognized authors. Elsewhere, though, Irving speaks of the other, various dividends of his profession, including the challenge of writing the final sentence of a book, and the joys of beginning a new one.

There’s plenty more on this groaning board: pithy Afrocentric blog posts from Kris Broughton (aka Brown Man Thinking Hard);
interviews with actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith; Seattle-based author Sherman Alexie, Wired editor Chris Anderson, author Gay Talese and theater critic Terry Teachout, for example. All in all, a feast at another kind of welcome table. And damn welcome it is.


BigThink has been called “YouTube for intellectuals,.” But that unnecessary reach for association with a wider demographic seriously overstates BT’s true scope, numerically and content-wise. The underlying principle here is quality, then quantity, and in our 24/7-soapbox age, that can be a refreshing thing. Rest assured, on BigThink you won’t see videos of Noam Chomsky’s Chihuahua tap-dancing on the kitchen tiles.

It’s a tribute to the necessity of the BigThink business model that the site has so far managed to not just survive but apparently thrive in an increasingly stratified online editorial world. Internet time makes dog years look like an eternity. Happy (upcoming) birthday BT; here’s to many more.

Image credits: Anna Deavere Smith, Cornel West and John Irving: BigThink.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Aol. WTF?

“Change is good,” it’s been said. That thinking's seen us through 233 years of American dynamism, from a Declaration of Independence to an election, last November, that made that Declaration truly independent of the era in which it was written.

AOL understands that basic idea. Oops, my bad. That’s Aol. to you, effective on Thursday. That’s the day when AOL aka America Online officially transforms itself for the new century. That’s the day the company’s common stock begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange. That’s six days after AOL laid off 2,500 employees, the last headcount guillotine action before today’s spin-off from Time Warner (two weeks before Christmas).

Change is, uh, good.

The company showcased the new mark in a preview on Sunday, along with six accompanying, seemingly random images. The company’s press release spelled it out: "New Aol Brand Expresses Commitment to Stimulating Content, Openness and Inclusion."

“The new AOL brand identity is a simple, confident logotype, revealed by ever-changing images. It’s one consistent logo with countless ways to reveal,” reads the statement on the corporate Web site.

“Our new identity is uniquely dynamic,” Aol. Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong said in the press statement. “We have a clear strategy that we are passionate about and we plan on standing behind the … brand as we take the company into the next decade.”

The company joined forces with Wolff Olins, a brand and innovation consultancy based in London, New York and Dubai.

Last month, Alice Cho, Print magazine’s art director, told The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford:

“To be honest, I don't get it. I'm confused by the title case and I don't feel that the mixture of upper and lower case better communicates the ‘Commitment to Stimulating Content, Openness and Inclusion.’ I wonder if the image accompanying the Aol. mark will be constantly changing, depending on the context. Or will these 6 images be applied everywhere? I'm curious to see this applied across the board and see how the changing imagery works in various applications.”

◊ ◊ ◊

To these consumerist eyes, though, and in some perverse counter-intuitive way, the Aol. logo is exactly what Cho suggests it might be. The Aol. logotype will be superimposed on a galaxy of images, not just these six.

And that’s probably the point: against the canvas of exotic imagery, the logotype itself becomes almost invisible, the backdrop of the everyday experience — with the ubiquity that Aol. is certainly seeking as a portal, Internet service provider and global Web services company. It’s a “Rashomon” thing: each consumer sees what they want to see; every Aol. user will have their own distinctive take on the Aol. experience.

For some, it’s a move away from a corporate mark that was fully participatory already. Larry Oliver, commenting on the identity change at The Wrap asks: “It still baffles me why AOL went to letters for their name when they had the perfect name for an Internet company. America Online. Can you think of better name than that to describe what your business is?”

A damn good question, and time will tell how the public receives this head-scratching concept. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a company has tried to get the public to accept a brand identity that, at first blush, didn’t make a lick of sense.

From amazon to Nike, from eBay to Apple, from Monster to Google, American commerce is littered with examples of companies whose maverick descriptors didn’t obey the logic of making things easy on the consumer. Everyone in the world recognizes those names, and the products and services behind them, today. Clearly, there’s something to be said for going boldly where no company’s gone before.

◊ ◊ ◊

Aol.’s splashy experiment makes use of one of the more subtle principles of brand identity: that, beyond identifying a specific product or service, a brand name first elicits an emotional response, a first-blush reaction that cuts through intellect and goes for the gut. It’s the look & feel of a brand that often makes the difference.

