Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dark and Comic Technology in "The Circle"

I think it very hard to write historical fiction or even contemporary fiction set in a familiar landscape, especially one on which the media is cutting its teeth.   I’m finishing a novel loosely based on events in the Tonkin Gulf during the closing months of the Vietnam War.  In some respects, there is little new to be said about this period.  Robin Williams has probably told many Americans all they need to know about US involvement in Vietnam in his “Good Morning Vietnam.”  The comedian will always own Da Nang.  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution that legitimized what was essentially an illegal war pricks the public conscience about as much as the WMD fantasy that sent us into Iraq.  And George Bush is painting his dogs. 

This dilemma is quite real for me.  I served in the Navy in that region during this period.  I know the historical narrative and the seascape quite well.  For these and other reasons, I am casting my novel as a sea story, in the fullest sense of the word, replete with fictions, mythologies, and a range of characters who might be involved in conduct unbecoming.  The ships, the weapons, and the weather all adhere to the strictest specifications, as any military manual would require.  But I reserve the right to take appropriate liberties with those who roam the decks.  The richness must be in the characters, the personas and the necessary fictions they create.  And I know this is easier said than done.

I offer these remarks as a prologue to a review of the novel The Circle by Dave Eggers that seems like a loosely fictionalized account of some of the big boys in the data, content, and privacy game.  It would be a little unfair to say that The Circle reads like a faintly disguised “roman-a-clef” about Google, though many of the themes promulgated by the Three Wise men who are the brains behind such quotable phrases such as Secrets are Lies and Privacy is Theft, seem faintly familiar, though inverted.  By the end of the novel, “Do No Evil” will seem pretty tame.

One quickly catches on that The Circle will have little in common with Dante’s jaunt; the novel seems more like a parlor game that gets creepier as we get inside the workings of this company that is referred to on the first page as “heaven.”  On arriving at the corporation, the lead character Mae marvels at the beautiful campus, the picnic tables arranged in concentric circles, and the children from the day-care center squealing.  One can detect a thin layer of satire in the opening pages but that element doesn’t completely allay for me the sense that the narrative fix is in.  Just follow the yellow brick road.  This walkway has tiles with imploring messages of inspiration, including:  Dream, Participate, Innovate, Imagine, and Breathe.

If The Circle is about technology, it is technology in the fanciful extreme.  We soon learn that one of the founders had devised a Unified Operating System that combines everything online: social media profiles, payment systems, passwords, email accounts, preferences, and every last tool, real and imagined.  From here the thematic hockey stick would track a familiar course, one slogan at a time.

This is a breezy, easy book.  The author fills the book with enough human interaction and pathologies to make it interesting.  Mae seems to remain, more or less, in a state of wonder and her character is not particularly well-rounded.  The Circle offers a never-ending menu of good food, comedians, booze, and chamber orchestras, and dormitory rooms for those who indulge too much.  On her first day on the job Mae has some wine and says to a fellow male traveler she’s just met: “You fuck me not.”   Of course, this is a marker of sorts, suggesting Mae can’t handle her wine, is thinking about sex, or the ribald line is a hint that beneath the best Operating Slogans is an itch that needs to be scratched.

In a sense the novel is all about visual layers; about screens on top of screens on top of screens.  But this is more about data than depth.  More about the thematic than the dramatic!  Mae begins her job in Customer Experience under the guidance of managers who remind her that “no robots work here.”  This becomes a very visible inside joke.  The Plan by one of the Wise Men to place cameras at surfing spots turns into a project that places cameras everywhere, even in the most repressive kingdoms.  The business logic is simple:  All That Happens Must Be Known.  The novel now enters the dawn of the Second Enlightenment.  Why not chips inside of children, inside everyone?  And cameras on everyone, politicians included!  Given that there is no real pushback to these schemes and no one is falling on her sword, the increasingly wacky efforts can continue at their riotous pace.

In time, the company will peer inside Mae’s body, soul, and psychological state.  She is criticized for engaging in activities not included in her profile.  She is caught on camera in a kayak she “borrowed.”  This excursion gets her in hot water and to a meeting with one of the Wise Men.  During her apology to the entire Circle team, Mae utters three phrases:  Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft.  Her candor is greeted with thunderous applause and from that point on Mae will be on the inside and “would be going transparent.”

Mae wears a camera that records her day except for the private moments.  In some respects she becomes the center of the Circle universe, relaying through her lens the inner workings of the company.  The statements from the Wise Men about completing the Circle and Making the Circle Whole take on a touch of the delusional, even though these words find themselves at ground level on campus tiles.  Mae imagines the Circle as the center of a perfect democracy.

Any growth in Mae’s character comes at the author’s hands.  It seems a little forced, as if she has been anointed.  A mysterious man, Kalden, who wanders the underworld of the Circle, warns her against descending too deeply into the inner circle.  Mae seems more interested in having sex with this mysterious old/young man in some handy underground alcove.  The heavy breathing might as well come from some indulgent comic book scene.  Only the word balloons are missing.  

