How to Win Friends and Monetize People

Just after New Year’s, I got an email from a former colleague. The subject line carried the sender’s name and said, “Do Not Delete.” I recognized the name — we’ll call him Stephen, since that’s his name — though it’s been years, I think, since I last saw him. His message asked for my home address so that he could mail me something. He was a little cryptic about what it might be, saying only that it wasn’t what his mother hoped he’d been sending. (What his mother hopes for, I’m guessing, is a wedding announcement.)

I let the email sit there for a day or two before replying. I sent him my home address, which is publicly available for anyone who wants to spend 10 seconds looking for it, along with a 23-word greeting. Why did I reply? What was I expecting?

I was curious. What was it my non-bosom-pal Stephen wanted to share with me? Maybe he was inviting some old acquaintances to a party of some kind; nothing extraordinary in that. Maybe he had just found out he was terminally ill and wanted to bid his friends goodbye (I’ve never shaken off the shock of getting a flyer in the mail announcing the memorial service for a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile and hadn’t known was dying). Maybe he’d won the lottery and would be showering those most dear to him (me?!) with surprise checks (that’s what I’d have done if I won — I’m sure of it). I didn’t think about it too hard, though, and by the time a big manila envelope from Stephen arrived in the mail last week, I had more or less forgotten about it.

Here’s what was inside:

A one-page letter from Stephen talking about how, after 15 years as a writer and editor, he had changed careers a couple of years ago and gone into real-estate sales. You can probably guess what came next: He talked about how rewarding and challenging his new line of work was. He cleared $6 million in sales last year. And now, he wanted to reach out to his wide circle of buddies and semi-buddies to spread the good news and ask for referrals, either directly from us or from anyone we know who might be contemplating a real-estate deal. For our convenience, he had enclosed his business card.

I’ve got to say this: The letter has as much class as any of its kind can have; which is to say, not much. It was well thought out. It was nicely crafted. It had a friendly tone (I’d quote it, but the message seems to have found its way into the recycling). But at its heart — the mysterious email, the group letter personalized with the salutation “Hi, Brekke!” scrawled at the bottom — the effort was still crass, right out of some playbook on how to “leverage” friends and family as part of creating a successful business enterprise: “I know and like you. You know and like me. I’m in a new business now. Won’t you let me sell you my service? It’ll help you as much as me.”

Don’t get me wrong. First, I’d feel different if I were dealing with someone I’m close to. With a real relationship in place, I certainly wouldn’t resent the suggestion that I might consider using a service, and chances are I’d try to figure out a way to help. Second, I don’t have anything against people who make their living in a tough, unforgiving profession. Sales is brutally direct in its feedback on your product and performance. To do well at it requires a combination of knowledge, preparation, endurance, optimism and perhaps charm with which I, for one, have not been abundantly blessed. Third, I don’t dismiss the advantages of engaging someone you know and trust to help with a daunting business transaction. I got an attorney who played on one of my old softball teams to help Kate and me when we bought our house in the late ’80s. And the last time I wanted to refinance the (same) house, I looked up a former colleague from my last news gig who has since become a mortgage broker.

Would I have gone to either guy if they had first let me know beforehand, the way Stephen did, that they viewed our acquaintance as a sales opportunity? I can’t say for sure, though it’s clear that I have a low tolerance for marketing. For me, the difference is that the only marketing either the lawyer or the mortgage banker did was to be themselves; and until I initiated a conversation about doing business, I never got the feeling either one of them saw me as a potential source of income or our relationship as a resource to be monetized.

Monetizing Democracy

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday opinion section ran a stunning piece today reviewing the rise and fall of the government of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori. More specifically, the story (a cut-down version of an article that ran in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in fall 2004) focuses on how Fujimori’s chief of national intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos Torres systematically turned the nation’s legislature, judiciary and news media into subsidiaries of the executive. Montesinos set up a bribery network in which everyone who needed to be bought to ensure the administration’s success — lawmakers, judges, media magnates — was paid.

The breathtaking part of Montesinos’s scheme: He documented everything: The people he bribed were required to sign contracts laying out exactly what they’d promised to do for the money they were getting; Montesinos videotaped many of his meetngs with bribe takers (and givers) to ensure he could pressure those who might want to back out of their arrangements. The end to all this came when cable network that had refused bribes got hold of one of the tapes and put it on the air.

