So Far Aliens are Kind of a Drag

Aliens have turned out to be kind of a drag in the long run.

Decades into the grays and the nordics and the cattle mutilations and the abductions and the crop circles, I’ve developed a feeling that it’s time to tell these visitors, if they exist, to up the game a bit.

Believers already “get it”. You’re weird and powerful and can go really fast and can turn off electricity and whatnot. You may even be taking embryos from people for all we know.

But is that really all you’ve got?

Because by this time I’d have been expecting voices, fireworks, displays of miraculous transformation,and perhaps a landing at a big shopping mall  so all the locals could see.

But no, you just keep blipping on and off radar screens and shaky video feeds; occasionally looking really big and occasionally looking really small; seeming more ghostlike than of interstellar steel, and generally being just a major tease.

I have seen two (or maybe three) “UFOs” in my life. Both were v-shaped and balloon-like. One appeared way over Caldwell, New Jersey on August 25, 2001 and it turned slowly for a long time glistening occasionally in an afternoon sun and looking larger than the passing, glistening airplanes; and then floated up and away. It could have been a (very large) balloon. The kids had pointed it out so I knew it wasn’t “just me”. The second one I saw was burnt orange in color, similar shape, seemed closer and smaller, and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was the day I dropped my son off for his first day of college. I was feeling a little bit funny that day.

A third time hardly bears mention, but when they had the news article about a bunch of people in midtown seeing white orbs cavorting in the sky for a few minutes, I was one of those. I saw plenty of other people looking up for a second–none of your standing and staring for busy folks in midtown. I felt it might have been some Jersey guy’s idea of a prank, or a silly mistake by somebody, somewhere with a truckload of white balloons.

None of the above “sightings” should suggest I believe, necessarily, in UFOs or Aliens or the Hollow Earth or Bigfoot or Spontaneous Combustion.

I have read much about unidentifiable phenomena and still consider myself among those who are intrigued but have not seen anything remotely convincing.

I will admit that some of the stories are excellent, and some of the pictures (old ones only) disturbingly realistic. I believe the government is covering something up but I cannot absolutely credit the government with the capability to interface with locusts from Neptune without making a huge blunder of some kind; and there’s no sign of that.  I believe those who favor belief in UFOs are closer to the facts than those who would simply deny any of it as more than the products of overfed imaginations among the simple. But I haven’t seen a convincing UFO yet and so for me it’s all speculative.

But Aliens–they do seem like a drag. The flirting with military jets has gotten old. The appearance of gray little humanoids with enormous black eyes has gotten to seem mundane. Supposedly they work for a dark overlord. Whatever! The Nordics are friendly, and they try to “help” us. They look Nordic but are taller and even whiter than earthling Nordics and we don’t know if they like Abba. Whatever help they are lending is being done in utmost secret, because there is no way to credit any good thing in the world with these ETs if they are ETs.

These days Aliens seem to be on everybody’s lips. Bill Clinton on Jimmy Kimmel. The Pope. The guy who used to run Canadian missile defense. Jimmy Carter, still. Ronald Reagan talked about it and he may have seen one.

Some say we are being prepared by our thoughtful governments for some kind of disclosure. This is about as believable as free healthcare in Texas.

The earth may be hollow, and halfway filled with Aliens, or maybe they come via the Wormhole. And if they have bothered to come all this way, it’s time for them to show us some imagination on their part. Otherwise, I think folks are going to start saying “meh” and really, I don’t think the Aliens would appreciate that.



US Advisers to Iraq: Dems Begin Digging Own Grave

Apparently, and with what looks like something between resignation and disgust, Obama has announced he is sending “advisers” to Iraq to fight off the ISIS insurgency. “Advisers” has become known as the first step towards military hell, thanks to the wonderful advisers who went to Vietnam and managed to sacrifice the lives of fifty thousand Americans in a bloody exercise in futility.

When will the Democrats learn that when they don’t have anything to offer except a more timid version of what Republicans want, they lose? Obama’s move will not placate Republicans, will enrage Democrats and many Independents who really, really don’t want more involvement in Iraq, and will assist us in losing more American lives in a three thousand year old sectarian conflict in which we have no real stake.

It will also kick up mud upon the potential Hillary candidacy as she tries to triangulate her way out of initial support for the war and force her to confront Iraq as an issue she had hoped would be dead and gone by the time 2016 comes knocking.

Keeping us out of that mess would have been the steadfast thing to do. Going in makes it much less likely a Democrat will win the Presidency, as it will be an unpopular war and the Democratic base will show far less enthusiasm than they might have, especially when their anticipated standard-bearer (Hillary) was a hawk on the war to begin with; and it will leave them much in the same place as Hubert Humphrey’s hopefuls as he tried to defend the war while being against it–only to lose to a Nixon that could blame the whole thing on the Democrats.

Until now, the Democrats might have been able to blame anything wrong in Iraq on the Republicans. Now they’ve taken it as their own, and they will have to defend it even as they try to blame Republicans. It probably won’t fly.

