Renee’s Still Walking Away, 40 Years On* (With corrected lyrics!)**

My mp3 player, which can hold about 1400 tracks, now has three versions of “Walk Away Renee”: The 1966 original by the Left Banke, the epic 1968 version by the Four Tops, and a new, delicately respectful version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy that is mentioned prominently in every review of their new, Cajun-folk duet album, Adieu False Heart.

A little research shows that I could add versions by Latin jazz percussionist and Cal Tjader sideman Willie Bobo; British protest singer Billy Bragg (he mumbles recollections of lost love while he plays the song almost absent-mindedly on acoustic guitar); and the indie rocker Angie Heaton (who sounds like a female Neil Young from the “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” era), among about a dozen other covers. I also have a version by Marshall Crenshaw from his live acoustic album, “I’ve Suffered for My Art, Now It’s Your Turn.”


*(Update: A clip of the Left Banke lip-syncing “Walk Away Renee” on the show “Where the Action Is” is at the end of this post.)

Quite a journey for a song written by a 16-year-old lovesick kid; and for that kid’s unrequited teenage crush, Renee Fladen, who also inspired the Left Banke’s other hit, “Pretty Ballerina.” According to this nicely-written piece by rock and roll fan Tom Simon:

Violinist Harry Lookofsky owned a small storefront recording studio in New York City that he called World United Studios. In 1965, he gave a set of keys to his 16-year-old son, Mike Brown [real name: Mike Lookofsky], who helped out by cleaning up and occasionally sitting in as a session pianist. Mike began bringing in his teenage friends who tinkered with drums, guitars, amplifiers, the Steinway piano, and anything else they might find. Except for Mike, who had a background in classical piano, none of them were top musicians. But they could sing, especially one guy named Steve Martin.

By 1966 they started to call themselves the Left Banke. In addition to Mike and Steve, they included Rick Brand on lead guitar, Tom Finn on bass, and drummer George Cameron. Finn brought his girlfriend to the studio one day when the group had assembled for a practice session. She was a 5′ 6″ teenager with platinum blond hair. Mike Brown was infatuated with her the instant he saw her. Her name was Renee Fladen.

The group had begun recording songs, and Harry was particularly impressed with Steve Martin’s voice. Mike wrote a song about Renee. Although there was never anything between the two, Mike was fascinated by her and pictured himself standing at the corner of Hampton and Falmouth Avenues in Brooklyn with Renee, beneath the “One Way” sign. In his fantasy, he was telling her to walk away.

Harry played all the string parts on the Left Banke record Walk Away Renee. With Mike on the harpsichord and Steve Martin’s strong vocal performance, the song was a good one with a different type of sound to it. It came to be known as baroque rock, a style of music that included songs such as the Yardbirds’ For Your Love.

Harry took the song to ten different record companies before Smash Records picked it up. It entered the pop charts in the Fall of 1966 and remained there for ten weeks, peaking at number five. Early the next year the Left Banke followed up with another song written by Mike Brown called Pretty Ballerina, and it reached number fifteen.


As for Renee, she moved to Boston with her family shortly after the Left Banke recorded Walk Away Renee, and no one in the group ever saw her again.

Dawn Eden, who is described on Amazon as “a Jewish-born rock journalist turned salty Christian blog queen,” claimed credit on her blog, The Dawn Patrol, for unearthing Renee’s whereabouts, at least as of the time of her posting the information in 2003. Renee Fladen-Kamm is a classical singer and vocal teacher in the Bay Area, who was a member of a medieval English music ensemble, The Sherwood Consort, although does not appear to be a member now. I can find no photo of Renee anywhere on the Internet; not on one of the numerous obsessed Left Banke fan sites, nor on any sites devoted to her own music. Perhaps that’s understandable, and prescient on her part to stay away from cameras. The real-life models for other popular works of art — I’m thinking of Alice Liddell of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — often wished their genius idolaters had never met them.

As for Michael Brown, nee Michael Lookofsky, he was described on this fanzine as

both brilliant and aware of his talent, but extremely nervous and very difficult to deal with -a clear evidence of this were his attempts to form different groups after The Left Banke, which he kept deserting due to differences with the other members or when he realised he wouldn’t be able to work comfortably. I tried to contact him but it was impossible; he’s currently living with his sister, who sees to it that no one reaches the musician.

I’ve loved “Walk Away Renee” since the first time I heard it 40 years ago on WABC. It came out during an outrageously fertile time for pop music. In the top ten during the same month were memorable hits like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” the Association’s “Cherish,” Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry,” the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” plus some wacky one-hit wonders like “Psychotic Reaction” and “96 Tears.” What made a great pop hit in those days was the purity of emotion, and nothing was more affecting than this minor-key lament:

**(lyrics corrected…by the lyricist!)







As  I write, I have a music-obsessed 16-year-old son of my own. Every chance he gets, he sneaks onto his grandmother’s Mac to compose his own music on Garage Band, and otherwise contents himself with figuring out chords and melodies on a little electric keyboard, and multi-tracking his vocal harmonies on his own disappointingly Windows-based computer. Sometimes he’s inspired by girls, sometimes he’s inspired by the music that inspires him — these days it’s Broadway composers like Stephen Sondheim, but I still hear some Danny Elfman in there too. If he fantasizes about being famous, or writing a song that famous performers will sing 40 years from now, he’s never told me so. He writes music like he does everything else; because he feels like it and can’t stop himself. It’s not a job.

That’s what I imagine Michael Brown was like, too. He just had to write those songs about Renee, and when she was gone from his life, essentially he was done.

Owen Wilson Comes Out of Hiding

Steely Dan’s PR gambit grows another leg:

Owen Wilson has denied any connection between his new movie, “You, Me and Dupree,” and ’70s supergroup Steely Dan, a spokesman for the actor said Friday.

The band recently posted a letter on their Web site claiming that Wilson’s Dupree character was based on their Grammy-winning song, “Cousin Dupree,” about a couch-hopping houseguest.

In a statement released by his spokeswoman, Ina Treciokas, Wilson said: “I have never heard the song `Cousin Dupree’ and I don’t even know who this gentleman, Mr. Steely Dan, is. I hope this helps to clear things up and I can get back to concentrating on my new movie, `HEY 19.'”

How to Turn a Cruddy Movie Into a PR Opportunity, the Steely Dan Way

steelydan.jpgWendy McCaw, Mayor Villaraigosa, you may now bow down to your PR masters: The venerable bards of Henry Mancini-esque rock, Steely Dan. All morning, I’ve been trying to get on the Steely Dan website to read the now-famous “Open Letter to the Great Comic Actor, Luke Wilson,” and couldn’t get through for all the traffic. This goof has gotten the Dan more mainstream publicity than anything they’ve done since the band’s inception in 1972.

Perfect timing: Steely Dan is on a summer tour with Michael McDonald, and without a new CD to generate reviews and other clips.

The letter’s conceit is that Luke’s brother Owen Wilson has “gotten himself mixed up with some pretty bad Hollywood schlockmeisters,” who, they say, stole the idea for the flop “You, Me and Dupree” from Steely Dan’s song about a lustful loser, “Cousin Dupree,” “and then,” according to the letter, “when it came time to change the character’s name or whatever so people wouldn’t know what a rip the whole thing was, THEY DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO THINK UP A NEW FUCKING NAME FOR THE GUY.”

The letter is hard to quote because it’s a graphic object that you can’t copy and paste from (which will force everyone to go onto the group’s website and read about the tour, another good PR maneuver!). What makes it priceless is how they adopt the shambling, stoned blather that Owen Wilson has foisted upon the American public through innumerable talk-show appearances, and that writers for Owen Wilson’s movies have now learned to ape.

But underneath the sunny, “it’s all good” patter lurks the trademark Steely Dan menace their fans have grown to know and love through songs like “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” and “Gaslighting Abbie”:

Anyway, they got your little brother on the hook for this summer stinkbomb of a movie — I mean, check the reviews — and he’s using all his heaviest Owen C. licks to try and get this pathetic way-unfunny debacle off the ground and, in the end, no matter what he does or what happens at the box office, in the short run, he’s gonna go down hard for selling out like this and for trashing the work of some pretty heavy artists like us in the process. You know yourself, man, that what goes around comes around — that’s like the first fucking thing you learn, right? Instant karma is a fact, Jack. So your spaced-out little bro is generating some MAJOR harsh-ass karma for himself by fucking us over like this — I mean, we’re like totally out in the cold on this one — no ASCAP, no soundtrack, no consultant gig…. No phone call, no muffin basket, no flowers, nothing.

luke-and-owen.jpgThe threats mount until finally they offer Luke an opportunity to help Owen avoid tangling with “this guy who works for us sometimes…you know what a Navy Seal is, right? Well, this dude’s like that, only he’s Russian”: Send him to appear at Steely Dan’s Irvine concert to apologize, “and then he can get back to his life and his family and his beautiful moviestar-style pad or whatever, none the worse for wear….” Oh, they’ll throw in some Steely Dan “merch” and “if he wants to sit in” he can “bring his bongos.”

Hilarious, and it did the job. America now knows that Steely Dan is on tour. The Irvine show was actually last week, and I didn’t hear whether Owen Wilson showed up or not. In fact, I haven’t heard much of anything from the Owe-ster in a couple weeks…

How Not To Handle a Mildly Embarassing Story: The Mayor’s Rock Star Memo

fish-supper.jpgI would love it, frankly, if I had a staff of people who showed up everywhere I was going 30 minutes in advance to make sure I would be served lean chicken or fish, no starches or sweets, and green tea (hold the four packages of Splenda, thanks), who made sure my breath smelled minty, secured me a parking spot and a place to sit and always, always remained in my line of sight in case I wanted to shoot them a meaningful look, a look that says, “I need you. I want you. Bring a Sharpie.”

Apparently Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa feels just the same way I do. So much so that he had someone memorialize his wish list in a memo. Good idea. Since it’s so easily available on the web, I just might copy it for my own use. In case I get a staff, so I’ll be all set.

What I wouldn’t do, if I were the mayor, is tell my staff to deny what anyone can see with their own two eyes.

Deputy Communications Director Joe Ramallo downplayed the significance of the instructions, calling them “suggested guidelines” that carried over from the mayor’s two years on the City Council.

“Give me a break,” Ramallo said. “This is a mayor who is more engaged and active around the city than any other in L.A.’s history. By the standards of most officeholders who have much larger staffs, he is not tightly choreographed. You’ve seen him in action.”

Villaraigosa’s exacting attention to detail can include impatience at those who foul him up. He grew visibly frustrated last week when a translation system failed to work adequately during a town hall meeting in South Los Angeles. “Fix it,” he barked.

Not only are the mayor’s specifications spelled out in the kind of detail usually reserved for Martha Stewart’s recipes or plans to build a stealth bomber, but the reporter provides examples of Villaraigosa losing his temper if his needs aren’t met. The outbursts happened right in front of him.

So why, why, would Ramallo try to sell the idea that the mayor’s instructions are just “suggested guidelines?”

He wasn’t going to stop the story. It was too good to pass up, and if Times reporter Duke Helfand didn’t run with it, someone else would. As he wrote, the memo was reminiscent of those icky memos from rock stars that show up on websites like The Smoking Gun:

Some date the current wave of celebrity pampering to a mischievous act by a hard-rock band.

The group Van Halen once placed a clause in its contract requiring bowls of M&M candy, with the brown ones plucked out. The Rolling Stones responded a year later by demanding candy bowls filled only with brown M&Ms. From there, the practice took hold — Britney Spears, for one, demanded full-length mirrors and Pop Tarts in her dressing room — and has eventually crept into politics as well.

Vice President Dick Cheney asks that his hotel room TVs be tuned to Fox News, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) crafted similarly picayune requests of hosts during his presidential campaign — right down to his preference for noncarbonated bottled water.

Hey, it could have been worse. He could have compared Villaraigosa’s list to Jennifer Lopez’ demand that her extra-large trailer be filled with white flowers, white candles and white sofas.

listerine-paks-strips.jpgSo why is Ramallo so defensive? What is the point of denying what is plainly true? The mayor is particular. He’s busy, and he’s on the move all day. He doesn’t like surprises. He needs a certain comfort level in order to govern the second biggest, second most-complicated city in America. The city is paying his staff to take care of details so he can do his job, which doesn’t include tracking down Sharpies. What would be so damaging about just saying that?

You make any story worse, from a PR perspective, if you act like the truth is Kryptonite. You’re better off explaining the truth in ways people will understand. Villaraigosa is not the part-time mayor of a small township in Rhode Island. But by trying to re-cast his staffing specs as “guidelines,” Ramallo is telling us, via subtext, that the mayor wants to be seen as something he’s not. That ends up leaving a more troubling impression than the mayor’s passion for Listerine strips.