The authors, John McMillan and Pablo Zoido (a professor and former student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, respectively, emphasize the importance Montesinos attached to controlling the media. TV broadcasters and newspaper owners received payments in the millions of dollars to ensure their coverage both promoted the government’s views and attacked the opposition. Montesinos’s contract with one station gave him direct editorial control over its daily newscasts. The media bribes were orders of magnitude larger than anything paid to elected and appointed officials. The rationale was twofold, McMillan and Zoido say:

“The judges’ bribes were one-and-a-half times to four times their official salaries. The politicians’ bribes were multiples of their official income. By contrast, a few thousand dollars a month might not have impressed a wealthy television-channel owner.

“The difference between the news media and the other checks and balances in a democracy is that television, by informing the citizenry, can bring forth the ultimate sanction of citizen reaction. In the absence of citizens’ oversight, there would be little to prevent the government from buying off politicians and judges. …

“…’If we do not control the television, we do not do anything,’ said Gen. Elesv├ín Bello at a 1999 meeting involving Montesinos, high-ranking members of the armed forces and television executives.”

The original McMillan-Zoidos study is available through the Journal of Economic Perspectives (for $11) or from Zoidos’s personal Stanford home page: (PDF file).

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This Week’s Sky Highlights

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Last Saturday: North Berkeley and Albany from Vassar Avenue, just below Spruce Street, in the Berkeley Hills.

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Wednesday, looking east up Virginia Street from McGee Street. A pretty brisk late-afternoon shower opened up just as I walked home from downtown Berkeley.

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Blast from the (Cycling) Past

There’s a story to this. You could guess. You’re welcome to, in fact. I’ll give my version later. I will say this much, though: This was one of my happiest bicycling moments ever.

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’24’: The Drinking Game

Redoubtable Chicagoan (or is that redundant?) MK points out a Slate feature on “24.” It’s an interview with one of the show’s writers on the many TV story-telling envelopes the series is pushing. All fine. The show’s central conceit, that the story is taking place in real time during the course of a single day (divided into two dozen advertiser-friendly weekly episodes) is unique. But that’s not news. What is noteworthy, Slate writer James Surowiecki suggests, is the staying power of “24” long after the audience has gotten used to the show’s terrorist spectaculars and remorselessly pounding clock. The explanation, Surowiecki says, lies in factors like the “political and even moral depth” that world events have lent the production. And of course we shouldn’t overlook “Kiefer Sutherland’s exceptional work as Jack Bauer.”

It’s perplexing. On one hand, you wonder if Surowiecki’s ever watched the show. If he has, where did he spot all the excellent acting and writing he’s talking about? But he has watched the show — the interview he conducts comes off as the work of a “24” junkie. He asks the writer Michael Loceff, with an apparently straight face, “How much work do you put into making the show realistic? There seem to be times when realism and drama inevitably come into conflict.”

There seem to be times? Yes, whenever a character says or does just anything more complex than start a car. The only reason I can imagine that anyone would suggest that “24” has anything serious to say about the world we live in is that produces high ratings. But the Nielsen numbers don’t make the show deep or serious any more than Bush getting re-elected transforms him smart or wise.

As for Kiefer Sutherland’s “exceptional” acting — if you’re looking for an unregenerate hard-ass, I’ll take R. Lee Ermey any day — here’s a Jack Bauer drinking game (don’t blame me for the cirrhosis): Down a shot (whatever you prefer to guzzle) every time Jack screams, “No-o-o-o-o!” A shot every time he shouts. “Do it!” or some variation on that. A shot every time he threatens to rough up someone who’s not fully cooperatng with him; a double-shot every time he follows through on the threat.

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Jabbavision

Here’s the trouble you can get into idly flipping through the channels. The Playboy Channel? A “South Park” marathon? A Howard Stern-dubbed replay of the Alito hearings? No. More frightening still, you might see this: Jerry Falwell, in all his glory, holding forth on his own cable outlet, the Liberty Channel (“Enjoy liberty’s greatest gift — the freedom to think just like me!”)

Actually, when I tuned in, he was sermonizing benignly on the Psalms. He’s got a nice reading voice.

