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Robert Niles: July 2008 archive

July 31, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 6

What they say:

"You can't find a better product."

What they mean, after the jump.
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July 30, 2008

Earthquake shows how government regulation saves lives

Kudos to the Los Angeles Times for finding the news in yesterday's earthquake here in Southern California.

After the quake, my son's piano teacher joked that news crews would be showing pictures of fallen cans and bottles in grocery stores, since that was the bulk of the damage done by the quake. And sure enough, that's what we got.

But the Times found another angle, too, one well worth remembering:

The earthquake that rattled Southern California on Tuesday might have caused devastation if it had taken place in some parts of the world, but relatively strict building codes ensured that most of the region's infrastructure -- homes, schools, freeways and rail systems -- rolled with the magnitude 5.4 punch, which was centered near Chino Hills and felt as far as Las Vegas.

Why was yesterday's earthquake, ultimately, not much of a story? Because of government regulation.
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July 28, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 5

What they say:

"I hate the sin, but I love the sinner."

What they mean, after the jump.
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1 Comment | Archive Link
July 28, 2008

Child buys newspaper; parents in shock

Friday afternoon, Laurie and I were visiting with a friend at a local coffee shop, discussing a new Web venture, while the kids ran around the plaza outside.

Brian and Natalie would drop into the conversation from time to time, find it about "grown-up stuff," then quickly leave. But Brian lingered as we chatted about newspapers.

"Can I borrow some money from my allowance?" he asked, after a few moments.

Not wanting to jack the kids on any more sugar than they'd already had that day, I resisted.

"What for?"

"I want to buy a newspaper."

Silence. Shock. Three adults, all journalism school graduates, started at 8-year-old Brian with a level of comprehension typically demonstrated by the heavily sedated.
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July 27, 2008

Tips for news reporters covering the Unitarian Universalist church

My thoughts and best wishes go out this evening to my fellow Unitarian Universalists in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a man this morning shot eight people at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, killing two.

I was watching this evening a report on the Los Angeles ABC affiliate about the crime. Unfortunately, the station chose to illustrate the segment with a graphic of a cross and a large book labeled "Holy Bible."

Let's make this a teaching moment for some news reporters: The Unitarian Universalist Association is not a Christian church. The UUA was formed in 1961 by the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist churches, two faiths that derived from Christian traditions, but that nevertheless rejected basic tenets of mainstream Christian faith.

More, after the jump.
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July 25, 2008

Even the responsible got sucked in by the housing bubble mania

One more for the housing-bubble dead pool? The LA Times this morning reported the turmoil at Downey Savings & Loan. The company's parent sacked its leadership and is looking for a buyer, following a $218.9 million loss in the second quarter, its fourth straight quarterly loss.

Here's the key graf in the story, IMO:

"Long known as a conservative lender, Downey veered off its course in recent years by making many "option ARM" loans, which are risky adjustable-rate mortgages that allow borrowers to initially pay less than the interest that accrued each month. With home prices sinking, such loans are seeing high default rates."

This is the tragedy of what happened in the housing market over the last decade. Many lenders, and millions of borrowers, had no intention of giving or getting option-ARM or teaser-rate loans. They wanted to do things the old-fasioned way, giving and getting loans no larger than borrowers had the documented income to repay.

But the market would not let them. Read why, after the jump.
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July 23, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 4

What they say:

"We have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders."

What they mean, after the jump.
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July 22, 2008

It's time for journalism to face the music

One question's been nagging me about the recent and ongoing implosion of the print journalism industry: Why isn't this bothering me more?

The crash has been spectacular: Hundreds laid off from my local Los Angeles Times newsroom. Newspaper stocks plunging. Read Romenesko and each day it seems there is some new pundit wailing about a future without print journalism in this country.

Why isn't this infuriating me, too?

The answer finally came to me this weekend, while attending a Pasadena Pops concert where my wife was playing in the violin section: I'm married to a classical musician. Professional musicians have been enduring this crap for generations. Journalism, in time, will learn to do the same.

Why, and how, after the jump.
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7 Comments | Archive Link
July 21, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 3

Sensible Talk reader David Hume sent in this insightful example, one that I heard plenty of times during my stints with U.S. newspapers. Thank you, David.

What they say:

You are not being a "team player."

What they mean, after the jump
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July 17, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 2

What they say:

"Now is a great time to buy."

What they mean, after the jump.

There's more...

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July 17, 2008

'Prime Mortgages Look Terrible,' and here is why...

Link of the day: JP Morgan's Dimon: Prime Mortgages Look "Terrible"

Thought: The big reason that the real estate market stinks in the United States right now came from the industry changing the way it defined what "affording" a house really meant.

Read why that became such a problem, after the jump.
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1 Comment | Archive Link
July 16, 2008

Robert's Web tip of the day: Use eye-tracking

A lousy Web design can keep readers from finding the great content on your site. Would you read a site that featured pink text on a purple background? Or that buried information in tiny type below a slew of blinking ads? Heck, no.