The upper-and-lower-case treatment may be their way of making the brand look more accessible, less IMPOSING and FORMIDABLE than capital letters. The msnbc Web site tried much the same thing in 2007, when it formally lowercased the letters of its brand. One observer of brand trends called it “├╝berfriendly.” Aol. is probably reading from the same page.

Of course, warm and fuzzy brand recognition only goes so far. Despite the pretty pictures, the public has its own elephant’s memory. Millions of Americans still remember what begat that new ticker symbol on the NYSE: the company whose unsolicited mass direct-mail campaign once loosed millions of software discs on the public (and the environment); the company whose customers have experienced numerous connectivity problems; the company on the receiving end of a $1.25 million fine from New York State in 2005 for poor customer service; the company whose merger with Time Warner is generally regarded as the worst in the history of American business.

Brand identity is all about getting people to remember. It’s a bigger challenge when that brand-new brand identity has as much to do with getting people to forget.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tiger’s rough lie II

In re the matter and predicament of one Eldrick Tont Woods: We’re right on the edge, folks, tiptoeing up to that blurry line of no return, that hazy point where it’s harder and harder to wring any more funny out of all this.

When it started, with the fetching Rachel Uchitel, we were ready to smirk with our eyebrows lifted and say something about how maybe Tiger’s best drives weren’t on the golf course.

But that was six disasters ago, and that’s not even counting the Escalade wreck that punched the first hole in the most controlled and image-conscious fa├žade in the history of American sports merchandising.

Since then, we’ve discovered Jamie Grubbs, Kalika Moquin, Jamie Jungers, Mindy Lawton, Cori Rist and Holly Sampson — a list of names for now, some with as-yet unsubstantiated claims despite their sly walkup to the billion-dollar Tiger Woods buffet.

But these serial announcements — heeere’s the Bimbette of the Day! — have already done damage to Tiger’s persona and his biography. And all of a sudden, the matter of a single dalliance most men and women could probably understand and forgive has turned into something just this side of pathological.

They’re still extracting humor from this in ways that cross the threshold of reality; now Tiger’s entered the objectifying realm of the cartoon.

Proof? The wiseasses at break.com created “Tiger Hunting,” an on-site video game in which you “help Tiger escape his angry wife by guiding his Escalade through the obstacles.”



And then there’s the work of Apple Daily News, a Taiwanese news source whose fanciful but graphically faithful computer-generated “recreations” of what may or may not have happened the morning of Nov. 27 — and the months and years leading up to that crash in Florida — have been heavily trafficked on YouTube for the last week.



But the funny has pretty much ended with the latest alarming claims: that Tiger is reportedly a fan of sex on Ambien; that Tiger was a big fan of sex in places that risked being caught in public; that Tiger went to the hospital after the Escalade crash with trouble breathing, and was admitted as a victim of an overdose; that, according to TMZ Elin Nordegren Woods, Tiger’s wife, gave paramedics two pill bottles at the accident scene – one for Ambien, one for Vicodin; that, according to RadarOnline, Elin has moved out of their residence, and into a house nearby.



All at once, we’re beginning to get a queasy feeling, a sense of Icarus auguring in for a bad crash landing. Maybe it’s because the scope of this thing is still undetermined. The Tiger debacle still has no contours; there’s no finality to get our heads around. It's got all the earmarks of one of those toxic media artichokes, day after day each new layer revealing something more troubling, more sordid, than the day before.

And it can’t be funny when there are children involved.  You have to wonder what Sam and Charlie thought when Elin Woods, their mother and Tiger’s wife, bundled them into the necessary limousine and whisked them away from the estate in Windermere. Sam, all of 3 years old, was bound to ask: “Mommy … mommy, where’s daddy?” We don’t need an Apple Daily recreation to tell us that.

It’s starting to feel like we’ve been here before. Helpless to observe a train wreck we couldn’t predict, one we were powerless to prevent.

We’re still hoping that somehow, Tiger (relatively quiet since his sojourn in the deep rough began) will step up and put this in some kind of perspective; we hope Tiger will impart the shape of reality, or at least clarification, to a runaway public narrative, one that doesn’t abhor the vacuum of Woods' silence as much as it feeds on that silence for survival.

For Tiger, this is no opportunity for the superhuman feats he’s performed with golf clubs and towering courage. This is no CGI moment. It’s as real as real can get.
Image credits: CGI Tiger: Apple Daily News. Cori Rist: CelebrityVibe via New York Daily News. Tiger Hunting images: Break.com.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Comcastic voyage

This network is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?

From “Network,” screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky


Say what you will, Conan O’Brien knows who’s buttering his multimillion-dollar “Tonight Show” bread.

