Friday, November 30, 2007

By the Interest Vested in Me, I Now Pronounce You...

During the recent YouTube Republican presidential debate, Anderson Cooper brooded into the camera lens and said, "We're not going to just analyze the horse race; we're going to cover the issues." Right. Like they did during the most recent Democratic debate, in which (from what little I saw), Joe Biden and Bill Richardson gave the most complete and interesting answers to the questions, and the "coverage" focused on who got flustered, who stumbled, who sighed, who perspired, who attacked Hillary and how.

An analogy occurred to me. When it comes to something like sports... like when Fox knows it's going to be televising the World Series, the network absolutely knows what it wants to have happen: Dodgers-Yankees, Mets-Yankees... the matchups that have good drama, involving big-market teams, that will draw high ratings and allow it to maximize its advertising revenues.

The frustrating thing for the network is this: It has no actual control over who makes it to the World Series. So if it's Padres-Indians, they're SOL.

A presidential election is the same way. It's pretty clear that all the networks want Hillary vs. Rudy. And why not? The storyline is interesting. Two politicians from big-market New York, different styles, polarizing this, 9/11 that.

But here's the difference: In the case of a Presidential debate, the networks CAN play a role in deciding who gets there. How? By anointing front-runners, by focusing on fundraising prowess, by televising a debate but ignoring the substance of every answer, talking about the "horse race," and treating high-quality (but, apparently less interesting, though I beg to differ) candidates like Joe Biden as if they were invisible.

Is this a conspiracy? No. The networks aren't in some kind of back-room collusion to do this. There's no need. They all need to sell advertising, and they all come to the same obvious conclusion on which storyline is going to get the most attention. Yawn.

There's just one small problem: It's not objective reporting, and it's not good for the country. It's like rigging the game, and the networks are making good candidates like Biden and Richardson into the Black Sox of 1919.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Conspiracy Conspiracy

I feel sorry for the word "conspiracy." It's overused, misused and abused. And the truth is, it actually applies to very little.

My F12 Macbook dictionary rather blandly defines "conspiracy" as "a secret plan by a group of people to do something unlawful or harmful." Fair enough, but I think true conspiracy bulks up the group aspect. For a conspiracy to really be a conspiracy, it can't be three middle schoolers plotting to embarrass the red-headed kid with the acne by writing "pizza face" on his locker with Clearasil. Conspiracy on a grand scale involves groups of big, powerful organizations... not just people.

Unfortunately, many of us use the word "conspiracy" to describe things that aren't conspiracies at all. Is Hillary Clinton the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy? Absolutely not. The vast majority of the right wing hates her outwardly and makes no secret about it. Why conspire?

Is global warming a conspiracy, as nut jobs (who also happen to be U.S. Senators) like James Inhofe would have you believe? Surely you've heard of the powerful Egghead Mafia. Psst: Wind turbines manufacturers are the new dry cleaners, wink wink.

But the main beef I have with conspiracies is the fallacy that anyone is organized enough and willing to take the risks to pull off a really big one. Yes, I'm talking 9/11. Someone recently said to me, "Can you imagine what people in this country would do if they knew that 9/11 was 50 years in the making among the CIA and other organizations?"

The answer is supposed to be "rise up and revolt," but that's exactly the case against the conspiracy. Believing any conspiracy to exist on a grand scale is inadvertently, and grossly, flattering. Anyone near the top of even a small organization knows that every organization, despite its outward appearances, is shockingly, um... disorganized.

Then there's the risk. All those groups, all those people, all you need is one little smoking gun and the whole thing unravels. You think people--especially those evil corporate types who've made a living understanding the pros and cons of risk--would take on that kind of risk?

Ah, you might say, but you assume that law enforcement, the media and other balancing forces are outside the conspiracy, when really they're part of it.

And then, we must stop talking. Because the truth is, the organized forces of evil in our species pale in comparison to the forces of disorganized laziness.

