Sips from the Firehose

Dec 13

Year-end Prediction Season Begins (with a look back)

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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At the end of every year, magazines, newspapers, pundits and chuckleheaded bloggers like me all do what we used to call “thumbsuckers” back in my old newspapering days. We kick our feet back on our desks, stare up at the stained asbestos-laced soundbrick ceiling and pretend that we have some special powers of insight & prediction.

Mostly, it’s an excuse to churn out a weekly column without having to try to get people on the phone for an interview during the holiday season.

With that in mind, let’s check out a blast from the past – I chose the predictions made in Fortune magazine back in 2004, at the very height of the artificial subprime boom market, as a means of demonstrating how off-base we can be.

First, there’s the cover story itself:


Remember, this was right after Google had had its fabled rocket-like IPO, and not so long after it had been on the auction block to the much larger & entrenched rival Yahoo! for about $1Bn. All us dot-bomb 1.0 refugees were still a little stunned & dazed from the implosion, and the utter skepticism of financial markets towards anything in the tech sector had not yet been hit by the Apple iPhone/app store wrecking ball.

So maybe they were justified in saying galactically stupid things like: “Far from hailing Google as the next eBay or even the next Microsoft (search the web on that phrase and Google’s name does come up), the skeptics see Google as just the latest dot-com-bubble stock”


“For all its impressive technology and verve, Google, as noted earlier, has no such clear competitive advantage [as Microsoft then did]. That ma help explain why – as was true during the late, great dot-com bubble – many insiders are rushing for the exits. Three top executives, engineering chief Wayne Rossing, general counsel David Drummond, and HR chief Shona Brown, said in SEC filings at the end of November that they had sold blocks of stock worth millions of dollars.”


“Google seems well positioned to repeat or even exceed that impressive corporate performance. Just don’t bet the rent money on it.”

Obviously, the trauma of the dot-com collapse persisted, even four years later. How long is the much larger, deeper, and more far-reaching real-estate & banking collapse going to linger, I wonder?

Moving on, here’s what Fortune picked as some of the best new products of the year:



That’s right. It’s a phone where you dial the number using an iPod clickwheel, and where you twist the body of the phone around so you can see yourself in a mirror. Or something.

Actual quote: “Good design is about knowing what to leave out. Nokia left out the dialing pad […] place your call via speech recognition.”

Good consumer purchasing decision are about not buying fuckwitted designs. Looking at this, the GPS watch (Ooo! Find yourself on Everest!) and the transvaginal ultrasound-looking vacuum cleaner, I gotta wonder exactly what the criteria were to pick a product as “Best.” Was it really about being something that millions/billions would find useful, or was it just about compiling a list of niche products that nobody heard of that make you look smart? (Not that I am immune to such impulses myself. Ahem.)

Finally, the big ad on the back cover says a lot about the tone & tenor of the times:


Yeah, that’s right. A Hummer. Shown here as a “sport utility truck”. The best trend in Los Angeles is that the spike in gas prices has meant that there are fewer and fewer of these absurd road pigs clogging up the highways, weaving erratically in and out of lanes as the narcissist behind the wheel tries to work the scroll wheel on his Nokia phone to call the mortgage broker to buy another dozen or so “investment properties” out in Rancho Cucamonga.

Ah, irrational bubbles. It seems like everything will work, pretty much because there’s so much crazy money flying around the economy, that nothing is too stupid not to find a desperate buyer. As opposed to the current economic climate, where it seems like nothing will work, because even the most brilliant new innovation struggles to find backing.

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Sep 26

Accusing Your Brand of Committing Crimes: Marketing Genius or Madness?

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, New Marketing.
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I understand that to break through the “noise” you have to sometimes be a bit outrageous…

…but accusing yourself in a press release of committing crimes is a bit over the top.


…in a series of “stunts” to gain public attention for a new Apple iPhone 5 and iPad game launch, a startup went overboard causing massive property damage.

At 7:00 am, a crew drove 3 cranes, equipped with 1.5 ton wrecking balls, to a mid-city housing complex. The wrecking balls were painted to look like roundish flying Yumbies, adorable characters who smash through buildings and other structures in the game.

alleged crimes committed as a pr stunt gone awary

The headline here is pure linkbait: “iPhone 5 PR stunt ends in disaster leaving 23 homeless.” Grabs all the journos looking for a follow-up story on the iPhone 5 launch, and seeds in the delicious possibility of catching someone doing something dumb & cinematic to put on the TV news.

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Jan 24

A Social Media Milestone: A Crowdsourced State of the Union Address?

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media.
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The Teleprompter is Us

Tonight’s State of the Union address is being billed as “the most interactive political act ever.”

Well, other than the crowdsourcing that brought people to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Although, if you read through the comments sections on some of the danker political blogs, there’s certainly reason to look back on The Terror as a relatively sane & genteel epoch.

