Sunday, December 30, 2007

Public Consciousness of Mid-1840s

In the past two weeks, I have been reading a couple of books written during the mid-1840s. Either one taken alone tells you what one author was thinking. Taken together, however, you start to get a sense of the public zeitgeist, if you will.

Take one sentiment on profit for the sake of profit.

Writing in Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
"I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched" (p. 28).
Compare that with what Karl Marx said in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
"The the advance made by human labor in converting the product of nature into the manufactured product of nature increases, not the wages of labor, but in part the number of profitable capitals, and in part the size of every subsequent capital in comparison with the foregoing" (p. 39).
These two authors have been widely read throughout history. If you read both works, you will find a number of similarities between them. For Thoreau, he wanted to "simplify" his life, and this individual simplification was the suggestion. For Marx, societal simplification was the path to equality.

It interests me that the public consciousness -- on both sides of the Atlantic -- included a frustration with runaway profit motives. Yet in America this seems to have fallen by the wayside. No profit is big enough.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Things I Miss About the Education Beat

Yesterday I remarked to a new acquaintance that I missed the education/health care beat at the Las Cruces Sun-News.

She asked what I missed.

Here's a slightly edited version of what I wrote:
  • Mostly, I miss my editor, Harold Cousland. He died in 2001, unfortunately. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a first editor like Harold. He was positive and supportive. He was a great teacher. Harold hired me when I really needed a job in Las Cruces. I started with then cops reporter Keith Allen, and we became friends. Keith now edits the Sierra Vista Herald. Maybe he's looking for an education reporter.
  • I miss the beat. I think the education/health care beat is the best in Las Cruces. City and county are awful because of [redacted to avoid libel], and I don't have the temperament to be a cops reporter. Because Cruces is growing, it is fun to cover education. ... Contrast that to Manhattan, Kan., where I got my master's degree. They were voting on which schools to shut down. That's more painful.
  • I miss sitting in a boring ass school board meeting staring at an agenda wondering how in the hell I was going to find something about which to write. Then all of a sudden someone mentions that the new block scheduling at LCHS made it so not all of the kids could sit down at lunch. I wrote a little story, and controversy erupted. You feel like the Fourth Estate on those days.
  • I miss the elementary school physical education teacher about whom I wrote a feature story. He changed lives. Same with the alternative high school teacher who made history come alive. Meeting those people inspired me.
  • I miss sitting across from Mike Scanlon. He was a good mentor. I miss Frances and -- sadly I forget her name but can vividly see her face -- gossiping about obits and Sound Off.
  • I miss the Organs and the sun. I miss feeling like I made a difference. I miss covering the health care problems of rural Hispanics. I miss driving to Sunland Park to cover some arbitrary thing that wasn't on my beat.
  • I miss Ruth Padilla (long gone) from Memorial Medical Center. Whenever I flaked off a whole day and lost a story or whatever, I could always call Ruth at 3 p.m. and say "I need a story," and she'd have something respectably newsworthy.
  • And although it was later on the sports beat, I miss the LCHS girls soccer team. One of those players from 1998 inspired me so much, we named a daughter after her, and we're still in contact today. She's teaching English in Spain right now.
  • I miss walking up the street to eat lunch at that little hamburger place, which was new then. I miss the Corner Deli.
  • I miss saying things like "never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel."
  • I don't miss Safeway, working Christmas, or making $9.72 an hour. I don't miss memos about avoiding overtime, and I don't miss Charles Brunt trying to make me write a story about the teen dance club [I won and never sat foot in that place]. I don't miss corporate henchmen coming to town. I don't miss the weird upstairs men's room.
  • And the green chile. I really miss the green chile.
  • But, mostly I miss the good times. And we had some good times.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dictionary

UPDATED 6:16 p.m., two typos fixed: Note to self, if you write about copy editing or dictionaries, proofread really carefully.

I don't have many prized possessions. Actually, to be truthful, I don't have many unprized possessions. I am a pack rat of the first rank.

Among the myriad junk that I have collected over the years, however, a few things stand out.

It may be silly, but one of these things is my Webster's New World College Dictionary, third edition.

My copy turned 10 years old yesterday. It was a Christmas present from my parents in 1997. Luckily, I had the foresight to jot that down on the inside cover at the time. Otherwise I might have forgotten.

