Ads versus content

I’ve had an iPhone for just over two years now, so you can imagine how eager I am to switch carriers and phones.  In my early research I was leaning towards a smart new up and comer: Samsung’s Galaxy.  The phone itself has some nice features (automatic wifi music sync, no cords necessary) and has been highly reviewed by all the right techies.  Even better was that it was being heavily promoted by T-Mobile, so the discounts would be decent on a cheaper network than the abysmal AT&T.

Assuming you’ve turned on a radio/TV/website in the past week you know where this is going.  I could talk about the crappy state of American telecoms if 4 became 3, the pathetic auctioning of cellular frequencies that will surely be repeated for the 4G services that managed both to not raise much money and to exclude new entrants  (especially compared to Britain’s awesome auction proceeds AND new companies), or the lack of handheld tech innovation we’ll see when Apple et al can only shop their wares at two companies.

Instead I’m going to talk about the Economist.  They wrote a two-page brief on the negative effect this acquisition would have, focusing mainly on rebuffing AT&T’s claims that it would bring infrastructure investment (it didn’t as the Ma Bell monopoly, after a similar promise) and that there still would be regional competitors (consumers focus on national plans, hence AT&T’s marketing campaign about covering 97% of Americans).  As if the Economist wasn’t clear, they dedicated one of their leaders stating just how much they condemned such a deal.  And then, they printed two full-page ads AT&T had bought.

My first thought was: bully for the Economist, not letting advertiser dollars purchase editorial influence.  Afterall, how many of us are brave enough to tell our boss they’re a moron and not to be trusted?  But my second thought was: I wonder if AT&T will buy space in next week’s edition, and why did the Economist take the money?

I know why they took the money, the advertising section is assuredly separate from the editorial staff, I doubt they ever talk (as it should be, to allow independence).  But it would be foolish for AT&T to continue plowing money into a publication that will devote equal copy to their competitors for free.  Of course, that’s not really true, the Economist isn’t arguing that we as consumers shouldn’t buy AT&T, just that their business strategy is harmful.  But in the end, readers of the Economist are going to be more influenced by the articles than the ads, and the telecom’s brand will diminish.  I’d think it’d be better for the company to advertise on more neutral ground: Wired, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, etc.  While each of these has published something nasty about AT&T, they do not frequently keep up on on-going stories like the Economist, which surely will carry the AT&T story at every stage.

Case in point: Bahrain.  For months I saw successive ads touting the pro-business, politically-free environment of the Gulf emirate.  And then the Arab Spring started and it wouldn’t matter how many ads King al-Khalifa took out when the Economist covered the riots and editorialized against the government.  AT&T is better served getting its house in order.

Media type: Magazine
From: the Economist
Title: An audacious merger with a poor reception
Read it at: http://www.economist.com/node/18440903?story_id=18440903

Democracy’s nooks and crannies

I’ve been as riveted as the rest of the world as the Arab Spring continues, spilling out in north Africa before hitting the first storm breaks in Tripoli and now Bahrain.  I’ve written earlier about the nearly-neglected democratic crises in Haiti and the Ivory Coast, but today I was caught totally unaware by the recent presidential election in Niger, a country geographically centered between Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Just over a year ago, Niger’s president attempted to amend the constitution in his favor resulting in an eviction notice from the military.  Now, the military is holding to its promise to hand power back to civilian control, specifically to the winner of what looks like a mostly free run-off election.  General Djibo is quoted as being thrilled to return to his post as a humble soldier.  Importantly he has also “appeal[ed] to the two candidates that they respect the outcome…and the loser accepts his defeat.”  No Ivory Coast shenanigans here.

So here we see yet another example of my earlier stated thesis that a focus on divorcing the military from civilian leaders allows for successful evolutions into democratic governance.  To add more support one only need to look at Yemen where the top general, Ali Mohsen, has declared his support for the protesters despite personal and tribal ties to President Saleh, prompting the prognosticators to move his retirement date up.  Saleh is by no means out, he and his family still directly command various elite, well trained Republican Guards and his role in the War on Terror guarantees some awkward shuffling by western leaders.  Still, it seems his tenure is nearly up with tanks ringing the protesters in his capital pointing out rather than in.

