Wednesday, December 17, 2014

1423 Data that Crunches You (or Crunch You)

Face it.  You really are only a number.  And you’re so insignificant a number that you don’t even appear in the galaxy of numbers unless you’re in a group of other insignificant numbers.

Harsh words.  Especially in an age where everyone is studying those little molecules we’ve become, but not as actual molecules.  We are stuffed into an entire fictitious organism, devoid of any specialized characteristics.  Odd template for an age in which “individuality” is so revered.

Used to be you were a real number or many real numbers.  Street address, ZIP code, area code, telephone, Social Security, credit cards, library cards, drivers license, license plate, VIN, draft, rank, membership, health insurance, checkbook, savings account, turn at the deli or bakery, birthday.

All of these numbers had one thing in common:  they all applied to you in some specific way and there were reasons to have them.

Now, you’ve been thrown into a group.  And the data don’t apply to you.  They just describe you and supposedly similar people for marketing purposes.

When you first bought things, you were a customer. Then you became a consumer.  But you were still you.  Now you’re just part of a herd, and it’s the herd to which people pay attention.

It’s not really you whom they attend.  It’s a kind of fake you.  A recent broadcast on CBS’ "60 Minutes" showed what can happen when health insurance works with numbers instead of people.  You can save a lot of time by not clicking on the link... here’s a summary: Doctors at health insurers look at numbers and make payment decisions, often bad ones, by looking at statistics instead of patients.

So does everyone else.

This is leading or has led to a niche-ification of pretty much everything.  Statistics abound.  And in our math- weary, math-phobic society, everyone seems to believe anything that’s wrapped in arithmetic.  After all, numbers can’t lie, can they?

Well, yes. They can.

They can pseudo-prove that all old people are hard to part from their money. (Sometimes true, sometimes not.)

They can pseudo-prove that a certain age group is or isn’t enthralled with a music of a certain era.

They can pseudo-prove that camel riding is efficient transportation.  Or isn’t.

Haven’t you wondered why there’s so much data collection these days?  It’s because people are trying to justify or cover up stupid decisions.

Or maybe the collectors are just nosy.


Grapeshot:

-Question for CBS’ Scott Pelley: You have been elected president of the Slow Talkers of America, founded by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding... should we send the certificate to your home or to your office?

-Question for Bloomberg’s Matt Winkler: Since your new title, Editor-in-Chief-Emeritus is an acronym, EICE, would you rather be called “Ice” or “Eeky?”

-Question for New York Magazine: Can you really state with a straight face that you believed the evidence Muhammad Islam, 17, gave you to “prove” he made $72 million in the stock market, which he didn’t?

-Question for Tim Cook: are you shocked that no Apple product made Google’s top ten list of searches for 2014, and what are you going to do about it?

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

1422 You're Nobody 'til Somebody Hacks You

Let’s face it: you’re not Sony.  You’re not Target. You’re not Home Despot.   

While identity theft is rampant, major hackings go only to the majors.  

The only exception is the NSA which knows which side of the bed you sleep on and your blood pressure, but won’t sell or publish your social security or bank account numbers unless it’s in a bad mood.

No, the true malice is reserved for the mighty.  Usually, it’s a collective mighty.  Like Sony or Target or Home Despot. Or some gigunda bank.

But there is a sense of status about a hack.  You ARE someone.

Do we really care about the email exchanges at Sony? Nah. It’s just gossip.  We love to peek.  And the hacking helped us.  

The retail hackers are more significant because of the potential harm they can do to customers.  And being part of a hacked group is trouble, not status.

If you’d like to join the upper ranks of the hacked, just announce that you’ve become a victim of some vicious nerd in Bulgaria or Belarus or Beijing.

Offshore hacks are far more exotic sounding than a vicious nerd operating out of an attic in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

But if it’s status you want, self hacking is the way to go.   Copy and paste a love email on Facebook.  Then claim that someone has stolen both your email and your facebook accounts.

