Monday, December 15, 2008

BREAKING NEWS--Apple car will be called the iMO

What would happen if Steve Jobs took over a car company?--It might be called the iMo.

One of the things Congress might consider if it agrees to help bail out the Big Three automakers is that at least one of them be run by Apple’s Steve Jobs.

I wish that was my idea, but it isn’t. Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonym for one of the best technology writers in the business (I’ll never reveal who he is. Never!) came up with the idea in his PBS column here, and it is beautiful to behold. The name iMo, is a bit of imagination from a British designer who is now in a lot of trouble.

Cringely’s point is that the car companies are stuck in the past and shackled with conventional wisdom. No one ever accused Steve Jobs of either. If Jobs transformed say GM the same way he transformed Apple, it would be a whole new paradigm.

And if you want to know more about it, click here. More below

When Jobs returned to Apple from exile in 1997, the company was a basket case, even worse than General Motors. Michael Dell, of the eponymous computer company, suggested the only rational thing Jobs could do was liquidate Apple and return the money to the stockholders. Now, Apple is vastly more valuable than Dell, has transformed the modern world with products that everyone else, including Dell, is working very hard and unsuccessfully, to imitate. (Any websites out there breathlessly anticipating the next Dell product?) Think of what the iPod has done to music (Apple now is the world’s largest distributor of music now), and the iPhone to mobile devices (the second best-selling mobile phone in the world and every company is trying to imitate it). The reason Windows sucks and is actually losing market shares mainly is because it is a feeble imitation of Mac OS-X and has been for years. Apple is debt free and has enough cash in the bank to buy all three car companies with change left over. Buying Dell would come out of petty cash.

Here’s what Cringely and I think Jobs would do:

  • Eliminate brands--the American car companies compete not only with each other and with the foreign brands, but themselves. Why have all those brands? GM eliminated the Oldsmobile (but added Saturn), and Chrysler cut the Plymouth, but Cringely thinks more slashing is necessary. I own a Mercury Mariner Hybrid (excellent car, by the way) but it is identical to the Ford Escape Hybrid except for the grill. Why do this? Know anyone who owns a Pontiac? Jobs understood that you need to simplify your product line. Identify your best customers (in Apple’s case, the graphics and creative people) and aim right at them.
  • Eliminate losers--Jobs eliminated products that didn’t make money. Sounds simple, but explain why GM still sells Hummers? Indeed, it is the biggest SUV and the smallest cars, Cringely says, that make the least profit. (The big SUVs were hilariously profitable until oil soared to $100 a barrel). Why try to make a car for everyone? Leave the little cars to Kia and Hundai. Concentrate.
  • Forget the notion there is an eternal conflict between product people and financial people. Cringely points out that the best proof that you can have that there are people who do both well, and companies that do both well, is Steve Jobs and Apple.
  • Bank on new technologies--Detroit works on the basis that what went into a car and what made a car run for the last 100 years is still the best way of doing things. Think of gasoline and the internal combustion engine. Jobs has been superb at identifying new technologies and riding them to the bank. Pick one, any one. Hybrid? Electric? Hydrogen? Mice on a treadmill? Chose one and run with it.
  • Emphasize radical design--If Apple is famous for anything it is design. You either buy into the aesthetic or you don’t, but enough people like me do to sell lots of products. Jobs would make cars that reflected that attitude--radical, beautiful, intuitive. You can look at a desk from afar and tell if the computer on it is an Apple or a HP or Dell imitation of an Apple. You would see a Jobs’ company’s car a block away.
  • Don’t sell the cars people want; sell cars you convince people they want--Everyone loved the Sony Walkman until Apple came out with the iPod and convinced people they really, really wanted one. Everyone loves the Blackberry so Apple came out with the iPhone and convinced enough people that’s what they wanted. Detroit's excuse has always been it is selling Americans the cars they want. Big mistake. Eight or so years ago, Jobs eliminated floppy disk drives from Apples. Everyone said that was a mistake. Comuters need floppy drives. Jobs convinced customers they didn't need them at all and now no new compuers have floppy drives. Make them want the cars you sell. And lastly:
  • Don’t make cars--Cringely thinks Jobs would get his car company out of the manufacturing business and outsource that function. Apple no longer makes its own computers; companies in China and Taiwan build them. Cringely thinks Jobs would announce that his car company design and market cars, not build them. Then he would open the manufacturing for bidding. He’d close all his plants, fire all his workers (Cringely thinks that you get tumult when you lay off only a percentage of workers; things are more peaceful if everyone goes--I demur). It would have several advantages, including having a company far more flexible and facile and well as cutting costs. Close the plants and outsource.
And the iMO? It is the whimsical work of British designer Anthony Jannerelly, who will undoubtedly hear from Apple's lawyers in the next day or two. Wired has a story here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We'll get to lower back pain and sex later.

Just take the damned pill and shut up—As we’ve discussed, the three things physicians know the least about are sex, nutrition and lower back pain Today we are going to talk about nutrition--again.

In the last decade, nutrition experts and the media have been swept away with antioxidants, like C and vitamin E. I’ve written about them. They are supposed to prevent coronary heart disease and various forms of cancer. Or not. “Not” is back in vogue. Keep in mind that next year everybody will probably have changed their minds again.

A study in the new issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that vitamins C and E do not reduce the risk of prostate cancer or any other cancer for that matter. The study, out of Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was put out on early release by JAMA because of the results and has stellar credentials. The subjects were members of the Physicians’ Health Study II, a most reputable source, and was randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled factorial trial. Factorial means high math. This kind of study is the gold standard for science, as the cliché goes. But maybe not.

The physicians, all 14,641 men, 50 years or older, were chosen randomly and either took 400 IU of vitamin E, the standard dose, every other day, and 500 mg of vitamin C every day, or a placebo. The study lasted 8 years.

In the end, there were 1008 confirmed cases of prostate cancer and 1943 total cancers. Vitamin E had no statistical effect on the incidence of prostate cancer or total cancers. Neither did C. Nor was there an effect statistically on colorectal, lung or other site-specific cancers.

In this large, long-term trial of male physicians, neither vitamin E nor C supplementation reduced the risk of prostate or total cancer [the study authors write] These data provide no support for the use of these supplements for the prevention of cancer in middle-aged and older men.

In another study in the same issue, selenium also is useless. Earlier studies showed both were effective.

Well, hold on. The problem with these kinds of studies is the group of subjects. For one thing, the physicians in the study were very well nourished, perhaps more so than many other men. They certainly would be more conscious of health than most, making them different than your average guy, with a whole different life style.

We don’t know what else they ate or what other nutrients they took that might have also had an effect. Whether that changed the results we cannot know. The best news is that there was no apparent harm. Additionally, it is likely that these men had regular PSA tests, more so than non-physicians, which may have skewed the sample, although I don't know if that would effect the results.

Interestingly, the JAMA articles come with a third, an editorial, casting some shadows on prostate studies, so I'm not the only skeptic in the crowd. The editorial does conclude that physicians shouldn't recommend vitamins E or C to patients to prevent prostate cancer.

I have no idea what to tell you. I take 400 IUs of E and 500 mgs of C every day and I’m not dead yet.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Age of Edison is Over

Turn on the light so I can see this record label, please--The inventions of Thomas Edison, which became the hallmarks of 20th century civilization, are dead, dying, substantially altered, or doomed. The new century will be something else: the Post Edison Age. It is hard to imagine one man who had more influence.

The phonograph record was replaced by analog tape 30 years ago, and then digital disks, and even they are now being replaced by digital Internet downloads, which give purer sound, can be copied without loss and can last forever. The incandescent light bulb will be an anachronism in five years, falling to the compact fluorescent bulbs which use less power and last much longer. The power grid had grown in ways Edison could not have anticipated. The motion picture--images on celluloid film projected on a screen--is gradually being replaced by digital recording and projection, which gives a clearer picture without deterioration and allows for easier digital effects and better sound. And everyone is working on ways to substitute the current alkaline batteries with more efficient ones. Even the electric chair is passé.

Within 10 years, we will be using almost nothing that came from Wizard of Menlo Park. His time has just passed.

Edison was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. His most famous contribution to science, the Edison Effect, which anticipated the discovery of electrons 15 years later, was an accidental discovery and Edison left it to physicists to explain it. (In 1882, one of his assistants, William Hammer, discovered that when he turned on the filaments in an experiment light bulb, there was a blue glow around the positive pole and its shadow on the negative--we now know it was electrons moving from one to the other).

Edison did not invent the telegraph, of course, but his first inventions materially improved them, making it possible to send two messages at once, something Samuel Morse and the European co-inventors couldn’t do, and making it easier for someone hearing disabled, as Edison was, to read telegraph messages. Edison was so successful, he gave up a career as a telegrapher to be a full-time inventor.

