Premium Problem

I recently saw a billboard for a local State Farm agent. It had a tag line:

“Premium Service without Premium Price”

  • Does that mean the insurance is free?
  • Can I get the service without paying any premiums at all?
  • Did someone in the marketing department just have a pun backfire?

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, insurance, marketing, State Farm[/tags]

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Smarter Running

{{myquote|If you’re running life like it’s a race, you might just finish before everyone else.}}

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Another Ride at the Lazy-J Ranch

In the old West, the word “Lazy” in a brand referred to the italic case. Since most common folk didn’t have access to Adobe Printshop and weren’t conversant in fonts, this was the common parlance to refer to those letters with a slant.

I wish I had a “Lazy-J” branding iron like this one. I’d forever mark those news outlets that use shortcuts and supposition to feed their audience a perspective that is less reflective of reality than we deserve.

Remember the rant from last Friday about how ABC squeezed out a “gasoline-thefts-are-up” story that had no merit and no backing evidence? And I related how often producers would sit on “sexy” interviews and video waiting for the news peg?

Well, Harry Forbes highlights another way journalists can be lazy: want ads for victims. He’s got several examples, I will only steal two:

Hard economic times and spring break
Are hard economic times forcing you to forgo Disneyworld with your kids this spring break? Please tell us about your closer-to-home spring break plans. Send emails to [email protected]

Own an SUV?
As gas prices rise, the value of SUVs is dropping. We’re looking for SUV owners who’ve found the trade-in value of their SUV is less than expected. E-mail [email protected] to discuss.

Just cook up a story you want to tell, and advertise for the human you need for those all important “personal details.” Maybe the cowboys had it right… if your “J” is too lazy, it does end up with a slant.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, journalism[/tags]

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Fuming Mad

Gas prices are up. Yes. But manufacturing a story about an increase in gasoline theft has me fuming at my former profession. This morning, it just happens to be focused on Good Morning America’s Bianna Golodryga and her producers. Lazy, lazy, lazy all the way around.

I’m fishing for a transcript right now, but the gist of the story is:

  • Gas prices are up.
  • Some people leave without paying
  • Some people are siphoning fuel.
  • You should get a locking gas cap, $15.

What is spurring this sudden trend? Why, the media! “Gasoline theft” is poised to be the Shark Attack story of the summer. A story that carries great anecdotal weight, but is statistically numb.

Nowhere in the GMA piece did they cite statistics. What they did manage to find was a tearful grandmother who was interviewed through a crack in her front door, who was caught driving off without paying. Nine times, in the last couple of months.

Running On Empty

Yes, that was a powerful and emotional interview — all four seconds of it that I saw. She really seemed remorseful. Although I’m willing to bet she’s even more remorseful now that the “crack-in-the-door” interview she did with her local affiliate got kicked up to run across the nation. Television storytelling relies on emotion and visual impact. You can’t really tell a story like this one without that personal touch — but this piece is running on empty, empty journalistic calories. The “personal story” should be something that provides a slice of life, a perspective that reinforces the trend. I can tell you that 3,000 people evacuated a neighborhood, and then concentrate on how it affected a couple of those people in human ways. That’s powerful, and a good use of the medium. Giving you the human part with no statistical context is irresponsible.

This story on GMA was driven by a story that ran in a local market somewhere… and that story only made air because of that interview with the grandmother. We have no proof that gas drive-offs are more prevalent, but a broadcast journalist needs a hook (or “news peg”) to hang that story on.

Carjacking the Agenda

In searching for some evidence online, I found a couple of interesting links. This from Reuters:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. motorists, angered by soaring gasoline prices, are resorting increasingly to theft — a trend that could worsen heading into summer driving season, a national association of fuel retailers said Thursday.

“It is getting bad. When the price of gasoline goes up, the number of drive-offs goes up,” said Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, which represents about 8,000 retailers.

So, the Petroleum Marketers Association is weighing in, providing us with the perspective that as prices rise, so does attempted thefts. Why do you think the PMAA might be making itself available for interviews at this particular time?

Gilligan said that some state fuel dealer associations were pressing lawmakers to make it easier to prosecute motorists who fill up and then drive off without paying, while many service stations were starting to require payment up front.

