Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Booms, Busts and Stocking Your Toolbox

Up until a little over a year ago, we were riding high. Home values going up and up, jobs aplenty. Loans were easy to come by; money could be made in the stock market. It seemed the ride would never end.

This was a problem of managing abundance, and on the whole, we did a piss-poor job of it.

Managing abundance is perhaps more difficult than managing scarcity. After all, the more abundance, the more choices; the more choices, the more decisions to be made; the more decisions to be made, the more chances for confusion and mistakes.

Imagine you're faced with two tables.

One has a tossed salad, turkey, some mashed potatoes, peas and a pumpkin pie. What will be your first course, your main course, your dessert? Easy to figure out, eh?

Now imagine a table with a lasagna, a prime rib, some shrimp, a platter of hors d'oeuvres, asparagus, sweet potatoes, antipasto, rack of lamb, scalloped potatoes, Polish sausage with apples and sauerkraut, ambrosia, apple pie, chocolate cake, banana pudding and tiramisu.

Hmmm, this is more complicated. Unless you want to burst, you probably can't eat it all. So even if you like and want it all -- and even if you have permission to eat as much as you want -- you're going to have to pick and choose, leaving some dishes untouched. Probably later in the evening, you might wish you'd gone for the prime rib instead of the lamb, or the banana pudding over the apple pie.

This sort of cogitating and regret probably wouldn't happen with the first table, in which the choices were clear. There was less variety, and maybe you don't like peas, but it amounted to a whole lot less stress as well (and possibly less indigestion and extra pounds down the line).

It reminds me of the scene in "Moscow on the Hudson," where Soviet emigrant Robin Williams is confronted with a dizzying array of coffee choices in a supermarket and collapses from sensory overload.

Most of us didn't manage our abundance very well. We spent what we could afford and then spent some more, certain that something would happen to make it all right. We overextended and overreached, overcome with irrational optimism that this boom, unlike any other boom before it in the history of mankind, would never end.

Of course, it did end, and those people who began their working lives in the boom and had never known anything else found themselves in a cold new world without a warm coat or a road map. But, those impacted by the tech bust of 2000 or the stock crash of the late '80s or the stagflation and privation of mid-to-late '70s and early '80s -- or those who lived through the Big One, the Great Depression -- at least had a toolbox of coping skills they could call upon.

Now it's time to manage scarcity. There is great joy to be found in detaching from excessive materialism, learning how to survive with less, appreciating more what you have, calling upon your resourcefulness to get by.

There are also great lessons, especially the one about booms never lasting forever -- and busts never lasting forever.

It also sucks.

For those, like me, who remember bad old times, there's that handy toolbox and the knowledge that this too shall pass. For those of you for whom this is your first bad old time, you have my sympathy, but you do have the opportunity now to stock your own toolbox.

Maybe, when the abundance comes back -- and it will -- we won't screw it up so badly. OK, some of us will, but every boom is built, at least in part, on the hard lessons of the bust. Yeah, the house fell down around our ears, but as long as the foundation is sound, it can always be rebuilt.

Now, if we can just keep the government from jackhammering the foundation ...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Twitter, Facebook, Etc. -- Talkin' About a Revolution

What separates humans from other animals? You could say the opposable thumb, bipedal locomotion or a highly developed cerebral cortex.

Yeah, I'll give you all those, but think about this. What just happened? I wrote. You read. You heard my words in your head and, with any luck, comprehended my meaning.

We communicated, because that's what people do. Unless they're in solitary confinement or have some other serious issue, it's what people do every day. We can't help ourselves. We love to share information, whether in words or pictures or both.

Any bit of new technology that helps people do this is bound to be a smash, whether it's using charcoal to draw the elk you just ate on the cave wall or using Twitter to send a picture of your lunch to millions of strangers.

You may ask, what is Twitter? For that matter, what is Facebook? What is MySpace? What is social media?

If you do ask, just click on the links above, do a little reading, and come back.

I'm not here to give a history of social media, but to share a few recent experiences with it that just blew my mind.

