Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday Bloody Wednesday

So I open my email from Harris Teeter only to find I am *NOT* the eVic winner...again. This is so unfair! The 3 for $10 Oak Creek Chardonnay is a pretty good deal though.

Oh, speaking of cheap-ass wine, there should be a ruling from the FDA or somebody that any wine selling for less than $10 should come with a screw-cap. Plastic corks do not make a cheap wine taste better. They only slow down the process of getting the wine from the bottle to my mouth - or occasionally to a glass. Somebody look into that, OK?

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Smell of Cinnamon Toast Part 3

The Other Shoe

Lawyers, Brad and Jack tag-teamed for the next half hour about the vision of Aalaxis Media. I have to admit, these guys were well-rehearsed and the longer they talked the better it sounded to all of us. Aalaxis, they told us, had a global view. They likened the company to BBC but without the Brit bias. It was Aalaxis's mission to report the important stories from around the world with an emphasis on "why should I, the reader, care about this story." Aalaxis was concerned about Global Warming, fragile ecosystems, displaced populations, fair trade and of course, wars and not just the ones we knew about. Aalaxis's board of directors boasted of two Nobel Prize winning economists so it was important they educate their readers on the realities of economics.

"We believe that it is our job... and now yours, to educate as well as entertain," Jack began to sum up. "and that includes local news as well because all politics and economics is local. We're crusaders, people - I know that term has taken on some bad connotations over the years but the things we're crusading about are important."

Richard stuck up his hand. Eyes rolled.

"Sounds great, Jack but what if our readers don't want to be educated about upheavals in Yak butter futures or the elections in Turkmenistan? Heck, most of our readers couldn't find Canada on a map even if they wanted to. " Richard grinned.

Brad stepped forward. "Marleigh," he said to the couture-clad assistant "you want to get that guy's name." He smiled broadly letting us know it was a joke.

Richard spoke up again. "Hi Marleigh, my name is Spencer Dawes and if you're going to be in town for a while, I'd like to show you around."

The real Spencer Dawes, the semi-retired guy from the copy desk dozing in the corner, roused when he heard his name. Nobody laughed. Marleigh ignored Richard's comment and Brad continued.

"No, you're right. Newspapers and media in general have abdicated their reponsibility to educate their readers. I could cite you the statistics you know all too well. What's hot" Stupid celebrity news -- if you can call it that -- lurid crime stories, sex scandals. Schadenfreude, it's everywhere you go. It's time that news outlets did what they're supposed to do. It's a sacred trust that our founding fathers thought important enough to include in the Constitution."

A voice from the back of the room: "And circulation drops 90%."

"Certainly we expect some push back but we fully expect that what we lose in print we'll more than make up for in online. But print is not dead, it's not even sick, it's just a different market" he added hurriedly.

Cyrus and I both looked at Becks who was smiling remembering her own comment in Simone's office.

Cyrus chose this moment to insert what he considered to be the fly in this whole jolly ointment. "But doesn't foreign ownership...Middle Eastern ownership in this case change the dynamics?"

The group registered their surprise with squeaking chairs and mutterings

Brad didn't bat an eye. "Cy, I'm so glad you brought that up because it was next on my agenda."

Nobody called Cyrus, Cy but the fact that Brad knew who he was was not lost on anyone.

Coming Soon: The Other, other shoe

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Smell of Cinnamon Toast Part 2

The Conference Room

I gather that the folks from United Way were none too happy to be evicted from the conference room judging by the empty Krispy Kreme donut boxes, half-empty coffee cups and lipstick-stained napkins that were scattered over (and under) the tables and counters. They had also stacked all the chairs in the back of the room for some reason. It was a mess - just the right setting for the meeting we were about to have.

Simone and Brenda were busy stuffing the papers and cups left on the front table into a green garbage bag while Jules in pricey pin-striped suit and shiny loafers read from a manilla folder sitting on a chair he had rescued from the pile in the back. Jules was probably close to sixty but he looked younger and fitter than most of the 30-somethings who make up the bulk of our newsroom these days.

Simone deputized a couple of stragglers, handing them the garbage bag and gesturing toward the other tables. A couple of us started moving the chairs from the back to around the tables so we'd have some places to sit. Most people stood around the perimeter of the room leaning on the counters and against the windows.

Jules kept looking at his watch but made no move to start the meeting. Simone fidgeted. Brenda came back into the room with a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of Windex. Simone grabbed the Windex and went from table to table spraying the surfaces while Brenda handed the people sitting near them wads of paper towels. Everybody thought that this was some kind of weird contest and soon the tables were being wiped with a fervor you don't usually see from a group of people who pride themselves on the slovenliness of the workspaces.

