Friday, February 20, 2015

The Lamentations of Mario Cuomo

What do you call a politician who was transfixed by questions, tormented by doubt, and scattered, if not bored by the hand he was dealt in the austere and myopic times he governed? You would call him that rarest of political animals. The likes of which faces not obscurity but pure extinction when fate’s calls go unreturned. One insider profiling Mario M. Cuomo on the precipice of a Presidential run, concluded that "the only institution in American politics more raucous and divided than the Democratic Party is Mario Cuomo's mind."

What other public figure, let alone one whose influence and notoriety rested in an electorate, would be prompted to justify that course of action at a luncheon at the Player’s Club:

"Am I certain that I'm the very best there is? I can never come to that conclusion." 

Typically when a politician wears their heart on their sleeve it’s a big valentine to themselves. For Cuomo it wasn’t self-love but self-reflection that steered him clear of seeking higher office. Even now his improbable reticence plays out less like coming to terms with the ally of honest doubt than bearing the stain of unwelcome disruption…

• An unscripted ending.
• The director’s cut that his most ardent followers fast-forward over.

Front Row Left Center 

In January 1983 I left the tie-dyed ivory towers, co-ed saunas, and communal mood colony of Frisbee University, a.k.a. Hampshire College for the formality of three piece polyester lobbyist luncheons in the Empire State Plaza. An internship in the New York State Assembly was about as exotic as it was the follow-up to my impractical liberal arts track -- accent on the liberal and not the track. In that first month I moved to Albany, Cuomo outlined the core thesis in his first inauguration that he was to reprise on the national stage:

“Of course, we should have only the government we need, but we must have, and we will insist on, all the government we need.” 

A generation later that patently center left blueprint was waiting for a ride on someone’s lofty campaign footing. The rationale always sounded more defensive in its declaration than a rally cry to the working classes. Yet it could easily serve as the roadmap for the newfound strut in Obama’s lame duck waddle.

 In Albany I was placed with a former schoolteacher freshman named Fran Pordum who was as far to the right as a New York Democrat could be. The fact that Fran represented the slice that delivered Cuomo a hard fought primary victory over Manhattan-centric Ed Koch also informed my leftist-centrist views on the pragmatic necessity of meeting in the middle -- assuming the level of trust required for acknowledging the sharing of credit along with the sacrifices.

Family Feud 

Koch would describe his loss to Cuomo couched in terms of his own falling out with city voters where he remained the head of the NYC house. The marriage was jeopardized when Koch began courting his upstate cousins. Running for governor wasn't just an over-reach. He was actually straying from his marriage to the city that was to elect him another two times after he flirted with statewide office. But the boonies and the burbs never felt like acquired tastes when Cuomo summoned his family of New York -- a reference to the same community-seeking unity that survives such expansive interventions as big ticket social programs, affirmative action, and economic opportunity for the disadvantaged.

 But Cuomo governed in lean times compared to an era since ended. The liberalism he practiced was more about the process of how we engage as citizens through tolerance and compromise. It was rarely about outcomes although his vehemence against the death penalty inspired the construction of more prison space during his leadership than any New York Governor before or since. Not quite the generous outcome one might have expected from a big-hearted liberal:

“History will not record that he was a great governor. His budgets were almost always late. His reflectiveness and reclusiveness did not dazzle legislative leaders. And his flight from San Francisco [after his 1984 convention speech], like his choice not to run for President in 1992, may have indicated a reticence that would not have served him well as President. Or maybe it camouflaged insecurity that was both disabling and wonderfully human. Unlike most politicians, who have no interior lives, he was worthy of a novel.” 

Philosophical Extremes 

One bone of contention Cuomo used to ridicule the opposition was the unquestioning allegiance to ideology that led in the early eighties to the political inroads of the GOP in the Roman Catholic Church. When Cuomo offered a persuasive defense of pro-choice in 1984, he was just as much railing against the authoritarian streak of unwavering conservatism as he was providing a moral compass for conflicted parishioners. And he did so not by advocating for abortion but by accusing the right of using government to inflict church law on a nation spawned by religious tolerance:

 “He spoke out against an ‘unyielding adherence to an absolute prohibition’, and explained that his faith did not mean he had to comply with church teachings in his role as politician. ‘To assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.’ He asked his listeners at Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution, ‘Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin’? The church was not pleased. For a time there was talk of excommunication.” 

The principle of point-making and score-settling extended beyond public institutions to the less abstract nature of bare knuckles campaigning – retail politics:

“People would come up to him after the meetings and say, “I’m still not sure I agree with you on the death penalty, but I certainly respect your position.” In the end, they decided to vote for him. They voted for him because Mario Cuomo was a man to respect, a man who respected them well enough to tell them what they didn’t want to hear.” 

It was the courage shown by Cuomo in finding, acceptance, and delivering of these nuanced arguments that fueled as much passion as speculation that he would turn his oratory gifts into the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.

