Archive for February, 2009

Yes, I have a Facebook page. Call it cultural anthropology but it’s an interesting place to hang out, swinging as it does between highbrow (a group supporting books in print) and lowbrow (a campaign to dump your friends for a free burger at Burger King). After a fast start in a  college dorm it’s a world-wide phenomena available to both the young and the young at heart, which is to say we baby-boomers who just have to get in on everything. I’ve connected with a number of writer friends I like and admire, I located a college roommate and an old boyfriend, and I can finally get a clue as to what my nieces and nephews are up to. Lately, more of my friends are joining, especially those with teenagers. I’m kind of a slacker when it comes to posting, linking, poking, tagging, reminding and joining. And why do my friends all seem to have many more friends than I do? Makes me feel like I’m not getting out enough, cyberspace-wise.

I like to try and come up with clever posts under the “what are you doing right now” section although I tend to fall short. My friend Steve Clemons, who writes a well-regarded Washington political blog, is always dropping impressive tidbits like “[Steve is] having lunch with the Saudi foreign minister” or “…talking about a new approach to Mid-East policy with Rachael Maddow on MSNBC tonight.” Steve has more than 3,000 friends. Most of the posts tend towards “[Joe is] feeling better about work” or “[Jane is] wondering if winter will ever end.” I have six or eight pictures posted but nothing I worry about strangers viewing. When Facebook altered its Terms of Service TOS) agreement, appearing to retain ownership of user information even if the user quit Facebook, the outcry was fierce. The company has temporarily reverted to the old TOS language while it seeks to clarify its intentions (i.e.,w e would NEVER sell your information). Whatever. I’m kind of surprised at people’s expectation of confidentiality when it comes to the Web. I figure all bets are off when you log on. Security is one thing; I support and encourage any and all protections possible when it comes to online commerce or anything relating to children. But the rest of us must know that the information, the images, specifics about who you are and yes, where you live, the asinine thing you wrote to a co-worker or the tasteless joke you sent around – it’s all out there and sooner or later, someone will get to it.

Of course people are free to reveal as much as they like when they like, which is why we’ve progressed from IMs to texting to Twitter, which allows  you to let your friends know exactly what you’re doing at any given moment. Apparently, celebrities, not to mention some politicians and media personalities are all a-twitter over the thought they can fill their fans in on their most minute, not to mention mundane activities. I don’t have a twittering device, at least not yet. I can’t get my head around the idea that I might one day receive a Tweet from someone I like and admire that says: “Had xistential thot b4 heading to men’s rm. It passed.”

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I’ve finished my book. Yea! Now for the hard part: marketing it – and me. This will apparently involve branding myself (sounds painful), identifying the niche audience and then developing an expandable platform.  I’ve got to admit; I’m not looking forward to accessing my inner pushiness. On the other hand, being assertive is pretty much a condition for survival.Besides, given the competition for public attention these days, it makes sense to learn the ins and outs of mass marketing. I figured I’d start with some examples of what not  to do and was pleased to find this week’s news stories have yielded a bumper crop of marketing  no-nos:

  • DO NOT market yourself as a thoroughly untainted candidate from Illinois  if you’re going to have to retract, alter and otherwise adjust your recollections about how many calls you took from ex-Governor Blagojevitch’s brother.
  • DO NOT market yourself as California’s all-powerful non-partisan savior if you’re going to have to cede all power to a centrist broccoli farmer to prevent California from a budget end-of-days .
  • DO NOT market yourself as a baseball icon and potential Hall of Famer if you’re going to be caught  injecting yourself with suspicious substances provided by your cousin (PS: you don’t need a college education to know the difference between right and wrong and being 21 means you’re not a child in most cultures).
  • DO NOT market yourself (or let yourself be marketed) as NBC’s new late-night king until we see whether, as your mentor takes over the prime-time slot just ahead of you, 10 PM is the new 11:30 PM
  • DO NOT market yourself as an appropriate mate for a lonely widow if, in fact, you are a 200-pound chimpanzee.

Another one, not limited to this week, bears repeating: DO NOT market your book as a memoir if in fact part or all of it is made-up. Publishers also don’t have to tell me twice.

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Beset by bills, dismayed over depressed savings and tense ahead of tax time, I turned my attention to the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual display of dogs. Some of it has to do with the fact that I love dogs; I’m fascinated by the ritual involved in judging best of breed and best in show and by not only the dogs but their owners, trainers and handlers.

