Friday, December 16, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

I can't even pretend I listened to every new album worth hearing this year. And now that some of the "official" lists are out, I realize that any list I make here is likely going to be terribly incomplete. For instance, you won't see Adele's 21 on this list, despite the fact that it's apparently amazing.

I did listen to a lot, though. And let's be clear... this was an underwhelming year. I'm pretty sure even if I included a certain British chanteuse and Bon Iver, this list would still be a struggle. Unlike last year, which was a veritable cornucopia of bad-ass tunes, this year swung and missed more often than not.

Anyhow, let's try this. As always, second opinions provided so you don't think I'm nuts.

Honorable mentions

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne - You know, it's good. My issue was more that both of these guys are so much more than good. Maybe I need to chill out, but I kept feeling this could have been so much more.

Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation - My hat's off to this kid. I heard this was made in an Idaho bedroom... and it sounds like it. In all the right ways.

The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient - Thisclose to being on the list. The suite of songs surrounding "Come to the City" is arguably one of the year's best stretches of album.

The list

10) Foo Fighters - Wasting Light 
Second opinion: Spin

So few bands just know how to rock the hell out and Dave Grohl's band continues to do things that a whole faction of politicos in his home state of Virginia probably wants to make illegal. From the first chords of "Bridge is Burning," it's all vintage Foos, but without anything to prove. Perhaps it's the reintegration of Pat Smear into the mix, because while this band has hit more than it's missed, this is the first disc since The Colour and the the Shape - Smear's last effort with the band - that hit this hard.

9) Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Second Opinion: Los Angeles Times

I was sitting at a 4th of July party when first track "White Noise" came on. The song is anything but. It was one of those moments where conversation had to be stopped to inquire just what this was. And months later, I'm still listening to it... and the rest of the album. Layered with themes and beats, every song brings a new scene to mind and propels itself into the next. It's fantastic work.

8) Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
Second opinion: Entertainment Weekly

If they're going to make us wait until who knows when for a new Postal Service album, at least the Bellingham, WA outfit that is Death Cab can put out music that makes the wait oh-so-much-more bearable. It's more of a slow burn than a lot of their recent previous work... no New Year, no one possessing your heart. But it's a slow burn that goes deep. Opening with "Home is Fire" is strong, but things are still rolling by the time "Underneath the Sycamore" comes along. And between - and after - is all good melodies, strong lyrics and many moments that glisten.

7) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I have a friend who has seen this band live and says they suck. And I believe her. I remember seeing Smashing Pumpkins and being completely underwhelmed. How could a band that sounds so good in the studio just... suck live? I haven't seen POBPAH live, so I don't know if it's true. But I did hear this album. Produced by Flood and Alan Moulder - who happened to make the Pumpkins sound good on CD - Belong changes the game for this band. The indie shoegaze of the band's debut pales in comparison to this. It's an argument for your favorite indie band to work with a real producer. The opening title track just kills. And for the next four songs, it stays that good. Songs that we didn't know this band could write... much less perform. If an album took my by surprise this year, it's this one.

6) Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
Second opinion: Spin

It had to happen: a Coldplay album not superior to its predecessor. From such great heights, this is still a great listen. So many experiments work, including "Princess of China" with Rihanna. "Paradise" is everything a Coldplay track should be. What's missing? Hard to say, though it feels like urgency. On every Coldplay disc to date, especially Viva la Vida, it seemed like the band wasn't just trying new things and trying to be the best... it felt like they thought it was important. This album is hardly going through the motions; indeed, it features some of the more ambitious experimentations the band has tried. It's more that, for the first time, some of the tricks don't charm. Would that every band's slight misfire could be as good as this.

5) Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Second Opinion: The Guardian

An odd album, to be sure, but the patient reap giant rewards. The morose front end of the album challenges listeners to more than any material since Kid A. "Morning Mr. Magpie" manages to keep that front end energetic despite Thom Yorke's contention that his melody has been stolen. It comes back in "Little by Little," which is, plainly vintage Radiohead. What blows you away are the closers, though. "Give Up the Ghost" is a gift that keeps on giving, revealing new sides to itself with every listen. Final track "Seperator," though, is the true killer. Nearly a perfect song, it proved to be the album's most provocative, building speculation of a quick follow-up album (sadly wrong), but doing what any good performance should do: leave you wanting more.

4) Lady Gaga - Born this Way
Second Opinion: NME


Not even gonna apologize for this one. Not one bit. Why don't more pop artists take risks? Take the artist part to heart? Find me another pop artists that could make a song like "Judas" - easily one of the year's best singles - and do it in a way that isn't just there to shock. DJs had to be salivating over the possibilities with a song like "Schie?e", which shouldn't work but does. Sure, everyone got tired of "Edge of Glory," but it's the songs that didn't get the airplay where Gaga gets to push the limits. Dare I say this had the feel of an album that foretells great things? On The Fame Monster she made defining pop. Here, she tries every weapon in the arsenal with more success than not, but the question is what does she do with the lessons learned? Hopefully, it something epic.

3) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I'm sorry, but this is what Mumford & Sons don't do. Introspective to points of pain, Fleet Foxes build on their previous work with gloriously beautiful complicated music. You go from the pulsating "Battery Kinzie" to songs like "The Cascades" that just shimmer. Of course the harmonies remain, but the musicianship reaches new heights. Every piece works to a grand extent.

2) Mates of State - Mountaintops
Second Opinion: NPR

The album opens with "Palomino," which, as far as I'm concerned is the single best song of the year. Everything this band does well is done more than well on this track and the tracks that follow are easily the best we've heard from this two-piece... and they've hit some nice highs before. On previous albums, there were always standout tracks, but never have these Mates put together such a complete set of songs. Wearing the challenges of marriages on their sleeves on a song like "Mistakes," synthing it up on "Sway" or putting the dance beat in "Maracas," every move the band makes seems to work. I was lucky enough to see this band live in LA this year and the power of their material just explodes off the stage... something that this album captures to a great degree.

1) Washed Out - Within and Without
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

A choir director I once sang with used to say that there was nothing more amazing than a big group singing very softly. That's not quite what's happening here, but the feeling you get is the same: intense despite the volume. At times, the album goes almost ambient, rocking you into a state of marvelous contendedness. Other times, it lulls you... into a dark corner. I still don't know what the lyrics to this album are. And I don't care. The voices might as well be instruments. No other album comes close to evoking the kind of response that this one does. And, to top it off, it has the year's hottest album cover (look it up and you tell me).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sounds of the Season 2011

Last year, the annual holiday mix was solid, but, if you ask me, it was a bit pedestrian. Quality of song was pretty high, but there was something missing. Neither the mariachi horns from the Killers nor the fast-paced fun of Julian Casablancas really put the oomph into the holiday. And, as usual, finding Hanukkah songs was a freakin' challenge. One iffy Hanukkah song. I was concerned the supply of great modern holiday indie rock was gone.

Friends, I am pleased to say this year's holiday mix is stellar. The dance beat is back in Christmas. You want Hanukkah? We have Hanukkah. Let's dive in!

1) The LeeVees - "How do You Spell Channukkahh?" - The guy with the rich low voice from Guster put this out with some friends a few years ago. And it's a damn fine way to start a holiday mix. An entertaining song (as all good Hanukkah songs should be) about a topic that even the best of Jews has to tackle. Add in driving guitars and clever lyrics and we're off to a good start.

