Friday, October 21, 2016

Would You Eat Broccoli if it Tasted Like Chocolate?

What's the difference between broccoli and boogers?

Kids don't like to eat broccoli.

I don't blame them. I hate broccoli.

There, I said it. I hate broccoli. I don't like it, I don't like the way it tastes, and I avoid eating it whenever possible. I'm like that episode of West Wing where President Bartlett didn't like green beans, and the green bean farmers of America clutched their pearls in despair.

(Just to be clear, I don't eat boogers either.)

It's not that I'm opposed to eating vegetables. Not even resistant. It's not like I refuse to eat vegetables. It's just that when I'm given the option of eating them versus not eating them, I don't always make a mature choice.

Sorry, ever. I don't ever make a mature choice.

I mean, when you have a choice between a salad and a cheeseburger, I think most people would like to choose the cheeseburger. And those who don't are lying.

That's not to say they will actually choose the cheeseburger, they would just like to. I'd bet there are even some vegans who still sigh and gaze fondly off into their childhoods when they think about cheeseburgers. With bacon. And the cheese is a little drippy. And the bun is shiny. And there's some burger grease running down your wrist.

But what if you could taste that delicious wonderful cheeseburger, without actually having to eat it? My wife would be thrilled; she worries about me.

What if you could make your salad taste like a cheeseburger, or broccoli taste like chocolate?

According to a story in The (London) Daily Mail, such a device now exists. The Taste Buddy is a small electronic processor, with some wires connected to an electronic tab nearly an inch wide. You place the tab on your tongue, where it will heat up or send weak electrical currents that stimulate specific taste receptors, and certain foods will taste sweet or salty, even when they're not.

By doing this, you can trick your taste buds into thinking that normally terrible and repulsive foods, like broccoli, are sweet like chocolate, or that your cauliflower tastes like a cheeseburger.

Professor Adrian Cheok of City University of London, who led the team of inventors, is excited about what this could mean for the health of its users, especially those users who would choose cheeseburgers over broccoli. He said they want to eventually expand its capabilities and target the other flavor receptors of the tongue, sour and bitter.

The article mentioned a fifth taste receptor called Umami, which was added to the list of taste sensations in 2009. But the name sounds stupid, so I won't discuss it any further.

In the meantime, researchers are also working on — Seriously, Umami? Ooh mommy?! It sounds like something invented while meditating over their bowl of granola and turbo flax. Who says ooh mommy, except maybe a little kid trying to get her mother's attention?

"Ooh Mommy, there's a pony!"

"Ooh Mommy, I want a balloon!"

"Ooh Mommy, my broccoli tastes better than my boogers now!"

(To be fair, the word is actually Japanese in origin, but I had already written those jokes by the time I learned that, and I wanted to keep them.)

The article said it could even one day be possible to make people think that tofu tastes like steak. I don't think I could go for that, no matter what it tasted like. I've eaten tofu, and it's got a mouth feel of congealed snot. The only thing that will get rid of the taste of tofu away is broccoli.

But maybe I'm cooking the tofu wrong. Another method I could try is to sauté the tofu in Irish butter, with minced garlic, shallots, some freshly ground pepper, and then throw it in the trash.

Eventually, Cheok and his colleagues hope to fit the Taste Buddy into normal dining utensils and drink cans. That way, when you sit down to your fifth meal of broccoli in as many days, you don't have to have to futz around with this small box on your table.

But trust me, if it made broccoli taste like chocolate, I'd wear a car battery around my neck.

Instead, you'll just grab your special spoon, switch it on, and power through as much chocolate-flavored broccoli as you want. I just hope other scientists are inventing a set of goggles to make my broccoli look like a sundae.

And maybe a small kitchen incinerator for the tofu.

Photo credit: Quadell (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Love Letter Marketing

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2005, mostly because we don't think anyone is reading these things anyway.

One day this past spring, I was lying in my hammock, drinking a beer, and relaxing. I was just starting to nod off, when I heard a quiet "ahem."

I opened my eyes and spotted my young neighbor, Jeremy, who had nearly finished the 6th grade, and was considering the leap to 7th grade in the fall.

