Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Baby, Bathwater and now the tub...TWIT changes continue

Watching today's TNT episode with new lead, Mike Elgan, at the helm it became obvious that changes at TWIT aren't quite done yet.

With Iyaz Akhtar's sudden departure for CNET last week, only Sarah Lane and Jason Howell of the Merritt era crew remain.

Leo Laporte attempted to soften the blow by heading up the New Years Eve episode of TNT alongside new TNT boss Mike Elgan.  Watching the episode one  thing became clear.  Where Tom Merritt was about collaboration,  Mike Elgan is all about a certain way of doing things...that being,.his way.

Politlely deflecting commentary to the contrary it was obvious that the edict has gone out.  My way or the highway will likely be the order of the day.

The strange thing was, that his delivery was about as interesting as a wet dish rag .  A more passive and submissive tone seems to surface around Laporte's bravado.  His stage presence lacked charisma and at times it seems he'd be more suited to stamping driver's licenses at a DMV window. In short a newsman but not an anchor.

What we do know is that Elgan is a willing tool of Laporte to push his grand plans of recreating TNT as the CNN of tech with a focus on "breaking news"   As such there wasn't anything new there.  It's a mantra that Laporte has droned so many times in the month since the announcement of Tom Merritt's departure.

With a playful yet overt dig at Sarah Lane for breaking into tears during Tom Merritt's last address to TNT fans yesterday (Dec. 30), it was obvious that Laporte was desperately trying to move away from the topic of Merritt's departure.

Soon after came Laporte and Elgan's gentle but obvious chorus of what they thought TNT wasn't doing well enough.

After which the first hints at tension began showing through the cracks when Lane rose to the defense of TNT's previous work.  After Elgan commented that he wanted TNT to be more "global" and didn't want to just be "reporting American tech news for Americans." Lane instantly responded with, " I don't think TNT was ever doing that!".  Elgan's response, "Right"

Apparently, award winning or not, TNT wasn't living up to Leo's expectations under Merritt's rule.
It's obvious that the remaining hosts (Sarah and Jason Howell) will not have as prominent a role as they did under Merritt and it's likely a reason Iyaz Akhtar chose to make such a curiously timed exit from the show.

It makes sense, TWIT has literally thrown the baby out with the bathwater and will have to move fast to fill the vacuum.  That means nothing of the Merritt era at TWIT can remain if they don't want to be constantly hampered by his ghost.  The painful part is to see the significant contributions of TNT crew past and present be devalued for the sake of a whim AKA: breaking tech news.

In the end don't be surprised to see Mike Elgan sitting with a completely different TNT cast by this time next year. Whether that's a good or bad thing is dependent on whether or not you can accept the changes Elgan brings to TNT.

I know what I think but make up your own mind.  The episode in question is provided below... Advance to 36:21 for Elgan's commmentary on the old TNT.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Has TWIT finally thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

I'm not sure what's going on at Leo Laporte's TWIT network but it seems change is in the air again.  This time, however, it seems it's more than a minor schedule shakeup. 

2013 has seen a number of changes at TWIT the most obvious of which is Laporte's handoff of hosting duties on shows including "Know How" and the relatively new "This Week in YouTube" and next year "The Giz Wiz."  The year has also seen an increasing presence of Father Robert Ballecer hosting the new "This Week in Enterprise Tech" as well as co-hosting "Know How" with Iyaz Akhtar.  (Update: Akhtar has since left TWIT for CNET)

Another new arrival, Chad Johnson, originally showed up as a board operator for the ill fated "Game on!" and has been slowly groomed for host and producer duties over the past year.  He now produces "This Week in Tech" and hosts "OMGcraft" as well as co-hosting "This Week in YouTube" with Lamarr Wilson. (Update: The show has been put on hiatus) Johnson will be picking up hosting duties for "The Giz Wiz" alongside Dick DeBartolo.

Laporte has long said he wants the network to be less reliant on his star power but in the process it seems the programming has been in a constant state of upheaval because of it. 

That's somewhat understandable.  After all, a broadcaster devoted to technology subjects has to stay as nimble as the newsmakers they cover.  Change is part of the DNA but lately it seems to be a self-serving entity at TWIT.

It all makes me wonder if the whole exercise has TWIT throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Of course I'm talking about the imminent departure of one of the few hosts on TWIT capable of shepherding the network toward Laporte's vision of a self sustaining entity without his presence.

Tom Merritt will be leaving the TWIT network at the end of the year.  With him goes the popular show "Framerate" he co-hosts with former "Game On!" and "NSFW" host Brian Brushwood. 

Merritt, the host and creator of the popular and award winning "Tech News Today" who was once referred to as "Leo 2" is by far the most professional and popular of any of the personalities on the network.  Unfortunately, the writing was likely already on the wall over a year earlier.  I'll get to why I say that in a minute...

On a posting on the "Inside TWIT" blog Laporte wrote,

 "After some soul searching, I've decided that we do need an in-studio anchor for Tech News Today, and a News Director who can help us build the kind of organization you can count on for authoritative tech news and information."

At the beginning of 2013 Merritt was forced to move to Los Angeles when his wife and former producer of the "This Week in Tech" podcast accepted a position with Google.  That change dictated Merritt's appearances on TWIT be "phoned in" instead of in studio.

Laporte has often said that he prefers in-studio hosts and his investment in a million dollar production facility supports that.  Still, in the new media, location should have little to do with the quality of the content.  It would seem on this point, Laporte has conflicting visions.

More than half of TWIT shows rely on hosts connecting in via Skype but Merritt's former status of TWIT heir apparent became diminished by it.  As early as June 2012 Merritt became less of a fixture with Laporte when Laporte began solo hosting of "Triangulation" saying that the "Tri" in triangulation was the guest, Leo and the chat room.