Oh, so they are lobbying for legislation! Read the article, and tell me if you can find any evidence that gas drive-offs are up.

Low-Octane Truth

So where do we get the notion that gas theft is up? I found another resource, this time a fact sheet from the NACS, the Association for Convenience and Petroleum Retailing. (Yes, I realize that it spells A-C-P-R instead of N-A-C-S, but NACS was originally founded as the National Association of Convenience Stores.) According to the NACS:

Nationwide, in 2007, gasoline theft cost the industry $134 million, a sharp decline from the $300 million reported in 2005 and the $237 million reported in 2004. (Theft totalled $122 million in 2006.)

We don’t have any data for 2008, but we’re supposed to extrapolate from this data that we’re going to have a huge year for theft? Even though 2007 was way down from 2004 and 2005? Bear in mind that the dollar-figure for theft is also affected by the price. So a pre-Katrina total of $237,000,000 in 2004 took place when regular unleaded was less than $2.00/gallon. (Great interactive chart here.)

The NACS does provide some context as to why thefts might be down, even if the temptation to steal might be up:

The problem of gasoline theft would have been even greater since September 2005 if so many retailers hadn’t begun to mandate prepay in after Hurricane Katrina when gasoline prices reached record levels of $3.06 per gallon, and when gasoline prices again topped $3 per gallon in every year since then.

So thefts are down because gas stations now won’t even turn on the pump for you until you swipe a card or go inside the store to prepay. And they’ve been doing it this way for more than two-and-a-half years.

Sucking on Fumes

ABC News, like many many other outlets that I did not watch nor will see, is guilty of lazy journalism. There is no news value in the story I saw today, other than the vague notion that I might be able to find YouTube videos of people showing me how to illegally siphon gas out of someone else’s tank. Gas thefts have been drastically down for two years because of retail policy changes, even with higher prices. We don’t have any real peg here, other than from a lobbying group that wants tougher state penalties, and stands to gain from a general public perception that this is indeed a growing problem.

In retrospect, I have no clue how long ago grandma cried to the camera. My gut (and inside knowledge of how the sausage of news is processed) tells me that the Grandma interview has been sitting on the shelf for a couple of weeks at least. It’s not even “new.” (Again, just my supposition.) My gut tells me that some hotshot producer has had that tape sitting on his desk for a couple of weeks, just waiting for enough of a gas-related news-peg to justify dusting it off and putting it on national television. So much of modern news is driven from press releases, and the truth suffers along with us.

The only surprise is that I was not able to readily find a news release from a manufacturer of locking gas caps.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, news, journalism, gasoline, crime, ABC News, Bianna Golodryga, marketing, PR[/tags]

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Language and Mashups

besuboru

(Note: the audio below complements, but does not replicate the content of this entry)

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Freakonomics.

If you’re an American and you look at best-seller lists, you know what it is.

If you’re an American and you don’t read, you still have a chance to glean the meaning, because we do rely quite a bit on a linguistic creature known as a portmanteau (or a Frankenword, to give and example that is also a description.) Even the orange/apple on the cover is a visual representation of a portmanteau!

I got to thinking about this because of a couple of terms coined by a fellow communicator in Prague, Adam Daniel Mezei. A Canadian emigré, he strolls the streets of his new home and observes the people. Some he diagnoses with a malady called Ostrich Creep; other suffer from malignant Cobblestone Gaze. Which also got me to thinking — aside from the cultural references that might be lost in translation — what would those terms look like in Czech? Or in any other of a number of languages?

I remember the French had a rather awkward way of referring to what we now call Reaganomics: l’économie de Reagan. Doesn’t that just roll off the tongue? But what about other mashed-up words that take new meaning or direction? There would be no Greenmail if there were no Blackmail. There’s an entire generation of American voters that don’t know the Watergate was a hotel, they just know that putting -gate on the end of something makes it scandalous.

Context from Collision

Striking again on my theme that the interesting things in the world happen at the intersections of disciplines, there’s a certain economy that comes from having a language that is flexible enough to survive linguistic collisions. Smashing words together creates a shorthand that communicates a brand new concept. As a non-Czech speaker, I can only take Adam’s word that it is a beautiful language, but does the syntax lend itself to mashing and portmanteaus?