"Hey, Mr. Deckers," he said. "Taking a nap, huh?"

"No flies on you, lad, although I wish you had a better sense of timing," I said. "What services may I bestow upon you, young Jeremy?"


"What do you want?"

"I need some advice. Mrs. Deckers said you were pathetic with girls when you were my age."

"Oh she did, did she? Mrs. Deckers didn't even know me back then. How would she know about my past performance?"

"She said you were pretty hopeless until you met her. I figured that if you were that dorky, but you still got married, you must have done something right."

I couldn't fault the young man's logic, but I was going to have a word with Mrs. Deckers later.

"So what do you need?"

"I need some help with a love letter. I'm trying to get Caitlin Herrera to like me." He held out a neatly folded piece of paper. I looked it over and immediately identified his problem. It looked like something I would have written at his age: 'Dear Caitlin, I like you. Do you like me? Sincerely, Jeremy.'

I turned it over. "Where's the rest of it?"

"That's it. It's short and to the point."

"It needs serious help."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Well, it lacks finesse. And style. And grace. And a clear call to action."

"A what?"

"A call to action. It's what we marketers use to get a prospective client interested in buying our product."

"I don't want to sell her anything," said Jeremy, "I just want to get her to like me."

"Then you came to the right place. I've been a professional marketer for years."

"I don't think this is the kind of help Mrs. Deckers had in mind."

"Mrs. Deckers—!" I said, then I looked around quickly, and lowered my voice "—isn't here right now. You want my help in getting this girl to like you? This is going to help you."

I grabbed a pen from my pocket and started scribbling notes on his paper.

"First you need a USP."

"What's that?"

"Universal Selling Proposition. It's what sets you apart from your competitors."

"My what?"

"The other boys. Now, your USP tells Caitlin why she should pick you over them." I scribbled a few more notes.

"What about an Attention Getter and Benefit Statement?"

Jeremy said he had no clue what that was.

"What's one positive thing Caitlin would get by choosing you?"

"I have my own ten speed bike."

"Good, but that's a feature. A benefit is what she gets. How does your bike help her?"

"I could give her a ride somewhere."

"Excellent." I scribbled more notes. "Now we need a call to action. Research shows that giving a respondent a call to action increases your chance of a positive response."

Jeremy could only nod silently. I scribbled some more. "What do you think of this?"

'Dearest Caitlin, You have captivated my soul with your sparkling eyes and ruby smile. Be my love and we can fly anywhere your heart desires. If it is in your heart to say yes, please ask Gretchen to tell Kevin. I yearn for you, Jeremy."

He eyed me suspiciously. "Are you sure about this?"


"Is this how you got Mrs. Deckers?"

"No, that's a whole other story. Now rewrite this in your own handwriting and give it to Caitlin."

Jeremy still looked unsure, so I started to lecture him about word-of-mouth marketing when he said he heard his mother calling and ran off.

A few days later, Jeremy interrupted another nap.

"What happened?" I asked. "Did it work?"

"Well, yes and no. Caitlin is already going with Tyler Marlowe and he nearly beat me up."

I offered my condolences, but he held up his hand.

"But," he continued, "she showed it to her friends, and now three girls like me."

"Wow, referral marketing. I'll bet you're pretty excited about that."

Jeremy put on a pair of sunglasses. "You bet. Now I need to do drop in some variable data so I can A/B test a few iterations. I can up my response rate 20 percent if I gear the copy toward specific buyer personas."

I've created a monster.

Photo credit: The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain in both the country of origin (The Netherlands) and the United States)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Talking About Hurricanes and Power Outages

"Okay, nobody panic. We prepared for this."

"Of course we paid the bill!"

"You did pay the bill, didn't you?"

"I never doubted you."

"Well, they asked, and that made me wonder."

"Buddy, go see if the neighbors' lights are out."

"There, see? Either the power is out on the street, or everyone on the block didn't pay their electric bill."

"No, of course not. What are the odds of that happening?"

"Well, no, I don't actually know. That's something your grandfather would know. He taught statistics."