2) Best Coast & Waaves - "Got Something for You" - I honestly just wanted Best Coast on here. Plus this is a fun song and doesn't Zooey Deschanel have all the retro fun (more on her later). Indie bands doing cool things? Like.

3) Weezer - "O Come all Ye Faithful" - Probably the most straightforward song on here this year. It sounds like Weezer singing a Christmas carol. Which, hey, isn't that bad a thing.

4) Guster - "Tiny Tree Christmas" - A nice little ditty in two movements. Good sleigh-riding music.

5) Kanye West - "Christmas in Harlem" - Maybe we did tap out rock. We have barely touched rap! And thankfully, Yeezy comes through with this big-beat track all about how it goes across 110th St. It needs to be noted that any song that rhymes "Hanukkah" with "yarmulke" and also suggestively discusses giving a girlfriend "the hot chocolate" meets pretty much all the criteria for getting onto this mix.

6) The Raveonettes - "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - Synthed out trancey amazingness from Sweden.

7) Matisyahu - "Miracle" - All the years of not finding an amazing Hanukkah song and here's the low-hanging fruit I must have walked past. Nice beats and lyrics (a cool video if you feel like looking it up online).

8) The Killers - "A Great Big Sled" - This band is the gift that keeps on giving for Christmas songs (though the one they put out this year was kinda meh). This song was nearly on the mix last year but I didn't want to have two Killers songs in one year.

9) Jimmy Eat World - "12/23/95" - Here's where we start to come down from such great heights. Time to slow it down. This song, a bit melancholy, just glistens, though. Let's you down easy.


10) She & Him - "I'll Be Home for Christmas" - The latest salvo in the Zooey Deschanel effort for World Domination is her Christmas album with M. Ward. This is a fine little retro song. Though, given the interesting collab this year Danger Mouse had with Jack White and Norah Jones, I'd like to use this space to propose that She & Him have a musical challenge with Jack White and Norah Jones. That could be something.


11) Coldplay - "Christmas Lights" - Say what you want... it's a pretty song.


12) Mogwai - "Christmas Song" - An instrumental send-off from the Scottish post-punkers.

All in all, I think this is the most listenable mix since the 2008 edition of the mix. Arguably, it's the highest overall song quality of any of the ones I've put together. Want it? All are available (even legally) at your online music purveyor of choice...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Perils of Being Sure of Trends

I work in an industry where I am surrounded by new media "experts." I might even consider myself one sometimes. With new Facebook changes, ongoing mobile device/tablet wars and the like, just about anyone with an opinion is telling us what the future is... occasionally charging money for the privilege of hearing about it.

I've been to two social media conferences now. Both have been excellent, but one way they have been excellent has been the "who really knows?" attitude that hangs over most discussions. Someone tried something that worked. It may or may not be easy to duplicate. Or it won't be. Who knows?

Recent observations, though, seem to indicate an upswing in sweeping statements that not only could be way off base, but actually (I think) threaten the collective credibility of all of us "experts."

I think this started around the launch of the iPad. At the time, tablets were not new to market (though kudos to Apple for making it seem like they were) and story after story, from CNET to Mashable, spoke of the revolution that was literally at hand. The concept of the "Post PC Era" entered parlance (where it remains).

Yet, here we are... tablets have certainly gained market share, but I'm guessing the bulk of people reading this blog aren't doing so on a tablet. I'll wager that the vast bulk of tablet users don't even write at length on their iPads. If anything, tablets are filling a very comfortable niche in extending the reach of content that was once "chained" to wherever a computer was. I just took an iPad to a trade show and it was incredible.It changed the way we worked at this show from previous years. All the materials I couldn't pack were neatly visible on a small LCD screen. But I still went back to my hotel to work on my laptop every night.

My favorite claim at the launch was that the iPad would mark the end of the Amazon Kindle, possibly the first time anyone with credibility ever posited that a device that cost three times as much to buy would supplant the unbelievably functional market leader. I haven't done a study, but it seems Amazon is doing just fine with the Kindle since the launch of the iPad. In my travels, after an initial burst of people reading books on iPads, I'm back to seeing more Kindles on my flights when it comes to book reading. Maybe it's because people can hold a Kindle in one hand while sipping their beverage with the other. Who knows? The point is this: lots of new media leaders went full bore with the "game changer" language. Today, their statements have to be viewed not only as hyperbole, but in many cases, flat out wrong.

I cannot abide this. People trust folks in our field to offer good counsel on trends. But if the perception of all of us is simply that we hype up the shiny new toys we get to play with instead of stepping back and thinking about price points, function and good ol' human behaviors, we risk cheapening our advice to the point of being viewed as hucksters.

I wish I could say the lessons have been learned. They have not.

The launch of Google+ was roughly treated roughly like the discovery of a new vaccine by many. Expert after expert heralded the launch in big "it's a new world" terms. People did things I don't want to speculate on to get an invite to Google+ and you couldn't turn anywhere without reading that this could be "the beginning of the end" for Facebook.

This drama has yet to enter its final act, but a few months into Google's foray into social media, the only reason people aren't calling it a failure is because it simply has Google's backing.

Let's recap: the most robust social network, Facebook, a free service boasting the better part of a billion users... the service that change after change still has people logging in like crazy... with a name that is a verb (you've "Facebooked" someone), is going to meet its end because Google (also a verb) introduced a social network?

As I blogged three months ago, I wasn't buying it.

Today, I still don't think Google+ will be anything more than an also-ran. At least if it's trying to be Facebook. As Mark Zuckerberg (or Jesse Eisenberg) said, if they had invented Facebook, they would have invented Facebook.

The missing pieces in discussions were users. The reason I don't think people are going to adopt Google+ en masse is because the people that make their online experiences fun are on Facebook. Users will go where the other users are. And, at least for most individuals, that place remains Facebook.

We talk and talk and talk about how we're in an era of individualization in media. How each person makes his or her own choices about how to consume media. Yet, how many "experts" treat us all like a single body when making their sweeping statements about social media trends or the new tech toy?

There has also been shortsightedness on the part of many in how the Google+/Facebook discussion is framed. A key factor many cite for an eventual migration from Facebook to Google+ is privacy, primarily that perception that Facebook shares personal data.

A couple things: 1) Free services absolutely share some personal information... incidentally, only the info that we provided to them in the first place. But these are businesses and need money. In good news, I think most people know that and would have the same apprehensions about Google. Yet, this was missing in the discussion, for the most part.

More notable to me is 2) security on Google appears to have gaping vulnerabilities that no one is talking about.

I have asked it plainly - to people who should know - and no one has answered me with anything other than "gee... maybe?"

If I accidentally click on a link in a Google+ post that deploys malware - as happens every day to someone on Facebook and Twitter and results in spam posts - just how much access has the malware given the hacker? What I mean is, I try my darndest not to click on links that could be spam/malware. But, on Facebook or Twitter, the worst case is spam posts that annoy me and my friends and can easily be fixed.

But my Google+ account? Yeah, that site is linked to my Gmail. And Google docs. THIS BLOG. And any other Google product. So, does the right hack suddenly have access to my Gmail? You know, the one where I have a lot of personal stuff? Can that person fire off an email to whoever they want from my Gmail?