While experimenting with underwater cables, he found that electrical resistance and the conductivity of carbon varied with pressure, a major theoretical discovery that allowed Edison to come up with carbon pressure relays to replace magnetic ones, improving Bell’s telephone network.

He produced the first electric printer for the telegraph, and in 1877, the phonograph, a matter of serendipity. (Edison was bright enough to appreciate accidents and thought nothing of reversing course to explore something). He was trying to find a way to record telegraph messages and found that using a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter on wax-lined paper, he could get a rough approximation of sound if you moved the paper. The vibrations left a path on the paper. He switched to tin foil instead of paper and wrapped it on a spinning cylinder. It took 10 years of refinement, but soon there was one in almost every home and Edison became world-famous. (The first recoding was Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” That would eventually replaced with hip-hop.)

In the 1870s, Edison bragged he could produce an electric light bulb, and with the backing of J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, began work in Menlo Park, south of Newark. It proved more difficult than he anticipated and while he was failing, he built a practical generator that became the basis for the electric power grid, first installed in London in 1882. In October, 1879, he produced the first bulb using a carbon filament and he could demonstrate it to backers two months later. The steamship Columbia installed the first samples and became the first structure to use an electric lighting system. The first office building plugged in January 1881 in New York.

In 1888, using the concept of a zoetrope, a peek-in device that gave the illusion of motion to pictures flashed at a regular speed, Edison developed first the Kinetoscope, which vastly improved the zoetrope, and created the world’s first motion picture company in West Orange, N.J., to produce something to see on his new viewer. He then adapted a projector invented by Thomas Armat, which he called the Vitascope, and which became the first theatrical movie projector. He later found a way to synchronize the phonograph to the Vitascope and added sound to motion pictures.

Most homes lacked electricity and Edison wanted a power source for phonographs. That also was harder than he thought until (1912) Henry Ford, a friend, asked him to develop a battery Ford could put in his cars to crank up the starter. Ford produced research funds. Out of Edison's lab came the alkaline storage battery.

Edison acquired 389 patents for the electric light and power grid, 195 patents for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for the storage battery, and 34 for telephone inventions. His company became General Electric and he was, for a while, the main stockholder.

The electric chair? Edison’s power plants produced direct current and Edison believed the future rested in DC, not on the alternating current (AC) advocated by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. He thought AC was dangerous and to prove it, he helped develop the electric chair, which used AC to kill its guests. He lost that battle.

Now the digital world has replaced some of his inventions and we have moved on. But the 20th century was Edison’s. All hail!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Night of the Living Bots

Walk this way, master--It couldn’t last. The forces of virtue and honor--i.e., the guys who spend their time battling spam--had an all-to-brief victory last month. They managed to take down one of the leading spigots of spam, a boulevard of the botnets. Spam levels all over the world dropped by perhaps as much as 65%. It was a victory for the folks at the Security Fix column of the Washington Post, who managed to nail one of the worst offenders.

Botnets are networks of bots. For those of you still mired in the 20th century, a bot is a zombie that turns your computer into its slave. I knew that would be of help. It is a piece of malicious software that takes over your computer when you are not looking and sends out malware to the Internet, including spam, worms and Trojan Horses. [You do realize that 30 years ago that sentence would nave been totally incomprehensible]. There you are, working diligently and honorably while your computer is spewing out spam to the network and you probably don't notice, although it may get a little slow on Explorer. The largest botnets enslave millions of computers around the world, the reason why there has been so much concern in your inbox for you penis size (even if you don't have one), your pharmaceutical needs, and business transactions with the daughter of some Nigerian dictator.

Contrary to urban legends, botnets can take over Macs, but this is rare and requires the intercession of Windows servers. Same for Linux. Windows computers are the culprits.

Early in November, spam fighters shut down Mc Colo of San Jose, Calif,, one of the most notorious spam service providers, the result of a Post investigation. The result was instantaneous: according to, the net quieted down immediately. Among those botnets turned off when the plug was pulled were two of the most evil, Asprox and Rustock. Mc Colo also had the distinction of being one of the last American ISP providers doing spam.

No one in the zombie-watching business was sanguine. They knew the botnet folks would find a way around the break, probably by moving offshore to Eastern Europe, places like Estonia. Sure enough, late last week, spam traffic increased noticeably. Asprox and Rustock are back. Traffic levels haven’t reached pre-Mc Colo levels yet because the biggest of the botnets, something called Srizbi, hasn’t found a home. It has been the dominant force for the dark side since February, shooting out a Trojan horse. But no one doubts it is coming. It sucks in users by offering nude pictures of movie stars. Open the mail and your machine is theirs. I am as fond of Salma Hayek as the next man but even I am bright enough not to open mail from people I don’t know. And there aren’t any Windows machines around here.

In the meantime, I am Sandra Deloutrage, the widow of the late Nigerian President Murry Deloutrage. My husband left me $45 million in a bank in Croatia and I need your assistance in retrieving the money. You could buy a bridge...

Friday, November 21, 2008

I have run out of excuses--THE BLOG IS BACK

As I was saying before I was interrupted by real life--I am happy to report ...Of Cabbages and Kings is returning. I have run out of excuses for not posting and since I am, as we say in the writing business, between contracts, I certainly have the time. So, just to catch up with what the hell is going on outside of politics:

Mommy, there is a hairy elephant in the banana trees-- Michael Critchton died a week too soon. He missed a letter in Nature reporting that an international team of scientists had decoded about 80% of the genetic code of the wooly mammoth. It's not that they are close to actually reconstructing one of the creatures, but it is an interesting step in that direction. They tested the hair of two animals who lived about 20,000 years ago and whose bodies were preserved in permafrost. In combination, think they have identified 70% of the genome of the mammoth. Wooly mammoths are closer to contemporary elephants than humans are to chimps, so instead of some day trying to reconstruct a mammoth from mammoth DNA, the quickest route to recreating the beast may be to use elephant DNA and add genes that are unique to the mammoth. Now they just have to sequence elephants.

But that was a virtual penis, dear--Let's say a woman catches her husband screwing another woman. She gets appropriately pissed, throws him out of the house and often files for divorce. Now, however the world has changed. People go to places like Second Life as avatars of varying fictionality [sic]. What would a woman do if she found her husband's avatar shtupping the avatar of another woman? Is that adultry? Virtual adultry? This is going to be hard to follow but we'll try.

Two Brits, Amy Taylor (28, a.k.a. "Laura Skye" in tight cowboy garb) and David Pollard (40, a.k.a. "David Barmy," suave and goateed), who actually met on line and moved in together, had avatars on Second Life. One day Taylor discovered Pollard having virtual sex with a virtual prostitute on line. She ended the relationship between "Skye" and "Barmy" on Second Life but kept living with him in the real world.

To test him, she hired a virtual private eye to try and seduce "Barmy" and he passed the test. So Taylor and Pollard actually got married both on Second Life and in what passes for reality. But it didn't last. She caught him on line having a deep and intimate discussion with an American avatar and divorced him, both on Second Life and in the real world. She told the Guardian: "It may have started on-line but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much," she said. "His was the ultimate betrayal. He had been lying to me." Pollard insists his avatar and the other avatar were just friends.

Aren't you glad I'm back?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"I'm mad as hell and won't take it any more!"

OK, we're not moving to Canada--In the wonderful Paddy Cheyefsky film "Network," there is a scene in which Americans slam open their windows and shout the above. They are mad as hell and they won't take it any more. That's what happened yesterday. It was a total rejection of Bush, Cheney and the neocons. It was a rejection of the Republican party and a repudiation of the conservative movement. This allegedly "right of center" country just had a tectonic shift to the left. And about damned time.

OK, how did all that polling turn out? All the polls predicted an Obama victory but a lot of them were really off. Obama won 52-46, a six point victory that many, but not all of the pollsters got right. Some, like Zogby (Reuters), Gallup, CBS-New York Times, and ABC-Washington Post, were wrong, giving Obama far more of a margin than he actually got., which I used a lot, got Obama's percentage right but got McCain's wrong by 2, which is pretty close. Nate Silver and Fivethirtyeight, got it right on the money. (Zogby sent out a nasty little note criticizing Silver and his background in SABR baseball statitics after Silver criticized one of Zogby's weirder results. Silver got his revenge). The poll that got it right on the money was the Rasmussen. Both academic polls, Pollyvote and Princeton were correct. So, polling works even in strange elections.

I spent yesterday in Harrisburg, PA as a canvasser for Obama. I can tell you first hand how he won.