We love to know about extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people, good and bad:  the in-flight birth of a baby… a rapper who hires a hit man to shoot at him because it’s street cred… a lone sailor lost at sea who makes a radio antenna out of a coathanger and is thereby found and then rescued.  And hacking -- real or fake -- still is an extraordinary event.

So self-hack away.  But don’t make it too outrageous or no one will believe your lie.  Tell your Facebook friends you lost some of -- but not all of -- your life savings.  Be credible:  say someone stole your identity and maxed out your MasterCard.  Then, max out your MasterCard.

Post a Youtube video telling your tale of woe.  Chances are it’ll go viral.  Everything “goes viral” and you’ll be a star.  Like Ebola, only probably less deadly.

In our celebrity crazed culture, everyone wants to be famous.  Well, here’s your chance.

But you’d better act fast.  Others who hadn’t thought of this path to stardom will be nipping at your heels.

Grapeshot:

--Question for Jeff Bezos: When Amazon doesn’t make a profit, which is pretty much all the time, how did you get so rich?

--Question for Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton, Lush Rimbaugh and Ted Cruz: Would you please step out of the limelight?
--Question for the entire cast of “Shark Tank:” Will you give us advance notice when all of you jump into a real one?

--Question for Aaron Sorkin: Why do all of your characters have to speak like Paddy Chayefsky-esque college professors?

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
Will someone please talk to Google about allowing macros in “Drive?”
© WJR 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

1421 The Bloomberg Omelette

This will be a little “inside baseball.”  But there’s a moral at the end that might be of value even if you don’t care a whit about former NY mayor Mike Bloomberg or his terminals or his news operation.


Bloomberg is making big changes at his company:  out with the old, in with the new.


For those of us long in the service of Bloomberg News, this is an old story, but with bigger than usual players.


And those outside the company are trying to read the tea leaves.  Forget about it.  There are no tea leaves.  The Maximum Chef is breaking eggs and trying a new recipe for an omelette.  He doesn’t know what it’ll look or taste like when it’s out of the pan and neither does anyone else.


Back when Mike was mayor, rumors spread that the company would buy “Business Week” magazine.  When reporters asked editor-in-chief Matt Winkler to comment, he said “we’re builders, not buyers.”


An eyeblink later, Bloomberg bought the magazine.  


That was a tea leaf, and some of us read it correctly, it turns out.


Now Winkler, who built the news operation from people watching pork belly and uranium trades to a giant of journalism is on his way upstairs. This after establishing a monolith with than 2,000 workers in150 bureaus.  The New York Times has about 50.


But the media world has changed around Winkler, and so has the company.  So now, he’s going to be “editor-in-chief emeritus,” whatever that is, and gets to hang out with Mike at the uber posh headquarters on Lexington Avenue and … and … do what?


The two men are close.  But Mike breaks eggs. It’s worked for him in the long run.


And there wasn’t a lot of mourning when the personnel change was announced.  Matt has the kind of personality that might have moved Gandhi to throw a punch.


That, too, has worked to the company’s advantage. Niccolo Machiavelli teaches us that it is more effective for a ruler to be feared than loved.


Matt’s stylebook, “The Bloomberg Way,” is the journalistic equivalent of a straightjacket.  But for an organization of the company’s size, it too works.  It’s thick, but in substance it’s little more than an annotated template.


Cranky executives never seemed to bother Mike. In fact, he embraced them.  So maybe it wasn’t Matt’s personality that got him kicked upstairs.  


Dedication never bothered Mike.  Matt never slept. Ever. No matter the time of day or the day of the week; no matter the location of his physical form, he was lurking.


Meantime, the data monolith marches on, carrying the news division on its shoulders.  Twenty grand a month per terminal, with 350,000 of them or so said to be in service:  that’s enough to run the news division the old fashioned way, as a public service.


So a big, look-to-the future wave is swamping all aspects of the company now that the Chef is out of city hall and back in the kitchen.