It's bad that I don't have a clear answer, but it's worse that the people who should be asking this sort of question aren't.

Just today, Mashable had an article about how new apps were coming to Google+. You cannot convince me that not a one of them won't be used for ill means. Where was the concern?

In the meantime, it will keep on happening. Few have even touched a Kindle Fire and already, speculation is rampant about what it does to the market. Maybe what it does is allow folks who don't use a tablet every day to feel good about paying for a tablet. But no one is asking about the new touch screen Kindle readers. Now I have to use two hands to turn a page? I don't know... it sounds like it might not go as expected, but until I see users reaction, I cannot make the judgment.

The next few years will certainly bring more changes in the landscape. But we need to stop being cheerleaders for the tech brand of our choice. If we're in an age of citizen journalism, we need to ask the tough questions or risk losing our credibility as counselors. And we need to get comfortable with not knowing what device or service will "win."

We need to keep the focus on audiences and reaching them the ways they want to be reached. New media, sure... but old-school PR thinking.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Smarter Methods

The thing about the "Occupy" demonstrations - and really all of the Tea Party demonstrations as well - is that they make a lot of noise... but what do they do?

To some extent, I salute participants on both sides. I may agree and disagree with portions of their views (or entirely... just depends), but I can hardly argue that both groups' efforts have done much to raise my awareness of their issues. I've done some of the background reading on their topics as a result.

The thing is... well, a number of things.

Let's hit the obvious: lots of ignorant people in each group. For every well-read, thoughtful person, it seems, at least as the news shows via interviews, there's someone who has a lot of hyperbole and no grasp of how the world actually works. A stack of good intentions doesn't change the government, nor does it make a dent in our economy. This is at its worst when people oversimplify.

Prime example: the obsession of some Tea Party members (at least that's how they identify) with illegal immigration. I have yet to hear one person discuss how their wishes to deport everyone would affect produce prices at Safeway. Truth is, if you're not ready to discuss that outcome as part of your view, then I'm not going to give you the time of day.

That, however, is an easy problem to spot and I think (hope?) many Americans can see right through the ignorant opinions and say "Now, now... it's not that simple."

The bigger issue for me, and it is on grand display with the Occupy rallies, is that other than getting some attention, I see no tangible outcome.

A few years ago, a friend was considering becoming a vegetarian based on some moral beliefs. I have some pretty strong opinions on this topic. Personally, as a closeted hippie, I'm content to bow to the will of nature. And nature gave me stomach acids that are only used to digest meat. But I digress...

This friend wanted to be a vegetarian to make a point. She felt that factory farms and other practices were destroying a healthy food chain. That the way we treat food animals is cruel.

She is right. But she wasn't going to change a thing by not eating meat.

The thing is, I am one of about 7 billion people on the planet. If you want a boycott to work, you need some serious numbers.

What I mean is, if I'm an industrial provider of chicken and I have 35% of the chicken eating market share, I want to maintain - or increase - that share. And I will cut whatever corners I legally can to do so. If you stop eating chicken, that's fine and dandy, but in the universe of chicken eaters, I still have 35% market share and am making money. If anything, you stopping to eat my product helps me lower overhead costs, because I need to produce ever-so-slightly less chicken.

If, instead of becoming a vegetarian, you start eating only locally grown, organic chicken - free range birds that got to "live like a chicken" as Michael Pollan would say - well... now you're giving market share to a competitor.

And if my market starts to demand I do business a different way in order to stay competitive, I'm going to have to start raising chickens differently.

In a capitalist system, which despite what some say we most definitely still have, that is how you forge change.

So, as we head back to our Occupy demonstrators, my question is: why are they talking about a new way of life instead of living it? If you think a corporation acts unethically, then take the time to figure out how not to support that company with your dollars. If you don't like the way the banks conduct themselves... get a new bank. If you don't agree with the hedge fund folks, don't hand your money to them to invest.

It seems people love to talk but get hung up on the action part of things. Big surprise, I know, but this is why the protests ring hollow for me, well-intentioned as they may be.

It's become cliche, but Gandhi was right: you must be the change you want to see in the world.

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I made some simple changes to the way we eat and have been heartened to hear we're not the only ones. It hasn't changed the world... yet. Change takes time. But I can take heart knowing that the local farmers, brewers and ranchers are getting our help in maintaining their businesses as we give them our dollars.

I can assure you even though I am just one person, those folks appreciate my dollars more than if I were to march for change while scarfing down a big-industry burger.

Simply put: we have a right to freely assemble and demonstrate. But if we want to see change in our world, we cannot simply ask companies to change or for governments to intervene.

We need to make the changes we want on our own and let the world deal with the outcomes.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Old School Thinking

Did you know me back in high school or college? If so... yeah, sorry about that.

In all seriousness, I'm sure we all have moments from the past we cherish and some we wish had panned out differently. What I think is more interesting is how things evolve. Or, in some cases, fail to.

Just figure: I graduated high school in 1997 and college four years later. Some of the folks I shared a walk to "Pomp & Circumstance" with haven't been in touch with me for at least 10 years. I don't even know these people, at least.


How much have you changed in 10 years? Judging by how much I have changed, probably more than a little.

Yet, when I see a Facebook update from a friend from high school or spot a once-familiar face on a trip back to where I grew up, I seem to not give the person that credit.

And it's not fair.

What I mean is, I might hear something from my mom about such-and-such who I went to high school with who's now doing this-or-that-with-so-and-so. It can be things that are good or bad, but I process the information with whatever impression I had of the person in question when I last saw him or her regularly. I might think something like "Oh yeah, he was always that kind of guy..." or "She always does that..."

Truth is... if I haven't had a substantial conversation with the person in 10-15 years, how should I know?

I love Facebook for oh-so-many reasons, not the least of which is that it helps me keep up with the busy lives of some of my closest friends like never before. But for the more acquaintance-type people I see on there, it has made me realize the fallacy of the way I think about people.

An example... a friend from back in the day posted a major relationship change several months back involving another person from that same era of life. I immediately reacted to the situation as though it was more than a decade ago.

I had to step back. Looking at myself, I am so much different now than I was then (hopefully better for it, too). Why couldn't I give this other person that benefit of the doubt? I was reacting like the person in question had been frozen in time and never changed. Not cool, on my part.

It's things like this that keep me wary of ever going to a high school or college reunion. I have kept in very close touch with a group of people, and others to a lesser extent. But I don't fancy enjoying spending time with people where we all assume we're pretty much the same people we knew at graduation.

I hope this makes sense... or that this has happened to you (has it? I'm nuts? OK.)

I do think it's fascinating how our lives and interests evolve... friends converge and diverge, often for no other reasons than people start living lives that head in different directions. Yet, I think there is something in us that wants us to feel like we "know" all those who were close to us at a certain time.

If so, I'm resolving to stop it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reclaim the Day

On September 11, 2001, I had a bad day. I was in my New York City office at 8:20 a.m. Little did I know, I would go home early that day for all the worst reasons. You don't need a recap, but from that day and through the 10 years since, the events of the day have been a focus.

We talk about living in a post-9/11 world... at least the commentators do. It is the latest generation's "day." They used to ask my age group where we were for the Challenger disaster. Now, we all remember where we were on 9/11.

I am all for honoring the brave who ran to the scene. And for mourning the losses, so heavy. We say "never forget." Honestly, I don't think we ever could.

