Homo homini rodentius est

A Ghost Story

hat better way to mark the Halloween season than with a good ghost story? Even better if it’s a true story, as this one is. Once upon a time, as they say, I had an aunt who liked to buy run-down old houses and fix them up. She and her husband would then use them as weekend and summer homes until she scouted out her next project candidate and then they would pack up, sell the house and start all over again. One of her houses was an old schoolhouse, built in 1815 but long since abandoned, that she found dilapidated and overgrown on the road that ran between Catskill and the neighboring town of Athens in upstate New York. It was available for taxes, so she bought it and set about making it into her dream cottage. In short order she had accomplished her project and the result was a very charming two-story two bedroom cottage that she was rightly proud of.

It wasn’t long after they moved in that people began noticing curious things about the house. Guests who stayed in the guest room would have their sleep interrupted by the clear sound of rapping in the wall behind the headboard of the bed. That was odd because it was an external wall, with no trees on the other side of it and no pipes running through it. But more disturbing still was the creaking of the stairs just outside the guest room. As one lay in the pitch dark the sound of the steps groaning and cracking would occur in sequence, as if someone or something was climbing the stairs. If that was not enough, after a while the sounds would decline in the opposite order, as though something was progressing back downstairs! I myself heard it and was petrified. My aunt, a devout Catholic, dismissed any suggestion that things were amiss by insisting that it was merely the warming and cooling of air rising from the furnace in the cellar beneath the stairs that was causing the noises and their weird progression. But, as time and events played out, her faith in rational explanations was sorely tested and, eventually, failed her utterly.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fire Drill

We’re all gamblers in various ways — betting against the house when it comes to smoking, or overeating or, in my case, delaying purchase of renter’s insurance while being positively petrified of a fire breaking out in my building. Well, after years of sitting bolt upright in bed every time a fire truck turns onto my street, last night it finally happened. They stopped out front and a phalanx of firemen came barreling into my building, boot buckles clinking and oxygen tanks clanking and shouting at the top of their lungs that they had to get into an apartment 3 floors above mine. Strangely enough, after years of expecting utter self-dissolution at the prospect of imminent immolation, I reacted perfectly calmly. I got up, got dressed, collected my financial documents and placed them in a backpack along with the external hard drive from my computer that holds about 100,000 files pretty much containing the digital representation of my life for the past 15 years. Then I looked around my apartment and thought of what else could not afford to be lost. Almost without having to think I settled on 3 items: a stack of hand-written journals that I’ve kept since I was 18, a small porcelain doll that my mother treasured as a child in Ireland and one of the few things she was able to pass along to me at her death and a white clay pipe of my grandfather’s that had been passed on to her. That’s all.

The fire turned out to be a minor event, quickly extinguished by the firemen who clomped out of the building about 20 minutes after they showed up. When it was over and I was unpacking the backpack I was a bit amazed that the most valuable items that had emerged from decades of living were a few artifacts of identity — physical traces of myself and those who came before me. Talismans. What had been mere sentimental mementos minutes earlier were revealed, in the moment of crisis, to be absolutely essential. I wouldn’t have guessed it.

Could Al Gore crush Hillary? Well, obviously.

Last prayer, or fat chance?

Al Gore, having won an Emmy, an Oscar and now the Nobel Peace Prize, is on a roll. There’s just one prize left that many would like to see him claim that has eluded him — one that he came within a hanging chad’s breadth of receiving in 2000. It’s a sign not only of his popularity but also of the rising sense of panic among Democrats that they seem destined for a ticket headed by Hillary Clinton. The [grumblings] in the lefty media about how to stop our gal from Illinois Arkansas New York began about the time that wunderkind Barack Obama started showing [signs of flagging] in his media-fueled race for the nomination. Suddenly [stories] about the nascent Draft Gore movement increased in frequency and, now with the Nobel win, have reached a fevered pace. CNN [reports] on the pressure on him to join the race (including a hilarious quote from Jimmy Carter, who has been badgering him for so long on the issue that Gore finally had to ask Carter to stop calling his house), while the Washington Post [raises questions] about whether he could successfully raise enough money this late in the primary run-up. That would certainly be a significant obstacle to overcome were he to decide to join the race, but I think there’s an even bigger factor weighing against him, so to speak: he’s too fat to be president.