Santa Barbara News-Press: How Not to Handle a PR Crisis

Wendy McCaw, controversial owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, parted company with San Francisco PR man Sam Singer about a week ago, and her new spokesperson is Agnes Huff of LA. But there is no discernable change in McCaw’s public relations strategy yet as today’s missive, reported by Kevin Roderick in LA Observed, demonstrates.

Now, the basic job of a PR advisor when a client is having a crisis is to help the client overcome his or her natural reticence to own up to problems, admit mistakes or even wrongdoing, and explain to the public what will be done to correct the problem. The reason a course of action like this is considered “good PR” is that it shifts the focus of the story to the future — what you’re going to do to fix things — while ending the cycles of revelation, denial and admission concerning the past. The client who takes that advice henceforward owns up to the events of the past, takes whatever heat derives from that and, to use the cliche, “moves on.”

Wendy McCaw does not seem ready to “move on,” and thus, her critics also will not move on. Here are some of the things she says, with comments:

First and foremost, this is not a freedom of the press issue. I completely support the rights of a free press. I always have and I always will. It is one of the reasons I bought the paper. I support and understand the need for separation between the editorial, news and advertising pages. There is no place for personal opinion or agendas in news coverage.

She supports separation in principle, but she does not deny or even reference the fact that editorial decisions on two sensitive matters — Rob Lowe’s planning commission fight, and Travis Armstrong’s DUI conviction — were taken away from the editors by McCaw. Does she now think this was a mistake? Or is she challenging the truth of these widely-reported facts?

Violations of our paper’s policies and standards are what brought on this conflict. As owner and co-publisher, it was my responsibility to step in and handle this internal matter.

This appears to be an allusion to the alleged policy that would have prevented publication of Rob Lowe’s address, even though Lowe’s address appears on public documents and was stated repeatedly during cable TV coverage of the planning meeting. Reporters who were disciplined for publishing his address claim no such policy previously existed, which means it wasn’t a “policy” at all, but an ad hoc reaction to a phone call from Rob Lowe.  To be disciplined for violating a non-existent policy strikes most people as unfair.

If the facts are otherwise, McCaw could simply produce a piece of paper in which the “no-addresses” policy was outlined for the editorial staff. She has not done so.  Alternately, she could admit there was no policy, and reverse the disciplinary actions.  Thus far, however, McCaw has admitted no mistakes whatsoever.

Let me take a moment to clear the air about the cease and desist letters that were sent out by the paper. One letter went to three former employees and the other to the Santa Barbara Independent. The letter to the employees was based on the company’s confidentiality policy, something almost all organizations have in place. That policy clearly states that proprietary and confidential information concerning the internal operations of the paper and internal matters may not be disclosed to our competitors or publicly, even after resigning. All employees are aware of this policy and have respected it to our knowledge, with the exception of those who resigned. In the case of the Independent, there was no question that they published material that belonged to the News-Press without permission in direct violation of copyright law. When we raised this, their attorneys quickly agreed to remove all News-Press copyrighted material.

Fair enough and true enough, but this misses the point, doesn’t it? Assuming Ms. McCaw was within her legal rights to issue cease-and-desist letters, the question remains, was this the appropriate way for the publisher of the city’s only daily newspaper to conduct business at this time? The effect of the letters was to supress news coverage of what was happening at the newspaper. The reference to the copyrighted material is especially rich. She’s trying to make this an intellectual property issue? Don’t give George W. Bush any ideas — he might sue the New York Times for leaking “copyrighted” material from the NSA.

One of the basic tenets of good reporting is that there are always two sides to every story. Up to now, most of you have only heard the attacks being hurled at the News-Press by those with other agendas besides journalism. That’s over now.

Good plan. But the problem is, McCaw and her deputies have been striving to supress coverage of this story, and have failed to document any of the counter-assertions they have made throughout this controversy. If she means she will begin acting in a more transparent manner from now on, this will be applauded. If.

I would like to personally thank all of our loyal advertisers and readers for staying with us through this difficult time. I am gratified that in July, our new subscriptions exceeded cancellations, resulting in a net subscription increase of 406. While the vocal minority has tried to make a lot of noise, the quiet majority are showing their support.

Transparency, please. Yes, this information is proprietary, and under normal circumstances, none of our business. But these are not normal times. It is easy to say the advertisers and subscribers are sticking by the News-Press. At this point, she probably needs to prove it. She won’t be given the benefit of the doubt.

Many years ago I accepted the fact that the difficult decisions I must make as owner and co-publisher do not make me popular. I am not running a popularity contest. I am running a newspaper. I will always do what I think is best for the News-Press and our community.

Fair enough and true enough. But the perception is, McCaw caved into pressure from a wealthy celebrity, which is inconsistent with the stance depicted here of a brave publisher doing what is best for the newspaper and the community. She has yet to explain the reasons behind any of her “difficult decisions,” other than various innuendo that she has yet to either clarify or apologize for.

If McCaw thinks this letter resolves her painful, damaging PR problems, she’s mistaken. She’s prolonging them. I doubt this letter is consistent with any professional PR advice she’s been getting. If I’m right, she should start listening to the counsel of the people she’s paying, or else this battle will be endless.  She’ll still own the paper, so in that sense, McCaw wins no matter what.  But neither she, nor the News-Press, will be trusted, and that will have a corrosive effect on every aspect of the business.

“End Times”: Imagine a World With No Lollipops

It’s hot, I’m slow, I only got to this story this morning, but I was not exactly charmed by it:shock.jpg

STEAL a toddler’s lollipop and he’s bound to start bawling, was photographer Jill Greenberg’s thinking. So that’s just what Greenberg did to elicit tears from the 27 or so 2- and 3-year-olds featured in her latest exhibition, “End Times,” recently at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. The children’s cherubic faces, illuminated against a blue-white studio backdrop, suggest abject betrayal far beyond the loss of a Tootsie Pop; sometimes tears spill onto naked shoulders and bellies.

The work depicts how children would feel if they knew the state of the world they’re set to inherit, explained Greenberg, whose own daughter is featured in the show. “Our government is so corrupt, with all the cronyism and corporate lobbyists,” she said. “I just feel that our world is being ruined. And the environment — when I was pregnant, I kept thinking that I’d love to have a tuna fish sandwich, but I couldn’t because we’ve ruined our oceans.”

What nonsense! Jill Greenberg is living in the lap of the lap of luxury, and she thinks it’s “end times.” What a gassy title for her exhibit — claiming for herself the final word before the curtain comes down.

Oh, how I wish there was a time machine, so I could take Greenberg back to, say, New York in the so-called Gilded Age, or London in the 1830s, or really almost anytime in history prior to her own cozy lifespan. Mozart had six siblings; he was one of two to survive infancy, and that was a common ratio, even among relatively comfortable families like his, until only about 100 years ago. If a stolen lollipop is Greenberg’s metaphor for the cruelties that our society will visit upon the next generation of children, she is completely ignorant of history.

The future’s so bright for our society’s kids, on the whole, they won’t even notice the lollipop is missing. There is plenty to worry about, of course, and any parent worries for their child’s fate. 9/11 will happen again. Wars won’t stop, and the weapons of mass destruction loom as a threat. And then, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, there’s “plain old death,” dogging all our steps. But as a society, we are heading into a period of unimaginable prosperity, when many festering problems will find sustainable solutions.

Before you get the vapors, be assured: I’m no denier of global warming. We have a lot of environmental problems, serious ones. And fortunately, we have serious people investing their lives in addressing them. On this blog, I honor the scientists who are working to understand, characterize and hopefully reverse global warming. But I have less respect for people like Jill Greenberg, who prefer to wallow in the apocalypse.

In terms of human impact, the environmental conditions that Jill Greenberg or her toddler are likely to encounter anytime in their lives will be enviable compared with what most people in the history of the world have faced. The bleakest environments are in the poorest countries, there is no scenario in which her child will face those conditions unless she volunteers to do so. There is such hubris in her saying “we’ve ruined our oceans.” Sure, the oceans are polluted. But be grateful that your child is growing up at a time when scientists are able to monitor environmental conditions, and people can organize globally for change. Greenberg acts like she’s just discovered this problem — epiphanies of a tunafish sandwich — and nothing’s being done. Which is partly true. She, herself, is doing nothing. She’s taking pictures and trying to depress people. What good does that do?

jp-morgan.jpgLikewise the incantations of “corrupt…cronyism…corporate lobbyists..,” like that’s something new and unique to our era. Is she serious? Is she saying this in a national publication like the LA Times? Let me throw a few names at her: Boss Tweed. Mark Hanna. J.P. Morgan. Albert Fall. Billy Sol Estes. Bobby Baker. Richard Nixon. Spiro Agnew. Thomas Keating. All of these names and many more are in Wikipedia if she wants to look them up.

Just to pick a juicy one: Is she familiar with Sam Giancana? One president, Eisenhower, used the murderous Mafia chieftain in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. Another future president’s father, Joseph Kennedy, got Giancana to help him wrangle labor votes for John Kennedy’s successful 1960 election. When Giancana was found years later with a bullet in his head, the CIA chief actually had to deny having anything to do with it. If there is a political scandal today that rivals two presidents trucking with a Mafia capo, I want to know about it.

Anywhere in the vicinity of money or power, Ms. Greenberg, you will find corruption, and that’s been true for 3,000 years. And yet, somehow, we keep making babies, and most of them grow up to enjoy the blessings of this rare and unusual planet.

Okay, but the story’s absurdity doesn’t stop there. It seems like the Internet has gotten ahold of Greenberg long before I did. The complaint? That she’s hopelessly naive? That she’s spoiled by prosperity? That’s she a doom-porn addict? No. They’re mad at her because she took the lollipops away from the kids before she photographed them in order to make them cry.

Bloggers such as Andrew Peterson called Greenberg’s lollipop technique abusive and exploitative, while Greenberg, her husband, Robert Green, and gallery owner Paul Kopeikin defended the work, the process and one another. The conversation, cycling between rational and hyperbolic, says as much about Net communication as about the art in question.

“Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse,” Peterson wrote under his pseudonym Thomas Hawk at, a blog that focuses on new media and technology. For Peterson, Greenberg’s technique was “evil.”

At this point, I change sides, and become Jill Greenberg’s defender. Child abuse? Is this man insane? When you pollute the English language by relating something as benign as a photographer’s trick to the hideous violence and cruelty visited upon children all over the world by abusive parents and other authority figures, you dishonor the real victims.

ball_clock.jpgBut the vortex of stupidity didn’t stop there. Greenberg’s husband, Robert Green was so offended by the comments on that he searched until he found the real identity of the previously anonymous blogger, and outed him. As if the idiocy of his comments wasn’t enough to hang him! He had to be cyber-stalked?

We’re in a bad stretch in the politicized culture of America. It might not be the “end times,” but I still wish I had my lollipop.

The Snake and Us

snake-in-the-grass.jpgSome 60 million years ago, snakes added venom to their arsenal of survival tools.  The first predators mammals faced were snakes.  And so, according to this story on Science Blog, some primates evolved better eyesight, larger brains and more dextrous hands and feet to avoid being poisoned and/or eaten.

According to Lynne Isbell, a UC Davis anthropology professor,

“There’s an evolutionary arms race between the predators and prey. Primates get better at spotting and avoiding snakes, so the snakes get better at concealment, or more venomous, and the primates respond…. A snake is the only predator you really need to see close up. If it’s a long way away it’s not dangerous.”

The eye that would prevent a sneak snake attack eventually became the eye that could distinguish other things in our world, and facilitate social interaction. Primates fortunate enough to live in a paradise where snakes lack venom tend not to have evolved as far, according to Isbell.

Try to stack this theory up with Genesis. Snakes tempted humankind to acquire knowledge, the Bible says. Indeed, they may have. Perhaps God’s wrath was unwarranted. Or perhaps Adam and Eve left of their own accord, trying to get away from that snake, whom they could now see with frightening clarity.

Isbell is writing a book about primate origins. Her article appeared in the Journal of Human Evolution’s July edition.

Get Over Newspaper Polling

I think it’s borderline unethical for news organizations to conduct polls and then report on them “exclusively.” If they want to pay for a poll, fine, but then open up the results to everyone to read for themselves, including other news organizations, bloggers, professional researchers — whoever. If the sponsoring organization wants to write a news story about the poll, let them do it knowing that every other news organization has simultaneous access to the same data, and will be publishing their own interpretations.

I respect the science of public opinion. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with professionals who conduct surveys that will influence big decisions by clients. Their polls are carefully worded and structured to make sure no bias creeps into the way questions are phrased. The reports on the polls, likewise, assess the data dispassionately and with a precision that clients sometimes find cruel. But useful.

Not so with newspaper polls. Oh, the polls themselves might pass muster, but you and I don’t really see the poll. We see a news article based on the poll, for which the results have already been mined for “news value.” That’s inherently unscientific: The reporter is trying to figure what will make their readers say “a-ha!” or what will make people buy the newspaper, or what adds to the sum of human knowledge…or, as many political ideologues suspect, what will help elect someone the reporter favors and hurt someone the reporter disfavors.