The Republicans are probably very happy with this blunder.

My personal opinion is that this may cause Hillary to not run for President.  And maybe she shouldn’t.

Can you say “quagmire”?


Amazon Turns Up the Heat with Fire Phone

With the launch of Amazon’s own Fire Phone, ecommerce is poised to take yet another big bite out of retail.

Never mind all the 3D-sensors and the high-end camera. Never mind that there are almost no apps for it. It doesn’t need any of these things to be impactful.

What makes this phone different–in a big way–is that it links you to the Amazon store more seamlessly than ever before. And retailers need to be on the lookout. This is because one of the “features” is called Firefly, which is a cloud-based, algorithmic photo-recognition system built into the phone. So that whenever you take a picture of something–or whenever it somehow hears what you are listening to not just on the phone but in your ambient surroundings–it will immediately show you how to buy that item or that song at Amazon.

If you have this phone–which is not free–you will then become just an extension of the Amazon store itself. You will be able to go into a store, take a picture of a product there, and then buy it right away on Amazon. This can only spell big trouble for retailers, assuming users decide to use it. And if price is a driver, Amazon may well win the battle between the store you’re in and the store you’re carrying in your pocket.

Smartphones already collect enormous amounts of data about you while you’re using it. Now it goes to another level. The data it is collecting becomes immediately actionable: buy that product now, from Amazon.  With a Fire phone, you truly will be visible all the time to Amazon. You’ll never be alone again.

Eric Cantor: Lame-Duck Loser

Eric Cantor, a Republican majority whip and a star in the GOP establishment, was defeated in his primary by an underfunded Tea Party candidate who called him too moderate.

And so the Republican party begins to unravel for good and all right now.

Cantor had been considered a hard-liner holding back the weepy Speaker Boehner from any sort of compromise with the dread Obama administration (itself a centrist outfit). But he failed to hate hard enough on immigrants and they also whispered he was not a Christian, and then the game was over.

Eric Cantor will not be returning to Congress. But a guy who is well to his right may–although, at this early stage it seems that in a district that runs through some of the more liberal parts of Virginia, the heretofore hapless Democrat may defeat the right wing scarecrow that toppled Mr. Cantor. And wouldn’t that be a nasty surprise for the right!

In fact, many Republicans now fear their party really is not viable any more. Peter King, a New York Republican, says it helps make certain his party is not a national but a regional party. Which, in fact, it is–and a powerful one.

I am watching somewhat gleefully as the GOP continually whips itself with chains for not being “grass-roots” enough. As it continues to become marginalized from the body politic. Because at some point it will commit an absolutely fatal error that will cause it to split.

What happens when the GOP splits is that the very conservative members suddenly are faced with the choice of being reasonable, or being ignored. The GOP has managed so far to keep a coalition together because of a herd instinct, but this is no longer a herd. It’s a yowling pack of cats in an alley, and many of them have no taste but for the fight itself. They do not like government or governing.

Soon, if they keep moving rightward, they will end up with their own third party, and they won’t have to worry about governing because they will overwhelmed in every vote by moderate Republicans and Democrats.

I don’t think the GOP bluebloods will put up with this for much longer. The game is afoot. The GOP will soon split.

Close Them Down: Schools Are Killing-Grounds-in-Waiting

Because we are a nation that has ingested its own hype for much too long, too many of us actually believe that any sort of gun control is tantamount to dictatorship.

We won’t waste time debunking Second Amendment arguments, except to say that it includes the requirement of a “well regulated militia” which today’s gang of gun nuts resemble in no way at all. In fact, the entire notion of the militia is probably obviated by the existence of a standing army.

By all appearances, the entire nation is cowed by gun-owners. We are all afraid of them (or we are one). Police are not looking to get involved in scrapes with white guys with automatic weapons. Individuals who prefer not to carry a weapon have accepted that they have no recourse.

Schools seem to have accepted the fact they are now well-advertised targets for angry young men set to kill the bullies who bullied them and whomever else happens to be nearby.

We are now in a season where a school shooting takes place pretty much a couple of times a week.

The faces of grief, the crime-scene barriers (of tape), the hugging, the lost children–all have become routine. And no one loves this better than the gun manufacturing industry because it means their weapons are in wide acceptance and that fear will drive even more to purchase their deadly wares.

I think we need a radical solution.

It does not involve buying guns, or arming teachers, or pretending background checks will really stop anyone from getting a gun when they really, really want one.

Instead it involves shutting down schools. All schools. Until parents can be reassured that their children are not being sent off to a killing ground instead of a classroom, I think it’s time we said “no” to schools as we know them.

No doubt this will cause enormous chaos and perhaps even widespread outrage.

It should not take long, then, before someone comes up with a plan to re-open them in a manner that keeps them from being the favorite target range for every sad-sack that has a grudge against normal kids.