Anyway – it appears that Obama’s web team has spent the past year (or more) preparing to swing into full campaign mode.

From ReadWriteWeb:

In December 2011, I wrote in the ReadWriteWeb Predictions for 2012 that the presidential candidate with the best social media campaign would be the one to win the White House in November 2012. I also said that President Obama would likely be reelected. While social media is not the be all, end all factor in determining the results of elections, pundits will argue that it has greater weight now than it ever has. Candidates pay attention to what their Twitter followers are saying.


To a certain extent, tonight’s State Of The Union will be the biggest campaign stump speech that Obama will give all year, except for maybe the Democratic National Convention. Around the State of the Union speech, the President has built a robust social media campaign to give citizens a voice. This is how government should be run. Open. Transparent. Interactive. Go to where the people are as opposed to making them come to you.



Let’s see how that interactive thingy worked, shall we? ue

The YouTube questions were pretty much what you’d expect – a mix of the rude, the longwinded, the unanswerable and the insane.

Tell EMINEM to Put another Album out..(Name is E=Mc2)
Are you going to liglize weed?
What are your plans for a Zombie Apocalypse? Because you know, if you planned for zombies, you planned for everything.
Dear Obama, is the republican primaries as hilarious for you as it is for me?

im scared of this year. Do u think that think year that the world might end (by the simi-end of Dec. 2012) or it’s completely a myth?

mjh186, Santa Monica, CA
What are you going to do with all the police who think they are all that, just because they can do almost anything they want without getting caught doesn’t make them better. Also my friend told me a police was setting a role model of cussing a 5 grdr
Will you tell us why you passed the SOPA? Do you have anything againsy gay people? Can YOU stop making Cigars? What do people have to have in order to become the president? Is the world gonna end in 2012? PLEASE ANSWER ALL THESE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS!!
mr.president wat do u think about the immagrashin are you think about giving paper 2 those in need
123deadmau5, sunvally cal
I would love to know why marijuana not legal. It is really good for you they said on cnn News it don’t do anything to your lungs compared to people who smoke cigarettes. Also it kills Brain cancer cells and blocks heart blockages.
panterafan6969, Richmond, Virginia
Mr. President, Church’s Chicken or KFC?
train2failure, Long Beach
Why you are spending more money to grab genitles at airports, sell children, traffic weapons, drugs, eugincs depopulation…rather than allowing non corrupt technicians associated with The Venus Project to solve every human need including yours?
Mr. President, if you want my vote again this November, please answer this: WHERE IS THE CHANGE!?Minimum wage still doesn’t cover our basic necessities.A human being cannot survive on these wages with children. How are your children doing? Quite well
I’ll keep my guns, money and freedom You can keep the change you communist bastard!
Can you speak to the American people about the Fema camps ? Maybe quell some of the fear that’s spreading thru the country ?
I can has moonbase?
commanderq, Australia

The Quora questions were a helluva lot better.

Some are pretty interesting: What are the estimated costs to taxpayers of the new agencies proposed by President Obama, such as the Trade Enforcement Unit?

Others are clearly partisan: Why did Obama just rag on George W/Republicans? Was it merely because it’s an election year?

Some are just goofy: Did Jon Favreau write the 2012 State of the Union?


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Jan 08

Wearable Media: T-Shirts, Hats & Wristbands

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Digital Migration, Video.
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Video Everywhere Comes to Our Clothing

I guess it was inevitable.

Back in the 80s, hip designers realized that consumers were willing to become walking billboards for their product logos, all for the sweet, sweet tradeoff of being able to flaunt our ability to buy outrageously overpriced clothing. Slap a big ol’ logo or even just the name onto a t-shirt, mark it up 3000%, and the nouveau riche (but inwardly crippled by insecurity & self-loathing) will fork over fat wads of cash to be able to demonstrate their affluence. And so Guess, Armani, Jordache (remember them?), Dolce & Gabbana and Nike all slapped their logos on otherwise ordinary mass-produced items, and watched their profits soar.

First, from T-Post, an interesting little take on spreading the news, via clothing. These funky designs have actual stories that you can read on the back.

tshirts that double as magazines

These t-shirts will at least keep the person waiting behind you in line at Starbucks well-informed.

I can see a real use for this kind of thing in places like Egypt, Syria, Russia, China — places where the government not only has censored the TV/radio stations, padlocked the printing plants, but DDoS’d the internet and shut down the cellphone grid. In places like that, just having a few people walk through the crowd as passive human billboards, with the latest information on their bodies, is a helluva tool to spread information.

Upside: It radically boosts your revolutionary chic.

Downside: It makes you a target for camel-riding truncheon-wielders.