I’m not asking Adam in advance, but I’ll venture to say there is not. Although European history is rampant with wars, trade, and other sources of cultural friction, my guess is ethnic nationalism has gotten in the way of such verbal gymnastics. While there are enough common root words in the Romance languages, the concept of taking another nation’s term would be a form of submission and concession. That’s a totally different vibe from the United States, where there has been far more ethnic and cultural sharing – more collisions that required a resolution.

I’ll also take a cue from Adam himself — that the dominant language of business and growth in Prague is now English, and there are only 20-million Czech speakers in the world. That being the case, it’s easier to import the words with the concepts rather than mix-and-match. I doubt there is a Czech version of “Spanglish” (yet another portmanteau.)

The Old Boru Gemu

If you want an example of wholesale importation, the Japanese have done it. Look at the list of Japanese words to describe the very American sport of baseball. Read them phonetically, and see how they’ve been adopted wholesale:

  • batta: batter
  • batta bokkusu: batters box
  • besuboru: baseball
  • chenji appu: change-up pitch
  • daburu pure: double play
  • fensu: fence
  • furu besu: full bases; bases loaded
  • furu kaunto: full count.
  • homuran: home run
  • pinchi hitta: pinch hitter
  • pinchi ranna: pinch runner
  • pitcha: pitcher
  • pitchingu sutaffu: pitching staff
  • ririfu pitcha: relief pitcher
  • rukii: rookie
  • suitchi hitta: switch hitter

…and that’s just a fraction of the list!

Word Power

Many people like to say America’s strength is a function of its diversity. I think there may be merit to that thought, but lost in the big concept is a key effect: diversity has given us a language that makes it easier to communicate complex thoughts in a quick way. Additionally, those concepts – through the portmanteau – are more likely to become accepted as words in their own right. It’s easier to build on those blocks when there is a foundation of common meaning. “The Economics of Reagan” isn’t as fluid as Reaganomics, and may refer to an entire set of policies that aren’t at the heart of the commonly-understood supply-side components.

That has me worried about any movement that celebrates separatism.  Diversity means a mixing, matching, and melding.  Some use diversity as a shield, demanding we “respect” their language and culture and dispense with any ideals of inclusion.  (This coming from the ugly American with two semesters of college Spanglish on his transcript.)

It already takes years for a word to be accepted into an official lexicon. A nation or a people that is more resistant to outside linguistic influences will likely not be as fluid in growing the language with a similar pace. And a language that lacks the “hooks” for easy concept-mashing acts as a brake on progress when it comes to developing those thoughts at the intersections.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Adam Daniel Mezei, language, baseball[/tags]

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An Unlikely Return Home

Thanks again for everyone who has sent prayers and good wishes to my cousin Billy. If you haven’t been following, Billy was dead to me for about two hours on a Sunday last month. We got a call that he’d collapsed and died at home in California. Apparently, the paramedics were able to revive him on the obligatory ride to the emergency room, and it’s been up and down ever since.

My Uncle Bill (Billy’s father) now reports the following:

I called Patrick this morning to see if he had any info on Bill’s status and when Bill would be scheduled for surgery. To my surprise, Bill answered the phone. The doctor released him from the hospital this morning and he was very happy. He was playing with his dog and soaking up the sun. Some friends from work had called…

He will meet with the surgeon next week and thinks the surgery will be the following week. I will provide an update later.

For those keeping score at home:

Now, he’s home. He’s relaxing, and waiting for his surgery. Go figure.

Go Billy!
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR[/tags]

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The End of Identity Politics

clinton

(Note: the I don’t write about politics very often, for very good reasons. As you will find, however, this is not a purely political piece. Nor is it partisan.)

On this particular day, with the most gorgeous weather imaginable for an Earth Day, the eyes of the nation will turn to Pennsylvania. For weeks, the electorate has been starved for real political combat. Non-issues have filled the time, but that will soon give way to the next chapter in the lazy horse-race election coverage once we start getting some exit poll numbers.

