Sunday, January 27, 2008

Randy, Paula and Simon Pick the President

Ryan Seacrest: Welcome to the South Carolina auditions for the 2008... American....Idol !!!!

(McCain) Hello, I'm John McCain, and I'm a big fan of Barbara Streisand.

(Paula) That was like butter !!! You're voice is a velvet fog.

(Simon) Paula, you live in a velvet fog. Mr. McCain, it's one song per contestant. And shouldn't you sing something more suitable ?

(McCain) Well I like "Barbara Ann", but my mother told me not to sing that in public any more.

(Simon) Next !

(Hillary) Hi, I'm Hillary Rodham. Clinton. Rodham Clinton. Clinton. How y'all doing this morning ? I've found my new voice.

(Randy) Where are you from ?

(Paula) Terrific, Rodman. What were you trying to say ?

(Hillary) That we need to work together to defeat big business, which is that hammer thrower, dashing the dreams of working class people all over America.

(Randy) But it looked like the face in the screen represents big business ?

(Hillary) Oh. Well let's do it again, this time I'll be the hammer girl.

(Simon) No, I don't want to hear another word from you.

(Hillary) This is a vast right wing conspiracy !!

(Seacrest) Next !!

(Obama) My name is Barack Obama, and I'd like to sing a song for you.

(Randy) Barack, that was cool, you were keeping it real. But wasn't it a little too safe ?

(Obama) That's because anything I say just gives Clinton another chance to misrepresent who I am and what I believe in.

(Paula) We can't have contestants talking smack about other contestants !

(Simon) Right, only we talk smack about contestants.

(Obama) Well actually it wasn't Mrs. Clinton. It was her husband.

(Randy) Well which one of them is the contestant ?

(Obama) Tell me when you figure that out !

(Seacrest) We have one more, but he doesn't want to sing today. He says if the two finalists are really lame, then he'll enter the contest.

(Simon) He sings now or he's out !

(Seacrest) But he says he'll spend every penny he has to win.

(Randy) We can't be bought ! The people decide !!

(Seacrest) He has a trillion pennies.

(All judges) Well maybe we can work with him.

(Seacrest) But he actually only spent $100 a vote to win his last contest.

(All judges) Who does he think we are ?

(Seacrest) I'm not going to haggle with the man for you. In our out ?

(Randy) Isn't there one person who will give us a performance we can get behind ?

(Seacrest) We do have one more guy, but he also doesn't sing. He has nice background music, and he talks about why he's the candidate for change.

(Simon) For goodness sake....

(Seacret) He's taken on the bloated establishment and won, with a "give the people what they want" mantra. His "broken windows" theory is brilliant.

(Randy) Guiliani ?

(Seacrest) No, Rudy said he'd only audition in Florida. Look, I really think you're going to be wowed by this new guy, Mack.

(Simon) He can't be any worse than the crop we've seen tonight. Send him in.

(Seacrest) Judges, your American Idol for 2008 !!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Information on the Net: Instant, and everlasting

Yesterday I blogged about the race to be first with news on the Internet.  And today I'm blogging about how news on the Internet never stops being "news."   So Internet news is produced in an instant, but has perpetual life.

Today I received an email from my sister, with a great subject header:  


This email had been widely circulated several times in the past day by sophisticated people, so I figured its story may actually be true.  And indeed it was;  a local TV news story showing that children are not awakened by conventional smoke alarms.  I can't say this surprised me; my younger brothers would have slept through a meteor crashing into our house.  But it wasn't surprise that set this email trail in motion.  It was the realization that our kids were vulnerable to something  - particularly since we use young teens as sitters - and we hadn't done anything about it.

But the story also offered hope - a prototype in early development that lets a parent record a familiar voice calmly saying "wake up, get out of bed" into a smoke alarm. And my sister wants to know when it hits the market.

An hour later, she's learning  that it is available.  Now.   Here.  And they even have a way to train your dog to respond to the smoke alarm.

How did the development of this product conclude so quickly ?  Because the "news" story is from February 2004.  And indeed the knowledge base that informed this story is at least 25 years old.

And yet a slew of intelligent, informed and caring parents was unaware of it, as they had not seen the original news report, which appeared but once, or any of several other reports that have appeared - once each - in recent years.  But they did learn it because on the Internet, news lives forever, and an email trail that starts in 2004 continues to circulate four years later, albeit without any updated information appended to it.  