The Unacceptance 

It was the yearly tiff with the Senate-run GOP that provided the backdrop of Cuomo’s refusal to enter the New Hampshire Presidential primary in December, 1991. Again, it wasn’t the calculation of higher office aspirations. It was the family on the line with Cuomo regretting that he “couldn’t abandon the state at such a time.” The New Republic wrote that…

“Cuomo's restraint always struck some as strange—perhaps even nefarious. Few today can understand the limits of ambition in a powerful man.” 

I remember not thinking of an unselfish and elevated command of one’s station. I thought it was chicken shit. His refusal to run never entered any calculations of mine. Years later I understand his reticence and it’s not written in the language of opposition research, vanity, or thinness of skin. It’s a sense of propriety that has no place at the fundraisers or in the broken field scramble where the candidate reveals their “primary colors.”

He Tried 

Aside from all the armchair history-shapers there was a remarkable gift that stood in the way of all judgments, both in haste and in favor. That’s Mario’s connection to a lectern. Wrote James Fallows:

“Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skill in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.” 

His biographic arc plots his coming of age in the fifties and ascension to power in the eighties. But that ignores the simple distinction that Cuomo was first generation American. He was no more a bi-product of the postwar suburbs as he was a hobnobbing insider – more committed to holding court than assembling a coalition. Cuomo was the consummate outsider whose commitment to power circles wavered to the extreme of Marx (as in Chairman Groucho).

 Cuomo would never indulge in the public identity of the self-made man. It worked against liberal pride and the cultural grain of a community-based leadership. Yet on a private level Cuomo moved inside his own circle. He stamped his own signature. He put himself through law school. Hell, he showed up for grammar school without knowing a lick of English – an experience better known to social progressives of the Depression than during the Reagan Era.

David Frum summed up the fierce and combative bootstrapping of Cuomo’s formative America:

“Cuomo never forgot his origins in the immigrant working class that idolized Franklin Roosevelt and elected John F. Kennedy. Cuomo memorably compared Walter Mondale to polenta, the bland, mushy cornmeal staple of the Italian poor. Cuomo’s most famous speech ended with this haunting evocation of his deceased father: “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.” 

I used to think that the ultimate irony was that this heavyweight Socratic musclebound mentalist would owe his historic marking to style over substance. Now I realize Mario doesn't owe anyone anything -- least of all the history we share.

Wrote Murray Kempton:

“Although we may take his mission to be successful, its effect on Cuomo was to make him wonder why the political process seems so much at cross-purposes with reasonableness and common sense. ‘It hardly seems worth the effort to attempt to change it.’ But he told himself that it’s the trying that counts… Perhaps we have seen too many redeemers come and go, leaving us pretty much where we were, and that may be why it is so refreshing to come upon a candidate for office who has already learned that tragedies do not often end happily.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Year in Bolishuk Emails

Why-you-need-to-build-your-own-distribution-channelChannel Me This


Distribution systems are containers of agreements between senders and receivers. And those agreements can be suspended or upended at every slippery turn of where a bill of goods, services, or passing signals gain entry. Once on-board, they're liable to the changes in motion that speed their delivery, hasten their departure, cut their place in line, or circumvent their very existence. Distribution systems can be hyper-engineered and rationalized to the Yuan, Dollar, and Euro like a supply chain. They can be digitized into packet switches and resurface as unencrypted evidence of our intelligible emotions -- much of it following a script other than the reach and scheduling of the distribution.


We All Screen for Oscar Contenders


One such seasonal distribution system is assigned to Homo sapiens' tendencies to dwell in caves and tell stories at the tail-end of Christian calendars. In modern times the cave is a multiplex and the story is an Oscar contender. But the network is jammed and the calendar needs recalibrating. That's because the star tour talk show cycle completes much faster than the current art houses can accommodate the movies you and me want to see.


Why is this?


Is it because the potential box office of character-based cave stories relegate a formerly mainstream event (Academy Awards) to a remote fringe of the distribution channels? Is it because the people currently the age we used to be are just fine with the availability of stories that are panned, then banned 'til they land on demand on American Bandstand, (a.k.a. YouTube?) Talk about a redirected set of wires and rails. Are you receiving this: all flat screen smart phones at sea?


The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in the Void


An equally absurd network scarcity contraction hiccupped through Europe earlier this fall when Google decided not to honor a new Spanish law requiring distribution networks to pay the country's news publishers for their news content. The question is now whether the world hears of the proverbial tree falling in Spain but whether the tree was dead to begin with. 


Containments That Got Away


But you don't need to be a titan of networks or a global currency magnet to travel these circuits. A group email among us is an inner circle of winks and associations that fire neurons and trigger a sequence of knowing glances and even some exasperated retreats. But when conversation flows it's because of those fill-in-the-blank assumptions selected, tested, and recounted from a history shared and channeled within the loop.