It doesn’t matter which motive is at play. Plugging the juicy stuff is not what professional opinion researchers do, and using that criteria alone almost always leads to a misrepresentation of the information.

According to the conservative site Powerline, that’s what happened when, earlier this month, the LA Times topped the news with a story suggesting that a high percentage of voters, 37 percent, would not vote for a Mormon candidate, e.g. Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, a Republican who has talked about running for president in 2008.

The story described Romney’s religious background in depth, and quoted a Southern Baptist Convention website as associating Mormonism with “cults, sects and new religious movements” — all of which became relevant to a political news story only because of the poll findings. The incendiary article startled Republicans, and clearly made Romney appear to be a less credible candidate. Undoubtedly, it was circulated by other Republican candidates and influenced fundraising and endorsement decisions.

But the story got the poll results wrong, Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff says:

…the underlying report shows the Times’ July 3 story to be misleading, in my view. The question posed by the pollsters was, “Just thinking about a candidate’s religion, do you think you could vote for a Mormon [or Jewish, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Muslim] candidate.” Thus, contrary to what the Times reported, the poll does not show that 37 percent of those questioned would not vote for a Mormon candidate; it shows that 37 percent of those questioned would not vote for a Mormon candidate if they thought only about that candidate’s religion. Indeed, the report (but not the story) acknowledges that “there is nothing to indicate that numbers such as these, while certainly indicative of a basic level of resistance, are a real barrier to legitimate candidacy.” In addition, the report (but not the story) states that there is no evidence “to infer that a candidate’s religion would trump other important voter criteria such as trust, charisma, shared values. . .or the candidate’s stand on [issues].”

The story also neglects to mention that, while half of the Democrats who expressed an opinion said they would not vote for a Mormon if all they thought about was religion, independents and Republicans showed less prejudice. About 60 percent of independents who expressed an opinion, and more than 70 percent of opining Republicans, were prepared to vote for a Mormon even if they thought only about his religion. Thus, Romney’s religion would appear to be less of an obstacle to his nomination than one might infer from the Times’ story, which quotes a political science professor who states that religious-based resistance to Romney “among Southern Baptists” could be a “huge problem.”

Romney may or may not have a “huge problem” due to his religion. In either case, The LA Times seems to have had a problem reporting on its own poll.

My suggestion to the Times: Stop doing polls like this. Go out and find news. If you want to demonstrate that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will block his candidacy, find actual people who will say that to you. (The only quote of that nature came from Emory University’s political science professor Merle Black, who was reacting to the reporter’s questions and description of the poll, and nothing else.) But don’t hide that assertion behind the alleged science of a poll — especially if you aren’t willing to assess the poll accurately.

Truly, if all the big news organizations stopped polling now, we wouldn’t be deprived. There are lots of research companies issuing their poll results directly over the Internet now. If there was ever a time when we needed newspapers like the Times to get information from the science of opinion polling, that day has passed. In the meantime, the journalism associated with newspapers reporting on their own polls is so suspect as to have lost all credibility.

“Say What??” Or: A Trip Down Memory Lane With Saturday’s LA Times

If you’re too young to have listened to Jim Healy’s nightly sports news/comedy act during evening rush hour, too bad, and today’s column by former LA Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre (“Journalist Bill” on Healy’s show) won’t affect you like it affected me — laughing helplessly at the recollection of how Healy mashed up real sports scoops with sound clips of various sports figures at their worst. You can listen here to some of Healy’s bits — out of context, who knows if they’ll seem funny unless you heard them when they were fresh.

Dwyre got me to raise my eyebrows when I read this part:

Healy had news flooding in from everywhere. He had a million leakers, and it became a badge of honor to be one of his snoops. Sometimes, it almost seemed as if he were clairvoyant.

Once, a decision was made about a major firing in The Times’ sports department, and Journalist Bill, who was going to do this Friday, told his wife about it Wednesday night. He told no one else. Thursday afternoon, Healy had it on the radio. Mrs. Journalist Bill has not been trusted since.


Speaking of the LA Times, today’s front page carries a long feature by former pop music editor Robert Hilburn. Now, if you were too young to miss his long journalistic career, no worries. The story is the encapsulation of almost everything he ever wrote — Hilburn distilled, for better and for worse. Only Bruce Springsteen is missing among the cast of characters he profiles.

Despite all the caveats about Hilburn’s clunkiness and repetitiveness, I recommend the piece. He tells many stories I found (to use a Hilburn word) “affecting.” Like this one about John Lennon:

I was a fan of the Beatles. But I also wanted to know more about the man behind the 1970 album “Plastic Ono Band,” a flat-out masterpiece. It was Lennon’s first solo album and a chilling attempt to move beyond the emotional scars of being abandoned by both parents.

In the opening lines, Lennon sang about loss so painful that his voice seemed tied to a nerve deep inside: “Mother, you had me / But I never had you/ I wanted you / But you didn’t want me.”

When I finally met Lennon in 1973, he was temporarily estranged from his wife, Yoko Ono, and living in Los Angeles. Depressed about the separation and the pressure of trying to live up to his fans’ high creative expectations of him, he spent much of his time partying with friends or drinking and taking drugs on his own; sometimes drinking a bottle of vodka or half a bottle or more of brandy a day. Years later, he told me that when he had an important business meeting the next day, he’d spend the evening with me because I didn’t drink.

“I think I was suicidal on some kind of subconscious level,” he said of what he called his “lost weekend.”

“The goal was to obliterate the mind. I didn’t want to see or feel anything.”

One evening at his hotel, Lennon turned on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and ordered up cornflakes and cream. I didn’t think much of it until the same thing happened another night.

“What’s up with the cornflakes?” I finally asked.

He smiled.

As a child in London during World War II, he explained, he could never get milk, so this was special. The lesson of the evening was that there are some childhood losses you can deal with through room service. For
Lennon, the harder ones could be exorcised only through his songs.

michael_jackson_scary.jpgAnd then this story, with a similar subtext, about Michael Jackson:

I got the rare chance to observe this new pop phenom at close range, before allegations of child molestation and the resulting legal actions began to rule his life. In 1984, during the “Victory” tour, I worked with him on his autobiography for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday.

She wanted a formal autobiography; he wanted a picture book. One evening, I began to see how difficult a book of any sort would be. Jackson had handed me a folder with dozens of family photos. I picked out a shot of an elderly man, who turned out to be his grandfather.

“I love him very much,” Jackson said.

“OK, shall we put that in the book?”

He looked shocked. “Oh, no,” he said, “that’s too personal.”

After nearly an hour of this, he decided it was enough work for the evening. Popcorn was ordered from his personal chef, then he pulled a video from one of the huge trunks he took on tour. Slipping it into the VCR, he settled on a couch and said, “Let’s watch cartoons.” Jackson was 26.

For all his brilliant showbiz instincts, Jackson was ill-equipped to deal with many of life’s most routine matters, as if the years of childhood stardom had left him socially stunted and more than a little frightened. His world was so guarded that admission to his room was strictly by invitation only.

Part of this, most certainly, was security, but Jackson also was not good at dealing with people, especially adults. Adults could be cruel, he said.

I understand Hilburn’s working on a book. I’m sure I’ll read it, gnashing my teeth all the way through, to find nuggets like these.

Not-So-Tiny Bubbles and Global Warming: News from UCSB

A team of UC Santa Barbara scientists went diving one day in 2002 in an area of the Santa Barbara Channel called Shane Seep, when the earth did something alarmingly rude, though not unexpected.

She belched — a “massive blowout of methane,” that “sounded like a freight train,” as Science Blog relates the story.

“Other people have reported this type of methane blowout, but no one has ever checked the numbers until now,” said Ira Leifer, lead author and an associate researcher with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute. “Ours is the first set of numbers associated with a seep blowout.” Leifer was in a research boat on the surface at the time of the blowouts.

Aside from underwater measurements, a nearby meteorological station measured the methane “cloud” that emerged as being approximately 5,000 cubic feet, or equal to the volume of the entire first floor of a two-bedroom house. The research team also had a small plane in place, flown by the California Department of Conservation, shooting video of the event from the air.

Leifer explained that when this type of blowout event occurs, virtually all the gas from the seeps escapes into the atmosphere, unlike the emission of small bubbles from the ocean floor, which partially, or mostly, dissolve in the ocean water. Transporting this methane to the atmosphere affects climate, according to the researchers. The methane blowout that the UCSB team witnessed reached the sea surface 60 feet above in just seven seconds. This was clear because the divers injected green food dye into the rising bubble plume.

Atmospheric methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and is the most abundant organic compound in the atmosphere. The ocean floor’s release of trapped methane hydrate — a form of ice that contains a large amount of methane within its crystal structure — in bubble form is both a symptom and a cause of global warming, according to UCSB geological science professor James Kennett’s theory.

When ocean temperatures rise, the methane releases are more likely to occur in the form of blowouts, like the one UCSB’s researchers saw. Those bubbles make a marked difference in the quantity of methane in the atmosphere, “thereby initiating a feedback cycle of abrupt atmospheric warming.”

Studies of seabed seep features suggest such events are common in the area of the Coal Oil Point seep field and very likely occur elsewhere.The authors explain that these results show that an important piece of the global climate puzzle may be explained by understanding bubble-plume processes during blowout events. The next important step is to measure the frequency and magnitude of these events. The UCSB seep group is working toward this goal through the development of a long-term, seep observatory in active seep areas.

(Not to make light of this disturbing news, but there is a bright side. Here’s one big blowout in Santa Barbara that can’t be blamed on Wendy McCaw.)

E(lusive)-Mail from Thomas Pynchon

gravitys-rainbow.jpgWho was the cool novelist to read when you were in high school? For me, it was Thomas Pynchon, author of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I was reading when I graduated, read all summer, and continued to read when I started college.

pynchon_crying_lot_49_small.jpgI still haven’t completely finished it, having lost my way in the endless and completely surreal third section that seems to take place in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I did finish his first two novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49.

Pynchon popularized the thermodynamic concept of entropy as a metaphor for history; and his basic theme was the paranoid search through cryptic evidence for clues that might make sense of a world that seems increasingly chaotic. These themes were expressed most clearly in The Crying of Lot 49, which for a time was something everyone read; it was barely 200 pages and though bizarre, it had a limited number of characters to follow, unlike the huge populations and decades of history covered in his other two books.  The plot turned on the main character’s discovery of a centuries-long, secret war between rival postal services — which might not exist.

(I’m omitting Pynchon’s later novels, Mason & Dixon and Vineland, only because by the time these were published, the minimalist style of fiction had replaced the Joycean surrealism school that Pynchon commanded, so he was less in vogue. Vineland didn’t deliver, and while Mason & Dixon was fun, I couldn’t get through it. Although, now that I’ve become interested in astronomy, it might be worth another look, since the real Mason & Dixon played an intriguing little role in the history of astronomy.)

Pynchon’s mystique was aided by the fact that he had not let himself be photographed since high school, and lived like someone in witness protection. However, gonzo-esque journalists of the 70s would report on him, eyewitness accounts. Supposedly: He was a math genius. He was overwhelmed when he heard the Beach Boys. He wrote a lot of Gravity’s Rainbow while high, and later when editing it didn’t remember entire episodes. He lived in Mexico. He lived in Manhattan Beach. (Garrison Frost, of the South Bay-focused blog The Aesthetic, interviewed people who knew him when he lived there in the late 60s and early 70s, and wrote a great piece, arguing that Pynchon having written Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach should be commemorated locally.) He lived in Redwood country. He lived in New York. His family’s pedigree went back to the Mayflower. He was not, in fact, strange; he was friendly and polite.

Thomas Pynchon has a new novel coming out in December. Amazon has a page where you can pre-order it. For about a day, there was a blurb on the page — written by Pynchon himself! Then, mysteriously, it was taken down.

However, on one of the forums that now accompanies items on Amazon, someone named Reid Burkland re-posted it. Here it is:

“Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.”

–Thomas Pynchon

I wonder how central the Tunguska event is to his story. I wrote about it here.

Another Pynchon-LA connection:  In the months after the 1965 Watts riots, he wrote “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts,” which ran in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It was one of his few works of non-fiction. Clicking on the title will take you to the whole essay. Here’s a sample:

In the daytime, and especially with any kind of crowd, the cop’s surface style has changed some since last August. “Time was,” you’ll hear, “man used to go right in, very mean, pick maybe one kid out of the crowd he figured was the troublemaker, try to bust him down in front of everybody. But now the people start yelling back, how they don’t want no more of that, all of a sudden The Man gets very meek.”

Still, however much a cop may seem to be following the order of the day read to him every morning about being courteous to everybody, his behavior with a crowd will really depend as it always has on how many of his own he can muster, and how fast. For his Mayor, Sam Yorty, is a great believer in the virtues of Overwhelming Force as a solution to racial difficulties. This approach has not gained much favor in Watts. In fact, the Mayor of Los Angeles appears to many Negroes to be the very incarnation of the little man: looking out for no one but himself, speaking always out of expediency, and never, never to be trusted.

The Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency (E.Y.O.A.) is a joint city-county “umbrella agency” (the state used to be represented, but has dropped out) for many projects scattered around the poorer parts of L.A., and seems to be Sam Yorty’s native element, if not indeed the flower of his consciousness. Bizarre, confused, ever in flux, strangely ineffective, E.Y.O.A. hardly sees a day go by without somebody resigning, or being fired, or making an accusation, or answering one–all of it confirming the Watts Negroes’ already sad estimate of the little man. The Negro attitude toward E.Y.O.A. is one of clear mistrust, though degrees of suspicion vary, form the housewife wanting only to be left in peace and quiet, who hoped that maybe The Man is lying less than usual this time, to the young, active disciple of Malcolm X who dismisses it all with a contemptuous shrug.

“But why?” asked one white lady volunteer. “There are so many agencies now that you can go to, that can help you, if you’ll only file your complaint.”

“They don’t help you.” This particular kid had been put down trying to get a job with one of the larger defense contractors.

“Maybe not before. But it’s different now.”

“Now,” the kid sighed, “now. See people been hearing that ‘now’ for a long time, and I’m just tired of The Man telling you, ‘Now it’s OK, now we mean what we say.'”

Speaking of LA Radio…

It’s more than a little ironic that, according to the Spring 2006 Arbitron radio ratings released yesterday, talk-radio KFI is tied for first place with Univision’s KLVE, which programs music in Spanish. KFI’s afternoon and evening programming is now almost completely dedicated to tirades about illegal immigration, especially “The John and Ken Show,” four drive-time hours of rabble-rousing. It’s the first time an AM station has been in the top slot for nearly 20 years, so I have to assume that screaming about “closing the border” and the alleged perfidy of MEChA is a hit formula. Bummer.


bud-furillo-with-the-ladies.jpgAlso, Bud Furillo, R.I.P. The obituaries emphasized his role as sports editor of the Herald-Examiner, nurturing gifted columnists like Allan Malamud and Melvin Durslag, but I got to know of him through his long stint as the lead sports guy on KABC. Can you imagine, a news-talker like KABC devoted three or four hours every afternoon, during drive time no less, to sports? The best show I heard was “The Steam Room” with Bud “The Steamer” Furillo and his partner, usually Tommy Hawkins, but also Geoff Wicher or Rick Talley, which was on the air from about 1979-87.

(Furillo is pictured at right, looking kind of nervous.)

KABC had the Dodgers during that period, so my drives home during baseball season would be all about listening to Bud and Tommy set up that evening’s Dodger game.

Bud’s radio persona was that of an ever-optimistic fan. The Dodgers would win a few games, look like they might be turning a mediocre season around, and there would be Bud, imploring LA: “Are you on the bus? Are you on the bus??” He got me onto that bus many a summer.

Saul Levine and the Long Tail

saul-levine.jpgIf you haven’t lived in LA for decades, the name Saul Levine might not mean anything to you, but if someone was going to compile a list of “100 People Who Make LA Great,” Saul Levine would be near the top.

For years, anyone who has owned a “stick” (e.g. a license to operate a radio station) in a major market like Southern California sold it to the highest bidder, who would program it for the biggest audience, to reap the most profits. That’s why Los Angeles radio is so alienating; why most of the AM dial is dominated by redundant right-wing talk, goofy sports or Spanish-speaking programming, and why most of the FM dial plays hip-hop, classic rock or Spanish-speaking programming. Even public radio has succumbed to compulsion to maximize dollar value per program. It’s why KPCC’s once-great music programming was replaced by way too many NPR chat shows, and why KUSC’s daytime classical programming has become so dumbed-down, playing only the movements of symphonies and concertos that are easy to work, eat or drive by.

Except Saul Levine, owner of K-Mozart, a commercial FM classical station, and KKGO-AM, which plays pop standards. According to a lovely profile in today’s LA Times Business section, Levine could sell the FM station alone to a conglomerate for $100 million, which is about $99,999,975 more than he paid for it. He’s grandfathered into having an 18,000-watt signal, when the current FCC standard is just 680 watts. But Levine just won’t sell. He wants to keep his stations independent — and playing the music he wants to play.

Brahms symphonies…Nat King Cole singing “Sweet Lorraine”…that’s what Levine provides Southern Californians, really, out of his pocket. He undoubtedly makes money doing it, but nowhere near as much as he could serving a bigger audience. Levine is a throwback to a time when people chose a vocation out of love, not necessarily to maximize profit. But he also might be a man ahead of his time:

(He) does not want his children, both of whom are involved in the operation of the family company, Mt. Wilson Broadcasting Inc., to sell when he is gone and live off the proceeds.

“You are supposed to work,” Levine said. “I would not want them to sit around on an island in the Mediterranean.”

Levine’s son, who is KMZT’s marketing director, declined to comment on the station’s future.

“He is still the owner,” Michael Levine said quietly.

In the meantime, Saul Levine forges ahead. He loves to talk about podcasting — the station offers listeners downloadable interviews and lectures about music on its website.

“Otherwise, you are in the horse-and-buggy era,” Levine said.

Now, I haven’t yet read The Long Tail, but I wonder if Saul Levine has. Chris Anderson’s book, which evolved from this 2004 article in Wired (which he edits) believes that the “hit” mentality that has driven the media for a century is giving way to those media providers who will cater to non-mainstream tastes — a process enabled by the zillion-channel universe of the Internet. From the Wired piece:

To get a sense of our true taste, unfiltered by the economics of scarcity, look at Rhapsody, a subscription-based streaming music service (owned by RealNetworks) that currently offers more than 735,000 tracks.

Chart Rhapsody’s monthly statistics and you get a “power law” demand curve that looks much like any record store’s, with huge appeal for the top tracks, tailing off quickly for less popular ones. But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks, which is about the amount of the fluid inventory (the albums carried that will eventually be sold) of the average real-world record store. Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero – either they don’t carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store.

The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody’s top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it’s just a few people a month, somewhere in the country.

This is the Long Tail.

You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. There’s the back catalog, older albums still fondly remembered by longtime fans or rediscovered by new ones. There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre: Imagine an entire Tower Records devoted to ’80s hair bands or ambient dub. There are foreign bands, once priced out of reach in the Import aisle, and obscure bands on even more obscure labels, many of which don’t have the distribution clout to get into Tower at all.


What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see “Anatomy of the Long Tail“). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity.

Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”

Radio is a classic “scarcity” medium of the 20th century. Only so much spectrum in any given geographic area. Except now, the spectrum isn’t as much of a limiting factor. Each satellite radio service offers more than 100 channels. Internet audio, including podcasts, grabs more and more ears. And services like Rhapsody and Yahoo! Music allow you to program your own audio streams, either on your computer or in your mp3 device, without having to buy the tracks (unlike the somewhat overpraised iTunes, which demands that you buy a track before you can listen to it.)

Now, Saul Levine is a radio programmer from the get-go. His first act after hoisting his antenna atop a flagpole in 1958 was to spin Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Land of Smiles.” And this is what he and his staff still do. They decide what plays, and you can listen. The element of choice that Rhapsody or Amazon give us, Levine’s stations don’t give you — although his interest in creating podcasts is a big clue that he gets it, that choice is the future.

I guess what you could say about Levine and the Long Tail is that he kept the flames burning until the media could catch up with his craving to serve minority tastes. The kinds of music he programs have been in danger of disappearing from the culture, but in LA, classical music rides one of the region’s strongest signals. Some kid might stumble on K-Mozart tonight and hear Beethoven for the first time. And tomorrow morning, try to find more Beethoven in his computer.

AOL’s “Customer Service John” Only Following Orders

The Consumerist was sent anonymously a copy of the AOL Member Connection Retention Manual, which proves that the annoying “Customer Service John” at AOL — who is “no longer works at AOL” according to PR Week — was treating “Vinny” precisely the way he was trained to do. His only mistake was flashing anger when Vinny wouldn’t let him follow the AOL script — a script designed to frustrate callers who want to cancel.

But “Customer Service John’s” anger is not what makes the recording of his call from Vinny so compelling. It’s the oddly disconnected way the rep tried to turn everything Vinny said back onto itself as a sales hook. The manual is evidence that this is what Vinny would have run into no matter who answered the phone at AOL. It was “Customer Service John’s” unlucky day.

Remember, AOL’s VP of corporate communications Nicholas Graham told PR Week that a company study showed one out of two people who called to cancel an account “ended up staying with the service (because they only needed troubleshooting help.)” That’s a dubious assertion if I ever heard one. But what Consumerist describes is worse than I imagined. Consumerist calls it “creepy,” and that’s hard to argue with.

The manual says:

If you stop and think about it, every Member that calls in to cancel their account is a hot lead. Most other sales jobs require you to create your own leads, but in the Retention Queue the leads come to you! Be eager to take more calls, get more leads and close more sales. More leads means more selling opportunities for you and cost savings for AOL.

This thinking is so bizarre: It takes work to even find the number you’re supposed to call if you want to drop your AOL service. My experience included a lot of trial and error clicking to find the right jargon that equated to “cancel my account.” So, already the caller has walked across a bed of coals to get someone on the phone who can remove this useless monthly charge from their credit card bill. This is a “hot lead?”

Read the whole thing. Thanks to New York University PR Forum for pointing to it. In their item, they ask readers to “predict what AOL will say next.” Not good.

Newt Goes Global, Hugh Goes Postal

newt-gingrich.jpgFormer Vice President Al Gore, star of the environmental blockbuster “An Inconvenient Truth,” is not the only 90s’ icon to make a strong comeback in 2006. Newt Gingrich is pursuing a similar strategy — frightening everyone about global catastrophe — to get people talking about him.

Clearly, we are being maneuvered into a Gore vs. Newt presidential election in 2008. Who do you pick? Gore fears rising seas. Gingrich fears rising hordes. Gore fears it might be too late to reverse global warming. Gingrich fears it might be too late to reverse World War III!

According to David Postman’s Seattle Times-hosted political blog:

Gingrich said in the coming days he plans to speak out publicly, and to the administration, about the need to recognize that America is in World War III.

He lists wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, this week’s bomb attacks in India, North Korean nuclear threats, terrorist arrests and investigations in Florida, Canada and Britain, and violence in Israel and Lebanon as evidence of World War III. He said Bush needs to deliver a speech to Congress and “connect all the dots” for Americans.

He said the reluctance to put those pieces together and see one global conflict is hurting America’s interests. He said people, including some in the Bush Administration, who urge a restrained response from Israel are wrong “because they haven’t crossed the bridge of realizing this is a war.”

“This is World War III,” Gingrich said. And once that’s accepted, he said calls for restraint would fall away.

hugh_hewitt.jpgAlready, Hugh Hewitt is reading “appeasers” out of the blogosphere, even those conservatives who want to stop and think about this for a second before we start blasting away at Syria and Iran. World War III is the message of the week. Hewitt likes to cite the William Manchester biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion,” which documents British appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, and Churchill’s lonely, failed efforts to reverse it before the Nazi military strength grew to the point where it threatened all of Europe. I’ve read that book, and it’s great, and it has nothing to do with today.

The British appeasers thought Hitler could be Britain’s ally against the Communist Soviet Union, or if not an ally, a kind of vanguard who would do the dirty work that the deeply anti-Red British establishment didn’t want to do themselves. Also, the British establishment thought many of Hitler’s demands were quite reasonable; it was still an embarassment to Britain that it supported the draconian punishment of Germany demanded by France after WWI.

These positions look ridiculous now, and those who held them are responsible for hundreds of millions of avoidable deaths. That’s why “appeaser” is such a blood insult for Hewitt to toss around so carelessly.

But reviewing the news coverage of Israel’s fight with Hezbollah, I see virtually no sentiment out there to “appease” the terrorist group’s sponsors, Syria and Iran. There is little confusion about the hostile status of these countries with respect to Israel and the U.S. The argument is over how to deal with them, and there are many approaches being debated. The problem is legitimately complex.

Patience, Hugh! It’s still okay to have a debate in this country.

One perhaps relevant observation: The left-wing blogs haven’t really said anything much about the fighting in the Middle East, nor about the Syria/Iran aspect of the issue, and seem to want to steer the conversation back to more tried and true topics.

arianna1.jpgThe most important thing Arianna Huffington found to say about the war was that Bush’s use of the word “shit” in a conversation with Tony Blair is yet more proof that Bush is blah blah blah blah. Joshua Micah Marshall doesn’t think the president’s s-bomb is such a big deal, but he does allow a guest blogger to enjoy the irony of columnist David Brooks being inconsistent because before the Iraq war he was blah blah blah blah blah. Daily Kos announced he won’t have anything to say about the war at all, and Kevin Drum has taken the same position (which prompts a comment on his site that “A political blog will be pretty lame without an opinion on an active war.”) I get the feeling that the unstated fear among this side of the blogosphere is the war might — darn the luck — help Joe Lieberman.