Around the same time "Fourcast," Tom Merritt and Scott Johnson's (frogpants.com) quirky techno-clairvoyance hour, found itself cancelled.  Although both hosts claimed declining viewership (a death knell to any TWIT show) the timing seemed less than coincidental.

The changes were subtle but there was no doubt that either Laporte or Merritt (or both) began distancing themselves from the other as Merritt's move to Los Angeles grew closer.  As they say, long distance relationships rarely work out and 400 miles is a pretty long distance.  As TWIT heir apparent it would be unacceptable for Merritt to oversee daily operations with only skype and a dropcam to survey the minions.

Fast forward to the present...

With the now imminent departure of Merritt the question of who would fill the void needed an answer.  It came with a second posting on the Inside TWIT blog,

"We are pleased to announce that Silicon Valley technology journalist Mike Elgan has joined TWiT as our News Director and the Lead Anchor of our daily news netcast, Tech News Today (starting January 2, 2014).

His hiring is part of a planned 2014 transformation and expansion of TWiT’s News Division, which includes our Breaking News coverage, as well as the launch of our new evening news show Tech News 2Night on January 13, 2014."

Elgan is a frequent guest pundit on Laporte's "This Week In Tech" podcast as well as other shows such as "MacBreak Weekly."  While his news credentials surpass those of the TWIT staff, his previous appearances on TWIT have projected anything but an affable presence.   

A no-nonsense and sometimes abrasive personality that seems to run counter to TWIT's culture.  He often exhibits a dismissive tone to those that he disagrees with.  As a news director those characteristics may serve him well but as a host?

The premise of expanding the news component of TWIT is also questionable.  Considering the bulk of tech news found around the Internet is comprised largely of editorials scraped from other outlets and fluff riddled press releases written by marketing departments, it seems an exercise in redundancy to have even more of the same on a daily basis. 

Many of the more targeted tech shows on TWIT already include topical news on their subject, the addition of a tertiary presentation seems unnecessary.

Unless Elgan's expanded news department will field journalists collecting actual news instead of just hipster personalities parroting information his selection seems like overkill. 

It wouldn't be surprising to see the departure of other popular TWIT personalities over the next year as a result of the change.  Elgan is a hard news man, most TWIT hosts are not. (Update:Akhtar left TNT and TWIT)

Merritt is a popular personality outside of the TWIT arena and it's likely his future pursuits will be fruitful if the outpouring of support from his fans is any indication.  Many of which vow to abandon TWIT precisely because he won't be there.

Fans of Leo, Tom or any other of the TWIT hosts know full well that the information provided can be obtained in triplicate from multitudes of sources.  People chose to be informed by those they feel most comfortable with.  The news may be the same all over but a Fox news viewer won't easily switch to getting his content from MSNBC. 

It's far less certain what the future holds for TWIT with such radical changes.  Keeping a very fickle online audience engaged in your content is difficult enough under the best of circumstances.  Alienate them at your own peril.

History is peppered with brilliant concepts ultimately brought to fruition by someone other than their creators.  It's the reason why most company founders rarely hold the reigns after their company goes public.  Innovators are all about advancing the concept but not necessarily the best candidates to handle the execution.

Now that the prototype has been created, perhaps it's time for someone other than TWIT to bring the dream to reality.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Products aren't revolutionary, get it straight!

The term "revolutionary" is overused.  Changing your form of government from a monarchy to a representative Democracy is revolutionary.  Browsing the Internet from your tablet instead of your PC is not. 

Revolutions are about upheaval not convenience.  Changing your method doesn't change the context.   The core of the word "revolution" is "revolt."  "Evolution" is just another form of "evolve." 

Simply put, revolution and evolution are not interchangeable terms regardless of anything you see in a Microsoft or Apple advertisement.  When you buy an IPAD you're not revolting against anything, not even Microsoft. 

There's nothing wrong with evolving, it's the reason we aren't still beating our clothes on rocks or retiring to a little wooden shack with a moon carved in the door when nature calls. 

Yet the word "revolutionary" gets thrown around quite a bit.  Maybe that's because the so-called developed world has long since moved on from debates over social justice to be replaced by the most popular color of Iphone. 

Perhaps the misuse of the term stems from our fascination with technological doo-dads.  They need do nothing more than change their shape or offer a bigger screen to suddenly find themselves on par with a certain conflict in 1776.

It's more than a question of semantics, it's a potentially dangerous devaluing of the term.  If a regime change is on par with the latest "product" we become desensitized to both.  That's fine for the crap found on late night infomercials but not for events that potentially affect the human condition. 

I'm probably screaming into the wind but it seems obvious that the more we muddy the meaning of what we say the less value our words have. 

Think about that the next time you're browsing the wares at your local best buy or Amazon.com.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reposessing your car at gunpoint?

Late on your car payment?  In Arizona you could be a felon.

In a step backward to the days of the debtor's prison you can now be charged with a felony should you be 90 days late on a car payment.  It comes in the guise of an Arizona Revised Statute called 13-1813 and it's being used by greedy finance companies and fly by night used car dealers  to make law enforcement their pro-bono repo men. 

Here's an excerpt:

 13-1813. Unlawful failure to return a motor vehicle subject to a security interest; notice; classification

A. A person commits unlawful failure to return a motor vehicle subject to a security interest if all of the following apply:

1. The person fails to make a payment on the lien for more than ninety days.

2. The secured creditor notifies the owner in writing, by certified mail return receipt requested, that the owner is ninety days late in making a payment and is in default.

The notice shall include the following:
(a) A statement stating:

"You are now in default on loan agreement #______________. If you fail to return the _____________________ (year of vehicle, make, model) within thirty days you will be subject to 
criminal prosecution."