Now, I'm a slow adopter of new things. I'm not a Luddite by any means, nor am I a gadget freak. I'm all about the utility. As soon as I can figure out how to make something work for me -- and make it worth the effort I need to put into it -- I'll jump in.

As a journalist and a blogger, I decided last year that it was time to dive into Twitter, and this year I also launched on Facebook. For a while, both of them were entertaining and a novelty, then things began to happen that opened my eyes to the possibilities of these new communication and networking mediums.

In January, I sat in a hotel ballroom participating in press panels during the biannual Television Critics Association press tour (that's the day job). I and several other reporters in the room provided a continuous stream of tweets (the word for Twitter messages) that offered anyone following them a word picture of what was happening in the press conference, including funny moments and celebrity quotes.

It allowed non-journalists to feel like they were there, without trying to actually go there and being taken away by burly security guards.

The next month, I livetweeted a car chase in Los Angeles, following the story live, on TV and online until the end, and turned it into a blog post.

These are just small examples of how Twitter can be used to cover events of any kind, whether personal or news. Various Twitter tools -- such as TinyURL and TwitPic -- allow users to share not only 140 characters of text, but links, photos and video.

In essence, you can become your own little news feed (and there are those also on Twitter, and when they say @BreakingNews, they mean it).

Whether you're sharing your travel travails on an airline odyssey, lounging by the beach in Cabo, attending a Jonas Brothers concert or running for your life in the middle of a revolution on the streets of Tehran, Twitter lets people share the smallest and largest events possible.

And, aside from the cost of a computer or cellphone and Internet access, it's free.

Without Twitter and Facebook, it's likely that very little of the recent post-electoral unrest and violence in Iran -- especially the shooting of a young woman, captured on video -- would have become known to the outside world.

Because Twitter, Facebook and other social media operate from cellphones as well as computers, they're easily updated -- even in motion -- and difficult to shut down.

And because the news is coming from anybody and everybody, rather than through the journalism pipeline, it's disseminated in real time.

On the day infomercial king Billy Mays died, I learned it from his son, or, as he's known on Twitter, @youngbillymays, who tweeted that his dad had not woken up that morning. I shot an email to the publicist for Mays' Discovery Channel show "Pitchmen," and my blog post was well underway before the news appeared my TV.

Last Friday, former vice-presidential candidate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced she was resigning the office later this month, catching the journalistic world by surprise. While anything Palin says or does is big news, she's not all that fond of the news media in return.

So, rather than just having her comments filtered out through reporters and spokespeople, Palin has used her Twitter and Facebook accounts to communicate directly to her supporters -- and therefore to the world at large.

During the election last fall, now-President Obama used social media extensively to communicate with voters and volunteers and build his campaign organization.

These days, with practically every member of Congress -- including Obama's septuagenarian opponent, Sen. John McCain -- Twittering about their political adventures, the idea the politicians need news media alone to get their message out seems well and truly dead.

And lest you think that journalists are entirely left behind in this, several are making extensive use of social media, whether it's ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper tweeting back photos from Moscow as he heads there ahead of the president, or Fox News Channel religion correspondent Father Jonathan Morris using Facebook to discuss his latest fish-out-of-water appearance with the merry pranksters of FNC's latenight comedy-news show "RedEye W/Greg Gutfeld."

On the flip side, because it doesn't go through journalistic filters, whatever news appears through social media is raw and unverified. The potential for propaganda, or even outright hoaxes, is huge. Eyewitness and firsthand accounts are compelling, but as any prosecuting attorney will tell you, hard facts often trump a tale, no matter how well-told.

Social media is still in its infancy, and new technology, acquisitions and mergers -- Twitter seems to be in the news every other day as being courted by one buyer or another -- may drastically and quickly change the landscape.

Even with all this technology, social media is about human social interaction, and a few basic rules still apply:

Nobody likes a liar or a gossip (but some folks may pay them well if they have gossip about a celebrity).

A little courtesy goes a long way.

Think long and hard before you post anything you wouldn't want your mom, your boss, your significant other or your lawyer to read.

