Archive for the ‘Blogs and blogging’ Category

Blog Spam – A Look Behind the Curtain

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Despite the valiant defense of anti-spam filters, this blog, like most every blog, receives its fair share of blog spam.

Usually considered a petty annoyance, the phenomenon is an unlikely source of enchantment for some. Dan Piepenbring, for example, in a piece for Paris Review (“Postcards from Another Planet“), studies spam comments within the context of a literary tradition.

Right now I’m more intrigued with how spam is created.

A clue arrived the other day in an extraordinarily long comment on a book review I posted on this blog last year. The comment opened a window into the hidden mechanics of spam construction.

It was a thick clump of confusing text. On closer examination I saw segments within the run-on message that could be used as a template to build a semi-coherent comment if one were so inclined. A would-be commenter could first isolate a part of the material and then customize it by choosing among words found in bracketed portions of the text:

Wow, this { article / post / piece of writing / paragraph } is { nice / pleasant / good / fastidious }; my { sister / younger sister } is analyzing { such / these / these kinds of } things, { so / thus / therefore } I am going to { tell / inform / let know / convey } her.

I appreciate { this sort of / this type of / such / this kind of } clever work and { exposure / coverage / reporting }!  Keep up the { superb / terrific / very good / great / good / awesome / fantastic / excellent / amazing / wonderful } work.

Greetings from { Idaho / Carolina / Ohio / Colorado / Florida / Los Angeles / California }!  I’m { bored to tears / bored to death / bored } at work so I decided to { check out / browse } your { site / website / blog } on my iphone during lunch break. I { enjoy / really like / love } the { knowledge / info / information } you { present / provide } here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

But in this instance, it appears the { lazy / scatterbrained / apathetic / sloppy / just plain dumb } commenter said to hell with choosing, why not simply send out the { entire / raw / exhausting / un-customized } shebang?

The shebang can be found here.

{ Check it out / Let me know the reaction of your younger sister / Get back to work! }

The Man in the Mirror

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Ouch! —

“I understand that in a constitutional republic, people are afforded certain liberties to speak their minds. But we are also afforded, please let’s remember, the right to zip it. To keep a stiff upper lip. To grin and bear it. Because for the most part, our opinions are usually much more fascinating to us than to everyone else. Take it from a guy whose website address is his own name.”

(Tony Woodlief, in a September 16, 2009 blog post entitled, “The Emotive Impulse,” here.)

Chasing the Horizon

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

I became enamored of the poetry of Stephen Crane back in junior high school.  Gnomic, ironic, and all too brief, Crane’s free verse has a special appeal to the adolescent sensibility.  Here’s a poem I memorized:

          I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
          Round and round they sped.
          I was disturbed at this;
          I accosted the man.
          “It is futile,” I said,
          “You can never — “

          “You lie,” he cried,
          And ran on.

As a teenager I sympathized with that small man pursuing the horizon.  All honor was due to Sisyphus and his lesser brethren.  Decades later I’m inclined to see the fellow as mad, a denier of fact, a fool. 

I was reminded of this today when reading a provocative post on The Daily Dish, written by guest-blogger Jim Manzi.  His essay (yes, the post is substantial enough to deserve that label) is entitled “The Socialism Implicit in the Social Cost of Carbon.”   Manzi argues, convincingly I think, that calculating a social cost of burning carbon — toting up its heavy negative externalities — is a fool’s errand.  It represents a blinkered approach to the goal of optimizing human welfare over the long term.  There is every reason to believe we will misquantify the costs, and no reason to believe the costs of this one activity are more egregious than those of any other social activity pursued in our interconnected world.  Man-made climate change is real, yet the seeds of Armageddon are hidden in a myriad of human actions (our pride and prejudice was clear before it went nuclear).  Somehow the role of global bad guy, most horrible among horribles, has been dealt exclusively to carbon, forgiving other worthy applicants.  We unthinkingly set about pursuing curtailment of fossil fuel burning, even when curtailment efforts may harm us more than the harm of inaction. 

Manzi refers to our current fixation on carbon’s cost as chasing an endlessly receding horizon of zero risk.

Better Thought Next Time, No. 3 (Joel Stein)

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Joel Stein, humorist and frequent contributor to Time magazine, where his pieces are often the best thing between the covers, is a very funny fellow indeed.  True, his humor is mostly adolescent, and if you’ve been reading his stuff for years, like me, you may be wondering, when is this guy ever going to grow up already?  The answer, I suspect, is never, not ever.  Because on that day he’d have to find another line of work.