I highlighted the word "criminal" to emphasize a point.  You could potentially get pulled over by your friendly neighborhood police officer and get treated like Osama Bin Laden just for being  late on your car payment.  From that point you get arrested, hauled into court and lose your car.

Why?  Because it's a criminal statute and the only thing that comes up when the cop runs your plate is one word, "Stolen " 

That's right soccer mom, you and the kids are going to the hoosegow if the prosecutor decides to take up the case.  (Luckily, most of them think it's a stupid law too and don't bother)

Upstanding car dealerships and finance companies (and I use the term "Upstanding" loosely) have expressed support for the law...

 "Do I think that a person should be held accountable and prosecuted the same way a shoplifter would?  Yeah, I do, I don't see anything wrong with it.. ... Theft is theft."  David Kaufman, Phoenix Corvette Center  (  BTW, A business with 2 unanswered complaints on rip-off report and no accreditation from the BBB)

The law was proposed by the former Arizona Speaker of the House Jim Weiers who  himself owns BHFC financial services, a small car finance company.  Weiers sees no personal conflict in shepherding the law through the state legislature or the benefit it affords him...

"If you pass legislation that lowers taxes, you personally would beneift..." Jim Weiers in a written statement to KPHO TV 5 in Phoenix.

The average car repossession costs $400 but by abusing the statute a fly by night used car dealer can get the taxpayers to do his dirty work for free.  

The real problem goes far beyond using law enforcement as armed repo-men, however.  It's another indication of how government has become increasingly intertwined with the private sector.  Serving a summons in a legal proceeding is one thing but turning cops into gun toting debt collectors is quite another.

If you're incensed by the government bailout of the big banks then you should be equally outraged over this.  Regardless of your view on government regulation of the private sector there's a line that gets crossed when it directly participates in it.

If government should leave the private sector to its own devices then neither should it function as their tool.

In this case, we're talking about missing a few car payments not embezzling from orphans.  It seems in Arizona, however, they're one in the same.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Taxing Commute

I like technology but like anything else if it comes without an opposable thumb it has no morality.  It's far too easy to overlook a nefarious motive when it comes with a purported benefit.

Have you ever noticed when governments have money problems it's suddenly time for all of us to "tighten our belts?" 

The latest round of whining comes as state governments are coming up short in highway funds from declining fuel taxes thus making them desperate to recapture that lost revenue.  Seems all those admonitions about driving more fuel efficient cars and spending less on "frivolous" purchases like food and shelter have finally backfired.

Capitalism, at least theoretically, is about buyers and sellers.  Offer something somebody wants and you can make a living selling it.  If a lot of people want it you've got room to make a tidy little profit and even kick a bit back to the public coffers to fix all those potholes.  It's seems only fair to give a little back for the  greater good. 

No harm in that but that's not the way it works these days.  While Joe Public is watching his wages fall and prices rise he's got less to contribute to the engines of the economy.  He can't afford the better house or the new car or the family vacation.

Too bad for him, some would say.  In reality it's too bad for everyone.  When nobody is able to buy anything nobody's able to pay taxes for the things we all rely on.  Government revenue shrinks making it harder to meet public obligations. 

Ok, so nothing's free and we all need to pay our share if we want to have nice things right? 

But we still see big oil  enjoying billions in tax breaks claiming the loss of them would be catastrophic to the economy.  They never say "whose" economy, just that layoffs would result.  Of course that would be just fine for them since financial markets always reward "rightsizing."  Put 100,000 people out of work and watch your share price go up 20%.  Blaming public policy for it is just a benefit.

Corporations enjoy tax loopholes big enough to drive a truck through all the while moving ever closer to "personhood" with few of the responsibilities of the label.  Increasingly money=speech and the fatter your wallet the more of the government's ear you get.

So what do you think is going to happen when somebody comes up with a scheme to fleece taxpayers more for doing something they already do every day. 

There's a new movement amongst state governments to try to make up for all those lost highway taxes caused by fewer fuel taxes coming in.  That's right you Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf owners! You're destroying the economy!

It seems they seek to start monitoring your driving habits and tax you based on them.  All you have to do is just allow them (state governments) to put a little black box in your car about the size of a cell phone.  It's able to record  the number of miles traveled and (potentially) everywhere you went among other things. 
I'll dispense with the privacy argument, it's been a fallacy since the dawn of the Patriot Act. 

We've accepted that our communications are monitored, our speech diminished and our civil liberties curtailed in the name of security.  After all, every great civilization leveraged fear to keep the masses in line.  Rome used armies and the Church used eternal damnation.  Government always finds a bugaboo to prop up. 

But we're not looking for terrorists in your Kia here, we're talking about yet another way to squeeze even more money out of you.  The program supposedly rewards drivers with a lower tax bill if they drive less but states are counting on more not less revenue.  That means the entire premise is  based on punishing drivers for something they have little control over, their commute.  Forget picking up the kids from soccer practice in the minivan, best get them a bus pass!

Now your every move is about to be fair game to be judged for the sake of refilling public coffers .  Let's not forget why those coffers are running dry, however.  A capitalist economy is dependent on people buying things.  When you're broke, you're not buying anything.  Almost everything you purchase has a tax so it follows that with buying down so are revenues.

It comes down to the "fair share" argument and there's a huge demographic that's paying far more than theirs and they're not living in mansions.  Schemes like taxing your driving habits violate not only civil liberties but continue to ignore the core problem. 

It's not the 40K per year cubicle dweller that's to blame.  After all, he did what he was told to do.  He drives a more fuel efficient car and accepts an ever increasing tax burden on everything from his wages to his food.  He can't participate in the economy because he's being subjugated by it. 
Rather it's huge corporate interests dodging their responsibilities, political graft and public projects woefully mismanaged.   In my state, for example,  it's common for public roadways to be built from state tax revenues and bonds instead of Federal funds. 