December 1997 was an exciting time. I was one semester away from graduation from New Mexico State University, and I had just learned that the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund had selected me as a summer 1997 intern.

Dow Jones is a very competitive internship, and I wanted it badly. Moreover, my Dow Jones internship had a Bay Area tie -- and I was in love with the Bay Area (I still am). First, I would train for two weeks at San José State University, and then I would work the summer at The Modesto Bee as a copy editor.

And to be a copy editor, you needed a dictionary. Not just any dictionary, mind you. You needed the dictionary. You couldn't have one editor spell the world "traveler" with one "l" and the next spell it "traveller." You needed a uniform tie-breaker. (My dictionary prefers the single "l").

First we turn to the Associated Press Stylebook. That was our bible. I miss it, really. I used to know that thing inside and out. When the new edition came out while I worked at the Albuquerque Journal, I went through it entry by entry charting the changes. We distributed the list in the newsroom. I think that I still have a copy somewhere. Anyway, I digress.

The Stylebook covered a lot of ground. But it did not cover all of the ground. And when it fell short, the Stylebook pointed to Webster's New World College Dictionary, third edition, or as we called it NW3.

Since I was going to be a "big boy" journalist in a few weeks, I needed a "big boy" dictionary. Before I had time to buy one myself, my parents gave me this one for Christmas in 1997.

The dictionary that you see above finished out the year at NMSU's student newspaper, The Round Up. It made the road trip to San José. It spent 10 weeks at The Bee. Then it road tripped back to Las Cruces, where it sat on my desk as a reporter and then sports editor. Then it moved with us to Albuquerque. And I won't bore you with all the trips that it made through graduate school. However, it is bicoastal, having lived in both California and New York. Here it sits today in the middle, Texas.

Late in the evening of Christmas Eve this year, I was sitting beside the fireplace reading Walden, which I of course should have read many, many years ago. On my lap was NW3, as the 1840s Thoreau tends to use words not used today. And while I scanned that dictionary, somehow a spark went off in my mind.

And all of a sudden I stopped. Looked up the way you do when you're scanning memory, and I thought "I think this dictionary is 10 years old."

So I flipped to the inside cover, and sure enough in my embarrassingly childlike handwriting was "12/25/97." In a couple of hours, NW3 would indeed turn 10.

I am sure that a lot of dictionaries are given. And I am sure that a lot of dictionaries are begrudgingly received. Perhaps none was so welcomely received as this one. It's been a real friend during this past decade -- a better friend indeed than several humans who would label themselves as such.

There's a new edition out now. Maybe two. I need to buy the new one. Words change. Languages are alive, after all.

But don't worry. NW3's not going anywhere. Sure, the cover is held on by duct tape. Sure, the corners of the pages are discolored by thousands of searches. But this dictionary is like part of the family. And it will always remind me of a time marked by boundless optimism.

Thanks for the dictionary, mom and dad. As presents go, it was tops.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some Thoughts on Mr. Gates

Updated 6:59 p.m.: Copy cleaned up.

Time marches onward, and ideas percolate in the brain.

I try to never pass up a chance to hear someone interesting, because one never knows when a seemingly tangential comment will become a seed crystal in the mind fostering many new and wonderful thoughts. [Thanks to Robert M. Pirsig for this analogy].

This happened a few weeks ago during a faculty development workshop on book publishing hosted by Don Jugenheimer, Ph.D., chairman of the advertising department at Tech. During that workshop, we started talking about self-publishing books, specifically print-on-demand.

This got me thinking about gate keeping, the mass communications tenet the suggests that a piece of information must pass through several gates before it is ultimately published or broadcast.

I used to be a gate keeper when I worked in journalism. As sports editor, I used to make the decision about what stories made it in the paper and which did not. As an education and health care reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News, I used to decide what got covered on my beat.

To be sure, my city editor had a hand in this -- especially when it came to big stories. But in the day-to-day operation of the beat, I decided what was a story and what was not.

In one of the landmark academic studies on gatekeeping published in Journalism Quarterly in 1949, David Manning White outlined "The 'Gate Keeper': A case study in the selection of news."
Manning writes, "It is a well known fact in individual psychology that people tend to perceive as true only those happenings which fit into their own beliefs concerning what is likely to happen. It begins to appear (if Mr. Gates is a fair representative of his class) that in his position as 'gate keeper' the newspaper sees to it (even though he may never be consciously aware of it) that the community shall hear as a fact only those events which the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be true" (p. 390).
The problem is that I don't like -- and don't trust -- gates. In this space, I have complained about the peer-review system, which is the most substantial gate in academic thought (read here, here, here, here, and here). And, you see, I am just totally over it.