Joel Stein has a blog.  Let me correct that:  he had a blog.  Let me correct my correction:  he has a blog but it’s been defunct for nearly three years.  He stopped posting after a final entry dated September 6, 2006.  And from what I saw of his other posts, well, let’s just say abandonment was a mercy.  His heart wasn’t in it (translation: there was no money in it, and as Dr. Johnson said, no one but a fool ever wrote except for money).  Foolishly, I have a blog, and my most recent post is the one you’re enjoying this very moment.  Or it could be that my most recent post is an even newer one, and though hard to believe, the newer post might be even more of a joy to read than this!   

So the question I’m asking is, who is smarter, Joel or me?  And who has more endurance when it counts?  (This may come down to a split decision.)

Before my theme becomes completely stale, I wanted to mention an article by Stein that appeared in the April 16, 2009 edition of Time.  There Joel ruminates at great length on his and other guys’ penises.  He does so  under the guise of examining the great circumcision debate (“Joel Stein Contemplates Circumcision (For His Son),” here).  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Joel thinking and writing about his or other people’s genitals.  It’s a potentially humorous subject and Stein is a funny guy (or did I say that already?)  But the article contains one very odd thought, actually a strange thought accompanied by a strange image, that occurred to him in the course of comparing Americans and Europeans.  Stein writes:

“Our penises are clean and sleek and new like Frank Gehry skyscrapers, while theirs are crumbling, ancient edifices inhabited by fat old men in hats.”

Let’s pause for moment.  (You wanted to catch your breath anyway, right?)

OK, then.  Someone’s got to step up to the plate — and I volunteer to be that someone — and ask whether Mr. Stein has even the teensy-weensiest bit of familiarity with the architectural designs of Frank Gehry’s skyscrapers?  Not Gehry’s sprawling horizontal buildings, like the Experience Music Project, with their shiny smooth expanses of titanium and stainless steel, but his skyscrapers.  I’m asking the question rhetorically.  Non-judgmentally, too.

Consider Gehry’s proposed plans for a skyscraper in lower Manhattan:




Sleek?  In these photos do you see anything “sleek” (a word that requires smoothness)?   Hardly.  “Wrinkled-looking [with a] distinctly bumpy silhouette” is how the Gehry skyscraper was described by the NY Times.   Are there really a lot of folks out there who long to stroke this form? (Note to self:  Avoid eye-contact with J.S., lest his hand be raised.)

To read an author is to enter her mind.  Or in the case of Joel Stein, his mind, whenever he’s not stealing thoughts from her.  (I make a little joke, no?)  The consistently clever views that seize Stein’s mind, when put in English and down on paper, make me laugh.  But my message is this:  We can’t trust him with architecture.   He needs to bone up on it.

Now, food — food he knows about, as he’s shown here, here, and most squeemishly here.  I bet if Mr. Stein were to come across the items below (items introduced to my local Safeway some time ago) he would stop and stare and stare some more — and then come up with some funny way to mention this in a column.  Something I’ve been trying to do for weeks. 



They say Joel likes to Google his own name from time to time, something we all like to do.  But he adds this twist:  To protect his fragile ego he sets the search parameters to find only those articles in which the author of the piece writes that Stein is really “funny” and repeats that adjective at least five times within the article.

Hi Joel !

Tropicana Lessons

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

In an office where I once worked there was a supervisor who had on his desk a custom-made sign.  It faced you as you sat in the chair before him.  The sign announced the supervisor’s personal and managerial philosophy, which was this:

“Dazzle Them With Bullshit.” 

You get the picture — a boss from Dysfunctional Hell.  The day he departed there arose from survivors a collective sigh of relief.  Normalcy was restored.  We could breath again. 

The highest respect ought to be reserved for people who, when they make a mistake, are able to say the first three words in this reparative statement:  “I messed up; I’ve done better in the past and I’ll do better in the future.”  I think the ability to say those words aloud is a sign of health.  We now have a President who’s strong enough to say those words, or words to that effect, when the occasion is fitting.  See, for example, his reaction to problems encountered with Cabinet nominations: “I screwed up . . . this was my fault“).  For this he deserves kudos.  At the same time, in the business world we have more than a few leaders who can’t muster the courage to say those words, even when circumstances scream out for their expression.  Should those men and women be met with ridicule and obloquy, or let slide?   How are we to deal, individually or collectively, with persons in powerful positions who celebrate bullshit, who deny mistakes?   

I thought of this after reading Daniel Lyons’  profile of advertising guru Peter Arnell in the April 6, 2009 edition of Newsweek.   Prior to last week I’d never heard of Mr. Arnell, a man who prefers to be known as a “brand architect”.  I’m sure he doesn’t know me from Adam.  The only connection we have is Tropicana Orange Juice. 