And that, friends, is actually cause for optimism.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Consumption Without Consequence

A good friend just returned from a trip overseas. He travels a lot both personally and professionally... Germany, India, China, Vietnam, Israel and Egypt in just the last year or so. He's reluctant to be one of those people who thinks "everything's better in Europe" (even though he's lived there on two separate occasions), but he did relate two interesting tidbits to me yesterday:

1) No matter where he's been, the people in every country (we're talking the professional class) share one belief: George W. Bush is a moron; and

2) In Germany, they just can't understand why the United States can't stop spending money it doesn't have.

The former point has been beaten to death, and consensus on the matter is almost as concrete as gravity or man-made global warming. The latter point is far more interesting anyway, because it refers to something more permanent than a single president.

I asked him if the Germans he talked to were referring to the government or the people. "Both," he said.

It's true, of course. The government runs up debt on revenues it doesn't have. The people spend, spend, spend way beyond their means... using credit to buy non-essential items, taking on interest-only mortgages, guzzling fuel whose supply (even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges as of last week) will soon hit its peak--and, let's never forget, directly funds Wahhabi-based terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

I remember a phrase coming to mind when W. told everyone to be patriotic in the wake of 9/11 by continuing to shop:

"Consumption without Consequence"

I had hoped that I could introduce this phrase into the political lexicon so that certain factions on the Left could use it to hammer certain factions on the Right. That hasn't happened and never will, of course. I'm no Frank Luntz.

But if I could sum up an American trait that has now officially turned from childishly amusing to just plain dangerous, that would be it. We are a nation that believes in consumption without consequence. No, it's not just the stereotype of the SUV-driving suburbanite; it's all of us except the very poor. It's not going to change without a rude awakening, and I suspect that awakening is coming a lot sooner than we'd like to believe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

LangAlert: Nerb Edition

My apologies for offering another LangAlert so soon, but this one is fresh off the airwaves. As I was flossing my teeth just two hours ago, the following sneaked out of my shower radio and clobbered my left ear:

"... And this has allowed the idea to kind of spiderweb throughout the city."

This is another in the growing tradition of "nerbing": using nouns as verbs to communicate something in a seemingly original way. Other examples include "ponding" (as in, "Beware of ponding rain after this storm system passes through!") and "plate" (as in, "The food is of mediocre quality, but it is plated beautifully!")

"Spiderweb" as a verb was new to me, but I have to admit something on this one: If I look at it as an evocative way to communicate something quickly (something I appreciate as a hack screenwriter), it actually worked for me. I didn't have the usual cringe, throw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little moment. I got a picture, and it made sense. Sure, the person could have said "spread," but "spiderweb" is actually, in a strange way, more precise.

Which leaves me conflicted, because I hate nerbs (as well as their cousins, nadjectives and vouns), but I also enjoy making up words if I think they're prevocative (precise and evocative).

Spiderweb. Hmmm... I'll have to noodle this one for awhile. In the meantime, feel free to word an opinion of your own.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Most Disturbing Trend of All

I've noticed something over the last three years that I think is the most disturbing and annoying trend in America.

* Crocs? No. They're cute on kids, and adults will feel adequate embarrassment in 5-10 years.

* The tendency of sports radio personalities to stutter on the word "I"? No. That's been around a long time; I've just never heard a good explanation for it.

* Banner ads with annoying and irrelevant animations? Not quite, although I've noticed they're not going away, so they must work.

What I've noticed is that nobody listens anymore.

I'm serious. I know this sounds like the mutterings of a cranky retiree, but it's true. Sit in a meeting in any organizational setting in America, and what you will witness is an absolutely stunning lack of communication.

The main culprit: interruption. There's simply no shame in doing it anymore. In a meeting, rather than letting others around the table begin and complete thoughts, it is now acceptable to jump in whenever and wherever one chooses--even right in the middle of a sentence uttered by the person paying for the meeting.

The effect snowballs, as others in the room realize that UNLESS THEY INTERRUPT, they will not get a chance to speak. This leads to a kind of "interruption arms race," in which people struggle to interrupt more loudly and quickly than others in the room, which in turn leads to some seeming to plan ahead of time what they want to say when they interrupt.

