Paul Simon, 1928-2003

Paul Simon, who represented Illinois in the Senate back in from 1985 until 1997, died today. With our usual attention to substance, we in the media remember he wore a bow tie, had big ears, big glasses and a deep voice. He started as a crusading newspaperman, spent nearly two decades in the state Legislature and won recognition for his independence from the Daley machine, then lost a run for a governor to a Democratic primary opponent who not only turned out to be a charlatan but eventually was sent to prison. Anyway, he eventually made it to the House, then the Senate and onto the presidential campaign trail. He was a practical liberal who wanted to do something about schools and jobs and health care and open government (and budget deficits and violence in the media, too). And he seemed like a decent and honest guy, too — almost too decent and honest to have thrived in his chosen profession. A sad passing.

A Cruel Hoax

Or maybe just a semi-amusing one. Here are two improbable wire service leads playing off today’s news about the Bowl Championship Series controversy. I admit I wrote them to snare a University of Southern California football fanatic in my newsroom — I was pretty sure he’d actually believe them, at least for a few minutes.

Schwarzenegger Says BCS ‘Bad for People of California’


Filed at 8:44 a.m. ET

SACRAMENTO — Seizing on the popular outrage sweeping voter-rich Southern California in the wake of Sunday’s surprise exclusion of USC from the national championship football game next month, newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised an investigation of a computer system he declared was “bad for the people of Colly-for-nya.”

Bush: BCS ‘Worse than Saddam’


Filed at 8:44 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — Declaring that the inclusion of the University of Oklahoma in next month’s Sugar Bowl “a national outrage,” President Bush recalled special envoy Paul Bremer from Baghdad to deal with the BCS controversy.

“In the eyes of the world, America is about fair play,” the president said. “The BCS decision keeping the Trojans out of the national championship — well, it’s worse than anything Saddam ever did and I think it’s got nothing to do with democracy.”

But although he has recalled Bremer, his top troubleshooter, to handle the football mess, the president denied reports he’s considering redeploying U.S. troops from Baghdad to seize the rogue BCS computers.

Notes: This is a dangerous thing to do in any newsroom. As unlikely as it seems, something like this, once floated, can take on a life of its own and find its way to publication or to air. Bad. –I did take pains to plant clues that these were hoaxes. The phonetic spelling of California. The suggestion that Bush was responding to reports of a troop redeployment to seize the BCS computers. –The intended targets and (distressingly) a couple others did bite on the stories. My surmise: Part I: That they didn’t really do more than scan the first few words and hurry over the rest of what was there. The format looks right. Some of the right names and words are there. Sold. Part II: That we all encounter too much that really is unbelievable — yet turns out to be true, somehow — that we start out better than half-willing to believe the next amazing tale.

The Night Above the Dingle…

One of the few lines of poetry I can recite from memory. In fuller context:

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light. …”

That came from a brilliant and all-too-human mind. Could a piece of software do the same thing? Compose a poem so full of images and experience that it would rattle readers’ memory and emotions forever? I can’t say. But Ray Kurzweil is working on the code. See the story in The New York Times.

And here’s the full text of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”


Michael Jackson story: Is it really that big? Saturation coverage of his arrest raises questions about America’s obsession with celebrity. [Christian Science Monitor | Top Stories]

I’ve got an answer for the question posed above. And so do the rest of you. Of course it’s not a big deal, except to the accused and accuser. But there’s something a lot darker involved in this than mere obsession with celebrity. Our media — and I’ve got that particular species of blood on my hands — are obsessed with what they guess their viewers/readers/listeners want to see/read/hear. And the assumption is the sensational, the titillating, the simply diverting takes precedence in the audience mind.

The day of The Jackson Arrest, Our President was in London to hang with his best War on Terrorism buddy. Al Qaida was in Istanbul, turning loose all manner of chaos on the streets. In our newsroom at TechTV, we had CNN tuned in most of the day, as we do every day. In the midst of The Jackson Hysteria, it seemed the real serious newsfolks down there in Atlanta could barely find a way to get the Istanbul news on the air. Everyone, even Judy Woodruff, the detestable Tucker Carlson, and the bloated Lou Dobbs were talking all Michael, all the time. It was almost enough to make you laugh.

There might be an obsession at work here. But it’s not the audience that’s obsessed.


What Helps, and What Doesn’t

Will laws make spam go away? Not likely, though they can make it more expensive and painful for the spammer who gets caught.

But some legal solutions are actually harmful. Congress’s latest handiwork actually makes life a little easier for spammers. It does that by overriding tougher state laws, like California’s. But it passed by a big margin. Because lots of people think any anti-spam bill is a step. Where? In the right direction. Yeah. Roads. Good intentions. Paving contractors. Hell.

SpamStats: The Hobby

It’s an experiment. Maybe a dumb one,  since it involves allowing 350 megabytes of email to just pile up, most of it unread, a lot of it unreadable. But the point was trying to learn about spam. It sure looks like a lot comes in. But how much? From whom? Whence? (Yes, whence?)

The first question is easy to answer. And since nothing is new under the sun,  it’s also easy to find innocent-looking email account holders who have been keeping track. Like this guy — he used to archive all his spam, and has a running record of the volume back to 1996. He gets a lot more than I do.

The second question is easy, on the surface. There are lots of real-looking names attached to spam messages. Lots of people who use just their first names, like they’re your buds. I just now got a note from David, telling me I can get 90 percent off a nice piece of maintenance software. Wow. Thanks, David. He gets deleted with the rest. But looking back to last December, I see David has sent me six messages, all trying to turn me on to a great deal of some kind. And lots of other Junkmail Daves and Spam Davids, many complete with last names — 37 in all — have contacted me to let me in on the latest in “teenz hardcore software account-past-due horse-humpin’ action.”

Some of these Davids might be real people. But if they are, they didn’t send this stuff. So, who really did? And where are they operating?

If that was easy to find out, we wouldn’t have spam. But for the next little while — let’s please not inquire for how long, because it might expose ugly truths about my attention span — I’m just going to sift through the last year’s worth of filth, free offers, and fun to try to answer some of the Big Spam Questions of Our Age.