Rarely do any of these projects come in on budget or schedule and often when you look deeper you see why with millions in wasted public funds if not outright misappropriation.  It's an environment ripe for corruption which only makes the cry of diminished resources from state transportation departments that much more hollow.

All those fiercely independent states who eschew Federal highway funds likely do so to avoid the scrutiny of all of those "outsiders."  

There's 2 things that have become apparent to me as I've watched the population grow in my state.  The first is that it seems the Federally funded roads almost always get built on time and on budget while the state road projects can rarely make that claim. 

The second is that you can always count on there never being enough money for public projects so long as public policy keeps squeezing those who have the least to offer.
It's an economic catch 22.  A vicious cycle easily broken by correcting a lopsided fiscal construct but lacking in the political will to achieve it. 

Remember that change never happens overnight.  It's always a series of subtle events that often go unnoticed.  Paint poor public policy with the brush of patriotism or the public good and bad things will happen. 

Taxing Joe Public more for his commute while ignoring those who refuse to pay their fair share is bad public policy, period.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Breaking Bad: Felina

Heard the spoilers, saw the episodes yada yada.

Just occurred to me...

Apologize if this is already common knowledge but Vince Gilligan played a funny with the last episode of Breaking Bad....

Here it is.

The title is Felina....

Strange title until you realize that Felina is an anagram....


                       F E L I N A
                       F I N A L E

clever...very clever...

Friday, October 11, 2013

A troglodyte gets a Smartphone

I don't understand you people.  You stand there all day long scratching on your little 4 inch screens and think you're getting something done.  I just don't see the attraction.

Everything  evolves and I suppose I have to as well.  I work in technology and the way I used to do things just isn't possible anymore.  I've resisted the onslaught of the mobile revolution and for the most part I've found my convictions justified.  In short, mobile devices are about as intuitive as disarming a bomb.  One false move and everything blows up.

Here's an example of one such "intuitive" user interface.  On my phone if you dial a call and it connects the screen turns off.  This prevents the inadvertent "Butt dial" that could be caused if your face made contact with the screen during your conversation  That's fine except for those times when you really need that keypad  to be there.  Say, when you're deep into your voicemail setup or stuck in your bank's 34 levels of menu options where you just  must "press the # key." 

You have to press the power button and then fight the phone as it keeps trying to shut off the screen.  Does great things for my productivity.  Don't even get me started on the weird alien symbols that are  about as intuitive as a European road sign.

There's so much pain involved but I must persevere.  I knew this was coming and even borrowed a friend's deactivated Droid Bionic to get used to the way the interface works.  Unfortunately, the time spent didn't do much to prepare me for what was to follow. 

As i slowly navigated through my "pop" culture shock, questions swarmed my tiny Paleolithic brain...

 Where the hell are my apps?     What's the difference between an App and a Widget?   Is my phone really using Wi-Fi or am I going to get a $500 bill for data overages?  Why do I have to sign up for Gmail just to get an app to tell me if I'm going to get that $500 bill?        I agreed to what?           Why did my phone shut itself off?           Why do they call it a "Play" store if I'm not having any fun?


There was one point where I became so frustrated that I had to put the phone back in its little white box.  Otherwise it was going to end up in pieces on the floor after a sudden violent impact with a nearby wall.
I have a low tolerance for BS...

Now this isn't the first time I've been "Forced" to deal with a Smartphone.  I've had to work with every generation of Iphone and a few Android phones but never had to live with one or more to the point, pay for the consequences. 

None of them have ever proved to be as intuitive as the commercials make them out to be.  Is Apple easier to figure out than Android? Sure but that's not saying much.   That's like deciding whether to be burned at the stake or drowned. 

Maybe I'll get used to it but I've already figured out how to turn off the 4G radio for Internet functionality and removed a blinding array of apps whose only purpose appears to be to provide me that $500 data charge.  And no, I didn't customize my ringtone...

As for you mobile media mavens...

If you believe that you can have a full, rich visual experience with that tiny spec of screen real estate on your Smartphone you are undeniably insane. Sorry to break it to you but someone had to tell you before you started having conversations with the voices in your head.

Even with the supposedly "generous" 4.3 inch screen on my phone, reading web pages is painful, Watching videos is quite simply a disappointment.  Navigation is a joy (not) with my ample digits (fingers) and often an exercise in frustration.  Yes I know about gestures and pinches and all they do is make everything worse. 

Voice control  is just a band-aid.  Well, aside from the amusement  found in how badly it mangles the English language. Try saying your email address to Google Voice and see what you get, hilarious.

Well, at least I didn't pay much for this technological abomination.  I have a refurbished HTC EVO 4G from Ting that cost me just over $100 and all I want to do with it is make calls and occasionally use it as a hotspot when I'm on a client site with no Internet access.  That's it. 

I could care less about videos, apps, email or anything else.  I don't even browse the Internet on the phone because it's pointless for reasons I've already mentioned.  Even installing  apps, the core activity of any self-respecting phone geek,  is a chore.  Forget that tiny screen,  I just go to the Google Play store and set up the whole process from there.   At least that option is intuitive.  Too bad I had to go to a website on my PC to enjoy it.

On-screen keyboards?  Predictive or not they still, in a word..."suck."  Sorry folks,  I'm a touch typist so this whole culture of hunt and peck makes me wretch.    Let's not forget that I have fingers the size of hot dogs.

I was trained to control text without having to look at my fingers especially considering their unattractive aesthetics.