When it's all over, everybody leaves having spoken but not listened. Each person has a completely different interpretation of what happened in the meeting and what is supposed to happen after the meeting. The next time the group gets together, they are astounded at the number and scope of their misunderstandings.

Two things are primarily to blame here: technology and the media. In my own work life, between the DING of emails, the PLOP of instant messages, the high-tech "RING" of my land line, the Kashmir mp3 ring of my cell phone, the BEEPing of text messages on my cell phone, and good old-fashioned people dropping by my office, I probably scrape together at most 30 seconds of continual concentration on any one thing. Last Monday, I jotted down the number of different projects I'm working on (even for a few minutes) for just that day, and it came to 15. Trying to do 15 different things when you're interrupted every 30 seconds is a recipe for insanity. And my situation is typical. Life is full of interruptions. It's no wonder we end up doing it ourselves.

Second, the media. Media trainers make a living teaching politicians and CEOs to see the media as nothing more than a tool to get out their message. I went through this training myself more than 10 years ago. I was asked, "What three things do you want people to know about product x?" I listed three things. "Okay, I'm going to ask you questions. No matter what I ask, by the time you're done answering, you MUST have communicated at least one of those three things."

It was damn near impossible. "Why is the sky blue?" "That's a good question, Bill. I'm not sure I can answer why the sky is blue, but I do know that it sure looks bluer when you use Acme window cleaner..."

This is why politicians sound so canned: They're actually trained not to listen. Or, more accurately, they're trained to listen, but only for one thing: the best opening through which to drive their agenda. Alas, we are all turning into the people we claim to despise: media-savvy politicians.

Can you hear me now?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

LangAlert: "Move-Forward Basis"

According to the Consumer Price Index, prices rose a significant 0.3 percent in September. The increase was blamed largely on rising food and energy costs.

In other news, according to the CLI (Corporate Linguaflation Index), verbal bullshit rose an even more aggressive 1.5 percent for the same month. The rise was blamed largely on the increasing use of the term "move-forward basis" in track-lit conference rooms throughout the country.

Surely you've heard this one. Instead of saying something clear and intelligible, like, "Okay, let's talk about where we go from here"... we now get, "Let's discuss the types of strategies and tactics we need to utilize to achieve success on a move-forward basis." (The kissing cousin "go-forward basis" can also be utilized... um, used.)

Move. Forward. Basis. This is another case where laziness does not account for change. (Otherwise, the term would be shorter and easier to say.)

It's really about packaging. Someone somewhere (I'm going to call him Ned) discovered that not every element of the abstract concept of "the future" had been fully colonized and packaged. "Sure," he thought, "we talk about tomorrow, looking ahead, planning for next quarter... but has anyone ever packaged the specific idea of 'what we're going to do once this meeting is over'?"

"A-ha!" screamed Ned. "An opportunity! I'm going to call this a 'move-forward basis.' It's catchy. It has action. It's dynamic. It sounds positive. It makes it seem like we're doing something whether we are or not. It expresses the intention to act, and that's almost as good as action itself. In fact, it's better, because there's no risk of failure."

And Ned used the term in his next meeting, and every accelerated MBA holder in the room thought, "Wow, that sounded good." And it spread like a virus.

Well, I'd like to banish this bit of linguistic flatulence to the ash heap of history. There. Done. Now, what should we do next?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Your Dog Does Not Understand You

Since my previous post generated some good controversy, I'd thought I'd try to win people back over by ripping on dogs.

Not dogs, really, dog owners. I like dogs. I like cats better, which I know is a very endearing quality. I like cats better because they seem pretty pissed off most of the time, which probably has something to do with the fact they've gone from being worshiped in ancient Egypt to having to pee in a sandbox next to the water heater.

Dogs are great, too. Loyal, earnest, playful, all that stuff. But dog owners baffle me, because no matter how much evidence they're presented with that their beloved pet does not understand anything they're saying beyond simple commands, they continue to talk to Fito like a human being.