There are any number of contests and competitions about dogs, ranging from the most professional to the really ridiculous.  At the top of the heap stands (sits? stays?) the Westminster show, two days of mind-boggling logistics , cramped quarters, endless grooming and very specialized judging at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This invitation-only competition has, thanks to savvy marketing, become quite the event and it’s where anyone involved in breeding dogs wants to show. The dogs are grouped according to the primary function for which they were originally bred (i.e. sporting group, working group). They are then judged within their breed as to how they conform to an ideal set of standards involving general appearance, movement, temperament, and specific physical traits. The best in show is presumably the dog that most closely matches the ideal.

Obviously much of this is subjective, albeit the judgments are made by people with keen eyes and years of training. In past competitions, popular sentiment (the roar of the crowd) hasn’t always conformed with the judges’ decision. But recently, audience hearts and judges’ minds were both won by scrappy little contenders, who were considered, well, underdogs going in. Last year, Uno, became the first beagle ever to win Best in Show, making doggy history and turning out to be just so doggone adorable. Uno made the rounds, appearing not just at high-falutin’ locales like the White House but also at children’s and veterans’ hospitals and at various schools; he even rode in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, more dog history: Stump, the Sussex Spaniel, came out of retirement to become the oldest winning dog ever. At ten years old and even allowing for new calculations based on longer-living dogs, he’s well into middle age. Talk about inspirational!

Westminster winners of the past have been enviably gorgeous animals, elegant and almost inaccessible, the purebred we ogled while our lovable mutt napped next to us on the couch. Uno and Stump, also purebreds, nevertheless seem like regular dogs, an image reinforced by images of Uno happily wagging his tail and braying and reports that Stump likes to hang out in bed with his best friend JR.  It’s nice that in these troubled times, where anger over perks and bonuses and ill-gotten gains have ignited an unpleasant kind of class warfare, at least some of our top dogs have come down off their pedestals to hang with the rest of us.

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We all depend on numbers, even those of us who are math-challenged. Numbers count, measure, organize, or label.  But when people say numbers don’t lie, buyer beware. Numbers don’t lie and guns don’t kill but weapons can be discharged and numbers can be manipulated.

“What Are the Odds a Handy, Quotable Statistic Is Lying? Better Than Even” is the title of a review of a book called “The Numbers Game” and it goes to show how deceiving numbers can be when they’re bundled as statistics and given a context. The idea, as the reviewer points out, is to make us a little smarter about statistics.

This is not to diminish the efficiency or importance of data gathering or the increasing sophistication with which statisticians refine their science but rather to look further at how numbers are used, not by pollsters but by politicians, pundits and our own sorry brains, to confirm our deepest suspicions or our worst fears. As “The Numbers Game” authors point out, it’s up to humans to define what it is we’d like our numbers to count, measure, organize, or label. Numbers can teach us if we know what it is we’d like to learn – or what we’d like to believe.

So what do some of the numbers tell us? For example, I’d like to know:

  • If a stimulus package that began at 600 billion dollars is suddenly approaching nearly a trillion dollars, how do we measure the effects of the delays deemed necessary to make the cuts that shouldn’t have been necessary to make but now clearly are?
  • If, due to a 7% unemployment rate, states need to borrow to cover unemployment insurance, how do states get out of debt?
  • If the Senate is normally made up of 100 individuals but is now made up of 99 because of one contested seat and if one other (Democratic) Senator is not voting because he’s ailing and if a third (Democratic) Senator appears to be on the verge of ailing and if there appear to be somewhere between three and four moderate Republicans who might be willing to vote with the Democratic majority on occasion, how do we measure the chances of meaningful legislation passing in the first 100 days of this new Administration?
  • If the amount in taxes owed by three Presidential nominees is one-third the cost of a private jet or a bundle of bonuses procured or dispensed by bailed-out bank corporations, how might we measure the effectiveness of dumping the nominees versus the effectiveness of dumping CEOs running companies benefiting from government largess.
  • If Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on Groundhog Day over in Pennsylvania but Staten Island Zoo’s Charles V. Hogg didn’t (instead Chuck, in a fit of pique, bit Mayor Bloomberg of New York ), how many more days of this god-awful winter can we expect here in Central Jersey?

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