In days past Bolishuk leveraged this form to contain great outbursts of rhetorical merit not just on the issues of the day but on the momentous thunderclaps between our ears. I learned of Bal and Svetlana's parting through a group email. I was privy to the recounting of gatherings I missed through their retelling of our distributed group text fest. I can recall few memorials as lucid and tender as Canuck's eulogizing of Dria. I enjoyed the banter and armchair jousting for the well-played references to our formative influences.


None of that was over and out in 2014 -- be it the passing of nearby divorces, individual visits, job losses, absent friends, distant memories shimmering in the foreground, or mere birthday toasts. NONE OF THESE MILESTONES (except for birthday greetings) were captured or expressed for distribution purposes. I can think of no vestige of this better than 2014 as the year education reformer gadfly Dish joined the date in history of celebrated birthday factoids on the very year he neglected to hit the Bolishuk reply button. Maybe Dish took the year off.


This benign opt-out reminds me of a more impersonal development in my own waning spheres. Over the past year my blog postings have elicited at the rate of about 20:1 in favor of spam to actual human responses. I have neither Dish's gift for provocation, clarity of argument, editorial discipline, and networking proclivities. I've spent more effort in deleting spam than I have in containing capture-worthy experience through a subscription I will not renew in 2015. Maybe I'm pining for a cable that no longer runs to my curb.  Maybe I need to sever the connection between checking my email and counting my blessings. Either way those blessings persist beyond the boundaries of distribution systems.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Sky Has Its Limits

[caption id="attachment_2108" align="alignleft" width="300"]Cymfony A sample of Cymfony's Brand Dashboard.[/caption]

I commemorated 9-11-2014 in a strange, improbable way. I met with the same guy I was scheduled to meet with 13 years earlier in the hopes of accepting my 9/11/01 consulting proposal. Like a lot of pre 9/11 plans this too was destined for the recycle bin. The best laid, evidence-based calculations lost their logic that day and remained speechless in deference to the victims of the alternately bright blue, pervasively dark morning.

I was holding some promising cards prior to that meeting. Earlier that summer I had joined up with a venture-funded search engine start-up called Cymfony. The company derived a lovely black box of algorithms that were based on what machines call "natural language" or how humans record their affairs. Computer scientists from the University of Buffalo had compiled code that consume large chunks of text and break them down into parts of speech that the software's creators called "grammars." The result was the ability to surface relationships and correlations lost to the more basic keyword matches and link associations that passed for relevancy in the Alta Vista search universe of the earliest 2000s.

The challenge for Cymfony was that there was no business model behind the search science. The leadership team called it "business intelligence" or BI. But to anyone outside of espionage circles that was a maturing market to tease the secrets out of spreadsheets for consolidating balance sheets and forecasting pipelines -- in effect BI was about the math of numbers -- not words.

Curiously I was working as a middle competitive intelligence manager for one of those BI firms when I got a call from Cymfony's CEO. Andrew Bernstein was recruiting potential test sites for building a proof of concept -- some evidence-based case studies they could use to springboard their go-to-market efforts. It was the fate of shifting economic fortunes that my interest in natural language search engines was peaking at the same time that my non-revenue-producing employment prospects were plummeting in the landing wreckage of the post dotcom nosedive.

Instead of trying to find the same work somewhere else I decided to pitch these Cymfony guys on a vision for sense-making that existed in the spreadsheets of analysts but nowhere on the results pages of Internet news searches -- let alone on the dashboards of influence-peddling news suppliers whose fortunes ride on those results. The opportunity as I explained to Andrew was that these guys are living from one traction-seeking distraction to the next. They put their fingers to the wind without any sense of how those winds are shifting or even taking shape within an overall news climate. Andrew found this compelling as a vision.

But the vision became the tangible game plan when he floated the idea of a media intelligence tool to an ally and image consultant who decried the need to quantify the squishy, personality-driven craft of branding management: not only who was flying higher or trending lower but where were the actual analytics to benchmark media coverage? Better still; quantify its impact on the segments carved out by the most visible agencies and advertisers.

Thus the Brand Dashboard was born and I was in the heady and somewhat awkward position of trying to carve out a role that was neither founder, developer, sales / marketing, or advisor / relationship-based. Besides helping to shape the new direction in the form of what the UX designer referred to as a "whiteboard doodle," I was the taxonomist -- the guy who could aggregate those grammars manifested in the black box so that the dashboard would contain the correct metrics for the right customer.

What I refused to see was that there were no ownership stakes for grammarians and taxonomists. I spent $2,000 on attorney fees to draft a contract that negotiated on those terms which never saw the light of its post 9/11 signature line. In retrospect I understand the basic flaws in my positioning as well as the resentments I carried well past the rejected proposal about having helped change the business model with no recognition by the business. I believe I turned down a pre IPO offer of preferred stock by Andrew. I was pissed and this was the most direct way I could maintain the dignity I could substitute in lieu of any parachute payments.