My ornery neighbor when I was a kid, Estel Brockus, had a small yippy canine named Judd, who would bark at the air and scare the crud out of school kids walking down the alley. "Judd, stop that! Judd! JUDD!!" Didn't work.

I know people who have dogs that are clearly out of control... jumping on people when they walk in the door, trying to steal their food, barking over conversation. They talk to the dog in a rational way, and nothing changes. I sit there and think, "Why don't you simply remove the dog from the situation?"

Two hours later, they finally do. "Okay, Barkley, you're going outside!" (Brilliant idea!)

And the thing is, the longer people have had their dogs, the more likely they are to do this, and I guess this is the part that really does baffle me. The more you know someone, the more you should know about who they are, what they respond to and how they behave. Not with dogs.

Cats are different. Oh, they understand what you're saying. They just don't care. But at least we have an understanding.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Why We're Doomed

A catastrophic drought has gripped the American Southeast for months. Last I heard, the city of Atlanta was less than 90 days from running out of water.

I'll say that again: The city of Atlanta was less than 90 days from running out of water.

That means no other water. No "reserve" source that kicks in. No diverting the pipes from somewhere else. It means Atlanta is on track to experience a day when, like, millions of people would turn on their faucets and nothing comes out.

When I heard that Sonny Perdue, the governor of Georgia, was hosting a ritual to pray for rain, I was disturbed enough. Then when I clicked the AOL quick poll and found that 70 percent of respondents think this is a helpful thing to do, I just about put the pistol in my mouth.

That's it. We're done.

P.S. I've since realized that maybe Governor Perdue is doing this because he knows that the forecast calls for rain in a few days, so he can say, "See, God answered our call!" Yes, we're done.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

MasterDebates: Smoking Ban

Welcome to the second segment of MasterDebates, an occasional feature on BBS in which I discuss issues of the day with myself. As always, today's masterdebaters are Bellamy Grant and Grant Bellamy. Welcome, gentlemen.

Bellamy Grant: Good to be here, me.
Grant Bellamy: That goes for me, too.

Let's get right to it. Like many other states (and even entire countries), Minnesota is instituting a statewide smoking ban. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Bellamy Grant: It's a good thing. Even some smokers agree with that. Look, we're talking about one of the most diabolical products ever devised. If some people want to use it and commit suicide, I guess that's their right. But we don't live in a vacuum. Any time you smoke a cigarette, it affects other people. That means "public policy" is an appropriate consideration. And a smoking ban is good public policy.

Grant Bellamy: There's something more important than "public policy" here. It's called property rights. There's only one real way to look at this issue, and that's from the bar owner's perspective. A bar owner should be able to decide whether or not people in his or her establishment can engage in a completely legal activity. Period.

Bellamy Grant: I'll admit that that way of thinking sounds logical, but it's not that simple. People who own bars and restaurants can't do absolutely anything they want. They can't knowingly poison one of their patrons. They can't store plutonium. They can't cover the floor with shards of glass.

Grant Bellamy: What's your point?

Bellamy Grant: My point is that bars and restaurants are private businesses, yes, but like any private business, they're regulated, and for good reason.

Grant Bellamy: If they did any of the ridiculous things you're talking about, they would go out of business without the assistance of "regulation."

Bellamy Grant: Sure, those are extreme examples, but there are also OSHA regulations, fire regulations. Surely these are good things, right? People like to know that when they go to a bar or restaurant, their food wasn't handled by someone who didn't wash their hands after using the bathroom, eh? Or are you saying that sanitizing after defecation should be left up to the individual to decide?

Grant Bellamy: Of course not. The bar owner should have that rule.

Bellamy Grant: And what if he doesn't?

Grant Bellamy: Then I won't go there.

Bellamy Grant: How will you know?

Grant Bellamy: I'll ask.

Bellamy Grant: What if he's not obligated to tell you?

Grant Bellamy: Then I won't go to his friggin' bar!