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24 Jones Street

“24” is back. Despite past seasons of carping about it, I spent two hours in front of the tube tonight watching (well, less than two since we recorded it and blasted through the commercials). No less august a chronicler of important stuff than The New York Times saw fit to run threethree! — features on the new season since Friday. (The considerably less august San Francisco Chronicle had a big season-opener on Friday. The reviewer, TV critic Tim Goodman, botched one detail. He suggested episode one took 10 minutes before it headed off into unhinged crisis mode; in fact, it took much less time: The opening credits were still rolling when the first high-profile character — “former President David Palmer” — was dispatched by an assassin.)

The Times ran a piece today on Carlos Bernard (aka north suburban Chicagoland native Carlos Bernard Papierski), who plays Tony Almeida, the durable and always-dependable sidekick to Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. What he’s loved for best in these parts, of course, is his display of a Cubs mug every season; he even drank beer out of it last season to dramatize how depressed he was with life as a disgraced counterterrorism agent. The mug showed up tonight in his very first scene in episode one, an hour that was kind of rough on him (13 minutes into the new season, mere minutes after brandishing the Cubs mug, his wife was killed by a car bomb. Tony/Carlos was badly injured in the blast).

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(Carlos Bernard/Tony Almeida in intimate Cubs mug moment.)

In other “24” news, the bad guys got things rolling in a big way. As usual, they’re omnipotent. As usual, they love L.A. The terrorist scenario this year involves some pissed-off Russians who look to be staging a Beslan-style hostage incident at the airport in Ontario. It’ll get really ridiculous soon — maybe even during the second two episodes, to be aired Monday. Thank goodness for the Cubs mug.

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Have Tartar, Will Travel

From the sharp-eyed Kate, off of Craigslist:

FREE TEETH CLEANING

Reply to: anon-125119271@craigslist.org

Date: 2006-01-13, 2:19PM

You: A kind-hearted person who hasn’t had their teeth cleaned in over 5 years and is willing to take a free trip to O’ahu, Hawaii to help me take my State Board Dental Hygiene test. Persons with cavities, crowns, bridges are not appropriate for this test. Lots of tartar build-up is a must! Smokers ok. We will leave Feb 21st (Tuesday), the test is Feb 22nd, and you may stay for as long as you like. Air-fare and hotel (for 2-3 days) will be covered. Free full set of x-rays included.

Me: A Registered Dental Hygienist that needs your help!

If you think you fit the criteria, and need a tan as desperately as I do, call me at (707)888-4765

Thanks! April

Our Daily Dead

Doing some research on RSS readers — applications that let you compile feeds from blogs and news sites and any other online source that cares to one up — I came across a site I had long ago noted and then forgotten about: Our Daily Dead. Wow. It’s a sort of super-blog that traffics in notable obituaries and sometimes the miscellaneous arcana of death.

In looking at the site just now, I came across the following literary obit, published last week in the Los Angeles Times:

Sanora Babb, 98; Writer Whose Masterpiece Rivaled Steinbeck’s

If there were lessons to be learned from Sanora Babb’s hardscrabble years as a child on the Colorado frontier, one of them must have been perseverance.

Babb waited 65 years in the shadow of a literary giant for her first completed novel to be published. Upstaged in 1939 by John Steinbeck’s bestselling “The Grapes of Wrath,” Babb’s tale about the travails of a Depression-era farm family was shelved by the venerable Random House, which feared that the market would not support two novels on the same theme. Bitterly disappointed, Babb stuck her manuscript in a drawer, and there it remained until 2004, when it was rescued by the University of Oklahoma Press.

At 97, Babb earned long-overdue praise for the novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown,” an acutely observed chronicle of one family’s flight from the drought and dust storms of the high plains to the migrant camps of California during the 1930s.

Reviewers called it a “long-forgotten masterpiece” and “an American classic both literary and historical,” as compelling as Steinbeck’s epic work and in some ways more authentic.

The widow of Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, whom she dated in the 1940s in defiance of California’s anti-miscegenation laws, Babb died of natural causes Dec. 31 at her Hollywood Hills home, said Joanne Dearcopp, her longtime agent and literary executor. She was 98.

The obit goes on to note that Babb’s editor at Random House, the legendary Bennett Cerf, both praised “Whose Names Are Unknown” to the heavens and declared it couldn’t be published. “What rotten luck,” the obit quotes him as writing to Babb in reference to “The Grapes of Wrath.” “Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!”

The obit is a wonderful read. I want the book in my hands right now.