But there are no tea leaves; no tarot cards.  What you see happening is the omelette under construction, subject to regular tweaks of the recipe, some of them self-cancelling.


What you’re seeing is Mike being Mike.


I promised you a moral at the end: don’t try to second guess this guy or anyone like him.


Shrapnel:


--12/12/14… To Ed Koch:  Happy 90th, old friend. Sorry you had to go. Wish you were here.


I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

1420 Montego Pete

Montego Pete came over from Jamaica after making a few bucks and he smiles, though he's a little hazy when he tells you how it happened.  But now he's in another Jamaica, the one in Queens and he's running a newsstand, living the American Dream.

There are thousands of newsstands in the City of New York and Pete, which is not his name, is running the only one of its kind.

He took those few bucks and borrowed a few more from either the local shark or maybe it was Citibank or maybe they're the same (he gets hazy about that, too, but always with a big smile,) and built this thing.

He's got coffee for the commuters.  He's got Caribbean magazines and newspapers for the back-home crowd, and he's got all the papers.  The Times, the Journal, The News, Il Progresso, The Forward, The Post, The Amsterdam News,  Newsday.  He gets the Jamaica Gleaner and the Sunday something or other, maybe a week late.

And he's got all the Magazines such as they are left of them:  Newsweek, Time, The Star, In Touch. And then there's Montego Pete's specialty, the trade journals.

You need The Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology?  You need Colorado Geology Digest?  You need The Aristotelian Review?  Montego Pete's got 'em.

"You know, people are always getting studies from these magazines second or third hand," he says.  "There are studies of Nevuses in Dermatology Today and you can only get them quoted in the papers.  You get 'em filtered through some reporter's reading. I want to give people the real deal."

So Montego Pete is the go-to guy for Cosmology Quarterly, which is the only place you can read Hawking's latest theory on Black Holes, Dark Energy and Anti-matter.  CQ is right there on the shelf next to GQ, Esquire and Cosmo.

"I don't sell a lot of this stuff," Pete says, "But it builds trust, and customer traffic.  And I get to meet a lot of dermatologists, cosmologists and  pediatric endocrinologists.  Also coal miners."

There are no working coal mines in Jamaica, Queens.  In fact, there are no coal mines anywhere in southeastern New York.  But they come anyway, because Pete's is the only place outside West Virginia and Kentucky you can buy Anthracite Today, which is the leading coal geology magazine.

"The public has a right to know," he says, "and they don't want to get their information second hand, like when the Wall Street Journal quotes a study of feet from Cobbler's Digest, which you can usually only get in Brazil and Italy, though there's soon going to be an Indonesian edition in English."

I ask him if he carries Genetically Altered Food Grower's Week.  He says he did, but the Sutphin Boulevard Ecology Club picketed him and that was bad for business.

"They made me sell fair trade coffee, and I accepted that.  But they drew the line at Genetically Altered Food Grower's Week."

I ask him if fair trade coffee is a monthly or a weekly.

"It's just coffee," he says.  They don't have their own magazine yet.  I'm thinking of starting one for them.

And always with that smile.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

Note to readers: While constructing the annual WestraDamus feature, the Wessays™ staff voted to rerun an occasional earlier item in this space.  This one is from late 2007 and has been updated to eliminate some dead magazines.)

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them.
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014, 2007

Monday, December 08, 2014

1419 The Search Engine at Home

From Oldwaiter.com, a look at what internet search engines talk about while you’re not using them.