In short, I'll grudgingly use this thing the way I need to use it but it might as well be a Wi-Fi dongle with a keypad.   I'm amazed how gullible and accepting consumers are.  Confusing user interfaces, Horrible control surfaces and design about as intuitive as Rorschach test.

The marketing departments have won the war.  They've convinced consumers that counterintuitive is the new ergonomics.   

In short they're selling BS and like I said, I have a low tolerance for it.  That tech pundits call these devices "computers" is laughable.  A Smartphone isn't a computer, it's a device.  Using a Smartphone like a computer is like having to drive a car using two steering wheels and four brake pedals. 

Oh well, I have to go make sure my updates are using Wi-FI instead of 4G now....

Sunday, September 15, 2013

If technology is the tool, why am I the one getting used?

Technology's great isn't it. 

"There's an app for that" and increasingly there's hardware for it. too.  The next decade promises an explosion of technical doodads that will be able to do anything from having your favorite latte' ready when you wake to alerting you to failing health.

Ain't it grand.  Our entire lives, every need, every whim, every action collected, recorded, monitored and stored.  Today, a newborn baby can expect a record of everything they've ever done from cradle to grave.

How convenient, how secure, how exciting this gilded cage we're making for ourselves.  Until we found out about the antics of the NSA recently, the concept could be brushed off as the ramblings of a crank.  Regardless of the level of technical expertise governments may or may not have, the event shocked a technology addicted populace even if only for a moment.

For the next few months at least, anyone selling anything with the word "privacy" is sure to do well until the next shiny bauble comes along.

Short of an EMP pulse from space knocking us back to the 19th century, change never happens overnight.  It's gradual no matter how exponential Moore's law becomes.  Today it's a fingerprint reader on an Iphone or the convenience of storing your private data in the cloud.  Most people wouldn't give a second thought to what it really means to swap out an Android phone and find all their personal data and settings automatically downloaded to its replacement. 

It's just  cool because it's so convenient.  Never mind someone else has control of your stuff...

All you have to do is stress the utility of that new toy and privacy goes out the window.  That anyone who uses a  Smartphone expects the data on it to be private in the first place is laughable but they do. 

 You can choose not to participate but soon find yourself ostracized.  Socialization, personal economy and even careers increasingly demand you jump on the bandwagon.

Technology isn't a bad thing so long as it remains a tool but it seems we're moving toward an age where the tool is used against us.

Consider a world where your smartphone snitches to your health insurance company via its NFC payment capability while your car verifies your location via GPS.  There's no denying it, you got the supersized fries and your health premium is going up because of it.

Consider your car insurance company monitoring every mile and basing your premium on what they find out.  It's already happening with at least one major insurance carrier.

Maybe you get a discount for driving 5 miles under the speed limit and ordering the salad instead of the burger.  That makes it all ok, right?

It's the small changes in what is considered acceptable that gradually erode personal freedoms and liberties.  Consider that for your discounted premiums you've essentially subjected yourself to a set of values you may not share.  As it becomes a more accepted practice you become more powerless.

Companies are essentially demanding compliance from their customers.  What happened here?  Since when does a customer have to justify themselves to  the cashier?

It's simple really. 

You're a prisoner, worse, you pay dearly for the privilege while the whole time doggedly defending your right to treated as such.

Technology is seductive, slowly evolving our dependency to the point where it's inconceivable for most to live without it.  We're convinced we need it even if we don't.  We must be continually connected and have instant access to everything.

We even create workflows of nonsense just to justify having it.  Is it really that important to be able to talk to Google?  What if all your queries were recorded, compiled and used to create a profile about you that you knew nothing about?

The sad fact is that the services we rely on often don't have our best interests at heart.  Profit and  Philanthropy make poor bedfellows.  So does power.

Once governments discover this voluntary abdication of civil liberties it's nothing for them to exercise control over our cherished providers of our technological fix.

And it is a fix.  If you can't imagine a day without your smartphone you're just as addicted as anyone on crack cocaine.  You think you need it but in reality you don't.

Technology is a tool but there's no reason you should allow yourself to be used by it.  Get your context straight and you won't have to worry about privacy or security.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dow Jones, an index of shame

I happened to be channel surfing the other day when I stopped on a PBS station.  The Nightly Business Report was on and the hosts were putting their best spin on the latest "non-event" Apple announcement ( 2 new versions of the same old phones). 

Financial correspondents understand charts, trends and indicators.  None of which have any basis in reality.  Well,  at least not to anyone with a net worth of less than 7 figures.  They have their own reality and it doesn't involve keeping the lights on or the kids fed. 

That's why Wall Street is a farce.  That anyone treats it as an economic indicator is laughable.   That is, unless you consider1% of the population a reliable demographic.
I almost switched the channel after suffering clueless commentary about yet another tech bauble.  I stopped when I found that following story concerned 3 companies being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA.) 

The DJIA supposedly reflects a cross section of American based companies publicly traded on the stock market. 

It's the "I" in the industrial average that's amusing.  The 3 companies that didn't make the cut were:

Alcoa     Bank of America     HP

No love lost for B of A but what replaced them were:

Nike      Goldman Sachs     Visa

The criteria for membership in the exclusive DJIA club is simple, share price.  The highest performing and generally most expensive stocks make the cut so long as they continue to "perform." Performance is measured in a consistently high share price.  Often brought about by ruthless worship of the bottom line; many of these companies reflect the worst in corporate pandering to shareholders.

Much has been made of the inequity of the index affecting the entire market with just a handful of "representative" stocks.  Regardless, the DJIA is still the daily number most reported and most relied on as the de facto indicator of the economy.

If that's true then perhaps a name change is in order.  Perhaps something more along the lines of the DJFI or Dow Jones Fantasy Index.  Think of it like fantasy football except you lose real money when you pick the wrong team...