So I really don’t know what Hugh Hewitt is worrying about. The conservatives have the field all to themselves.

But if Newt Gingrich wants Bush to declare World War III, I sure want a debate about that first, if it’s okay with you all. I mean, sheesh. I’m pretty hawkish, but the right has gone a bit giddy! The unfolding of the Iraq war has tempered my enthusiasm. I can’t believe it hasn’t made people of Gingrich’s and Hewitt’s ilk a bit more humble about making demands for war with no debate and no restraint.

Going Off Message: The Growing Movement to Reject PR

Thanks to Joe Scott for pointing to this essay by Walter Pincus, a veteran Washington Post national security correspondent. The parts in bold are my emphasis:

The truth of the matter is that with help from the news media, being able to “stay on message” is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the “message” is the public relations spin that the White House wants to present and not what the President actually did that day or what was really going on inside the White House. This system reached its apex this year when the White House started to give “exclusives” — stories that found their way to Page One, in which readers learn that during the next week President Bush will do a series of four speeches supporting his Iraq policy because his polls are down. Such stories are often attributed to unnamed “senior administration officials.” Lo and behold, the next week those same news outlets, and almost everyone else, carries each of the four speeches in which Bush essentially repeats what he’s been saying for two years.

A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President’s statements when he — or any public figure — repeats essentially what he or she has said before. The Bush team also has brought forward another totally PR gimmick: The President stands before a background that highlights the key words of his daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what’s going on is public relations — not governing. Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.

Contrary to what the above excerpt might suggest, Pincus’ is not a “Bush-bashing” piece. It is an elegant expression of cold fury at the way in which PR techniques, and news media compliance with them, have infected public discourse, “primarily in the White House and other agencies of government, but also in Congress or interest groups and even think tanks on the left, right or in the center,” which has left the public with a handful of dust — “instant news, instant analysis, and therefore instant opinions” — instead of sound public policy.

Needless to say, the infection is raging high in California politics, state and local. Gov. Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles’ Civic Alliance hope that loosening term limits will make councilmembers and state legislators take their jobs more seriously, but I’m afraid they will be disappointed. It’s not just the chore of having to plot their next campaign for their next job from the moment they take office that has created this decade’s cadre of plastic, timid political leaders. They are behaving the way they are advised to behave — by their staffs, campaign advisors, their professors and their political role models.

The PR techniques Pincus describes in his piece are S.O.P., conventional wisdom, and are in fact taught in school. “Staying on message” — I’ve heard many a 22-year-old recent graduate of a political science, public policy or PR program at a major university converse fluently on the topic.

There is a backlash coming, however. The ornery Amanda Chapel of Strumpette owns the franchise of pointing out the latest tirades against PR; such as this one from a New Zealand editorialist attacking that nation’s public broadcasting organization for doubling its public relations budget.

Here is how Frank Haden of Fairfax Media in NZ describes PR:

(Journalists) should not go sneaking off along the corridor to a specialist in the art of making sure the public never gets to hear the full story.

Because that’s what most public relations people do. It’s what they’ve always done, ever since the days when they were called hucksters, spielers and smokescreen merchants, names that kept them firmly in their place on the outskirts of polite society.

Now they have proliferated like rabbits, rebranding themselves as a growth industry with a variety of high-sounding titles such as media relations consultants, but their focus is essentially unchanged.

With some exceptions, their job is to give the inquiring public as few facts as they can get away with, artfully arranging them to make a favourable impression without actually telling any lies that can catch them out.

From this and other examples that frequently pop up on her website, Chapel concludes:

Note: public relations is not just characterized as an indulgence… it’s now become a “disgrace.”

In light of PR’s huge rise in revenues globally, regrettably the powers that be are NOT even going to acknowledge the problem here.BUT, the day is coming when this perception WILL result in a huge and dramatic backlash. Imagine a world where PR is just rejected out of hand. It sure looks like that day could be here sooner than you think.

“A world where PR is just rejected out of hand” is the world Walter Pincus now advocates for the press corps in our nation’s capital.

Really, why not? Why not expect our leaders, corporate or political, to give us truthful statements about the policies they are pursuing or opposing? Why do reporters, including the most elite and respected reporters, roll over for the kind of claptrap they get when a prominent leader deigns to permit an interview or appear on their program?

These reporters have been around long enough to know when they’re getting nada y pues nada y pues nada but message points and canned answers.  Hell, much of their audience recognizes plastic answers immediately and turns off the program. But aren’t the practitioners of this pseudo-speak the ultimate nihilists? Is there principle underneath all the spin? Oh, probably, but it’s really not apparent. Leaders, why waste our time if you aren’t going to lead?

As I write, a war is underway between Israel and one of its terrorist tormenters Hezbollah, in which Syria and Iran are implicated, and innocent civilians on both sides of Israel’s border with Lebanon are being slaughtered.

It’s a matter of great concern, but it didn’t occur to me once to turn on “Meet the Press” or its Sunday morning competitors. I wouldn’t learn anything but what the Democrats and Republicans thought would help their ongoing “positioning” needs for future elections. Foreign policy expert Gregory Djerejian of The Belgravia Dispatch did listen, however, and:

…I have to say it is manifestly clear we are facing a real leadership crisis in this country. How the level of debate has become this dumbed-down, or hyperbolic, or clueless, well I’m not quite sure, but we very clearly have a real problem on our hands. This is a country whose political class is rudderless just now–pretty much on both sides of the aisle–as events are overtaking people’s belief systems, modes of analysis, and general understanding of regional dynamics in the Middle East–and their impact on vital US interests. It’s a rather alarming spectacle, to be sure.

That’s when the backlash against PR becomes emotional. The misuse of PR techniques — the takeover of public policy by the PR mentality — has enabled “rudderless” leaders to seize power they don’t know what to do with…and who don’t even know anymore when they’re lying and when they’re telling the truth.

This is Something Up With Which Edwin Newman Would Not Put…

…nor would my old journalism teacher, Jim Spalding. Never a cheery guy, he will be especially cranky if he reads this. Apparently, all those grammar rules I’ve followed and enforced for nearly 30 years aren’t rules at all!

Here are just three of the many non-rules cited by Paul Brians, a professor of English at Washington State University:

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction

It offends those who wish to confine English usage in a logical straitjacket that writers often begin sentences with “and” or “but.” True, one should be aware that many such sentences would be improved by becoming clauses in compound sentences; but there are many effective and traditional uses for beginning sentences thus. One example is the reply to a previous assertion in a dialogue: “But, my dear Watson, the criminal obviously wore expensive boots or he would not have taken such pains to scrape them clean.” Make it a rule to consider whether your conjunction would repose more naturally within the previous sentence or would lose in useful emphasis by being demoted from its position at the head of a new sentence.

Using “between” for only two, “among” for more

The “-tween” in “between” is clearly linked to the number two; but, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “In all senses, between has, from its earliest appearance, been extended to more than two.” We’re talking about Anglo-Saxon here—early. Pedants have labored to enforce “among” when there are three or more objects under discussion, but largely in vain. Even the pickiest speaker does not naturally say, “A treaty has been negotiated among England, France, and Germany.”

Over vs. more than.

Some people claim that “over” cannot be used to signify “more than,” as in “Over a thousand baton-twirlers marched in the parade.” “Over,” they insist, always refers to something physically higher: say, the blimp hovering over the parade route. This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language. If I write 1 on the blackboard and 10 beside it, 10 is still the “higher” number. “Over” has been used in the sense of “more than” for over a thousand years.

For the record, when editing, I have always crossed out “between” and replaced it with “among” if it’s more than two, and have always crossed out “over” and replaced it with “more than” if the writer was talking about amounts and not physical relationship. I guess I’ll stop now.

But I’ve always used and permitted sentences to start with conjunctions. My editing impulse only attacks overuse of that style. And I’m guilty of it myself.

(Thanks to Ann Althouse for the link, which she got from Boing-Boing. In case you’re too young to know who Edwin Newman was, you can click here. It is shocking for me to learn his seminal grammar-Nazi book, Strictly Speaking, is out of print. Thirty years ago it was ubiquitous!)

Let’s Make a Deal

This is very strange thinking indeed:

(T)he New York court also put forth another argument, sometimes called the “reckless procreation” rationale. “Heterosexual intercourse,” the plurality opinion stated, “has a natural tendency to lead to the birth of children; homosexual intercourse does not.” Gays become parents, the opinion said, in a variety of ways, including adoption and artificial insemination, “but they do not become parents as a result of accident or impulse.”

Consequently, “the Legislature could find that unstable relationships between people of the opposite sex present a greater danger that children will be born into or grow up in unstable homes than is the case with same-sex couples.”

To shore up those rickety heterosexual arrangements, “the Legislature could rationally offer the benefits of marriage to opposite-sex couples only.” Lest we miss the inversion of stereotypes about gay relationships here, the opinion lamented that straight relationships are “all too often casual or temporary.”

The words in quotes are from the state of New York’s 4-2 decision upholding that state’s ban on gay marriage. They are cited in an op-ed that the NY Times ran this morning by Yale Law School Professor Kenji Yoshino.

If the New York legislature actually thought about marriage that way when it was written into state law in 1909, how should they react to the failure of that policy to prevent huge increases in illegitimate births, divorce and children being raised by one parent? The “benefits of marriage” aren’t turning out to be nearly enticing enough to prevent these things.

To take the court’s thinking to its logical conclusion, the Legislature confronts two possible choices. Either dump marriage altogether as a failed social experiment; or, up the ante:

“Hello, I’m from the New York State Legislature. I see you two kids are in a ‘family way.’ Will you stay together and raise your offspring for the next 18 years?”

“Hell, no.” “No can do.”

“Let me see if we can change your minds. We here in New York have this gift we want to give you to see if we can keep you together. It’s called ‘marriage.’ It’s wonderful. You’re legally bound to each other for life! Unless one of you wants to get out of it. So, will that get you two lovebirds to stay together?”

“No.” “I thought you said you had a gift.”

The Legislature convenes a special session.

“Okay, we’ve met and we really want to get you guys hooked up more permanent-like. So here’s what we’ve come up with: All the benefits of marriage, PLUS a brand-new refrigerator/freezer, a convertible couch — very handy for those nights after a little tiff — a set of steak knives, and a matched pair of bowling balls! We’ll even throw in a coupon for five free games at the Bowl-a-Drome!”

“You would do that for us?”

“We will do that, because we care about the children of New York.”

Well? Doesn’t that follow from what the court found?

The decision — which Yoshino said was based on similar reasoning from an Indiana state court ruling — also shows a surprising evolution in the stereotype of gay parents. Not too long ago, it was assumed that gay parents adopted children in order to convert them to the gay lifestyle. Now gays have to deal with a whole new stereotype: The perfect parents!

Being an imperfect parent myself, I’m not sure this stereotype is the road to popularity for gays and lesbians.

“Look at Billy. Always dressed so nice for school. I hear his report card was all A’s. And did you see that nutritious lunch he was eating?”

(Sigh.) “Yes. Well. His parents are gay.”

“Gosh, I wish I was gay. My Bobby won’t do his homework, and he’s always teasing his sister.”

“Don’t worry. Kids are strong. They can handle adversity. And there’s always vocational school.”

Yoshino describes the court’s decision as a “hostile ruling delivered in friendly terms,” and he’s surely right. Nonetheless, I like the idea of forcing anti-gay bigots to admit that children adopted by a gay or lesbian couple might be getting a better upbringing than their own kids are.

“People Have Better Things To Do Than Make Videos About Cola. Duh.”

This is a funny riff on how some already soggy new media tactics are sloshing through advertising agencies at the behest of desperate-to-catch-up consumer companies. It’s from a site called Advergirl, which is worth checking out.

By the way, I don’t think only advertising executives should read good advertising blogs like hers. Don’t be so silo’d! It’s part of being a literate person in our culture to understand the whys and wherefores of advertising.

Bad News for Amateur Paleontologists and Utah Tourists

vistor-center2.jpgThe Dinosaur Quarry Visitors Center at Dinosaur National Monument, an architectural landmark as well as destination for tourists and those who are fascinated by the fossil remains of our planet’s former ruling elite, abruptly closed yesterday when the building was condemned as unsafe.

This sad event was a long time coming. From the Deseret Morning News:

The center was built in the mid-1950s on unstable soil. The first hint of problems emerged before construction was complete, she wrote. “Cracks in the parking lot began to appear in November 1957, and during the first year of operation, staff detected disquieting vibrations in the upper gallery.”

In 1967, the support columns received reinforcement. But throughout the 1970s and ’80s, “the Quarry Visitor Center continued to move,” says the release. By 1989, this motion was compromising the structural integrity of the visitor gallery.

“Supplemental anchorages were used to anchor the existing steel roof and visitor gallery deck beams to the masonry pilasters along the south wall.”

This year the National Park Service commissioned a formal monitoring program, according to Risser. Detailed inspections identified conditions that had not been noticed before, she said.

