Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What I Saw in Israel Nine Months Ago

Given the ever-saddening situation unfolding in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, I thought I'd dig out my March, 2008 editorial about what I called the broken promise land. You can't post a Facebook update about Israel, much less an editorial in the HuffPo, without getting people fired up on both sides. Israel—and you could easily argue, Jews—inspire a passionate discourse. Much of it based in fair dialogue and debate. But, unfortunately, some is couched in a disdain for any Zionist position, no matter how moderate. And some of it is outright antisemitic.

I was fresh from my trip in March of this year when I wrote the piece. While in the country, it was also a time of building tension, with rockets coming from Hamas into Israeli neighborhoods. And near the end of my trip, in retaliation for the 100+ victims of the IDF's strikes in Gaza, a young Palestinian man walked into a Jerusalem Yeshiva and shot eight students dead.

I've refined and nuanced some of my thoughts and views since my visit and this piece. But overall, it sums up both my attraction to the region, as well as the complexities of appreciating the many sides of the age-old conflict and its modern incarnation.

Here is the piece, as it appeared on the Huffington Post.

The gallery of my photos from the trip is here.


Above: East Jerusalem boys avoid a security patrol, March 2008 (photo: Raymond L Roker)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Red Alert: Russian Predicts the Demise of the U.S. in 2010

From the Wall Street Journal — MOSCOW -- For a decade, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting the U.S. will fall apart in 2010. For most of that time, he admits, few took his argument -- that an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S. -- very seriously. Now he's found an eager audience: Russian state media . . .

"There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," he says. "One could rejoice in that process," he adds, poker-faced. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario -- for Russia." Though Russia would become more powerful on the global stage, he says, its economy would suffer because it currently depends heavily on the dollar and on trade with the U.S.

Check the story.

The one good piece of news, Panarin predicts that the Russians could annex Alaska and I'd just assume they'd have a job for Gov. Sarah Palin.

Friday, December 26, 2008

War with the Soup Nazis

OK, so they're not really Nazis. Don't sue me for hyperbole.

But the American Family Association (if you must go to their site) has got their grandma sized panties in a bunch over Campbell's Soup's recent ads in The Advocate. The full page advertisement depicts a lesbian couple and their son in the kitchen—I know, I know, I was as shocked as you. The couple are actually two New York restaurant entrepreneurs. In any event, the AFA would like Campbell's to stop, "pushing the gay agenda." Yes, folks, the gay agenda has now moved to soup. When will this madness end?

Campbell's was steadfast in support of the ad and future ones with The Advocate, stating, "Inclusion and diversity play an important role in our business, and that fact is reflected in our marketing plan. For more than a century, people from all walks for life have enjoyed Campbell's products, and we will continue to try to communicate in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them."

Normally, I don't go out of my way to defend massive food corporations, being that I avoid meat (besides seafood) and think factory farming and industrial farming is a scourge on our ecosystem and pointlessly cruel. That said, it's great to see such an Americana brand standing tall against intolerance and bigotry, even when it's just over soup.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What the Hell is Angry Black Bitch?

Angry Black Bitch. Honestly, I have no idea what this blog is even about (I'm gonna assume there's this black bitch, and she's, well, peeved), but the name is fucking great. Just to show the power of branding your blog properly, I am posting this site solely because of its marquee. The theme seems to have worked for the excellent Angry Asian Man and other declarative ethnic sites.

Cutting Off the Long Tail

A few years ago, I bought my entire staff copies of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Hyperion), by Wired mag's star editor Chris Anderson. No doubt in my mind that it was the new, new gospel, at least according to the algorithmic tea leaves of the World Wide Web. Anderson's premise was pretty simple: The Web's limitless shelf space allowed even the most obscure product to be distributed to millions, so long as it could somehow be accessed online. The hard wired retail realities of brick and mortar (what happened to that term?) didn't apply to the virtual mile-long aisles of Amazon, iTunes and Netflix. The long tail meant you could finally find a vast audience for your 1978 Peter Frampton memorabilia tour poster archive or Icelandic dark metal releases.