Every voter in Harrisburg had been canvassed and everyone who showed an interest in voting for Obama has been listed on a computer printout. I did canvassing. That means we went to every one of those people to make sure they had voted or were going to. We were the second shift, meaning they had already been canvassed once during the day. Most people were not home, of course. But there would be a third shift to get them at supper time. If they said they tried to vote but had trouble, we had a number to call to straighten it out. If they said they needed a ride, I had a number to call and a car would show up within an hour to take them to the polling place. (They had more volunteer drivers than there were people needing a ride). We went floor to floor in a senior citizens home, knocking on doors. So every potential Obama voter in Harrisburg was visited three times today and had no excuses for not showing up to vote. Several times Obama canvassers crossed each other on the street. The African-Americans we visited were particularly jolly and they damned well voted.

I ended the day in an Irish bar with my partner with a pumpkin beer.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free at last! Free at last! Almost--UPDATED

[UPDATE: The final polls have merged at something of a consensus. Obama by 6]

If anyone asks, I've been a shoe salesman all this time--
Either Barack Obama will win the presidency tomorrow or American journalism and public opinion research (political division) will awake Wednesday with all their credibility destroyed. If that happens, both deserve it.

If John McCain actually wins, every political pollster would have been wrong, and every political reporter who based his or her stories on those polls (and they shouldn't for other reasons we can go into later) would have been wrong and and there is no reason to believe those idiots again.

I don't think that is going to happen. With voting one day away (except for the one-third of American voters who have already voted) here is how things stand--if the polls are right:

Every poll, tracking and daily, has Obama ahead by margins ranging from 4 to 13 points. How could that be? All use different techniques to draw their samples and do the actual polling (humans on the telephone vs. computers on the telephone), but more importantly, all use different methods of deciding who is going to vote and who has already voted. Some call cell phones, some don't. So, some of the polls will be wrong, we know that. Polling in these matters usually come within 2 points of reality. If your poll predicts a guy will win by 4 and he wins by 2.6, most pollsters would think it was a normal year. If you come in with 13 and the margin is 4, you have screwed up. As usual, the tracking polls and the daily polls have converged and agree, and some of the polls coming in Monday morning seem to be heading toward Obama +6, which is on the edge of a landslide. These include a few surveys that tend to have a Republican tilt.

I should point out that most experts believe that it doesn't matter which polls are correct: if Obama has anything between a 3 and a 13 point lead, he wins. That plurality will bring the state votes along with it.

The internet sites that average and aggregate the polling, often using statistical manipulations, all seem to agree that Obama will win by 5-6 points and with better than 300 electoral college votes.

(One interesting note, has a story on how Obama gets around a 4 point jump if pollsters get to cells phones).

At this stage, the national poll numbers and the state-by-state poll numbers are in tune. If one goes up, the other does as well. There is no sign whatsover that McCain has tightened either the national or state polling in any substantial manner, certainly not enough to overcome a 5-6 deficit in one day. That doesn't happen. This campaign was essentially over after the second debate and the collapse of the economy. The numbers haven't changed materially since.

We all know how Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey in 1948 despite predictions from pollsters he would not. The fault then (and in New Hampshire this year) was that they stopped polling too early and missed a late surge. That is not happening this time; pollsters are out in the field as you read this and I'll update it later today when those polls come in. And it is hard to imagine a late surge that would overcome a 5 point deficit. These are not predictions, but with 24 hours or so left, they might as well be.

Some folks, often in economics departments, will stick their necks out and make predictions and most of those sites think Obama will win by 6-7 points, with electoral college votes around 350.

What to watch for? If Obama wins Virginia and/or North Carolina by anything resembling a healthy margin (and those polls close early eastern time), the cake is baked. Go to sleep. If he loses those, bring out your sleeping bags and switch from decaf--it will be, in the words of Bette Davis, "a bumpy ride."

Unless all these polls, everything we know about public opinion surveys, all the bright pundits and reporters are flat wrong. Then, remember, I was always a shoe salesman.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Those of you with fingernails left

All right children, gather around--Last weekend before this goddam thing ends. I will have to clear off half the aps on my iPhone, which blurts at me any time something happens in the campaign, and that is sick, sick I tell you.

So, with four days left here's what's cooking on the polls. As I reported earlier, polling usually tightens in the last week of a campaign and that seemed to be happening, at least with the national polls, but that trend is now halted. The general consensus is that Obama is ahead by around 6 points, meaning McCain has to gain more than a point a day to catch up and that pretty much can't be done. Obama retains a strong lead in the states. He has all the Kerry states and is walking off with not a few Bush 2004 states. McCain has zero Kerry states and is now even having to defend himself in Arizona.

The P0llster (Ralph Blumenthal and company out of the University of Wisconsin) aggregate has Obama up by 5.5 points with 311 electoral votes, which actually is on the conservative side. The Gallup tracking poll of likely voters (the one modified for the best estimate of who will vote this year--more about that below) has Obama up by 8, with 353 votes (270 wins). RealClearPolitics, something of the gold standard in aggregating polls, has The One up by 6 and 311 EVs. gives Obama a 96.3% chance of winning, has him ahead by 5.6 points and 346 EVs. Nate Silver's estmate is that the odds on an Obama landslide are 36% and Obama doesn't have to win Pennsylvania if he gets Virginia and Nevada. Hotline's poll in the National Journal has That One up by 7; Pollyvote (Wharton) at 5.6, Princeton up by 8 and TalkingPoint', 6.3. A new poll from CBS and the New York Times has Obama up by 11 but that is an outlier.

A word of warning. What is screwing up consistency are two things: one, in some states voting has already begun and in a few states like Colorado and New Mexico, a substantial percentage of the ballots have already been cast. This makes exit polls on election day problematic, I think. The good news is that Obama seems to be highly favored by earlier voters as near as anyone can tell. It does take a bit of precision away. Two, if the young folks show up as they have promised to do (but history tells us they might not) Obama will have a tsunami. If they don't, this could be a whole different race. Selecting who is likely to vote is the hardest part of polling and this year it is harder than usual. Gallup, for instance, has two polls: one with a sample of people who actually voted in 2004 and one including people who did not but say they will this time. The latter has Obama doing better. Some polls use 2004 as a benchmark; many do not. They vary.

Oh, and by he way. All the polls now show that the greatest drag on McCain isn't George Bush; it's Sarah Palin. Most Americans think she is unqualified for the job. Imagine that.

In short, looking good. If McCain does win, American journalism and political polling will never recover.

I can't wait till this is over.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What to watch for in the polls--forget precision

With the national polls running from Obama+1 to Obama +14, what the hell are we to make of it?--If you are profoundly, and in my case, pathetically, addicted to the polls, you might be confused by all of this. Me too. But here are some tips on what you can expect in the next week-and-a-half.

1. In most--not all--presidential elections, the polls showed a tightening of the race in the last few weeks or days. People change their minds or chicken out or drop out. This has not happened yet. John McCain seemed to be making some gains last week, but that has been offset by a reversal this week. The polling aggregators, the guys who take all the polls and do things with the numbers, all seem to agree that Obama leads by about 6 points and that hasn't changed much in the last few weeks. The lead is pretty steady. If you look at the charts, particularly from, and turn the sensitivity down (use the tool button), you will see the true vector--which is fairly flat.

2. The lagtime between the national popularity polls and the state polls shrinks. Now there is about a two day delay: if one of the candidates moves in the national polls, it is reflected in state polls two days or so later. As we get closer to the election, that gap closes. The state polls are still reflecting McCain's uptick a few days ago. And of course, as I mentioned before, ignore the day-to-day changes. They are likely statistical noise.

3. In the days before the election, the polls will begin to converge toward one number. The outliers will move toward that number, meeting the other polls at whatever number it is going to be on election day. Add a grain of salt: Polling ends a day or so before the election and will miss very late shifts in the electorate. That's what happened in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire; the polls missed a late move for Hillary Clinton. That could happen in the national race but is not likely. If Obama really is 6 points ahead, that won't change between Sunday and Tuesday barring a terrorist attack or something.

4. All the statisticians who are projecting the winner (including those who claim they are not making predictions) are predicting an Obama blow-out, again by 6 or 7 points, fairly historic.

5. They could all be full of shit. The ghost of Thomas Dewey will not be exorcised for a long time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the other hand.....

OK, make up your goddam minds--Just to give you heartburn, within 24 hours after the posting below, two polls came in with Obama and McClain in a statistical tie. The range now runs from +1 to +14.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Very very softly. It's over.

The Phillies are in the World Series, Obama is winning the election. There may be a God--The Pew Research Center, one of the most trusted polling establishments, this afternoon reported that Barack Obama was 14 points ahead of John McCain in the national race. If that is correct, Obama is about to blow this thing open with two weeks to go.

In fairness, that Pew poll is an outlier, higher than any other poll, some of which have it down as close as 2 (another outlier). The general consensus before Pew published was Obama by around 6, still a handsome number. Remember, the record is 8.5 points, Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. Fourteen is a bit much.