At findingDulcinea, we unearth and append updates to terrific news reports and columns created over time, and gather them all in one place.   Do you wonder what happened to that spy who was controversially convicted in 1950?  We did too, and published our findings.  Those columns that point out healthcare Web sites with credible information ? We put this intelligence all in one place.    Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier in the 1950s.  Was that it for him ?  Not by a longshot.   Every day, we gather credible Web sites together, update you on a "Day in History," introduce innovative people and far flung places, and string together a cogent theme from several news reports created over time.  Because no one should have to rely on outdated, unappended information.

And now I just have to figure out what I can record onto that smoke alarm that will rouse my kids from their slumber, if ever needed.  "Wake up, get out of bed," has been known to fail, even when loudly shouted repeatedly.   

I'm thinking something like, "your brother is in your room, he's stealing your stuff."  

That should work at a whisper.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Right, or Right Now ?

The Internet brings us information instantly. No longer do we have to wait till 6:00 pm, or even the whole next morning, to learn what happened today. And three networks and two daily newspapers no longer constitute our entire news universe. And each of these, in many ways, is unfortunate. More viewpoints are better than fewer, but journalistic standards are no longer uniformly high. And in the race to be first, the race to be best is less important. A writer for the Columbia Journalism review characterizes the thinking this way: "talking can be just as important as saying something." Fact checkers stand aside; anything you uncover goes in the updated version. The LA Times blog pines for the days when journalists had "hours—not minutes or seconds—to craft a story from the blast wave of facts and factoids that comes in the wake of a bombshell.” How crass has the race to be first become ? The Associated Press has written an obituary for 26-year old Britney Spears. The editor clients of AP were embarrassed they didn't have one at the ready when 39 yo Anna Nicole Smith succumbed, and they don't want to be that woefully unprepared again. Slate movie critic Dana Stevens captures the tension in writing celebrity obituaries: “The deadline is, by definition, past, and you know you've already been scooped countless times.” Celebrities dying young is not a new: see James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Belushi, Chris Farley, et al. What's new is the need to start talking before the body goes cold. And AP's clients will be the first to start talking by prudently planning ahead. Or so they think. As Jon Thurber, the obit editor of the LA Times, warns, "Who in the '60s . . .would have thought Keith Richards would have outlasted John Denver?"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bounding Down the Stairs

Is Barack Obama a "speaker of genius" ? Or is it true that, "For all the hoopla about Mr. Obama's speech, traditional political rhetoric is a declining art" ? We ask these questions today, analyze several view points, and provide historical context by harkening back to a few of the finer political speeches in recent American history. Politicians today rightfully speak to the issues at the forefront of voter's minds, and in a manner they understand . As a Web publisher, I constantly struggle with the reality that our readers scan instead of reading, and that the hallmark of good communication is that it is understood.

But I do miss big speeches full of big ideas, and there should be room for them as well. John Kennedy delivered them regularly; so did Ronald Reagan. And there have not been very many since. And I hope that brilliant, memorably eloquent political speeches are not permanently in our past, but merely in a down cycle.

George Pataki read the Gettysburg Address at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of 9.11. Other elected officials read other historic addresses. And most saw it as altogether fitting and proper that they should do this. Indeed, some NY Democrats, seeing they would have no voice at the ceremony, considered marking it in their own way - by also reading the Gettysburg Address, in a television commercial.

But Robert Polner of Newsday, wrote that the"appropriation of a distant generation's tragedy strikes me as lame and uninspired"and asked why George Pataki wouldn't "offer a new Gettysburg address instead, one that he crafts himself from the heart and not from a hired speechwriter?" Andrei Cherney, a speechwriter for Al Gore, writing in the Washington Post, implored the leaders to "add to [the] fabric" of American History, not "hide under it," and said that "[f]earing a miss if they swing for the fences, they have decided to bunt." In an earlier Newsday article, Columbia History Professor Eric Foner noted that "Lincoln...did not have public opinion polls telling him what to say, and didn't worry about what would be the sound bite on the evening news.”

And maybe that's the real problem with political campaigns today. Every word is planned in advance, with an eye on the polls and the evening news. I'm not troubled when a candidate chokes up when asked about the burdens of a long campaign. I am troubled by the likelihood that it was planned the night before. When Ronald Reagan first met with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's team carefully planned it. Gorbachev's limousine would pull up to the Geneva chateau where they were meeting, and Reagan would stand regally at the top of the steps, letting Gorbachev look up to him. But seconds after Gorbachev's car stopped, the much-older Reagan bounded down the stairs, helped Gorbachev from the car, and slipped his hand under Gorbachev's arm to support him. A Soviet aide later said "I left like we lost the game during the first movement...We started with the wrong move." And so maybe that is what I really miss - politicians who are willing to swing for the fences, to tear up the script, and bound down the stairs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Calling Admiral Stockdale