It was Thursday, as you know, when the long tenuous marriage between General Electric and NBC Universal began to formally end, after GE and the Internet-cable powerhouse Comcast announced a joint venture worth a combined $37.25 billion, giving the cable company eventual control of NBC Universal.

The deal will eventually mean GE gets to revert back to its core industrial competencies and focus, and away from the more volatile dictates of television programming. NBC Universal finds a ready, able, willing partner in Comcast, which already owns several media properties, as well as the nation’s largest cable subscriber network (at least 24 million households, maybe even yours).

But in the meantime, and for the foreseeable future (until GE exercises the option to sell more of the company down the road), the NBC Universal entertainment behemoth — networks! theme parks! online! motion pictures! — is in the hands of a startling partner.

What a world. Conan O’Brien may be working for the cable guy. And Conan owned up to that on Thursday’s “Tonight Show,” with a monologue almost as good as a Comcast ad, and a tent-show-revival musical number extolling the virtue of NBCU’s probable new daddy, complete with dancing girls and Andy Richter on tambourine. CanIgeddawitness?

◊ ◊ ◊

We’re all witnesses to this one, the biggest media merger since the AOL-Time Warner nuptials back in 2001. You remember, when AOL bought Time Warner Inc. for a mind-numbing $147 billion in stock, the beginning of the worst deal in media history, a five-spiral crash that formally ends maybe next week, when AOL trades on the exchange as its own stock.

This new deal? It’s complicated: NBCU borrows $9.1 billion from various third-party lenders to pay out to GE, which uses that cash to buy Vivendi's 20 percent stake in NBCU for $5.8 billion. This paves the way for GE to sell control of NBCU to Comcast.

Comcast then pays GE $6.5 bil for NBCU’s media properties (including NBC). Comcast will take a controlling 51 percent stake in the joint venture, and GE will control 49 percent. GE has been wanting to get shed of NBCU for awhile; they’ll have about seven years to sell the rest, presumably to Comcast.

Comcast gets a shiny old, well-recognized media company with broad tentacles in cable (MSNBC, Telemundo, Bravo, USA Network, The Weather Channel), movies (Universal Studios) and online (msnbc.com, too, I believe). All of it, in theory, pairs up nicely with Comcast’s current media holdings, including E!, the Style Network and several sports-related properties.

“This deal is a perfect fit for Comcast,” said Brian Roberts, the company CEO, in a statement. "In particular, NBCU's fast-growing, highly profitable cable networks are a great complement to our industry-leading distribution business.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Others are more concerned, and for very good reason. Comcast’s move is an obvious nod to an endorsement of the idea of media synergy, the one-stop-shop philosophy that was at the heart of the ill-fated AOL-Time Warner deal. But more than being an apparent repetition of that debacle, the NBCU-Comcast tie-up is concerning for something else.

Our good friend Howard Beale hit on it in “Network” years ago in a fictional scenario that’s about to be reality. And a worrying reality at that. You see, this media conglomerate is now (or likely soon will be) in the hands of Comcast, the leading cable television provider in the United States, and a major player in the online space.

And when the leading cable provider in the United States controls a sizable chunk of online, cable and broadcast programming — when one company owns not just the pipes but the content flowing through those pipes … well, who knows what can happen?

“The people who have been in control are the ones who own the content,” James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Los Angeles Times. “Buying NBC Universal would give Comcast about one-fourth of the content that is being produced. They would then have the freedom and the power to start experimenting with how best to deliver that entertainment.”

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is watching closely. “This acquisition will create waves throughout the media and entertainment marketplace and we don't know where the ripples will end,” Kohl said in a statement. “Antitrust regulators must ensure that all content providers are treated fairly on the Comcast platform.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Other folks aren’t waiting for the other shoe to drop when the deal closes sometime in the third quarter of 2010. The blogosphere has already decided.

Christopher W Hull, weighing in at CNN Money: “I am having AOL/Time Warner flashbacks! … I gotta say this looks good for all the other GE verticals (even the toasters, trains and twinklelights). … Now what is going to be funny is how they treat this on '30 Rock.' ”

Katie Withane at CNN Money: “Comcast is most certainly a monopoly. They're quickly decimating, or purchasing, their competitors. Adelphia, AT&T Broadband, Intermedia ... and every small cable operator they can get their hands on ... not to mention their attempt at Disney ... They are spreading out and absorbing all they can in the hopes of controlling all of the television they can, all of the media they can. As they grow larger, they become more capable of fighting Net Neutrality. In a few years, when Comcast controls what web sites you are able to visit by throttling your bandwidth, think back on this comment.”