It was one of those theories that clearly seemed to be playing out, with music and consumption seemingly powered more by the collective niche, rather than the lowest common denominator muck that filled the airwaves and stores. Clearly, our tastes—dramatically amplified by Google's ability to bring anything we imagined to our browser—had broadened to include everything under the sun. iTunes showed us our strange tastes and penchant for digging out '60s film scores wasn't a wasted effort. And Apple made a few cents off of a customer that would never have set foot in a Walmart looking for the same track.

But like any good best-seller declaration, somebody has to come along and shit on it (just ask The Tipping Point's Malcolm Gladwell who has to deal with pesky arguments like this). Anderson himself is seasoned enough to anticipate the critics. Fair enough, I guess, I suppose there is a long tail of opinions too, right? Anyway, I came across an article today that questions the real power and prominence of Anderson's theory and illustrates a vital piece of the whole equation that is usually missing: mass is still needed to drive niche markets. In other words, without the traffic and content harnessing power of drivers like Amazon and Google, there is no true strength in the niche, especially when it comes to moving product.

"What most people did not realize is that the value of the 'long tail' was only to those who aggregated it. Google lives off the long tail of web pages; by having more of the web than anyone else available for search meant that everyone went to them to search, which in turn meant big dollars for Google. Amazon took the same approach, expanding their catalog and enabling third-parties to sell to their audience, allowing them to benefit from the long tail of books and other media that were out there, even if only a few people were looking for them. But the owners of that website on rare South American sports paraphernalia, or the sellers of the cult classic novel? They are just a small piece of the aggregated pie."

This is good news for the major labels, who pump out massive hits that sit like royalty on top of the bell curve while boutique artists languish in the low end of the tail somewhere. This is how the old machinery is built—pump it out and they will come en mass. But those of us who believe that we have a stake in this economy, as purveyors of select (or just plain weird) content and commodities, want and need a long(er) tail. And there's nothing in this recent data that should deter you from opening your own digital storefront in the virtual sticks. But it does come down to the ability to corral enough attention by using big boy channels (the formerly mentioned Amazon, iTunes, et al) to funnel consumers your way. Just something to remember before you quit your job and pray your new online-only album sales are enough to pay down your student loans.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The True Cost of Old Media's Demise

Much has been said about the death of print, which in recent months has felt more foreboding than ever for media folks. Even if you don't ingest the daily obituaries of the media world's slow and steady loss of titles, brands and marquees, you can't have missed the somber cries from the world of print. The biggest newspapers in the country, and many smaller ones, all have a cloud of death above them, or at best, the promise of a gradual and undignified demise. For somebody that still considers ink on paper—and more importantly, the journalism that usually accompanies it—a beautiful technology, it's been straight depressing.

But what gets obscured when all the talk is just about how poor the old model performs these days, and how great the digital revolution has been to citizen journalism and the flow of opinions, is that real investigative writing takes money, time and infrastructure. Without the traditional news organizations and even the upstart alternative ones, a lot of stories can easily go un- or under reported. David Carr's excellent piece in The New York Times reminded me of the loss we all potentially face.

Carr gives a great example of Newark's Star-Ledger, a daily paper covering one of the most corrupt cities in the country, and how its staff of reporters is diminishing dramatically. Say what you will about bloated staffs and an industry correction, but I want to know that my hometown paper is keeping politicians, the police and others in check. Carr sites Google's CEO Eric Schmidt declaring at the recent American Magazine Conference that the Internet without serious journalism is nothing more than a "cesspool" of useless information. (Ironic given Google's on and off again battles with media companies over rights and reproductions).