“This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but based upon this new information, we decided that we couldn’t expose the visiting public or our employees to the risk posed by this building.”

The quarry visitors center allowed you to see some 1500 dinosaur bones still embedded in the cliff against which the building was constructed. It houses the world’s largest quarry of Jurassic Period dinosaur bones, the result of paleontologist Earl Douglass’ smart hunch that a river flowed into this area 150 million ago, and that it carried the remains of dinosaurs that lived and died by its banks. Beginning his dig in 1909, Douglass shipped his initial discoveries to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where he was employed. There the bones were reassembled into dinosaur skeletons and put on display.

About 300,000 people visited the visitors’ center each year, and undoubtedly it was on the itinerary for tens of thousands of people this summer for whom this will come as a rude surprise. If you know anyone planning to visit Utah — pass the word. National Park officials hope to raise the money to repair the building, but no plans are yet in place.

Santa Barbara, The Novel*

According to “BlogaBarbara,” there’s going to be a rally of disgruntled Santa Barbarans in front of the Santa Barbara News-Press building next Tuesday, July 18th. The them of the rally: “Build Back That Wall,” meaning the traditional separation between a newspaper’s editorial and business functions that News-Press owner Wendy McCaw is accused of erasing through a series of executive changes that seem motivated more by personal relationships than any kind of business or news judgement.

PR Week’s Hamilton Nolan has a column this week on the News-Press’ turmoil, echoing the LA media’s reaction, e.g. it’s an “acute reminder” that the rescue fantasy of a newspaper purchased by a local owner doesn’t always bring back happier days.

The issue has particular resonance right now, after The McClatchy Co.’s sale of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its tabloid cousin, the Daily News, to a coalition of local investors in Philadelphia headed by former PR man Brian Tierney.

To his credit, Tierney seems to have made all the right moves so far: making all the new owners sign pledges not to interfere with editorial operations, mending relations (more or less) with some at the paper who hated him from his days as a local attack dog on behalf of his clients, and announcing a whopping $5 million advertising campaign to boost readership at the limping publications.

Time, of course, will tell.

Nolan criticizes how the News-Press has handled its media and community relations, saying owner Wendy McCaw has “(tried) to use PR to obscure the situation.” He’s particularly rough on Sam Singer, a San Francisco-based crisis communications expert who has been spokesman for McCaw since the uproar began. Singer…

has seemed disingenuous in his statements about the incident. Asked if any ethical boundaries were crossed, he replied “none whatsoever,” though journalism professors and experts will tell you that a paper that mixes its news and opinion sections and fails to report honestly on itself is being unethical.

Singer also said the departed editors left because they “didn’t see eye to eye with ownership” on the issue of local news coverage; in fact, their very public complaints were much larger and more specific than that. He also tried to deflect questions by saying that one departed staffer was “on suspension for having threatened to kill another staff member.” After naming that person, he added piously, “So there are some other issues in play here that we would prefer not to discuss in detail.”

I wonder if Singer — himself a former newspaper editor — had anything to do with McCaw’s “note to readers” in this morning’s News-Press. Given what so many former employees have reported, it’s hard to decide if McCaw’s note is Orwellian or delusional. Kevin Roderick posted it on LA Observed; here’s an excerpt:

There are some disgruntled ex-employees who are making these matters public. Their media campaign manipulates facts to divert attention from the truth. They are attempting to make this situation appear something other than what it is.

When I purchased the News-Press, I had goals to improve the quality of the paper, to have accurate unbiased reporting, and more local stories that readers want to read. Our readers in Santa Barbara and elsewhere deserve nothing less. These goals clearly were not being met.

This requires journalists and editors to separate their personal feelings from their professional news judgment. Otherwise, the reader is ill served and journalistic integrity is lost.When news articles became opinion pieces, reporting went unchecked and the paper was used as a personal arena to air petty infighting by the editors, these goals were not met.

Some of the people who lost sight of these goals and appeared to use the News-Press for their own agendas decided to leave when it was clear they no longer would be permitted to flavor the news with their personal opinions.

Barney Brantingham, the longtime News-Press columnist, is featured on the cover of this week’s Santa Barbara Independent for his first-person narrative, “Why I Quit the News-Press.” Here’s a taste of it:

Ironically, until the last few months, these years working under the highly respected Editor Jerry Roberts and the great Managing Editor George Foulsham have been my best, my happiest, at the paper. And, even more ironically in view of the current travesty that has befallen the News-Press, this was during the ownership of Wendy McCaw. To her credit, she has always given me complete freedom to write. She has never interfered with my column.

But this idyllic time all came crashing down on July 6, last Thursday morning. Roberts arrived back from vacation to find his job as editor had been usurped by Travis Armstrong, the editorial writer and editor of the opinion pages of the paper. Roberts couldn’t ethically run a news department that was controlled by the opinion side of the paper, and so he submitted his resignation to be effective in 30 days. Always the professional, he was willing to stay on the job to assure that the paper would continue to get out and that the transition would be as smooth as possible. No way.

Instead, McCaw, with her fiancé and co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, decamped in her private jet to areas unknown, leaving behind broken lives, a mangled paper, and Travis Armstrong as the acting publisher. Now Armstrong has the upper hand.

Armstrong, as many know, is a court favorite of McCaw and, as many have learned, is a dangerous man to anger. The author of countless poison-pen attacks on public figures out of favor with McCaw, he has become increasingly contentious and imperious. Now the time of reckoning came for the news desk. Hadn’t Roberts run a prominent story about Armstrong’s recent drunken driving arrest, when he had been stopped by police driving down Santa Barbara Street going in the wrong direction, with a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit? But when Armstrong was sentenced a few weeks later, the News-Press account of that story never saw the light of day. Only The Independent printed the information. Scooped again!

Last Thursday, I watched in dismay as Roberts was escorted out of his office by Armstrong. According to one witness, Armstrong barged into Roberts’s office saying, “I want you out of here now,” or words to that effect. This was quite a spectacle: A longtime San Francisco reporter and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a journalist of the highest reputation in the nation, kicked out by Mr. Poison Pen.

Brantingham’s essay is accompanied by a “News-Press Timeline” that I found enlightening. (Scroll to the bottom of Brantingham’s piece.) The pivotal events took place back in April:

April 27: Publisher Joe Cole announced he was leaving the newspaper and severed all professional associations with owner Wendy P. McCaw so he could spend more time with his family. Cole’s announcement ignited a firestorm of speculation whether he quit or was fired. One of Santa Barbara’s most successful business attorneys, Cole also had served as legal counsel to McCaw and her Ampersand Holdings Co. He is credited with hiring Jerry Roberts — former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle — as executive editor of the News-Press.

April 27: On the same day, McCaw announced she was appointing herself and her fiancé, Arthur von Wiesenberger, as publishers. The News-Press reported that von Wiesenberger — a bon vivant, food writer, travel critic, bottled water expert, and owner of the once-famous Montecito nightclub Nippers — edited his high school newspaper in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, I’ve been fortunate to receive two lengthy and astute comments from a Santa Barbara-based reader, “michelmaus,’ that are attached to my first post on this topic. Check them out. He seems very tuned in to how locals perceive McCaw:

However it should also be pointed out that perhaps her greatest sin was that of assaulting a perceived local institution and treating it like a personal bauble whether she owned it or not. You cant pitch yourself as being part of the community and then tell them to eat cake at your discretion it tends to backfire. Especially in a town where the hatred of all things Los Angeles and its accompying lifestyle, has been elevated to a ingrained artform that makes NY/LA sniping look like a game of t-ball. Ms, McCaw seemed to go out of her way to rile the locals in this situation and truthfully if (columnist Barney) Brantingham had stayed it would have been a much easier storm for her to weather. And while I know she isnt from LA she fits the bill for a good portion of the population here where almost everyone has, or feels they do have enough sense and money, that they dont need to have a out of town billionare delivering “burning bush” edicts to them. The last person to do this at the level she chose to take matters was a out of town luxury auto dealership that singlehandly tripled the sales figures for Mercedes in nearby Ventura after comments by its owner soon after they arrived. The tail between the legs departure a few years later was roundly celebrated by the locals as they could now skip the 35 minute drive/self imposed exile to purchase a new benz.

This story has too many juicy angles! It’s an unfolding novel, almost worthy of Balzac. Or, if it had more sex, Danielle Steel.

(*Updated to include news of McCaw’s “note to readers.”)

Sam’s Coming Back

los_angeles_clippers_sam_cassell.jpgIt’s so nice when things work out.  Just when it became impossible to root for the Los Angeles Lakers anymore, at least until all vestiges of the putrid Kobe/Shaq/Phil trifecta from hell are purged from the team, the Los Angeles Clippers finally got a clue.

It was so much fun to root for the Clippers last season!  It was especially pleasant given the decades of horrible, hopeless basketball that the Clippers used to give us.  What’s amazing is, this happened without any changes at the top.  Donald Sterling still owns them.  Elgin Baylor is still the GM.  These two, who made so many bad decisions, bad decisions by the cartload, suddenly started making good decisions, even great decisions.  Hiring Mike Dunleavy as coach.  Keeping Elton Brand.  Trading for Sam Cassell. And now, keeping Sam Cassell.


Mice on a Plane

On a day in late April, an American Airlines jet flew from JFK to LAX — infested with mice, according to an investigative report on KSDK St. Louis, which featured footage from a whistleblower’s hidden camera. The airline personnel at JFK knew about the mice, but let the jet fly — not just that day, but for weeks thereafter.  (Click here to watch the report, click here to read the station website’s text version.)

From the station’s website:

The video was shot by a long-time employee at the overhaul base at Kansas City International Airport. The whistleblower did not want to be identified but did want to expose a hidden secret onboard a Boeing 767 passenger plane.

The whistle blower said, “We had to take the chairs off and that’s when everybody saw mice running around on the floor and one ran down one of the mechanic’s arm.”

The plane arrived in Missouri April 30.

The whistleblower explained, “There’s feces all along this edge right here. It’s throughout the whole aircraft.”

The whistle blower said workers found nests in air vents and dead mice in emergency oxygen masks. When mice would get hungry, they ate insulation and chewed through wires.

“If they shorted themselves and caused a fire, it would go through that cabin so fast, we could have lost some lives,” said the whistleblower.

By May, the whistleblower estimated there was “900 to 1000″ mice on the plane. A subsequent investigation only found 17 live mice, however, according to American Airlines. Nevertheless, the station interviews a retired pilot and crash scene investigator who says the plane should have been grounded.

“The potential for the catastrophic mishap is there and if you have one mouse, you have two. (If) you have two, you have a family,” he said.

The KSDK report cites the FAA as saying American Airlines “did nothing wrong because airlines do not have to report rodent infestations unless the rodents affect the mechanics.” But, naturally, that assumes you know at any given moment how many mice are on the plane, where they are, and what they’re chewing on.

The airline’s spokespeople say it’s rare, that “infestations simply don’t happen.”

Obviously, in an period when capturing images on video and uploading them onto the Internet can be done in seconds, American Airlines is taking a pretty bold stance with that comment. It won’t be pretty if their confident declarations come back to haunt them.

(Thanks to one of the travelin’ Stodder brothers for showing me this link.)

Reaping the Snark-Winds*

I was talking to serious businesspeople about the blogosphere the other day, explaining what I saw as the potential to gain credibility and respect by connecting with bloggers who have a particular expertise, or who cover a particular niche.

We were on a conference call; the participants were also on the Internet, and we were telling each other about sites we found.

One of the others on the call interrupted me to say, “I found this headline,” which was something to the effect of “Those Cocksuckers Should Die.”

“Yeah, well, there’s that element too,” I said sheepishly, feeling for a moment like I’d accidentally taken a client to lunch in a strip club.

If you are a blogger, there’s no one censoring you. At least up ’til now, the companies that host blogs don’t step in and say “mind your language,” or “that’s libel.” And if you’re really angry about, oh, George W. Bush, or Joe Lieberman, or Hillary Clinton, or Howard Dean, sometimes all you want to do is curse at them, and blogging lets you do that.

If you’re a bit more clever, perhaps you don’t just curse, you get “snarky” — a kind of mean-spirited cleverness. Some snarky sites are funny, but some of them get a little dark. Not that journalists of past eras were models of courtly behavior. But, for a lot of writers, the ability to set one’s own standards equates to no standards.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the recent episode involving the political satire site Protein Wisdom shows how a playground without monitors can sometimes degenerate. Protein Wisdom’s Jeff Goldstein strikes many conservatives as hilarious. His politics are a little less harsh than Ann Coulter’s, but his taste for the outrageous outpaces hers by quite a bit. Some left-wingers are drawn to his site like the proverbial moths to a flame. One of them was Deborah Frisch, a college teacher out of Arizona.