Also think long and hard before allowing the world to know that you can't spell and have poor grammar. Better not to write and be thought a functional illiterate than to put hands to keyboard and remove all doubt.

Don't be boring. You'd think, with Twitter's 140-character limit, that wouldn't be possible, but trust me, it is.

Lastly, if you're one of those people whining that all this social media claptrap is just so must time-wasting stuff, nonsense and poppycock, be aware that someone has probably said that about every advance in communication in human history, from the charcoal to the printing press to the telephone.

Not everyone will have a need for these tools, but whether you use them or not, they will change the world you live in. And, the less you complain about how stupid they are, the less you'll have to take back if you start using them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dressing Like a Grown-Up (Especially if You Are One)

Right up front, don't think I'm advocating for the return of the bustle. Believe me, that is not my intention.

But take a moment and gaze at the drawing of these lovely Victorian ladies. What can you tell about them from what they are wearing?

First of all, you can see that these are adult women, not children or younger adolescents. You know that because, while little girls of the era wore clothes that were similar to what women wore, they definitely weren't miniatures of mature outfits (nor did women wear larger versions of clothing intended for teens and younger).

You can also tell that they're going somewhere special -- which is to say, out of the house.

In ye olden days, adults heading into public put a bit of effort into their clothes if at all possible.

Even the poorest women would trot out a ribbon or a bit of lace to show that they knew that they weren't at home scrubbing the kitchen floor but indeed in the world among their fellow citizens.

Men would put on a coat, perhaps a hat, and shine their shoes.

Looking just at how a person was dressed, you could make a reasonable guess about their age and whether they were going to church or a shop, or merely stepping out the back door to feed the chickens.

It was a question of respect, not just self-respect but respect for others and for the situation, place and circumstance.

These sorts of distinctions are much more difficult today, when an average middle-class adult might wear the same T-shirt, shorts and sneakers to church, to the mall, to the doctor's office, to the local park or to clean out the garage (or, in the case of some very indulgent employers, to work).

We all want to be comfortable. I'm sure these ladies loved comfort as well. No doubt, given the opportunity, a goodly number of them would have tossed out the crinolines, corsets and bonnets in favor of a tank top, cut-offs and flip-flops.

But I can't help but feel that more is lost in that than just a few yards of excess fabric.

I went to tea Sunday with some female friends, and we all wore skirts. Had we been outdoors, we might have donned hats as well. In the past, I've been to tea outings where the full kit was deployed, from cute shoes to a fancy chapeau and everything in between.

Gosh, it's nice to do that. I remember how special we felt, how we all appreciated each other's efforts to dress up the occasion. We weren't at a ball game or making a trip to the dump, and anyone looking at us would have been left in no doubt of that.

Like many people, I've gotten a little lax. I might throw on athletic wear and sneakers for church if I plan to go for a walk afterward, or be tempted to go to the store in my baggy pants and T-shirt just because it seems silly to dress up a bit just to get a quart of milk at Trader Joe's (OK, not that I ever leave Trader Joe's with just a quart of milk, but you get the point).

I actually saw a woman arrive at my local TJ's not more than a couple of months ago, decked out in an elderly T-shirt, leopard-print pajama pants and Ugg boots. I kid you not. And she was well over 18, and it was mid-afternoon.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't look a whole lot better (but at least I didn't have pajama pants on. Not quite, anyway).

A couple of days ago, after hearing about fortysomething Tony Hawk skateboarding through the halls of the White House -- the people's house -- and Twittering about eating Frosted Flakes there, I decided enough was enough.

At least he was wearing a suit (with sneakers), but even so, I fear we've lost any sense of what's appropriate, whether it's about what to wear or where to do things.

If a 41-year-old man doesn't respect the White House enough to act like an adult in it, then I'm not sure there's any place he wouldn't think catching a quick skateboard ride isn't perfectly appropriate.

Why not the National Cathedral? Great big shiny floor there. How about the Lincoln Memorial? Just grab the old guy's hand and whip yourself around. Bet you could could do a nice McTwist on the handicap ramps at the Smithsonian.