Bellamy Grant: Sure is easier and more efficient if there's a law. Then you don't have to go through all that work.

Grant Bellamy: Okay, fine. Let's say for the sake of argument that OSHA and fire regulations are acceptable. What's the slippery slope on the other end? Again, smoking is a LEGAL activity. Should governments be able to ban legal activities in private business? Should they be able to tell a bar owner what he can charge for a glass of wine?

Bellamy Grant: Sex is a legal activity. It's not legal to have sex in a bar.

Grant Bellamy: Have you ever been to a nightclub on First Avenue?

Bellamy Grant: Point taken.

Grant Bellamy: Look, if our big concern is public health, why not ban bars all together? Why are we addressing tobacco and ignoring alcohol? Is alcohol a healthy substance to consume? If we want to prevent cirrosis of the liver, we should ban alcohol. For that matter, we should ban fast food. You're going to play the "health care costs" card? The mantle of "public health" is far too wide open. If you're going to use it as the linchpin for an argument, then you have to take it all the way. Go back to Prohibition. Force people to work out. Make cigarettes illegal. Close McDonald's. Live in Singapore. Summer in Riyadh.

Bellamy Grant: I think the difference is second-hand smoke. You can point to plenty of things that are unhealthy, but they don't directly damage the health of people around the user like second-hand smoke.

Grant Bellamy: Really? I'd say if you talked to kids and spouses who've been beaten by drunken dads, they might say "second-hand alcohol" is very much a reality. Not to mention people who've been killed by drunk drivers. I'm not positive about this, but I would guess that alcohol consumption directly correlates with all forms of violence, including rape. Sure, you may not be breathing something into your lungs. But I think an abused wife will take a husband who only smokes versus one who drinks.

Bellamy Grant: So you're advocating for banning everything now?

Grant Bellamy: I'm just saying, be consistent. Personally, I'd rather make my own choices, wouldn't you?

Bellamy Grant: Okay, yet another slippery slope argument. So if, as you wish, we let people behave as they want to regardless of its effect on others, why not legalize everything... drugs, prostitution... hey, rocket launchers for everyone!

Grant Bellamy: I'd rather have that than a society that takes away personal freedoms in the name of Puritanical fallacy.

Guys, we're running out of time. Bottom lines.

Bellamy Grant: Bottom line, smoking bans save money, save lives, improve public health and make your children less likely to pick up smoking. Smoking bans good.

Grant Bellamy: Bottom line, smoking bans are regulation run amok. They're random, irrational and violate private property rights. Smoking bans bad.

Great, now let's get a beer.

Bellamy Grant/Grant Bellamy: Agreed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Difference #3

This is the third installment in an ongoing series in which I attempt, as diplomatically as possible, to shed light on the actual differences between liberals and conservatives. For previous "Differences," see below:

Difference #1
Difference #2

Introducing Difference #3:

Liberals need to feel smarter than everyone else; conservatives need to feel tougher than everyone else.

Like any club or religion, political parties and their accompanying schools of thought are "superiority" vehicles. In keeping with my overall feeling that the real culture war being waged in America is one of intelligence vs. masculinity, each of those terms falls along party lines.

Liberals feel better informed about what's going on the world and have a strong trust of academia, especially when it comes to issues like the environment. They feel smarter about non-American cultures. Smarter about food quality and health. Smarter about urban planning and overconsumption. Smarter about corporate power. Smarter about energy. To them, conservatives are ignorant or just plain dumb. They revere genius and wit... Einstein and Jon Stewart.

Conservatives eschew academia in favor of think tanks and research conducted or sponsored by 501(3)c organizations. But mostly, their positions are about being tough. Tough on crime. Tough on terrorism. Tough on welfare and entitlement programs. Tough on taxes. Tough on the U.N. Tough on panhandlers. Tough on regulation. To them, liberals are overly idealistic are just plain weak. They revere optimism and masculinity... Ronald Reagan and Ted Nugent.

The key to finding any decent debate is locating members of each group who don't appear to be overcompensating.