In the last few days there were signs that the race was tightening the way races always tighten at the end, but that tightening (think sphincter) levelled off the last day or so and the Pew poll (which incidentally had a very large number of respondents, almost 3,000), is either a blip in the polling statistics or the beginning of a blowout.

Polls are not predictors; they are snapshots. But there are statistical ways of projecting one of those snapshots out to the end. Several good sites do that. Here's what some of them say.

  • Pollyvote out of the Wharton School, has Obama ahead by 6. This uses a statistical package plus input from political experts and all kinds of razzamataz I won't even try to understand. It has a repution for accuracy.
  • Nate Silver's, which uses something like baseball's sabermetrics, gives the chances of an Obama victory at 92.5%. The chances of a landslide are 33.43% and Obama is most likely to win 344 electoral votes and the Democrats to wind up with 56 Senate seats.
  • The Princeton Election Consortium has Obama winning 362 electoral votes.
  • Real Clear Politics, the standard most journalists use, has Obama up by 6.9 points
  • Gallup tracking has an 11 lead.
  • has Obama up by 6.1. You can see the EV chart to the right.

Now, very quietly so the evil spirits don't hear us--no candidate as far behind as John McCain is at this stage of an election, has ever come back to win. Shshsh.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Is that a chasm I see before me?

No wonder they are getting pissed out there--The national tracking polls are now showing a widening for Barack Obama. The Shurkin number (I made that up) went from 5.4 to 6.2 in the last few days. That is the average of three best mathematical averaging websites,,, and, all of which are non-partisan. In other words, I average the averagers. Pollster, which is very well respected, has Obama ahead by 7.4. The Gallup Poll, which is included in all the averaging and is something of the gold standard in these matters, has him ahead by 11.

Fivethirtyeight has the odds of Obama winning at better than 9-1 in 95 out of 100 campaigns. Nate Silver, who runs it, expects Obama to gain during the weekend. He thinks it is clear that everytime there is a debate, Obama's numbers grow. Still one more debate out there, gang. National Journal, also well-respected and non-partisan, did a survey of Republican leaders and found that 8 out of 10 expect an Obama victory in November. The Journal is one of the first to use the "L" word, as in "landslide."

But Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post, suggests things are still not set in concrete, what he calls a contrarian view. Besides the Bradley Effect, which we'll discuss in some detail next week, he suggests that too many Obama supporters think this is a slam dunk and won't show up to vote. I don't think so. Too many are really pissed off.

And speaking of pissed off, the crowds at the McCain-Palin events are really getting scary and John McCain and Sarah Palin are stoking them on. McCain stands to lose twice on November 4. He will probably lose the election; he will definately lose his honor. It is certainly, as Politico describes it, a party in panic.

Do keep in mind, this isn't a popularity contest and while the tracking polls are interesting, we elect Presidents by the states. Pollster has Obama winning 320 electoral votes (see graph to the right). The average winning vote in modern history is 402.6, so he is behind in that regard at the moment.

[That's an AP photo up top]

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Margins of non-error

That was a ceiling you just bumped into--Two things have happened in the polling today. Barack Obama may have hit a ceiling and is leveling off, and John McCain has gained in several polls. Panic not.

The range in polls now runs from a slim 1 point margin (Hotline Poll) to 11 points in the Gallup tracking poll. The Hotline poll showed a major shift in one day toward McCain (better than 10%), but as I've mentioned before, you can't get too excited about one-day movements. Often it is just noise. Wait a day or so and it will even out.

Some things to remember:
  • No candidate, none, has won with better than an 8.51 point margin. That was Bill Clinton's blow-away in 1996. See Chris Bower's piece here. This means that there is a rational ceiling to how large a margin Obama can achieve. Bower says that a landslide is anything between 5 and 8. Obama is there now.
  • Several of the sites I've mentioned here average polls, meaning they take the numbers from multiple polls and either just average them out or apply some kind of mathematical formula involving square roots or something, and the size of the sample, to come up with a number that reflects all the polls. Bower points out that historically, those aggregates are 2 points off, meaning any margin of 2 points or less is not a lead. As long as the number stays above 2 points, a candidate is a winner. has Obama at +5.1. (right) has +5.8. has it at 5.4. The Shurkin average is therefore is 5.42.
  • Most of Obama's increase is relatively new and relatively new adherents are not particularly solid and could move again, so nothing is in concrete.
  • Gamblers sometimes know things. The odds of Obama winning the election are 7-3 on Intratrade. Nate Silver, who uses an algorithm based on polls at Fivethirtyeight has it at 9-1.
  • The Polyvote, a mathematical model out of the Wharton School, has Obama ahead by 4.4 points and it accurately predicted the last election. This works well as long as all the polls aren't wrong in the same direction.
Three factors could screw up all the polls.
  • Cell phones--a growing number of people now only have cell phones (no land line) and pollsters either have trouble getting to them or don't even try. No one knows how that skews the results, but it tends to reduce the number of young people in the universe, in this case to Obama's detriment.
  • The Bradley Effect--no one knows how many people are lying to pollsters about voting for a black man. As I reported earlier, a Stanford study guesses at 6 points, giving McCain an unknown advantage
  • New voters--The Obama campaign has enrolled a huge number of new voters--mostly young, mostly Obama supporters--and it is likely the polls are missing many of them.
The best guess is that all of the above may cancel it all out. We shall see.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Polling pollsters about polls, or why I have a stomach ache

Let's see, we're ahead 3 points, 6 points, 11 points. Make up your goddam mind--You may have noticed I have added a thingy to the blog, the electoral college map. It will change as changes, and it just changed yesterday to reflect new state polls.

(State polls lag behind the national tracking polls because there are a lot fewer of them. Just remember, it is the states that vote for president, not a popularity contest. Anyone remember President Gore?)

The poll numbers remain all over the place. They only thing they agree on is that Barack Obama is ahead in the national poll and if the election were held today, in the electoral college. The numbers vary, from Zogby's 3 points (they poll for Reuters) to Daily Kos' 11. Both polls are, to me, outliers. One is too low and not notoriously accurate, the other is for a liberal website. That doesn't mean it is slanted or dishonest but it is an outlier, the most optimistic if you are an Obama person. I tend to discount them both, leaving us with a bunch of polls having him 6-8 points up. Historically, it is very difficult for a candidate with John McCain's numbers to come back in 28 days, but this race is unpredictable.

[The Hotline poll has them down to 2 points this morning, a peculiar tightening] I find that odd, since that poll has been peculiarly conservative and hardly moved at all for a week or two.]

The McCain faction has launched the most egregiously dishonorable campaign in my memory, now subtly playing the race card. The good news to me is that the Obama people, having learned their lessons from the Kerry campaign, are fighting back instantly. They obviously had an ad on McCain's participation in the Keating Five scandal sitting in the closet just waiting for the opportunity to turn it loose. So much for the high-minded campaign we were promised.

Okay, where do you go for accurate, non-partisan polling and political information. We've already discussed often my affection for Mark Blumenthal's
It's his map to the right. He also writes for the National Journal. A commenter (not the spam guy) has mentioned and I agree completely. (The number comes from the total of electoral college votes).

For balanced political coverage, I recommend two sites, and is interesting for another reason. It is not your normal guy sitting around in his underwear blog (like this one), but has grown into a respected journalism outlet, one of the largest and best on the Internet. It is the new wave in journalism and worth monitoring.

Now, for the best biased--to the left, of course--sources of information. My favorite remains the Huffington Post. Slightly more centered is Josh Marshall's It was Marshall's site that uncovered the firing of the nine U.S. prosecutors, forcing the mainstream media to follow. It is the only website to win a Polk Award, I believe.

For right wing sites, you are on your own. My stomach won't bear it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Excuse me Capt. Queeg. Can you stop making that noise

John is having a bad day--OK, more on the election. Since I am obsessed with it I might as well quit trying to write about anything else. The Alaska proposal is off to my agent and I can indulge my obsession.

An interesting column in the Des Moines Register's website hints at what many have begun to suspect: Sen. John McCain is losing it. Not just losing the election; losing it. McCain was at a meet-the-editor conference at the Register last week, normal campaign stuff, and anyone watching could see something was wrong. His body language, the way he held his face, his petulent anwers to what were clearly pertinent questions. At least one editor at the meeting had a similar reaction and suggests that McCain may be too unstable to be President. See here. For video, go here.

McCain is losing. McCain is pissed off. Running around like a headless chicken during the Congressional battle for the bailout bill isn't leadership, it's hysteria.

Current polling is not likely to change his mood. Tracking polls, all completed after the vice presidentail debate, shows Barack Obama's lead expanding and he is now approaching double digits.