"No, I'm not going to call him."

"Because the power is out!"

"Of course I charged it. There's just no point in wasting my cell battery just to call my dad."

"Because he won't actually know the odds of 10 families not paying their electric bill on time."

"If you want to know, you figure it out."

"No, don't look it up!"

"And don't ask Siri. She won't know either."

"Because she's just a voice-activated computer program. Besides, it wastes battery power."

"Sweetie, don't play games on your phone."

"I know Netflix is out."

"Because the power is out."

"Were you even listening before? We paid it."

"Look, the hurricane knocked out the power. That's it."

"So don't waste your battery playing games."

"Yes, the batteries are charged up. But those are for emergencies."

"Not having Netflix is not an emergency."

"No, Buddy, we don't have a battery for the TV."

"For one thing, it would be pretty big. "

"Well, I didn't feel like spending several hundred dollars just to watch TV."

"Yes, and the Apple TV."

"No, you can't watch it on your laptop."

"The wifi is off."

"Yes, we paid our cable bill!"

"For one thing, the wifi router runs on electricity."

"No, we need the cable box."

"I know the rabbit ears would work."

"Because the — you know, go ahead and get them. They're in the garage."

"The flashlights are on the entry table."

"I put new ones in yesterday."

"Check in the green tubs. I think it's in the one marked 'Electronics.'"

"No, I'll let him figure it out."

"Got them? Great, now just unplug the cable from the TV."

"That's right. And that cable goes into the TV."

"Remote's over there. Your sister has it."

"Don't shine the light in her eyes."

"Not in my eyes either."

"Really? Why do you think that is?"

"Because the TV runs on electricity."

"Yes, the whole house runs on electricity."

"No, Honey, you can't call your friends."

"What good are they going to do us? They're in Indiana. Safe, dry, hurricane-free-for-six-billion-years Indiana."

"Because I don't waste you to your battery right now. We may need it to communicate during an emergency."

"Look, it's really simple, you guys. No calls, no Netflix, no FaceTime, no Skype, no texting, no games, and no Netflix."

"I know I did. You weren't listening when I started."

"No, no Hulu either. That chews up the data plan."

"We need to conserve the power for a real emergency. Not having a TV is not a real emergency. We can read, play games, or just talk to each other."

"You could always go to bed."

"Then find a book."

"Man, it's getting warm in here."

"Yes, I know the power's out!"

"Oh God! We don't have any air conditioning! This is terrible. Quick, go outside and see if you can plug the battery pack into the AC unit."

"I don't know. Ask Siri!"

"I'm not kidding around! This is a real emergency! Where's the fan? Someone plug the fan in."

"What do you mean, it won't work?"

"Did you pay the bill?!"

Photo credit: Satellite image of Hurricane Earl approaching Belize on August 3, 2016. Taken by Naval Research Laboratory Monterrey, NASA (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, September 30, 2016

We're Being Invaded by a Horror Of Clowns

Halloween is coming, and I'm not looking forward to it. It's the second biggest holiday, bumping up against Christmas for the "Most Obnoxious" awards.

It's also the time of year when costume stores stock unveil their two most popular costume styles: Zombie and Slutty.

No longer satisfied with someone just being a nurse, a firefighter, or a circus ringmaster, they offer instead Slutty Nurse, Zombie Firefighter, or Slutty Zombie Ringmaster.

Haunted houses are over the top as well. When I was a kid, haunted houses were usually just mazes made in our grade school gym, where teachers dressed like the Wicked Witch of the West and the Werewolf to jump out to scare us.

Now, haunted houses have monsters with such disgusting special effects that even the Walking Dead makeup artists are grossed out.

It's not just enough to have a werewolf with a leg bone clutched in its hairy paw. Or a zombie with gray skin and wild hair. Now, we've got demon-possessed killer pirate zombies with eyes hanging out of their sockets, skipping rope with their previous victim's small intestine.

I miss Halloweens of my youth, when our biggest frights were urban legends of pins in candy and razor blades in apples (neither of which ever actually happened). Now, we're being invaded by the monsters Wes Cravens would spawn if he were the queen of a monster bee hive.