I don’t know what that might be, but I do think that a severe crisis deserves a severe response; and that with a bold move, we may more likely see someone, somewhere start a movement that cuts down on the amount of guns available in a meaningful way.

Today, largely because of gun violence, you cannot send your kid to school and expect them to return safely. And why, as mothers and fathers, are we agreeing to send them under those conditions?



Time, Inc Cast Adrift: 95 Magazines and Nobody Cares

Time, Inc. has been “spun off” from its holding company, TimeWarner. It will shrink and move to new digs in a less expensive part of Manhattan. It carries with it a mountain of debt and no visible resources with which to repay.

The Time, Inc of Time Magazine fame, used to publish both Time and Life magazines, and together they represented for almost fifty years the most powerful one-two punch in American journalism. Until the 1970s, they were the national record for what was important in our nation and the world. Often they were mistaken and blinkered, but they remained powerful because of the inherent power of print and mass distribution.

They were very, very profitable back then. But then Life Magazine took a dive in the 1970s and never published another weekly issue after 1980. Much maligned as a news-and-culture-for-dummies outfit, a closer examination of Life in its heyday reveals that it contained spectacular (if often posed) photos and lengthy, erudite articles about everything from biochemistry to the fine arts. Most readers probably skipped over these and simply enjoyed the big glossy pictures in a magazine of such size and physical heft as would be impossible to imagine in today’s teeny-weeny magazine market.

Time had its own bully pulpit and was considered more or less infallible even if it was in fact prejudiced and very much in step with the military-industrial complex as it existed throughout much of its history.

Today, Time, Inc. has 95 magazines that nobody reads, 45 websites that nobody cares about and almost no relevance in the current market of ideas. Once profitable, now they had become a “drag” on the fortunes of the media giant that owned them, and they were packed off to an uncertain future independent of the media conglomerate but saddled with crushing debt and worse, no apparent strategy for success.

This was really not much of a surprise. In fact, many, including myself, have predicted this sort of disassembly of the print industry for quite some time. Time, Inc will continue trying to be a digital media company without having any digital DNA in its leadership. The enormous power once wielded by “mass media” properties has now become a stain of failure and irrelevance.

I have stated elsewhere that “print is a bad habit and any media company wanting to survive the next ten years had better get out of the business of ink on paper”.

With Life long interred in the antique rack, Newsweek bumbling along in the shadows and Time, Inc cast adrift, we are seeing this play out in plain sight.

Author “Puzzled” by Amazon’s Stance v. Hachette

I have nothing against Malcolm Gladwell. In fact I admire him. He’s written some very successful books (like “The Tipping Point”) and his views are quite insightful.

So I was puzzled when he said publicly that he was “puzzled” by Amazon’s stance against Hachette, Gladwell’s publisher. For those who have not been following the story, Amazon won’t sell books from Hachette (more or less) because they are in a dispute over pricing, especially over ebooks.

And I am not puzzled about that at all.

Having been deeply involved in the technology and Internet business since the beginning, I think I know a zero-sum game when I see one.

Perhaps it is useful to point out that ANY digital enterprise focuses on one goal: to totally dominate a particular space (which is, today, only possible in digital) and drive out the competition until they control that space. Only then can the investors make their money back.

If anyone were thinking that Amazon’s mission (not just Amazon but all digital enterprises) is to “serve the customer”, they have fallen victim to a ruse. In my upcoming book “Digital is Destroying Everything”, I write about how customers, while reaping current benefits from the Amazons of the world, are trading away a diversity of choices that will eventually limit their buying power in a way they can scarcely imagine. This is because the end game–which Amazon seems now to be preparing for–is to take publishers out of the equation; and eventually authors out of the equation (this latter goal is rather more farther off). In a business that has been called “the everything store”, what might that mean for “everything” that goes beyond books?

This is simply the way digital goes about its business. Reducing “friction” in the transaction, they are able to cut costs; but more importantly, because investors believe the eventually WILL dominate many retail verticals, they are able to absorb losses without fear of having to shutter the doors. Taking losses in the beginning in order to win an overwhelming amount of the business in the space is part of the game plan. This is why Amazon’s prices are so low that they cannot currently generate much profit.

Of course, this cannot continue forever. The game afoot is one where Amazon begins to recognize that the time is coming where they will have to actually make money just like a regular company. And because they know their top selling point is “cheap and easy”, their pricing structures cannot remain the same. They will have to pay less to suppliers and charge more to customers.

It may not go as well as they might hope. Once they’re not so cheap, customers will go elsewhere for a bargain–or, there won’t be so many bargains in the marketplace at all. And not so many alternatives, either.

Consumers contribute to this game, and at some point they are going to notice that they hadn’t any chance of winning in the end.

I am sure Mr. Gladwell was parsing his words intelligently. There would be no good reason for him to put otherwise. But I will say it again: where he expresses puzzlement, I can see what’s going on as clear as a train speeding down the track towards a town called Profit.

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.