When the top leader does not have personal control over the dogs of war, they are less likely to slip the leash.  Countries like Bahrain, Syria and Iran (as well as China, North Korea, Myanmar, and even it seems Gaza) are unlikely to truly see change due to mass uprisings so long as their generals do not feel independent.  It is in democracy-loving peoples interest to focus less on pushing top-down government reform and instead urge independent military control.  While an independent military may not be a sign of stability, such as in Thailand’s numerous coups or Turkey’s tumultuous past, they are able to respond as a counter-weight to any great accumulation of power.

Media type: Online news
From: al-Jazeera
Title: Niger votes in presidential run-off
Read it at:  http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131216474436974.html

The vanishing city

We live in an increasingly urbanized age.  For the first time in the history of man, more people live in cities than not.  China’s meteoric economic growth has been fueled by the large rural migrants taking city factory jobs, while gentrification and revitalization has transformed downtowns into livable areas, New York being the most obvious case.  A housing bubble collapse has made suburbs and exurbs less fashionable while the environmental movement sees more and more young people flocking to “green” living in cities.

So when the numbers came out today that Detroit had lost 25% of its population, I was stunned.  To clarify, the difference between the 2000 and 2010 census for the city of Detroit (not its metro area) shows a 25% drop.

If any city epitomizes this recession it’s the Motor City.  A city that bet it all on its hometown auto industry, it’s seen foreign competitors and entrenched unions chip away at that prosperity.  Being one of the largest cities in land area, Detroit has had to stretch its infrastructure and utilities budget further than most.  But to think one-quarter of its population got up and simply abandoned their neighbors is shocking.

Part of this was purposeful.  The mayor, Dave Bing, made a conscious decision not to spend money assisting in the census.  Usually, cities spend a decent amount of money encouraging their citizens to fill out the forms and meet with census workers.  The motivation is clear: more people mean more federal dollars and greater representation (which means even more dollars).  For the 2010 census, Detroit had only its churches and community groups putting the extra effort, so its likely the loss is only slightly less dramatic.

I admire mayor Bing and that tough decision.  He believes federal funds aren’t going to be what saves Detroit, even though two of its major employers found solace in bailouts.  Instead, Bing has used the opportunity to be frank about the need to cut services and redevelop an inner core, to build a new Detroit rather than wait to be rescued.  Wild ideas like urban farms have become serious national talking points and encouraged innovators to at least look at the area.  Taking a cue from its mayor, we are beginning to see the city and its state find an inner strength and pride in these trying times.

In an urban world, we may start to see the rise of the city-state governing structure with mayors gaining increasing control.  Cities like Detroit will have to play fast and loose and give daring yet competent mayors new powers to break the institutionalized impediments that have slowly drained them.  He can take a cue from Bloomberg’s deft touch on New York, bringing innovative ideas to education; DC’s former mayor Fenty who took on the teacher’s unions and won; and Chicago’s Daly who’s heavy handed decades-reign transformed Chicago from another rust-belt city into a city in the ranks of New York and San Francisco.

Media type: Podcast
From: NPR 7AM News Summary
Title: NPR News: 03-23-2011 7AM ET
Listen at: NPR

Green shoots in the Caribbean

In my last post I talked about the near-monumental announcement that PLO president Mahmoud Abbas would not seek re-election.  In light of the near- and full-revolutions in that part of the world, his announcement (conditioned and far-off in actual action) seems meek and was duly ignored by most of the world’s press.  I’m happy to see that another similar positive outlook hasn’t been overlooked: the peaceful conduction of a runoff election in Haiti.

Haiti’s initial election was marred by obscene amounts of fraud and scattered violence with the established structure’s candidate “winning” enough to qualify for the runoff, despite being universally disliked (most importantly by actual Haitians).  For whatever reason, a peaceful acknowledgement of the error happened and the two candidates with the most votes eventually were recognized.