In the hours leading up to this “historic primary vote,” Senator Clinton responded to a question from Ann Curry of the Today Show, about whether she felt the playing field was not level for a female candidate:

“I don’t know if I’d call it unlevel. I just think that it’s never been done before. Nobody knows quite how to cover a woman running for president. We’ve never had someone get this close. And it is like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: you know, I have to do everything Fred does, only backwards and in high heels. The most pervasive form of discrimination in the world, no matter what the ethnicity, the race, the religion of the people who live in any society, is discrimination against women.”

Some may take pieces of this quote out of context — and clearly the senator states up front that she would not go so far as to say the field is “not level.” But the very division going on within the Democratic Party comes about not because of who the contenders are, but who they aren’t.

Identity Trumps All

The concept of “identity politics” is a few decades old. The term was meant to describe the means by which various oppressed groups could better leverage power by acting in the best interest of the group instead of furthering the progress of individuals. More than a simple voting-bloc strategy, it is a commitment to elevate that characteristic to the fore (identity.) Absent is any notion of individual buy-in. Members of an aggrieved group – because they share the same defining pain and struggle against tyranny – must also share in the same vision for triumph. Simply put, there is no decision to “join” a cause. You are a part of the struggle by virtue of your defining trait. And since others are making it a top priority to fight for your best interest, any deviation is nothing less than traitorous.

The application of identity politics in American culture has been haphazard at best, leading us to a present day conundrum: in the Democratic primary, what does your vote truly reveal?

Both Senators Clinton and Obama have been tip-toeing around the Identity Grenade with the stealth of a child who wants to be seen avoiding the cookie jar while swallowing a mouthful of crumbs. The ludicrous paradox that we face is in choosing how we as a society will offend: do we vote for Clinton because we are racists, or for Obama because we are sexists? Replace either candidate with a white male, and suddenly those questions are not only no longer ludicrous, they are an effective rallying cry. In the general election, one of those candidates will be replaced by a white male, and a Republican one at that! And somehow, I predict that rallying cry will rise up again.

Today, in Pennsylvania, voters who heard the Ann Curry interview are walking in with a subliminal thought that Clinton has a tougher fight because she’s a woman. Not in the general election, but in the primary. Clinton, in a back-handed fashion, has introduced the concept that voters in the Democratic Primary are more sexist than racist. Senator Obama, to his credit, has essentially done the same, with a passive-aggressive nod that Democrats are more racist than sexist. “You may not be familiar with how we worship in black congregations,” he intoned. He wasn’t talking about white Republicans in that statement.

Again, nothing overt, but it’s out there.

And this wasn’t a post about politics.

The True Melting Pot

The paradox of Identity Politics is best described in those hypothetical questions that reporters pose to African-American women: which candidate are you for? You can only be for one, so which is it?

For too long, we’ve been a country where – if you listened to popular culture or our dominant media – you could only belong in one bucket. Sure, there has always been that rather large slice of “undecideds” and independents out there, but they are often portrayed as politically naive, uninformed, or disengaged.

The real truth is that independents aren’t wanting to lock themselves into a box. And “undecideds” are actually quite decisive about issues that are important to them, but they haven’t yet figured out which candidate or party meshes best with the amalgam of opinions they cherish.

Now think about the change in the dominant paradigm of sorting…

It’s In the Cards

When records were stored on paper, it was very important to keep all of that paper sorted in easy to find. Ideally, you have it all in one place. The Sears Tower, in Chicago, was designed to be a central repository for all of the records of Sears & Roebuck. Files that now would fit an a rather unassuming rack, or maybe three or four racks dispersed among different and redundant locations. If you had a single record, it went into a single file. You can’t keep copies of the file floating around, because one might get updated and leave the other inaccurate or incomplete. The File Drawer was the dominant paradigm in search. One place to find everything.

In our school libraries, we had those nice card stacks with the Dewey Decimal System. We had three concurrent files going on – one for Author, one for Title, and one for Subject. When a record needed to be updated, you had to go to three individual stacks and manually retrieve the cards. Maintaining sortable information in another area, like Date of Publishing, would require yet another file catalog. Relationships and correlations we might find interesting today would have meant the razing of entire forests to provide card drawers and cards. All because each entry has to be in one place.