And since adults set the tone for kids, adults who refuse to stop dressing or acting like kids aren't doing the younger generation any favors.

It's still a tough, dangerous, competitive world out there, and the only way overgrown adolescents survive in it is because other people have decided to to put away childish things and become grown-ups.

If a 20-year-old soldier can throw on a uniform and pounds of gear every day to defend my freedom, the least I can do, safe and secure at home, is try every day to not let down my end of the adult bargain.

Also, looking to the future, with the job market shrinking and competition becoming more intense in a world where many workers are essentially independent contractors, the price of perpetual casual Friday could be high indeed.

So this Sunday, no sneakers in church. There might even a be a skirt. Heavens, who knows where this will lead...

Click here for "RedEye" host Greg Gutfeld's impassioned response to Hawk's most excellent White House adventure...

Here for the New York Times article about a book called "The Death of the Grown-Up"...

for's guide to dressing business casual...

Here for Virginia Tech's career-wear advice for its grads...

Here for a guide on professional dress for women...

Here for the same on the male side...

And here for those who might actually want to dress Victorian and go to tea, with advice from the always appropriately dressed friend who provided the illustration above.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Fought the (Natural) Law, and the Law Won

When I was younger, I was a serial killer of plants. Much innocent foliage gave its life until I got bright enough to acknowledge that I didn't know what I was doing.

So I bought some books, watched "The Victory Garden" (these were the days before HGTV) and talked to staff at garden centers.

As a result, my gardens when I lived in Northern New York State were healthy and flourishing, partly because I picked the right plants for the planting zone in which I was living.

Luckily for me, this zone matched my aesthetic, which runs to rambling, overgrown English country garden.

Then I moved to Los Angeles and resumed my murderous ways.

Here, I don't have a garden, I have a balcony. It faces southwest and so, even a few miles inland, gets whipped by the wind off the Pacific Ocean. It also alternately gets baked by the midday and afternoon sun, or fogged in by the marine layer (sometimes both in the same day).

It can be pretty chilly out there or stiflingly hot. And it's never, ever really winter, and it can be summer at any time of the year.

Over the next few years, Mother Nature resolutely resisted my every attempt to recreate the English country garden look, baking or rotting a succession of violas, Johnny-jump-ups, strawberry plants, double impatiens, miniature roses (OK, the squirrels eating the buds didn't help either), tuberous begonias, lamiums, sweet woodruff and other plants too numerous to mention and too painful to remember.

I also went through several varieties of rosemary and lavender, which usually grow well in Los Angeles, just not on my balcony. Too hot, too damp, too something.

Of course, other Mediterranean herbs did very well -- especially basil -- as did any kind of succulent, but they didn't fit my vision, so I didn't want to plant them. Oh, no, I preferred the ones that required daily watering, loads of insecticide and constant moving around the space to get optimal light conditions or to shield from the wind.

After dumping one last load of my expired horticultural experiments, I finally gave in.

Mother Nature won, but then she always does. You see, I had forgotten an elemental lesson.

You'd better learn to work with Mother Nature, because she has absolutely no intention of working with you.

Now, you can plant orange trees in a heated Adirondack greenhouse and circumvent the winter, or dump uncounted thousands of gallons of water and chemicals on a Los Angeles lawn to maintain lush green grass in a desert, but trying to push Nature's boundaries is inevitably extremely difficult and extremely expensive.

Better, perhaps, to plant a Macintosh apple tree outdoors in the mountain valley, or landscape with native plants in Southern California.

Or, in my case, better to plant those herbs, succulents, bougainvillea (pictured above) and scented geraniums that thrive in the environment I have provided for them. After all, I chose to live in a desert, in an urban apartment, not in a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a Saratoga Springs carriage house.

Rather than thumbing my nose at Nature and slaughtering plants with abandon, I have taken responsibility for my decisions and yielded to her greater wisdom.

Yeah, I still have a lavender, even though I'm quite convinced it will only get so big in a pot and then die. Or, maybe I'll give it then to a friend with a yard, where it can go in the ground and live a long and beautiful life.