Mae does have a family and a slight background, but these don’t seem to bear on her choices.  In fact, she uses all available Circle technology to find a friend, Mercer, who is running away from everything the Circle stands for.  In the language of an increasingly mean-spirited Mae, Mercer is a fugitive from friendship.  The SeeChange cameras and the drones find him soon enough.  Mercer drives off a gorge, killing himself.  One of the Wise Men reminds Mae that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man.”  Suicide is also evil.  This is perhaps the best and most chilling scene in the book.  Other parts of the novel could have benefited from such a close up of the price of dark technology.

The Circle is a novel about technologies that are all too familiar, if somewhat conflated.  The author has simply taken these ideas and platforms to their illogical conclusions.  One is not surprised that the Machine God appears in the form of her lover, the missing Wise Man, who counsels her against closing the circle, gives her a manifesto to read to her watchers, and then suggests they bike through the Mongolian steppe. 

Mae had gotten so close to the Apocalypse, it rattled her.

It’s unlikely to rattle you.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hatching Twitter in Four Acts

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton is a curious and perhaps necessary book.  In his introduction, Bilton reminds us that “history is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  Although Twitter the company didn’t let Bilton in the door, he conducted sixty-five hours of interviews with current and former board members, the four Twitter founders, and many more, on and off the record.  The author found, as do most historians, that people remember past events differently.  Bilton does his best to triangulate various events, using social media in the process to even out discrepancies.  The tweets, videos, and photos shared over a decade substantiated the basic narrative.

I am writing this the day after the Academy Awards, during which host Ellen DeGeneres took out her Samsung Galaxy Note 3—a sponsor-- for a “selfie” with a group of celebrities.  Her post has been retweeted about three million times, almost bringing Twitter to its knees and wiping our President Obama’s election retweet record.  All in all, this was another night at the office.  Ms. Ellen used her Galaxy on a number of occasions to tweet photos of other celebrities.  Media folks call sponsored advertising that seems intrinsic to an event or brand, native advertising, as if it’s been there all along in plain sight.  Who can imagine the Academy Awards without Twitter?

Hatching Twitter offers abundant evidence that this solipsistic Oscar celebration was by no means inevitable.  I am not simply referring to the fits and starts associated with a startup, the lack of capital, or even the internal spats, Silicon Valley style, that inevitably bubbles up in that basement apartment or adjacent garage.  The drama that engulfed the four Twitter founders, Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, was marked by intrigue, revenge, betrayal, and mendacity.  Jack Dorsey could play a mean Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.  Other playwrights can accommodate the rest.  

Just how does one organize a book about a bunch of really smart, childish adults who write code and act spoiled?  Bilton’s answer to my hypothetical appears to be in his choice of a dramatic structure for his book, starting with the ouster of Evan in a board coup on October 4, 2010, led by Jack Dorsey.  In a way, this is a smart choice because we already know, more or less, how the story ends.  The intrigue is presumably in the early chapters where the restless psyches of the founders are fully on display.  That said, there is still something surreal about this book, as we are taken inside the heads and psychologies of the major players, as we would expect in a novel.  In a way, this approach is in keeping with the main narrative.  There is something surreal and improbably about the launching of Twitter.  One can never know too much.

The seeds for Twitter were appropriately sown in or near San Francisco on the heels of the dot com collapse.  Evan Williams launched Blogger, push-button publishing for the people, which he sold to Google in 2003, for millions.  At this time, Noah Glass, who was working with Evan on an audio extension of the Blogger, turned Audblog into a separate startup.  Evan would launch Odeo, a pod-casting startup with decent financial backing.  By 2005, the four founders were all involved in Odeo and the squabbling had already begun, especially between Ev and Noah. 

Who invented Twitter is a discussion worthy of a book such as Hatching Twitter.  Twitter, like success, seems to have many fathers.  By Bilton’s account, Jack and Noah, though not in parallel, souring on the prospects for Odeo, began thinking about other business.  Jack has apparently been thinking about a “status update” since 2000 when he used a blogging service called LiveJournal.  On a primitive level, the status update was in the air.  According to Bilton, Noah took the concept to another level: “This status thing could help connect people to those who weren’t there.  It wasn’t just sharing what kind of music you were listening to or where you were at the moment; it was about connecting people and making them feel less lonely.”

Ev raised the prospect of Odeo becoming a messaging platform.  Biz Stone, who came from Google, had been obsessed with the idea of a “Phone-ternet” for particular communities.  The status-thing was getting everyone’s attention.  Names like Smssy, Friendstalker, Twitch, Twit, Twitchy were banded around until Noah stumbled across the word to describe the light chirping sound made by certain birds.  Twitter was it.  The rough, self-conscious tweets began.  The internecine struggles would soon follow, with Ev forcing Noah out over management issues.