Slapmewhenitsover at HuffPost: “Comcast is a crappy company. .... These people have a terrible record for customer service and seem to work on a policy of insulting their customers regularly. There is a wealth of supporting evidence (just search for Comcast complaints). 
These morons once sent me a $900 cable Internet bill for an account that had been closed for 3 years.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This deal, if approved after a regulatory review, effectively reshapes the television and entertainment landscape. Consumer advocates have already expressed misgivings, and a strong consumerist challenge can be expected.



But Conan O’Brien isn’t waiting. He’s seen the future. He proved it on Thursday night, in that musical number, which despite its hilarity had an undeniable whiff of fatalism. Like Winston at the end of “1984,” he’s come to “love” Big Brother already.

There may be a lesson there: As NBC Universal gets ready for its Comcastic voyage, make nice with your cable operator. When he comes to do the install, set out coffee and sandwiches for your cable guy. Admire him, admire his clothes. If this thing goes through, he may control more than you think.

Image credits: O'Brien: NBC via Hulu. NBC Universal logo: © 2009 NBC Universal. Roberts: AP Photo/Richard Drew. Howard Beale, "Network": © 1976 MGM. Conan's Comcast revival: From "The Tonight Show" video.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Proposed: The Holiday Unification Plan

The annual war with the wallet and the waistline is underway — you know, the one we battle with from Halloween to the merciful end of the year. Tired of standing in grocery line after line, week after week? Weary of the water-torture insistence of forced goodwill, week after week after week? Have you had enough?

A humble proposal: by common consent, we agree to merge all the year-end holiday observances into one. Rather than suffer the serial indignities of the costumed candied madness of Halloween, the baroque culinary engorgements of Thanksgiving, the ruthless merchandising of Christmas and the inebriate  excesses of New Year’s Eve … a holiday unification plan. One week within the same month, collectively decided.

Look at this practically. Such a plan could mean less impact on the environment; without the current prolonged holiday season, shoppers would concentrate their holiday purchasing in a tighter time frame, meaning fewer cars crowding the highways between Thanksgiving and the week after Christmas (when the gift returns inevitably begin).

For travelers: Since the current holiday season for travel runs from just before Thanksgiving until just after Christmas, airlines and common carriers like Amtrak face crushing increases in travelers for at least a month. Replacing that with a more sharply defined period on the calendar means that long period of increased demand on services is replaced with a shorter one. The same impact those carriers now experience dragged out over a month is focused on a single week — much easier for airport general managers and Amtrak schedulers to negotiate.

For retailers, the uncertainty of a protracted holiday shopping season would be replaced with a tighter time frame for seasonal purchases — more in-store and online sales in less time, and a faster and more immediate shot in the arm for those year-end balance sheets.

Rather than scattering closures over the weeks between late October and the end of December, other businesses would have one week to close at one set time in the season; the additional days of operation for those businesses, fully staffed more of the time, would mean enhanced revenues for the last months of the year.

Such a plan clears the decks for more attention to be paid to seasonal holidays the majority culture otherwise ignores, like Hanukkah, Eid-al-Adha and Muharram.

And that’s to say nothing of the wear and tear on the mind that builds up this time of year. The prolonged holiday season takes perhaps its biggest toll on the psyche, plays on our sense of well-being and satisfaction. A shorter, more concentrated holiday season would make that emotional burden more bearable (or at least more chronologically definable).

◊ ◊ ◊

The biggest challenge to making this happen might be the cultural resistance, but in many ways our society is moving in that direction already. We’ve long been accustomed to the combinational experience.

In various commercial aspects of the culture from candy (“Certs: It’s two, two, two mints in one!”) to household products (“detergent and fabric softener in one”), from prescription medications (combination therapy is commonly used to treat depression, diabetes, HIV and hypertension) to over-the-counter drugs (aspirin or multivitamins twinned with cholesterol-fighting phytosterols) to automobiles (witness the rise of the hybrid vehicle), this is something our culture’s been getting its head around for a long time.

A holiday unification plan is the next step to where we’re going already.

◊ ◊ ◊

There might be a few complications. What could we call it? Bacchanal Time? Days of Jubilee? The Great Throwdown? We’re a pluralistic society, we’ll come up with something.

Get online. Send e-mails to your friends and your representative. Let’s get behind this thing, for the greater good. One holiday period, indivisible, with liberty and justice.

In one.

Image credits: Holiday shoppers: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster. Eid stamp: Via infoplease.com. Bayer aspirin: Via amazon.com.
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