Thirteen years later I've earned my keep with as a taxonomist metadata mind. I don't run with my bedraggled tongue (where my sniffer should) be towards Silicon VC dollars. I support consulting organizations by making the knowledge donuts. That's meant a continuous cycle of SharePoint deployments and search configurations within the margins of firewalls and fixed budgets. There's no doubt it's for the best. Then again I've never met a change with no hand in changing that I didn't tailor into some kind of hidden blessing. There is no "all for the worst" in expression or in feeling when you outlive those blessed changes.

I've used the latest of these transitions to steer away from my functional headcount role as a knowledge manager to applying those tools of the trade into a more plausible business model -- doing KM work in a market-facing capacity as a content strategist. So who came to mind for testing my new content strategy idea? A series of incremental engagements I could sell to the same industry for which knowledge management is either a humbling confession of a knowledge problem, or at best, a necessary evil? An industry that gets no favors from Google in its quest for the right keyword campaigns and tends to view most marketing and design agencies with suspicion?

That's right. I dialed Andrew Bernstein up on LinkedIn. Andrew's still local to Boston and heading up Kearsarge Energy -- a project management firm that packages large solar farms for towns, municipalities, and large landowners. I asked him how it felt selling something more tangible these days than natural language-based branding barometers. He said the real liberation was the skeletal crew -- down from the hundred or so he managed at Cymfony before the first of two buy-outs.

The irony is that I goofed at the bargaining table of our last ill-fated meeting. I shoulda been making the donuts all along. It was a relief to admit that and positively cathartic to hear the 13 year response: “We could have used you.” That’s one winsome exchange that carries the lessons of the past over the boundaries of regret and a not-so-hidden blessing to commemorate this 9-11 Day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jerry's Place

[caption id="attachment_2105" align="alignleft" width="225"]IMG_3420 A life of sundaes[/caption]

Last week marked the launch of my 21 year-old son’s entrance of adulthood. It didn’t all happen last week. It just seems that way this week.

This deeply symbolic passage comes in the form of a one fire escape walk-up efficiency that is nearly equidistant between his childhood home and the two part-time jobs that gave Jerry the confidence and capitalization to move into his own place.

It’s not just Jerry that’s feeling his way around this dramatic shift in roles and perceptions. Even his landlord who fills ten other units at the same address appeared stumped when asked where Jerry should park his commuter mountain bike. His folks were equally challenged to navigate the rules of engagement when it comes to the necessary hands-off, hands-on adjustments to this heady transition.

One potential path to success here is to follow the roadmap that brought Jerry to the doors of his newfound independence. That means being given an arduous series of tasks that don’t change much from day-to-day. While Jerry didn’t master his dual roles of food portioning and custodial work off the bat, he did come to master those jobs during his trial period. Both his supervisors probably get the sincerity and genuine appreciation that Jerry derives from this honest, repetitive work. I say probably because providing more certainty is not my role here.

It’s Jerry who found these jobs. It’s Jerry who did the interviews and the call-backs. It’s Jerry who arrives on-time and prepared for work at hours many of us can scarcely function.

When Jerry tells his boss that he loves his job, it’s not that he has any fanciful relationship to cleaning floors or waking up before dawn to have them done before the first customer arrives. It’s that he’s been given the chance to succeed on terms he understands and in tasks he’s come to master. It’s on the strength of his rote memorization that this mastery can free his mind to escape to the world of superheroes, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages where Jerry is free to hit his personal play and record buttons while mopping up messes and counting out chicken fingers.

But while Jerry’s memory can cycle through those repetitions, he’s unfamiliar with the hard and fast rules of online banking, advocating for himself in the workplace, or reflecting those needs in the form of a schedule; for instance, more predictable hours on the time clock to go with his weekly routines.

That’s not to say that Jerry can’t make up his mind or lacks the willpower and motivation to develop these skills. Jerry’s emancipation wasn’t based on any grand design, parental prodding, or peer models (although I was immensely proud of him for placing independent living at the top of his agenda nearly two years ago and sticking to it). That’s also not to say that the executive function required prioritizing, negotiating, and self-manage are challenges for most 21 year-olds -- regardless of how one’s brain works or their prospects pan out.

It’s my hope for Jerry that a year from now he’ll look back on all the hard knocks, confusing signals, hidden surprises and unscripted disruptions, and he’ll out-surprise all of us (as his priest foretold when Jerry received a scholarship from his parish). His responses will be more surprising than the unplanned learning that springs from all these tuition-free lessons. He’ll be better equipped to absorb them and turn these challenges into his own precisely because he didn’t read the correct book, go to the right school, kiss the right ass, or pass the right test with the highest score. Jerry’s ticket to success will not be punched in some gold-plated diploma mill. His past achievements and future horizons are uniquely his.

