Dear Terrorists: 9/11 Memorial is Everything You Had Hoped

An open letter to the dozen or so body-shaven psychopaths who took down the World Trade Center several years back:

Dear Hijackers:

Your intention was to frighten and intimidate the most powerful nation on earth by striking its most illustrious and vibrant city. Moreover, you chose to fly hijacked passenger jets into a pair of iconic towers that represented (to you, anyway) the economic power and might of the American way of life.

Almost thirteen years later, and with the so-called 9/11 Memorial open to the public, we can say with near certainty that you have accomplished all you might have dreamed, and more.

You presumed that these attacks would absolutely shatter our sense of invulnerability and turn us away from an embrace of freedom and towards a more guarded, frightened stance that talks about freedom but delivers heavy policing and massive surveillance.  You have made us all stand in line and partially disrobe before getting on an airplane. You have caused us to fight a necessary battle that turned into an unnecessary war in Afghanistan; and gave license to a few dark leaders who brought us, via an orchestrated series of treasonable lies, into a disastrous and costly war in Mesopotamia. You killed, therefore, not just thousands at Ground Zero, but thousands more in the field.

You freaked us out so badly that we forgot about trying to progress into a world of betterment for our citizens and focused us instead on measuring everything our citizens want to do against what steps we “must” take against the amorphous threat of “terror” we now presume your compatriots pose. Too often, the citizens lose and so-called “security” wins. We all feel so much better now that our guards wear helmets and flak jackets, and that they have submachine guns at the ready! Not.

Quite pointedly, you have managed to clear a large area of Lower Manhattan and have allowed us to fall victim to our own worst instincts in the creation of an arid, forbidding, defeatist “memorial” that combines both new real estate with inhumanly scaled architecture; and a place of remembrance but not defiance. You have allowed us time enough to worship at two giant holes in the ground; it is almost as if you yourselves had submitted the plans for these ignominious trenches at which we now must forever stare silently. And this after a dozen years of utter disruption in a once-thriving neighborhood that will never again be a part of New York City but only a theme park of mourning and solitude.

I know this because I used to live across the street from Ground Zero and was (thanks again, thou virgin-attended souls) forced over and over to go way out of my way to get anywhere because of construction fences that cordoned off an area larger than the downtown of many a medium-sized city. I find my notions reinforced by a recent New York Times article about the memorial in which it is posited that the place is glum, separate and uninspiring.

You have made it so that we now have a large public space in which (according to the New York Times article) very few behaviors are permitted, and where protests are specifically excluded in contravention of what we used to call the U.S. Constitution but which now, except for Amendment 2, we now might as accurately call the U.S. list-of-gentle-suggestions-to-the-mighty- assuming-we-are-not-interrupting-your-regatta.

I would like to commend you specifically for turning New York from a bold city of incorrectness and ferment into a fortress of fear with a heavy dose of pomposity. New York will not  be the same ever, but perhaps it will recover from the blows you struck, and then from the wounds we inflicted upon ourselves during our collective, national nervous breakdown.

My fear is that it may be too late. Prices are so high now that no one without a real stake in the winners’ circle can even hope to survive in New York City; much less take an unpopular stance against the One Percent for fear of being pepper-sprayed, manhandled and shackled while doing nothing violent but for letting the world know one might not be on board with the current, crushingly unfair economic regime.

It is quite remarkable how you got to define our city and our nation in the 21st Century, where we had defined ourselves and the rest of the world in the 20th.

We ought to have been smarter. Perhaps your real triumph was that you gambled we would not be–and turned out to be right.

Disrespectfully Yours,





History Channel Offers Platform for Rumsfeld

I am rather hopelessly addicted to the subject of World War 2.  As the most cataclysmic event in human history, I think it deserves the attention.

So when the History Channel began airing an excellent three-part series on “The War Years” (1914-45) which included WW1 and the Depression years, I was square in my viewing seat and very much looking forward.

In many ways I was not disappointed. The “reenactment” of seminal events with live actors playing Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin are quite excellent.

However, the commentators seem like a lineup of hawkish Republicans who offer only the most standard, unimaginative analyses I’ve seen. They include John McCain, Colin Powell, General Stanley McChrystal and the barking dog Rumsfeld.

It’s not that I expected the History channel to give us an unusual take on it–that WW1 was everyone’s fault and that wars in general are fought to enrich arms manufacturers–but to have to watch Rumsfeld, the author of our country’s worst military disaster (Iraq), spout off about these great events seems the equivalent of having Pete Best critique the Beatles.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with hearing old white men share their thoughts, but certainly not these guys (apologies to Powell).

