Opinion

Felix Salmon

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jun 16, 2010 05:18 UTC

Delta schedules an impossible flight, landing at 10:19pm when the curfew is 10pm. Consequences: predictable — Consumerist

Those tenacious payday telemarketers — MSNBC

Who needs to trade stocks if there’s a big lottery jackpot? — CXO

Panel Sharply Raises Estimate of Oil Spilling Into the Gulf — NYT

Fired for sleeping with your fiance — MSNBC

I’m Comic Sans, Asshole — McSweeney’s

What happens when you drop cesium in water? — Corante

For journeys averaging 798 miles, estimates for north-going trips were 99 minutes longer than for south-going trips — Science News

My sister’s tsunami story — Mail on Sunday

A monster PDF of the new subway map — Second Avenue Sagas

Assorted wine (links)

Felix Salmon
Jun 16, 2010 05:00 UTC

My second wine column for Reuters is out, and in it I talk a little bit about my wine contests; previous installments can be found here, here, and here, and I should definitely thank Tamara Lover for the original idea. If you want the price-quality graph and scatter graphs for the Beaujolais contest, here they are; they look much more like Merlot than Pinot. For the real nerds among you, the spreadsheet is here.

scatter.png frequency.png

While I’m at it, I should mention a couple of other wine links which have caught my eye of late.

Eric Asimov had a great piece on the way in which Bordeaux is falling out of favor among the younger generation of sommeliers and wine lovers, partly because of the price factor:

Good Bordeaux might start at $35 to $50 retail, and $85 to $100 in a restaurant, and soar from there — far more than, say, reds from the Loire, Beaujolais or Alto Adige, darlings of the sommeliers and neighborhood wine shops.

At those levels, you don’t want to experiment. And if you’re playing it safe in Bordeaux, prices are much, much higher.

And Mike Steinberger has an equally great article in The World of Fine Wine — you’ll have to download it as a PDF — about the distinction between traditionalists and modernists in the wine world. He points out, quite rightly, that it’s not nearly as simple as the partisans (mostly self-styled traditionalists) would have you believe, and that in general both sides of the battle have come out very well of late.

Elsewhere, Jonah Lehrer talks about why wine tastes better when we know that it’s expensive, and Mike Veseth draws another important distinction, between what he calls Wagnerians, who enjoy wine every day, and Martians, who feel that there’s no point in making wine unless one aspires to true greatness. He quotes Thomas Pinney as saying something that I, for one, must definitely bear in mind as I continue on my way as a wine columnist:

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

I’m going to be spending next week at the beach, and this morning I bought two mixed cases of wine, including quite a lot of rosé, for $248, tax included. There were a couple of relatively expensive reds in there, but nothing over $15 a bottle, and I have every intention of getting a great deal of enjoyment out of all the wine that I bought.

It’s only natural for someone writing or talking about wine to gravitate to the rare and fabulous and expensive. But I’m a great believer in wine as a wonderful — and really quite affordable — everyday drink. It’s not always easy to find great wines for under $10 or $15 a bottle — which works out, on a per-glass basis, at less than the cost of a coffee at Starbucks. But it can be done, as I demonstrated with my $5.99 Morgon from Trader Joe’s, which did so well in the Beaujolais contest. And it’s definitely worth the effort seeking those wines out.

COMMENT

I have actually found some decent bottles of Bordeaux within $8 – $15, Ive also found some pretty good duds too. My wife and I blog about our finds at random stores trying to keep below $15 and we’ve had pretty good success with finding some exceptional wines. Unfortunatley society see’s more value within the price tag thsn in the actual product. Check us out if you have a chance, http://www.recession-wines.com

Posted by Delrio80 | Report as abusive

Doing curation right

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 22:33 UTC

Paul Carr has a nice old rant at TechCrunch about the way in which Forbes is moving to an unpaid-contributor model:

There are almost not enough words to describe how wrong-headed this move is: Forbes’ online editorial standards are already in the toilet and Dvorkin has just yanked on the flush. Not only will this new breed of hacks add thousands of pages of self-promotional, unedited (Forbes simply doesn’t have the resources to monitor thousands of contributors) drivel to Forbes.com but, by lowering the barrier to entry to anyone with a keyboard, the publication will also scare away those top tier contributors – captains of industry, statesmen and the like – who are prepared to pen a free article for Forbes just for the kudos that comes from being asked.