In part, some of our problem is being productive. We crank out a lot of research, so we get a lot of reviews back. And with few exceptions, they tend to contain the same unhelpful comments. You can see the gate, but it's a largely irrelevant gate, yet nonetheless you reshape your work to fit through the gate.

And I'm over it.

But I'm not even tenured yet. And the problem is not that I don't have a lot of things to say -- I do -- but I am tired of reshaping my thoughts in ways that are not helpful.

In my career, I have worked most often with a particular journal editor. This editor is very helpful, and s/he represents that way that the gate was intended to function. But journal articles have to be spread around, so we don't get the good fortune of right-minded editing very often. Choosing reviewers is, in my opinion, the most important thing that an editor does. And it is a rare skill.

With new media -- for lack of a better term -- things are changing. But slowly. I could, for example, make a PDF of our research and publish the results here exclusively. Google is probably a better search engine than the academic searches that I use anyway, so that might even be an improvement.

The problem is credibility. The name atop a publication lends some credibility to the information contained therein. And that is important. If everyone starts publishing, then it becomes a caveat emptor world of information to the highest degree. I keep my job because of my publishing record. The chief academic officer at Tech need not know communications research to evaluate my tenure case, as he (in this case) can look at objective rankings of the journals in which I publish.

For all the trials and tribulations of peer review, it does have its benefits. Our 2004 publication in the Journal of Consumer Psychology is a prime example. Then-editor Robert Wyer helped a lot in making our ideas worth reading. Although it was painful at the time, I am very thankful for his help in advancing our ideas.

But that represents the minority of cases. I cannot point you to a piece that represents the opposite because unhelpful reviews do not lead to publication. Often they lead to you revising an idea so greatly that it no longer resembles itself. In this case, one is often forced to scrap the revisions and revert to the original since the manuscript is now alien to its former self. This is the case with our recent publication in the Journal of Advertising [PDF not ready yet; in December 2007 issue]. In the meantime, it took the data more than 3 years to see the light of day.

So we are left with a system that marginally works some of the time. And it works
slowly such that ideas often take at least 18 months to make it into print. And that is wrong, and it must change.

Books -- the particular form of mass communications that got me thinking of this topic in the first place -- are no better.

My recently oft-quoted Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has sold millions of copies and is touted as the best selling book on philosophy of all time. A huge success, right? Consider the following quotation from Pirsig:
Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn't be discouraged.
Here we see the case where 121 gate keepers failed, and the 122nd grossly underestimated the situation. How many other great ideas in history remained locked in the desk drawer while other drivel saw the bookshelf simple because it was likely to make a profit?

We must do better.

As I see it right now, I think the following dual-route system of publishing is in the correct direction. First, we need a rapid dispatch system of publishing. We need to get ideas out there. Therefore, I think that scholars should publish on Web sites. And they need to do it quickly.

The simplest way to do this would be to make PDFs of accepted conference papers. We submitted our American Academy of Advertising papers on Oct. 1. All three were accepted. I have know that for more than a week. By now, I could have incorporated suggested revisions and published the papers. So if you were working on a similar idea, you could learn from our mistakes ... or hopefully our good ideas.

This leaves some gate keeper in place. There is some check on credibility, and you still have to present your ideas in a public forum.

Now, what we currently do is try to revise that conference paper into a journal article. Often my lab combines conference papers into multi-experiment journal articles. This slows down the dissemination of information greatly. Think glacial pace.

Instead, I propose allowing the conference papers to stand for themselves. Leave the PDFs on your Web site, and allow the search engines to index them. All of this information would then be free to libraries. Taxpayers pay for this research, and now it would be accessible to them. If the academic conferences would agree to any standard form of publishing their program (think table of contents), the search engines could double check that the papers were actually presented.

For the second step, I suggest moving toward the print on demand technology. Write a book. Synthesize. I think this is what scholarship is about. If you've been programmatic about your work, then you will have something to say in a book. If you have done nothing but an unconnected series of studies, then you have nothing to say.

