Thursday, October 20, 2022

Not Such a Bad Idea?

Once again one of the usual Facebook misinformation posts has begun making the rounds. This one suggests that on a certain date, Facebook will begin charging a subscription fee for its services. As usual, such a post has the immediate effect of driving up Snopes traffic, as well-meaning people post links that help counter the misinformation and ease tension. But what if...

What if Facebook had a subscription fee for something like a premium level, on which it would guarantee you would see none of its clickbait spammer fraud ads? What if it offered a couple of tiers, and on one you could set your own keyword instructions, so that posts with certain words, such as, oh, I don't know, let's pick two at random, "Trump" and "Biden" wouldn't appear on your feed? Most of us have friends who we think might be a little too into politics who also post great stuff about what is going on in their lives and we would appreciate the chance to curate what we see from them. What if we could set the instructions for our news feed to show us things in chronological order rather than the choices the company's algorithm makes, and leave it there?

Would Facebook do this? Almost certainly not. A long explanation can be found in this Ted Gioia Substack piece, "YouTube May Force You to Watch 10 (or More) Unskippable Ads in a Row." Another version of it can be found in several chapters of the Johann Hari book Stolen Focus. The upshot is that by being free, the main social media platforms have eliminated competitors and now have sole domain. They can, therefore, insert those 10 ads because they have little competition and because we have become unaccustomed to considering lost time on a screen as a cost. I'm an old Gen Xer, so I remember having ads you couldn't skip in the middle of your program called "commercials," but many folks today grew up with DVR fast-forwards and premium cable or streams that had none of those. They may get a little rattled.

Hari's contribution is to highlight how social media companies only make money when we are watching them. A chronology-based scroll comes to an end when we reach items we know we have seen before. An algorithm-based scroll can go on as long as we click what looks interesting to us and give the company more data about how to show us what we like to look at.

So despite the panic button posts that crop up when the rumor gets started, I would love to pay a nominal fee for a premium level of Facebook that I could configure a little closer to what I liked. But it'll never happen.

Because the company can't afford to start charging -- if Facebook isn't free, it doesn't make as much money.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Hunt, Faye Kellerman

Faye Kellerman ended 2021's The Lost Boys with a bit of a cliffhanger. Peter and Rina Decker's foster son, Gabe Whitman, heard from his biological mother Terry -- she had been severely beaten and her son kidnapped. The only realistic help: Chris Donatti, Gabe's biological father and a former hitman who now owns a successful brothel. Also, Peter's partner Tyler McAdams has been pursuing leads in a missing person's case that had gone cold -- but he found a body, just before Peter and Rina were due to fly to Israel for two weeks.

By the time the pair return, they've made the decision to move to Israel, but they'll need to help clear up both situations first.

Kellerman's 27th Decker Lazarus novel, The Hunt, alternates between chapters spent searching for leads for the killer of the discovered dead woman and those spent on Donatti's efforts to both woo Terry and find out who has her son and how he can be rescued. "Woo" is a very loose term, though, as most of the interaction between the former lovers consists of Donatti demanding Terry come back into his life as the price of her son's rescue and their frequent (and frequently violent) sexual encounters.

Hunt is a big, sprawling mess and if as several readers suggest it is a finale to the series, it's a lame one. Neither of the two plot lines offers any real energy or excitement. In the hunt for their killer, Peter and Tyler interview a few people and then spend pages spinning out possible theories for the crime -- which all prove to be wrong. Chris and Terry engage in dialogue that's repeated so many times you might wonder if Kellerman simply made a macro of it. The murder plot line provides no danger or real suspense as it unspools and the two detectives plod through it.

And Chris and Terry's narrative features a relationship between two dysfunctional and not especially likable people that's so toxic it's simply impossible to believe it will succeed, . So when the diablo ex machina shows up to send everything of the rails it's certainly from an unexpected source-- but it doesn't have nearly enough substance or realism to surprise anyone that it happens.