And that's still not enough. This year, we're facing new monsters. Reports are coming in from all over the country of scary clowns, like Pennywise from Stephen King's horror novel, "It." Most of them are seen around wooded areas, often trying to entice children to come into the woods.

The media has reported sightings in Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

It's also against the law in Florida to wear a mask and intimidate someone, so there's a good chance the clowns will have to pay a hefty fine, right after they've been arrested for being serial murderers.

Plus, Florida has the stand your ground law, which someone's going to remember the next time they spot one of these creatures.

Other states may not have a stand your ground law, but that's not stopping people from taking matters into their own hands. One North Carolina clown decided retreat was the better part of valor, after he was chased into the woods by a bystander with a machete.

And if the bystander was Danny Trejo of the movie, "Machete," I'm guessing he didn't get very far. Most of him, anyway.

Another scary clown in Kentucky was arrested for wearing a mask in public and disorderly conduct. And seven clowns have been arrested in Alabama, two adults and five juveniles. They face felony charges of making a terrorist threat.

There was even recently a sighting of two clowns together in Brevard County, Florida. Kelly Reynolds of Palm City told MyNews 13 that her dog ". . . stopped and started growling. They were standing right back there" — she pointed at a nearby fence — "two of them, staring at me."

The fact that two of them have been sighted together means they're beginning to gather in packs, or what experts call a "horror" of clowns. It's only a matter of time before they're brave enough to try to bring down a summer camp or school field trip.

"They are deranged," said Reynolds.

She may have said it, but we were all thinking it. A 2008 study at the University of Sheffield in England found that most children didn't actually like clowns. Dr. Penny Curtis told the BBC back in 2008, "We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."

This was Stephen King's thinking back in 1986 when he wrote "It." And now look at what he's unleashed.

Meanwhile, professional clowns who like to ruin children's birthday parties are already upset with the scary clowns. They say they're giving regular clowns a bad name.

Randy Christensen told ABC News, "People dressed as horror clowns are not 'real' clowns. They are taking something innocent and wholesome and perverting it to create fear in their audience." He's the president-elect of the World Clown Association (official motto: "Giving you nightmares for the next 60 years").

Another professional clown said he didn't appreciate what these clowns are doing, because he has worked hard to be the kind of clown that children can "respect and look up to." I think not being a professional clown would be a start.

Given the time of year, we're going to see more and more of these scary clowns, skulking around wooded areas, trying to frighten people, and giving normal clowns a bad name. I've even been seeing this orange, pumpkin-headed clown on TV for the last several months.

That one scares me most of all.

Photo credit: Graeme McClean (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich?

Hey, Karl, here's a deep philosophical question for you: is a hot dog a sandwich?

"What? What the hell kind of question is that?" Karl turned and faced me. "That may be one of the dumbest things you've ever asked me."

Oh yeah? Then answer the question.

We were sitting in Victory Field on a Thursday evening, watching a minor league baseball game. The Indianapolis Indians were taking on the Louisville Bats, and I had just returned to our seats with our obligatory hot dogs and ballpark beer.

"Of course it's not," he said, taking his hot dog. "I mean, look at it. Does this even look like a sandwich?"

What is it then?

"It's. . . well, it's just a hot dog! It's a thing unto itself."

Like a hamburger, I said.

"Exactly. Like a hamburger."

A hamburger's a sandwich though.

"A hamburger's a hamburger. It's not a hamburger sandwich."

The hamburger was created either by a guy in Connecticut or a guy in Wisconsin who stuck a Hamburg steak between two pieces of bread. And they called it a Hamburger sandwich.

"So how is it a sandwich?"

A sandwich is any combination of meat, cheese, and vegetables — or peanut butter and jelly, if you prefer — between two pieces of bread, right? And a hamburger is meat and veggies between two pieces of bread in bun form.

"So, it's not a sandwich, because it's eaten on a bun. And a bun isn't regular bread."

It is bread though. It's made from flour, water, and yeast. So it's bread.