Which brings me to the point at hand: when we spend the entire day of 9/11 every year in solemnity, it does what the terrorists want: it leaves us sad and frozen. The terrorists view 9/11 as their day... the day America was shaken.

I say we take it back for ourselves. We can memorialize all we lost without, at the same time, dwelling on the darkness of the day. The way I see it, those who died never got to do the things they loved again... and we owe it to them to live.

I say we reclaim the day. Remember what happened but force ourselves out of the TV news memorials and celebrate what really makes this a great country. Because when we spend 9/11 living in the land we call home, not worrying about "credible threats" and doing what we love, we have truly defeated the terrorists' goals.

Maybe that's spending time with family. Maybe you decide it's the day you do your fall shopping every year. This year, for me, it meant spending the day in Mt. Rainier National Park, which, if you ask me... if you really want to celebrate America, your nearest national park is a fine place to start.

For me, with today's trip, I had another 9/11 words cannot describe. But for all the right reasons.

Take the day back. Live and love. Remember... but do not despair.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

At least it won't be named on your bill in a bad way...

We could sit here and discuss The Wall Street Journal, but any conversation will likely devolve into some nonsense about the merits (or lack thereof) of its editorial page.

The paper's business reporting is top-notch. In our complicated economy, you would do well to read it. I really love how they cover every sector in great detail. I never went to business school, or really took business classes, so I made following the airline industry news in the WSJ my own business program. I tell PR students they should pick an industry they can geek out over and follow in the WSJ and the New York Times. You think I'm kidding? Let's just say the whole argument in congress over the Essential Air Service Program has a completely different feel to it if you understand the basic ways the airline industry works.

Regardless of industry, story after story shows the complexity of nearly every industry. Which brings us to the topic at hand: believe it or not, you have a porn problem.

Yesterday, the paper filed one of its reasonably frequent stories about the adult entertainment industry, this time specifically looking at how that relates to cable/satellite revenues.

You should really read the whole thing, but since you're busy... let's dive in.

Cable and satellite television companies have a pornography problem: Their customers aren't watching enough of it.

Companies' revenue from highly profitable adult video-on-demand and pay-per-view services has been slipping, as the genre's consumers spend more time browsing porn on the Web.

I hear you. You're wondering why you should care. After all, you don't watch porn. (Sure you don't.)

Here's why you should care:

Satellite provider DirecTV cited "lower adult buys" as a cause for weaker pay-per-view revenue in its second quarter earnings. That followed Time Warner Cable Inc.'s admission last week that shrinkage (ed note: Hee!) in the adult category was responsible for more than a third of a $14 million drop in video-on-demand revenue. While only a sliver of the cable company's $4.9 billion in revenue for the quarter, porn is one of TV providers' most profitable segments.

That's right. The company you likely pay monthly so you can watch live sports, news and Game of Thrones is missing out on revenue because you, er, some people won't pay for adult content.

The thing is, shareholders like when companies they invest in make lots of money. They really really really really don't like it when a company misses out on revenue, as that's profit that just doesn't end up back in shareholders' pockets.

Say what you will about capitalism, but them's the brakes. Companies will seek to get that revenue back.

The article notes that cable and satellite providers are going to find some new ways to compete in this sector, citing "exclusive content," competitive pricing (better than free?) and more. And the article addresses the idea that content, prurient or otherwise, has been devalued due to widespread - often free - availability online.

As covered in this blog, some people are taking this to the extreme by cutting the cable cord entirely.

This trend will have consequences. While the article doesn't get there (it's not really the immediate issue), it doesn't take much to connect the dots.

Time Warner, Comcast and the like all offer high speed Internet. It's not too hard to see them saying "Well, if they're not going to buy our TV content and just watch it online, jack the Internet rates." Even DirecTV, which contracts with local Internet providers could likely work this out. My ISP comes to me because DirecTV refers them. That would seem to indicate some sort of binding agreement that could no doubt be adjusted when DirecTV says "You have to pay us more or we stop sending subscribers to you."

We're already seeing mobile phone companies begin to phase out unlimited data. It's only a matter of time before the Internet providers start this. And I'm willing to bet most people will quietly accept the higher rates if it means a la carte programming.

Anyhow, all joking aside, you probably don't watch a lot of porn. But, stories like this from the WSJ show that your cable and internet bills might just be affected by the people who do.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Waiting for that "plus" part...

I take it for granted that everyone has heard of Google+ by now. Such is life when you work in PR and many of your friends are involved in some capacity with social media from a business standpoint. But if, not... Google just reinvented Facebook.

There. You are up to speed.

All week, my Twitter stream has been filled with Google+ tutorials. Analysis. Predictions.

I'm trying to discern what is helpful and what is someone trying to land a new contract for freelance social media counseling.

The truth is, no one knows if Google+ is the next Facebook or the next Google flame-out. And anyone who tells you it's going to replace Facebook? Ask them why.

The thing about social media is that we users still control it. If Google+ makes it, we, the users, get the lion's share of credit. Sure, Google could entice us all with amazing features, but a social media channel is only as good as the users it carries. You probably stopped using MySpace for a number of reasons, but chief among them was probably the fact that, while you may have enjoyed Facebook more, your friends were using Facebook more.

So, I will make no predictions. I will say that, despite the fanfare and countless "social media experts" touting this and that... I'm not buying it all just yet. In terms of functionality, Google+ makes sense, sure. The "circles" idea is a good one, but I'll be stunned if by September Facebook hasn't adopted that style wholesale and likely improved it. You like Google+ video chat? Have you not been using Skype?

Many people are saying they like building a new social network from scratch, finally feeling they are free from FarmVille updates and annoying narcissism from Facebook acquaintances. To those folks... do you know about the "Hide" option? If so, are you afraid to use it?

I'm likely going to post this blog entry on Facebook because I post links there. But not on Google+ because I do not want to update multiple pages at once.

Maybe it will change when more of my friends are on Google+, but so far... I think it's kinda bland. You want a Google+ invite? You let me know. I've got them. And I am not feeling any odd tug to quickly get all my friends on board. I think that's because, for now at least, they're all on Facebook and plenty active there.

After some tinkering today, though, I had a thought. And the people at Google are smarter than me, so maybe they've already thought of this.

On my Blackberry (I know, but really it works. Really well.), I use an app called SocialScope. It's pretty brilliant. It aggregates my Twitter and Facebook feeds into one, but it has full functionality on top of that. I can look at your Facebook profile on SocialScope. I can view photo albums. I can comment, like, retweet and whatever my little heart out. Hell, I can add you as a Facebook friend on SocialScope. The whole thing. I'm sure SocialScope will add Google+ in an upcoming update.

But... what if Google+ decided it didn't need to be its own social network, but an aggregator of all of them? I know, I know... FriendFeed tried that. And it stunk. You know what FriendFeed wasn't? A Google product.

The truth is, I like my Facebook profile. And I have carefully built it and broken up my friends just-so... I can control who sees what. I have my photos and everything. It's great. I don't want to do it again.

I like my Twitter profile, people I follow, etc. I don't want to have another stream to check.

My LinkedIn (your new #2 social network) profile? Also lovely. And also built just-so.

What I don't have is a web site that aggregates it all with full functionality. Where I can, in one view, see everything in all my networks. Comment, like, +1, retweet, recommend... the works. The funny thing? If Google+ did that, it's all I'd use most days. And, yes, then it would be convenient having my Gmail account right there. And Google Maps. And all those nifty things.