Explanation: tracking polls should be called rolling polls and are done on a daily basis, accumulating three days worth of data. That means, for instance, they will poll on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then they poll on Sunday and drop the data from Thursday. On Monday, they drop the Friday data. All the polls out today have the three days since the Biden-Palin debate. The data are clear, Alaska's dingbat governor did McCain very little good with the general electorate.

All this is reflected in the state polls and some of the numbers are astonishing. Minnesota was listed as a close contest--until last week. Obama now is ahead by as much as 11 or 18, depending on which poll you watch. North Carolina was always considered a solid Republican state. Now it is a toss-up; Obama now leads slightly and in one poll has reached the 50% mark. He now leads in Virginia--Virginia, for God's sake--by double digits in one poll. McCain has already given up in Michigan, which is interesting in itself.

Political campaigns are like chess matches in many ways. When you are losing, you often sacrifice pieces to protect the king. What McCain did in Michigan is sacrifice a piece (a bishop or a knight in this case) to protect the campaign. The difference is that in chess, you don't announce it ahead of time.

In the next posting I'll produce a list of the best places to poll watch on the internet. You already know one, There are others I'll pass on.

So who is Capt. Queeg? Movie fans?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Roman Hruska meets Sarah Palin

"Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."--Sen. Roman Hruska, R. Nebraska, on defending the appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court of a mediocrity.

OK, we're back. Been busy. Ramping up again.

The polls are all over the place as usual, but the unmistakable trend is toward Barak Obama. The polls have him ahead in the national count by anywhere from 4 to 11 points. More importantly, this is spreading to the states, particularly the most important states. He is ahead in places he was not expected to be ahead, like Virginia and Colorado.

The bounce the Republicans got from their convention is gone and Sarah Palin is now a drag on the ticket. She has succeeded in scaring the hell out of increasing numbers of people and has become a national joke. I'm a little sorry for her: she has no business playing in this league. John McCain, who is really getting cranky these days and is busy channeling Herbert Hoover, shouldn't have picked her and she shouldn't have accepted. She is pushing independents away faster than she gained them at the convention.

On the polls: Even Rasmussen, which has been the most tilted toward McCain, now has Obama ahead by 7, Associated Press, 7, New York Times/CBS at 9, Gallup at 4. The most conservative of the polls, Diageo/Hotline, is at 5, and the most liberal, the poll run on Daily Kos, 11.

What makes this particularly interesting is that voters tend to solidify around October. It is rare for a campaign to roar from behind (or blow it) when one candidate has a large lead over the other by October. Most people have made up their minds. The numbers also are interesting for another reason: the Bradley Effect. That is the phenomenon in which voters will tell pollsters they have no problem voting for a black guy, go into the booth and vote for the white guy. They lie so they won't sound racist to the interviewer. No one knows (although we are about to find out) how much the effect skews polling, but the best numbers I've found say it is about 6%. In other words. He will need more than a 6% advantage over McCain to win. He is now at or above that number in the polls.

What seems to be happening is that the voters have clicked into place. There is also the potential for a landslide in the state voting, although making any predictions in this race is really odd behavior.

Nonetheless, here is one: John McCain will throw another Hail Mary, something dramatic to get himself into back into the conversation and change the subject. Every day the economy is the overarching news story is a day he loses support. I don't know what it will be, but he clearly knows he is losing, is pissed off, and frantic. Watch for a pass. And, whatever it is, it probably won't work. His last two, Sarah Palin and parachuting into the Wall Street bailout blew up in his face.

Some odds and ends:
  • The only place you can see Russia from Alaska is on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Sea. About 150 Eskimos live there; Sarah Palin has never visited. As CNN reported, Big Diomede Island, which is Russia, is four miles away and is highly visible. Except for those 150 people (many of whom never heard of Palin) you cannot see Russia from Alaska.
  • Palin said Alaska is a microcosm of America, which makes her able to undertand "Joe Sixpack." Alaska is not a microcosm of America. Alaskans describe their state as the only foreign country that still likes Americans--but not too much. It is an idiosyncratic, totally weird place. I happen to love it in part because it is not like the rest of America.
  • Sarah Palin is who Roman Hruska might have had in mind.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Polling is no longer operative

Start paying attention next week and bring aspirin--The item on polling I wrote last week is no longer operative. The McCain campaign is now enjoying a convention "bump" that has them ahead in at least one poll and tied in most of the rest. These bumps, normal in campaigns, usually fade out in about three or four days so it won't be until the weekend we'll see how things are going. Again, pay little attention to tracking polls.

The worrisome thing, however, is that McCain is catching up in the electoral college vote and is now almost tied with Obama. Obama also seems to be losing--at least temporarily--some women's votes and the edge on the economy. I can't imagine why, but them are the numbers. These polls are based on state-by-state polling and are less likely to reflect the bump, I think. The Republicans have taken the momentum and are now running the campaign. Obama is in a knife fight and doesn't seem to have brought a knife.

The best look at all these polls remains and

I think Canada might be a nice place to live.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Nattering nabobs strike again

Will the media stand up or fold?--Yes, a serious column on a serious subject. In the last week since John McCain named Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate, several things have happened.

  • As McCain clearly did not research her properly, there are a few minor problems. Hoping, perhaps she would fly under the radar, she has instead turned into a mine field. Everytime someone takes a step something blows up.
  • Since she is an unknown, the media has taken over its traditional role of doing the vetting for the citizenry. Who is this person? Why is she qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency? (Why did he just that cliche?).
  • The Republicans are furious. They have launched a major attack on the media--including from the governor herself--and the question is, will the media fold or continue to do their rightful business.

Several days ago, Campbell Brown (left) on CNN did an interview with a McCain flack and asked really pertinent questions. When he gave bullshit answers, she kept pressing. No, she pointed out, as governor of Alaska, Palin did not make the decision to send the Alaska National Guard to Iraq and she had nothing to do with equipping them. She asked for a single instance in which Palin acted in a way that would demonstrate foreign relations experience. He repeated the bullshit. (Alaska does border on Canada. So does Minnesota) As a result, McCain reneged on an interview with Larry King. Even being interviewed by the softball champion of America wouldn't do because Brown was too aggressive.

No she wasn't. She was doing her job. What made it stand out is that it was so rare. If I owned CNN I would have sent her flowers.

British journalists are always amazed at what pussies American reporters are, how deferential thay are to subjects, even including the President. They don't treat their power structure with the same deference and can't imagine why we do.

I don't know the answer, but the Republican are trying to intimidate the media into backing off. So far, it isn't working.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why you should be paying absolutely no attention to the political polls

My God, he lost four-tenths of a point among left-handed ventriloquists in the Ozarks. Do something!--The misuse and misunderstanding of polls continues unabated, the result of a combination of intellectual laziness by reporters and the shrinking resources at most media outlets.

Let's get a few things straight:

Barack Obama should be wiping out John McCain in what everyone agrees is going to be a Democratic romp. Why he is not doing so is the grist for hours of conversation on the cable networks and thumb-suckers in the regular press. After all, the national polls and the tracking polls are showing him five points or less ahead of McCain in the polls. One even has them statistically tied.

Reality check:

First and foremost, the national polls are irrelevant garbage. Did everyone forget 2001? The guy who won the most votes did not become President. It's easy to blame the Supreme Court for interfering (unconstitutionally, I might add) but as every middle school civics student knows, the Presidential election is made by the Electoral College and goes state by state. That Obama is only three or five points ahead nationally means nothing. The question is, how is he doing state by state? According to the reliable state polls, he is doing just fine and is well ahead in electoral college votes, sufficient to in the election (284 to 157--see here. You need 274 to become president). Throw in the third party candidates and Obama does even better. [The Wall Street Journal has McCain ahead of Obama but still shy of the 275]. Forget the national polls folks. Garbage.

Second, a great deal of time is spent on the daily fluctuation in the polls. He's up one day. He's down one day. What's happening? Nothing. That's another misreading of how these things work. Tracking polls (which make daily surveys) always vary from day to day. It is largely a function of who you call. You call different people every day and so you are going to get different answers. Some of the fluctuation is just noise. You also get a halo effect: 24 hours after an event the polls reflect what people are thinking about the event, but it usually disappears in a few days. It also is demonstrably true that most people aren't paying much attention yet, so when the pollster calls they give an answer off the top of their heads, based on minimal information. They may very well change their minds when they plug in after Labor Day. The value in the polls is to watch them over a longer time, weeks or a month or two. Then, the trends tell you something. I would also point out this has not been a very good year for pollsters.

Third, it's a very close election. Not necessarily. Say Obama is five points ahead on election day. Five points, again depending on the state votes, could be an electoral college landslide. Indeed a number of experts looking at current polling data suggests that's what's going to happen. Again--and read slowly--national polling data is irrelevant, can be misleading, and tells you very little of value in an election campaign.