But the loss of real reporting may be the collateral consequence if newspapers and their companies shrink to fit the new media economy. Just today, in my local LA Weekly, I came across a 1/2 page story on the city's new "gang czar," a subject I'd heard only a little about in recent months but one important to every Angeleno. Had it not been for the dogged Weekly reporters, and their counterparts in the LA-area media, this type of reporting could start to wane. Even the Huffington Post's enormous unpaid posse of bloggers (of which I'm one) isn't going to get the access or the budget to stay on a complicated and slippery story like this. In fact, my quick search on the HuffPo came up with exactly zero articles on LA's Gang Reduction and Youth Development (aka, the gang czar) task force director the Rev. Jeff Carr.

Listen, I want my digital media as much as the next person. And I don't sympathize with these behemoth institutions who, for way too long, failed to evolve and anticipate this day. The Daily Beast's Tina Brown calls the recent fallout, "a volcanic realignment that’s overdue." And, much like political campaigns, I believe that media has been corrupted by dollars, sponsors and opinion polling so that what's left is too often not the news we need. But even with all the failings of newspapers and news magazines, it's their reporting, digging, fact-finding and long form journalism that we all depend on. Or, more ominously, what we'd surely miss if it were gone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Our Person of the Year: Shepard Fairey

Time magazine made an easy decision picking president-elect Barack Obama for their 2008 Person of the Year issue. For you, your mom (hopefully), co-workers and friends, there was no question as to who this was going to be. But the iconic image that Time chose for the cover was not another ear-to-ear smiling Obama, but instead an updated version of Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous campaign portrait of the next president.

A couple years ago, Fairey was just the near-legendary darling of the the graffiti and Banksy crowd. His hand-to-hand viral sticker and poster campaigns had helped to bring the graffiti ethos to graphic design . . . and vice versa. Fairey had become the hero of thousands of street artists and pixel worshiping nerds. But even though his imagery were everywhere from movie posters to freeway signs, the last place I expected to see one was on a presidential campaign poster.

In 2007, though, Fairey produced what went on to be the most famous presidential image since "I Like Ike" or Nixon's "V" fingers. Not initially warmed to by the campaign, the red and blue silhouette of a hopeful Barack Obama wormed its way into the iconography of the Obama movement and never left. Pretty soon, the campaign, like Time, had an easy decision to make as well.

Few could discount the recent run Shepard's having, from being a GQ Man of the Year to being mentioned by Rick Stengel, Managing Editor of Time, on Charlie Rose. Next stop for Fairey is, of course, Washington D.C., where he and Yosi Sergant will head up the second installment of the Manifest Hope Gallery. Manifest Hope is a collection of Obama-inspired artwork, last on display in Denver, during the DNC.

My photographs from the Denver DNC and Manifest Hope Gallery

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fred Armisen Kills as NY Governor Patterson on SNL

The real governor

Fred Armisen's Obama is getting better with each episode and now he proves his black face comedy isn't just a fluke. As legally-blind governor David Patterson, he killed it on Saturday Night Live last night. Nailing the Gov for his comical unpreparedness and cocaine use, the skit was totally hilarious.

Here is a longer clip where the governor comes back onto the set and fumbles around while Amy Poehler bids SNL and its audience farewell as she does her last Weekend Update.

Update: Not everybody found the skit funny.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Silicon Alley Insider's Top Web Videos of 2008

Silicon Alley Insider, an online source for all things in the digital space, just released their Top Web Videos of 2008. It seems to be a list based purely on metrics (views) and not a curated one. Most are, maybe no surprise, music videos, with the top spot going to the Jonas Brothers' "Burnin Up" video. But it was also great to see Obama's race speech hit no. 7 at over 40 million views. Over at URB, we're compiling a few lists of our own, including the Best of '08: Top 10 Cool Music Commercials. It's the end of the year, so expect to be top-10'd to death.

Now, on to the list.

