Monday, September 28, 2009


Dear readers, I eat lunch at home some days when I don't get the dog sitter. This is mainly to allow my dog to relieve herself. I mean, I know the feeling of being trapped in a car when nature calls. A cage must be worse.

Anyhow, on Friday, when I came home for lunch, I had a postcard to mail and as I was walking out to the mailbox I saw the mailman driving up. Perfect timing.

In more ways than one. Had I not been out there right then, I doubt I would have discovered (at least for another few days) the Siamese cat that was under one of my bushes. I wondered what was making all the rustling noise and I walk over to see this poor thing camping out under a shrub.

Important side note: I am allergic to cats. I don't mean the dander makes me sneeze. I mean cats make my head explode into a drippy, teary mess. Some years ago, a friend's cat fell out of her arms and the cat, desperately trying to arrest its fall, grabbed onto the closest thing it could... my thigh. Where claws punctured my skin, I immediately developed painful, itchy blotches, much like you would get in an allergy test (which, incidentally is exactly what happened when I was allergy tested).

So, with all that in mind:

  • I see this cat and I want to help it
  • I absolutely do not want to touch it
At first, I figured I'd be rational. We have a "cat lady" down the street. My next door neighbors once told me "she owns, like, 50 cats." This may well be true. Her cats litter (no pun intended) the cul de sac. Some says, turning your car around is like running one of those courses in car ads where the car has to swerve to avoid stuff...

Anyhow, I walk over yesterday morning to say hello and "Oh, by the way, do you happen to have a Siamese?"

She said, sadly, no. But... and maybe this means I should be nice to cat ladies... she goes "I've seen that cat around the neighborhood, but it sure doesn't seem to have a home."

Essentially, the cat lady has a catalog of neighborhood cats. This is a good resource.

OK, so... a few casual conversations with neighbors later, no one knows whose cat this is. Least of all the cat lady who would most assuredly know all of her neighbors' cats.

So, I email the humane society. This, after a call to some of the no-kill shelters reveals that no one, apparently, is accepting cats at the moment. Awe. Some.

The humane society emails me back first thing this morning and it was encouraging. Basically, they cannot take any cats either unless I have proof the thing has all its shots. This cat, right here in my front yard, has no form of ID on hand (or collar). So that's out.

So she recommends I call kill-em-all-if-not-picked-up-in-72-hours Animal Control... BUT then she says that as soon as Animal Control picks up my cat, to give her the reference number because "she has a soft spot for Siamese cats."

Hooray! Guaranteed rescue!

See, I don't like cats in particular. But I do like animals and I would much prefer not to send any cat to kitty Auschwitz. This, seemed to be a winning plan.

I call Animal Control, feeling good about things. I do not reveal that someone is going to swoop in and take this cat. I just want it picked up. No prob. They'll be by tonight. And then I hear the words "Please confine the cat."

"Umm... I'm allergic to cats."

"Well, figure out a way to get it in your bathroom because our guys will not chase a cat."


I must have looked like a fine fool grabbing my work gloves from the garage, scooping up this cat, carrying it at arms length into my house and into the guest bathroom. I put a little dish of milk in there to be nice.

You would think - hope even - that this animal that was using my shrubs as a poor shelter to weather a couple inches of Friday and Saturday night rain would be grateful to be indoors with some minor form of sustenance. You, my friend, would be wrong.

Cat tried to make a bee-line for the living room. Umm... NO. Do not push the limits of my generosity, cat. I have gone far-and-away to make sure your little life goes on past Thursday. You can sit in bathroom. Thankyouverymuch.

Anyhow, I now sit and wait for Animal Control. Updates to come...

Friday, September 25, 2009

On Dunbar's Number

I read a fair amount of pop-econ and pop-psych. For instance, Malcolm Gladwell's excellent books, such The Tipping Point, and recently, Outliers. I recently read Chris Anderson's Free, breaking down the potential of companies (or bands) to make money by giving stuff away.

It's interesting to see some topics arise in several of these books and one I've seen in the above - and in some other articles lately - is Dunbar's Number.

In basic terms, Dunbar's Number is 150 - being the maximum size of a given person's true social network. The number was established through research... of course there is some dispute that 150 is the number, but, Dunbar did notice some interesting things. You can find plenty of examples through history of societies that broke apart into two groups when their total populations exceeded 150. Roman army units were made up of 150 soldiers.

The idea is that, once you exceed 150 people in a group, cohesiveness - or common mutual interest - begins to erode. (Warning: that is also an oversimplification).

Most of us, these days, have much larger social networks. I have, somehow, 346 friends on Facebook.

But in reality, do I correspond with all 346? No. It is much easier to keep up to speed on folks. I am happy to know how some people are doing that I don't often talk to. It saves long "catch up" chat that existed before the advent of online social networks. All that is grand.

But functional social groups, I have decided, cannot be so big. Think of a wedding party. Small weddings tend to result in one common experience. You ask my friends about my wedding, they probably tell the same story. Now think of a 350-person wedding. The room divides itself up, partially because, well, there are so many people you don't need to hang out with those other people. Your experience at the wedding is likely different from those of the folks on the other side of the ballroom.

None of this means you should have a certain kind of wedding. The point is, we have limits in our abilities to relate to one another. There is point where you stop caring about the needs of some others because your own self-interests can be supported by an entirely different group.