The runoff between the singer Michel Martelly and the professor Mirlande Maniget occurred with only a single incidence of violence and widely acknowledged legitimacy.  And with neither candidate being part of any real ‘establishment’ we should fail to see an escalating civil war after the results are announced next month (unlike the Ivory Coast).  Haiti should be able to look forward to a peaceful transition of legitimate power to the hands of one of these right-of-center politicians (similar to what happened in Liberia).

I say “should” because as always there’s a wild card.  Despite his responsibility for the torture and killings of large number of the population, former president Jean-Claude Duvalier has returned to his country.  Somehow he maintains some sort of popularity, with some voters stating that if he had ran they would’ve voted for him.  His far-left politics, which ended up putting a lot of wealth in his hands, stand in stark contrast to the current candidates.

Haiti has a history of deposing leaders via coup, even early in their terms and against high-percentage victories.  What a blow it would be if Baby Doc Duvalier rode into Port-au-Prince a la Napoleon.  The incomprehensible web of NGOs importing money and supplies would instantly dry up and favorable trade deals being arranged for the struggling nation would wither on the vine.  Most likely Haiti would become the pet project of Chavez and Castro, helping it limp by, avoiding total collapse while letting its populace slip deeper into poverty.

This is, in my opinon, a worst-case scenario.  But it is easy to imagine a frustrated nation if rebuilding does not truly show results in the next year, even more so if an all-too-common hurricane happens to worsen conditions.  Still, the spirit in the air is one of hope, that Haiti may become like many of its Latin American neighbors who threw off dictatorships and found economic improvement.

Type of Media: Web news
From: Reuters
Title: UN urges patience in Haiti’s wait for vote result
Read it at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/21/us-haiti-election-idUSTRE72J0O620110321?pageNumber=1

A tree fell in the forest

As the west sits back practicing frantic “diplomacy” while waiting for Qaddafi to stabilize his realm, we are starting to witness the ugly aftershocks of revolution. Flanking Libya, both Tunisia and Egypt have seen splinter protests, over everything from wages to a cry that too many old-regime hands are still leading government. New Prime Ministers have been appointed and elections called, but not much actual change seen. Saudi Arabia has sent troops to stabilize Bahrain and Yemen continues to see President Saleh compromising yet failing to disperse the masses.

Today, though, an Arab leader made an announcement that a scant few months ago would have shocked the world: Mahmoud Abbas will not seek another term as president in Palestine. Granted, he’ll only relinquish the position once the West Bank and Gaza are peacefully reunited as a political unit, so who knows when that’ll be. Still, after decades of Yassar Arafat and current events the concept of willing abdication seems surprising.

What this means for the abandoned Israel peace process is anyone’s guess. Perhaps given new economic strength from open borders with Egypt, Hamas will find new support from its constituents in Gaza. As their Hizbullah-allies in Lebanon have recently done, Hamas may find themselves playing a kingmaker even if Fatah retains the presidency. Certainly the sting of failure in the latest round of talks won’t help anyone seen as Abbas’ heir-apparent.

This should be something Israel should watch carefully. Netanyahu’s at best half-hearted attempts at peace may end up causing Palestinians to once again revert away from a diplomatic path. This can only bode ill for Israelis as they continue to brazenly build more settlements and projects in East Jerusalem, seemingly purposefully antagonizing their neighbors. Both Hamas and Hizbullah are suspected of redoubling their missile arsenal and investing in even more sophisticated armament capable of reaching well past the border. Given the stronger political stand of both Shia militias, and the constant distraction in the region, now is not the time for Israel to be the rude neighbor.

Media type: Online news
From: Wall Street Journal
Title: ‘Abbas Offers Hamas an Olive Branch’
Read it at: Wall St Journal

A changing demographic?

I’ve spent a couple posts now bemoaning the role of modern women on television: the naggers, the background eye candy, the emotional wrecks, etc.  It turns out I’ve been missing one show that has so far refused to put women in those roles: White Collar.

A career forger (Neil Caffrey, beautifully played by Matt Bomer) escapes prison only to be re-caught and put to the work for the FBI.  I know, you’ve already seen Catch Me If You Can.  In USA Network’s television series the characters are dashingly attractive, charming, intelligent, and obsessively well-tailored, think more Ocean’s 11.