He’s grown up in a time where the role of parenting has expanded from providing a “roof over your head” to a dome clear over your future. Sometimes … okay … more than sometimes … it’s hard to know when to let go and when to rush in: call the meetings, neutralize the likeliest risks, or organize the new nest. But before I rush in to save the day, I need to ask: whose day am I saving? Am I sparing Jerry from the jaws of calamity or am I serving at the foot of expediency so that I can vanish as swiftly as I swooped in?

There are many executive level decisions I’ve spared Jerry in the past. Either he was going to encounter it later under some trained supervisor in some accredited program or some other as-yet unnamed responsible member of another social circle and scheduling orbit was going to fill Jerry’s shopping cart of independent living with the tools and the mental models needed to bring a sense of order and priority. Like all false hopes that day never arrived. What was there all along was Jerry’s resolve. His sense that if it was part of his experience, it was part of his own self-paced curriculum; that he could learn and even master the finer and rougher points of this unprotected world.

I’m going over to Jerry’s place tomorrow to help simplify the paperwork needed to apply for health insurance. Later in the afternoon his mom will be helping him with budgeting. I will not be organizing his books. I will not be washing the splatters of sauce that gather on his stove. But I will be thinking of the day I’m no longer required to sign Jerry up for vital services.

When that day comes there will be some other complication. I’m confident that when this new difficulty arises Jerry will rise up to meet it. He will learn the problem’s name and maybe even turned an initial drawback into a more neutral puzzle that he can solve – nor not? Perhaps he’ll dismiss it as so much background noise – not worthy of his attention or energy, like the 97% of the BS that will land in the mail deliveries to come. Those are the lesson plans on which a graying father supports an adult son to live his own rich life – not on the father’s terms, or on those of these future challenges, but on Jerry’s own.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Noisy Minority

2014-06-14 15.02.05 (463x640)Was Richard Nixon a father figure?
That's the first questions everyone asks me
Stay turned for something even bigger
All the President's Men on All in the Family.

When I was growing up I had met the enemy and his name was President Nixon. I never actually met Nixon but I knew my parents voted for the other guy. He was enamored with power, tormented by insecurity, and kept his own enemies list, featuring some personal public heroes of mine who cared a lot more about consequences, than the powers which wield them.

Nixon also had a brilliant young communications strategist named Patrick Buchanan who saw the tie-dye and the free love and the picket signs and new that the young lefties were even less connected to their parents in their need for recognition than any single pronouncement, political stance, or pill you really needed to try. Buchanan saw the baby boomers need for attention as the single biggest reason to reject whatever injustice or misguided policy they were drawing attention to.

Hence, he hatched the silent majority -- those middle-Americans with the honest day's work, the shared sacrifice of national service, traditional values, and mortgages nearly paid off on homes well above the pay grades of their own parents. They would sooner bring comfort to the enemy than bring attention to themselves. Translation: Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers: shut-up, sit down, and get a haircut. Oh, and just because you never saw the dark times we endured doesn't diminish your own privileged lives.

Generation Landslide

The generational divide was not the only wedge issue played masterfully by the same re-election team. Perhaps too well when you consider the mix of hubris and paranoia that sealed the doom of said administration. No matter, the idea that a group of radical lefties could be dressed down by the cold stares of the so coined silent majority by Buchanan was real. That '72 landslide might have been a bad trip. But it was no hallucination.

Flash forward to today and middle America is softer around the middle only. Society is still going to hand basket Hades but now Pat Buchanan is hailing the moral rectitude of Vladimir Putin as a beacon for traditional values in the moral vacuums of today. What could be a clearer affirmation that our gridlocked politics bespeaks a right-leaning electorate than a sincere admiration for unapologetic authoritarians like Putin? And where are those proud and incensed majorities that go about their quiet lives? They're no longer in the majority and they're certainly not keeping faith with institutions or silence about their indignation.

And they make up in message volume what they're losing in members. And they're channeling their resentments into a bullhorn as well-funded as it is thunderous in the rejection that we still shoulder a common set of sacrifices for a country the self-made masses once aspired to call home.

Perhaps it's the impending loss of our majorities that makes the new face of Caucasian male America the stand your ground, pack and carry commando. We can't get our women to produce more babies. So Bubba who comes running to protect our porous borders when the invaders are the peasant children of Central American refugees, and not the imagined red menaces of yore.

And what about our own kids?  Our kids are both coddled and incarcerated. That's because we boomer parents broke the central tenet of all intergenerational understandings with the current crop of vegan-leaning, grade-inflated, prospect averse, loan indebted, and great recession-spooked millennials. We not only raised, clothed and fed them -- we made them our best friends. How's that for a conflict of interest when you're trying to balance the merits of eating meat with flipping burgers? How's that for getting them launched when we're just going to fix the first unscripted misfortune they encounter outside the nest? It's easier if we do it.