He’s right about this: Forbes is doomed if it thinks that running vast amounts of PR drivel (the flacks are already salivating) is any way of building a successful website. Which is not to say that Lewis Dvorkin, newly arrived from True/Slant, is wrong that it’s a good idea for editors to “increasingly become curators of talent”. It’s just to say that Forbes isn’t going to implement that idea with anything like the seriousness or budget that it deserves.

One of the reasons for the enormous success of Twitter is that it acts as a real-time curation machine: the idea is to follow a smart group of people, who are in aggregate reading a lot of material online and who tweet the really good stuff. In that sense, it’s much more efficient at driving you to quality content than say an old-fashioned RSS reader, because the RSS reader has no built-in human quality-control filter. Either you subscribe to a feed or you don’t; you can’t just subscribe to the posts that other people think are good.

Publishers like those at Forbes love the idea of “curation” partly because it sounds sophisticated but mainly because it’s cheap. But curation, done on the cheap, fails. You need a halfways-decent investment, like say that seen at Atlantic Wire, before you can really take off — and Atlantic Wire is really only a nod in the direction that a truly ambitious curator could move in.

Here’s what I’d love to see in a site which took curation really seriously.

First, I’d keep the full editorial budget — and just spend it in different ways, rather than trying to cut it. You should be able to get more bang for your buck, but that doesn’t mean cutting the bucks.

What should be done with that budget? Paying contributors, obviously. That shows seriousness of purpose, and it helps to put a natural constraint on how much material can be published. A curation site should have high standards, and one way to ensure those standards remain high is to force it to pay something — say $50 or $100 — every time a piece is published. And pieces would, wherever possible, be published in full — not just excerpted with a click to read the whole thing elsewhere. Comments should, wherever possible, be unified, using technology from Disqus or Echo.

There would be a large team of smart editors, who would be in charge of finding great content from around the internet. No biz-dev deals allowed: the only way to get content onto the site is to be found and liked and paid by one of the editors. Anybody offering to write for free, or even to pay to get their material on the site, should be politely refused.

The editors, whose key skillset should be reading rather than writing, would be charged with finding material which the authors are happy to see republished. That would naturally exclude most of the mainstream media, and would force the editors onto blogs and tumblrs and places like HuffPo to find the jewels which are published in these places every day by people who would love to get the occasional $50 or $100 check, not to mention prominent exposure on a reputable site.

Tools like Twitter will help the editors find the good material, but it’s hard work, and most of what they read won’t make the cut. Still, it’s great when you do discover a distinct new voice, and it’s also great not to ever worry about pitches or contracts or kill fees or deadlines or people not turning in what was requested of them. Working at a site like this could well be a lot of fun — and the final product, if well designed and well edited, could be very successful. It’s just too bad that nobody has really tried it. Certainly we’re not going to see anything like it at Forbes.

COMMENT

Your proposal is one of the models Getty Images has experimented with in the stock photography world. No idea how that has worked out for them, but I do know that once you open that door it seems to be inevitable that the $50 to $100 per piece you mention will be driven lower by business pressures.

Posted by ajw | Report as abusive

That Meg Whitman interview, in full

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 20:04 UTC

Every so often, a reporter gets a glimpse of the enormous amount of behind-the-scenes craziness that goes on in advance of even the most mundane interview. Rarely, however, does it become public that an interview preparation session resulted in a flack storming out of the company, taking the CEO to arbitration, and eventually scoring a six-figure financial settlement. That’s what seems to have happened after eBay CEO Meg Whitman was unhappy with her PR person’s preparation for an interview with Adam Pasick of Reuters.