"Well, it's a bread product. But it's not sliced sandwich bread."

I had to slice the bun to open it.

"That's true, I guess."

If I slice a hot dog lengthwise and put it between two slices of bread, is it a sandwich?

"I guess you could call that a hot dog sandwich."

And what if I don't slice it, and just fold it between a single slice of bread?

"That's not a sandwich. The sandwich needs two pieces of bread."

So just cut the one slice in half.

"Okay, whatever. I don't like this discussion, Kid. It's kind of weird."

Look, you were the one who lectured me — lectured me! — for two hours on the Back to the Future timeline and how Marty McFly was actually part of his parents' original lives in the 1950s the first time around.

"So? It's an important philosophical point, and one that I think Robert Zemeckis missed."

I missed the game that night!

"And so you're punishing me with this stupid question?"

Pretty much.

"Fine. Where were we?"

If a hot dog can be a sandwich when it's inside a piece of bread, why can't a bun be a piece of bread?

"A hot dog bun is a long roll with a split in the middle," said Karl, showing me his hot dog bun. "It's not meant to be sliced, so that makes it different."

But what if you cut the hot dog bun all the way through? Does that make it a sandwich?
"Not necessarily," he said, mouth full of hot dog. "It depends how you hold it. See? The split and the hot dog are pointed up, like a taco."

Would you agree that a sub sandwich is actually a sandwich?

"You mean a hoagie? Yes, that's a sandwich."

Even though the hoagie roll isn't cut all the way through?

Karl thought for a minute, while we watched the Indians turn a double play to end the inning.

"Sure, that's the exception."

But what if I rotate the hoagie 90 degrees so the slice is facing up. Is it still a sandwich?


So if I rotate the hot dog 90 degrees so the slice is horizontal, does it become a sandwich? Is a sandwich only a sandwich because of the way I hold it?

Karl coughed. "Uhh. . . yes?"

What, are you choking?

"No, I'm fine."

No, I meant on my logic.

"Oh, bite me, Kid! You haven't won anything."

Let's recap. A sandwich is a sandwich because it's meat inside some bread, whether it's two slices or one folded one. The bread can be in any form, whether it's sliced, a bun, or a roll. And it doesn't matter which direction you turn the sandwich, because it doesn't matter whether the slice runs horizontally or vertically.


So a hot dog fits that description. It's meat and toppings. I put them inside some bread, regardless of the kind I use. And I can hold it so the slice is horizontal or vertical. Ergo, no matter which way you slice it, turn it, or hold it, a hot dog is a sandwich.

"Fine, dammit! Fine! A hot dog is a sandwich! You win. Are you happy now?"

Deliriously. Hey, it's your turn for a food run. Get me a burger.

"Are you going to put mayonnaise on it?"

Of course.

"Gross, Kid! I don't even want to know you!"

Photo credit: Arnold Inuyaki (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Sloganeering Needs to be Left to Professionals

Sometimes marketing just needs to be left to the cool kids.

Too many advertising campaigns and marketing slogans sound like they were dreamed up by a committee of people who only rhyme words by accident, and then say "Hey, I was a poet and didn't know it!" The kind of committee a mayor would appoint from a bunch of people standing around the office.

A committee that spent their first three weeks creating a mission statement that included the phrases "dynamic synergy" and "core values."

I recently spotted a billboard that said "Better left unread than dead," which lacked the power punch of "Don't tempt fate. That text can wait." But I've seen it around a lot, so I figured it must be effective.

Turns out "Better left unread than dead" was made by an Anaheim, Calif. student who entered a contest to help curb texting and driving, and it's been placed on 1,000 billboards around the country. Still, it was approved by a committee, so my initial observation stands.

It's also very different from the writer's creed, "Better dead than unread," which would make an awesome tattoo.

What is it about catchy rhymes that make them widely used? We've all heard military rhymes, like "Kick the tires, light the fires," or sports slogans like "Teamwork makes the dream work."