Search engine Oldwaiter.com:  you should hear the questions they ask me.  One person wanted to know where he could find information on violin lessons.  I told him a thing or two.  Tried to get him to switch to cellos, but no.  Screech on!  Imagine, a Jewish guy who wants to play the VIOLIN!
Mrs. Waiter, who is Rhoda:  Nu, so what’s the matter with violins?  Look at Yehudi.  THERE was a VIOLINIST.  And all those little Asian boys and girls with violins!  If they can do it, WE can do it.   Instead you want to have them all be like Yo Yo Ma?  Who names a kid “Yo Yo?”
OW:  Now, wait Rhoda, they can play what they like, all of them, and I don’t care, I just look up the things.  But I can’t let them just go off in every direction.  They have to have a little guidance.  That’s why they come to ME, and not to the other guys, like Alta Vista.
R:  “Alta Vista?”  That’s Italian, right?  Do they nose into somebody else’s business?  No.  So why should you?  If they want violins, give them VIOLINS.
OW:  So, what’s for dinner?
R:  That’s all you can think of when you get home?  Tonight we’re supposed to go to the Bernsteins’ and I’m not dressed yet.
OW:  Oh, Rhoda, I’m too tired to go anywhere, can’t we just have a little something here? Or maybe some Chinese takeout?
R:  If I were one of your question askers, you’d let me go to the Bernsteins’.  “Search for Bernsteins’”  “Answer:  A nice couple down the block.  He has a real job.  He’s a plumber.  What do you do?  Sit around all day and answer questions about everything.  You’re all of a sudden a Professor?  You with your fancy mail order degree?”
OW:  You’re making fun of my job again?  So who found you that nice fur?  Who found you that nice stereo?  Who gets you all those books?   Who figured out how to get cheap car insurance?
R:  You’re just the best search engine in the world.  Bernstein is taking his wife on a cruise.  Do we get a vacation?  No.  We get 50 thousand travel agent websites and six auctions.  Is that a BEER you’re holding?
OW:  It’s not just a beer.  It’s a new LichtenBergen Light, which I found while doing a web search for exotic beers for a customer last week.
R:  Lichten-what?  It sounds GERMAN.  YOU are drinking a German beer?
OW:  Not yet.  I have to open it first.  Then we’ll go to the Bernstein’s.
R:  A German beer, yet.  What I have to do to get this guy out once every six months!

Shrapnel:

--Pearl Harbor Day, yesterday, and we remember the sacrifices men and women made as we entered World War II.  Those were different times.  They were times we were all Americans and under attack on American soil, and we responded appropriately and as one, with great skill and energy, unlike now.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Friday, December 05, 2014

1418 Choke Hold Justice

The cops’ lament: “If I did that, I’d be pounding a beat in Staten Island.”  

The Superior Officer version: “Keep it up, Bozo, and you’ll be pounding a beat in Staten Island.”

Never was much of an assignment. Still isn’t.

Does the white cop’s killing of a 350-400 pound asthmatic black man by using the departmentally banned choke hold rise to the level of the Ferguson shooting death? Or is it even worse?  Doesn’t matter.  Each is bad enough.

After three months of testimony, a grand jury elected Wednesday not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo who has something of a history of not being indicted in lesser but similar cases.

Eric Garner, 43,  was accused of selling single untaxed cigarettes --  they call them loosies on the street -- at a Staten Island corner.  Others say he was breaking up a fight.  Garner is forever unavailable for comment.

Here’s the video .

So, how long before the character assassinations begin?  Was Garner really a “gentle giant” and neighborhood peacemaker who was selling loosies to people who can’t afford to pay retail at New York’s outrageous $12 to $14 a pack? A Pack?!  The city tax is higher than the cost of cigarettes.

But the penalty for unauthorized untaxed sales at street level usually is a fine, not death.

There are demonstrations from coast to coast and there will be more.  So far it doesn’t look like anyone’s looting or burning.  Probably by the time it all ends, there will be a few new unpaid for TV sets and iPods and maybe some canned goods in a few homes.

But New York, Los Angeles and Seattle are not some no-horse town in the Low IQ belt.

Here, we find demonstrations from the Brooklyn Bridge and Staten Island to midtown at the Rock Center Christmas tree lighting and Grand Central to the West Side Highway and up to Harlem.

As well we should.

The mayor, with a multi-racial family, gets up and speaks with great passion and love, but without condemning the grand jury action.