The lesson in this is that no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we can control Nature, that we can tweak her systems and bend her rules, she will always have the last word.

And by the way, since I stopped trying to turn a patch of concrete in Southern California into a vision out of Beatrix Potter, I've saved a lot of money, time and effort, and my garden, while not my original vision, is a vision nonetheless, one I never tire of seeing.

For one of my favorite takes on the environment, visit, created by Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." I'd love it if you perused the whole site, but if you're in a hurry to get out and weed your own patch, just click here. Rowe's an advocate of "Brown Before Green," of which I am an eager acolyte.

As Mike says, "Like my friends who espouse all things Green, I want to live on a healthy planet. I really do. But I’m tired of the guilt. I’m suspicious of the manipulation. And I’m weary of being lectured by people who seem to care more about the planet than the people on it. Hollywood and Washington have shaped the issue, and now, all things Eco-friendly are up for sale. Well, that’s fine. But when it comes to jobs, the people who make a difference aren’t covered in green. They’re covered in Brown - dirt, mud, grime, grease, or maybe something worse. I’m no expert, but if we’re going to save the Earth, the color of Dirt makes a heck of a lot more sense than the color of Envy. The way I see it, if we really want to get clean and green, we’re gonna have to get down with brown. In other words, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty."

Check the site, there's lots more where that came from. Or you can click here to see where Mike and I discussed the topic for my other blog, Hot Cuppa TV.

Like Mike, when someone tells me how to save the Earth, I'd like to know they spend time with a bit of it under their fingernails.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Inky Newsprint and the Future of News in an A la Carte World

As a journalist (that's the day job), every day I hear the question, "What is the future of newspapers?"

My answer is, "There isn't one, if you expect the industry to look like it does today."

One can wander far into the weeds of monetizing online content, micropayments, content cannibalization, etc., etc. Far cleverer folks than me, and those that have actually worked in a major-newspaper newsroom (I've always been either a freelancer or a wire-service staff writer), have tackled these questions and no doubt do a better job of discussing these topics than I can.

Some recent sources for views on the subject are linked at the bottom of this post. But, as a newspaper outsider who is also a journalistic insider -- and vested in the outcome of this debate -- I'll default to what I do best, ask questions.

I'll offer a couple of answers for each, but you may have a very different perspective, and I hope you'll share it with me. Here we go...

What is a newspaper?

Literally speaking, it's a pile of inky newsprint, a delivery system for information, advertising and photographs. But when people say "newspaper," they usually refer to what I call the newsgathering infrastructure, the people and technology that produce what winds up on the inky newsprint.

For the record -- not fond of inky newsprint. I went more than a decade without a newspaper subscription, because I just detest dealing with inky newsprint. I get a Sunday paper now...for the coupons. The inky newsprint generally gets tossed.

But, I consume vast quantities of news, both on screen and online, much of it newspaper and magazine content. That's partly because it's free but mostly because it's convenient. If I had to pay, I probably would, but hardly anybody asks me to. Which leads me to another question...

Why do people buy a newspaper?

A few may get it for the paper itself, to wrap their fish or put at the bottom of a birdcage (it's also great for cleaning glass and absorbing odors in the fridge), and others enjoy the physical sensation of reading the paper, but mostly it's to get the information, ads and photos on the inky newsprint. The content, as always, is king.

In the past, buying the paper was the only way to get the content. And, you had to buy the whole paper to get the content that mattered most to you, which might be only the sports section, the stock quotes, the comics or the obituaries. Newspapers have always done surveys to determine which section of the paper people liked more and adjusted accordingly, but you still were stuck with an all-or-nothing choice.

Those days are gone. With the Internet and specialized cable channels, we can now seek out our favorite content and ignore the rest (whether that's good or bad in itself is a conversation for another day).

In restaurant terms, you could say we've gone from a prix fixe to an a la carte world. I don't have to get roast chicken, rosemary new potatoes and maple-glazed carrots just because that's what the chef or the restaurant owner put on the menu that day, if what I really want is roast chicken, sweet-potato puree and green beans almondine. Or maybe I just want the chicken, or the beans, or the puree. Or maybe I want pork chops or eggplant parmesan.