And a synthesized book would provide a great introduction to a subject matter. They could be used as textbooks and introductions. A book would also allow a researcher to go back and correct things and update information. I remember early on in my career in studying with Annie Lang of Indiana, I had written an entire paper predicated on one of her earlier papers.

When I gave it to her to review, she wrote in the margins that they had never replicated that individual finding. Oops. My bad. But the traditional publishing model does not allow for this. A journal article is concrete in time even as theories march on.

I suggest print on demand books because I don't want to simply relocate the gate keeper. Moreover, traditional publishing is about profit, and scholarship should not be about profit. In the case of book writing, we allow for a marketplace of ideas in the truest sense of the word.

This system creates a problem of separating the wheat from the chaff. I admit that this is a problem. In terms of sheer volume, we would have a genuine problem for the young scholar. There might be too many voices. How do you find out what is good?

I see one immediate way to help rectify this problem. Instead of publishing conference papers, we could create a system of peer reviewers within academic societies. In this case, an administrator (rather than an editor) could recruit reviewers of "raw" papers. These reviews would provide feedback to the author(s) but would not serve as a gate. If there is a fundamental disagreement between author and reviewer, the reviewer would have the chance to publish a counterpoint.

This would be akin to a dissent in a judicial opinion. Or the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which invites open commentary. If we largely eschew the journal process, scholars will have time to do such reviews (instead of journal reviews), which are more meaningful since you would have the chance to comment back. Instead of trying to persuade an author in a double-blind way to make changes, you could add an open commentary that says, "The authors used solid methodology, and there is much to like in this study. However, I believe that these results are more parsimoniously explained by Theory X."

And again the marketplace of ideas will be at work. Time may well show that one of the peer commentaries will become the more influential piece of scholarship.

This would solve the problem of information credibility for the first step, but we still have the problem of books. A primary problem here would be copy editing, and this expense would have to come out-of-pocket from the author(s). However, I spend a couple of hundred dollars each year in journal subscriptions, and I could easily transfer this to editing.

Thus, although the books are printed on demand, I believe that the front matter of the book should have a certificate of copy editing. Technical writing companies could provide this service. In any case, the author could opt out, but you, the reader, would know that it had not been edited if there was no certificate.

For a second step, I would invite peer commentary. You could invite experts in the field, and perhaps there could be some sort of forum to post notice of publication. Would-be reviewers would have the chance for open commentary. Some sort of arbitration committee would be needed in the case that an open commentary were completely hostile. Again, academic societies could step in here.

Give these ideas a thought, and please post a comment. I would love to know what you think. I know that we need to change. And the ideas that I have expressed here seem -- in some sense -- to be a step in the right direction.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

See Airplanes Land on Google Maps

How cool is this? A satellite just happened to catch a jet landing at Sky Harbor International Airport (where I used to work) in Phoenix.

Thanks to Roger Verschraegen, who pointed out a similar shot at the Frankfurt airport. That one is much cooler because successive images got the 747 taking off from Frankfurt three times.

Check out "Frankfurt airport" on Google maps and then scroll to the right (east of the airport) to see the Lufthansa 747 take off.

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Would Aristotle Have Had a Blog?

I'm just saying, that's all.

First, are there any great thinkers any more? Are there any great ideas left?

Second, if there are any great thinkers around, do they spend time on new pursuits, such as Weblogs?

If he were alive today, would Aristotle have had a blog?

This is a small part of my current curiosity on gate-keeping, which will be the subject of a forthcoming blog post.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Whopper Freakout Buzz Short-lived

Trend search from shows that the blogger buzz behind Whopper freakout was short-lived.

For a day, I, too, thought it was interesting.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sorry I've Been Out of Touch

Riley. Awwwww.
There's a new baby around, after all.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

An Inquiry into What Is Not Right

Perhaps the greatest part of the college experience is being required to take a wide variety of classes. This is the so-called liberal arts education, and it is what separates the university experience from a vocational-technical college.

Sometime from 1991-1992 (I am too unmotivated to hunt for transcripts now), I sat in a Sociology 101 classroom at Paradise Valley Community College. One of the first things that the instructor wrote on the board was "the mores can make anything right."

Intellectually, this really wasn't where I was at in 1991-1992. There was a lot that I didn't like about that class. In hindsight, I probably didn't like that the class made me think thoughts that I wasn't ready to think. That was probably the point.