Existential questions about Twitter remained.  What exactly was this business?  Jack saw it as a place to say: “What am I doing?”  Ev saw Twitter as a mini-blogging product.  The 2007 San Francisco earthquake brought some clarity to this question.  By this time, 15,000 tweets had been sent, all about status.  Sharing the quake on Twitter suggested the platform would also be about a status larger than the individual self.  That conversation would continue.  While Twitter debated the matter, the outside world used the service in all sorts of adventurous ways, including for hard news, celebrity chatter, fake personas, politics, police scanners and so on.  Twitter would become whatever we say it is.

By the time Yahoo knocked on Twitter’s door the service had almost 250,000 active users.  The joke around the Twitter offices is that the company should take no less than $100 million.  Yahoo offered $12 million, since Twitter was simply a messaging service.  And Yahoo could replicate that.  That’s the oldest negotiating trick in the book.  Twitter would seek venture funding.

Twitter suffered the growing pains many startups endure: lack of strategic direction and focus, tension among management, burn rates, technical issues (servers crashing) and liquidity.  This time, the axe fell on Jack, who at the time was trying to make a separate peace with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  That didn’t work out nor did Zuckerberg’s attempt to buy Twitter.  The Facebook CEO would have a long memory.

Nick Bolton devotes considerable space to the psychological pain suffered by the founders who were fired or demoted.  He seems to give disproportionate attention to Noah and Jack in a manner I thought bordered on bathos.  I’m not sure I wanted to go so deep into their loneliness, whether it was well-reported or not.  Most of the individuals who were displaced were financially well-off.  My heart doesn’t beat any faster learning that in the early days Biz Stone and his wife had to raid their piggy bank, or how Noah and wife have a baby, or about Ev’s rumination or parenting, or Jack  dressing and sounding like Steve Jobs.

The founders launched a very successful company and were as ruthless, venial, cutthroat, confused and savage, as many who have come before them.  It’s always about the money, the power and bragging rights.   A ten-page coda at the end of a very enjoyable book seems an unnecessary and pious redemption.

The trouble with writing a book about a startup, especially a remarkable one like Twitter, is that the book is inevitably going to be all prologue.  Success can cancel out even the most delicious narrative.

Just ask Jack Dorsey. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dr. Oz and The Good Life Launch

I’ve eagerly awaited my first copy of Dr.Oz’s The Good Life from Hearst.  Given his successful daytime talk show, it was inevitable long before the announcement from the publisher that there would be a print magazine bearing his name.  Oprah provided the model.  Oz was a magazine waiting to happen.

From what I have seen, Dr. Oz’s television show is aimed at women in Middle America and at times is replete with props and exaggerated depictions of human anatomy.  On today’s show, three women played a G.I. tract, a uterus, and a bladder, in that order, without any self-consciousness I could detect.  There’s a celebratory feel to the show with the good doctor at times something of a barker.  This is evident in his pushing of herbal remedies and other regimens considered outside of mainstream medicine.  And this seems precisely his point.

This magazine is probably the only title to be launched by a major publisher this year, so it’s getting a lot of attention.  Actually, I think health and fitness is one of the few categories that can sustain another big magazine of consequence.  My first real magazine job was with Prevention, and I have nothing but respect for what Rodale has contributed to the sector, exploring non-traditional therapies a generation before Dr. Oz popularized them on television.  The bedrock of Rodale’s health coverage could be found in the medical journals.  Editors translated this information into language the lay person could understand. Now, every health editor can do this.  It is no longer a competitive advantage.  Today we want advice tinged with celebrity promise.  And we want props.

While watching some of Dr. Oz’s shows, I was reminded a little of Bob Rodale, the late company president, who in his understated, decidedly non-celebrity way took on the medical establishment and its emphasis on cure rather than prevention.  That has been Rodale’s editorial cornerstone since its launch seventy years ago.  I sensed, somewhat nostalgically, that Dr. Oz would have been a perfect fit for an earlier Rodale, editorially speaking, but also realized Rodale was probably not the best home for the doctor, a driven celebrity who like Oprah is comfortable with his image on the magazine cover again and again.  The closest Rodale got to this breed was with David Zinczenko, past Men’s Health honcho, television celebrity, author and New York man about town.  When he became the de facto Men’s Health brand, the owners showed him the door.  Dr. Oz doesn’t have to worry about that.  Hearst, with its successful joint ventures with Oprah, The Food Network, and HGTV magazine, is the perfect home for The Good Life.   The company understands celebrity.

Dr. Oz writes in his launch editor that “The battle for your health is going to be won in your kitchen, your bedroom, and your living room.”  He “won’t be hesitant to make suggestions that aren’t yet proven by medicine just because certain areas haven’t been fully explored by science.  My litmus test is this:  Would I give that advice to my own family?  If so, then you’ll find it here.”