Huckster Al Sharpton seems legit for ten minutes.

Attorney General Holder announces a federal civil rights investigation.

Wrongful death lawyers gather, salivating.

And the defense?  If Garner had been shot dead, the officer’s would be “I was just cleaning the gun and it went off.” or “I didn’t know it was loaded.”

But there was no gun.  So the defense becomes “I meant him no harm.”  Say what?  One guy, piled on by a bunch of cops one of whom has him in a choke hold?  For selling cigarettes on a street corner?

If he even was doing that.

There’s strong evidence the cops in the incident and Garner knew each other.  If so, the police knew they could have talked down the situation instead of piling on.

You -- whoever you are, wherever you are -- could have talked things down.

The choke hold around the neck of justice.

Shrapnel:

--Note to squeegee men: if Garner’s offense was the kind of crime Bratton’s NYPD is focused on as it was in the Giuliani days, take a few weeks off.  Same goes for you, turnstile jumpers.  And jaywalkers.

--RIP Herman Badillo who has died of congestive heart failure at age 85.  He was the first Puerto Rican- born member of congress among much else.  But he never managed to realize his dream: becoming Mayor.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2014

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

1417 Public Broadcasting

PBS’s latest annoying begathon is underway.  That gives stations the excuse they need to justify the “public” in their names.

People who don’t belong on TV go on camera to plead with you for money because they fear all their corporate underwriters may soon be under water.

Usually these endless pleading sessions are led by heart-on-the-sleeve locals who recently graduated from sincerity school.  And their pitches are surrounded by “special” programs “you can’t see anywhere else.”  

There are reasons you can’t see them anywhere else. How many times can you watch a Victor Borge routine or a lecture from a college psych professor who believes all the world’s problems can be solved with hugs?

They must have realized that dead comedians hugging lessons and washed up faux folk music trios no longer bring in the big bucks.

So they’re interrupting regular programming with their information- free infomercials.  “We’ll be back with more of the Antiques Road Show after a few words from your neighbor Godzilla McNamara-Avocado.  (There’s a quota -- and bonus points at PBS and NPR for people with hyphenated names.)

You can practically hear the viewers saying “Oh goodie!  I’ll just dial in and contribute.  And I can’t wait to get my gluten-free Channel 13 tote bag so I can show off my intellectuality at Whole Foods.”

Try ShopRite.  Everyone at Whole Foods has a gluten-free Channel 13 tote bag.

“A Blu Ray collection of Downton Abbey?  Where do I sign up?”

“Gwen Ifill is the best writer on television.  But I can read her excellent blogs on the PBS website.  So until they get back to a real program, let’s switch over to HLN and watch the next five “back to back” episodes of “Forensic Files” even though they haven’t made a new one in ages, and we’ve seen most if not all of the 750 old ones.”

The “contributor credits” have expanded to full length (but oh, so intelligently framed) commercials.  But sometimes you have to wonder about where those sponsors got their money.

The William T. Grant Foundation:  funny they have a lot of bucks even though Grant’s low-pay, mid-price  variety stores shut down in 1976, in what was then the largest bankruptcy in US history.

The Knight Foundation:  Knight-Ridder had some really good newspapers.  But its focus drifted into financial paper shuffling and KR was held hostage by institutional investors who wanted out and forced the sale of the company.

PBS could take a hint from Madison Avenue and its customers by publicly answering the question “what kind of return are we getting on our investment in Godzilla McNamara-Avocado’s dreary appearances?”

Grapeshot:

-Gwen Ifill really IS the best writer currently working in national television and you really CAN read her posts on the NewsHour website.

-”Forensic Files” narrator Peter Thomas, known for his near-tears style of announcing, is 90 years old and still working.

Shrapnel:

--The 2015 edition of  WestraDamus.com is under construction.  Your non-prophet is open to suggestions for inclusions.  Please respond to the email address below.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com

© WJR 2014