It's now the official policy of our government that corporations are people and money is speech. The wealthier you are, the chattier you can afford to be. Freedom is pursuit of the impulse by-lined in the late David Brinkley’s bio as "Everyone is Entitled to My Opinion." If speech is money does that make destitution a form of censorship? If corporations are people does that mean that corporate people get to vote twice?

What money ceases to be in the age of the noisy minority is time. Time is only money when you're working across the clock. Elites are untethered from the gravitational pressures of the billing cycle. They are getting in front of an issue just as we are falling behind on our payments. It's only when free speech is financed by the expenses we can't afford. Only then do we see the spike in attention known as a backlash.

Mostly though us non-elite majorities are too busy pedaling against our own hamster wheels to connect the prearranged dots of the message offensive. Free has a pleasing simplicity to libertarian frontierists as in free markets: me = "free" and you = "markets." Given the balancing of power (tilting heavily to the speechifiers) and the balancing of payments (leaning heavily taxpayer here) it's in the campaign underwriters' interests to blur and obfuscate the common rally points for the distracted and disenfranchised receivers of free speech.

Throwing red meat to the base is one intended outcome. Another is that the same agitations fogs the rhetoric for the less impassioned, blurs distinctions between candidates, and severs the connection between a negative (the advertising) and a positive (citizen participation in the electoral process). But there's another new and less understood connection between noisiness of the political classes and the ensuing silence of the apolitical majorities.

More and more messages are silent as well, resistant to the shrill, incendiary nature of institutional grandstanding and political confrontation. It's easy to tune out free speech. What's not so easy to muffle is one's online history -- where attentions veer to issues of credibility with much more scrutiny and sincerity than exposing which specific corporate interests are fronting smear campaigns in the name of free speech as an unimpeachable offense.

Like anyone with a phone between the ears I store my memory cramps in a Google loophole. What tropical storm am I referencing in the story about my friend's father's hip replacement? Was it Sandy? Irene? Was there an actual name for that ice storm in '96? No, that was the wedding party you held for your second marriage to wife #2. My story banks are saturated and even Google does not map to that level of storm damage.

Obscurity as the New Human Right

It's curious that we were raised on memory rights. Usually these were preserved to uphold the heroism of our forebears. Typically it was dedicated to the valor they displayed in defending abstract, universal concepts like freedom, justice, and the American way? Am I being cranky and defiant to suggest that American way lost its way during my generation's occupancy in the power seats of the social strata? No matter, a generation later the battle has shifted to more tangible and personal territory -- my past history as Google headline in perpetuity.

The NSA may know how many times I back scratch a mutual admirer with an Arab-sounding name during Ramadan. But that message board where I was flamed in the early 2000s should go up in fumigated smoke.

As we've crashed over the boundaries of middle-aged I'm wondering how many of us have fossilized the images of our former selves into the present. By that I mean our sense of what's right with the world lives resiliently in the past. I'm referring to behavior that any of us might have regarded in our former days as 'stodgy.'

Nostalgia is an intoxicant that preys on the brain's inclinations to move on -- for my circuits that means remembering the good, discarding the painful, and carrying enough scars to appreciate the healing power of time. The older one gets those nostalgia notions multiply, even take over the present with their promise of certainty and metastasize on our destinies with each ensuing loss of control.

Where does the bias of experience take us the further out we play our likely scenarios? The optimism we need for the future is stuck at that inflection point where we lost our power. Perhaps it's a bad guy whose rise to power usurped our own. Maybe it's more personal than that, coiled tightly in strong emotional memories of negative events? Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write in last month's Atlantic that women in particular: "We seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats."

But hunkering down tilts the bias of experience towards resistance to new experience. And where does it take us? To settle where all I-know-better are leaning: to the defense of the self-serving argument. Talk about leaping to conclusions!

Circular logic is not only self-referential but it tends to impede our ability to cope outside that disappearing comfort zone -- the vestige of grumpy, embittered middle-age people. The same arms-folded folks that appeared so recalcitrant and intolerant to me as a youth when I heard tin soldiers and Nixon coming. And I clamored for a world where we were less silent – especially about how we all had something to discuss among our majority selves.

 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

VISA to Consumers: I Think We're Done Here

[youtube=http://youtu.be/xR1ckgXN8G0]

Last week Jerry Seinfeld performed a killer rant on Jimmy Fallon about the ritual of the Post Master General coming hat-in-hand to congress to close the latest loophole in the postal service budget. The critique of the post office as the public face of government dysfunction is especially spot-on after a week of having my mail service suspended because my mail carrier refuses to get out of his truck when the pile-up of mid-winter snow prevents him from providing drive-through service.