The clock at the front of the room showed 4:15 and people were starting to get antsy. Bill obviously remembered something he forgot to do and made a move toward the door. A look from Simone stopped him cold. Seconds later the sound of hurried heels on the hallway tiles brought everyone to attention.

Two lawyer-looking types, followed by their couture-clad former-beauty-queen assistant entered the room. The lawyers smiled at us like they were the guests of honor at a political rally. They handed the couture-clad assistant their coats and shook hands with Jules who introduced them to Simone. The taller of the two who, I swear, was the spitting image of Stanley Tucci stepped to the fore.

"Good afternoon," he said effusively "I'm sure this day has been quite upsetting for you but I'm here to assure you that as far as we're concerned nothing major is going to change - life will go on with very few interruptions and most of you will keep your jobs if you choose to stay...and we hope you will." He paused to let this sink in.

Everybody looked at each other and then at Simone who was trying her best to smile like the lawyers but it was obvious that she was as confused as the rest of us.

"Please, allow me to introduce myself. I'm Brad Whitston. Those of you who report on business might recognize my colleague, Jack Alpert (we didn't). We're attorneys representing Aalaxis America. Let me be the first to welcome all of you to the Aalaxis Media family," he beamed. He undoubtedly sensed our suspicion but his smile never wavered for a second. He turned to his colleague. "Jack," he said "the first thing they teach you in journalism school is never trust a smiling attorney." Jack laughed and some of us did too. Most of the younger males -- their eyes locked on the couture-clad assistant who sat in rapt attention in the seat valiently offered by Jules -- hadn't heard a word he said.

Coming soon. The Other Shoe

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Twittering and Coliform Bacteria

My friend Scott, Twitters. He is the ultimate early-adopter (he bought an iPhone on the day it came out). At any moment on any given day we can find out what Scott is doing, or thinking or feeling courtesy of Twittering. He does this via his iPhone and Facebook. We should feel privledged to know all this. Twittering - all the rage among the early-adopters - is either the most self-indulgent activity in the world or the ultimate BE HERE NOW. I had heard the word some time ago but it didn't enter my consciousness until a couple of weeks ago when the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper suggested his employees take it up. How, I wondered, did he expect anyone to get anything done when they had to stop every few minutes and announce what they were doing?

Famous people, like Barack Obama Twitter: "I am a golden god. Bow down before me former first lady", "Ann Coulter groped me backstage at last night's debate...and I dug it!", "California, you will pay for your apostacy." If and when he becomes president we can all find out what he is really thinking - the first-ever transparent government.

OK, now how am I going to relate Twittering to coliform bacteria? Every Saturday, I get an email from "The Straight Dope". Sometimes I read it and sometimes I just delete it. This past Saturday I read a story about the necessity of washing one's hands after using the bathroom. Like the reader who wondered why he should wash after if, like the old joke says, he was careful enough not to pee on his hands, I have to admit, I wondered the same thing from time to time myself. Well, you can read the article for yourself but the upshot is everyone of us is awash in coliform bacteria. The area between our navels and our knees is a vertiable Times-Square-on-New-Year-Eve of coliform bacteria and every time our hands come in contact with that part of our anatomy, the little buggers jump gleefully aboard ready to explore hitherto unknown regions. So, if you don't wash your hands, everything you touch afterward becomes New Coliform Land.

So now I have a new obsession and feel the need to Twitter about it: "Did David wash his hands before cutting a slice of cake in the breakroom?" "This men's room LOOKS clean but I know that if I sit on this seat, I will be sharing someone else's coliform bacteria." "Angela is looking pretty hot today but I bet her coliform bacteria is just as deadly as Jane's who is not looking all that hot today (or ever)" "I am running out of Purell Hand Sanitizer"

I imagine that I can see coliform bacteria and it's on everything! Happily, we've been sharing each other's bacteria for so long we're pretty immune to it. But what if someone new comes in the office (without washing his or her hands obviously) and suddenly there is a new strain of coliform on everything. "I think I might be getting sick. I should go home and be with the coliform bacteria that I know and love."

Every day, new coliform bacteria enters our world. Did the mailman wash his hands? Did the checker at HT wash her hands? Did the waiter at the restaurant last night wash HIS hands? Wait, who handled the menu at that restaurant? It could have been hundreds and hundreds of people and one of them might be carrying (and sharing) the coliform bacteria that will wipe out humanity and I will be among the first to go!