At any rate, if you look back through the recorded history of the human experience, you can find seemingly endless examples of atrocious behavior (by today's standards) that were well accepted at the time. The mores did make it right.

Years later I was sitting in a graduate psycholinguistics class at Kansas State University. We talked about the given-new contract. This "contract" represents a tacit agreement between speakers (or writers) and comprehenders that stipulates that already known information (i.e., given information) precedes unknown information (i.e., new information). So, something like:

"Given that you know X, you will be able to understand Y."

If speakers do not abide by this contract, then the new information is difficult to understand.

This current post is a bit of a microcosm. I'm getting at a point (trust me), but I cannot just blurt it out. Instead I must set it up.

So, just as our mores can make anything right or wrong, the given-new contract provides a way to set up discourse to expect only certain new information.

Although it is not directly analogous, consider the question: "When did you stop beating your wife?"

Given that question, it is very difficult to introduce any new information that isn't damning.

Later, I had a conversation about the structure of sentences. Just as the mores can sneak a seemingly reprehensible practice into the collective consciousness, sentence structure can sneak information into a conversation. Consider this sentence.

"Politician Joe Schmedly, an opponent of civil rights, introduced a new bill on Friday."

The idea is that the parenthetical phrase "an opponent of civil rights" is relatively less questioned in its current form.

That is, if you had simply said "Joe Schmedly is an opponent of civil rights," then you likely would have been questioned. In that case, it's similar to a mathematical equation. You can -- even should -- question the contents on either side of the equals sign.

Simple mathematical equations do not have parenthetical phrases. But sentences do. So if you sneak "an opponent of civil rights" in the middle, people tend to look at the subject of the sentence, "Schmedly," and the verb phrase "introduced a new bill on Friday," and people think about the relationship between those two. And you tend not to question the parenthetical phrase.

I don't have any data on this, but I am sure that some exist somewhere. I'm not suggesting that the parenthetical phrase becomes a magic bullet of persuasion, but rather, all other things being equal, that information will be relatively less questioned.

A few years after that conversation, I was sitting in a philosophy of science class at Indiana University talking about Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I won't try to do complete justice to Kuhn here, but I will offer an approximation.

In the scientific method, one needs to isolate and control almost everything. Then, slowly, deliberately, and logically, you begin to test things. You must test a single thing at a time if you have any hope at addressing causation.

For example, if you simultaneously change the temperature of the flame and the altitude of the kitchen, how can you hope to say anything meaningful about how long it takes water to boil?

So you proceed slowly. But if you really tested everything, then you would never make any progress. There's just too many things. So you assume some things. You assume them and test the others. But almost no one ever tests the assumptions. We just go on assuming them. And a lot of baggage builds up behind the assumptions over time. (Although it is not germane to today's topic, Kuhn argued that every so often the entire thing comes down like a house of cards and starts somewhat anew).

The mores make anything right because they are pervasive. They are like air. You don't see it. You grow up in a culture, and you hear people talk about things even before you can talk. And about some things -- the mores -- there is never question. There are only declarative statements. Just as the given part of the given-new contract, the mores get built in to the foundation. And you breath them. And they are a part of you. And they are invisible. And you might question them if ever it occurred to you, but it doesn't come up. So you march onward.

Which leads us to the idea behind all of this. Given all of that, it nonetheless deeply troubles me that some things slip through the public zeitgeist. I understand much about the undercurrents of power and authority. Yet the treatment of one human by another human has so often been deplorable.

Sometime after midnight last night I finished reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, one of the best gifts that I have ever received.

You should read it, so I won't spoil the facts. However, a central theme is predicated upon the use of electric shock therapy in the treatment of mental illness. And in this sense, I am talking about severe electric shock -- the kind that destroys much about human memory. The kind that changes an entire person so much that Pirsig talks about the before and after as different people. And I wonder:

How in the hell was that ever OK?

You see, I do know something about this. I've read a lot about the work of Scoville and Milner (1957). I know about their patient, H.M. I know the dangers of unchecked epilepsy. One of the journal articles that I've most often read is titled Retrograde amnesia following electroconvulsive therapy (1976). I know that the history of medical treatment is filled with radically foolish and sometimes inhuman (in hindsight) treatments. But sometimes bad stuff such as ECT is needed.

