Thursday, February 22, 2018

Insurrection. By way of Steven Pinker.

If you want to thumb your nose at today's dominant complacency--a complacency that says the world is on the brink of disaster and ruin, that says mongrel hordes are streaming over our borders, terrorizing our streets and killing us in our beds, if...

If you want to thumb your nose at the Nostalgia-cists, who want you to believe that America and the world's best days are behind us, and we have entered and are spiraling down through a dark age and a deepening dystopia, if...

If you want to thumb your nose at Trump and small, petty, fact-hating Trumpism, I urge you to run, don't walk, and buy Steven Pinker's latest book, a book Bill Gates calls, "his favorite book of all time." 

You can buy it here. You can read a bit more about it here. 

It's a pretty heady book, with a lot of dispelling of Tversky and Kahneman's Availability Heuristic. But consider this quotation.

"If news outlets truly reported the changing state of the world, they could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years." (That's a decrease in the number of people in poverty of 1.26 billion.)

If you want to rebel against Trump and his deep evil pessimism and manipulative malevolence, read Pinker.

And embrace the fact that people are living longer, are more educated, are healthier and less hungry than ever before in the history of the world, including during the alleged Garden of Eden.

Trump and his Republican horsemen of the Apocalypse view progress as a Zero Sum game. If someone else has more, that means I have less.

That's not the way the world works.

In the real world.

Read Pinker.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lost in space.

One of the things in modern life that really rubs my goat the wrong way is the near incessant blather about how changing the design and configuration of one's office space will lead to huge leaps in creativity.

I just saw an article in "Agency Spy" about an agency in Detroit opening a "collaborative creative space." Listen to this folderol spewing from the lips of various mucketies.

“Having dedicated space downtown brings us closer to the resilient, fiery creative spirit of Detroit, where we can continue to enrich our work, attract more diverse talent and deepen the impact we are creating for our clients and our community.”

The spewing continues thusly: “Traditional offices are designed for tasks, not inspiration, so everything about D-313 is designed with collaboration and innovation in mind….From gigabit internet to modular furniture, the space is built to flex and adapt in ways that allow us to optimize creativity. In minutes, it can transform from a living room, to a classroom, to a formal meeting space.”

I love one line in particular, the bushwa about traditional offices being designed for tasks, not inspiration.

I mean, really.

You see, we have a task. To create good work that imparts useful consumer information in an executionally brilliant way.

Our job is not to wait for inspiration to strike. It's to get down to it and work. 

When early man was painting on the walls of the Lascaux caves some 20,000 years ago, they didn't worry about their space being designed with collaboration and innovation in mind. They painted.

In the last few years I've been lucky enough to spend an afternoon in Frank Lloyd Wright's studio in Oak Park, Illinois, and Rembrandt's studio in Amsterdam. I've been to Dickens' little house in London, and seen Poe's cottage in the Bronx. I've seen a plaque on a building in Manhattan where Melville wrote "Billy Budd." 

I'll put it as simply as I can. It's not the space that makes the artist. It's the artist that makes the space. I don't think Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," Solzhenitsyn's "Ivan Denisovitch" or Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice," suffered for having been written in prison spaces that would drive a cockroach claustrophobic.

If you can only work when the space and your mood are just right, you're not a professional, you're a dilettante. You engage not in the hardwork of concentrating and thinking, but in the pretense of dilettantism.

I've been at shitty agencies with great offices, and great agencies that look like a rat's nest.

It's not the space. It's what you do in it.

That's up to you.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A breakfast with Cy Bliskin.

Yesterday, while most of you were sleeping in for President's Day, I was up at the crack of dawn (Dawn doesn't like it when I admit that) for a breakfast meeting with Broadway impresario, Cy Bliskin.

Bliskin, you may or may not know, was the Broadway mind behind "North Dakota," a show that opened and closed in just weeks after it was overshadowed by Rogers & Hammerstein's more popular and critically-acclaimed "Oklahoma." Bliskin also produced "Irked," which foreshadowed "Wicked" by some months and "A Mohel in the Soil," based on the stories of Yitzhak Bashevis Singer, Isaac's brother.

Bliskin has expressed some interest in a musical I am writing: Moby! It's based, as you might have discerned on Melville's classic Moby Dick, and while I'm struggling with the script, I've already penned a couple songs: "Call Me Ishmael," and "Where There's a Whale There's a Way." I was ready for Bliskin. I had just about finished a third song: "Chowder, Louder."