Almost every long series of novels runs out of steam when the author either doesn't have any more new ideas or the characters age to a time when further exploits would become unrealistic. It's just that, judging by The Hunt, the Decker/Lazarus series already did that before it came out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Daniel Silva

An author making any kind of a comeback after three sub-par (two awful and one mediocre) books in a long-running series is not the safe way to bet. But Daniel Silva defies the odds as Gabriel Allon, now retired from Israeli intelligence, is drawn from his peaceful career of restorations by old friend Julian Isherwood. A previously unknown work by a 16th century English artist has come to light and although almost every inspection suggests it is real, there are whispers about it. Julian, a veritable vacuum cleaner of such talk, enlists Gabriel on behalf of colleagues who need to know if what they have is a real work.

But as Gabriel uses his undiminished investigative skill to probe the matter, he find there is more than simply the authenticity of one painting at stake. In the new world of investing in fine art, there are millions of reasons to keep secrets -- and to kill to keep them hidden. But shady dealers in the art world will soon learn what dozens of enemy agents have learned at great cost: No one plays that game better than Gabriel Allon.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman is such a pleasure partly in contrast with its immediate predecessors, and partly because in it a well-liked author demonstrates he hasn't lost whatever "it" people mean when describing folks who have or haven't got it. But primarily it's a pleasure because it's a really tightly-woven spy thriller and it's in a new environment that keeps Silva from relying on some of his old faithful tropes and schemes.

Yes, the denouement comes when Gabriel and his friends run a delightfully Mission Impossible- styled scam on the criminals, as he has in the past. But bereft of his usual team from the Office, he must recruit and sort through new players and tailor the scam to their strengths. And the arena in which they play is that of high-dollar art sales and the new feature of multimillion-dollar investments in the value of different works. The decidedly new field offers intrigue instead of familiarity and lets Gabriel -- who desired a career in art before recruited by the Office -- use both sets of skills.

Silva's clean, dry and witty style, instead of being a thin layer over a pile of junk and garbage, helps reinforce the quick-moving plot and sketch the new characters while meshing nicely with the judiciously-selected returnees. In the end, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is both a welcome return to form as well as a book to which Silva fans can direct the curious if they'd like to check out the series.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Robert B. Parker's Fallout, Mike Lupica

In 2020, Mike Lupica took over a second Robert B. Parker franchise, Paradise, Mass. police chief Jesse Stone. Stone had experienced the most variation over the years since series creator Parker died in 2010, and Lupica was the third author for the character and cast. His first outing was strong, but he faded in 2010's Stone's Throw. The fading continues in Fallout.

Luther "Suitcase" Simpson is one of Jesse's best officers, but he is devastated when his nephew, a star ballplayer, is found dead at the bottom of a bluff. The death has no real signs of foul play, but the young man had a bright future and seemed very level-headed. Jesse believes there's something more than meets the eye.

Then Jesse's predecessor as Paradise police chief, Charlie Farrell, tells Jesse that he's been tracking spam calls that prey on the elderly to defraud them of their money. He thinks he has a lead, but then Charlie is found murdered too. Jesse very much wants to find out what Charlie's lead was and who killed him, while Suitcase and Jesse's assistant chief, Molly Crane, begin to dig into the onion of high school life. But as they try to un-spin the different webs of mystery, they may find them rewoven and ensnaring the three officers themselves.

During much of the late '90s and early ’00s Parker's work was not much more than a cut and paste version of his old self. A reader might wade through a swamp of clever badinage and sangfroidy quips, cameos and walk-ons by previous Parker characters for no real reason whatsoever, scenes and even chapters that had no point. Why? Who knows. Maybe some sense of loyalty to the author himself, a kind of thank-you for some of the absolute gems from earlier in his career. Maybe because of a stubborn belief that at some point, some real thoughts and real insight might coalesce once again from the fog and the half-ass effort in your hands might become something real (Painted Ladies in the Spenser series is a good example of the latter).

Lupica does most of these things in Fallout. There are walk-ons from state police retiree Healy, gangster and pimp Tony Marcus, Jessie's former flame Sunny Randall's former husband Richie Burke, and so on. There is an inexplicable use of Wilson "Crow" Cromartie, a pseudo-Hawk to Jesse's Spenser, and yet another few scenes of Molly Crane desiring Cromartie even though it's already wrecked her marriage, completely implausible connections between events, a girlfriend Jesse kind of likes but will gently move on down the road, and so on.