And maybe I read One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest a little too closely. And maybe I watched the recent episode of Cold Case on this topic (Episode No. 102, Boy Crazy) too closely.

But it's not just fiction. It's real. Read A Beautiful Mind and you'll see. Not the fictional film adaptation but the fact-based book. Mental hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s were not places to get especially well.

And, again, it's none of the stuff about which we talked above. It is this almost megalomaniac attitude of mental health professionals that ever made massive doses of involuntary electric shock therapy OK.

I understand the mores, the given- new idea, and assumptions in science. Still, I keep coming back to the idea, "how was this ever OK?"

Early in my life -- and many times since -- my dad has talked about one of his core principles. It is Libertarian in nature, and I am unsure of the exact original source and citation. But my dad always said something analogous to, "you have the right to do anything you want as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others."

It's a pretty good principle. It's one, I hope, that would never have permitted massive doses of involuntary electroconvulsive therapy.

I spoke last week of being effective. Today's post is an extension of those ideas fused with Pirsig's ideas. To adapt another's language, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

We cured polio. We have indoor plumbing. We have automatic paper towel dispensers (a personal favorite). And all of those things are great. But along the way, we picked up some bad habits, too. And those bad habits are part of the mores, so they don't much get questioned. And if you do question them, you somehow seem like the hippies living in trees at UC-Berkeley.

My grandfather drove a truck for Sinclair refinery. You worked until the work was done. Many days he worked until 10 p.m. Saturday, too. There was no such thing as 8-to-5. He also had a family farm. So he'd get up and milk the cows before he went to work. There was work to do when he came home, too.

And most of us would wilt under that kind of pressure today. And we look back and say that was horrible. And not much of a life. But is the 40-hour week just an extension to a lesser degree? Will my kids be working 32 hours a week and thinking that I had a terrible life putting in overtime at the Sun-News?

It's hard to say today. But I think it's interesting that we rarely talk about it. We don't think about it. We accept it. And some days I wonder whether the time clock is all that different than electrodes placed upon the temples with current flowing. I just wonder. I'm not overthrowing the assumptions, mind you. I'm just asking about them.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

News Story on Our Political Ads Research

The local Fox News affiliate came by the lab on Friday to do a story about an article we have appearing in the December 2007 Journal of Advertising.

The research was done with James R. Angelini, of the University of Delaware, and Sungkyoung Lee, of Indiana University.

You can read a news release about the research at the Texas Tech Web site.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Make Mine a Whopper

I know I preach against the dangers for the quintuple stacker, but this campaign struck me as clever. Other people, too, since the video is sloooooow after the national ad in Survivor China.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When People Don't Get My Love of Mountains

Perhaps my favorite place on Earth ... I don't get them.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

No Child Ever Dreams of Growing Up Effective

A photo of Blue Lagoon, near the Bahamas, some time in the late 1980s. Thanks to my dad for finding the picture for me. Sadly, I read today that due to a massive storm in 1991, the island no longer looks like this.

I often think of the book title, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

I've never actually read the book, mind you. Perhaps that is why I'm not as effective as I could be. But the book makes me think: Is life actually about being effective?

Look at it this way: You're born and then sometime later you die. Is the meaning of life really about making those times in the middle effective?

Closer to the dawn of human existence, we had to spend most of our waking hours looking for food. If you weren't effective, you died.

Along the way, we've made some progress. Well, in terms of food production, we have made some progress.

It no longer takes all day just to stave off death from starvation. When I drive through Kansas, I occasionally see a sign that reads, "The average Kansas farmer feeds 23 people [exact number escapes memory] and YOU!"

So the question becomes: "What are the 24 of us doing with our spare time since we're not farming?"

I mean, we could sit around Blue Lagoon Island soaking up the sun and waves. Really, I've been there. It beats whatever you are going to do today. By a lot.

But we don't do that. And that fascinates me.

We live in a modern society. We work 5 days a week and relax for 2. Think of the 1980s Loverboy song lyrics, Everybody's working for the weekend. We work for the weekend as if the entire notion of a weekend were not just a human creation.

And it's not to eat ... of even for shelter. We work and work and work to consume. Gadgets. Toys. Joneses with whom to be kept up.

And somehow along the way, I think that we missed the point. I have the distinct feeling that we're all rushing around so much, that in essence, we're just rushing around to our own deaths.