About a year ago in an article in The New Yorker entitled, “The Operator,” author Michael Specter asks: “Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?”  That is the subtitle and doesn’t really reflect the tone of the article.  Tracker, a science blog from MIT, while praising Specter for his knockout piece, notes that the author “circles Oz slowly and attacks indirectly.”  He is writing for The New Yorker after all and Oz casts a very large shadow.

 Specter acknowledges that most advice on Dr. Oz’s television show is grounded in medical fact and science.   On other occasions he suggests that the doctor’s descriptions of medical treatments as “startling, breakthrough, and miracle,” his giving air time to a spokesman for gay reparation therapy, his support of laying on of hands in the operating room, and his aggressive pushing of supplements, constitute an abdication of his medical responsibility.  For Specter, “There is no hierarchy of evidence for Dr. Oz.” (The New Yorker, February 2, 2013).

From what I’ve seen of the television show, the article is spot on.  There is a certain hyperbole in the show’s presentation and a touch of reality television when Dr. Oz asks his audience to handle a large intestine as if they are part of a Conga Line.  On the other hand, this is also, Dr. Oz-style, Exaggerated Physiology 101 with wounded hearts, bulbous livers and arteries you could die for.  This is daytime television and therefore theater with a touch of the absurd.  The audience laps it up and apparently learns a lot.   

That said, even though Dr. Oz is clear about the limits of traditional medicine, he has provided a forum for views that seem far outside the mainstream. The program on arsenic in apple juice, based on a discredited report, is one example.  So is the session on miracle green coffee beans to burn fat fast.  Giving air time to an osteopathic doctor who considers cancer a fungus that can be cured with baking soda seemed a little over the top. 

In The New Yorker article, Dr. Oz the host is described by an associate as an “entertainer.”  The show provides considerable latitude (and longitude, if you like) for medical entertainment that is likely essential for its survival.  Dr. Oz manages to hold his time spot and his audience by telling women how many orgasms they should have a year if they want to improve their lives (around 200).  Another doctor has called this kind of advice, “lunacy.”   Someone else might call this advice, ratings.

The Good Life is a New Magazine from Dr. Oz.   That is what the cover proclaims.  The doctor’s photo is on the cover and his image appears about seven times throughout the issues, in different styles and different clothes.  But this is not about vanity, as the personalization of “Oprah” sometimes appears to be.   His image is always tied to specific medical advice.  It hardly appears intrusive.  This is exactly what the consumer is buying.

As a longtime editor and publisher, I usually pay attention to the masthead of new magazines.  Hearst probably handles business partnerships and joint ventures as well as any media company in the world.  With the veteran Ellen Levine sitting in the Editorial Director’s chair, there’s no chance the editorial will mimic daytime television or stray too far.

The premier issue of The Good Life has 148 pages with 66 pages of advertising.  The magazine is blunt, cheery, and designed with Optimism that is also the doctor’s final page and last word.   The editorial direction is subtle and organizes the magazines around categories including: Health + Happiness, Mind + Mood, Love, Family, and Friends, and Food + Recipes.  The plus sign underscores an important theme of this magazine: everything is additive.  I suspect it will grow on people.

This woman’s magazine has a couple of advantages.  Advice about the power of kissing, the benefits of tea, and safer cat food is anchored in the medical literature but retains through deft editing the over-the-fence chat quality that Dr. Oz has perfected on his show.  The Good Life is not filled with breakthrough medical advice; it doesn’t have to be.   And that’s not what monthly magazines do anyway.  The challenge of this magazine is to harness unselfconsciously the power of the Dr. Oz brand and let this power seep into to every piece of information, whether the doctor’s image is on the page or not.  The reader knows that he is ubiquitous.

After camping out with a half-dozen Dr. Oz television shows, I must congratulate the editors of The Good Life for their exquisite restraint.  The tone, brand, and point-of-view belong securely to Dr. Oz.  The editors have made sure of that.

They honor their craft by remaining invisible.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sochi, the Daily Show, and Media in Retreat

I can’t bear to watch the Sochi Olympics on television.  Perhaps because there are thirty inches of snow outside my office windows while the Olympic site is experiencing beach weather.  Actually, I think is something deeper.

The Olympic site has been widely branded as another Potemkin village named for the phony settlements built in the Crimea by a Mr. Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine II.  While this anecdote is probably apocryphal, it seems to have stood the test of time.  Of course, building facades to impress the other party is as old as, well, sport.  London and Beijing covered a lot of their inner city-rot before their respective Olympics and gave the homeless and the untidy one-way tickets out of town.