From Lyons’ article, which I recommend, you will take away a few things.  The first is that Mr. Arnell is the person responsible for the redesign of Tropicana’s orange juice cartons, replacing iconic and consumer-friendly packaging with a new design that was swiftly and universally reviled by the consuming public.  The second thing you learn is that Mr. Arnell is a graduate of the Dazzle Them With Bullshit School.  Lyons writes: “I keep remembering something Arnell told me when we sat down to breakfast in New York. ‘It’s all bulls–t,’ he said. ‘A logo on a can of soda? Please. My life is bulls–t.” 

The third revelation of the Newsweekarticle may or may not be surprising:  Mr. Arnell is unapologetic. 

The Tropicana rebranding project was a crash and burn failure.  In February, the company announced it would reverse the makeover and revert to its tried and true packaging.  The project cost Tropicana and it parent, PepsiCo, millions of wasted dollars (some say over $35 million), not to mention the loss of accumulated good will of consumers turned off by the new look.  Of such scope was the fiasco that it will be taught as as a cautionary case study in business schools for years to come.  Arnell does not concede a mistake.  He says he doesn’t understand exactly why his work was ultimately rejected by Tropicana.  He appears to blame bloggers — I kid you not — for sabotaging the project.  More likely he does know why and is simply unable to voice those first three words, “I messed up.”  Even when he could legitimately follow that reality check with a reminder that he’s done good work in the past and hopes to do more in the future. 

This afternoon I took a photo of some cartons of Tropicana OJ on the shelf of a nearby supermarket.  It shows we are halfway back to normal. (Note 1: the hypnotic, film noir look is due to my cell phone camera capturing the “striped” waves of fluorescent store lighting.  Note 2: I bought the two cartons on the right).  


Soon, the two cartons on the left will be purchased, their contents consumed, and their packaging recycled and reused as something else.  So this is a ripe moment to draft a post-mortem, even though I am late to the table.  Many, many others have expressed their views, as summarized here and as reported in The New York Times, here.  Let me begin with the question, what exactly was wrong with Arnell’s design?   My answer is, many things.

1.  The “Can’t See the Forest” phenomenon.  Arnell and the folks at Tropicana who cheered on the redesign (you imagine a meeting when they all enthused, in group-think unison, “Pure genius! We love it!”) forgot a key point.  A consumer’s first impression of a new version of a commonly purchased product occurs when he sees it on the supermarket store shelf.  In the case of OJ, cartons of different varieties are presented as a  packed mass of objects on several shelves.  The begetters of this fiasco — and especially Arnell — fixated on the single object.  Oops!  The introduction of New Tropicana was not akin to July 2007 when someone showed you the iPhone they just got, and you delighted in its design excellence as you held it in your hands.  No, the the first time I and most everyone else saw the new box was while standing in front of the refrigerated juice section of a supermarket.  Arnell and his client also forgot that they had no way to wipe from consumers’ memories their fond attachment to the classic design they had been buying (in my case, had long been buying).  Finally, they forgot that during the transition to the new design, there would be days, as stores were restocked, when shelves would contain both old and new designs, literally side by side, allowing for direct comparison and preference expression.  Once the transition was completed, here’s what I and other consumers saw (photo taken several weeks ago):
















Tropicana occupies a large space.  Dozens of cartons face the consumer, in row after row.  I remember I was confused.  “What’s happened?” I asked myself.  A clot of other customers was milling about too, similarly confused, although I think if you were to have drawn “thought bubbles” over their heads, theirs would have shown an angry “WTF??” (this supermarket draws many students from a nearby university).  When massed, I thought the new containers looked cheap, especially since the Tropicana real estate was bordered, left and right, by the cartons of competitors (Minute Maid, anyone?) who still had more pleasing, traditional designs.  Of practical importance, all the varieties now looked the same (previously, varieties were clearly identified below the cap in a color-coded field, such as blue for Low Acid).  In that mass of bland boxes how can you spot your particular preference and quickly go on your way?

  2.  The redesigned tree.  As a stand-alone object, the carton also fails miserably.  Its character is industrial (contradicting the healthy, organic vibe juice should impart).  It is minimalist (an IKEA-like style most Americans read as “cheap,” “discount,” or “generic” and not worth the premium price Tropicana exacts).  It is consciously manipulative (especially in that off-putting, vertically-aligned, sans serifs, “Tropicana” — you wonder, am I in a library where we’re forced to read the spines of books by cocking our heads the right?  Why, dammit, when the carton is plenty wide for all necessary text to be horizontal?).  The new design is thin and cold (compare the rich warm orange tones in the iconic design; it’s as if the juice in Arnell’s carton has been watered down to a paler orange, an unattractive dilution).  It is hard to read (the consumer wants to locate her favorite variety of Tropicana without stumbling;  notice the easily spotted variety name on the classic design and compare it to the redesign in which text disappears into a game of “hide-the-ball”  [hint: “low acid” appears in tiny type on the left side, beneath the words “Pulp Free”]).  It is, in short, too consciously design-driven (which American consumers generally read as arrogant)  It’s as if Tropicana intended to market its product as Juice for Mac Lovers. 

