: I’ve been a big David Letterman fan since his start. Jay Leno even called me once to whine about my review of him in TV Guide and my Dave preference. Dave sent me a thank-you note I filed next to my hate mail from Bill Cosby. I like Dave. But now that I’m an old fart with young children and a long, early commute, I am too pathetically tired to see him every night. So I have one favor to ask whoever ends up with Letterman — CBS or ABC : Rerun the previous night’s show the next evening on cable so poor old guys like me can watch him again.
I’m spoiled by HBO’s repeats. I used to hate them; I thought they were ripping me off, especially on a pay channel. But now I love it; if I miss Six Feet Under this Sunday (or pathetically fall asleep before it’s over), I know I can watch later in the week.
I want the same for Dave.
: Howard Stern’s girlfriend is on the cover of the April FHM magazine. Here in New York, it’s not on most newsstands but in every newsstand I’ve been in today, guys are coming in asking for the magazine. It will sell out. Howard is the king of all media.
The 9.11 tapes
: One group of 9.11 victims’ families asked CBS not to show its March 10 special with tape from inside the World Trade Center during the attacks. I disagree strongly. I certainly understand that many people will not want to watch; these families said in their letter that the show might distrupt their “fragile psychological equilibrium they are so desperately attempting to regain and maintain.”
But I need to watch; I have a continuing need to remember that day. Another group of families agrees with me; they said to the Times: “One, some people want to see what happened inside the building. Or two, they don’t want people to forget.”
When it comes to this show or memorials at the World Trade Center or payments from the government, the families need to be careful not to try to rule the debate and discussion. They have a right to lead it; they have suffered more than any others. But there are other views, other needs, other opinions from people who were there, from neighbors, from other New Yorkers, from other Americans.
Spreadsheets spread the wealth, spread the lies
: Michael Wolff has a wonderful column in New York Magazine arguing that we’re about to witness the end of The Business Era — thanks to the Popping of The Bubble and Enron and all that — and blaming the birth of that era on the invention of the spreadsheet. There’s elegant truth there.
If you could work a spreadsheet, money suddenly became a highly fluid concept — the buck never stopped anywhere (oddly, during the eighties, bottom line became a metaphor for something absolute and irreducible when, in fact, the bottom line was becoming ever more elusive). Financial strategy became like a war game. If you played it one way, you risked the end of the world, but if you changed a variable, you were safe and secure. Business reality became wonderfully plastic (running numbers has about the same relationship to actual business as sex fantasies do to sex — indeed, running numbers gets to be a sort of fetish).
True. I lost my financial virginity back when I worked at what was then Time Inc., when I was a mere writer. I, too, thought the bottom line was the bottom line; I thought words could lie but numbers couldn’t. Ah, the innocence of youth. A college friend of mine worked at the company on the finance side and I remember the day he told me he couldn’t have lunch — a tearful tragedy in that company then — because his boss had just called him to “find another million dollars” before the quarter closed. How? I was shocked. I thought the rules wouldn’t allow that. But I learned that these rules were meant to be played around, like big guys on a football field.
Then I came up with the idea for Entertainment Weekly, which spent six years in gestation. During that time, I saw “business models” fly. Reality, however, was an entirely different model. The magazine is profitable today, pulling in $300 million a year, according to Ad Age; that makes it worth more than a billion. But along the way, some crazy models caused a lot of wrong turns and cost a lot of money. Somebody stuck a number in a little box and behind that number was the belief — the hope — that this magazine would sell as many copies on the newsstand as People; but the truth was that this magazine could not (and never has) because it is a guide (like TV Guide); it cannot goose sales by trafficking in the bodily fluids of the stars (as People does brilliantly). But because of that little number in that little box, millions of copies of EW were sent to places where people would not buy them (KMart checkouts); millions were wasted; task forces were launched; profitablity was delayed. All because of a little number in a little box in a mere model.