The media has had a field day with reports of snowboarders locked in Sochi bathrooms, hotel water running yellow and downhill skiers adjusting to the beach conditions.  One can’t be sure whether it is comic relief or Russian destiny to repeatedly see President Putin rise out of the sea or some embroidered clam shell to proclaim with his bare chest and Soviet grin that Russian manhood, long devastated by alcohol and suicides, is now in good hands.  One can hardly blame social media for finding in this artifice a version of the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, Dos Equis-style, perfectly equipped to pull the tail of a snow leopard, toss a 300-pound male with the flip of his judo hips, and, when necessary, part the Black Sea.

I think it was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, apparently referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon.  But, in these days of compressed time, we don’t have to wait for the long arc of history to play itself out.  The Sochi political overlay, the dictator-cum-breasts, and the delicious, brotherly canards offered up by the Olympic Committee are indeed the stuff of farce.  Unfortunately, tragedy lurks just below the surface.  Please don’t look for it on NBC, our paid sponsor. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists has published a devastating account of media repression and self-censorship related to the Sochi Olympics. (“Media Suffer Winter Chill in Coverage of the Sochi Olympics”, available at  The report describes the exploitation of migrant workers, forced evictions, environmental destruction, contaminated water supply, and levelling of prime forests.  But the real guts of the report is the extent to which the Russian government has muzzled both Russian and international journalists.  The CPJ reports government payouts to media, prior review of programming, and widespread use of paid content.  The government threatens to withdraw media licenses to any outlet that addresses any of the touchy subjects, meaning anything the government has not approved in advance.  Journalists are harassed.  Defamation in the press is a criminal offense.  There is hostility to all things foreign.  The approved article lead is this: “The skies are always clear over Sochi.”

In perfect serendipity, the Daily Show, apparently dissatisfied with the New Russia fantasy being showcased in Sochi, traveled to Moscow to find the old Russia.  In looking for the historic bread lines, the reporter found lines for lattés and the like.  He begged Russian politicians to bring back the Cold War.  He even managed, or perhaps staged, a brief session with Gorbachev, pleading with him to bring back the Berlin Wall.  The Master of Détente threw him out of his office.

I found the Daily Show piece especially interesting because I was working in Moscow during the “perestroika and glasnost” period.  It became pretty clear early on that the Communists simply walked across the street and became Western-style Democrats overnight.  Putin is a reminder of how little has changed.

The Daily Show joke seemed to be that the old enemy was much more interesting and useful than the new regime in tights.  But perhaps the joke runs deeper than that.  Add a little gas money, international prestige and secret handshakes from the guys who hold the Olympic rings, and we have a modern day Potemkin village, sturdier than the one erected for Catherine II and expansive enough to feature the new emperor, usually without his shirt, pulling the world’s chain while laughing all the way to the bank.

In the West, this is known as funny business. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The New Yorker, Pope Francis, and Theology under Fire

I’ve long been a fan of The New Yorker, but the recent article about Pope Francis, “Who Am I to Judge” by James Carroll, has touched me more deeply than any magazine article in recent memory.  Perhaps this is because Carroll once studied for the priesthood, is a fine writer, and seems to understand Catholic dogma at its roots.  Perhaps it is because the piece is a welcome respite from the kind of hagiography we have seen in Time Magazine and much of mass media since Francis’ ascension to the papacy.  Perhaps, as an Irish Catholic who has been a foot-soldier in the culture wars and wrote a PhD dissertation on the Catholic imagination, I badly needed a fresh look at a church organization that has become anathema to many for its handling of the crimes against children.

When the Pope responded to a question about homosexuals with the remark:  “Who am I to judge?” the various factions lined up as expected.  Some saw this as opening the door to the gay community.   Conservative clergy, led by New York’s Cardinal Dolan, who seemed to be everywhere, responded that it was a matter of tone, not a shift in theology.  Carroll’s reading is a little more subtle in that he suggests Francis “unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world.”  But Carroll reminds us that in a less-known interview Francis calls homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” and the inclination “must itself be seen as an objective disorder.”  And these remarks are consistent, in language if not in tone, with what Francis said when he was Archbishop of Buenos Ares.

The New Yorker piece also reminds us that there has been nothing subtle or understated about his remarks concerning the Institution Church.  Francis denounced the “psychology of princes” before new bishops last fall.  He denounced episcopal careerism as “spiritual adultery,” a “form of cancer.”  As Carroll notes, clearly there is more than a tonal shift when Francis, in an open letter to an Italian journalist, says: “I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers ….  Truth is a relationship.  As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.”  The New Yorker writer suggests that the Pope “violated a set code of Catholic ethical and discourse” in his reference to moral relativity.  The Pope would expand on this. “The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or difference understanding is wrong.” 

Sooner or later all discourse leads to the central tenets of Church doctrine.  One gets a sense from listening to Cardinal Dolan and others that we should indeed applaud what Francis has to say but at the end of the day, the Church should be understood as “semper idem”—always the same.   The good man can make changes at the pastoral edges but nothing in the long run will change.