There are a total of SIX women with reoccurring roles and not a single one has

Special Agent Diana Barrigan (Marsha Thomason)

failed to rise to the occasion on their own at some point in the two short seasons.  If you lost the sexual tension, any of these characters could be played by either sex and you’d seldom notice an issue (ok, Neil’s season one pursuit of his ex-girlfriend might be a bit progressive in this scenario).  An insurance adjuster tracks and out-wiles thieves, two FBI agents not only act with initiative but taunt Neil his captivity, a cat burglar/former fling plays to her own agenda and rarely offers selfless favors, a kindly older women reveals a past of dubious legality, and the loyal FBI agent’s wife pushes cases and spurs the leads to action.

If you’re familiar with USA, you’ll know the show follows an almost rigid pattern: the first and last few minutes focus on the season-arc while the middle 45 deal with some crisis-of-the-week.  Characters keep secrets and run hidden agendas, betrayal and trust drive stories.   You’ll also know the usual show has maybe 10 regular characters, so when I say that six (SIX!) are women in this cops-and-robbers genre, you can appreciate the heft.  And unlike, say, Burn Notice the strong female characters aren’t constantly over-compensated by being femme fatales with near-homicidal urges.

I’m not the first to theorize that cable feels more comfortable ignoring the ratings-driven stereotypes seen on the majors.  Personally, I think making every character independently strong has let the show move in directions most cop shows can’t: any two characters can have an issue without needing a lead to step in and keep the audience’s attention.  This helps keep a fresh edge despite the usual failings of successful shows (ever more complicated plots, ridiculous histories being drudged up, multiple lifetimes’ of experience and expertise despite youth).  Instead of a will-they/won’t-they Ross & Rachel dynamic, we’ve seen Neil struggle with conflicted attraction to multiple women as each relationship seems viable and realistic; and we’ve seen women walk away in pursuit of their own interests.  As shows that feel realistic tend to be more enjoyable and watched, I look forward to watching White Collar for quite a few more heists and capers.

Media type: Television
From: White Collar
Title: “Under the Radar”
Watch it at:http://www.hulu.com/embed/FOJPo1-FEvCvNYzk-Ke_Ig

Pandora for podcasts


Apple is a company that makes investors and entrepreneurs alike tremble with envy.  Sleek new smartphones, products that create entirely new markets (iPods, iPads), and an online music store that has found a way to monetize some of movement to online music.  But there is one flaw so glaring on the Apple facade that leaves many increasingly irritated: the inability to sync.

I am lucky enough to have a home laptop, a work desktop, an iPhone and two iPods (mainly for long car trips) and I devour podcasts at a prodigious rate (see aforementioned trips as well as long hours spent at the bench).  Check any one of these devices and you will seldom see any overlap in the podcasts.  I constantly have to re-upload the latest editions, re-connect USB cables, and re-download new subscriptions.  But lately I’ve found stitcher.

Stitcher radio is a bit like Rhapsody and Pandora all mixed together.  It’s web-based podcast radio.  You have one user-generated account and in it you can “favorite” your usual podcasts (searching through my standards only one was not in the stitcher library: NPR 7AM ET News Summary).  It then keeps track of what you’ve listened to, downloads the latest editions, keeps an order, and automatically syncs anytime you log in.  Oh, and there’s an iPhone app.  No more awkwardly transferring from the iPod app to the iTunes store app, waiting for a download, etc.  Since it’s all on-demand, it just starts streaming the podcast just like Pandora!



If you’re like me and always looking for new podcasts, it’s got you covered: click on a single podcast and there’s a ‘find similar’ button.  Or simply go to the playlists of what’s currently most popular, what the staff recommends, etc.  I’ve previously used the iTunes store suggestions or Hunch.com’s “tailored” recommendations to varying degrees of success.  The jury’s still out on this, but so far it’s been interesting.