Or, I want dessert first (which I always do).

A similar problem faces TV networks, but since viewers can change channels, there's always been an element of a la carte viewing there. With DVDs, DVRs, On Demand and the Internet, viewers have even more freedom now, but it's never been the case that you had to watch all of ABC to just see "Desperate Housewives," and the advertising rates for TV networks have never been based on an all-or-nothing model.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have been doing just that. You've never been able to buy just the sports section, or just the obits, and the popular sections of the paper have often carried the financial freight for the more specialized or estoeric sections.

Yeah, that's going away.

Just because people have never had a choice doesn't mean they wouldn't jump on the chance to have one if only they could. Digital distribution makes it very hard, if not soon impossible, to herd people to content through a few carefully controlled gateways (where you pay the price of admission, of course). That's great for the unfettered dissemination of information but lousy for figuring out advertising rates or viable subscription models.

People want only what they want, when they want it, the way they want it, and on the Internet, unless it's merchandise or porn, they usually don't want to pay for it.

But let's face facts, we're not going to get professional journalism or professionally produced entertainment unless we pay professional salaries to the professionals that make it. Without a viable way to monetize digital distribution, we're looking down the barrel of a future dominated by blogs about other blogs and user-generated YouTube videos.

That stuff's fine as as an appetizer or a side dish, but the whole meal?

So, how to get people to want to pay admission to go through a gateway to get content?

Let's go back to the restaurant analogy. There are prix fixe restaurants, and people go to them and often pay top dollar. Why, when they could go to an a la carte restaurant and pick every element of their meal?

It's because they trust the chef to make good choices about what goes on the plate, perhaps better and more inventive and tastier choices than they might have made on their own. They're paying not only for the food, but for the expertise that went into choosing, preparing and combining the dishes.

And the chef won't give it to them any other way. No substitutions allowed.

If diners couldn't live with that, they'd go to a family buffet place or a fast-food joint or cook for themselves at home. Many do that, but not everyone, and even for those that do, maybe not every meal. And, as a side note, those who choose to trust the chef are often part of an upscale, highly desirable demographic.


Obviously, the restaurant thinks the combined cost of the ingredients and the preparation, and what they're paying for the chef's expertise and technique, means the food produced has value. Things that have value are generally not given away -- or if they are, only as a teaser to get you to pay up later.

It's hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay maintaining his reputation if you could walk into any of his restaurants off the street and demand a beef Wellington and a risotto for nothing but the lint in your pocket.

But, he might put a kiosk out front that gives you a sample bite, if the restaurant's on a highly trafficked street, but you certainly won't get the whole yummy meal unless you fork over some cash.

And if you were getting Gordon Ramsay's food for free, wouldn't you start to wonder how he pays for that? Is that really beef in that pastry? Doesn't bear thinking about.

One wonders then, why those that operate the newsgathering infrastructures think what they offer has no value and should be tossed out there for free. But now I'm getting into monetizing digital distribution and way out of my area of expertise. Back to the questions.

Again, what is the future for newspapers?

Dismal. But the future of news, very bright -- maybe just not primarily provided on those piles of inky newsprint (which, I know, is very bad news for those who work the printing presses and drive the delivery trucks, not to mention the kid on his bike with a paper route).

To prepare for this, journalists are going to have to learn some new skills, not just writing and talking, but also editing audio and video.

The survival of the mainstream news media also comes down to a question of trust. If you trust a chef to give you a quality meal, you'll pay the going rate and be a loyal customer. If you think he or she is sloppy, uses inferior ingredients or, because of an innate preference for garlic, insists on sneaking it into everything, including the creme brulee, you'll move on.

Just at the time they need their readers' trust and loyalty the most, too many newspapers have chosen to serve their own opinions and interests instead of the truth. Last year, a reporter actually said to me, "Truth has a liberal bias." He was serious.

I doubt that the Founding Fathers, when they decreed in the First Amendment to the Constitution that we should have a free press, had that in mind. But it is a free press, which means people can also let their biases run free, and the market will sort it out. Looking around, I suspect the market may have spoken.