Next up is a nifty little device that plays a programmable video loop, and that can be fashioned into clothing or attached to microphones to play sponsor’s messages during interviews before, during, or after big events.

It’s called VideoNameTag, and I took a demo unit with me to Kiev, when I taught a group of journalists and professors at the University of Mohyla’s Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism. You can see them puzzling over how to fit it onto their wrists – although they were certainly interested in the prospect of being able to broadcast the latest news via wireless connection to a couple of people walking through crowds.


They’re gearing up for an especially contentious election season in Ukraine this year; one where the pro-Putin crew is already pulling out all the stops to keep a lid on dissent. Not sure how much something like this could help – but then again, having a person walking through the crowd and playing a loop, such as the famous sequence showing the death of Iranian protestor Neda Soltan – could provide a form of information dissemination that would transcend the attempts at censorship.

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Nov 21

Video of Rare Sei Whales Off Dana Point

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Video.

I’ve lived in the LA area for more than 20 years now (gulp!), and this is the first time I’ve ever actually gone out on a whale-watching cruise. The impetus for this trip was a visit from my Tennessee-based sister, who wanted to go out on the water. Since it’s November, and actually going out to the beach would involve parkas & scarves rather than bikinis, I figured this would be a nice compromise.

It turns out that it was a very unusual experience – we saw two species of cetaceans that are quite rare – especially as close to shore as we found them.

First, there were the Risso’s Dolphins – big honkin’ beasts. Seriously. I’ve swum with the familiar bottlenose dolphins, and been intimidated by the sheer strength of a 500-lb critter that is made out of pure muscle & gristle. Touching a dolphin while you’re swimming is a lot like putting your hand on the hood of an idling 18-wheeler.

Risso Dolphins

A pod of Risso's Dolphins - these guys look like mini-whales. They're white and gray, rather than the familiar battleship gray of their bottlenose kin, and much thicker around.

You just get this deep, thrumming sense of power.

Next, just as we were about to go in (and about time, too, as most of the passengers were starting to turn a little blue), we heard the long, extended “PFFFFFFttttttt!” of a whale breaching about 100 yards away. Turns out it was a couple of Sei Whales (pronounced “Say Whales,” although I kinda like thinking it’s French “C’est Whales”) who were in about 60-80 feet of water. Which is unusual, because if a whale this size actually stood on its head, it could wave it’s flipper out of the water, like a little kid in the shallow end of the pool.

The video is a little shaky, because I’m shooting it with a long zoom from a handheld Canon 60D from the pitching bowsprit of a catamaran, as we chase after the whales.

We were all just ecstatic over seeing these giant creatures moseying along. The best we can figure out is that they eat krill & small fish, and the unusual water temperatures this year, that have also brought so very many Blue Whales so close to the coast, also have attracted the Sei Whales … maybe the same thing that’s brought the Risso’s Dolphins in?

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Sep 13

Moran Cerf, Madonna, and the Mass Media Reality-Distortion Field

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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Moran Cerf describes his “Liberty Valance” moment on KCRW’s UnFictional

I’ve already posted this to my Facebook profile, but the story put a hook into me, and deserves a more thorough reaction, comment & perhaps clarification.

This story struck a particular chord with me, because in my professional career, I’ve seen first-hand how a media meltdown can bend reality, even for the people who had first-hand knowledge of what really happened. If you haven’t already heard it, please click on the link above and listen to what happened to Moran when he blundered into the international media spotlight.

Basically, Moran was doing research into how the brain functions, and two words in the press release they had prepared sounded to an editor at the BBC as though they were announcing that they were able to record dreams.

The story took off, and Moran struggled for weeks with the misperceptions that hardened into “facts” in the minds of the international media. I can’t do justice to what happened next, only groan in familiar pain as he describes how the story took on a life of its own and drowned out the original message they were trying to convey (which is in the video below).

Thought projection by neurons in the human brain

This really resonated for me because of something that happened more than 20 years ago, back when I was working as a paparazzi (yes, I was one of the unholy legions that race through the streets of Hollywood like the minions of The Humoungous in Road Warrior. It was fun for a while, and I wrote a book about it). The situation was that Madonna and Sean Penn were getting divorced. The bureau chief was struggling to find some new way to spin the story; it was widely suspected that Penn, who was, and is, notorious for his volatile temper, had freaked out over some of Madonna’s flirtatious behavior. But to say that Penn had smacked her around would be to accuse him of a felony in print — a real no-no in the journalism game, and one that can wind you in court for years, defending serious libel litigation.