Is the meaning of life really "effectiveness?" Is it really "time management?"

Somehow that just feels wrong to me.

And the thing is, it seems pretty easy not to question it. It's the received view.

And collectivism might work pretty well at some small monastery in Tibet, but it has not proven particularly joyous on a large scale. So are we doomed to this fate simply because there happen to be 6 billion of us tromping around? After the industrial revolution and the information society, are there no go backs?

I don't pretend to have any answers. And perhaps these are just the miscellaneous of ramblings of someone who grew up going to a private school in the middle of the Material Girl 1980s. When one of your friends gets a BMW for their 14th birthday [not a typo], it does tend to color your view of reality.

In the end, I think back to that Kansas farm sign. It seems perhaps that the 24 of us are not making very good choices what to do with our days.

There should be a lot more reading by the pool.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

OK, So Maybe Lubbock Is Good for Walking

All right. So Lubbock is barely within 500 miles of one of the nation's top outdoors places to live.

Today has a story on "Metropolitan areas ranked for walkability."

Maybe Lubbock is on that list. I like to walk, after all.

No such luck. I've plotted the top 15 here. The closest is Denver, a short 546 mile drive.

Young professionals ... are driving a national trend toward more walkable communities, says the author of a report to be released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not looking for reasons to besmirch the Hub City. But CNN keeps posting these stories, and I am a curious person. And sadly, Lubbock is seldom on the list. Unless the list is of dry counties.

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Intersection: Media, Hispanics, Diabetes

From "DDB Begins McSkillet Campaign" on

NEW YORK Jack cheeses, red and green peppers, onions and salsa are now on McDonald's morning menu. Looking to grow its already dominant presence in the profitable breakfast category, McDonald's unveiled the McSkillet Burrito.

The product, priced at $2.49, launches nationwide today [November 27, 2007]. Three TV spots begin airing tonight. The spots play up the McSkillet Burrito's savory ingredients as well as the portability benefit of burritos.

Spanish-language ads will also air. "Tortilla-based products have a particular appeal for our Hispanic customers and they are very important to [our business]," said [CMO Bill] Lamar.

Lovely. A quick check of the nutrition facts show that one sausage McSkillet Burrito has 610 calories and 36 grams of fat. That equals 59% of your recommended daily fat intake and 69% of your recommended daily saturated fat intake (14 grams). Also -- just for fun -- 137% of your recommended daily cholesterol.

And we wonder why people are beginning to call obesity and diabetes a health epidemic.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Outdoors: Why a Good Life Is Not Perfect

I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions. Nonetheless, my 1998 New Year's Resolution was to spend more time outdoors.

Progress has been slight.

Today on, I saw America's 10 Best Outdoor Towns.

The story says:
In choosing the “101 Best Outdoor Towns: Unspoiled Places to Visit, Live & Play” (The Countryman Press, 2007), authors Sarah Tuff and Greg Melville researched access to national and state parks, major bodies of water, hiking and mountain biking trails, and ski and snowboard terrain; population; affordability; and such downtown resources as gear shops, brewpubs and coffee houses.

Thinking back to my almost decade-old resolution, I surmised that life would be better if I lived in/near/within the same time zone of one of these places.

So I decided to plot them out. Thanks, Google Maps! You can see these places in red (which in hindsight was a poor color choice). You can see Lubbock in green (again, an ironic choice for Lubbock).

You will notice that the green point actually appears to repel the red points. Except for marginally Salida, Colorado.

Hmmm. Maybe next summer it will be time to fire up the ol' minivan -- the ultimate outdoor vehicle, of course -- and head northwest. We're only 493 miles away. Since I cannot "live" in one of these places, I will have to "visit" and "play."

I wonder what the wife will say.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Advertisers Target, Close Grip on YOU

I suppose that we have two choices, really.

At one extreme, we can move to Tibet or Montana. We can buy a manual typewriter and begin our lives off the grid.

Or we can succumb to the grid. If you think about it long enough, you'll realize that the grid is not all that different than the Matrix.

If you're reading this, you're on the grid. And if you're on the grid, someone is tracking your movements. They know where you are, where you've been, and where you are likely to go.

When I teach about database marketing in the principles of advertising class, students often are amazed at how much information the grid knows about them. The grid is getting more clever, too.