But until then - or until all my friends flee Facebook - Google+ is just going to be a site I don't have time for, I fear.

Google cannot give me more minutes in my day. Like you, I have precious few to give to a social network that does everything that my other social network - the one I've put three years of photos and privacy settings into - does not only well, but pretty brilliantly.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If someone wants to lose half a billion...

In case you didn't hear, News Corporation - the same people who bring you Fox News - today sold MySpace for the sum of $35 million.

Link
That is not a small amount of money. Though it is much smaller than the $580 million News Corp. paid for MySpace in 2005.


Let's put this in perspective. Say you bought a house in 2005 for $200K. Now, in our recessioned world, you might get $165K for it (so I hope for you, anyway). Your house would have lost more than 17% of its value. Under News Corp., MySpace lost almost 94% of its value.

Some people thought this was a good deal at the time, by the way.

This will be broken down in business and communications textbooks for generations. Mistakes were made. Facebook, seemingly, didn't make them.

Whatever. That isn't what this post is about. As of the moment I am writing this, News Corp.'s stock price is $17.83/share. What was it on June 30, 2005? A hair below $17 per, according to News Corp.'s investor site.

What I' saying here is News Corp., no matter what you think of the MySpace acquisition, how it ran that business, how it runs any of it's other businesses... it can weather quite a storm.

So, I want to propose to News Corp. that instead of buying a social networking site and losing half a billion dollars (not including the dollars spent on funding MySpace while owning it), instead, if you're going to take the writedown... give the money to me.

Here's my plan:

1) Give everyone - everyone - in America a dollar. Because I'm a nice guy, I'm giving 307,006,550 people a dollar. Doesn't sound like much, but tell me you'd turn down a guy giving you a buck, just because.

That leaves about $196 million.

2) Buy a house.



















No, no... a house.















OK, so let's just figure... conservatively, I'd have about $100 million left. With that...

Man, I don't know.

I wouldn't have enough to buy a National League baseball team and relocate it to Boston, just to mess with Red Sox fans, unfortunately.

I guess at that point you start thinking about charity stuff. Giving back.

I could give $10 million to ten charities of my choosing. That's get-a-wing-of-the-hospital-named-for-you money.

Anyhow, it's a modest proposal.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The next big medical dramas...

ABC has wheeled out a new show called Combat Hospital. I have not watched it. But just as CBS has made CSI spin-off after spin-off, it seems ABC is content to do this with medical dramas.

Let's recap:
  • Grey's Anatomy - Frightfully attractive hospital staff provide services to Seattle's sick and injured in between bouts of providing "other services" to each other. However, when you have good writing and good acting, this can work out.
  • Private Practice - Doctor leaves Grey's Anatomy for sunny Santa Monica to be part of a private medical practice that serves, well... the type of people you expect in Los Angeles that are rich enough to not care if their medical insurance pays for their procedures.
  • Off the Map - Frightfully attractive doctors (in Ecuador?) providing services to the stereotypically Latin American locals while doing some soul searching.
Now, we have Combat Hospital, which, from what I can gather, is doctors on the war front in Afghanistan. This is getting awfully close to M*A*S*H territory, but hey... Grey's Anatomy is awfully close to St. Elsewhere territory and it pulls things off.

So, what's next? What other outrageous places could we set things, preferably with tons of stereotypes to exploit? Maybe:

  • ED Appalachia - Frightfully attractive doctors work with minimal resources in a fictional West Virginia or Kentucky city to provide care for the region's citizens. The big episode of season one could involve a mining accident (pure ratings grab, but hey...). It would also be interesting to see how TV could handle crying families with no insurance...
  • USNS Respite - Four words: doctors on a boat. That's right, members of our Navy (with advanced medical degrees and frightfully good looks, of course) care for our wounded warriors. And the best part? They can be anywhere. Ratings down? Ship 'em someplace new. Would also be lots of chances for sunbathing scenes. Because I'm sure that's what happens on our nation's medical ships.
  • [NAME OF CITY HERE] Children's - This is basically Grey's Anatomy... but the only patients we see are children. Nothing anyone can tell me will convince me this wouldn't be a hit show.
The point - and the sad thing - in all this is that we've clearly come to a point where new ideas are rare. This sort of "people like [thing], so what can we do that's just like [thing]" thought process wins the day. I'd say I wanted any royalties gained from any of the above shows becoming a reality, but I am willing to wager - bad ideas as all of them sound - that they're already being pitched to network execs by someone else.

I'm sure that would be true of any concepts you could come up with in the comments, too (though I would love to hear the premise of a zombie hospital show...).

You see Game of Thrones and you wonder when, exactly, the major TV networks are going to start being a bit riskier with new concepts instead of wrapping the same concepts up in new ways.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The signs are clear

This past week, I traveled to New York on business. I had been back east since moving west, but this time, in particular, the signs were all there... I've become a west coaster. Let's review:

  • Tolerance for heat? Gone. Especially the east coast favorite of "HHH" weather - hazy, hit and humid. Last Tuesday, I basically wilted in the NYC heat and it was the coldest day of my brief trip there. On Weds, it hit 95 and, despite having grown up in this sort of weather, I was done with it. I guess it's more of a testament to the miracles of nature and how we're able to acclimate to the areas we live in. For now, though, if it must be hot, let's do dry heat, k?
  • Apparently, I no longer jaywalk. Or I have to remind myself to do so. I was walking to meet a friend in NYC and the sign said "don't walk." So... I didn't. If you've never been to/lived in NYC, this may mean nothing to you. If you do, you're probably going "You're the pedestrian that, at best, I laugh at and, at worst, want to slap!" But yeah, I have apparently lost my hurry while on two feet.
  • Also, it felt weird to me that the game was on after work. I walked into the bar and the Yankees-Red Sox game was on... and I had already had dinner. I am so used to the bulk of the sports world being done and over with before dinner it was disorienting (though, jet lag certainly had something to do with that).
  • This is going to sound snobby, but it must be said: we have to teach NYC about a good cup of coffee. For a long time, I celebrated the "average Joe" coffee in NYC served in diners, donut shops and more. And, yes, I know many New Yorkers who need their morning Starbucks fix. But the third wave hasn't quite hit the shores of the east coast, from what I can tell anyway.
I don't mean to say this in any way to slam New York or the east coast. I can go on at length over the need for more neighborhood diners, better pizza and bagels, real heavy rail transit systems and more in the West. Similarly, if this was a true pro-con on either coast, I could list things I have here (default rental apts are climate-controlled with a dishwashers, significantly easier access to hiking trails, moderate climate) that win in the west.

It's just, for me, those things listed out helped drive home that I've embraced my new left coast city and its lifestyle. I grew up knowing the northeast. I adjusted to the ease of southern life. We're adaptable... and it appears I've adapted to west coast living.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The perils of oversimplifcation

Twitter gives you 140 characters to make a point. If I don't break this blog up into little tiny paragraphs, you may skim its words, if read it at all.

Study after study shows that Americans have either shorter attention spans or multitask to the point that they need information quickly and concisely.

Not saying any of this is good or bad... or even that these are new problems. Shakespeare said in Richard III: "Tis better to be brief than tedious." That was back in the 16th century.