It was shocking when Hillary lost in Iowa, and surprising when she won in NH. Huckabee came from nowhere to win Iowa.  McCain rose from the dead to win NH.  The "ofer" record of pundits hasn't halted the 24-hour coverage of their confident predictions.   Following a college football season in the #1 and #2 teams lost with regularity and the BCS participants were decided at the last second,  the media is eager to declare the final presidential nominees in mid-January. An inveterate gambler, I'm willing to bet only on more surprises.   We haven't had a "brokered convention" in half a century.  In a year when the networks offer a steady diet of live and reality programming, who wants to see a safe, tightly scripted coronation ?  Alas, it is likely the nominees will be known after the 25-state primary on February 5.

So the only hope for election excitement is Michael Bloomberg.  Independent candidates have profoundly impacted recent elections;  Ross Perot's 19% of the popular vote may have cost GHWB a second term, and Ralph Nader siphoned critical votes from both Al Gore and John Kerry.  Neither Perot (post-withdrawal/re-entry) nor Nader had the gravitas of being the Mayor of New York with an $11 billion war chest.

At the very least, Bloomberg could win a state or two, and if he does, there is a very good chance that no candidate will win a 270 vote majority of the electoral college.   So, who wins then ?  As discussed in Beyond the Headlines today, the House would determine the winner from the three leading Electoral College vote-getters.  But if, as our story predicts is quite possible, the House reaches stalemate, then the Senate would choose an "interim" President from the Vice Presidential running mates of one of the top two vote-getters, until the first stalemate is resolved.  So yes, the 44th President of the United States could be the losing Vice Presidential candidate !  If it sounds like a complicated process, that's because it is; Chris Weigant of Huffington Post compares it, and not in a favorable way, to the instructions for Monty Python's Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

We can be sure of Supreme Court involvement and assiduous efforts by everyone to de-legitimize the process whenever it appears to be pointing in the wrong direction. If you think Hillary's loss in Iowa or McCain's win in NH was surprising, wait till you witness the inauguration as President of the United States of a person who failed in their role of enhancing the electability of someone else.

Who was the last person to lose an election as a vice presidential candidate and eventually become President ? There haven't been many memorable losing VPs in recent times.  With one notable exception.  Admiral Jim Stockdale.  Yes, he famously and clumsily opened the Vice Presidential debate in 1992 by asking "Who am I and why am I here" ?   Admiral Stockdale's performance was badly misunderstood, and he faded quickly from the public eye and died in 2005.

But he lives on through a philosophy that he developed while imprisoned in Vietnam for 7 years.  This philosophy is now well known in management circles as "The Stockdale Paradox":  "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."   This sounds like a better prescription for facing our future than any of the sound bites I've heard from those atop the current polls, or their likely running mates.  Let's hope there's an Admiral Stockdale somewhere out there, waiting to emerge from the chaos.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Please Sir, I want some more

I've been molding the basic premise of findingDulcinea for three years - to help people better discover the Web. For 18 months, we've been refining the details and furiously creating content, following the original outline we created. But the joy of forging a different approach to a relatively new problem is that you get to call an audible occasionally. A moment of inspiration becomes a core part of the game plan. One of these moments came in early November, as I glanced through a newspaper and saw the familiar "On this Day in History" feature. It doesn't matter which paper, because they all handle this feature the same way - an uninspiring listing of a dozen significant events that occurred over the past 500 years. On this particular day, this lackadaisical approach troubled me, because two of the events were momentous; Kristallnacht in 1938, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was embarrassed that I knew less about these events than I should - and puzzled why the newspaper would waste space with such a meager listing of these events that were so rich in historical significance. The older I get, the more interesting history becomes to me. As a college student, I remember being struck, for reasons I did not fully comprehend, by the intro to Leon Uris' Trinity, which was borrowed from Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten": "there is no present or future - only the past happening over and over again - now."

And so I wondered; what was the ultimate significance of Kristallnacht ? I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but when was it erected, and why, and how long was it ? If you happen across a terrific blog post such as this one, from prolific writer Ed Driscoll, you'll read a well-reasoned view that Kristallnacht ws not the "beginning" of the Holocaust, but merely one of the first overt manifestations of an evil hatred that had been festering for years. You'll also learn that, after 2.5 million citizens had fled East Germany from 1949 to 1961, the 28-mile long Berlin Wall was erected to stop citizens of East Berlin, which was in East Germany, from fleeing to West Berlin, which was in democratic West Germany; the Berlin Wall was only one small segment of an 860-mile barrier that rendered East Germany a veritable prison. And you'll also learn that nearly every adviser in Ronald Reagan's cabinet implored him not to demand "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall", and he said it anyway, and it became one of the seminal moments of his presidency.