And once again... this isn't bad. Life would be tiresome if we were always forced to act strictly in the interests of a group. We're not stranded on a desert island. But it's valuable to think that due to the number of people we interact with, we tune out some and put extra emphasis on others. That doesn't lead to a complete view of anything.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Broken Up

Way back in the day, when I was in college, I took a media criticism class. You encounter some crazy stuff in media criticism. There are some folks who think every ad you see contains veiled sexual allusions. Another set of crazies think that all media is designed to protect the bourgeoisie from the workers of the world (Yes, there are Marxist media critics).

But one book we read in that class wasn't nuts. It was by Joseph Turow and titled Breaking Up America.

Bear in mind that, in 2000, there was no YouTube. Streaming video was something you watched on a clunky player called RealPlayer. There were no iPods. You still - GASP - had to use CDs, unless you were using Napster or the more covert Scour Media Agent to download one 128 kbps mp3 at a time which you only - ONLY - played through Winamp. There wasn't a Blogger yet. The Internet, as wonderful as it was, was barely showing its true power.

With that context in mind, understand how Breaking Up America worked. The premise was pretty simple: American media had reached a point where it was simply more profitable to narrow-target audiences and charge advertisers a premium to reach a smaller, but more focused audience.

What I mean is... say you are Tampax. You want to advertise tampons. In the old media world, before wide acceptance of cable/satellite TV, you bought ads during time slots you know women were watching, but you probably bought ads when a lot of people you didn't care about reaching (read: men) were watching. So, you might reach 2 million viewers... but if 40% of them are men, that's not a great value for your ad dollar.

Media proliferation changed that. Suddenly, there were TV networks only for women. This complemented magazines only for women. The audience for those media outlets might be smaller (no men watching/reading) but nearly 100% of consumers of those outlets fell into the target audience. This was a better ad buy. And for the media outlet, it was a great boon. They could jack ad rates to know they had the right audience.

But this led media outlets to realize that it wasn't just in their interests to attract the right audience. It was also advantageous for all of them to repel people who weren't the target audience.

Breaking Up America noted that if you looked at a magazine rack, or the commercials on a cable channel, you would likely either be drawn in or turned off by what you saw. Exactly how the channel wants it to be.

In a business sense, this is perfect. Advertisers will pay more to reach a concentrated audience of viewers/readers.

Now, this is important: with the exception of PBS, NPR and a very small selection of magazines (Consumer Reports for instance), every media outlet you use is dependent on ad dollars. That includes "news" channels. Keep that in mind.

Say what you will about Fox News Channel... they have successfully taken the "fragmentation" model of media success to new heights. They can say "Fair and Balanced" all they want, but be serious for a moment: Fair and Balanced in today's media market is bad business. From a business standpoint, it makes much more sense to be super conservative (or liberal) because you can repel all the viewers you don't want. And charge advertisers more.

I see Fox News every day. I'm not going to talk about what they say. I'm going to talk about the ads I see on there. The Weekly Standard sells subscriptions. Some company is selling "emergency radios" that will no doubt work when your area loses power in a terrorist attack. PACs run right-leaning ads seemingly every commercial break. You think left-wingers want to see all that? Hail no.

And, as a result, Fox is able to reap monetary benefits. CNN, MSNBC... they do the same thing to different degrees. MSNBC on the left, CNN trying (I'm being serious) to play the middle.

There is no incentive for any of these networks to do otherwise. As Mark Bowden points out in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, there is no longer a "disinterested" journalistic voice. And while Bowden doesn't say this, it's mainly because there's no money in disinterested, objective news reporting. After all, once someone tells you what happened, you don't need to tune in for anything else. Punditry, where on-air hosts lambaste new policy or people, is much better at retaining an audience.

Again, this is all good business. But, I am becoming more and more convinced that, at least in politics, it's not helping either side of any debate. It's selling pundit books. It's getting news nets ad money. It's letting bloggers "participate in democracy" by nets picking up blogger reports and reporting that as news.

But it isn't doing one important thing: building any manner of true consensus. We're fast approaching the point where the politically aware are more interested in winning than building policy on... anything. Find me a cable news channel that says "Well, this bill spends way too much money and might raise taxes and that is awful. But suchandsuch is a big problem and we need to find a real way to address this" or "This bill doesn't do enough to help people and we think it sucks, but the truth is progress comes in baby steps and the opposition has valid points."

I'll wait.


Oh, you couldn't find that? Not surprised.

With more and more technology enabling us to make individual decisions about the media we consume - from the shows we watch to the music we listen to - we run the risk of forgetting that other people's choices may be just as valid. We surround ourselves with messages and entertainment that reinforces our own beliefs rather than truly trying to empathize with someone different. I hate Nickelback, but you know... tons of people love them. Their (awful) music moves people. And I may not ever let them on my iPod but that doesn't mean Nickelback should be banished from the airwaves. And the same goes for political policy.

If we do not find a way to go beyond our individual media "comfort zones" we're doomed., locked inside individual worlds where every other person doesn't see eye-to-eye with you. I don't mean watch something you disagree with to bitch about it. I mean talk to your friends who disagree. Learn why they feel the way they do. read articles they want you to see. And then... consider them. And, if you really want to save the world, have real discussions about your views and figure out how you can live with each other each getting something, each giving something.