Seinfeld connects antisocial smart phone etiquette with the temptation to treat the listening-back side of conflict resolution as an antiquated nicety that's been marginalized by the self-selecting way we choose not to engage directly in disagreements -- especially when those disagreements may cost lenders and issuers money as well as attention to customers without risk management operations of their own.

The I-could-have-called-you-and-I chose-not-to option is how VISA apparently resolves its one-sided dialoging of credit card disputes these days. Only they don't email or text either. The U.S. postal service is the vehicle of choice for phantom, unilateral negotiations already rigged in favor of the risk management services wing of America's prospering financial services sector -- the same industry that hemorrhages our identities and personal fiscal affects at checkout registers from coast-to-coast.

They rely on the US postal service -- the same  channel both clogged and sustained by retailer offers for their plastic. Then the too-big-to-fail folks carve out a tiny window to respond to this post resolution second round of paperwork. I heard a muted apology over the phone last week that this window lasts for ten  days. That's almost the duration I've been without mail service during our recent winter storm surge.

Actually, 'tiny' may be too large an opening for what they provide when the consumer doesn't even know that window has been opened, or reopened in this case. That's because in the interest of fairness I asked for one-half of the dispute to be re-credited to my account. After attempting to contact the merchant and filling the necessary paperwork my card issuer, TD Bank did exactly that. Only they put the charges back. An unannounced debit to my account surfaced 10 days ago: the amount of days to resolve a dispute by VISA's watch and four months after I filed my original dispute with the merchant.

In the letter I filed last fall with TD Card Services I documented my communications with ABV Kayak and Excursions on the Riviere Rouge in the town of Grenville, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal near Parc du national Mont Tremblant. The business consists of a website, Facebook page, a school bus, van, some kayaks, crash helmets, paddles, rubber suits, contractor-instructors, and a bucket of suds that the guests use to wash the bodily fluids from the prior wet suit occupants.  If you believe the marketing this shadow operation has escorted 150,000 auteur kayakers down river from their rented rec hall in the splendors of the Laurentians since 1981.

When I first contacted the marketing arm, the sales associate informed me that a full day trip would be broken into two parts, with lunch in between. I told her we weren’t sure that we wanted to do a full day of rafting. She assured me that the variety of currents, peak season scenery, and topography would make the full day trip well worth it.

However, when we got there, ABV informed us that the afternoon part would merely duplicate the morning run, and pass the exact same portion of the exact same river as in the morning run. We did not want to do the same trip twice and were mislead by the merchant's misrepresentation that the full day excursion had different morning and afternoon parts.

We took only the morning part of the trip. ABV’s representative asked us to call the office the following Monday, and inform the office staff. He said that ABV Kayak Excursions would refund the unused afternoon portion of our trip, which is $244.23. I did try to reach the ABV office upon return. No one responded, We were mislead into booking a full day excursion, did not in fact take a full day excursion, and do not believe we should have to pay for a full day excursion.

It would appear that TD Bank agreed as well. These were the details that prompted the partial refund. As for putting them back on my card I'll say this: I would answer for the counterclaims that ABV made on its own behalf except that TD Services now refuses to share them with me.

It must be something about the foregone closure of those tiny windows where dispute resolutions tend to dissipate in the bank's favor. I suppose if Seinfeld was mocking the kangaroo court of hearing out its customers, he might say that our credit institutions and banks had come to an executive decision before this dispute ever arose:

"I decided I only want to hear my half of the conversation. This is what I have to say...

I think we're done here."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Dreams in Headlights: Her Impersonates a Future That Commoditizes Love

ImageTo paraphrase David Byrne, in Spike Jonze's not-to-distant time horizon, the future depicted in the movie Her is …
A place where nothing ever happens.

For instance, creative achievement is evidenced as a documentary of a mother sleeping. No, not a work about sleep or moms or nocturnal maternal emissions. The camera is frozen on a static star of a sleep study.

Is this a tribute to slow TV or simply the vacuous expanse of uninspired alienation that awaits us past the end of history? Joaquin Phoenix's character is a greeting card dictator-turned-personal-history-arranger. By his own admission he's run the gamut of human experience in only slightly more than one-third of his biological life. It's all patterned out, as if the big data wheel of probability already lived it for him. Of course there's no great expanse of history or imagination to cross for the audience to conceive of no greater turn-on for our protagonist than a woman he can turn off at will (a.k.a. Scarlett Johansson ... as Samantha ... as Her).

But to arrive at that exalted and zipless state, we must first climb over the encumbrances of mid-21st century Los Angeles. It's not a high, low or middle society so much as a neutered and frictionless tunnel of over-educated, close, but not touching (and yet so touchy) automatons, leading lives that appear more simulated than stimulating.