Do some reporting folks.

While I'm on the subject, a few asides.
  • Will somebody tell Hillary Clinton she lost? Please. She and Bill simply haven't gotten it clear in their heads Obama won and they should either support him without hesitation or go away for a while. She lost. He won. Yet they won't go away and the cable news people are now spending days discussing it. She lost. Really. When you are done telling them, tell the media. She was still dominating cable news shows months after she lost.
  • Clinton supporters were duped into thinking the race was close to the end. She lost in March but no one had to guts to say so. There was virtually no chance she could recover and take the nomination unless she provoked an uprising at the convention, which she may yet do.
  • Demanding that Obama supporters help her with her campaign debt or else, amounts to political extortion for which there should be an impolite two-word response. Much of that debt was accumulated after it was clear she lost.
  • If the old John McCain (well, he is old--I mean the John McCain of 2000) were still running, Obama would be in real trouble. Fortuantely, a fake McCain is running.
  • Any sympathy I would have for Elizabeth Edwards is diminished dramatically by the fact she knew John was screwing around and still went out on the campaign trail touting family values. She knew it was a fraud at the time and still acted as an enabler. I would be the last one to throw stones in matters of this nature but I am not running for President and if I were it would not be on my moral perfections.
  • Imagine what it would be like if Edwards won the nomination and now this came out.
  • Jack Shafer of Slate suggests that the media mostly ignore the conventions since they really aren't news and haven't been in decades. We know who won months before the convention and except for an occasional blip, nothing really happens. I agree. They are infomercials for the party and except for the acceptance speech (which in the case of Obama should be well worth watching) and a brief dip into the party platform, there is no real news. I'd send one or two reporters at the most if I ran a newspaper, and I would let C-Span cover the convention if I ran a television network, and cover it on the evening news if anything else happens
Just some thoughts.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Lamentation on the Media--Part II

The village idiots buy a printing press and a camera--Whatever the values the stock market and public companies provide the economy of this country, they have become the enemy of good journalism. Wall Street a generation ago stopped being a place where people invested in the economy and became Las Vegas East, the place you went to gamble. The gamblers on Wall Street just dress better. The gamblers--or investors as they like to call themselves--want instant gratification. They want to know what every company thinks it is going to do quarter by quarter. If quarterly earnings of a company do not meet expectations, the price of the stock goes down, never mind if the expectations were wrong. If quarterly income does not grow, the price of the stock goes down. If the price of the stock goes down, the board of trustees of that company are under great pressure to do something quickly.

The days of grey-haired old ladies making blue chip investments for the future are long gone. Now they are replaced by sleek men and women in Prada and Gucci who stare at computer screens and adjust investments by the second based on what they think the other people in Prada and Gucci are doing at that moment. They have created their own reality, totally separate from the one the rest of us live in. The market is often run by stock analysts who--you will have to trust me on this--have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. When I was the science writer in the public relations office at Stanford University I would run a stupid-question-of-the-week contest. There was no prize given, just snide comments. Invariably, they came from stock analysts. And industry analysts were only slightly more informed. Thomas Carlysle called economics the "dismal science." He was half right.

In broadcasting, Paley, Sarnoff and Goldenson got old and died. When Paley could not bring himself to name a successor--and hoping to avoid a takeover by a conglomerate--he sold CBS to Leonard Tisch, one of the great bottom feeders of Wall Street. Tisch did not see CBS News as a debt he owed society. He saw it as a money sink. It had all those people and all those bureaus living on expense accounts. Some operations, such as London, were huge. Tisch pulled the plug, driving down costs and driving up the value of his stock. Having milked it for what profit he could gain--lots, by the way, some $2 billion--he sold it to Viacom, a conglomerate that also ran movie studios and had no tradition in journalism.

NBC was sold to General Electric, one of the best and tightest run companies in America. They took their culture into Rockefeller Center and burned and slashed. ABC went to an upstart newspaper chain called Cap Cities, a totally incompetent operation that soon merged with Walt Disney Co.

Newspapers went through the same thing. In some cases, families that operated the newspapers or the chains, multiplied exponentially as each generation grew up. Eventually, most of the stock holders found their holdings diluted, had no interest in the newspaper business, and cashed in at the first opportunity. That's what happened to the de Young family in San Francisco who owned the San Francisco Chronicle. It's what eventually happened to the Bancrofts, who sold the Wall Street Journal to--gasp--Murdoch. Some of the families were dysfunctional and sold because they couldn't stand each other. That's what happened to the Binghams in Louisville . The Courier-Journal was sold to Gannett, death to any quality newspaper. Then there is Shurkin's Law of Genetic Regression: any family-owned company will eventually pass to a mediocrity by the third generation. That's what happened to the Mercury News and the Ridder family. (We worry about the Sulzbergers, now in the fourth generation. The Grahams are on the fourth generation, now run by the great granddaughter of the original owner and she is doing splendidly.)

The network news operations, once the prime source for news in America, have lost a million viewers a year for the last 25 years. Newspaper circulation has been shrinking for the last 20 years, and those in the media are stumped in trying to figure out what the Internet and the new media will bring.

Then there is technology. One of the staples of the electronic world is Moore’s Law, coined by Gordon Moore, one of the inventors of the microprocessor. Moore said that the contents of a microprocessor double every 18 months. The analog to that is that electronic capabilities change every 18 months and so too the businesses based on that technology. No one can predict what will happen two years from now and a lot of smart people have gone bust betting one way or the other. The people running the media have no clue what to do or where it is all heading--and neither do I.

There have been several results of all this. International coverage is practically non-existent in America and the quality of journalism--both print--and broadcast has deteriorated dramatically.

In the case of foreign coverage, I have mentioned the newspapers that have closed bureaus. Most newspapers run very few foreign stories. They have been told by consultants that Americans are not interested and the only way to survive in the news business is to go "local, local, local." There is not a shred of evidence to support that notion, which goes back at least 30 years. Would you like the names of newspapers that tried it and no longer exist? Start with the Philadelphia Bulletin, once one of America’s great newspapers and the largest afternoon paper in the country. It listened to a consultant and was out of business in 18 months. Even the Times and the Post have reduced the number of their foreign bureaus. Only four newspapers have foreign desks. The networks are worse. They have closed half their foreign bureaus and now buy most of their visuals from outside sources over which they have no control and have no ability to monitor for accuracy or bias. Someone sits in London and narrates the video from somewhere else. It's called “packaging” and you can tell it's happening when the narration signs off with a dateline that doesn't match the locale--as in a story about a railroad strike in France narrated by a guy in London. Virtually the entire southern hemisphere goes unreported. Whole continents. There is not a single American reporter in the second largest city in the world--Sao Paolo, Brazil, and very few in the largest, Seoul, or the third largest, Mumbai. Oh, and by the way, did you know there is a country between Alaska and the Lower Forty Eight? Not one single American newspaper or network has a resident reporter in Canada. The Washington Post pulled out last year.

This gives rise to what is known as parachute journalism. Something happens in the world and you immediately dispatch a reporter from somewhere else. He or she lands at the scene--that's the parachute part--and within hours is sending back stories based on what can only be superficial and incomplete information. They have no sources. They have to rely on not necessarily-reliable locals. They don’t speak the language and they only show up when something happens. You never hear about anything before it happen, one of the criteria of quality journalism. Compare this to a resident reporter who speaks the language, has the background and the sources. Who are you going to trust? Who is cheaper?

How much of the shock and amazement that followed 9-11 was the result of the ignorance of what was going on in the rest of the world, fostered by the inattention of the corporate-owned media?

Another effect is that most of the American media is now controlled by half a dozen companies. This can have dramatic effects.

In January 2002, a train carrying toxic materials, went off the rails in Minot, North Dakota. There were six commercial radio stations in Minot and one was designated as the emergency carrier, the one the police call when they need to warn people of things like--well, toxic spills from train wrecks. Small problem. All six stations in Minot were owned by the same company, Clear Channel, and no one answered the phone when police called. Like most Clear Channel stations, the station is actually a robot. The music and the announcers were someplace else--probably Los Angeles--and the operation was totally automated. The warning never went out. Clear Channel, incidentally, insists there was someone manning the stations, but he was busy. One person died.

It wasn't just the emergency warning. All six of the Minot commercial stations share exactly one reporter who does all the news the six stations run. His appearance at a story is so rare other reporters once gave him a standing ovation when he showed up.

This would have been impossible under the old federal rules, but beginning with the Reagan administration, those rules were changed. Now, one company can own all the stations in town. Deregulation. Capitalism.