God knows most people with 401K's see it that way...

When the DJIA first came about in 1896 there were only 12 companies that represented the nation's industrial sector.

They were:

General Electric, American Cotton Oil, American Sugar, Chicago Gas, Distilling & Cattle Feeding, Laclede Gas, National Lead, North American, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad, U.S. Leather and United States Rubber.

What's the common thread?  They all actually made something tangible.

Let's look at 2013's class...

3M, American Express, At&T, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco Systems, Coca-Cola, Dupont, ExxonMobil, GE, Goldman Sachs, Home Depot, Intel, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, McDonald's  Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Travelers  United Health Group, United Technologies, Verizon, Wal-Mart, Walt-Disney

Look at that list closely.  Only a handful of the constituent parts of the DJIA are companies that actually produce any kind of tangible product and of those most of them produce their wares somewhere other than U.S. soil.

The rest is comprised of mostly banks, insurance companies, big pharma and other followers of the cult of  the bottom-line.   

It's all about the money but it's not about reality unless you think that an economy driven by outsourcing, medication and interest charges reflects its "Industry."

McDonald's and Wal-Mart, low price leaders known for low wages and substandard products.  Often the butt of jokes from those concerned about a failing career. 

Visa and JPMorgan Chase known for questionable financial products and poor treatment of their customers. 

Intel and Microsoft, tech pioneers but respectively proponents of offshore labor and unfair business practices that harm consumers and workers alike.

Insurance companies whose bottom line is best served by denying coverage even if the result is death. 
Pharmaceutical companies who lobby congress to artificially inflate profit margins and force the elderly to choose between medication and food.

If this is a cross section of American industry we might as well give up.  Nothing is being produced but misery and to celebrate the practice is madness. 

You can't blame globalization for the decline in American industry.  We are where we are because of the lesser parts of our nature.  Avarice, ignorance and ego,  Global markets have just allowed us to nurture the darker sides of our ambition.  Worse, we aspire to dwell in some corner office atop the glistening skyscraper producing nothing but the wages of our own sins.

We value those whose success was built on exploitation and dismiss all others.

Change may have come to America but real change involves a change in values.  Hard to do when popular media continually drives home the edict, "Greed is Good."  Openly we reject  it but secretly we hold it to be true.

That's why we fail.  

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pop Culture is no longer popular or culture

There's no accounting for taste...

Well at least not on the Internet.  Maybe I'm just a grumpy old man but all these new creative outlets have left popular culture in chaos.  What else can explain over 2 million YouTube views of a flatulent dog let alone that Miley Cyrus gets even one ITunes download. 

Even commercials are senseless.  I mean c'mon, 80's hair metal to sell a Honda Minivan?  I may be old enough to remember what MTV was like before Rap music but even I'm not that lame.  The rise of Reality TV in the last century certainly didn't help either.  Maybe it's the cause of all of this. 

It's got to be tough to be a TV writer these days.  The opportunities are few and far between when the big networks are crowded with such "gems" as Survivor and Big Brother.  

I guess we didn't know how good we had it when we were wondering who shot JR or whether Fonzie was going to make it over that shark. 

Maybe that's when popular culture jumped the shark.  Oh yeah, in case you don't know, the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps a shark on water skis is commonly regarded as the point where the series finally lost popularity with viewers.

It seems that was also the point where popular culture developed a severe case of ADD.  Take a look at your local TV schedule these days and you'll soon find that if you want something other than reality TV or infomercials there's going to be a monthly charge attached.

Ok, ok I know.  Ol' Grandpa hates that evil rock and roll and Elvis is corrupting our youth and you can get pregnant from sitting on a public toilet. 

Though before you judge me too harshly, let's look at a few examples of popular music  from the past few decades.  I happen to believe an era's music says more about its popular culture than any other medium.

1960's - Let's spend the night together, The Rolling Stones.   Risqué for its time but harmless.
1970's - Go Your OwnWay,  Fleetwood Mac.  At least we were thinking above the belt on this one.
1980's - I Still Haven't  found what I'm looking for, U2.   Maybe a bit cerebral ,not that it's a bad thing.
1990's - Smells likeTeen Spirit, Nirvana  A Ha!, there it is, I mean with a chorus of ...

Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

Hey, it's a great song and all but it might as well be the ADHD anthem.  Soon to be followed by a pop  culture confused by its own identity or a lack thereof.  Gender bending pop-stars pushing limits nobody cares about anymore and talentless hacks that even their peers can't stand.  I'm lookin' at you Bieber...

I'm not even going to bother with the 2000's, they're part of the problem with so-called popular tracks like "Poker Face" and "Give it 2 u" which never get above the bikini line let alone the belt...

Oh but the great equalizer that is the Internet, where anyone with a YouTube channel can be "discovered."  It's led to gushing pundits proclaiming the end of the "gatekeepers" and "curated" entertainment.  Evidenced by 2.7 million views of a bad fart joke.

Funny thing is that you're never going to see anyone get a Grammy or an Oscar based on YouTube views or ITunes downloads.

Maybe we need the gatekeepers.  For all their rumblings over piracy and copyright their real problem is that they  don't know how to read the public anymore.  It's true that business  concerns should never trump talent but we've gone too far in the other direction.  The entertainment industry has become  more flaky than a Wall Street broker with oil futures.

However, it's still a fact that nobody becomes successful without the blessings of the gatekeepers no matter how fickle  they are.  Some of them have even moved into the "New Media" space but in the end the new media is really just an extension of the same old construct.

That's a problem, because the gatekeepers have lost their focus by trying to entice a popular culture that doesn't know what it wants.  The result is a product only marginally better than YouTube fare.  It caters to the lowest common denominator and that part of the equation has gotten lower.