They actually serve a function. Rhymes help us remember things more easily. For decades, researchers have studied how students learn better if they can turn their lessons into a song, rather than just rote memorization. There's something about the rhythm and poetry of the rhymes that makes them easier to remember.
This is why the anti drinking-and-driving slogan, "Stay alive. Don't drink and drive," was effective. And why the slogan, "Click it or ticket" sticks in our mind. With four simple words, we know what will happen if the police catch us without our seat belts fastened.

Of course, the rhyme makes the phrase powerful, but if the words are poorly chosen, the slogan will fail. Hard.

"Textin' and drivin' equals cryin' and dyin'" said one rather egregious slogan I found. Either that, or it was a terribly awkward country song.

Also, the power of the slogan doesn't always carry over into other languages.

In German, "Click it or ticket" becomes "Klicken der Sicherheitsgurt, oder bekommen einer Strafzettel," and it loses something.

Clearly, rhyming and word choice are both important to message retention. That's why we get slogans like "Let the message wait. Control your fate" and "Stop the texts, stop the wrecks."

It's not Emily Dickinson, but it's not complete crap either.

I especially like how the authors also completely eliminated pre-determination and given us back free will. This is something philosophers have struggled with for centuries, and a couple committees of middle-aged bureaucrats solved it in just twelve meetings and two mission statements. Who says bureaucracy is ineffective?

But I also think these committees try way too hard. Oftentimes, they're trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. How else do you explain "Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'" or the drunk driving slogan, "Get hammered, get slammered"?

I can picture it: it was late at night, the committee was tired, they wanted to go home. Pizza boxes sat empty on the conference room credenza, and tempers were running short. They were just about to shut down for the night and try again in the morning, when the assistant director of HR slapped her hand on the table and shouted, "Eureka! I've got it! 'Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'," she shouted. "It rhymes, it uses the catch phrase, and it drops the G's from the end of the words, like young people do!"

The committee applauded and "Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'" was slapped up on billboards around the county. Where it was promptly mocked and ignored.

But death isn't always the underlying message of these slogans. While researching this column, I happened to find "Texting isn't so cool if the crash makes you drool." I'm guessing this one was aimed at scaring people about the possibilities of life as a vegetable.

I can only imagine the self-congratulations at those particular committee meetings. I'll bet more than one person punched themselves on the arm, like Anthony Michael Hall at the end of "Breakfast Club."

But you don't always have to rhyme if you want to get people's attention. My favorite slogan is "Honk if you love Jesus. Text and drive if you want to meet him."

Because there's nothing like gallows humor to make someone think twice about texting.

So I'm going to try a few slogans of my own, and see if I can get my own billboards made.

Does anyone know a good rhyme for "debilitating spinal injury."

Photo credit: WhisperToMe (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Southern IN Schools May Drop Valedictorians, Hand Out Participation Trophies

Imagine a competition where a winner is never crowned. Instead, the top 10 percent of all finishers are given a hearty pat on the back and warm congratulations.

Imagine an Olympics, where no one received a gold, silver, or bronze medal, but instead, all three were melted down and the top three finishers, no matter who "won," received one of the molten lumps.

Now, imagine a high school graduating class without a Valedictorian, the person who had the very best grades throughout all four years of high school.

That could happen down in southern Indiana, in the Greater Clark School district. They've proposed doing away with the titles of "highest achieving student" and "second highest achieving student" (Salutatorian), and instead giving special recognition to the top 10 percent of all students.

In other words, participation trophies for smart kids.

I'll admit, I was not academically minded when I was in high school. I graduated 93rd out of 272 students in my graduating class. I was in the top 34.19 percent of my class, not even the top third. I was the second highest in the second third of my class.

Even so, I understand what it's like for the honors students who are competing for that number one spot. They want to be The Val. They'll settle for the Sal, with moist eyes and a forced smile, but dear God in Heaven, they want to Be. The. Val.

Even former athletes know the burning desire to win. You'll do anything to beat everyone else. You'll train harder, run faster, and practice more just to be the best.

The brainy kids have that same competitive fire. They'll study harder, read faster, and learn more just so they can give the Valedictorian's speech on graduation day.