And so I decided that our Beyond the Headlines section would henceforth include a well-researched exposition of a significant event that occurred on this day in history. We choose our events by mining the innumerable lists on the Web; oddly, some days are quite rich in truly momentous events, while on others we're scraping the bottom (such as today, when we explore the marriage of star athlete and an actress). We usually avoid very recent history, as there is not much perspective to bring to these events yet. And we try to steer clear of the few events in history that are generally quite well known already. It is becoming apparent to us that findingDulcinea is a phenomenal resource for students at every level. And when it comes to history, all of us need to be students. But don't take our word for it; Eugene O'Neill said it much better than we ever could.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Patient, Educate Thyself

Dr. Rahul K. Parish published today a provocative piece, "Is there a doctor in the Mouse," on It examines how doctors relate to patients who use the Internet to arm themselves with health information. He concludes that doctors should guide patients to high-quality web sites, both to reduce the chance that patients receive misinformation as well as to reinforce the physician's advice, as patients typically remember only about half of what a doctor tells them.

Many concerns doctors have about patient Internet research are well-founded. The Internet is rife with misinformation. Further, patients rarely know how to interpret results of studies and clinical trials that often apply only to patients fitting a narrow profile - something I learned as a lawyer advising healthcare companies, rather than as a patient.

But for doctors to "wish away" the Internet ignores inevitability and misses an opportunity. Intelligent people are going to seek health information on the Internet and try to make sense of it. And they are likely to be better and more compliant patients as a result. I imagine that nothing frustrates a doctor more than a passive patient who shows little interest in his or her care and expects the doctor alone to cure-all with magic potions and reassuring words.

But patients need to be realistic and know that Internet research is unlikely to put them on the same level as their doctor - and if they believe it does, they should find a new doctor. Doctors have years of rigorous education and training and hopefully have seen many patients with similar conditions as yours, and have support networks to consult as well.

I research to a farethewell everything a doctor tells me. I go into a visit armed with questions, observations and suggestions, and even research the answers I receive. But I trust the judgment of the doctors I have chosen, and don't try to substitute my judgment for theirs. If I serious reservations about their conclusions, I'll visit another doctor and get a second opinion. The primary reason I use the Internet to search health is, as Dr. Parish wrote, because it's easier to follow advice if you fully understand it, and the reason for it.

The FindingDulcinea Web Guide to Health
has helpful information on how to approach health research and what to do with your findings, suggests how you can improve your doctor visits, and provides annotated links to credible sources of information from physicians' groups, the federal government, and well-established medical authorities.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Man vs. Machine - It's On

A few months ago, we introduced findingDulcinea, Libarian of the Internet. It is one of several efforts characterized by the audacity to believe that the human brain can outperform an algorithm in helping users to find credible and comprehensive information on the Internet, and to add needed context that helps users make sense of it all. It's the most exciting man-machine throw-down since Kasparov battled Deep Blue a decade ago.

These “human-powered” efforts reflect a common belief that search engine queries, in many cases, do not provide satisfactory results for most users. Yes, for many simple queries, anyone can find an accurate answer from a search engine in a few seconds. And if you have many years of Internet research experience and know hundreds of varied sites you can trust and are well versed in the many ever-permutating permutations of fraudulent schemes online, and have gobs of free time to sift through search results, a good search engine will suffice in most cases. But for the vast majority of users that do not met these criteria, curated information filtered through human insight and knowledge may often prove more useful to you than a slew of barely differentiated search results.

Surveys consistently conclude that most Internet users cannot find credible and comprehensive information on the Internet. Yahoo recently published its own survey that suggested that 85% of searches fail to produce the desired information on the first try. Yahoo coined the term “search engine fatigue” to describe what ensues from the wild flailing at the search box to guess the magic words that will produce the information desired. And while many Internet users claim to be satisfied with search results, a Pew Internet survey has concluded they are “trusting and naive” and "strikingly unaware of how search engines operate and how they present their results."

Algorithms, search personalization, artificial intelligence, and the semantic web are all buzz words that describe Orwellian efforts to eliminate the need for human beings to use their own intelligence and judgment to find, critically evaluate and effectively utilize information. And most pundits give strong credence to these efforts. But human intelligence and judgment have an enviable track record that has lasted a fair bit longer than any punk algorithm. And I’ll always take the underdog with a solid track record over the neophyte riding the crest of popular wisdom.