What to do, what to do …

Well, the editor fabricated the story that Penn had pitched a fit over Christmas and tied Madonna to a chair. He used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”


The story was the right combination of lurid & salacious (leading to big newsstand sales!) while still remaining on this side of actionable and defamatory. It ran to great acclaim and got picked up by all manner of other news outlets, repeated again & again as the moment that Madonna and Sean split up. And the phrase “trussed up like a turkey” was used by other media outlets, and then spread to all the TV tabloid shows – A Current Affair, Hard Copy, etc. etc.

Years later, I was going through the morgue (no, not the place where they store dead bodies, although I was actually in such places for stories at other times during my career — the “morgue” is what we used to call the battered filing cabinets full of clippings from old newspaper and magazine stories that we used for research). I was trying to find some background fact on Madonna, and I started to notice a pattern.

Over the years, every time she did an interview in the early 90s, Madonna was asked about her relationship with Sean Penn (and in turn, he was asked about her). They would refer to the story about their Christmas fight, and they would deny it. At one point, Sean said something like “they said I dressed up like a turkey” (apparently, someone had mispronounced or misunderstood the verb “trussed”) and laughed.

And then something very strange started happening.

Madonna started saying that the reason she split up with Sean Penn was that they had had a fight over Christmas. And that he had tied her to a chair.

She even used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”

The story had been repeated so many times over the years, that even the people to whom it was supposed to have happened, who knew it to be untrue, had come around to believe that it had actually happened to them. Madonna had heard so many people talking about how she had been tied up, that she actually believed that it had happened to her. Her perceptions of reality had become unmoored … although many might say that this is a rather common condition in Hollywood.

This is the effect of the mass media on us these days. It is like an enormous, all-encompassing hypnotist, whispering in our ears wherever we go, flashing subliminal (or liminal) messages at us all the time.

Repetition has an effect on human consciousness. On perception. On memory. Why else do those damn radio ads for cheap car insurance chant their “Dial 1-800-blahblahblah” numbers at us over and over again? Why else do we train little kids how to say their alphabet and do their times tables with flash cards?

Moran Cerf’s work centers around the micro scale — how on a personal level, we don’t really know what we think we know. My life has been spent examining that effect on a more macro scale — where, as a society, it doesn’t matter what really happened, only what people think (and say) happened.

Reality is, indeed, what we make of it. Which is both exciting, and frightening.

Now watch this video of Moran talking about colonoscopies.

The Illusion of Free Will – Mindshare LA

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Nov 30

Ships that pass in the dusk…

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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The view from Water Island, as ginormous cruise ships motor past.

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Sep 30

Taiwanimation: No Longer Parody, But Actual Useful News Interpretation

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Online Video, Politics & New Media, Video.
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A while back, I was asked to give me take on “The Emerging Visual Language of Online Video” as part of Rosental Alves’ amazing yearly journalism conference in Austin.  I made the room laugh when I showed parody videos like the “SoulWow” and others, created by the People Formerly Known As The Audience.

Check out this interpretation of Bob Woodward’s book on Obama & Afghanistan:

My larger point (other than getting a cheap laugh, which is never to be, well, laughed at) was that the first impulse of video-makers is to take things that they know and love, and that their friends know and love, and to do their own snarky take on them. It’s what we see when little kids get their mitts on video cameras for the first time, and produce their own home movies.

It’s what Spielberg did when he was a kid and producing his own WWII epics in his backyard. My sisters, cousins & I did this back in the (mumble mumble) decade, with 8mm film, and a script based on what we had seen of ads of movies like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (we couldn’t get into R-rated theaters in Wisconsin).

For the average user, producing a video is an inherently daring process. Any media creation is, really – but creating a video is so much harder than typing into a WordPress text window (ahem), that it ratchets up the anxiety. As any good comedian can tell you, laughter is the release of anxiety.

Creating funny, sarcastic or absurdist videos is a way to laugh at yourself, before everyone else does (again – check with comedians as to why they became class clowns – something to do with avoiding beatings from the bullies, I expect).

But now these videos are coming into their own. Before the book has really cleared out of the news cycles, already there’s a video (pretty good quality, too), interpreting it in a way that makes you pay attention.

In the attention economy … this is pure gold.

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Sep 09

Optometry Exam or Junior Birdman

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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When dealing with the crumbling health infrastructure of the declining USA, you have to take your jollies wherever you can find them.

Left unattended in the exam room for 1/2 hour, after showing up on time and standing in line for 1/2 hour just to check in (everyone was at lunch, the counter harridan eventually spat at me) and cooling my heels in the waiting room for an additional 45 minutes, I was not in the best of moods.

So I compensated by messing with all their shiny, expensive gear. Guess Kaiser blew the bank on all the cutting edge (but empty) rooms around me (this place is so vacant it feels almost post-Nuclear), and skimped on actually staffing the place up.

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Aug 30

California Tourism Ads Featuring the Governator

Posted: under advertising, Amusing Nonsense.
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For at least a couple more months, this is the face of California tourism.

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