"Bob is worrying unnecessarily about coliform bacteria." "Bob is concerned that he is not worrying enough about coliform bacteria." "Twittering about coliform bacteria is not making Bob feel any better about it." "I wonder if Scott worries about coliform bacteria - he's an early adopter"

Stop reading this right now and go wash your hands and then Twitter about it so I will know you did.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Fences? We don't need no stinking fences

Several people who I know personally have gotten their DependsĀ® in a wad over illegal immigration and obviously it's an issue that's near and dear to the hearts of many red-blooded evangelicals who fear a massive influx of Catholics into this great Protestant nation of ours. If something isn't done and soon, our grandchildren will be worshipping Mary and speaking in Latin instead of in tongues. For some reason, these people think that building a huge fence along our Southern border is the answer. I guess because it has worked so well in Israel.

Well I just read a great article in Salon called "Killing Bubba from the skies". The article explores how the Air Force is using high tech devices like predator drones and 3-D mapping to hunt down and kill insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. They've gotten this down to a science, even scaling munitions to precisely knock off one or two individuals without harming innocent bystanders and unoffending buildings. Now it's possible that these wars could go on for another 100 years years as some have suggested but it could be that we'll lose interest over there and we'll have all this fantastic technology and no one to use it on (what a shame that would be!)

So, you see where I'm going with this? Who in their right mind is going to try to sneak across a border (fence or no fence) knowing that some military specialist hundreds 0f miles away might be sipping on a Dr. Pepper and dialing up a precise hit on their position? I mean, this is war people (it is, isn't it?) OK, we're probably a little squeamish about blowing up women and children on a regular basis but after a couple of well-publicized surgical strikes the word would pass quickly and voila, no more illegal immigrants.

Then we can turn our attention to the drug war - Lord knows we've been losing that one for decades. I believe good old Tom Clancy has explored this territory before but even he didn't go far enough to suggest how application of the new technology could be used on the streets of our inner cities. So here's Johnny Drug-dealer selling his dime bags on a corner in Anytown, USA. He is totally unaware that he is standing in the crosshairs of a predator drone circling out of earshot. In the twinkling of an eye POOF, he is a greasy spot on the cement while the rest of the neighborhood goes about its business unharmed and unconcerned. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? Granted we may have to change a few laws governing annoyances like due process but you really can't fault the Founding Fathers for not envisioning how technology might eliminate the need for such antiquated concepts.
Personally, I'm kind of excited about the many unexplored uses of the new technologies. It's really kind of a shame that we won't have the Bush administration around to implement them to their fullest but, hey, time marches on.

So next time you're doing something even vaguely illegal, look up, smile, wave and hope that whoever is at the controls has a sense of humor.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

There goes my baby

Well, I never thought I'd see her again. When she left me, we weren't on very good terms. I complained about her all the time and towards the end of our relationship I ignored her and silently cursed her for just taking up space - space I needed for the new love of my life. But today, there she was; looking just like I remembered her. Sure she was a bit older and a little worse for wear but she still moved like she did way back when.

I watched her from a distance as she waited for someone in the parking lot across the street from where I work. For a second I thought about walking over to see her but didn't want one of those awkward moments if the new man in her life happened to come out and I'd have to explain who I was. Whoever he was he probably knew I'd treated her badly - some might say I'd abused her. But on the other hand, it didn't look like he was spending too much money on her either. We guys are all alike: love 'em when they're young and pretty; not so much when they get a little older and their beauty begins to fade.

Anyway, after a while, he came out and they drove away. She obviously wasn't smoking anymore, so that was a good sign that maybe he cared for her. So you're probably wondering: would I take her back if I had the chance? Nah, my new model looks pretty flashy and still turns heads and besides, she's only got 10,000 miles on her.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I love the smell of cinnamon toast in the morning...smells like destiny

The smell of cinnamon toast coming from the breakroom was Simone's olfactory clue that all was not well. We have come to associate cinnamon toast with doom.

The messages started flying: "sup?", "who died?", "is it layoff season again?". Lately, all news has been bad news and today's would be no different except maybe worse. Pretty soon Simone's summons arrived via an "all_dept" message: "Stand-up meeting. 10:30 - no temps."

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) milled around Simone's office waiting for her to get off the phone. Her assistant, Brenda, showed up, breathless, with a stack of papers, still warm from the copier. This was not good.

Simone put the phone down and visibly composed herself. Her brown hair, normally a mess, had been pulled back into a tight bun showing off the widow's peak she usually tried to hide. She put her jacket on - this was going to be official.

"Well, people, it's come down from corporate - I just got off the phone with Jules and he confirmed it." (Jules was the official corporate hatchet person). "We've been sold."

This shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. Corporate had taken great pains to let us know it was coming but nobody expected it would happen so fast. Who buys this kind of business anymore?

Doris did her gasping thing and everyone turned to look at her. She did it again and everyone turned back to Simone waiting for details.