However, Carroll reminds us that the “Church has made profound doctrinal changes in living memory.  In 1964, the council repudiated a millennium-long tradition of ‘No Salvation outside the Church’.”  That formulation dates at least to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215…. The Vatican overturned the doctrine by affirming the primary of conscience—a doctrine Francis has reiterated.”   Even “more momentous is the council’s rejection of the ‘Christ-killer’ slander against the Jews, which has its roots in the Gospels.”  Carroll writes that “None of the potential changes to doctrine facing the contemporary Church compare with the depth of this revision.”      

At the end of the day, Pope Francis will likely be judged by how he responds to priest sexual-abuse.  He has established a commission of priests, nuns, and lay experts to address these issues.  There is no indication that the commission will look at the Vatican or bishops’ involvement.  Pressure on the Vatican to do just this is coming from a lot of places, including the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Children.  In an unusually blunt and sobering report released at the end of January 2014, the UN Committee states that the Holy See hides behind Canon Law and places obedience to the Pope above the protection of children.  The report states that tens of thousands of children have been abused by clergy and the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes.  In fact, there is a code of silence around this abuse.  Abusers are rarely reported to civil authorities.  Accordingly the commission to investigate these crimes should include civil society and victims.  The U.N. urges the Church to consider sexual abuse a crime and not some vague “defect against the moral” order, as the Church has defined it.  Canon Law should be changed to reflect the reality.

Given the popularity of the new Pope, the UN report came as a shock to many, not only because of the charge that the Vatican is hiding behind Canon Law but also because the report included criticisms of the Church’s position on homosexuality, gender equality, birth control and abortion.  It is very rare for the UN to comment on religious doctrine.

The Pope has directed dioceses to distribute questionnaires to parishioners about divorce, birth control, and gay marriage.  According to Carroll, “When Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod, was recently asked if remarried divorcees might be admitted to the sacraments, he replied, ‘The fact that it has been included in the questionnaire means it’s going to be looked at, and the intention is to discuss the issue without any taboos, otherwise it would not have been mentioned.’”  Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, quoted in the Irish Times, suggested “This is a great opportunity for Francis.  Please, let us not have a bunch of men who have deliberately chosen not to have families tell us as members of families how we’re going to live our family life.  Please, let us have a broad-ranging discussion in which people who have real experience of family life lead the reflection.”

I wrote after returning from Italy last fall about how the Catholic Church, surrounded by such lushness and lustiness in art and architecture, has never found a way to let a full feminine impulse into its teachings.  Certainly Mary, the Mother of Christ, has an exalted presence but she was ever virgin, a perpetual virgin.  The Church tried to imbue its theology formally with the feminine principle by announcing The Immaculate Conception (1845) and the Assumption into Heaven (1950) as dogma.  These seem rather late in a 2000-year history.  This full article can be found at

In explaining much of the conflict and ambivalence in the current Church, James Carroll quotes Stephen Colbert, speaking about Francis at the Al Smith dinner.  “I believe the Pope is infallible.  But he’s also wrong about a lot of things.”

That issue might be the least of the Church’s doctrinal worries.  Colbert is joking but his humor finds support in a recent poll by Univision, the U.S. Spanish-language network that confirms what has been long assumed:  most Catholics in the developed world are at odds with the Church over gay marriage, contraception, divorce and women’s admittance to the priesthood.  The Church has already pivoted in its outreach to the souls in Latin America and Africa where the laity is more in tune with Catholic doctrine.

Colbert has his work cut out. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

New U.S. Soccer Magazines, the Pele Effect, and Leggy Data Points

I’m British by birth and have kicked something ever since I could walk. And I have been waiting since coming to America as a teenager for soccer to become mainstream in this country.  While in the Navy in Asia, I looked forward to traveling to Hong Kong because the folks there at least knew what to do with their feet.  I stayed in the hunt, starting a soccer team at a small state college in Pennsylvania.  My brother was the first player signed for the fledgling University of Wisconsin-Green Bay soccer team.  My daughter played varsity for the University of Pittsburgh.  We’ve all done our share of coaching.

U.S. women’s soccer, led by the brilliant Mia Hamm and a strong contingent of female college and professional soccer players, captured the imagination of America and the world during the last decade of the 20th century and early in the 21st.   This represented massive, community-level enthusiasm in the very best sense of the words.  I loved attending these events with my daughter and her friends.  I loved this muscular expression of the feminine. 

Our collective hopes for English football, American-style, were raised when Brazil’s Pele’ came out of retirement in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos for three years.  Even at thirty-five, Pele was a wonder to watch and helped soccer for a period attract national television and celebrity coverage, but the top down approach didn’t work either.  It would be another twenty years before the country was ready for the sport.  The North American Soccer League celebrates its 19th anniversary in 2014, a longer tenure than any other U.S. soccer league.