What can we do?

As a journalist, I can try to do my best, day by day, and hope people at the higher pay grades figure out a way to keep the lights on. It's up to everyone else in the newsgathering infrastructure to make sure they're providing a service worth paying for, a balanced meal of news, information, images and interactive content that engages users and readers and makes them feel like they're getting good value for their time and dollar.

Oh, and serving the truth instead of themselves -- that's also helpful.

But it's you, as readers (or users or viewers), that have the final say.

Will you support good journalism where you find it?

What's it worth to you to know more about your world and the people making decisions that affect your life?

Will you just consume the results of others' efforts without ever paying the check?

If the answers to the above are no, nothing and yes, and the ad-supported model for online news doesn't pan out, we might as well just turn out the lights now, lock the doors and flip the sign over to "Closed."

Maybe one of the folks below will come up with a solution...

Eat, Sleep, Publish -- Thoughts on the future of publishing.

Content Bridges, linking old and new media.

A cheeky piece, posted just yesterday, from Boing Boing.

Jack Myers, from the Huffington Post last year.

A more hopeful vision, from the U.K., about a month ago.

From late May, a Greek news editor ponders the paperless future of news.

And some video of Charlie Rose, discussing the subject with a panel of news heavyweights, from February.

And finally, where I learn everything about what's happening in my home city of Los Angeles: Curbed LA and the L.A. Now blog from the Los Angeles Times (which has a pretty colorful past).

UPDATE: This former editor of the former Rocky Mountain News examines the results of a meeting of newspaper honchos, and he's seriously bummed; this journalism instructor isn't too jazzed about the value of journalism; Time Magazine's media critic plots out worst-case scenarios; and "Reflections of a Newsosaur does the same, relating it to the troubles of the auto industry, which I discussed here.

There's more out there, but you get the idea.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

'Twister,' Trucks and Dead Scrap Driving

I'm sitting here watching the 1996 movie "Twister," as storm chasers zip around the backroads of the Midwest, dogging tornados and hashing out their romantic and professional differences.

One the one side are the good guys, driving a motley caravan composed of pickup trucks (including a red one that executes some fairly sweet maneuvers, including driving through a house) and a battered station wagon. On the other side are the "corporate kiss-butts," piloting a sleek convoy of big black SUVs.

It's car heaven. Can you imagine this movie shot with a Prius, two Smart cars and a vegetable-oil-fueled minivan that smells like a taco stand? But that's where we're headed. If you thought the teeny-car chase in "Demolition Man" was the greatest thing ever, this auto future's for you.

(By the way, if you've never seen "Demolition Man," get it. It's prophetic, only I suspect that in many ways, its future is now.)

Very likely, by the time you read this, General Motors -- founded by entrepreneur William C. Durant, who transitioned from horse-drawn to horseless vehicles -- will have declared bankruptcy. The fate of the venerable American automaker will then be in the hands of the courts and its chief stockholder, the United States Government.

Oh, joy, the people that just sent stimulus checks to the dead will now be running a major manufacturing company.

One thing's for certain, my poor Pontiac Vibe -- the latest in an unbroken string of GM vehicles I have owned -- is now an orphan. In 80 years or so, it could become a collectors' item. But, unlike the odd Ford Model-T that's still motoring around, I doubt it will survive long enough to to be a treasured remnant of a bygone era (Ford Motors may, though, and no doubt there's a lesson in that).

My car's just dead scrap driving, doomed to represent the beginning of the end of an automobile era -- a phenomenon political satirist P.J O'Rourke captured with mordant wit and flashes of road poetry in this brilliant piece for the Wall Street Journal.

At this moment, much of the U.S. auto industry knows what it felt like to be the village smithy, standing under his spreading chestnut tree on the day the first Flivver rolled into town. Unfortunately for him -- along with farriers, stable boys, saddlemakers, tack suppliers, hay farmers and carriage builders -- nobody was around to prevent the inevitable downsizing, reorganizing, retooling and even professional demise.