But our world of soundbytes seems to have led to hyperbole and oversimplification that, perhaps, are not the best ways to examine what is anything but a simple world.

We can see this all over the place. The recent frenzy over Planned Parenthood's federal funding comes to mind. The soundbyte was "They use funding for abortions." That's interesting when only 3% of Planned Parenthood's operations deal with abortion.

Cutting funding would kinda be like if your doctor tells you to cut salt from your diet and you stop eating entirely.

What was missing in this discussion was other services the organizations provides, in what communities, the root cause of someone turning to Planned Parenthood vs. a hospital, potential consequences of taking that away, etc. For a group of people, it was cut and dry... cut funding and we save the government money.

I was discussing this with a friend not long ago and we got into the myriad issues of what "fixing" our economy might take... and why we might not get there. We can use schools as a good example. Lots of people want to pare back funding to public schools.

A quick aside... I love how people want to cut teacher salaries and benefits saying that teachers are making so much more than average Americans. Instead of getting into the vast problems with this general argument, I love that the reaction isn't "Geez, why can't we all have better benefits and salaries" and is, instead, "I don't think people I pay taxes to support should be better off than me." Instead of trying to make everyone's life better, let's all settle on being collectively worse off. Classic.

But I digress...

Anyhow, sure, let's cut funding to public schools. For a lot of people that means efficiency. Makes people do more with less. All that. Cut and dry.

I'm not so sure. Say you're a good teacher. You can work in a public school for a small salary or go to the nearby private school and make a lot more money. It would be nice to say you're very noble and all, but come on... you're going for the money. At this point, the idea of increasing public school teacher salaries based on performance starts to break down. The best teachers potentially flee, meaning improvement doesn't happen.

Worse, your average family has to start to question public schools. I went to a great public school. A school board candidate running there right now wants to do a number of things to cut collective bargaining for the teachers. He went so far to publish the salaries of every teacher in the district.

I left middle school in the summer of 1993. So, 20 years ago, for all intents and purposes. I looked up some of my middle school teachers. The ones that are still there - who were not necessarily "young" back then - are making 98K.

On the surface that sounds like a lot. But... if you got a corporate job at 30 and were told that at 50, after years of service, effort and who know what else, you would still be making under 100K, who would call that company cheap.

I'm sure some of these teachers, who happen to live in an area where home prices are still between 300K-400K, wonder why they didn't go to one of the nearby private schools.

What I'm saying is that this is already something of an odd compensation situation, yet they are under attack. And do I think the local gentry will want to send their kids to lackluster private schools where the best teachers are not? No. Not one bit.

Fine and dandy. Except what do you tell the half of the school district that lives in an area where median incomes and home prices are far below the other half? They might have the best and brightest kid... but no choice on schools. Private schools cost money.

What do those kids do? How do they get into a good college? What do their job prospects end up as?

I don't have answers. But I do think we owe it to the millions of people who are affected by decisions like this to not oversimplify issues when the consequences are far from simple.

Someone is saying "let's cut funding." We need to ask "What will that really mean?"

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ditching the box?

Lately, several of our friends have started considering disconnecting their cable/satellite services. A couple have actually pulled the plug.

Their reasoning up-front seems sound: they want to save money. They say they can stream all the network TV content they want and, for any shows they cannot catch online, they can get on DVD (or streaming) through a service such as Netflix.

I'm not so sure this plan works out in the long term for them.

I can say for sure my wife and I are considering ways we can cut our bill down. Perhaps cutting the Starz/Encore package? But a moment of truth: I watch way too much sports. A friend of mine admits he's "going to likely be spending more time in bars this fall" to catch his college football.

For what it's worth, I have definitely spent the equivalent of a cable bill in a bar tab for a sporting event. And when you consider my lovely wife seems to have grown quite fond of the Yankees and Sounders - and since sports is best watched live - this is a challenge.

Most of the friends we have considering cutting the cord aren't as big sports fans. So, in theory, this is a brilliant move for them. Grab the laptop, hook it up to the HDTV there and voila... all the TV. Free, what for Netflix prices and the cost of internet service.

And there, friends, is where I see the problem. A quick aside...

Twice while I lived in NYC (9/11 and the 2003 blackout), cell phones were useless. A great article in the NY Times afterward explained that, normally, 20% of NYC cell phone owners were making a call. During those two events, 80% were trying to make calls. The infrastructure of the system couldn't handle the load.

We take for granted that things like cell phones work like clockwork. We forget it's still "new" technology and we're still building the capacity for wireless phones in this country.

Well, high speed internet is the same way. We're already seeing cell phone companies phasing in plans to build in tiered billing plans for data use because 10% of users use 90% of the data pipeline.

While we're all used to streaming content, I'm willing to bet that if too many people who use your ISP (Comcast, Time Warner or whoever) start streaming HD content to their TVs all night long, we're going to see slower connections and, at worst, a need to rapidly build new infrastructure to support that use.

Data lines do not build themselves. There are costs for materials, labor and maintenance. And the needs only increase as technology becomes more advanced.

Bottom line: if we all ditch "traditional" TV delivery for internet-based methods, our internet bills are going to skyrocket. My $39.99/month would likely equal my DirecTV bill in time. So, I'm not sure where the savings is over time. And I still wouldn't be able to watch Sounders road games... unless I pay $49.95 for access online.

I do think we are going to come to a moment where TV is offered a la carte... you pick your channels from a menu of prices and set your own monthly bill. To get there, many cable network execs are going to have to lose their jobs, though. I mean, given a choice, do you really want Tru TV? There are countless money-losing cable nets sustained only because they are included in basic packages.

But from a capitalist standpoint, the folks who provide the service aren't going to install better internet infrastructure as a favor to us. They want to make money. They have to recoup their investment.

So before you pull the plug for short term benefit, consider the longer term economics of the industry and how it affects end users.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Germ Panic

In the late 18th Century, English physician Edward Jenner took an untested (at least in modern research terms) theory and ended up finding a way that led to the eradication of smallpox.

A big part of his hunch toward a vaccine was that milkmaids tended to not get smallpox. The theory was that cowpox, a similar, less lethal virus, did something that, in the end, made the body immune to smallpox. In fact, modern science can tell you exactly why this is the case. As an oversimplification, the body "learns" to fight smallpox by killing the similar cowpox virus.

So today, as you live your life free of smallpox, you should be happy that milkmaids of yore weren't using Purell every time they got done touching an udder.

Would you do the same? I doubt it. My lovely wife wrote a rather humorous blog post on the subject of bathroom habits and it got me thinking... We are flipping nuts. Flushing the toilet with your foot? Washing up like you just left a salmonella factory every time you leave the bathroom?

Humans evolved for tens of thousands of years due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was the fact that they got sick now and then. And got better.

I get a cold or two a year. It bites. I hate them and I go to war against them when they hit. But it's all the colds I contract and don't get that are awesome. Thank you white blood cells. You are a finely-tuned army that knocks out diseases I probably don't even want to know about days before I ever feel a symptom.

And it's true. I sit my cell phone on my desk. It rings. I pick it up... and put it near my mouth! How outrageous. Good thing I have a health insurance plan.

You don't have to look far to find plenty of pieces in peer-reviewed scholarly journals to see there is much debate over the real-world benefits of using antibacterial products around the home. I lack the time to get into finding out the specific research methods used by each of these researchers to even begin to get into the validity of findings.