The Presidential Body Mass Index (PBMI)

[Click to view] chart of US presidents ranked according to their Body Mass Index

Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Google’s News, and don’t you forget it.

There have been a few times when, in perusing the Google News site, it has appeared to me that stories that show their main competitor, Microsoft, in a bad light get prominent coverage, but good news not as much. Yesterday settled any doubts I had about the objectivity of that exercise in New Media: on a day when Microsoft made a very significant announcement about the launch of their health care initiative, HealthVault, there was nary a mention of it on Google News. I checked throughout the day and it never showed up. Not in the Sci/Tech section. Not in the Health section. Not even in the Business section. Could the Microsoft news blackout on Google News have anything to do with the fact that Google is also developing a product to manage consumer health information, though [not as successfully] as Microsoft?

[Link] that opens a new window with archive of Google News from yesterday.

Clicking the image link to the right will bring up an archived view of what Google News was publishing at about 6:30pm yesterday when I got home from work. This is at a point in the day when many people go looking for news and when it should be clear what the most important news stories of the day are — but there’s nothing about HealthVault. It can’t be that the information wasn’t “news worthy”, because the New York Times featured the launch prominently on their site. Prominent tech sites like [TechCrunch] covered it. In fact, using another news aggregator (that is not in direct competition with Microsoft), Techmeme, we can look back at [an archived view] of that site at 6pm yesterday and the prominence of the Microsoft announcement is apparent. [According to Google], “Our articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online. As a result, stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology and you can choose from a wide variety of perspectives on any given story”. Without regard to political viewpoint or ideology. They don’t say anything about regard to Google’s PR. This is not merely a curious glitch in the vaunted computer algorithms — it is, I suspect, evidence that news selections that appear on the Google News page are subject to some very old-fashioned human filtering.

Things like this should be enough to put a cork in some of the more [hyperbolic] New Media [bloviators] who constantly herald the death of traditional media forms while touting the virtues of “Web 2.0” bounders. With Asperger-like devotion to all things algorithmic and inhuman, they conveniently overlook the fact that it has taken generations to build trustworthy journalistic institutions where objectivity — if not perfectly met — is at least aspired to and professional standards include more than merely serving the bottom-line. When it comes to the commercial takeover of the Net, we are subject to upstarts who care little about time-tested standards. Their standards are profit-making and self-serving PR and information is merely the means to those ends.

Don’t be evil. Yeah, got it.

iPhucked: Apple advocates face an angry god

Not so Precious? Apple fanboys feel the pain.

In the world of marketing, the most valuable customer — the holy grail — is the customer who becomes an advocate for the brand. They are literally worth their weight in gold or, to be more accurate, saved marketing costs. Not only are they locked into your product(s), saving costs that might have been spent on retention programs, but they do the heavy lifting of brand building by energetically recommending your wares to their friends via face-to-face and, in an ever more connected world, online interactions. Apple has been masterful at turning legions of their customers into advocates by creating an aesthetic ecosystem that their customers move into and inhabit. Part of the appeal of that aesthetic has been its adherence to design integrity — to the point of accepting niche status in a market of commoditized digital products in order to maintain total control of quality. Purchase of an Apple product bought one admission into a walled garden. As with any exclusive club, one couldn’t enjoy every benefit available to the throngs outside the enclave. No matter — choice is, by its nature, deeply antithetical to a rigorous adherence to design. Everything was going fine until the unheard of happened: Apple products became popular…

Read the rest of this entry »

« Previous Entries   Next Entries »