All the Information in All the World

Devout clerics used to argue how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Some say it’s a certainty that one day, all the knowledge in all the world should fit on one. The world in a grain of sand – or silicon: this awaits us. And the insights we might gain from this concentration of knowledge seem limitless.

Information about everything from the wingspan of the largest insect to the sequence of buttons I have clicked on a website or an app will continue to be stacked like so many sheaves of wheat for the thresher. Behavioral data shows every sign of serving as currency in what is rapidly becoming a world culture of information technology.

For digital marketers, the benefit of data-collection can be summed up as a single concept: “insight.”

We may imagine our clicks and bits and bytes are ephemeral. But even as we forget the last email we sent, our online activity is recorded and, with increasingly rare exception, not merely kept, but ogled, prodded, poked, matched, calculated, combined, compared, and transmogrified into those increasingly precious insights.

Behavioral science is old. How many loaves to bake for Saturnalia? How many nickel cigars to put by for the week before Easter? The provident merchant would know this and more, else find his belongings out on the cobblestones one day.

How did the merchant happen upon these insights? By looking at data. The old-fashioned way was to write consumption data into a day-ledger and in a scene reminiscent of Dickens, have a scrivener copy the data over to a table so that comparisons might be made. Today those scriveners are ghosts in the machine, and we can make comparisons of comparisons never before possible.

And so we come to the modern practice of attempting to understand the customer in all her myriad complexity as she seeks the best deal on a flight to Aruba. Can it be a worthy goal to make the procurement of that flight easier, more foolproof, less time-consuming? And as worthy to study how one might offer a traveler the rental of a car upon arrival? How about a hotel? Not just a hotel, but the right hotel, one she’s more likely to book; as well as the additional deal for rum drinks and a show? What about scuba? Yes, if you know she bought goggles on another site not long ago.

Is this unrelenting collection of data entirely needed? No. The Internet – that is to say, the “http” protocol, html, and the browser – would easily function without it. But you’d have to do without Google, for instance. And probably Amazon. And probably without all but the labors of enthusiasts posting scans of old car manuals labeled with plain blue links. For even such basic provender as a simple site design might be not so pretty, had the developers never bothered to find out which designs prompted a more predictable (and market-desirable) response. Which design we seemed to “like” better based on how we clicked through it. Which one made the phone ring. And the cash register, too.

The creation of better user experiences (“UXP,” as the experts call it) is not founded in altruism. It’s anchored to the bedrock of commerce and the need to drive increasing revenue at a lower transaction cost per advertising dollar. And the common denominator in all commercial digital endeavors is measurability.

Ad-targeting (and content optimization) can be defined as the act of showing you the right offer at the right time in the hope that, having studied your behavioral patterns with enough acuity, your next click may in some way be influenced to the marketer’s benefit. Pattern recognition typically is achieved by the concatenation and automated study of usage details about you, as your work inside the confines of your addressable device – desktop, tablet, or mobile. What do you search for – and select once found? What types of sites have you visited, and what did you buy when you were there? What did you “like” on Facebook?

“Big Data” is the pool out of which emerges a coupon for a home improvement superstore if you have been looking at refinancing rates. Digital analytics is the manner in which Big Data is turned into actionable insights – resulting in that ad from the Home Depot. With the data so available, the algorithms so powerful, and the stakes ever more dizzyingly high, is it any wonder the breadcrumbs of data you leave behind as you pick your way through the online forest are gathered up behind you by search engines, analytics tools, and databases? Entirely separate but quite as fascinating is the fact that the record of your activity becomes the property of the tracking party. Finders keepers!

However, while the appetite for data may be rapacious, the outcome is often no more damnable than if a real proprietor at a real store remembered that you liked your bagel with butter, not cream cheese, and your coffee light and sweet – saving you time on your way to the office.

The darker side to information gathering goes to the Snowden-like revelations about government spying, but that is not what marketers spend their time doing. Instead, they spend their time gathering as much information as they can, always hoping for that precious nugget of data that gives them an opportunity to interact in a way that will result in your clicking, seeing, calling, or buying. The Internet would survive without digital analytics, but it would look very different – and would be a good deal less robust, useful, or interesting. Digital analytics keep digital media much more interesting to both the user and the publisher than otherwise.

Digital Remote Viewing Fail (Solar Version)

I wanted lumber so I went to Lowe’s. I got the lumber and walked past a booth where someone was selling solar panels.

My house faces southwest and the front of it gets direct sunlight almost all day long as long as the sun is shining. It’s so sunny, in fact, that repeated tiny lawns in front have failed and now I have bricks. So sunny that plants wanting “full sun” wilt by the end of June.