We're literally awash in cat videos, Jackass wannabes and bad movie trailers.  Hollywood is clueless, stuck in an endless cycle of formula sequels and kid friendly animation that would be better suited going straight to video.  They've become so bereft of creativity that any recent list of the top ten movies will undoubtedly include films based on either comic books or games.  

The rest usually involve vampires, werewolves or somebody's organs violently being removed from their body.  Let's not forget the new trend of "reboots" that Started with J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" and has moved on to 80's slasher flicks.    

Maybe I am too old but it seems I've managed to find a lot of things to like about every generation of popular culture.  Even those I wasn't around for. 

Something's different now.

Even with the overwhelming quantity of content it seems the quality has become insignificant.  Make no mistake, every era has had crap.  Face it, there was good reason why most of the hair metal bands didn't  manage to get past their first album.

Now imagine if all those bands were still around clogging up Pandora or Spotify.  You'd waste a lot of time wading through crap just to hear what you like. 

Art needs curation and entertainment deals with artists.  Pop culture is inextricably intertwined with art.   That means there needs to be some level of quality control.  Even if it runs against the whole "free and open" argument . 

Imagine the alternative. 

Would any museum be worth visiting if any hack with a paintbrush could throw up their paint by numbers portrait of Elvis?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Speed Channel dies amongst the roar of broadcasting mediocrity

Heard about Fox Sports 1?  You'd be forgiven if you could care less about the latest entry into the sports network wars.  These days it seems sports programming is little more than background noise for all but the rabid faithful at the local sports bar. 

But there's no denying it's a lucrative business with exclusive subscriptions from the likes of the NFL, NASCAR and even the PGA demanding hundreds of dollars per year just for the privilege of watching. 

Even if you could care less about anyone's "Season Pass" you still end up paying for sports programming.  It's common knowledge that the most basic of cable and satellite charges are comprised at least in part of fees paid to channels you may never watch like ESPN.

 If you're paying $35 a month for cable or satellite you can bet at least $5 of it is going to ESPN  (a Disney property.)   It's become the catalyst for a growing movement of  "cord-cutters"  fed up with ever increasing costs for programming they don't want. 

It's a movement I'll soon be joining myself and the final straw was Fox's decision to take on  ESPN by converting its Fuel and Speed channels to a more ESPN-like sports network.  More than just a name change Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 promise the same kind of sports grab bag that subscribers are already paying too much for with ESPN. 

There are few channels I take an active interest in on Cable or Satellite anymore.  Now that one of them  has fallen prey to Fox network's arrogance it's hard to justify paying a large portion of my monthly bill for content I have no use for.

In Broadcasting, trying to be everything to everyone is the definition of appointment viewing.  It forces viewers to suffer through programming they don't want just for the opportunity to see shows they may actually be interested in.  

Sadly, it's often a burnt offering as niche programming is forced to conform to a lineup built on the hopes of capturing the widest arc of viewership.  It assumes a fan of NFL football is also a fan of NASCAR or extreme sports.  A foolish assumption when viewed in the context of the popularity of those exclusive subscriptions mentioned earlier. 

It's a model proven obsolete by  the success of services like Netflix and on-demand programming options.  It's also proving increasingly unsustainable as ESPN appears to be losing market share not to other traditional media competitors but rather to the Internet and exclusive sports programming  packages offered by Satellite and cable.

I remember Speed channel back when it was called SpeedVision and before it became a Fox property in 2002.  Those were the golden years for the channel long before Fox flooded the schedule with NASCAR programming and AMA supercross.  There were Howto shows, coverage of racing events and lifestyle programming that appealed to the gearhead in me. 

I actually credit the channel for reigniting my interest in the automotive hobby and enjoyed the slightly quirky but always interesting shows like Chop, Cut Rebuild, Dream Car Garage and Lost Drive-In.  Later, shows like Gearz and Barrett-Jackson Car search (based on the auction) offered a respite from the incessant Fox NASCAR programming.

My initial exposure to the channel came late in 1998 while flipping through the menus on my then new satellite receiver and stopping on a strange sight.  There was Carroll Shelby sitting next to a Blue Dodge Dakota specially prepared by his shop.  A very HSN looking bar ran down the left side of the screen showing the truck's features.  At the time they were asking $45,000.   I thought I'd stumbled across some millionaire's version of the Home Shopping Network.  Shortly thereafter the annual Barrett-Jackson automobile auction was broadcast live from Scottsdale and became the catalyst for my subsequent and frequent visits to the channel.

 Fox's acquisition in 2001 and schedule domination with NASCAR and related programming slowly eroded the channel's viewership.  Instead of classic car-themed movies of the Lost Drive In viewers were assaulted with re-runs of NASCAR and motorcycle races.  SpeedVision, now Speed, had ceased being a lifestyle channel and was slowly moving towards a motorsports-only version of ESPN with "personality" driven programming a la' CNN.

There was less and less reason to spend too much time there.  Even longtime standards like the Barrett Jackson Auctions became polluted by the Fox influence.  Commentators well versed in their subject were forced to share the stage with pinup-girl types while dumbing down content seemingly aimed at adolescent males.

In the last two years of the network's life, to watch a Speed Channel broadcast of an automotive event became an exercise in aggravation.  Doubly so if you happened to be a female who didn't enjoy your intelligence being insulted by Fox's outdated stereotype of the Ideal woman.  

The acquisition of the channel by Fox was the beginning of the end as the network exerted ever more influence over its schedule.  Crowding it with programming  catering to the lowest common denominator of automotive content.

August 17th brought the final blow as Mike Joy provided the channel's epitaph...