Of course you want to know how the interview went, so here it is:

COMMENT

Californians, be sure to review ALL THE FACTS before heading to the polls in November.

Visit http://www.NegMeg2010.com today

Posted by negmeg2010.com | Report as abusive

How comprehensive is Zipcar’s insurance?

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 19:29 UTC

zipcar.tiffBack in 2006, I started writing about Zipcar insurance. Zipcar — which is going public in an offering worth as much as $75 million — has a history of being more than a little disingenuous about the degree to which its drivers are insured. I spoke to them in February 2007, and they promised to change the language on their website; instead, in May 2007, they decided to start leaving sock-puppet comments on my blog, rather than actually do what they’d promised. Eventually, in October, they merged with Flexcar, which had much better insurance policies, and as part of the merger they adopted Flexcar’s insurance plan. (They had to, or face mass defections by Flexcar’s corporate client base.)

Today, they still tout their “comprehensive insurance” (the image at right is from this page). But when push comes to shove, it seems they’re still interested in putting liability onto their members when there’s an accident, like the time when Zipcar member Dale Douglas rear-ended Leslie Minto. Minto took Zipcar to court, but Zipcar won, saying that it was not liable “for harm to persons or property that results or arises out of the use, operation, or possession of [their vehicles] during the period of the rental or lease”. As a result, Douglas has to personally pay Minto’s damages.*

In the short term, this is probably good for prospective shareholders in Zipcar, which don’t need to worry about large potential legal exposure. The bigger picture, however, is that Zipcar might not have put its insurance worries behind it. Anecdotally, I still speak to a lot of people who say that they won’t use Zipcar because they’re worried about the insurance situation. And if Zipcar starts to get a reputation for sticking its customers with damages after telling them that they had comprehensive insurance, that’s not going to be good for its business.

*Update: Zipcar’s general counsel, Maria Stahl, has now responded, via email:

Our insurance program covers our members for third party liability up to $300,000 per occurrence.  Accordingly, Mr. Douglas was in fact covered for this accident up to $300,000.  Your posting stated that “As a result, Douglas has to personally pay Minto’s damages.”  That simply is not true.  If Ms. Minto’s damages had been in excess of $300,000, Mr. Douglas may have been held liable, exactly as he would be had he been driving his own car and damages resulting from an accident had exceeded his own policy limits.

Ms. Minto had brought suit against Mr. Douglas as the driver of the vehicle and against Zipcar.  The court’s decision dismissed Zipcar from the lawsuit.  Zipcar’s dismissal from the action does not in any way affect Mr. Douglas’ coverage under the policy we maintain for members.

COMMENT

I really don’t understand what you’re saying about Zipcar at all. You haven’t told me any details and even your recounting of one member’s bad experience is vague at best. I’m not defending Zipcar at all – it’s just that your article just seems like a continuation of an on-going argument that I am not privy to the details of.

Jack
http://www.accidentinjurydirect.co.uk

Posted by jacktrip | Report as abusive

The NYT doesn’t care about posting primary documents

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 15:16 UTC

The NYT has a clear policy when it comes to primary sources — if you’re writing about a certain document, then you should link to it, if it’s online. Increasingly, the NYT’s journalists are actually doing that.

On the other hand, when it’s the journalists themselves who come up with the original documents, they tend to be very bad at putting them online. And it turns out that when you ask NYT types why they’re not putting those documents online, you often get a very interesting answer: doing so would be a copyright violation. Underneath that answer, however, is a regrettable and old-fashioned attitude towards primary documents: the NYT doesn’t particularly feel any need to post them in the first place.

I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with Richard Samson, the NYT’s top copyright lawyer; you might remember him from his nastygram to the WSJ earlier this month, or his nastygram to Apple with respect to the Pulse RSS reader, which resulted in the app getting temporarily pulled from the iTunes app store. (He says he’s now “in conversations with the developers”, but that “the fact that they’re charging for it certainly is a concern”.) If you’re a restaurateur, say, who reproduces a NYT review on your website, he’s the person you’re likely to hear from.