There is a fundamental shift in our information sorting that I predict will have a huge impact on our political process.

Tax Issues

The process of sorting and cataloging has a name: taxonomy. (The same root word as taxidermist, which literally means “arranging of skin.”) In the internet age where there is more information than anyone could possibly want, finding interesting things is more important than knowing where they already are. After all, when I want to get information about the Byzantine Emperors, I don’t physically “check out” the single copy of the record and move it to my computer. I can look at it simultaneously with as many people as the web server and bandwidth will allow. I don’t have to make a copy of it, because that URL (Universal Resource Locator) will always tell me where it is.

If one copy can be seen anytime and anywhere, then it doesn’t need to exist in just one physical place. And neither do the people who interact with that file. If I want to make a change from here, you don’t have to come to my computer to see the edit.

Lost in the Trees

This radically changes the paradigm we’ve been accustomed to with our home computers. I can’t tell you how many friends and relatives drive me crazy with their folders all over the desktop. With no organization to those folders, you have to memorize where they all are. The natural step, which I use at home, is to start putting folders within folders. For instance, I have a main folder called “Internet and Browsers” that has all program files that deal with the web. I have another one called “Media” that covers digital media – and within that are subfolders for “Music/Audio,” “Video,” and “Images/Photos.”

Naturally, this makes perfect sense to me but confuses the heck out of my wife. (I did all this without permission, and never got around to setting up individual profiles on the PC, so she’s stuck with my changes. Sorry, dear.) Periodically, I have to walk her thorough a menu tree to find the program she needs – and I find at times that my system breaks down. For instance, what would you do with Picasa? It’s clearly a photo-cataloging and image manipulation program, but it also uploads to the internet. What about Windows Media Player 11, which handles both Audio and Video? How do I resolve where in the forest these programs belong, when they can rightfully be placed in a number of trees?

Tag. You’re It.

The solution is the best of both worlds. I can add tags. Tags are common descriptors that classify and describe an object without defining the object. I no longer have to choose one folder! Wherever the program or file physically resides, I can find it by searching for the tags associated with it. If you want, you can think of each index of tags as a “virtual folder,” such that you can follow any of the paths and find what you want. I can now find Picasa by following the Images tag, the Photo tag, or the Internet tag.

If you’ve been using GMail, then you’ve been playing with a version of tags. The Labels allow you to describe messages and conversations, and you can give each one as many as you’d like. (Google’s search algorithm actually goes you one better — it essentially turns every word in your email into a “tag”, even the misspelled ones, and crunches that into a index.) Now I don’t have to make a fateful decision about the final resting place for things on my computer, because tags let me define them according to the complexity and completeness they deserve.

A New Political Dimension

…which brings me back to politics. Identity Politics is predicated on the notion that people with a particular trait owe an allegiance to the rest of those sharing the trait. You are in our bucket, and you can’t leave. It even extends to partisan identity. If you are a Republican, then you must believe in A, B, C, and D; and never F or G. As a faithful Democrat, X, Y, and Z are assumed, and Q and V are grounds for psychological evaluation or treatment.

One party. One bucket. Except now the technology with which we interface on a daily basis is abusing this one-bucket notion. A generation that thinks intuitively in terms of Tags and multiple taxonomies will be ready to break this stranglehold. Political parties aren’t going anywhere, but they will be forced to compete for our attention and allegiance at the candidate level, not at the top-down platform level. A generation that thinks in terms of Tags will classify candidates across the spectrum of real issues, and may never get around to attaching the labels that carry “empty calories”: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, conservative, liberal…

Instead of tabulating the votes and position statements to come up with a “scorecard,” we’d simply look at each issue for what it is. And we’d be more inclined to vote our convictions and self-interests because the diminishing of the “big-bucket label” takes away the power to cower us into voting against our conscience “for the good of the group.” Our Identity will once again be as an individual, and not a function of birth, genes, or other factors outside our control.

The internet is changing things – not so much by what it contains, but rather by how it frees us from the artificial containers we’ve used to store our collective knowledge.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, internet, politics, identity politics, taxonomy[/tags]

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