There is no question in my mind that I don’t lack for sunlight.

But apparently, according to a company (in Oakland) called Sungevity that ran the booth, I have a tree in the way and my place is just too shady. They declined to offer me a quote.

How did they figure out so quickly that I had a heavily shaded house that I mistakenly believed was sunny in the front?

They have a novel approach. In fact, it sounded appealing: they look at Google Maps and then, without “some weirdo” (their words) visiting your house, they give you a quote over the phone having fully canvassed the site digitally from their no-doubt very sunny, very digital headquarters in the San Francisco Bay area (eastern division).

Isn’t this the “frictionless”, “distance-based” expertise we’ve all wanted? No waiting, no hassle, just a quote from an educated specialist who’s reviewed the facts.

Too bad their facts were incorrect. And their facts were incorrect because, idiotically, they believe Google Maps to be the Territory. Yes, a tree is, of course, visible overshadowing part of my house. But it’s in the opposite direction from the sunlight. You would think a solar company would see the orientation of the house and “get it”. And if they had showed up, whatever weirdo they sent would have seen this as well.

But some companies just don’t do that mess any more. They want to rely on the economies of the internet to do remote assessments. And in this case, they totally failed to make it work for them. In fact, it misinformed them.

I consider myself lucky to have avoided the grip I’d have been held in had it gone the other way: yes, your house is sunny–oops, somehow it isn’t very sunny now we’ve installed a few thousand dollars worth of solar.  Because hey–Google! Google said it would be bright! We did not have to do a crummy old “visit” to get it right. Right?

Wrong. And really, really dumb.

A Penchant for Cutting Down Trees

Adjacent to my property is a parking lot owned by a certain superannuated legion of american veterans, and their not very attractive clubhouse. There are lots of trees in the neighborhood and some are on their property.

But because one of their members also works for a tree-trimming company, they seem to revel in the chance to cut down trees. In the past they have, for no discernible reason, cut down healthy trees that provided shade and shelter to all.

This past weekend they went a little nuts.

On Friday there was a high wind in the morning and from my back yard I saw a branch fall from one of a stand of trees in the middle of their property. It was not a small branch, but in windstorms, branches do come down.

The next day, Saturday, the tree cutter-member and his truckload of tree-cutter buddies showed up and dismembered five perfectly healthy, large trees including the one where the branch fell. They destroyed a perfectly healthy, beautiful, mini-woods leaving a denuded landscape with unsightly, shorn tree trunks poking up like totem poles.

When asked why they did it, they said the trees were diseased–clearly a false statement.

I am pretty certain they had a legal right to do it, but I believe what they did was inexplicable except that I do wonder if the tree-cutter-member thought he’d drum up a little new business for the tree-cutting firm on a flimsy premise. Word is the service, which took five men and most of the day, was provided for free. Something tells me it didn’t start off that way but when complaints were heard on the community board (Facebook), it became “free” so as to avoid anyone looking too closely at the real reason they butchered healthy trees for no good reason.

Way to go, American Legion! And stay away from the trees from now on!

The Murky Waters of SEO

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of SEO is that it is (overwhelmingly but not completely) about leveraging the offering of one company: Google’s search engine.

Google today has more ad dollars than all print media in the US and over 40% of on line ad spend. This has nothing to do with SEO per se but gives you an idea of its dominance. SEO is the art and science of making the latest Google site-relevance algorithm “like” your site, without paying for adwords.

It is also rather alarming that so much energy needs to be put into appearing high on Google’s first page—apparently there is a widespread belief (and I am not one to refute it) that only by appearing in a keyword search can anyone be expected to find your site. If this seems like an exceedingly narrow hose through which to force your marketing, rest assured it is.

Over the years Google has continued to refine their algorithm to defeat the most obvious ploys of SEO such as keyword stuffing and irrelevant (gratuitous) inbound links. Now, presumably, the algorithm is about promoting the most relevant and authoritative sites for any particular search. The continuing changes in the algorithm may have to do with showing better results but may also have to do with hoping you’ll stop doing SEO so much and knuckle under to SEM (which means you pay them for positioning).

That said, SEO is a large practice area for many digital marketing agencies.

In a recent round of proposal reviews for a customer, SEO services ranged from a few hundred a month to several thousand a month. If you speak with SEO vendors, they all say they are going to do the same thing. It’s nearly impossible to tell what the expensive teams will do differently than the inexpensive, except that you can be reasonably assured they will spend more time on it, be more up to date on the alogrithms and in general be more thorough.