I’m hungry.
I’m cold and I’m wet and alone,
And I’m hungry.
Got an ache once again
in my tumry
 ‘Cause I’m hungry.

Look, up ahead, down the street,
Is it somewhere to eat.
Look a sign of an Inn,
Where do I begin?
It’s called the Try Pots,
They have food and some cots,
And I’m hungry, why not?

Hosea Hussey,
Who’s he?
Well, he runs the Try Pots
And he couldn’t be prouder,
Of his famous chowder,
I’ll say it now louder.

The Try Pots’ chowder!

"Enough with the songwriting," Bliskin said, scooping up a big mouthful of eggs. "Let me tell you what I've got planned for the grand finale."

The waitress stopped by.

"More jamoke, boys?" she asked, wielding a steaming pitcher of the stuff.

We nodded silently, dutifully and she refilled us our joe. 

"The stage fills with mist. You can barely see the dory with Quequeg, or the dory manned by Ahab himself."

I sipped at my black.

"Then all at once," Blisken said, scraping up the remainder of his eggs with a piece of lightly buttered rye toast, "the very stage itself opens up."

"Intermission?" I cracked.

Blisken ignored me.

"Think Miss Saigon. But it's not a helicopter swooping down. No. Been done. A giant whiteness emerges. Up and up. His behemoth jaws chomping open and shut. All at once, down goes Quequeg's skiff. Then, Ahab's."

The waitress filled us again, and handed me the check. Blisken was breathing heavily. The stage direction had worked him up.

"Then the lights go dark. Moby descends back into the stage. The orchestra is silent. Then just as the audience is getting up to leave in stunned silence, Moby re-emerges, opens his tremendous maw and belches out Ishmael clinging to his coffin! He slowly, plaintively sings, 'call me, Ishmael.' The curtain falls. Exeunt."

"Fabulous," I said, leaving a $20 for the eggs.

Bliskin left our booth, humming "Chowder, Louder" under his breath.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Nobody asked me but....Presidents' Day edition.

Nobody asked me but is my periodic tribute to the great sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon. When Cannon had nothing to write about, he'd come across with one of these. About everything but sports.

Nobody asked me but...

...When I was a kid, we celebrated Lincoln's birthday on his birthday, February 12th and Washington's on his, February 22nd.

....That made a lot more sense than celebrating an anodyne day that lumps Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt together. Not to mention Donald Trump.

...The holiday has gotten worse. The mattress sales have gotten better.

...It's getting harder and harder to read the paper and not be angry.

...Speaking of angry, seeing the David H Koch theatre at Lincoln Center makes me want to throw rocks.

...Is Lincoln Center so impoverished that they need Koch's blood money?

...The same can be said for the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art--they have Koch monuments, too.

....I don't have a lot of respect for Ad Aged's "A List." 

...And not just because my agency wasn't on it.

...I think if you do an A List, you should show images of work produced, not just photos of people.

...If you "dope" to win a curling Bronze medal, that seems like a new low.

...I am spending 40% less time on my cellphone since I turned my screen black and white, as suggested in "The New York Times."

...Wait, you haven't ordered Steven Pinker's new book yet?

...I'm 107% sure Donald Trump hasn't watched "The Post." Much less "Mr Smith Goes to Washington."

...I didn't love "The Post," but it depicted one salient truth: you can't keep a pattern of lies under wraps for ever.

...Or as Carl Bernstein said, "the press won't bring Trump down, the truth will. And the press will uncover the truth."

...Speaking of Trump, it wouldn't surprise me if many of the votes he "received" were from Russian bots.

...We are optimizing banner ads, they told me. I asked "is that to get 62 clicks per 100,000 impressions up from 60?"

...I get kicked out of a lot of meetings.

...Thank god.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

No one reads anymore.

If you make your living, as I do, with the first knuckle of your fingers down to your very tips, you’re probably as tired as I am of hearing the platitude that no one reads copy anymore.

I stumbled upon a quote yesterday attributed to Bill Bernbach. I can’t seem to find the actual words, but I got the gist.

A client said to him about an ad, “Why’d you write all that copy, no one reads copy anymore.”