Of course there are downsides:

  • I’ve yet to figure out how to download older episodes.  For instance ,the Moth is a great live story podcast and there’s no reason why last week’s story is irrelevant, so I’d like to be able to call it up.
  • Like I mentioned, it has yet to offer every podcast.
  • It’d be nice to see it have a recommended list of podcasts to check out based on my current favorites and other podcasts I’ve thumbs upped (undoubtedly this option exists I’m too slow to have figured it out).
  • And finally, there’re ads.  Granted the ads are usually 20-30s promos for stitcher itself, but given that most successful podcasts now start and/or end shows with the hosts plugging audible.com, carbonite.com, or stitcher.com, you may have three annoying bits in a row.
  • My iPhone does not connect to my car’s stereo, but my iPod does (thanks Apple for lack of backward’s compatibility, way to try to shill more money out of me).

Overall, these flaws are exceedingly minor for the service stitcher provides.  Can I guarantee I’ll still be using this app in six months?  No.  But at least for the moment it’s worth playing with and incorporating into my daily life.

Media Type: iPhone App (also available for Blackberry, Android and Palm)
From: Stitcher
Title: Stitcher
Try it at: http://stitcher.com/home.php

The fairer sex

I usually shy away from narcissistic media.  Kismet (a play about a play), Tropic Thunder (a movie about a movie), Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy(a book about a book, ok, it’s a stretch).  Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a great example of narcissistic media, feeding off a belief in the brilliance of one’s field often comes across as neither entertaining nor illuminating.

Episodes struck me as such a show and so I ignored it until a friend recommended it.  I found it cheeky and self-deprecating, this show about a British writing couple trying to recreate success in LA has its moments of both humor and introspection.

It is the character of Beverly, the British wife/writer (Tamsin Greig) that has most intrigued me.  Beverly is a chronically pessimistic, unhappy, nit-picking shrill compared to her just-go-along husband who is willing to take on all setbacks as an exciting challenge.  Her one-liners are what we wish we were witty enough to think much less say, and her frank portrayal of reality in the face of so much Hollywood fakery helps us sympathize with her alienation.  But I can never really get behind her in the face of her husband, who seeks only to  please all parties enough to do what he loves.  Their dynamic is the real heart of the show (and, one suspects, the show-within-the-show) and anyone who’s ever had to drag a loved one into something interesting can relate.

In an earlier post, I pointed out that many of the female leads today are the fun-blocking, nagging wife roles.  These women hold back those lovable, goofy, well-meaning men from occasionally enjoying themselves.  This isn’t new to the small screen, Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up was criticized for casting all the women as balls-and-chain to the likable guys and their pursuit of identity.  Women are being portrayed as the grounded, realistic sex forcing the dreamers to accept their plight.  I struggle to think of a single fun-but-not-flighty female lead currently on (though I’m hardly an expert on everything currently playing).  Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Claire Dumphy on Modern Family, Fionna Glenanne on Burn Notice, even Marge from the Simpsons are all downers (the ensemble cast of Community stands out).

Comedians have been playing up the stereotypes of the sexes for ages.  But shows like Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to succeed with female characters that aimed high and kept it light, though its hard to mention either show without reflexively saying “strong female role model,” that’s how unique of a situation it is.  Come on TV-land, let’s see a different type of woman.

Media type: Television
From: Episodes
Title: episode four
Watch it at: http://www.sho.com/site/order/preview.do#/Episodes_s01_e01 (sadly just episode one)

What a difference a desert makes

I mentioned yesterday that only those who live in a state with near-absolute media control are unaware of scenes from the Arab street, specifically the outright rebellion in Libya.  How interesting that a few hundred miles southwest is another African country suffering a leadership transition, but unless you are checking the BBC or Al Jazeera you’ll have barely heard of it.

I’m talking of the disputed election and its aftermath in the Ivory Coast.  Since late last year, incumbent-president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to recognize the election results placing him in second (that is, losing) to Outtara.  During the initial counting and announcement, Gbagbo tried numerous tricks including having an ally rip up the election results on television before they could be officially announced by the election commission!  Can you imagine if on election eve Karl Rove had stormed onto CNN’s set and smashed the colored electoral map?  Ok, maybe it’s not quite as absurd as I initially envisioned.  Regardless, Gbagbo holed himself up in official facilities refusing to leave like a spoiled toddler.