Here’s a Protein Wisdom post that summarizes the fray. Basically, Ms. Frisch lost her mind, deciding to react to Goldstein’s outrageousness by posting weird, obscene and threatening remarks about Goldstein’s 2-year-old son. As a result, she is no longer teaching college in Arizona. Many conservatives rallied to Goldstein, relating to his concerns as a parent. Some (not all) leftists agreed; Hirsch was way out of line. She herself apologized, somewhat equivocally.

The sober, witty law-prof blogger Ann Althouse, though a moderate conservative, is no fan of Goldstein’s. She assesses what happened this way:

I agree Frisch has a big problem. She’s the weakling who entered a drinking match with a man who can drink you under the table. She lost control. She paid the price — a big one. Goldstein’s you-talked-about-my-child move is a strong one, but it’s a move nonetheless, made by a person who likes to play the game… hard. He’s not a victim. He’s one of the people who has advanced himself in the blogosphere by making it hostile and ugly. Like all of us, he is capable of being hurt by a genuine crazy. But why not just delete the trolls? Why rile them? Some of them really aren’t playing with a full deck. Why push weak people until they lose control? It’s an ugly game, and I think Jeff knows he plays it.

Standing back from this, what I see is a inherent feature of putting the power of publishing in individuals’ hands without barriers to entry of any kind, and combining that power with the power of social media to create conversations within and across various blogs. When the only control is self-control, in an environment like this, that’s no control at all. When a snarky blog that permits comments avoids evokes this kind of ugly incident, one might eventually see that as the exception, not the rule.

It’s no reason not to play. But it’s a reminder that the blogosphere is far from Paradise.

*Corrected, thanks to an alert reader, to get Ms. Frisch’s name right throughout, 7/12.

There is No Such Thing as an Anonymous Blog Comment…

…as the following PR career-suicide maneuver proves.

Jeff Jarvis, one of the best and most credible bloggers about the impact of the blogs on the news media, wrote a post yesterday about Dell Computers’ new blog. A big part of the blogosphere would have been wondering what Jarvis might say about Dell’s new gambit, because it was Jarvis’ bad “Dell Hell” experience with the company’s much-maligned customer service department that demonstrated the power of viral blog posts to impact business, and the powerlessness of conventional PR techniques to counter it.

Jarvis’ lengthy comments about Dell’s blog are worth reading, but for now, I’m more interested in Dell’s reaction to them. It came at two levels. First, on the blog itself, this rather ungracious response:

Yesterday was the first official day of Dell’s one2one weblog and already Jeff Jarvis and Steve Rubel were kind enough to tell us what we’re doing wrong. Thanks for the feedback, guys. We’ll keep working to get it right.

As Tony Soprano’s mother used to say, “Poor you.” Or, as an old boss of mine would say, “Now tell us what you really think.”

So that’s what one of Dell’s PR people did. Tell Jeff what he really thinks. Anonymously, he thought. Here’s how the comment looked:

Chris Says:
July 11th, 2006 at 1:29 pm

Hey Jarvis

I honestly think you have no life. Honestly? Do you have a life, or do just spend it trying to make Dell miserable. I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over that frigen blogosphere and I cant (sic) honestly say that Dell is trying to take a step towards fixing their customer service. They hire guys like me to go on the web and look through the blogs of guys like you in hopes that we can find out your problem and fix it. But honestly I dont think you have a problem Dell can fix. Your problem is you have no life.

Jarvis looked up Chris’ IP domain and, guess what. The comment came from GCI Group, which is in charge of the a PR campaign for Dell entitled Rebuilding Corporate Reputation Through Grassroots Efforts. No kidding.

This episode illustrates a lot of things.

First of all, there is no such thing as anonymity if you post on blogs. Time and again, this fact has been proven, to the great embarassment of the poster. My favorite example involves Cathy Seipp and Nikke Finke, two LA writers who don’t like each other. In a comment on Cathy’s blog, Nikke objected to something Cathy said about her. Then there was another post minutes later from someone claiming to be Nikke’s lawyer, threatening a suit. But the IP address showed they came from the same computer. And of course there’s Michael Hiltzik, the LA Times writer who posted anonymous comments on his own blog and others, praising himself and bashing his foes. Patterico busted him the same way.

Secondly, there is just no telling how stupid some people can be. I mean — if you’re at work, take a look at the people around you. Is there anyone who you think could do something so stupid one week after your client started a blog? It calls the sincerity of Dell’s blog into question. Plus, what incredible ignorance of Jarvis’ role! He’s not just some crank with a hard-on for Dell.

Are you sure nobody in your shop would do something like this? “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”

But the most important lesson for PR people is one of the first ones I ever learned. It’s almost a Zen koan: “Don’t believe your own press releases.” Another variation is “Don’t get high on your own shit.”

PR people owe their clients loyalty, but not blind loyalty. You need to be the benevolent outsider looking in, giving a candid, confidential assessment of how things really look to the target audience. In most cases, your client is already defensive enough; you shouldn’t be egging them on or throwing yourself in front of moving trains to prove your love for them. Doing that is bad practice. Just because the client responds like a puppy being scratched on the tummy doesn’t mean you’re giving them what they’re paying you for.

“Chris” sounds like a guy (gal?) who ordered six rounds of the Kool-Ade. But his post is going to cost his client a lot of money and time.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis hears from GCI’s Digital Media practice. “Chris” is “a summer intern who got caught up in the emotion” around Jarvis’ Dell Hell tales. Jarvis sees a link between Chris and “Customer Service John” from AOL. To me, there’s a difference. “Customer Service John” followed his company’s policies, and got burned purely because the exposure of AOL’s practices demanded a sacrificial lamb.

“Chris” is an example of lax supervision. Allowing an intern to “get caught up in the emotion” means someone failed to communicate the meaning of professionalism. Allowing an intern to speak for the client means someone was giving this kid too much latitude. Where were the adults? Off pitching new business?

But Jarvis makes a valuable point. The days when a company and its PR people could clamp a lid on employees, and expect to control its image through a “spokesperson” are over. Says Jarvis:

Every one of your “customer service” employees and every one of your “public relations” employees in every encounter represents your company. That has always been the case. Only now, we can record their actions and report them to the world.

The Real McCaw*

santa-barbara.jpgThe soap opera at the Santa Barbara News-Press has been enjoyable reading. I’ve been following it via LA Observed and the LA Times. It’s hard to follow what the News-Press is saying about itself, because all of the relevant content is behind a pay barrier, but according to LA Observed, in the wake of reporters and editors quitting in protest, the News-Press’ spokesman issues anodyne public statements about differences of opinion being respected but sometimes requiring a parting of the ways. Classic spin, in other words, that makes the paper’s owner, Wendy McCaw and her new management look even worse.

The point has been made in many places that this kind of upheaval is what LA Times employees might get if a local plutocrat like Eli Broad, David Geffen or Richard Riordan buys the paper. Members of the journalistic fraternity apparently believed Wendy McCaw’s philanthropic commitments — the environment, animal rights — roughly equated to her agreement with traditional notions of journalistic independence. Thus, at first, her purchase of the News-Press from the New York Times Co. was hailed — just as a Riordan, Broad or Geffen purchase would be hailed here in LA.

It has come as both a shock and a disappointment to reporters in Southern California that McCaw would insert herself into the editorial process so aggressively, and on such eccentric matters like how the word “blonde” should be used. But Wendy McCaw is a human being, not a corporation. Corporations have policies that, for better or for worse, constrain emotions, interposing process between whim and act. Human beings, especially wealthy human beings, don’t have the same filters.

So when actor Rob Lowe called McCaw, allegedly to complain that the coverage of his planning commission fight to build a really big house in Montecito revealed his address, I imagine McCaw thought he had a point. Rich celebrities have special security needs. It’s not an unreasonable request, especially coming from a nice guy like Lowe who also supports the environment. So, henceforth, no more publication of Lowe’s address, no more publication of anyone’s address without her permission, lest another worthy millionaire be made to feel paranoid.

rob-lowe.jpgThe newspaper’s staff objected, of course, that if you’re covering a planning commission controversy, the address is the point of the story. Zoning rules are address-specific. The main complaints about Lowe’s plans were coming from his neighbor. This was a public proceeding, and Lowe’s address was on all the public documents associated with it. Leaving out the address makes no sense, journalistically. If Lowe wanted to maintain his privacy, he should’ve settled with his neighbor quietly. But since he’s asking the local government to exercise discretion on his behalf, Lowe became fair game. At least, that’s how a typical editor would see things. McCaw disagreed, however, and she rocked some careers in the process — quite unfairly, it is clear.

Likewise with the coverage of her newly appointed publisher’s DUI; McCaw apparently believed one story about it was enough, and didn’t want to see a second. The newsroom took this as censorship. McCaw raised the stakes further by giving this same publisher authority to oversee editorial content. That triggered a series of principled resignations by some of the paper’s most respected editorial staff; and the organization of a pitchfork brigade to stand outside the McCaw castle, demanding a return to journalistic norms.

I was all ready to join this brigade, philosphically, until I got bugged by this comment by SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius:

The upshot? McCaw and the News-Press look like small time operators, who think they can turn a public trust into a country club newsletter. Roberts and the editors come across as paragons of journalism, standing up to bad bosses, censorship, and dumb editing. And everyone else around the country gets a good laugh.

Mr. Nevius: McCaw doesn’t just “think” she can turn the News-Press into a country club newsletter. She can. It’s hers. It’s not a “public trust.” A courtroom is a public trust. A national park is a public trust. The principle of press freedom is a public trust. But a newspaper will never be a public trust, not unless the government buys it — and I doubt any self-respecting reporter would want to work for a government-run newspaper, although I could be wrong about that.

Looking back at journalistic history, we’re taught to revere bold individuals like Otis Chandler who took control of news organizations and made them better. The bold individuals who take control of news organizations and make them worse tend to be forgotten, but there were probably more of them. The point is — Wendy McCaw’s got the right to choose what she wants to lose money doing. One person’s laughing stock is another person’s passion.

If Wendy McCaw wants to edit the News-Press herself, she can do that. If she wants to spike every story that makes a friend look bad, she can do that. If she wants to turn the front page over to the Audubon Society, that’s her right. If she wants to run weather reports that say it’s raining when the sun is shining, she can do that. McCaw didn’t use her billions to buy the paper and then turn it over to a foundation to run. That might’ve been a good idea, but she didn’t do that. She put herself in charge.

mccaw-and-newspress-representatives.jpgI believe one reason the media establishment has worked itself into such high dudgeon about the News-Press is, at first, McCaw played the dream date role to the hilt. When McCaw bought the paper, part of the appeal was, “She’s so rich, she won’t care if we lose money.” That’s nirvana to newspaper folk. It means they can hire the best — and the News-Press did that, bringing Jerry Roberts down from the San Francisco Chronicle. It means they can cover more stories. It might even mean they can get paid more. McCaw’s ownership initially provided a vision of salvation for other newspapers with hellhounds on their trails. Now, Wendy McCaw is being seen as a cautionary tale for those who pray for a wealthy knight to salvage the LA Times, the San Jose Mercury News or other important publications from the grip of cost-cutters.

So much of the coverage of News-Press turmoil is journalist-centric. Reporters are covering the story from the standpoint of what it would like to be a reporter employed by Wendy McCaw. But reporters aren’t the only stakeholders here. For readers — in Santa Barbara and elsewhere — this might be an opportunity. With falling circulation an almost universal condition for newspapers, many see the classic newspaper format fading into history. Maybe now that Wendy McCaw has dispelled any illusions that she’s planning on running a museum-quality publication, someone will talk her into doing something completely new and different.

Start with her environmentalism. There is so much significant environmental news that never gets covered in the mainstream press; news that, to my mind, transcends the stale dichotomies, business vs. nature, that inform most environmental stories. (If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to gee-whiz stories about how environmental imperatives might make the future more interesting. Kite-powered freighters anyone?)

If Wendy McCaw wanted to turn her newspaper brand (including its online version) into the world’s leading destination for the coverage of environmental issues, with an editorial policy that aggressively reflected her point of view, she’d have that niche almost to herself. “Santa Barbara” is the perfect name to associate with such a publication, given the historic significance of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in galvanizing changes in environmental policies worldwide.

Another way to go would be to launch a laboratory for Citizen Journalism. That city must have the highest percentage of under-utilized intelligence of any city in America, with so many early retirees and their spouses and kids hanging out in ranchettes and seaside palaces, cashing their dividend checks instead of doing what made them rich in the first place. There must be at least a few such persons who would be fit the profile of the Citizen Journalist; talented writers who care enough about their communities to monitor local goverment and other institutions, and blog about what they learn. Another source of good minds with not enough to do is UCSB. The News-Press could give new writers an on-line home.

If there’s a market for the kind of coverage of Santa Barbara that the News-Press traditionally provided, it will be filled; either by the Santa Barbara Independent, or by a new venture. Or perhaps by the News-Press itself. Despite the personnel moves, has anyone noted a diminution of the newspaper’s quality since the uproar? I don’t read it, so I don’t know.