But I can tell you I started my career riding the NYC subway every day - grasping onto a stainless steel pole with any number of random New Yorkers - and today I fly almost weekly. I wash my hands when they are dirty. I do not use antibacterial much of anything. And I get sick almost never. Maybe I've built up some immunity.

I'm not saying if you wash your hands every time you hit the head you're nuts. And I'm sure there's a person out there who can counter my argument here by saying they used to get sick until they started trying to eliminate any germ they come upon.

But I do think we should be able to stand back and realize that here, in an age of antibiotic resistant bacteria, avian flu panics and the rush to medicate, most of the time, we're breathing in things we'd probably rather not consider.

And we not only get through... but possibly get some benefit from it all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fountain of Excess

I fly through Phoenix a lot. Comes with the territory of being a US Airways flyer. I always go for window seats because I am a six-year-old and love looking out the window at stuff. As much as I fly into PHX, I had never noticed something until a few weeks ago.

At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. I kept looking...





Yes. It's a flipping fountain. But, thanks to The Googles and The Internets, I know it is not just any fountain. Apparently, it is the key feature of the Fountain Hills community and was built in 1970. Our friends at Wikipedia say it blasts 7,000 gallons of water every minute through three 600 horsepower pumps and that "ideally" it shoots water 560 feet into the air.

The Washington Monument, by the way, is 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall.

Yes, friends, in the middle of the flipping desert, we have built a fountain that can top out higher than a major national landmark.

I barely know where to start here. I should note that it doesn't constantly run at that power. But, really, in a world where the population is going to hit 9 billion by 2050, while our water supply stays the same, perhaps we might not fire 7,000 gallons/minute of it into hot, dry air for a good chunk of it to simply evaporate.

I'm not against evaporation. It makes rain. However, I am also in favor of irrigating local food supplies. And drinking water. Oh... and not paying out the wazoo to do so.

Anyhow, I'm glad we achieved the miracle of water in the middle of the desert. I'm sure, though, that when the settlers first saw the Salt River in Phoenix, their thoughts were "oh thank the lord it's water... it's 115 degrees out here and we need a drink."

It probably wasn't "I know what let's do... fountain!"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Numbers on Soccer

On Tuesday night, I'm attending the opening of Major League Soccer's 2011 season. In fact, I'll be at all of the Seattle Sounders FC games this season as a season ticket holder.

I have to admit, if you had told me 10 years ago I'd be an MLS season ticket holder, I probably wouldn't have believed it. But, 15 years in, MLS is starting to gain some respect as a soccer league. Players in offseason training with Barclay's Premiership teams in England come back reporting that the gap is closer than ever. And, to be honest, the way Seattle cheers its team on makes the games worth it out of the box... 36,000 rowdy, chanting, singing fans.

When I first went to a Sounders game, I was stunned by the crowd. I've attended a lot of sporting events in my life, been in some jacked up crowds... but never have I seen a crowd quite like the Sounders fans that fill Qwest Field.

It makes some sense. More Americans grew up playing soccer in the last generation than any other sport. I imagine folks my age follow the sport worldwide more than our parents did. It makes sense that the sport would grow.

Major international competitions have become sought-after programming on TV - last year's World Cup got great ratings. The final - which did not include the USA or any Spanish-speaking country - got 24.3 million viewers (15.5 on ABC, 8.8 on Univision). You may find it interesting that Game 7 (game 7!) of last year's NBA finals scored 28.2 million.

That got me thinking... the Sounders set the pace for MLS attendance for a variety of reasons. Seattle is a soccer town. But take a look at the per-game averages for some cities' MLS and NBA teams:

Los Angeles
  • MLS Galaxy 21,473, NBA Lakers 18,997
  • MLS Chivas USA, 14,574, NBA Clippers 17,423

Toronto
  • MLS Toronto FC 20,453, NBA Raptors 16,358

Philadelphia
  • MLS Union 19,252, NBA 76ers 14,315

New York/New Jersey
  • MLS Red Bull 18,441, NBA Knicks 19,717, NBA Nets 13,715

Houston
  • MLS Dynamo 17,310, NBA Rockets 16,151

Now, this isn't really apples to apples. The NBA offers fans 42 home games. MLS give home fans 17. At the same time, In Philadelphia, the NHL Flyers draw 400 more per game than does the Union, so, you can say there's something bringing fans to seats for the hockey and soccer sides that's missing on the NBA side.

And ticket prices make this an unfair comparison in many ways. One can only imagine how many people might shell out for NBA seats if they could sit down low for $500/season like you can in many MLS stadiums.

TV ratings for MLS still lag, though, who knows? If you ask me, the discerning sports fan watches Sounders FC host David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy Tuesday night instead of two iffy NCAA college basketball "play-in" games. ESPN is certainly hoping so.

More than anything, though, the attendance figures - which will likely only be bolstered by big crowds in expansion Portland and Vancouver, plus a likely bump in Kansas City with a new soccer-only stadium opening in June - show that if we base our "major sport" lexicon based on fans-in-seats, pro soccer has arrived in the USA. It's up to MLS to sustain and grow the interest.

But if you are one of those who says "no one in America cares about soccer," the numbers say you're not just using hyperbole.

You're flat out wrong.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Still Fresh

In early 2003, I worked at a PR firm that promoted BBC Video. Not a bad gig for a somewhat-recent college grad. Especially if you like British humor (oh how I still think it's a tragedy what the USA did to Coupling. And don't even start me on my thoughts on the original British version of The Office...).

There was one DVD release, though, that took me by surprise. I had never heard of The Singing Detective. Our product managers on the client side spoke well of it... very well. And, when a member of the PR firm spoke to then-TV critic at the New York Daily News David Bianculli (he's now a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air and founded TVWorthWatching.com), the well-respected critic referred to the 1986 BBC production as one of the best bits of dramatic TV ever. He ended up writing the DVD liner notes.

Most of you have likely encountered Michael Gambon in the Harry Potter films. A younger Imelda Staunton (who also made her way to Harry Potter) has a role. There were plenty of reasons to watch.

It took me until this weekend. For years, I had kept it on the back burner. Countless weekends of time to myself passed with other diversions taking its place. Maybe there was a game on. Maybe I went out with friends. Whatever the case, I couldn't find the six hours needed to burn through the series.

Side note: thank you to our British and Canadian friends at the BBC and CBC, respectively, who don't use the season-based method of shows. By opting to air series of episodes -a format HBO, Showtime and AMC use masterfully today - the concept of good TV writing can be preserved.

Good writing positively abounds out of The Singing Detective.

One of the most challenging and rewarding bits of TV I've ever watched, The Singing Detective holds up masterfully as it approaches its 25th anniversary. The story mixes three somewhat complex threads effectively, even though they are permitted to intermingle throughout and, at first, confusingly. The viewer is left to sort out what the "reality" of the situations are and, as the story develops, the payoff is wonderful. A complex work that challenges us all psychologically, The Singing Detective forces us to live with some severe gray area. As the main character notes:

"All solutions and no clues. That's what the dumbheads want. I'd rather it was the other way around: all clues, no solutions. That's the way things are. Plenty of clues. No solutions."


Things get tied up in the final episode. But the ending, like all good pieces of art, begs questions in its resolution. Something that will keep many a modern viewer uncomfortable, to be sure.