We would put up with this, more or less, when Parker did it. We were doing it, in a sense, for Parker, for any or all of the reasons above. But as Fallout drags on and on, the reader becomes aware that he or she is making this slog not for Parker, but for Mike Lupica. And there doesn't seem much point to that.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Umm...

Washington Post opinion writer Marc Thiessen complains in a piece today -- and don't worry that it's paywalled, the free preview is what caught my eye and sparked this micro-rant -- that Joe Biden's nationwide public address this evening is "disgracing the institution of the prime-time presidential address."

On the one hand, Mr. Thiessen is correct. When I look back at the first fifth or so of the 21st century, there are only two incidents that I can see that merit the traditional solemn, stern presentation by the president we see in such times. The first was the 9/11 attacks, and we saw former President George W. Bush speak strongly and firmly about what our nation would do to the perpetrators of those attacks. We diverted our attention from those goals and we unfortunately allowed the federal government to create our response, which is one reason why we have to let Transportation Service Administration workers get lucky with us and rely almost exclusively on hotel toothpaste because our own container must be checked and subsequently lost by the airline. His famous "with us or against us" tone made exceptions for nations which essentially grew the terrorists but also sold us a lot of oil.

The second occasion would have been President Biden addressing the nation to announce that the State Department and upwards of 70 percent of the general staff officers overseeing the United States armed forces withdrawal from Afghanistan had all been fired and their jobs would be listed on federal government websites the next morning. It would have included direct addresses to both Afghan nationals who helped the US while it was there and the families of military personnel who expected the safety of their loved ones was at least somewhere on the priority chart. Ideally it would have said, "We screwed up," although given the president's attitude about the matter it was far more likely to have begun with, "Flounder, you can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes..."

As you might imagine from my summary and my speculation, on the other hand I don't believe that given the recent holders of the office the tradition can actually be disgraced. The prime-time presidential address kissed disgrace goodbye and promised to write a loooong time ago. What we'll get tonight will be far more of a campaign speech for Democratic nominees for Senate and House races than any kind of address by the head of state of our nation on real matters of state.

With all that said, I think Mr. Thiessen is not too wide of the mark. If we replace "disgrace" with its rhyme "erase" and change the attitude from warning to jubilant bacchanal, I think we may be on to something...

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Send the Envoy!

Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin hosted some friends after they'd all seen some concerts, and a couple of the friends got, um, really friendly while on the wrong end of a camera. The matter has caused another headache for Marin, who has recently reminded the world that politicians don't always have fun by wrestling waitresses half their size into unwanted double gross old guy contact.

Rumors that former president Bill Clinton immediately offered to mediate any dispute, saying, "I'll put myself between the two parties for as long as it takes to get things worked out," are as yet unfounded.

Monday, July 25, 2022

It Is Done!

No, not this blog, although anyone who used to read it might think so. Something keeps me from turning out the lights whenever the idea crops up in my head.

No, the thing that is done is the induction of John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Those poor benighted souls who prefer other sports to baseball or who are indifferent to them altogether may be tempted to ask why that matters. Partly it’s because Buck should have been in the HOF a long time ago, especially while he was still alive. None of the recent recognition of the work of the Negro Leagues would have happened without Buck. No museum, no recognition of the Negro National and Negro American Leagues as official Major Leagues right alongside the National and American Leagues, no awareness that as great a man as he was, Jackie Robinson was not the first African-American man to play organized baseball. Absolutely none of it.

And as to why it might matter outside the foul lines and beyond the bleachers? Read Buck’s autobiography, I Was Right on Time. Read Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball. Read Vahe Gregorian’s appreciation when Buck was voted in last year (No links because the Kansas City Star has a very steep paywall). Heck, read Anne Rogers’ feature piece from MLB’s own press shop today and get a sense of why a great man with a great and gentle view of the world is finally getting his due.

As Bob Kendrick, manager of the Negro League Baseball Museum said in more than one article and as this space has put forth before: The Hall of Fame now matters once again.