Anyway, this is Wendy McCaw’s moment in the spotlight. I hope she does something interesting with it. She might or might not have a master plan, but she’ll have time to develop one. After all, it’s her baby now, and she can do just what she wants with it.

*Apologies to Graham Parker. Also, edited 7/9 p.m.

(UPDATE 7/11. Life goes on for the News-Press, apparently.)

Wind Energy at Sea


A German company, SkySails, has developed an intriguing application for wind energy: Powering ships at sea; from yachts to, eventually, the giant freighters that fill our Wal-Marts and Home Depots with stuff to buy, and our air with contaminants and greenhouse gases, in particular sulfur dioxide.

Beluga Shipping of Bremen announced it would be the first shipping company to use SkySails’ huge mechanized kites. By next year SkySails will have installed a 1,500-square foot nylon kite on a 12,000-ton Beluga vessel, which will run routes between Europe and the Americas.

A kite? Think about what happens when you fly a kite. Even though you don’t want the kite to pull you, its force suggests that maybe it could. Your wrist and hands make subtle adjustments to catch the most wind so you can keep your kite aloft and your line tight. By dipping or circling the kite, you can generate more force. Same thing happens with a SkySail, only the steering of the kite is done by an autopilot that constantly feeds wind information to a computer on board the ship.

This Popular Science article (which the SkySails site links to) discusses several wind energy ideas for shipping vessels, including polyurethane-coated sails attached to masts designed to mimic the bone structure of a bat’s wings, and blimp-like kites that would act like aerial tugboats. The pitch to the notably conservative and highly cost sensitive shipping industry: Reducing fuel costs, which are the largest single cost borne by freighters.

I don’t know if the International Maritime Organization is studying kites and sails for its members, but last week they did announce a review of its emission standards. Local officials in port cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach have despaired for years about their limited ability to control pollution from shipping as the traffic (and its importance to the economy) grows. Even the U.S. EPA has been pretty much helpless, they say, in controlling an amorphous industry whose ships will change flags at the drop of a hat.

But, according to the LA Times, the IMO’s new look at air pollution “is the result of pressure from European nations.” It certainly was my observation over the years that U.S. officials tended to shrug at the complexity of regulating the shipping industry, and that individual ports feared offending customers who might bolt to another port that wouldn’t hassle them.

The idea of having a kite help pull a freighter is a quantum leap beyond the discussion of marginal reductions of sulfur in fuel. But it would certainly make shipping cool for the first time in a long while.

P.S. Thanks, Todd, for the tip!

Catching an Ancient Raindrop

water-cannon-gold-rush-era.jpgThey were after gold, these miners who shot streams of water through a cannon against Sierra Nevada mountain faces, cracking them open in hopes that treasure would spill out. Armed with these hydraulic hammers, miners could blast away “half a mountain in a few minutes,” according to a historian of the Gold Rush era. It was the kind of environmental assault that a fever for wealth often would inspire during this country’s first two centuries.

The crushing blows from the water cannons exposed soil and rock from the Eocene era — 40 to 50 million years ago. Embedded in those minerals are ancient raindrops. A team of geological researchers from Stanford University conducted chemical analysis of those raindrops, and concluded that the mammoth granite mountain range that cradles Yosemite Valley is much, much older than commonly believed.

From Science Blog:

(I)n a study published in the July 7 edition of the journal Science, Chamberlain and Stanford colleagues Andreas Mulch and Stephan A. Graham present strong evidence that the Sierra Nevada range has stood tall–7,200 feet (2,200 meters) or higher–for at least 40 million years.

“An elevation profile drawn across the northern Sierra Nevada 40 to 50 million years ago would not look much different than today’s profile,” said Graham, the Welton Joseph and Maud L’Anphere Crook Professor of Applied Earth Science at Stanford.

vernal_fall_2_yosemite.jpg“Those mountains probably have persisted since the Mesozoic Era–more than 65 million years ago–until today,” Chamberlain added. Back then, according to many scientists, California was split by an ancient subduction zone–a region of constant geologic upheaval, where a plunging oceanic tectonic plate continuously pushed the continental North American plate higher and higher to create the Sierra Nevada range.

This version of events is in sharp conflict with the “recent uplift” scenario, which argues that the Sierra rose from sea level to 7,200 feet about 3 million to 5 million years ago after an enormous block of the Earth’s crust broke off and fell into the mantle. According to this hypothesis, the crust was then replaced by hot, buoyant mantle material that eventually raised the mountains. Although the Science study found no evidence to support this scenario, data revealed that a modest uplift of 1,100 to 2,000 feet (350 to 600 meters) did occur as recently as 3 million years ago.

How do you catch an “ancient raindrop?” How do you get that raindrop to tell you its secrets?

(T)he scientists used an increasingly popular research tool that combines geology and chemistry to create a record of prehistoric rainfall patterns dating back millions of years. This technique relies on the fact that in nature, hydrogen and other atoms occur in different sizes called isotopes. Deuterium, for example, is a slightly heavier form of hydrogen, and drops of rainwater that contain deuterium isotopes often fall at lower elevations.

“If you have a cloud coming in and dropping out water, as it climbs the mountain its preference is to first drop the heavy water that’s rich in deuterium,” Chamberlain said. “As you go up in elevation, the raindrops become lighter and lighter. Therefore, the rainwater becomes gradually depleted of deuterium the higher up the mountain range it falls.”

Over time, some raindrops are incorporated into molecules of clay and other minerals that form on the ground. These clays provide scientists with a geologic record of ancient precipitation, which can then be compared with samples of modern precipitation collected at the same altitude. If the comparison reveals similar isotopic ratios, then the elevation of the mountain must have been similar in ancient and modern times.

The Stanford researchers believe the crest of the Sierras was once the western edge of the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah — before it was a basin. It was a large plateau that “basically collapsed,” according to Chamberlain.

Can the study of ancient raindrops help us understand global climate patterns? Yes, and that’s one reason why the Stanford team is engaged in this research. To model future climate change, Chamberlain says,

“There are basically six large mountain ranges climatologists need to know the history of–western North America, the Himalayas, Antarctica, Greenland, the spine down Africa and the Andes,” Chamberlain noted. “To get an idea of what’s going to happen if carbon dioxide levels double in the future, you’d have to go back 20 or 30 million years in time. If you knew what the topography of these six mountain ranges was then, you could include that in your computer models and see how they respond when you double the carbon dioxide.”

Global Temperatures, Political Temperaments

The Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson is getting slagged all over the blogosphere for saying this:

From 2003 to 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that’s too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy. Unless we condemn the world’s poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else’s living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.

Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases. There are two ways: Improve energy efficiency, or shift to energy sources with lower (or no) greenhouse emissions. Intuitively, you sense this is tough. China, for example, builds about one coal-fired power plant a week. Now a new report from the International Energy Agency in Paris shows all the difficulties (the population, economic growth and energy projections cited above come from the report).

The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent. In electricity generation, the share for coal (the fuel with the most greenhouse gases) shrinks from about 40 percent to about 25 percent — and much carbon dioxide is captured before going into the atmosphere. Little is captured today. Nuclear energy increases. So do “renewables” (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal); their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.

Some of these changes seem heroic. They would require tough government regulation, continued technological gains and public acceptance of higher fuel prices. Never mind. Having postulated a crash energy diet, the IEA simulates five scenarios with differing rates of technological change. In each, greenhouse emissions in 2050 are higher than today. The increases vary from 6 percent to 27 percent.

…and for concluding this:

The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the engineering problem, we’re helpless.

Among the many responses to Samuelson’s argument, there was this from Charlie Cray on Huffington Post:

If Global Warming teaches us anything, it is that as a public policy tool we need a new type of economic way of thinking. Otherwise economics will become increasingly irrelevant to the facts as they exist. Key to this is the economists’ blind devotion to growth: Just as growth at all costs was the culture of corporations like Enron, so in living systems it is the ideology of the cancer cell. In a world of limits, it is a destructive paradigm.

Therefore, pretending that global warming is merely an “engineering problem” is to ignore the failure of economics to address the systemic causes in the structure of the economy. I agree with Samuelson’s that we have to address global warming as an engineering problem, but it’s much more than that. The problem is unlikely to be solved merely by a series of drop-in technologies, like Thorium-powered nukes. That’s just a convenient excuse to dodge these dicier political questions about the structure of our economy and the significant consequences of its failure to account for the common good.

So I ask myself, of two possible solutions to global warming, which is more likely to actually occur? A solution to “an engineering problem?” Or addressing “these dicier political questions about the structure of our economy?” Cray goes on:

Global Warming is the great challenge to this generation of Americans, just as the challenge for the last one was the defeat of communism. Our ability to develop a renewed sense of collective security — a security that is almost fractal — i.e. replicable at the local and global levels — will require us to toss out the old ideas of unity around national purpose at the expense of local health and global citizenship — i.e. the enterprise of war.

This is a big challenge. One that we have yet to even define very well. And one that will require all of us — economists as well as everyone else — to be courageous enough to take strong action and stretch our imaginations much further than we have so far.

I would have to agree with Cray that “we” have yet to “define very well” what he’s proposing. The comparison with the “defeat of communism” suggests he’s looking for an overthrow of the current economic system. Here’s the difference: When communism was overthrown, there was another model ready to be plugged in — the economic philosophy of the victorious side in the Cold War, democratic capitalism. Looking ahead, if — in the name of preventing a global environmental catastrophe — we overthrow the “old ideas” about the necessity of economic growth without knowing how we’ll replace them, how can we be sure the next system will work any better at limiting CO2 emissions?

I don’t see why an intelligent person can’t embrace both Al Gore’s sense of mission to wake up Americans and the world to the dire potential consequences of global warming, and Robert Samuelson’s search for technological answers. Why must we take on the additional mega-challenge of developing an entirely new economic system, especially when no one can tell us what it will look like? This is a test that intellectual, political and economic elites have failed in the past, and there are lots of reasons to lack confidence in those who occupy elite positions now.

One of Cray’s commenters, “runninute,” hits the nail on the head. (He’s a better thinker than speller):

China and India are not part of Kyoto. That doesn’t mean they haven’t signed up yet (they have) it means that Kyoto places no restrictions on their emission of greenhouse gases. How can expect to reverse greenhouse effects if the two largest populated nations with fast-growing economies do not have to participate in reversing the effects of man? It is for this major oversight that the US , Russia, and Britain refused to sign the Kyoto treaty. If China and India had been covered, the US government pledged to follow the guidelines. Wouldn’t that be fair?

Should we ignore Kytoto and other nations (third world or otherwise) and take independent action while we lobby others to join us? Yes. And we are doing this. However, we have a large group of environmentalists that oppose US initiatives at every turn. They files lawsuits to halt construction of wind farms, solar farms, nuclearl power plants, geothermal power plants, hydro-electric power plants and tidal power generation. They halt construction of plants that produce materials for use in “alternative energy” (such as solar cell plants which can’t be built in the US because of environmental protection laws and so must be built overseas).

Where is Al Gore on alternative energy? He has opposed nuclear energy, but he hugs Kennedy who shut down wind farms off Nantucket. Al kisses up to the environmental groups who shut down wind farms in California and Nebraska. Al makes speeches to groups who closed hydro-electric power plants and who opposed new plants. So what alternative energy are we to use?

Don’t tell me fuel cells or electric cars (EV1). Those technologies require generation of electricity to make them operate (you need electricity to get hydrogen and you need electricity for your EV1). We have to construct power plants in order to use those “emmission-free” technologies. Problem is, the electrical generation plants that make the technologies possible burn fossil fuels and there is a net energy loss due to entropy and the law of thermodynamics (ask a physicist).

Can we conserve more? Yes. Can we use less? Yes. All of these require increased costs and less public choice. We can say “you can’t have an SUV and all cars must get 80 mpg and carry only 2 people”, but is that the decision we want to make? Do we want to restrict choice in that manner? We could all live in “honycomb” houses (large high-rises that recirculate energy and are build out of materials that are energy efficient) which would save energy. We could restrict floor space to 300 sq ft per person. But do we want to place such limits on ourselves and limit choice to that degree? We could turn out street lights and advertising after 10 PM and put curfews of 11 PM on people to conserve energy, but are we willing to restrict individual decision-making to that degree?

Bureaucrats at Kyoto came up with a politically unsustainable solution to global warming. Environmental groups take internally contradictory positions that both push and retard the growth of alternative energy. There is a romantic element to all political elites, right and left, who think the answer to everything can be found in the beauty of their philosophy. The flip side of that romanticism is that “compromise” becomes a dirty word.

The attraction of Robert Samuelson-style “engineering solutions” is they are ideology-neutral. Go ahead, Charlie Cray, work up a blueprint of a new economic system, and then we can put it up for a vote. But in the meantime, Al Gore and others say we can’t delay acting on global warming. Is your new economic system going to be ready first, or will a new technological/engineering fix?

My bet is on technology. That doesn’t make me the enemy of the planet.