Bernbach said, “10% of people do. That’s who I’m writing for. The 10% of people who read.”

I don’t for a second thing my copy, good as it is, is going to reach non-readers. But as Mr. Bernbach said, some people will read it. And they will read it because they are interested in the subject of the ad. My job is to inform and persuade people—the people who read.

You can say, no one reads anymore.

But that is unproven. 

My guess is that the percentage of people who read ads probably hasn’t changed that much since advertising was invented—back in Sumerian times or before. I’d bet Bernbach’s estimation of 10% of people who are stopped by the ad will read it is just about right. That number will probably read the ad whether it has 50 words, or 250. Planners reading this—do you have any data that shows people are reading less than they did 10 years ago, or even 5?

Of course, people skip all sorts of ads.

A successful banner ad earns 6 clicks per 10,000 views. Have you chosen to dispense with digital media?

What’s more, if I haul out my dog-eared copy of “Ogilvy on Advertising,” I’d probably assert that readership will likely go up, not down, as copy length increases. Visually it appears you have something to say. And if you’re blessed, as I am, to work with great art directors, designers and typographers, an ad—even an ad with ‘a lot of copy’ might even be inviting.

The word no one, as in no one reads anymore, really distresses me. The tribal state of the world suggests to me that if you wanted to form a club of left-handed fish scalers who play badminton every other Tuesday, you could probably gain thousands of members. In fact, some years ago, I started a fictional Facebook group called “the Foreskin Liberation Authority.” I get membership requests still.

In other words, there is no no one anymore.

More esoteric coteries of people are catered to than readers. We target ads to all sorts of groups--many of them obscure. So why not regard readers as a target? And treat that target with respect.


I don't believe in ghosts like you see in old black and white movies. I have no truck with the howling guy in the sheet, or the translucent 12-year-old girl in a frilly dress who plays a piano in the attic at midnight. And Marley's ghost, or Banquo's, dragging the chains of past sins for all time, well, they mean nothing to me.

That said, my sister's ghost visits me from time-to-time. I'm thinking about my sister, Nancy, as I do, because today is her birthday. She would have been 58 today.

Instead, she died in a motorcycle crash on Mother's Day in 2007--right outside my office, on 12th Avenue and 52nd Street. A drunk ran across the road against the light. She swerved to avoid him and, in swerving, her bike flipped and crushed her to death. The cops who came to my apartment said she died almost instantaneously and didn't suffer.

Nancy's ghost comes to visit, probably once a month. After a childhood of being raised by Joan Crawford's meaner, crazier sister, I've built a pretty decent life for myself. Most of that is due to having chosen a wife of unsurpassed niceness and patience. Some is due to the 40 years of psychotherapy I have put myself through. Some, a little, is due to my own perseverance and will.

Nancy visits me when I'm sitting by a pool in Costa Rica. Or walking on the beach and throwing a duck decoy for Whiskey, my golden retriever. Nancy visits me when I'm down at Katz's and having my twice-annual pastrami sandwich on rye.

She usually takes my hand from my pocket or from my side and gives it a squeeze, and then says something like what you'd expect, 'George, I love you.' 'I love you, too, Nan. I wish you were here. I wish you could be with me.' 

She looks at me then with her deep-set and doleful eyes, and says, 'I am here with you.'

Then like a fist when you open up your hand, she's off again. Playing her amazing guitar licks in her band up in heaven, or riding her Ducati on some twisting road in Italy.

Happy birthday, Nancy.

Come visit me soon.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Yiddish autocorrect.

Some years ago while using my vaunted iPhone, I texted "Oy" to someone. The geniuses of Cupertino autocorrected that oy to "it's." Like they never heard Yiddish before, the Lingua Franca of the civilized world. Below, some modest suggestions.


I’m running a little late. Be there in five.

Once again I’m running late because I have no respect for your time. I’ll be there in five minutes if I don’t get hit by a bus.
I had to leave. Coming down with a cold.

I’ll probably be fired for leaving early. But who cares considering there’s a good chance it’s not just a cold, it’s polio.

Lots of Lox.
I’m coming down with a cold.

I have tuberculosis.
Call me later.

Call me later if I’m not dead yet.
Flight is delayed. Be home around 10.

Call me later if I’m not dead yet.

Bring Rebecca Brisket.