It's not easy either. These kids neglect their friends and social activities, skipping the Friday night football game to study instead. They don't go out on dates or have friends spend the night.

They take advanced placement (AP) classes for more credits because an A in an AP class is worth more than an A in gym. They're not cheating the system. The easy classes carry less value and don't help them reach the finish line.

And the pressure they put themelves under can turn coal to diamond. Imagine starting your taxes at 11:00 P.M. on April 14th, and worrying you don't have the right form. Now imagine feeling that way for four years.

Greater Clark Superintendent Andrew Melin told WHAS11 News in Louisville, "When students are competing for the Val and the Sal, they're trying to find ways to maneuver through the system to try and get the best grades they can possibly get, as opposed to taking the course work that's truly in their own best interest."

What classes could they be take that are in their own best interest? These kids are so driven, we should be more concerned that they're learning good stress management skills. These are not kids who will be happy being a regional manager of an office supply store, or owning a mobile dog grooming service.

They're going to become lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers. Why does it matter if they take an AP Shakespearean English class instead of biology or calculus? These are the smart kids, remember? They'll take calculus in college if they want to become an investment banker. They'll take biology if they want to become a doctor. It will cover the same exact material they covered or didn't cover in high school. And because they're so damn smart, they'll surpass everyone else before attendance is even called.

Most importantly, the Valedictory competitors are learning mad study skills. They're learning how to cram a 10 pound textbook into a five pound brain. They're learning how to deal with pressure, and to keep from pulling out their hair at two in the morning and screaming "I CAN'T DO THIS!"

And most importantly, they're learning that you, Greater Clark School district, don't really value achievement, success, or hard work. They're learning you focus on the effort, not the results. The journey, not the destination. They're learning that a pat on the head and "well, at least you did your best" is an acceptable level of achievement.

The Valedictorian competitors are learning skills that will get them through high pressure lives and successful careers. We want them to have these skills, not take an ancient history class a small-town superinendent thinks is in "their best interest."

Because 25 years later, when you're laying on the operating table, getting ready for open heart surgery, the last thing you want to see before you go under is your surgeon flashing you the thumbs up, and saying, "Hey, remember me? I graduated 93rd in my class. Thanks for the participation trophy. It really gave me the confidence to go to medical school in Barbados."

Photo credit: Prayitno (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Chinese Artist Captures British Ghost, Puts It On Display

Why is it ghosts can walk through walls, but they don't fall through the floor?

I grew up on stories of ghosts walking through walls, disappearing and reappearing at will. They make footsteps walking up a flight of stairs, or make boards creak as they walk down a hallway.

But they're apparently unable to fly through the floor. Why else would they need to walk up stairs, I guess?

Worse yet, they apparently don't have the ability to pass through anything other than walls of a house. They couldn't pass through, say, the sides of a metal canister. Unless that metal canister were made entirely from floorboards.

Chinese artist Lu Pingyuan claims to have captured a British ghost in just such a canister. He has it on display at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England. And maybe I trapped an invisible fairy in a pickle jar.

At least we think he's in there. It could just be an empty cookie tin with "GHOST" written in magic marker.

"I wish him to exist and be treated as a real artwork and to present him around the globe, getting respect and tribute from people everywhere" Lu told the Bolton News.

According to the News, the ghost of James Stanley, Seventh Earl of Derby, has haunted Ye Olde Man and Scythe inn and pub in Bolton, England since his death in 1651. At least until Lu followed him into the pub toilet and bottled him up.

James Stanley lived in Derby, right up until the exact moment he was executed for treason.

It took place near the pub, which had already been around for 400 years. There's even a plaque commemorating his beheading for treason, and the inn has a chair inscribed "15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Olde Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution."

Lu told the Bolton News he was so fascinated by Stanley's ghost that he traveled all the way from Shanghai to Manchester to steal it.

Once he cornered the ghost in the pub toilet, he performed an incantation to trap it into the sealed metal canister.

Of course, pub owner Richard Greenwood isn't happy about this. He wrote a letter to Lu.