“We love that you care as much about your cars as family, God and country. And so do we. but now it’s time to switch off the ignition and turn in the keys. This is the end of Speed in America...“

"...So now, it’s goodnight and farewell to America’s motorsports authority. Speed.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Social Media is a lie

Social Media is a lie

There, I said it and you know damned well that it's true.  Popular culture has adopted the premise of social media being the new normal.  That's what people mean when they overuse the term "ubiquitous" by the way.

We're told to carefully curate our Facebook pages and polish our LinkedIn profiles to ensure that we're giving the "right" impression to any drive-by onlookers who may take a passing interest.  I mean we wouldn't want to send the wrong message would we?

Prospective employers love social media.  It's a quick and dirty way to get the goods on candidates without ever having to meet them.  In other words your social media persona might as well be another copy of your resume, dating profile and background report all in one neat multimedia package.

So best be sure it's showing you in your best light...Which defeats the purpose.

Knowing that almost everyone engaged in social media is either lying or too naive to realize the ramifications of that video from your last trip to Vegas means none of it has value.

The only people who are honest are the ones with nothing to lose which is exactly .000000001%.  Good luck finding that needle in the haystack and when you do try not to be disappointed when you find out those people aren't that interesting.

Social media is less about connecting than providing a mechanism for personal advertisement.  Which means it's about as useful as a commercial for a feminine hygiene product. 

Social media is just an outgrowth of a society built on lies.  We choose political candidates based on which one's empty promises we're most aligned with.  We associate with people that otherwise would never get the  time of day if we think they can be of use to us.  We go along with the popular groupthink for fear of repercussion should we speak our own minds.

Keep social media in the context of a public facing mask and you'll stay out of trouble.  Ignore the starry eyed optimists proclaiming how connected the world is because of it.  It's not, if you live in Nebraska the chances that you actually care about anything going on in Uzbekistan are negligible.  So long as there's that strong "media" component in social media (meaning it's fake) it's nothing more than personal marketing of a false image.

In short, keeping it real does not include being a social media maven.  Reality has nothing to do with it at all.

The scarlet letter of entrepreneurship

See if this scenario fits.

You spend years working in the corporate world, learn a few things and one day you decide you've had  enough and strike out on your own.  Perhaps you're tired of being passed over for promotion or you just know you're capable of more than the middling opportunities that come your way.

Maybe you're motivated by one too many late night infomercials but whatever the reason you finally make the commitment and say goodbye forever to your cubicle.

Or so you thought...

Striking out on your own rarely affords instant gratification and tests your resolve on a daily basis.  You have your freedom but the list of things you don't have sometimes make you wish you would have stayed in your nice warm cubicle. 

As time goes on there's one of two things that will happen.  You'll be a success and never look back or you won't and you'll be looking to get back to that cubicle.  Thing is the latter may not be an option for you.

In today's job market with employers demanding more from their employees than ever before a candidate with an entrepreneurial background has an uphill battle.   Why?  Well, in case it hasn't jumped out at you yet, an ex-employee turned lone wolf offers a management challenge few supervisors want to tackle.

A free thinking self-motivated rebel may be the ideal employee for Google or Facebook (or at least it used to be) but ABC corp. doesn't want the hassle.  They just want their employees to follow the rules, not take too long on their breaks and get those TPS reports in on time.

Sadly, more often than not Interviews can be more of a test of wills than a friendly conversation.  A lifelong corporate type will be naturally suspicious of a candidate who once threw off the reigns.  After all if it wasn't good enough for you before why would it be now?

That will be the only question on their mind by the way.  Some may even vocalize it.

Conversely, an interviewer that secretly harbors a wish to flee his own corporate prison may see the candidate's abandonment of their own cherished dream as a personal failure.  From there it goes downhill since no matter what skills are professed, the failure to capitalize on them invalidates all your grandiose assertions to the contrary.   

If the interview is with a potential employer in the same line of business as the candidates former solo effort, chances are the interview is less about the job and more about getting the goods on the "competition." 
Interviewing someone viewed as a competitor (and that's how they see you) brings all the baggage of the standard interview plus the perceived risk that you'll somehow steal all their customers and strike out on your own if they hired you. 

From a business standpoint it's a safety play.  After all, how likely is it that Steve Jobs would have hired Bill Gates? 

You're not being interviewed, you're being pumped for information.  Once they get it they're done with you.  I've often felt like I should send an invoice at the end of one of those.

In these days of drug testing, background screening and credit checks just to get to the interview table how can anyone possibly overcome the stigma of a being a risky candidate?

I wish it were simple but the only way to overcome the objection is to minimize the experience.  It's a rage-filled, sucker punch to the gut but it's often the only way. 

It's maddening to have to undervalue your accomplishments but I'd put better odds on a winning lottery ticket than getting in front of a potential employer that sees your solo efforts in the same light you do.

You have two choices at this point. Suck it up as they say, swallow your pride and pad your resume with "regular" jobs that show you're a good member of the corporate denizen.  A regular job can be contract work, temporary jobs or anything BUT working for yourself.

Your other choice?  Sell the extra car, take out a few loans and keep trying to make it on your own. 
You'll either finally figure out how to be successful or go broke and be out of work so long that you won't have a work history anyone will care hearing about anymore.  Perfect for when you go for that sweet gig at the convenience store or fast food joint.

I'm not trying to be flippant, this is reality 101 in the job market now.  Threats to the status quo can come from as little as showing up to the interview with too loud a tie to the "wrong" work history. 

Fair is a relative term when you're looking for work.  Employers are demanding guarantees from candidates that they would never subject themselves to.   Your solo accomplishments exist in a context far less certain than your cubicle dwelling competition.  A fact most hiring managers are unable or unwilling to accept. 

Forewarned is forearmed.  You'll waste a lot less time and aggravation if you know the score going in.