How many horses wound up as dog food or glue when the world just didn't need as many of them anymore?

Who weeps for them today? The same "no one" that will be weeping for 20th-century automakers decades from now when we're tooling around in whatever comes next. This is creative destruction, evolution, if you will, as those lucky enough to have the skills and clever enough to have the ideas suited to the new reality rise from the ashes of the past.

I suspect that even the United States Government can do little but prolong the agony. America's mighty manufacturing engines must adapt or die.

As the daughter in a family of men that love cars, and as a dedicated fan of the British boys-and-toys car show "Top Gear," the prospect of driving the Los Angeles freeways in an egg crate on wheels is not appealing.

Because, until they perfect the transporter, and Scotty can beam us to work or the grocery store, people will still need to get around.

"Oh, what about public transportation and bicycles for all?" you may ask. They have their place and their dedicated devotees, and always will, but if there are personal motorized wheels available, whatever the form or fashion, plenty of Americans will burn rubber to grab them.

But I have faith that somewhere out there, maybe in a garage in Sausalito, or a body shop in Bangor, or the back of a dealership service bay in Tampa is a William C. Durant or a Henry Ford, just itching to reinvent those wheels.

And if the experts and the know-it-alls and the car czars and the "pointy-headed busybodies" of O'Rourke's piece can just manage to get out of this kid's way, I'll get to drive something that's not only safe and fuel-efficient, but way cool.

To Netbook or Not to Netbook...

There's this image, perpetuated in advertising, of young people lost in thought, curled up on a bench or perched on edge of a stone wall (preferably with greenery or the ocean in the background) or lounging on a pillowy sofa with a cashmere throw tossed casually over their legs (all in tasteful neutrals, of course, with maybe a cat), tapping away on a tiny computer, connected to the world with little effort and lots of style.

I've tried the above with my laptop, and while it's pretty small as laptops go, generally wound up either having my leg fall asleep or getting a crick in my neck. Also, laptops get kind of warm, and it's hard to type while balancing it on one knee so that the cooling fan is uncovered.

So maybe I need to get a little netbook for two or three or four or so hundred dollars, one of those miniature laptops that's bigger than makeup case but smaller than a Stephen King hardcover. Then I could sit in coffeeshops or parks or at the beach, updating my blogs or writing my deep thoughts or editing my multimedia files.

Of course, if there isn't free-wifi at the beach, I'd have to get broadband internet access, which costs, like, $60 a month, or I'd have to sync the netbook to the Bluetooth on my smartphone, providing, of course, I have good cell coverage in the area, and who knows how much extra that would cost.

The battery life on netbooks isn't that great, and if you bring the power cord, well, you might as well bring the laptop...

Or, I could just go out into the world and actually talk to people and save my computer use either for sitting in my ergonomically correct chair at my desktop, with my ergonomically correct keyboard and mouse, or with my laptop set on its cooling tray, in my lap in the recliner.

But I want a neat little netbook. I want to be one of those free, easy, connected people who can just blog from any position and location, without respect to proper circulation or maintaining correct posture to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

Unfortunately, I'm just not that cool. And I can Twitter from my smartphone. That's about all I have patience or inclination for at the average coffeeshop anyway.

Turn left, do not pass Go -- but do pass Best Buy -- do not spend a few hundred dollars. Today, that is.

Think I'll wait until the third or fourth time I say to myself, "Drat, a netbook would sure have made my life easier right there!" Hasn't happened yet. So far, my smartphone has got my mobile connectivity covered. And it takes really good pictures. And, a phone.

For more on the debate, click here. To see the netbook of my current dreams, click here. To see my smartphone, click here.

What's the future for netbooks? Great idea, take connectivity with you without the bulk (or risk) or lugging a primary laptop around. Better idea, sell a cheap version in the same way cellphones are sold. Oh, look, Verizon's doing that (still not all that cheap). Who's going to top their offer? Maybe Radio Shack (and you can get some batteries and a thingamajig to hook the whatsis to the splitter on the whatchamacallit while you're there).

I'll let you know if conditions change...