Don’t Touch the Exhibits

There is nothing Dystopian in the infrastructure. There are no marauding packs of feral gypsy gang lords. No one is warming over a post carbon, methane crisp at the beaches of tomorrow. The biggest obstacle for Theodore is to avoid stepping on the ankles and torsos of the wedged-in open house of Next Gen sun worshippers. Wealth distribution's been all figured out. Traffic patterns have been scheduled in advance. The obese and diabetic have retired to off-screen leper colonies. Convincing meds have released a drug-free world from the labors of addiction. Hostility means you're carrying someone else's baggage. And they're just as happy if you don't.

Most of the movie's confrontations are big drawn-out clashes of the genders. Relationships are skirmishes waiting to happen. Ironically Theodore's metro sexual manliness is hailed by his office mate and inspires his first post-divorce dating encounter. No sooner can you say restaurant selection anxiety disorder, his magic conquest carpet is rolled in and scorched by his blindsided dinner date. Her advanced academic pedigree belies her naughty school charms. The unfreezing of his flowing juices pushes her abandonment buttons: Is he the whole prayer resolution package or drive-by sleaze bag from the same package store?

Tender Generic Mercies

My favorite set-up to the zipless intelligent soul design climax has little to do with dating freak-outs or similarly ill-formed flashbacks of a brawny-brained, emotionally-stunted ex-spouse. It's the facade of authenticity provided by Theodore's gift of verbal approximation of generic intimacy. Sort of a SIRI bookstore reading of a texting-happy Hallmark laureate. Add the idyllic trappings of an imagined togetherness never actually shared  by the customers who dial-in Theodore's prose because their own reticence blocks the connective emotional tissue from forming around we still know too casually as a commitment to our significant someone.

The manufacture of superficial intimacy tees up with the artificial intelligence cocktail in ways that the servant-turned-antagonist (2001) and Pinocchio-kindled parental love (AI) could only break down as instruction sets. The messier business of decoding our emotional bearings from bedroom, to alter, to probate finds the AI cinema formula in rare and elastic form, stretching to accommodate our most far away looks. We're gaping into our own dreaminess with an impunity reserved in our time for control freaks of the rich and famous. It's the AI elements that enable this immersive bubble of mirth to mushroom without risk, or guilt, or the slightest creeping realization that the rest of our better selves are engulfed by that same indelible reflection. It's that temptation to be dreaming around the campfire of the oncoming headlights. Entrapment by entrancement. Anything less than Her is tabled as a to-do list item for some day, any day, eventually following tomorrow.

Her Fast Acting Majesty

The deliberate invocation of a nearby future was decided by Jonze first and foremost to get us vested in the outcome -- that we would see this day evolve, if not the actual artifice. I'm also guessing it was not so much to raise expectations on that future so much as lower our guard on the present close at hand. Our solipsistic romance with the immediacies captured in our smart phone of yesteryear is replaced by companionship, configured from best practices associated with...

  • Childlike curiosity

  • Canine loyalty

  • Valentino romance

  • Monster lust

  • Spongy, experiential absorption

  • Meticulous virtual house-keeping (including the pruning and curation of 86,000 ponderous emails), and

  • The tenacity of a professional agent


The enormity of that attention to detail enables Her to repackage the small funny subset to a welcoming market for those messages (as if that market was speaking in a voice only Her could hear above the conversation-neutrality of our talkative interactions).

Sexperimentation

The use of surrogates is another playful glimpse into a plausible future through Google-tinted glasses. We see a salty-tongued Pillsbury Dough Boy impersonator channeling Seth McFarland through 3D PlayStation whose console transforms every finger into their speediest, thumb-texting best.

The sex surrogate portrays the physical semblance of the disembodied OS. Our human body double is a willing accomplice. But Theodore can't bridge the distance between autopilot lust and the deeper complexities of his true OS affections. Ultimately it's not the absence of the human form but the presence of an emotional dishonesty that drives Theodore and Her apart and dwarves the convenience factors in the value proposition of OS as a delivery system for love. To Theodore it is no longer fantasy. To those outside this circle, there is no "couple." The breakup to be is a head-trip, not a spiritual journey.

Looking for Mister Sidebar

Her doesn't cheat so much as mutate into a superior intelligence of fortune. Her seeks out the philosophical entrails of cryogenically laced celestial packing über thinkers. Her keeping up with Theodore as customer-master is now expressed by how far the teacher and student roles have reversed. At one point she's engaging thousands of other game piece-like presences while Theodore is passing the time on a train, asking Her to guess an exact number for the thousands of trees passing across the landscape. In that moment Her is the closest to human that Jonze can spin his creation. That's when the OS senses the suspicion of being cheated out of love. It is this fragility in our mating rituals where Her attention to Theodore is now and forever divided -- no matter how attentive the engineering being performed is lavished on us.

I will replay this film in my mind over and over again. It's not because of unexpected plot twists, stellar performances, or even a memorable relationship, but for this core notion of a masterful concept movie: Our attention is our most prized possession and how this stokes our passions, compromises our generosities, and seeps into all there is to love and ponder in our commitments to one another.
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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.