3.  I’m a genius, you’re a Philistine, now pay me homage.  Additional stumbles lay at the “design arrogance” doorstep.  One is how the designer’s affectation for lower case letters trumps user friendliness, such as when seven easy-to-spot capitalized letters (LOW ACID) are replaced with seven hard-to-find lower case letters, telling the seeker of that special product how little respect Tropicana has for his needs.  You’re in my control, you picky unlettered consumer.  Another example is the problematic orange colored shape.  It’s not easy to “read.”  Is it just a shape?  A distended bladder?  A spill of juice?  The answer arrives only when you take the carton and rotate it.  Voila!  It’s a juice glass.  Now this, of course, is very clever.  Very interactive.  It displays the designer’s playfulness, his desire to think outside the box, or more precisely, outside the front plane of a four-sided carton; his rebellion against the tyranny of frontality; his need to sculpt.  But for those consumers not majoring in art or design, this comes off not as clever, but as “clever.”  It is something that in no way assists us as consumers.  We don’t feel better knowing that Mr. Arnell has found a way to conquer the tyranny of frontality, the constraints of the flat picture plane.  We’re buying OJ, not a Rauschenberg.  Look again at those cartons wedged on the shelf.  They are not ready to rotate.  The full image of a juice glass remains hidden, out of sight.  Come to think of it, if you wanted to play with half-revealed images, with a puzzle that requires two pieces for completion, then why not work within the constraint of side-by-side shelf placement, why not print the orange half glass on the right side of some cartons and on the left side of others, so that shelf stockers could play at completing the pictures down the rows, so that consumers would see a chorus line of couples?  Then the wit would be less onanistic, more consumer interactive.  (Dear Tropicana, For $35M I’ll explain my design plan in an exhaustive Arnellesque memo.)

Had PepsiCo’s executives paused to think at an earlier phase prior to the expensive roll-out; had Tropicana’s marketers placed mock-ups of their proposed redesigned cartons at a typical point of sale — in situ — in a supermarket where folks actually interact with the product;  had they observed the negative reactions of loyal customers; had they seen people’s frustration at not being able to find their favorite type of Tropicana — then surely they would have caught these flaws and nixed the plan.  

All of this points to questions that ought to be raised from the floor at the next Pepsico Shareholders Meeting:  What was the nature and extent of the “market research” that you say supported greenlighting this fiasco?  How much did this mistake cost us?  Specifically, what was the cost of the roll-out; the cost of the recission; the cost in sales lost to competitors?  What were you — the business leaders of the company we shareholders own — thinking?

Drudge Dreck

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I check out the Drudge Report every day, though I’m getting close to ditching the habit.  Why?  It’s not because the site features the mean and the vulgar (hey, cheap thrills are its main draw), nor that Drudge has lost the talent for news scoops (TMZ wins that race nowadays), nor the overall editorial sloppiness (a recent page has a headline posted on the left side, matched by an only slightly differently worded headline down the right side, both of which link to the same AP story; and then there are those recurring howler typos).

No, it’s because the site’s Adolescent Quotient, once recessive, is becoming dominant — and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Consider a photo posted this week:







Of the gazillion photos of Hillary, that’s the image Drudge chose to illustrate a piece he trumpeted with the headline, “FEELING JAPANESE: Clinton eyes Asia for first trip abroad.”  Back to the photo: Get it?  Hillary squints her eyes to near slits, to form Asian eyes!  Ha! ha! ha! 

Or consider the image Drudge chose to post, top and center, a few days before the Inauguration:








Your eyes move to the center point, an upraised hand in a tight black leather glove.  Got that in your focus?  Now, what memory might it summon up?  Hmmm . . .  Could it be  — ?









Yes, it’s getting embarassing looking at this stuff.   Maybe the time has come, as we were admonished lately, to put aside childish things?

Two additional views on what blogs can/should be

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

This morning the Washington Post  rejects the “initial report” style of blogging (see my first post immediately below) and instead blesses something called “slow blogging” — labeling it the “in” mode for the new year.  This judgment appears in the Post’s  “What’s In, What’s Out” feature, the newspaper’s annual throw-away piece destined to be forgotten in about, oh, 24 hours.

For a more durable take on blog writing, check out “Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Atlantic,  here.