In an Associated Press story this morning on titled "Ad targeting improves as Web sites track consumer habits," I have learned some new tricks of the grid.

If I use a commercial search engine to look for a restaurant, then it is most likely that I live close to that restaurant. As I search for several businesses in the same vicinity, then it becomes pretty easy to figure out about where I live. Then all of a sudden, the ads in my Web browser start to target to me.

Your opinions about this can range from "clever marketing" to "totalitarian Amerika takeover." The truth, as usual, is likely somewhere in between.

Next year, I intend to travel to Canada. So I might start searching things about Canadian cities. Based upon that, the search engines can learn that I live in Texas and want to travel to Canada. Now I start seeing ads for plane fares between Texas and Canada. Cool or chilling?

Allow me to digress for a moment.

My wife and I quasi-recently saw the movie Wild Hogs (which we loved, by the way -- see a review here). Now, I am not a motorcycle person. But I was curious about a few things after seeing the movie, so I did some Googling.

For the next two weeks, one of the technology-related Web sites that I visit had nothing but Harley-Davidson banner ads. I found that really curious. Coincidental? Perhaps.

And here's the biggest problem. Right now, I am writing to you on Blogger, which is owned by Google. So right there in the upper right corner of the screen is my e-mail address. Google need not guess who I am based upon restaurant searches (had to look up the address of Schlotsky's on Friday) because it knows exactly who I am.

So just a minute ago, I had to look up the Web address for Harley-Davidson to include the link. I opened up a new browser window and punched in "". What do you think was in the upper right corner of the Google screen? My e-mail address!

I used to wonder why Google allowed me to blog for free. No longer.

Allow me to digress once again.

For the past few weeks, I have been thinking that I should eventually return to the Apple Macintosh platform. I cannot tell you exactly why I have been thinking that, but I have. There are lots of reasons, of course. There are also lots of reasons to stay PC -- how I love thee, MATLAB. But I have had this growing feeling that eventually I will switch back.

Returning to the story that started this all, the advertisements on my page are all about Macintosh's new OS X Leopard software.

Coincidence? Probably. But I'll never know. And I'll wonder.

But is it bad?

I am pretty agnostic about this. As I said, I am interested in the Mac these days. So if I have to suffer through an advertisement, it might as well be for something relevant to me. That seems good, I think.

There also seems to be some safety in numbers. Sure, the database marketing companies know a lot about me. Sure, my TiVo sells me out every night while I am sleeping. But seriously, there are 300,000,000 of us. Who really cares what I -- as me -- am doing?

And mostly I am pretty comfortable with this. But I did see Amerika in 1987, so it does freak me out just a little bit. Because if someone did want to know, they probably could.

There's a lot of wiretapping and such going around these days. Our distance from the former East German Secret Police seems only a difference in degree rather than a distance in kind. Having the records, after all, is a necessary first step in misusing them.

If you'll excuse me now, I need to go search for a cabin in Montana ... just not online.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Report: Future Generations Learn English

The immigration debate is contentious in this country today.

One of the things that has surprised me is the visceral reaction toward would-be Americans who have not learned English. I would be less surprised if more Americans spoke a second language. Thus, their argument has always struck me as a "do as I say and not as I do argument" if only for the fact that is very difficult for older people to learn a second language.

Having taken linguistics courses and having friends who are linguists, the data have always suggested that this is a moot point if one accounts for time. All existing data show that subsequent generations have no problem learning English, this trend continues, and the original native language is soon lost among future generations.

That is, without any policies or hate speech, the "hated" original language is lost on subsequent generations. With a widely spoken world language, such as Spanish, the language lives on elsewhere. The far more tragic case is when a language dies out and is lost when no native speakers remain (e.g., as is the case with several Native American languages).

New data from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center and reported in the New York Times offers more data supporting this hypothesis.

Among the first generation in America, only 23% speak English well. However, that number rises to 88% among the second generation and 94% of the third generation.

Patience pays off. By the third generation, the native language has all but disappeared.

Communication is a basic part of the human experience. Although there surely are some immigrants who want a "Great Wall of China" exclusionary boundary around their native language, most yearn to communicate in their new land. This is exceedingly difficult for most older members of the first generation who never attempted to learn a second language as a young person.

But for subsequent generations, it seems almost automatic.

To me, this is not a political issue. It's simply a matter of looking at the data.

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