Yet even subtle design mistakes can cost you readers... and money. I long ago lost count of the number of page layouts I've used on my various websites over the years. But I do remember how subtle changes between those layouts dramatically changed click-throughs, site traffic and advertising income.

Fortunately, you do not need to spend a decade messing around with page designs, as I have, in order to create a winning site. Just take a look at some of the research that's been done on how readers "see" websites.

Read about some of this research, after the jump
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1 Comment | Archive Link
July 16, 2008

Cell phone silliness

Is this illegal?

I wished I'd had time to take a picture, but here was the scene: Driving west on Del Mar on Pasadena, I saw, in a tan BMW to our right, a woman talking on her cell phone. No big deal, right?

A new law in California, effective this month, makes holding a cell phone to your ear while driving illegal. (Even though the rationale behind the new rule is bogus. [Link is PDF file of a magazine article I wrote on cell phone use by drivers.]) If a driver over 18 wants to talk on a cell phone, she must use a "hands-free" device, such as Bluetooth earpiece, or the phone's speaker function.

The woman in the BMW had a bright-green earpiece/microphone unit... which she was holding up to her ear with her left hand. For three blocks.

There's more...

2 Comments | Archive Link
July 15, 2008

Random advice: For The New Yorker

If you'd just added a fake "Fox News" chyron to the bottom of the cover, you wouldn't have ticked off half your readership and be energizing the racist wing of the Republican Party right now.

Ya gotta source everything, even satire. 'Cause if you don't, readers will assume the POV is yours.

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0 Comments | Archive Link
July 14, 2008

Algebra can be easy

My daughter, Natalie, and I were talking about math yesterday. The State of California is going to start requiring eighth graders to take algebra, and Natalie was worried. She's starting sixth grade in the fall.

"I'm never going to get algebra," she said.

"Nonsense," I replied. "You already know it."


Read how I explain it to her, after the jump.
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2 Comments | Archive Link
July 12, 2008

Don't blame depositors for IndyMac's failure

I find it disturbing that federal regulators are trying to blame the mortgage lender's failure on a run of customer withdrawls.

A run is simply the inevitable final stage of a bank failure. Saying that a run killed a bank is like saying that a patient died because his heart stopped beating. Well, yeah, but there was something more significant that caused the heart to fail.

In IndyMac's case, that was its sloppy lending to unqualified homebuyers, on the mistaken belief that home prices would continue to rise forever. When prices started to fall, borrowers were left owing more than their homes were worth. They either defaulted or walked away, and IndyMac was left holding the bag.

Anyone with two open eyes and an engaged brain could have seen more than a year ago what was coming at IndyMac. U.S. Charles Schumer was hardly the first person to see the bank's problems when he last month questioned the bank's health. But that didn't stop federal regulators from blaming Schumer, a Democrat, for the bank's failure. Office of Thrift Supervision John Reich told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that Schumer's comments were a "heart attack" that killed the bank.

Schumer's response? "If OTS had done its job as regulator and not let IndyMac's poor and loose lending practices continue, we wouldn't be where we are today."

What did Reich want Schumer to do? To shut up and pretend that everything was fine? Government-enforced consumer ignorance is no way to save a bank, or the economy.

There's more...

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July 11, 2008

What they say/What they mean, Op. 1

What they say:

"We're encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship throughout our organization."

What they mean, after the jump.

There's more...

0 Comments | Archive Link
July 10, 2008

America's economic future, revealed

Wish you could see into the future of the American economy?

Well, here it is:

Credit Suisse Mortgage Reset Chart

Read what it means, after the jump.
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1 Comment | Archive Link
July 10, 2008

AP flunks Poll Analysis 101

Mark Blumenthal of absolutely destroys the Associated Press today.
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July 9, 2008

Critics should be the last journalists to go

Laurie's piece yesterday reminded me of suspicion I've developed about news managers: That too many of them do not know the difference between consumer advice and criticism.

Allow me to explain how I see the difference. Stars, grades, ratings and scores give readers an instant judgment on the value of an option, and allow readers to make easy comparisons among options. If I want to know whether to see a particular movie, I can look online to see if Ebert gave it a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down." I can look up how many stars a Michelin-rated restaurant has, or check the Metacritic rating for a DVD or video game.

But criticism can do more than simply render a judgment and assign a score. Good criticism is context. It describes a work in terms of what has come before it and where it stands relative to other works today, whether that be in performing or visual arts, writing, food or any other creative discipline. Criticism introduces a work into the living, developing legacy of its discipline and helps readers to see not just where the work fits within that discipline, but how its introduction might help shape the direction of that discipline in years to come.

That's a much more ambitious goal than deciding if a concert was a "B+" and "A-."

There's more...