The best way to describe what has happened to newspapers is to describe the story of my old paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the people who ran the place.
The Inquirer is the third oldest newspaper in America, founded in 1829. It had various owners until the Annenberg family sold it to Knight Newspapers in 1969. The Knights, John and James, were newspaper people of the first order who ran fine regional newspapers in Akron, Miami, Detroit and Charlotte. They brought in a man named John McMullan to clear out the Annenberg stench. When I went for a job interview with McMullan, I had to walk through a picket line of Philadelphia police who were protesting a series on police corruption. The reporter who did the story had been sent secretly to California to protect his life. McMullan started the interview by telling me how many libel suits he had already collected. (He won all but one, by the way.) How could I resist? In 1972, the Knights brought in Eugene Roberts (left), an editor of the New York Times, as executive editor. They decided they need a national flagship and Robert's mandate was to build a great newspaper no matter what it cost. He did. Eighteen Pulitzer Prizes in 15 years. Every April we just routinely ordered champaign. And that was only one prize. We won everything that moved. I almost retired the space writers award.

The Inky--probably the last great newspaper to grow in America--was the best newspaper in the country on any given day. It hired the cream of the crop from the best journalism schools and raided newspapers from around the country, including the photo editor of the Los Angeles Times, who brought half his staff (mostly talented, beautiful young women) to Philadelphia with him. Besides the bureaus Roberts opened, we were gloriously staffed. We had an architect writer--a man with a degree in architecture from Yale. We had two film critics and two music writers--including one full time classical music writer who was himself a concert pianist. We had a full-color Sunday magazine with a staff of three, a full-time book editor with his own section. I had an extensive travel budget. I went to the Antarctic. Two series I did morphed into books. One of them, on the eradication of smallpox, took me to India for several weeks where I worked alongside vaccinators in the villages of Uttar Pradesh--and to Somalia to interview the last smallpox victim. In between, I stopped in Egypt to do a Sunday magazine piece on a University of Pennsylvania archeology dig in Karnak. Hey, local story! We were criticized for covering Pakistan better than we covered Upper Darby and that was true, but people read us.

While bigger papers had bigger staffs, we sometimes had the best people. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, the New York Times had a dozen people on the scene. But we had Richard Ben Cramer. Guess who won the Pulitzer for covering the war. Our reporter in LA, Murray Dubin, wrote the funniest, most perceptive pieces about that city this side of Joan Didion. We had Steve Seplow in Moscow, Jane Eisen in London, Larry Eichel in Rome, and Rod Nordland in Bankgok. Our forte was investigative reporting and had half a dozen full-time investigative journalists, including the team of Don Barlett and James Steele, arguably the best investigative reporters of the 20th century. They would produce a series, oh every other year or so. Two Pulitzers. It was a glorious ride. And it was profitable. Sunday circulation was more than a million, the third largest in the country. Daily circulation was three-quarters of a million and with all the perceived luxuries, the paper never lost money. Profit margins were in the low teens. It drove the competition, the Philadelphia Bulletin, out of business.

Five years after buying the Inquirer, Knight Newspapers merged with Ridder Publications and the Ridder family gained control. The law of biological regression to the mean was working and the third generation was in charge. And Wall Street was now operating in the new model. The accountants in Miami, corporate headquarters, insisted that Roberts was spending too much money and needed to work with a smaller budget. He made cuts. They were not satisfied and kept pressing him for more cuts. He eventually spent more of his time fighting with corporate managers over budgets than running the newspaper. They tried to force him to expand into the suburbs and leave the rest of the world to the big guys. He quit, unwilling to cope.
The accountants began emasculating the paper as he walked out the door.

By then, most of us had left, sure we knew the end was coming. Two departures are interesting. John Carroll, one of the managing editors, was eventually hired by the Times-Mirror Co., the owner of the LA Times, to run the Baltimore Sun, which it now owned. He was eventually promoted to vice president and went to LA to run the Times. In 2000, the Times Mirror Co. was bought by the Tribune Co., owners of the Chicago Tribune, and Carroll began to suffer the same fate as Gene Roberts, insistence that he cut the seemingly bloated budget at the Times. He cut where he could. They kept coming back for more. He cut more but began to feel that the cuts were approaching the point where the Times could no longer maintain its high quality. Finally, he quit, refusing to cut any more. He was replaced by Dean Baquet who would eventually quit the Times for the same reason. So did his successor. (I might add that the editor of Knight-Ridder’s Mercury-News quit as well because of budget cutbacks he opposed.)

When he went to Baltimore, Carroll brought with him a reporter and editor from the Inquirer, Bill Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer winner. When Carroll went to Los Angeles, Marimow took over the Sun. In a few years, he too began to feel the pressure from the Chicago executives. One day he refused to make any more cuts on grounds the quality of the paper would be permanently damaged and was fired.

Their stock was tanking and Wall Street investors, many of them fund managers, insisted on extreme cost cutting and higher profit margins to goose the stock. When Carroll quit the LA Times, the paper was earning 22% on investment, an astonishing figure. But the price of the stock just wasn't high enough to suit Wall Street. The Sun also was earning a substantial profits when Marimow was fired. During the battle at the LA Times, Frontline, the PBS program, interviewed one of the fund managers pressuring the Tribune to cut costs. He objected to the fact the Times was still manning a dozen foreign bureaus. Why bother? he asked. They are expensive. Why should the Los Angeles Times be a national newspaper? People in LA can get the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times if they wanted foreign news. So, as far as he was concerned, the people in the second largest city in America should rely on New York newspapers for their foreign news so he could make another buck.

Oh, and Knight Ridder. It no longer exists. A fund manager pressured the CEO, Tony Ridder (known as Darth Vader in his newsrooms) to sell, and rather than resist or fight back, he did. The papers went to McClatchy, who sold off the ones with union contracts. The Philadelphia Inquirer is now locally owned, locally centered, and the editor is--tah day--Bill Marimow. Circulation is a fraction of its former self and reporters are lucky to cross the Delaware River to do a story.

The Mercury-News now is owned by Dean Singleton, who owns all the newspapers around San Francisco. He has cut the staff in half and is out-sourcing his copy desk to a facility across the Bay, absolutely guaranteeing that the paper will print mistakes. There is no good reason to read the Mercury-News and the people are reacting accordingly.

But the Tribune Co. still could not satisfy the fund managers and finally sold out to a real estate developer named Sam Zell with no knowledge of journalism. Zell acquired huge debt with his purchase. When last heard from Zell was telling his large Washington bureau it was too large and no one really wants to read all that foreign crap.

I think it is fair to say that all of the models of corporate ownership of the news media have failed, many of the companies involved no longer exist, and still we Americans remain among the most ignorant people in the world.

All this is muddled by the Internet and the inability of anyone to predict how the technology will play out or how to make money on it. But lost in the muddle is the quality of American journalism. Someone has to provide the content.

Faced with declining circulation and losing customers, Roberts once said, the geniuses who own newspaper companies got together and decided the answer was to give their customers less. I liken it to General Motors producing cars without back seats to save costs. Do they really teach that stuff in business school?

Next week: What can be done about it? Beats me.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pausch succombs victorious

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor, who gave a remarkable series of lectures on life under threat of death, died yesterday. I wrote about it here. Pausch, who had pancreatic cancer, shared his remarkable view of life in his "last lecture" and a book. I will let him speak for himself.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

He is back! Oh, he is back!

Safely returned from the Bush, we are up and running again. Enjoy.

In answer to your first question: it was a wonderful year in Alaska.

Second question: 56 degrees below zero.

Your humble servant.

A Lamentation on the Media--Part I

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people,
the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it
left to me to decide whether we should have a government without
newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should
not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
--Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

I regret to inform you all that Mr. J is probably spinning in his grave about now. All is not well.

Jefferson’s notion, of course, was that a free and open press is absolutely essential in a democracy. If the press was not free, the people could have no idea what the government was doing for them or to them. With a free press, the people would know and would be able to fix the flaws, correct the mistakes, and--one hopes--elect people to office who would do the right things. The people could protect themselves from the government--the whole purpose of the American Revolution.

Mr. J was right and--despite all its flaws and abuses and ethical challenges--the free press in America has generally served the people well. In the modern time, two reporters for the Washington Post were able to actually bring down a president, the only presidential resignation in history. It was a free press that published the Pentagon Papers, stood up to government attack and won its freedom in the Supreme Court. It was the free press that described the morass of the Vietnam War and is doing the same in Iraq. It was a free press in the last few years that has told us about American troops misbehaving at a prison in Iraq, of high government officials lying about the reasons for a war-- and the horror and tragedy of the greatest attack on America since Pearl Harbor and the assault on the Constitution that ensued. It was the fury of television reporters in New Orleans that first descried the total failure of government in the face of the worst natural disaster in American history. Corrupt members of Congress have gone to jail because of a free press--an attorney general was fired because of a free press--the government was caught eavesdropping on American citizens without a warrant--and we know of people arrested and kept in jail without charges because of a free press. Jefferson--who was, by the way, a constant target of unscrupulous editors in his time--should be pleased, yes? No.