Now I work in the Internet and I’ve seen lots of Internet companies that never were anything other than models (and a few PowerPoint slides).
Financial engineering (the term of art for the business that grew up around working a spreadsheet) becomes as complex as any activity becomes when you increase the variables exponentially. “Can he keep track of the moving pieces?” was what got asked about prospective managers of high-flying companies. The question was not, “Can he work hard and focus on the many details of the business?”…
In short order, business became way too complex for mere businessmen — the pallid, gray dad types of the past. Business suddenly demanded a different caliber of brain power and temperament.
Wolff says the spreadsheet thus led to nothing less than a cultural revolution. Business, dull, grey, suited, cublicled, martinied, cigarred, flabby business became the hot testosterone thing; Wolff’s subversive college friends were becoming investment bankers before he knew what the hell an investment banker banked.
Every day it was happening: Absolute nobodies, with only heart and imagination — and strange new ideas about how to analyze and manipulate numbers — took over heretofore unassailable, invulnerable, and oppressively dreary great American corporations. It was a class overthrow: outsiders against insiders, smarties against dopes, risk takers against old farts.
Business, which used to be a specialized, opaque, conservative activity — something like the military — became the national pastime….
Everybody was in business. Everything became business — technology, entertainment, news, even academia.
And then Wolff — who’s never afraid of the tough question or criticism (isn’t that what media is supposed to be?) — asks the toughest question of all:
The question now, the embarrassing question (to say the least), is to what extent the business culture — our culture — was just a twenty-year Ponzi scheme.
Now we don’t want to ask that question; we want to believe Sir Greenspan yesterday when he said this is/was a mild recession; we want to nod our heads at the analysts (even if they were the same frigging idiots who said “buy Enron” and “buy Global Crossing” and “buy AtHome”) when they said on the radio last night that our economy is in phenomenal shape to have survived The Bubble and September 11; we don’t want anything to upset the delicate psyche of The Market; we want things — or at least our 401Ks and portfolios — to return to the “normal” of the last millenium.
But I think the best thing we can do is to ask the question Wolff asks and get the reexamination and revaluing over with — reaching the sunny day when, at last, F’dcompany itself goes out of business for lack of anything more to say. For then we will get back to the prespreadsheet normal when business was dull because it was about paying attention to details and fundamentals and that is supposed to be dull. I see it happening even now: I hear business people talking real numbers and business fundamentals; I hear them talking about “cash” and “break-even” and “profit” and “return on investment” and not the jargon of the go-go years, the business disco; the music has died and what we hear again is the sound of adding machines, dull adding machines, and that is good. If I never again hear a phrase like “fund newco,” I will die happy.
Anyway, read Wolff’s column; he has much more to say about why media and the academe did not rescue us from this fate but I didn’t want to quote all his best stuff — especially his last two paragraphs. This is one of those columns I’m going to remember and quote for sometime; he has pegged the era.
Only the shadow knows
: Today’s Washington Post story about the shadow government — the 100 or so Federal bureaucrats being guarded in secret bunkers in case Washington is nuked — raises all kinds of fascinating questions:
: Politically, if you’re picked for bunker duty, does that mean you’re important enough to run the government if there isn’t one or that you’re a pain in the ass and your boss finally had the excuse to get rid of you? I’d vote for the latter.
: You’re not allowed to tell anyone you’re in the bunker; you’re just “on a business trip.” Can you tell your family? And — shades of Cold War nuke movies of the past — when you know the attack is coming down, can you call your family to tell them to get the hell out of D.C.? I doubt it.
: Do you do real work in the bunker or doomsday makework? The latter, I’d bet.
: Do the bunkerites, in their most secret dreams, fantasize about the dark day when they have to take over? Don’t at least a few of them relish finally being in charge after spending years working up the civil service slope? I’d betcha.
This is so ripe with paranoid possibilities, I assume Oliver Stone is optioning the Post story as we read this.