The New York Times noted that NBC has paid a record $250 million for broadcast rights to every English Premier League game for the next three years.  The Times also notes that soccer journalism lags its foreign peers with only one magazine, Soccer America, in business since the 1970's.  Now two soccer quarterlies, Eight by Eight and Howler, have joined the fray.  A third called XI is said to be experiencing financial difficulties.

I think that most special-interest magazines in America have come into being when there were rising consumer and business interests in the sector.  Certainly this was true of Runner’s World in the 1970's and Bicycling Magazine, where I served as editor and publisher during the relaunch in the 1980's and 1990's.  Growing interest in health and fitness was matched by upscale consumer products from Nike, Trek and others and a boom was born.  We’ve seen this happen in America before, such as a generation earlier when returning GI’s who had learned a little about mountain skiing in combat brought their experience and enthusiasm back to the states.  Ski and Skiing magazines were a by-product of these World War II activities.

So the historical parallels for the growth of soccer magazines in American are well-known.  As noted, youth soccer has been flowering for a generation as has collegiate soccer.  Television—and that means major advertisers in tow—have embraced the sport.  NBC is providing delicious, understated coverage of the best Premier League Soccer games.  Fox, a little more chatty, provides the best of the European leagues. The general optimism about the sport, worldwide, is partly fueled by the fact that the World Cup is being held in Brazil in June of this year.  Billions are expected to watch this extravaganza in part because Brazil is considered the spiritual home of the beautiful game.  This is a bit of a fantasy because Brazilian players are often overrated.  But so are the New York Yankees.

The new soccer magazines, though currently exhibiting modest plans, are run by management with deep experience in publishing, including at Esquire, National Geographic, and GQ.  The NYT piece reveals that Howler “got its start with $69,000 from Kickstarter and ‘pretty sizable’ support through advertising by Nike and beIN Sport, the Al Jazeera-affiliated sports network.”

These magazines share a common theme:  that US soccer has been largely ignored by US print media and that is true enough.  Given the long slog soccer in the states has undergone, I wonder whether fine journalism and splashy layouts are enough to draw in the finicky American crowd.  After all, soccer is not three yards and a cloud of dust.  It is about finesse, the ability to run on average a 10-12K race each game, and more than a little understanding of geometry.

I’m currently reading Soccernomics, a splendid, NYT best-selling book that examines soccer from an empirical standpoint, relying on data rather than truisms and old world utterances offered by aging white coaches about a game they apparently don’t know that well.  The authors’ opening salvo makes the point.  Researchers at a large club looked at more than four hundred corner kicks and concluded that “the most dangerous corner was the ‘inswinger’ to the near post.”  They took this finding to the club’s manager, who was an ex-player who knew from his field experience that an ‘outswinger’ was more effective.  End of story!  This represents the book in miniature.

Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski see English and European football, with some exceptions, as a century-old game that has changed little in the way owners and managers view the sport.  So clubs continue to overvalue older players, certain nationalities, and high school stars.  And they frequently prefer to hire blondes, another mistake.  The authors suggest that teams might be better off if managers were hired through the wisdom of the crowds or perhaps not at all.  They offer a ton of data to support this thesis.

English and European football are undergoing changes that the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball captured about the 2002 Oakland Athletics.  Hamstrung with a tight budget in a small market, the owner decided to rely on data rather than the intuition and experience of coaches.  The rest is history, more or less.

The authors note that it is a little surprising that soccer has been so adverse to studying data because the sport, like baseball and football, is all about the numbers.  We’ve heard the lament before.  Why sully a beautiful game, any beautiful game, with attention to cold, hard numbers.  The authors suggest that when England loses a penalty shootout in a World Cup quarterfinal, instead of throwing beer glasses at the TV, fans might temper their disappointment by reflecting on the nature of the binomial probability theory.   

The big clubs in particular are relying less on gut and more on data.  The authors report that AC Milan’s in-house medical team, by studying the data, could predict with 70% accuracy whether a player would get injured.  The joke is that this lab has discovered the secret of eternal youth.  Not quite, but they seem to have a pretty good idea when a player is ripe for the transfer window.  For me, one of the most interesting chapters was on game theory and the penalty kick.  The best soccer players have internalized a form of game theory and on their run-up to the penalty kick they still don’t know whether the ball is going to the left or right of the goalie.  Talk about a random sequence.

If I was editing a new magazine for the burgeoning soccer crowd in the U.S., I would start with great journalism and splendid graphics, but I wouldn’t forget the numbers and the data that feeds hardcore, passionate fans.  Or the discussion of the soccer psychology, mythology, economics, and yes, theology, found in this precious book that turns conventional soccer wisdom on its head.

The authors of Soccernomics write that “Until very recently, soccer has escaped the Enlightenment.”

Now that’s a story with legs.