These days, SEO specialists tend to want to manage your content. The claim typically is made that they will “work with your content” to make it more appealing to Google. Does this mean they are copywriters? It does not.

But what it does mean is that they will take care to adjust content so that relevant material is easy to find (based on keywords important to the business); that you have enough good information without repetition (repetitive pages causes your site to get demoted by Google). They will also want to make sure your metatags are in good order, of course; and they talk about truly arcane things like “canonicals” which has something to do with the way the domain is registered with Google.

Google also looks at things like length of time the domain has been live; how many pages (it’s a goldilocks principle—not too many, not too few, and no gratuitous content). They look at how often the site is updated—which is why everyone and her uncle are commissioning young people to write blogs for their sites usually for only nominal payment.

But how to measure SEO success?

It’s not that easy, and at best inferential. For instance, there is no way Google is going to tell you that yes, for these reasons you are now showing up above the fold. You are there, or not there. And you are always left wondering if it is SEO or keyword selection (especially in longtail) or any of a number of other unknowables. By inference you can say “I paid these guys $x and then I started showing up better” and leave it at that. But what about social media? This is not typically part of SEO but it can be. Greater activity on social media leads to greater visibility overall for the site, which translates into more mentions, links, forwards etc., and all of this amounts to what, for lack of a better term, we can call “authority” or at least legitimacy. Authority drives search engine rankings. That it has nothing to do with actual expertise or actual authoritativeness is troubling, and points up that SEO is a never-ending dance with what Google seems to want.

There is a school of thought that SEO is not that complicated, and that to spend thousands per month on it is a waste; and that the same results can be achieved just by being smart and diligent about your site.

Another school of thought is that it’s a dark art that you cannot handle yourself and you had better turn it over to the guys at Hogwarts.

Too many marketers focus on SEO success as a measure of success in and of itself. It is not. Marketers focus on top line but not often enough on the bottom line. Which means: okay, they got to your site via Google. But then what? If you’re spending any money at all on SEO, you must spend a great effort in not wasting those visits you get from click-through. How about the site itself? Do you see lots of one page visits (is your bounce rate high)? Are you getting visitors to do what you hope they will do on the site? If not, then you should probably stop spending on SEO because, apparently, people are showing up and not seeing what they want; which means your site, as a selling tool, is weak.

SEO can work well for your business if it’s done right. The trouble is, you will most likely have a very tough time figuring out if it is being done right.

Dont Bother Calling Customer Service, Use Twitter Instead

The recent Eurocrackdown on Google’s (and others’) ability to retain links to old or irrelevant information about users piqued my interest not because I think it’s very workable, but because it highlights how damaging “data” can be especially when it’s outdated, incorrect, and can somehow affect your life.

Several years ago I had a bit of a run in with a certain self-appointed tax collector from NY State who showed up at my door with no identification demanding money they said I owed the state.

I rebuffed this person, paid what they said I owed and had the peremptory, unannounced “tax liens” vacated in court. It took a letter to my congressman (twitter  does not work well for government agency misdeeds) to obtain the ruling. Vacated means “this never happened”. Which is fair, because I had never heard about the bill until this strange, ill-kempt “tax collector” showed up.

The courts had it on record that there were no tax liens (tax liens, by the way, are not good for your credit rating–and that is where I am going with this). But alone among the three credit rating agencies (a loathesome, arrogant trio), Experian retained this false data.

No amount of calling, faxing, emailing nor the efforts of a credit repair team was of any help. It went on for years.

Then I decided to tweet about it.

Immediately upon asking (on Twitter) why Experian keeps false data in its records, I got a call from someone at Experian who quickly hooked me up with someone who would walk through the issue with me. My conversation with this fixer showed Experian had not done its homework, and that in fact there were no liens. Within five minutes, the problem was corrected.

Sadly, public shaming seems to work much better than working through channels.

Did I say that Twitter is by far my favorite form of social media?



Who Owns the Internet? Mergers, the FCC and Net Neutrality

Remember when everyone was afraid that Microsoft was too powerful? And when David Boies unsuccessfully sued in federal court to tear them limb from limb? He lost. And then so did Microsoft.

If only we had just Microsoft to worry about today! Those were simpler times.

Today we have Comcast buying NBC Universal and ATT&T buying DirectTV; and we have the FCC continuing to fail understanding what the Internet is. Long ago they mistakenly thought it was an information service, but really its just a delivery system just like TV, radio and cable.

The abovementioned mergers are creating what look an awful lot like monopolies. Comcast provides bandwidth. NBC is content. If we lose net neutrality, what do you think the fate of non-NBC content will be via Comcast? It will be slow, cranky and perhaps even unavailable. That includes your web site.