Happy Holidays, Ye Olde Fired Folk

If you're in New York, and you recently lost your job in media, you now have a party to attend where you can hold your head up high enough to see over the bar. And, yes, definitely have another. (Source)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Colin Powell vs. Rush Limbaugh

Colin Powell, whose beautiful and poignant endorsement was part of wave of conservative voices in support of then senator Barack Obama, is now taking his message further. In an upcoming broadcast on the excellent Fareed Zakaria's GPS on CNN, Powell even takes on blowhard cigar munching Rush Limbaugh. Here is a bit of what he said:

"I think the [Republican] party has to take a hard look at itself," Powell said in the interview, which was taped Wednesday. "There is nothing wrong with being conservative. There is nothing wrong with having socially conservative views — I don't object to that. But if the party wants to have a future in this country, it has to face some realities. In another 20 years, the majority in this country will be the minority." (The full article is here.)

Anybody who has a clue about Demographic trends knows that whatever political party is in touch with brown America will control the White House for the next several decades. America in 2050 will be more beige than white. And watching conservatives wrestle with their self-imposed demons — immigration, affirmative action, urban America — is like witnessing a slow motion train wreck. With each passing second, another car crumples on the Xenophobe Express. Enjoy the ride, suckers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Democratic Suckers are Really F------ Golden

OK, this is enough. Democrats need to clean house for real. over the past year, even as the Dems laugh at unfortunate Republicans gay cruising airports, they are quickly catching up in the laughably hypocritical department. First on my list is Kwame Kilpatrick. He obviously didn't invent modern Democratic corruption, but he just happens to have been the first jerk off to cross my blog. His oh-how-lame inter office dalliance would have been just a queasy embarrassment had he not been such a sucker covering it up and "defending" himself. His pitiful denials, and sorry as patronizing to his local "fans" was a giant time waste for an already struggling and broke city. And the firing of police officers as part of his inept cover up made this jackass a has been before his 40th birthday. Oh, and he happened to be the so-called "Hip-hop Mayor" too. Thanks, bro.

Then there was William J. Jefferson, exiting Democratic Representative from the Louisiana 2nd District. Now, I can't go so far as to blame this World's Stupidest Crook for Obama not winning the state, but his flat lining reputation sure couldn't have helped. In fact, Jefferson just lost his seat to a total newbie Republican named Anh "Joseph" Cao. (Though I'm actually very pleased that at least Cao is now the first Vietnamese person to server in congress). Jefferson, if you don't geek out on stupid politician tricks and already know the story, was caught with $90,000 in his freezer by the FBI investigating allegations of corruption. Like Kilpatrick, he vowed to stick it out, but was put out of our misery this past weekend by upstart Cao.

And then we have what I hope doesn't become one of the most tragic disappointments. Democratic congressman Charles B. Rangel of Harlem's 15th District has a cloud of questionable behavior around him for some financial dealings and it doesn't look good. Rangel, a decorated Korean War vet and member of congress since 1971, is also chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. This chairmanship gives him major influence over tax laws, which may be what infected his suspected behavior. He's accused of avoiding said taxes on some real estate dealings for one. And the latest strange behavior involves him paying his son (as in, "Daddy!") $80,000 for a crummy website that should have been a default template on GoDaddy. Hey may be shielded from the political rumblings so far, but his reputation is starting to smell like something resembling his fellow shady comrades. Of course, this was before our next entry came to national attention.

Last on my list—simply because I can't predict the future, which will surely include more idiot Dems—is the ballsiest of them all. Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois's brazen and utterly ridiculous attempts to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat redefine the offensive heights of political hubris. The governor is accused of working pay-to-play angles for years and even knew he was under investigation when he dared authorities to wire tap him. This only enforces the rule that these OJ-style "If I did it . . ." declarations are almost as good as guilty pleas. Besides being the kind of politician that tests what little faith you might still have in the system, Blagojevich runs the very real possibility of tainting either president-elect Obama or his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

All of these guys—with the exception of Rangel, who is still operating in a shade of gray area for now—pretty much have their mangy paws clearly in the cookie jar. Their behavior gives comfort to Republicans who easily remind the Dems of Monica Lawinsky and Chappaquiddick anytime they want. With an incredible role in history about to be formalized on January 20th, it's unfortunate the Democrats have this roster of chumps (and alleged chumps) lurking in the shadows.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Can Levi's Make You Fly?