"I don't have any details yet," said Simone "but I've been asked to collect, from you, your latest personal data - contact info, phones, that sort of of kin (she lamely joked)"

We all politely tittered. Brenda started passing out forms. Her hands were shaking.

"I need them back by one. Jules is coming down this afternoon. I'm trying to get the conference room sorted out (United Way was having it's annual kickoff meeting there) so stick around or be back by 4. I'm supposed to tell you to keep this to yourselves for the moment, but that's up to you. Cyrus, Becks, Michael, I need you for a minute." She pointed us out.

Everybody else shuffled away and the three of us trooped into Simone's office. She closed the door. Nobody made a move to sit down.

I broke the silence. "Who's the buyer, MaGhee, Watkins?"

"Neither," she said. "Anybody ever heard of AAlaxis?"

Cyrus ventured a guess. "Isn't that some shipping conglomerate, India or near there?"

She made a sour face. "Try the UAE."

We all must have looked stunned.

"Apparently, they're diversifying, getting into news services. They already own an Al Jezeera clone, a handful of Far East pubs - mostly financial ones, a couple of cable systems, Australia and Indonesia, I think. We're their first American acquisition."

"What in God's name do they want with this rag?" Becks blurted out. "Can they do that? Buy an American newspaper?"

"Nothing says they can't," Simone said "but the answer to your question, 'why this rag', is as much a mystery to me -- and I gather to corporate too -- as it is to you. But Jules did say one thing that might be a bit of a silver lining."

We waited.

"They've got deep, and I do mean deep, pockets. The fact that we haven't turned a profit for 4 years doesn't seem to have fazed them in the least and they are paying corporate cash for us. If we stay in the print business we might get to upgrade the pagination system..."

Becks wasn't getting it. "There's a chance we won't stay a print business? But if we don't what's left?" "OH," it finally dawned on her "the fucking online."

None of us had ever heard Becks use the "F" word before and it broke the tension like a brick through a plate glass window. We all started laughing. Becks turned a brilliant shade of crimson but even she started laughing. The sound coming out of the office must have startled the hell out of the peons trying to eavesdrop outside the door.

Coming soon: The Conference Room

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Economics of Flying Skybus

I need to take a trip (down the old Mississipp) to The Big Easy, The Crescent City...New Orleans. Well, as any resident of Greensboro will tell you,
you can't there from here (well not easily anyway). The major airlines will take you there for a price as long as you're willing to get up at the crack of dawn. If you don't mind driving to RDU you can get there a little cheaper via Expressjet (no, I'd never heard of them before either) but the same rules apply (and you have to deal with RDU).

So I smack my forehead when I finally remember "Hey, we've got Skybus here in the G and they fly to New Orleans (sort of)." Well, sure enough, you can fly to New Orleans (sort of) and the rate is amazing AND the flights depart at somewhat more civilized hours. BUT, here's where the "sort of" changes the economics. Gulfport/Biloxi airport is where Skybus really flies to -- but hey, it's only 74 miles away from New Orleans, right? Turns out that extra 74 miles makes a big difference. There are a couple of options to get from Gulfport/Biloxi to New Orleans. The most logical one, renting a car, now adds a couple hundred extra dollars for the time I plan on being in New Orleans. So now flying Skybus is MORE expensive than flying one of the major airlines from either GSO or RDU. That's pretty disappointing.

I've checked out flying to New York (i.e. Newburgh) via Skybus and if you don't mind a little inconvenience and some extra time (you have to grab a shuttle to the train station and then take the train to Grand Central station) it is a money saver - especially if you factor in the cost of a cab ride from LGA or JFK. But plentiful public transportation is a different story in the NYC Metro area (it EXISTS) than in Gulfport/Biloxi area.

Of course, Skybus isn't going to restrain trade by telling you the cheapest way to get from one of their remote airports to where you really want to go. No, you have to find that out for yourself. (I suppose that if you actually DO want to go to Biloxi - perhaps to gamble - yeah, Skybus is definitely the way to go.) The true cost of traveling via Skybus to any destination other than where the wheels of their Airbus 319s touch down is probably a losing proposition for most travelers.

Perhaps some enterprising person will, one day, create a web site that tells you, plainly, how to get from Skybus airports to real cities for the lowest cost (hint hint). Perhaps, if Skybus stays in business long enough, they will figure out a way to get us from their airports to where we really want to go for a price that will keep them competitive. That day is not today.

Southwest, usually another good option for flying cheaply (if you don't count the inconvenience of driving to Raleigh and paying RDU parking fees) doesn't fly directly to New Orleans. You have to connect through Orlando or Nashville. Baby, if I can't fly direct, I don't want to go.

I guess we really DO live in the middle of nowhere.