After a UN-certification of the results, Gbagbo did the usual thing: he called for demonstrations in the street of his supporters, brought the military to bear, accused his opponent of being a foreign-backed puppet, and refused to meet with the carousel of African leaders who requested a visit.  Currently rebel forces (that is, militias in support of the recognized winner, Outtara) are pressing around the capital.  Outtara has called for an embargo on his own country, denying the Gbagbo-controlled ports and banks the ability to collect dues from the immense cocoa trade.

It all makes for quite high-drama.  All the more so considering the fragile democracies that emerged in west Africa after so many bloody ethnic civil wars that frequently spilled over borders. And yes, there’s even oil involved as Nigeria prepares for its first election with no automatic winner.  And yet, news from the region fails to make it near the top of the hour or the front page.

My first theory was that the Arab world has upstaged this region, being larger and more immediate to western commercial interests.  This cannot be the sole reason, the Ivorian election was in November.  Perhaps crowded out by our mid-terms, few news organizations feel they can now bring in their audience mid-crisis?  Perhaps the constant conflict of the 90s has acclimatized us to the region, whereas the ossified Arab leaders’ downfall is grander.  Or perhaps after painting Muslims as our enemy (but shhhh, not officially) for the past decade, their news catches our eye more easily.

Personally, I believe this last point.  Look how little we care about Russia and its perversion of democracy and capitalism after they ceased being the frightening USSR, or how much the media seem to comment on China’s machinations now as opposed to when they reclaimed Hong Kong or attacked one of our spy planes at the turn of the century.  If this truly is the reason why one revolt is covered while another ignored -one region thrust to the spotlight while the other resigned to the shadows- then we can look forward to a drop off in the denigration of Muslims as we simply ignore them in favor of some new bogeyman.

Media type: Online news
From: Reuters
Title: Ivorian rebels take western town as violence mounts
Read it at: http://tinyurl.com/4oc97vt

People Power vs Actual Power

Unless you live in China, you can’t escape the near constant reporting on the upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa over the past two months.  The jasmine revolution continues to inspire demonstrations, riots and outright rebellion from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic.  We may be witnessing a world-changing event on par with the various color revolutions in eastern Europe of barely a generation ago.  It is easy for the media and the casual observer to get swept up in the belief that when the people truly want change, change is inevitable.  Numerous articles in such high-thinking publications as the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times tell us that regardless of short-term stability we should always be pro-democracy, or else we end up on the wrong side of such history!

No one can deny the power of an outraged populous, and current events serve only to remind us of that.  The theory that greater access to communication and information help break authoritarian rule suggest that as xerox and personal computers were to the Soviets, so twitter and facebook are to the Arab autocrats.  But that is hardly the end of the story.

People have continually risen up against oppressive regimes.  Prague Spring, Tienamen Square, and the Green Revolution in Tehran are all examples of people power trying to burst the dam but ultimately falling short.  All three of these examples were quashed by a no-nonsense military crackdown.  As with all things political, one only has to look back to the Roman Republic crisis to see that a disrupted population can be brought to heel with the use of a disciplined military and its unflinching commander.  For all his craziness, Qaddafi seems to have understood this fact and despite near-universal disgust may yet cling to power.  Even civilized Bahrain toys with more forceful tactics as it inches closer to instability.

So while the west’s role in propping up dictators may be outdated, instead of backing various pro-democracy groups we should instead put our focus on creating tighter bonds with nations’ armies .  In the chaos of a new order, revolutionaries can get shut out of the very government they helped make possible in favor of stronger figures; but those with the biggest guns always seem to find a seat at the table.  Such influence may be enough to convince leaders not to let loose the dogs of war.  Slow, steady influence may even help convince them that their fate is tied with the citizens-at-large.  While some demonstrations have overcome armed response (Kyrgyzstan, the Bolsheviks, even the American Revolution), few regimes have stayed in power when the army takes itself out of the equation.

Media type: Online news
From: Al-Jazeera
Title: Thousands protest in Bahrain
Read it at: Thousands protest in Bahrain – Middle East – Al Jazeera English