(This post is dedicated to my brother Desi McCullagh, recently deceased.  He was a life-long soccer enthusiast and coach who played for various amateur clubs, during stints in the Army and Marines, and for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  He was my soccer confidant.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Gunning for the Truth

We know that large circulation, general-interest magazines (think Life, Family Circle, TV Guide, Reader’s Digest, etc.) will continue to go out of business or significantly decline in value while smaller circulation, special-interest magazines, whether about boats, bikes, or cool tools, will tend to survive.  The reason for this is that the latter tend to generate proportionately more circulation revenue than their larger sisters.  Their readers tend to be very loyal.  And the magazines generally enjoy a perfect intersection of editorial and advertising content.  In many special-interest magazines, editors are critiquing their advertising base and tend to do so gingerly.  Products from advertisers are frequently reviewed and rarely given a thumbs-down.

As a long-time editor and publisher of special-interest magazines, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this.  After all, most products coming on the markets in these sectors have been vetted pretty carefully.  Often technical editors are involved in improving a product in beta before it comes to market.  I’ve done this with bikes, running shoes, fitness gadgets, cross-country skis and sports apparel.  When I was involved this way, I always made sure the readers knew.

Back in the day when I was editor and publisher of Bicycling Magazine, my naive position was that advertisers should want to be in the magazine because of our large circulation, editorial authority and reader engagement.  But there were always fires to put out.  I remember the call from the President of Campagnola in Italy telling me that he was cancelling all their advertising because I was showing favoritism towards Shimano, the Japanese maker of bicycle components.  I replied that Shimano was aggressive in product development and bringing new technologies to market.  He replied that Campagnola had invented the bicycle derailleur, quick release wheel mechanism, and so on.  I traveled to Vicenza, Italy, to change his mind, but he didn’t budge.  Cycling history hung over the meeting room like a medieval shadow.

I used to do the morning television circuit, appearing many times on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and whatever the CBS show was called at the time.  After an appearance on the Today Show where I showed some of the hot new bikes and equipment, including products from the Trek Bicycle Company in Wisconsin, I received a call from Richard Schwinn, who was presiding over a failing giant of a company.  He castigated me for showcasing foreign imports on the morning show and Trek in particular, based right up the road from Schwinn’s Chicago home.  Schwinn pulled all their advertising.  I have studied the sad Schwinn decline and detected without pleasure a large dose of vanity in that fall.

This kind of push and pull has been going on at special-interest magazines for years. Not infrequently, the threat of legal action hangs over the editorial meeting.  I recall when Bicycling was doing impact tests on bicycle helmets with the help of a university, the Bell Helmet company heard about this and threatened to sue and pull all advertising.  Our chief executive stood four-square behind the editorial decision.  That is how it is supposed to work.

I was deeply disturbed, though hardly surprised, when I learned that the Guns & Ammo journalist Dick Metcalf had been fired because he stated in an editorial that “all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”  This was in October 2013.  According to a recent NYT piece, “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns,” “The backlash was swift, and fierce. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions.  Death threats poured in by email.  His television program was pulled from the air.”  Two gun manufacturers threatened to cancel their advertising if Metcalf continued to be employed by InterMedia Outdoors, the parent company. 

The NYT piece was written two months after the fact but offers a fresh perspective.  Even given the historically “close” relationships between special-interest magazine editorial departments and their advertisers, the banishment of Mr. Metcalf from the magazine and the industry for speaking the truth seems extreme.  After all, he correctly pointed out that all constitutional rights are regulated.  We still can’t cry “fire” in a crowded theater, no matter what the arsonists say.

It would be easy to point the finger at a gutless InterMedia Outdoors, a company I know and have worked with over the years.  After all, the editors are giving the readers precisely what they want.  The editors are giving advertisers precisely what they want.  From the outside, it seems like a pretty good business.  There is little or no separation of church and state and few involved seem to care.  Anyway, sponsored content is all the rage these days, the next money machine.  Or perhaps this is Duck Dynasty all over again.

In psychological terms, when I am seized by a powerful emotion, I am said to be caught in an autonomous feeling-toned complex, no less intense than if I was an ancient stammering at the altar of a nature god.  This is my personal unconscious at work.  I exaggerate, of course, but there is a kind of religious zealotry on the part of gun absolutists who seem to believe in the gospel of the gun, as if this language has divine origin and can never be abridged.  

As part of an academic project, I have read hundreds of articles, opinion pieces and blog posts about gun control, all written after the Sandy Hook murders.  On the whole I found them thorough, thoughtful, and logical, all begging for action.  A year later, I have to admit that reasoned argument will do little to change the discussion of guns in America. The primary reason for this is that the gun and the idea of the gun are so embedded in the American psyche and nature; in our history, theology, psychology and mythology.  As psychologist Carl Jung might say, guns are an inseparable part of our personal and collective unconscious.  These are the areas in which we have to probe if we want to shed some light on the debate.

I have tried to do this with an epic poem, “The Archetype of the Gun,” that I hope captures some of this complexity.  It’s an easy read, if I say so myself; and available on Amazon.