Samson explained to me that when it comes to posting primary documents, copyright simply isn’t an issue when you’re dealing with anything coming out of the federal government — there’s no copyright there. And it also isn’t an issue when you’re linking to or embedding documents hosted elsewhere: the NYT can happily embed a Scribd document, for instance, if it was uploaded by someone else, no matter who holds the copyright.

But if the NYT obtains a document itself where someone else owns the copyright — the Akin Gump memo on gender disparities at Wal-Mart, for instance — then it might well be legally constrained from posting it online. “We want our readers to respect intellectual property,” says Samson. “Intellectual property is arguably the biggest asset of this company. We value others’ IP rights, and we want their IP rights to be respected.”

What’s more, posting a copyrighted document would unnecessarily expose the NYT to legal jeopardy: “we don’t want to give them an obvious sword”, says Samson, adding that the NYT can be sued for damages even if it takes the document down as soon as it’s first asked to.

At the same time, this seems to be something of a non-issue in the newsroom. Samson talked to some editors about this before our conversation, and they told him that the NYT’s readers were not complaining about the lack of links to primary sources. “The journalist’s job is to read the documents and write the story and tell the reader what’s important,” says Samson. “If the journalist is doing his job there’s no need to provide the source documents. We’re trying to tell the news and if we feel that we’ve done that, then there’s no reason to do more than that.”

I couldn’t agree less. The real news value in something like the Wal-Mart memo is the memo itself, and publishing the memo alongside the story would increase the trust that the NYT’s readers have in it. Here’s how Julian Paul Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, explained it to the New Yorker:

Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.”

Against this very strong argument — that enforced information asymmetry clearly harms readers — Samson has some very weak arguments for doing nothing. “It’s probably kind of a pain to do it sometimes, because the documents are so big: there’s time considerations, and labor,” he says. “We would feel the need to review an entire document before putting it up on the website.”

This confused me: once the copyright considerations were dealt with, one way or another, what else would the document be reviewed for? Samson was a little vague on that front, but pointed to issues like privacy and obscenity as things that someone would need to look out for before the NYT published anything. That’s the nature of being a newspaper, he said: the publisher needs to vet everything that’s published. He continued by saying that “the role of a newspaper is to analyze and comment. It would be inappropriate to just put it out and say you guys figure it out.”

Of course, I never suggested that the NYT simply post documents without any gloss or commentary at all, but I did ask about sites like The Smoking Gun, which specialize in posting primary documents. Are they not legitimate news organizations? “The Smoking Gun is a different business than being a newspaper,” said Samson.

I also asked Samson about the Guardian’s attempt to crowdsource the mystery of Tony Blair’s finances; he didn’t know about that specific case, but it was obvious that the NYT was a very long way indeed from doing something like that. If the NYT gets documents and doesn’t fully understand what they mean, it won’t ask its readers for help in working them out. A sad wasted opportunity — and hubristic, to boot, since it’s predicated on the idea that if the NYT’s readers can work something out, then then NYT’s journalists should also be able to do that, on their own.

The one big thing I learned from talking to Samson is that when NYT journalists talk about copyright constraints preventing them from putting documents online, they’re not particularly upset about that. In fact, they might secretly be quite happy that there’s no question of posting the document they spent so much effort obtaining. Journalists are human, after all, and can be quite jealous and competitive: they don’t want to simply give the story, on a plate, to their competitors, and will happily sit on documents rather than publishing them if they’re given half a chance to do so. Samson said he couldn’t think of a single instance where a journalist was begging him to be able to publish something and he said no, for copyright reasons.