1 Comment | Archive Link
July 7, 2008

Even if you're not giving to candidates, you're still paying for campaigns

I've never contributed a cent to U.S. Rep. David Dreier, the Republican who represents my district in the U.S. Congress. But I'm helping pay for his re-election campaign against Democrat Russ Warner.

Not that I wanted to.

Here's a sample of the flyer I got in the mail from Dreier's office over the weekend. (Click on the image for a PDF of the whole thing.)

Dreier for Congress flyer

It's pretty standard campaign stuff, themed to veterans' issues for the Fourth of July. Decorated with a picture of the Marine Corps War Memorial, the seals of the service branches and a picture of Rep. Dreier with a U.S. veteran, the flyer also includes a list of the veterans' benefits that Dreier voted for (though not the ones that he recently voted against.)

But it's this little nugget, in the corner of the flyer, that steamed me:

See it, after the jump.
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July 6, 2008

Jesse Helms was a bigot: Deal with it

The Los Angeles Times' obituary for Jesse Helms illustrated some of my frustrations with contemporary journalism.

Johanna Neuman's obituary lays out the damning facts of Helms' career: He blocked treaties against global warming, nuclear proliferation and land mines. He openly supported death squads in El Salvador, while calling gays and lesbians "weak, morally sick wretches." He filibustered the establishment of the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he accused of being a Marxist. He steadfastly opposed civil rights, and his campaign ads played to the racism of so many of his constituents in the deep South.

The obit makes clear Helms' bigotry and cruelty, which helped make him one of the most reviled politicians of the late 20th century. But the author gives those critics little voice in this piece. The lone quote critical of Helms comes in the 23rd graf, after laudatory quotes from President Bush and Pat Buchanan.

Worse, the obit's lead reduced opposition to Helms' many sins to the complaints of "liberals" over campaign tactics and White House frustration with Helms' parliamentary maneuvers:

More details, after the jump.
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1 Comment | Archive Link
July 3, 2008

One for the theme park fans

We're approaching the a long holiday weekend for the Independence Day holiday here in the United States, so I'll be taking it easy on SensibleTalk for the next few days, starting back full speed on Monday.

In the meantime, I will be busy over at, where we have just announced the winners of our seventh annual Theme Park Insider Awards. These are for the world's best theme park, new attraction, theme park restaurant and theme park hotel.

If you are a theme or amusement park fan, I hope you'll take a look.
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July 2, 2008

Do you want to be the windshield... or the bug?

There's an interesting discussion emerging over at about the potential for online entrepreneurs to take advantage of struggling print newspapers: Online advertising killing newspapers?


Many newspapers are cutting back, making smaller papers, consolidating efforts, etc. I read this week that just 2 years ago the McClatchy chain of newspapers was worth in the neighborhood of $5 billion and now it's around $500 million.

The readers, or former readers, of these papers will be looking elsewhere for news and information. This is an excellent opportunity for AdSense publishers to provide what they are looking for and earn a nice income at the same time.

It will probably take more than articles written by $10 freelance writers, consolidated feeds, etc., but a huge opportunity exists to those who take advantage wisely. Isn't focusing on that opportunity a lot more productive than worrying over stuck stats, "advertisers cutting back", long holiday weekends, etc?

My reaction, after the jump.
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July 2, 2008

A tweak to the RSS feed

Just wanted to let everyone know that I've tweaked the RSS feed for the site, so it now includes the full text of each post, instead of simply the head and an intro.

Individual journal RSS feeds are still running the old way. (I'll switch those in a few days.)

Thanks for reading, however you read the site!
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July 1, 2008

Medill prepares to train journalist/programmers of tomorrow

Rich Gordon makes me jealous. The Director of Digital Technology in Education and Associate Professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism has developed the j-school program that I wished I could have attended when I was a grad student.

Rick GordonBacked by a grant from the Knight Foundation, Gordon and Medill have created a master's track blending computer programming, data analysis and investigative reporting instruction. So many great stories are locked away in databases, with few or no human sources ready or willing to tell them in a traditional, person-to-person interview. As I wrote, more than a decade ago, "Numbers can't "talk," but they can tell you as much as your human sources can. But just like with human sources, you have to ask."

Medill's new program will help train a new generation of journalists to do that, in ways far more effective that traditionally-trained journalists ever would have been able to. I swapped e-mails with Gordon last week (while I was on vacation in Orlando), to find out more about what's happening at Northwestern.

Robert Niles: Please describe the project and what you hope for it to accomplish.

Rich Gordon: We are offering the equivalent of nine full scholarships over three years to Medill's journalism master's program to people with degrees and/or experience in computer programming and Web development. The goal is to bring the skills and mindsets of programmer-developers into the world of journalism, expose them to the theory and practice of journalism, and challenge them to find interesting ways of melding journalism and technology.

More from Rich after the jump.
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1 Comment | Archive Link

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