The American press no longer is as free as it once was--not because some despot has sent police into newsrooms, not because stories have to go through censorship, or reporters and editors have to be licensed. None of that has happened. The press is less free because of rampant capitalism.

I would like to make the argument that it is difficult if not impossible for a publicly traded company to do first class journalism. It can be done, but it requires either publishers with astonishing courage or at least a corporate structure that protects them from the pressures of Wall Street. Those publishers are now a seriously endangered species.

It is no accident that as long as 10 years ago, the four best newspapers in America were family owned or controlled. The Los Angeles Times was controlled by the Chandler family--the Washington Post by the Grahams--the New York Times by the Sulzbergers--and the Wall Street Journal by the Bancrofts. Then the LA Times was sold to the Tribune Co., and most recently, the Journal went to the News Corp. In the same time, the Sulzburgers are having to fight off pressure from investors. They want to alter the corporate structure so regular stock holders could have more of a say in running America’s premier newspaper, God forbid. The Grahams know they could be next.

In the same time, one of the country's best newspaper chains, Knight Ridder, for whom I once worked, no longer exists, the result of capitulation by the family that controlled it to pressures from outside investors. CNN, founded by Ted Turner and once a premier world-wide news source, is now owned by Time-Warner and devotes weeks covering celebrity trials and trying to compete with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, a useless task. CBS, once the “Tiffany Network,” the home of the sainted Edward R. Murrow and the legendary “Murrow’s Boys," was owned by Viacom, and was spun off two years ago, but its once premier news operation is a ghost of itself. At one time it was thinking of outsourcing it’s Iraq coverage to CNN. It spent about $15 million a year to hire Katy Couric, who has failed to bring in the viewers. The idea of spending that money on news coverage--say a few more reporters and producers or a bureau or two--never occurred to management. NBC is owned by the same people who probably made the light bulbs in this room and the people at ABC may get their paychecks with Mickey Mouse’s picture on it. Literally.

In the weeks preceding 9/11, American television networks were covering the murder of a Congressional intern in Washington. While hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in Rwanda, the networks were covering the O.J. Simpson trial.

The U.S. is now in a war it might not have been in if the media had done its job properly. Some of the faults in the months before the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with media ownership, but the structure they operate under surely contributed.

Going private

Let me add here, that family or private ownership of a newspaper is hardly a guarantee of quality journalism. Indeed, many of the worst newspapers in America were--and some still are--family-owned or owned by individuals who had more interest in power than in democracy. Before Knight Newspapers took over the Philadelphia Inquirer it was owned by Walter Annenberg. The paper was so corrupt its main investigative reporter went to jail for extortion. And there was William Randolph Hearst. While the most prestigious prize in journalism is named for Joseph Pulitzer, his newspapers were a scandal when he ran them. He invented "yellow journalism." While the LA Times reached greatness under Otis Chandler, through most of the history of that family’s ownership, the newspaper was a disgrace. There is Richard Mellon Scaife, an arch conservative--pun intended--whose Pittsburgh newspaper constantly printed stories accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of murdering Vincent Foster. Then there is William Dean Singleton,who once famously said: "If I had the choice between pleasing 1,000 journalists or one banker, I would choose the banker. No question.” He has, repeatedly.

Yet there were families who took Jefferson’s challenge--and it turns out it was a challenge--seriously. There were the Abels in Baltimore, the Knights in Akron, the early generations of the Bancrofts in New York, the Binghams in Louisville, the Taylors in Boston, the Belos in Dallas. I grew up reading the Newark Evening News in New Jersey, one of America’s great regional newspapers, owned by the Scudder family. Nothing happened in northern New Jersey that was not covered by a News staff reporter or stringer: not a town council meeting, board of education meeting or high school basketball game. You were not dead unless you were pronounced so on their obituary pages. It also was the first job for some of America's best-known journalists, including Richard Reeves. The Scudders now work for Singleton. Now we have newspapers that don't even staff their state capitols. Virtually no television station does.

The networks were also personally run for most of their history. David Sarnoff created and ran the National Broadcasting Co., at least in part to sell radio and televisions sets, but he ran it independently. William Paley created CBS, and it was under Paley that CBS News became the greatest source of broadcast journalism in American history. And later, Leonard Goldenson ran ABC after it spun off from NBC. It was the old ABC that created "Nightline;" it was the Disney version that tried to kill it.

All three men, who ran both the radio and television networks, saw news not as a profit center but as a source of enormous prestige. While Murrow and his reports on CBS sometimes drove Paley crazy --especially when Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy--the eminence Murrow brought to CBS was immeasurable and had to contribute mightily to the bottom line. It was Murrow's radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz--Murrow with a microphone on rooftops as the bombs fell--that prepared America for entry into the war. It was Murrow's "CBS Reports" on television that first made America aware of the plight of migrant workers.

The network heads had the idea--supported in law by federal legislation--that the airwaves were owned by the public and that by broadcasting on the public airwaves, they owed the public a service. Running first class news operations were how they repaid that service. How quaint that must appear now. Their news operations were well-funded, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. Being a foreign correspondent for CBS in the 70s and 80s must have been a glorious way to go through life. Criticism that these enterprises were full of waste was undoubtedly correct. They were the ladies and gentlemen of the press and lived accordingly.

They also were experts on the areas they covered, often knew the language, read the newspapers, watched local television, knew everyone they needed to know, followed trends and could anticipate events, all the things you want great journalists to do. And many of them were great journalists. It is not clear that any of those operations actually lost money.

They covered the world. The networks had foreign bureaus or stringers in virtually every major city and on every populated continent.

The world disappears

Then things changed. In the mid-90s, some correspondents in Europe and the Middle East began hearing about an organization called Al Quiada and a man named Ossama Ben Laden. Most had trouble getting anyone in the U.S. to run their stories. Tom Fenton of CBS in London tells of having set up what would have been the first interview with Ben Laden in the mid 1990s, and getting no support from his producers in New York. He gave up. It wasn't an exciting story and--since the end of the Cold War--Americans, he was told, didn't care about foreign news.

Newspapers too covered the world, an old tradition going back to the 18th century. Not just the metropolitan giants like the two Times’ and the Post. Many of the regional newspapers also had reporters overseas. Many had superb coverage, including the Baltimore Sun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Boston Globe. The Sun even owned a home in London for its resident correspondent and sent some of America’s most distinguished journalists overseas. It was the second American newspaper, after the New York Times, to staff Moscow. Their best reporters were rotated as a perk for being good, so the coverage was excellent. They did it because it seemed like their responsibility and it leant marketable prestige. Quaint huh?

Sometimes they also did it to serve the local readership. The number of Irish-Americans in Boston seemed to mandate that the Globe have a reporter in Dublin so they did. The large Jewish populations in the Northeast encouraged papers in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to staff Jerusalem. They did. The San Jose Mercury News, in the heart of Silicon Valley, staffed Tokyo, Mexico City, and because of the large number of Vietnamese in the area, even Ho Chi Minh City. All sent back stories of special interest to their readership.

The Philadelphia Inquirer--when it was in its glory days in the 70s--had bureaus in London, Jerusalem, Bangkok, Tokyo, Moscow and Rome. The bureaus were staffed by the Inquirer’s best reporters and we won two Pulitzers for foreign coverage. It also had bureaus in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. If anything important or interesting happened anywhere in the world, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter was there within a day. Readers in what was then America's fourth largest city had a team of first rate journalists reporting and writing especially for them. Today the Inquirer scarcely covers the Philadelphia suburbs. Might I add the circulation back when it covered the world was 30% higher than it is now?

That was then. The only newspapers with foreign bureaus now are the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. All except the Journal are cutting back. The Journal has the largest contingent by far. The Globe--which ironically is owned by the New York Times--has closed all its foreign bureaus, even Dublin. The Mercury News and the Inquirer have done the same. The Sun has folded its foreign service. (As a digression, I would point out that the Sun’s reporter in Johannesburg was one of the few American reporters in all of Africa,. The readers in one of America's great port cities are the poorer, deprived of news that may be important to them, and one of the country's largest minority populations is further cut off from its heritage. And the Sun's circulation keeps shrinking and management wonders why).

I should add that one of the last remaining independent newspaper chains, McClatchy, operates an excellent foreign service but they are the exception to the rule. And sometimes, really bad family-owned newspapers can be turned around. The Newhouse's New Orleans Times-Picayune and Portland Oregonian are two examples. The Times-Picayune's efforts during Hurricane Katrina are the stuff of legend.

What happened? At the risk of sounding like someone out of a Steinbeck novel, the answer is Wall Street--and, of course, technology. Come back in a few days and read on.