After all, it’s easy for the NYT to post copyrighted documents if it’s so inclined — it just needs to send them to any one of dozens of organizations who will happily put them online, and then link or embed the document into the story. Or the journalist can just ask their source to go ahead and post the document online, in some anonymous place where it can be linked to or embedded. But that never seems to happen. And even when there’s no copyright at all, as in the case of the Hank Paulson ethics waiver, the NYT went on the record as saying that the reporters “would probably be uncomfortable simply handing over documents” even to one of their colleagues, let alone to the world in general. After all, said Tim O’Brien, an editor there, “they had spent a lot of time and energy to find, analyze, and report on” that document.

And the NYT’s dual standard when it comes to embedding documents is just plain weird. It’s happy to embed Scribd documents posted by someone else without poring over every page, but it refuses to post any document itself without poring over every page. Yet to the reader, the effect is identical: the distinction is entirely legalistic.

In any case, the lesson here is that the next time you see a NYT story which doesn’t provide the source documents it’s working from, don’t be charitable in your assumptions. I know that I, and most of the people I talk to, have historically simply assumed that the NYT would love to post the source documents, but was unable to because their source asked them not to, or because doing so might reveal who their source was. But in reality, NYT journalists don’t particularly want to post such documents in the first place, even if their source would be perfectly happy for them to do so. And when asked why they don’t, they have an easy excuse in copyright law.

The NYT is a brave paper, when it wants to be. If it finds a document and thinks that publishing it would be in the national interest, I’m sure that it could defend its action on public-interest grounds even if copyright in that document was held by someone else. But it doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in publishing primary documents: it’s perfectly happy to just write about those documents, and say “trust us, we’ve read them, and we’re telling you everything that’s important about them”.

Of course there are lots of people who don’t trust the NYT, and many of the rest of us would love to take the trust-but-verify route. I look forward to the time when the NYT will make it easy for us to do that. But I’m not holding my breath.

Update: Thanks to jennkepka, in the comments, who remembered that the NYT did try a crowdsourcing experiment on its Economix blog last year, with respect to Tim Geithner’s schedules. I’m quite sure that if pressure to post primary documents comes from anywhere within the NYT, it’ll come from the blogs.

Update 2: A great example of a NYT blog putting lots of source documents up online is Dealbook, whose Scribd account has almost 100,000 subscribers and 648 separate uploads, which between them have been viewed almost 2 million times. NYT editors, take note! People do care about these things!

COMMENT

If the NYT had made Judith Miller post sources documents, the Iraq war might not have happened.

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

Counterparties

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 04:37 UTC

Thomas Kinkade, drunk driver — Sacramento Bee

The death of the sun’s “magnetic soul”? — New Scientist

England 1-1 USA in lego — Guardian

McCain tweets words of wisdom to Jersey Shore’s Snooki — NYT

Congressman behaving badly — YouTube

These are beautiful, but are they true? If so, now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years — Design You Trust

COMMENT

I am not sure about your Kinkade reference either. Are you sad your favourite artist hath fallen? Did you scrape off the paint and see the numbers beneath? Are you now relishing in his predicament?

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Box-office futures start their very short life

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 04:12 UTC

The CFTC has approved trading in film futures. This means almost nothing. A handful of contracts will trade in the next few weeks, but once the financial regulatory reform bill is signed into law, all such trading will come to an end. The opponents of box-office futures never really thought that the CFTC would change its mind and prevent these futures from trading, so they went over the CFTC’s head to Congress. Which is determined to make sure this market never takes off.

So enjoy these futures while they last. It won’t be long until they’re no more than a footnote in film-finance history.

Talking to Sebastian Mallaby

Felix Salmon
Jun 15, 2010 02:18 UTC

Sebastian Mallaby came in to Reuters today to plug his new book, and so naturally we talked about hedge funds. He’s more positive about them than I am, but even he reckons that they make sense as investments only for big institutional investors:

COMMENT

Sure, leverage can be put to use in the service of hedging, of course. But just because you’re hedged doesn’t mean you’re not leveraged. Just ask Goldman Sachs.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive
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