The same goes for AT&T/DirectTV though I have a feeling AT&T would not know what to do with a media outlet if their life depended on it.

I was a little more worried about the loss of net neutrality until every huge digital company complained that it ought to be kept. Net neutrality means no site gets special access to bandwidth. All sites get the same bandwidth no matter how small. If that goes, then the Internet becomes a big media monopoly. And big media is ramping up as if they expect to defeat net neutrality.

It’ll be great, if all you want to do is watch syndicated mainstream media. Bad, if you want anything else.

The internet is a public utility and we must protect its neutrality just as we protect our access to electricity and (if you care) land-line telephone service.


Looking for MH370 in All the Wrong Places

From the start, there was confusion and an appearance of ineptitude on the part of South Asian air traffic controllers, radar operators, airline executives and military aviation specialists.

The hand-off from Malaysia to Viet Nam airspace did not go well. The military tracked it turning around, skirting the border of Indonesia, then watched it disappear from radar before reappearing headed in the opposite direction from Beijing, which was its scheduled destination. None of this seemed to cause much alarm on the ground.

Then they just lost the plane completely.

Grasping at straws, searchers (from several countries) fastened onto a shred of evidence supplied by British telecom firm Inmarsat that said it had (what I think is awfully sketchy) data showing the plane’s last “ping” came from an arc that included Pakistan as well as waters between Australia and Antarctica. Thus, several governments in good faith but quixotically sent expensive hardware and trained men and women to the remotest South Pacific looking for an airliner that was supposed to have crashed there.

Well over 70 days into it, they have found NOTHING. No plane, no debris, no oil slick, and no wreck (as yet) on the bottom of a very deep and foreboding part of the Ocean.

The reason for this, in my opinion, is that it is not there and never was close to there. I take the media to task for settling on the simplest and dumbest theory without putting much effort into their own investigations. Seems they lacked the manpower or the guts. But for me, if the Malaysian PM hazards a guess that the plane may not be there, then he knows more than he’s telling. But don’t expect transparency any time soon.

Instead, we are left to try to deduce  what may have happened to this doomed flight. We have no less information (it seems) than CNN has, so we might as well say what we think.

And if I look at the data, I don’t end up guessing about the South Seas. There are a couple of salient points that suggest something else entirely.

First, no trace of the plane has been found.

Second,  the manner in which they show it heading first northwest and then (purely on guesswork alone) heading southeast for several hours, makes absolutely no sense to anyone who really bothers to think about it. There is no scenario, terroristic or mechanical, that suggests any real possibility that the plane went to the South Pacific–except for this especially sketchy “evidence”, from a private satellite company, that the public has not actually seen.

I do not pretend to know what happened.

But I think it is much more plausible that the plane was hijacked by a crewmember, flown expertly towards a destination in the Middle East, was spotted by either the US, the Russians or perhaps even the Israelis over the Indian Ocean hundreds of miles from where anyone on land might have noticed, and that having failed to respond in an exculpatory manner to commands from an armed defense squadron, was shot down. Of course, if this is what happened, no one involved can ever admit it. Which would also help to explain the focus on the South Seas where whomsoever might exert a diplomatic or other subtle influence can be certain the plane will never be found.

What Happened to (the coverage of) Flight MH370?

Not long ago the call letters for CNN actually became MH370 and it was the MH370 channel and they were criticized by everyone who didn’t work at CNN. But if CNN is supposed to sell commercial time and make more money when their ratings are better, then it’s hard to argue against sticking with the story. Because people (including me) could hardly get enough of it.

But after 45 days or so, the interest of a fickle public began to wane and the sad mystery went to brief updates and then to occasional mention. None of this is CNN’s fault.

Everyone not in media loves to take media to task for being either too nosy or not nosy enough.

I think anyone who thinks the news media is anything but an entertainment channel had better get a towel and wipe behind their ears.  So, no, I do not criticize them for following what they think people want them to follow. I also do not criticize Las Vegas because there are too many slot machines. However, I cannot stand the place and hope I never have to go again.

Which is somewhat they way I feel about news media. And especially in a case like this, where they pump a story incessantly (without doing very much investigation at all), and contribute nothing to figuring out what happened. I am pretty sure the number or reporters who are actively chasing the fate of MH370 are thin on the ground.

But the loss of coverage also signifies a loss of general interest, even as this may be the most baffling international mystery in decades. I believe people could not stand the frustration of not finding anything, and the story went into the land of Nod.

In my personal, not especially well-informed opinion, the news and the search has been off-track almost from the start.  My thoughts come in the next post.