This viral Levi's ad is going to incite the biggest debate since Mentos and Diet Coke. In terms of viral clips go, this seems to have the "Did you see that?" factor and is guaranteed to inspire curiosity and conversation. So, if you fill your jeans with helium, can you actually lift off the ground? It seems this is within the realm of possibilities, but I'm sure it would come down to some law of physics my community college mind never learned. Decide for yourself.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Arianna Huffington on Charlie Rose

Arianna Huffington, aka my boss, appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss the rise of the individual blog and the presumed democratization of media. Contrary to some early adopters, blogs are still news, especially for those who have only recently joined the conversation. In fact Huffington reminds us that the technology is only a decade old (I feel so much better now). And the new wave of individual blogs, aided by cheap, if not free applications, is larger and more influential than ever. Huffington also cites the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan's "Why I Blog" piece, something I wrote about just this week.

I also got word of the new Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. I can pretty much recommend this sight unseen, given the genius of the HuffPo and its unparalleled success in mainstreaming the blog conversation.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Finding a Recession-Proof Job

Viacom (MTV, paramount, etc) sent about 850 people home yesterday—several of them I knew personally. Other media companies like Time Inc. and Conde Nast put people on the dole recently as well. And that's just the media industry, we won't even talk about banking. Citibank is in the process of laying off 50,000 people worldwide. It is ugly and getting worse out there.

Forbes has a list of recession-proof jobs to sink your teeth into if you're out of one or afraid of the next axe swing. Not surprisingly, the top of the list is business development and sales. I have always known—as a magazine owner—that sales is the engine. Whoever is capable of making it rain is going to get paid, no matter what the weather. Good luck out there.

P.S. If you're a real rainmaker, give me a shout at raymondroker@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why Blog?

When is a blogger like Plato? Well-known blogger/writer Andrew Sullivan has his own theories and more in his piece "Why I Blog." Published for the Atlantic, Sullivan breaks down not only the advances that made blogging unique in the continuum of human communication (the hyperlink), but also our ongoing desire to share information in various states of refinement. He also imparts his lessons learned about the craft:

To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth. A blogger will notice this almost immediately upon starting. Some e-mailers, unsurprisingly, know more about a subject than the blogger does. They will send links, stories, and facts, challenging the blogger’s view of the world, sometimes outright refuting it, but more frequently adding context and nuance and complexity to an idea. The role of a blogger is not to defend against this but to embrace it. He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate. —Andrew Sullivan

Blogging is such an indulgent craft, full of self-important key strokes and sometimes fancy wordplay. But then to top it off by actually dissecting your own practice of it, just seems a bit much. Maybe this is just self-deprecation or false modesty. And a blogger—by definition, I suppose—can't really help himself. We write (when we're not clogged up) because we can start conversations. We write because people are listening. And maybe sometimes we just write to here those keys snap on aluminum laptops, knowing that the semi-permanence of our words is entertaining at least a party of one.

Tossing all of this into the mix, I took my own stab at writing about my blog habit in the recent URB. Having spent the better part of the last year getting my journalist arms around their more transient new role of blogger, I figured it was time to commemorate this trip on paper. It was also the perfect piece for URB's theme: "My First . . .". It felt strange to reduce such a dynamic and shifting broadcast medium to a few paragraphs on a static page, but I managed to assemble something fit for print. I'm just glad I didn't indulge in Sullivan's excellent tome until after writing my piece. Blogger envy would have had me frozen at the keys.

URB No. 156: My First Blog.