So, as much as I think you should check the series out (not the more recent Robert Downey Jr. movie of the same name), one thing sticks out from the whole experience that I can say whether or not you think a six-hour psych-thriller is you bag of donuts: what are you putting off that you should check out?

It took me nearly eight years to fire up these DVDs. The entire series of Lost started and ended in that time. It pains me to say it, but the Red Sox won the World Series (twice) in that time. The whole time, it was right there, asking for slightly more of me than the time it takes to fly across the country.

If there's something you've been hearing is worth it, break your routine for once and see what awaits. Perhaps, even do so with The Singing Detective.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Vegas

Last week, for the second time in my life, I found myself in Las Vegas.

A side note: both times, my trips to Vegas have been for Ragan/PRSA social media conferences and they have both been amazing. These haven't been two days of listening to presenters pat themselves on their backs about what a great job they're doing. These have been real-time forums and discussions of using social channels as communications tools. I cannot recommend them enough.

Anyhow, back to the story...

I kind of hate Las Vegas.

I am all for societies having their places of ill-repute. I just always thought Los Angeles fit that bill nicely. I challenge any group of frat boys to have a bachelor party in Los Angeles that doesn't go as well as one in Las Vegas. Hell, minus the gambling, it might go better in LA.

And therein lies my first issue with Vegas: the assumption that you are up to no good. Usually, I go to conferences and it's easy to network and meet people. In Vegas, if I start talking to a woman, chances are, she wonders what my agenda is. Vegas makes people assume the worst. So, as a very social person, Vegas puts me at unease. I want to be myself, but any time the social norm is to put anyone through a lens of "this guy wants to hook up," it's tough to talk to people.

Fortunately on this latest trip I 1) met a few people who were honest enough to avoid the trouble of assumed innuendo so we could simply hang out worry-free and 2) ran into my old boss and spent time hanging out with her.

But even hanging out is an ordeal in Vegas.

Whoever designs casinos... those people are smarter than you and me. They are designed to separate you from your money one way or another. And it's brilliant. You don't want to gamble? Fine, head over to the bar over there. Or that other bar. Or the other other bar. Or get some food. Or, hey, why not go shopping?

This weekend, I will be alone in Seattle and I will likely choose to do something outdoors. I'm not counting skiing. I mean, I might go take a walk on the water or sit in a coffee shop and read or any number of "I just want to be low-key and cheap" activities.

Such things do not exist in Vegas. If you are not out and about, you are in your hotel room, thinking you really should be out and about. The irony is there is some beautiful stuff around Vegas. Mt. Charleston. The Grand Canyon. Hoover Dam. These are stone's-throw places that are worth seeing. But despite the proximity, you don't see ads for those. You see ads for Cher's nightly show.

I realize not everyone has world-class restaurants at their fingertips. I get the allure to some of gambling (though it amazes me how people flock to the games the casino has a huge advantage on you. Try craps, people.). And yes, if you are some sort of repressed person, Vegas offers the perfect excuse to act out in discarding your inhibitions, I suppose. So yes... I get why people go there.

But for me, I see nothing that would get me on a plane there except for another conference. Or as a cheap place to fly to go to the Grand Canyon.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kindling support for your local library...

Was speaking to my lovely wife today. As you likely know, we each love our Kindles. Sarah has been a bit flummoxed as to why Kindle seems to be the holdout when it comes to library books being available on the #1 e-reader device. After all, the Nook handles formats that most public libraries have adopted.

The answer, to be sure, is why should Amazon encourage you to get loaner books for free when it's making enough money off e-book sales to offset the loss it takes on Kindles themselves (though, I read that the margin on Kindles may be improving)? From a business standpoint, that doesn't make much sense. Especially when market share is in your favor without offering support for the file formats libraries prefer.

That said, I have a solution that I hope people smarter than me are already considering.

It would look like this:
  • Amazon and your local public library enter a contract where Amazon delivers content, likely segments of books at a time, for free to library members. The library would have to do zero "shelf stocking" here... library members get instant access to any book Amazon sells for Kindle.
  • Halfway through your free book, you hit an optional pay wall that would basically say "If you're enjoying this, why not buy it and have it forever. We normally sell this book for $9.99. We'll let you have it now for $7.99."
  • If you choose to buy, though, the library in your hometown gets $2 of the purchase price.
Think about this... in 2009, the Seattle Public Library checked out nearly 4 million adult books (not that kind of "adult book," you gutter-mind...). Let's imagine five percent of those hit the hypothetical pay wall above and purchased. That's $400,000 to the library, or nearly all of its budget for "materials" in 2009.

With local and national government spending cuts all but guaranteed in coming months, public libraries are going to be facing shortfalls. I suggest a model like this be tested.

Because as much as I like to read, it's tough for me to turn down a cheap good book that, if I purchase, helps give a little bit of funding to my local library to help as they plan community programs.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Win

I've been holding off on this blog for several months in order to distance myself from when the events happened. This is mainly to keep the confidentiality of all involved... the conversation that inspired this post was over drinks in friendly conversation. But, especially after reading the reactions to yesterday's shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, I think it's time.

During my travels in 2010, I found myself in a chat with some friends, one of whom is something of a big shot on the staff of a high-profile politician (you've likely heard of this politician). Names, locations, party affiliation... even the level of government isn't important, because I'm pretty sure what this person told me applies to everyone running for office above your local town council.

This person is interesting... has worked on various national/local campaigns and has, somehow, been in the middle of some very interesting political events. In all posts, this person has been successful.

But what this person said reinforced something I had been concerned about, but was perhaps too idealistic to believe: the simple goal for politicians, I was told, is to win. Not to save the whales, lower your taxes. Win.

Winning brings prestige to an individual. Dollars to municipalities (and, indirectly via book deals and speaking engagements, to the politician). This all makes sense and would be fine if coupled with a genuine effort to help the people.

What is troubling is that this person told me the entire platform of the candidate's recent campaign wasn't based on what was best for the people... it was based on what the people would pull a lever for in the short term. Long-term, holistic goals don't get votes, this person told me. An example was this year's anti-Washington, anti-tax sentiment among a major group of voters. While a larger discussion of our economy might be needed, this person instead helped craft a platform that matched those flash-point messages... and found ways to paint the opponent as the polar opposite.

I admitted this was good campaign strategy, but I expressed that I felt that sort of platform was counterproductive to a sustainable economy in the long term. I mean, someone has to pay for roads and schools, right?

The person conceded the point that the current rhetoric is absolutely counterproductive to long-term economic health, but that I was missing the point. The goal isn't to fix the big problems... the goal is for the candidate to win. Voters wanted to hear the popular messaging rather than get into any sort of real discussion about the long term.

Bottom line, this person's candidate won in the election. Goal achieved.

So here we are, mired in debate about the right way forward in our country. Perhaps, the "vitriol" of that debate has led to a congresswoman shot in the head.

But if the goal isn't to move the country one way or the other, but instead to win elections, the joke is on us. We get worked up... for what?

To me, this just underscores the idea of needing a well-educated electorate. An accountable electorate. One that thinks to the long term in the balance with the short term and takes the time to really see through the consequences of pieces of legislation.

As long as politicians are able to win based on the moods of the population at a given moment in time instead of thought-out policy, there will be no change, on either side of the aisle.