"I would have liked to have been privy to your actions and indeed to the exhibition before the ghost of James Stanley was taken out of Bolton, his ties to the town and to Ye Olde Man and Scythe run very deeply. I feel very strongly that James Stanley's ghost should remain in Bolton and at Ye Olde Man and Scythe to preserve the natural order of things," wrote Greenwood.

This raises the question, how did Lu convince Stanley to climb into the canister? Wouldn't it be a little small? Is he comfortable? Is he bored? And does he think it's demeaning to be put on display for people to gawk at?

Not at all, says Lu. "I told his ghost about my proposal the second time I visited this place," Lu told the News, "and James Stanley agreed that I can put him into a jar in order to exhibit him in galleries and museums alike."

That's what my invisible fairy said too. She's very happy in her pickle jar, as long as she can see the TV.

But this isn't the end of Stanley's art career. Lu says he wants to exhibit the sealed metal canister in museums and galleries around the world. He is already planning the next one in 2017, although he hasn't said where that will be, or how long Stanley has to stay in there.

"(A)fter the world tour of exhibitions, I will discuss with him and ask him whether he would prefer to stay like this, as a piece of art, or go back to the Ye Olde Man and Scythe," said Lu.

Of course, we have no way of actually knowing whether he's in there. Who's to say Lu's not making it all up, and that Stanley isn't still safe at home? Will a Chinese incantation even work on an English ghost if he doesn't speak Mandarin?

But most importantly, everything I know about ghost trapping I learned from Ghostbusters. Which makes me wonder, is this just one more example of ancient Chinese methods achieving the same goals as Western science?

After all, why spend thousands of dollars on an electronic containment unit, when we only needed a quick rhyme and Grandma's flour canister?

Egon Spengler is not going to be happy about this.


Special only for my blog readers: This is a CCTV video inside Ye Olde Man and Scythe that supposedly shows the ghost of James Stanley. Before he was captured, of course.

Photo credit: Michael Ely and (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Nyet, My Column Was Not Hacked by Russian Spies

Hello, my fellow Americans! It is I, Erik Deckers, your favorite humorous columnist from the Middle West.

I have been reading in your — I mean, our — liberal American media about how Russian hackers have tried to hack into the New York Times and other media newspapers. This chases on the heels of the news that same Russians may have hacked the Democrats Nationalist Committee email server.

This is typical American media lie!

Also, in case you worry, my own comedy column has not been hacked by Russian spies working for a secret government agency seeking to undermine you Americans' — I mean, our — democracy.

To accuse us — I mean, them — of hacking into newspapers is serious insult to Russians everywhere, and especially to their eminent leader, President Vladimir Putin, who is in no way trying to recreate the USSR through military force.

(And who also looks very manly without a shirt.)

While we are on subject, President Putin is not invading Ukraine. He is only trying to keep Ukraine safe, and teach it how to be strong. It is like tough love, like Russian mama bear shows to her children, to help them grow up to be strong Russian bears who fight rebels and dissidents.

Wait, I mean like American bears. Yes, that's it. American mama bears who love their bear children.

To change the subject, many congratulations to American Olympic team and their many gold medals. Of course, these were not real victories, since nearly all athletes from Russia were banned from competing because they were heavily doping.

Accused of doping, I mean. Wrongly accused of doping. Da, that's it.

Widespread, government-funded doping, my Aunt Olga's fanny! Russian athletes train harder and better than American athletes, and for this, IOC seeks to punish Russian athletes and para-athletes. It's not our — I mean, their — fault they have cutting-edge nutritional supplements. And nutritional creams and gels. And nutritional injections.

I remember back in 1984, when Olympics were held in Los Angeles Hollywood, and the Russians stood on their principles and chose to boycott Olympics. This happened after we, and 64 other countries, mistakenly boycotted 1980 Olympics after Soviet army paid a friendly visit to — I mean, invaded — Afghanistan.

(Between you and me, my fellow Americans, the Soviets did not invade. They were helping Chairman Andropov find his dog. He lost it while he was there on a fact finding mission. I heard it from my cousin, Alexei — I mean, Kevin — who worked for the Kremlin — I mean, American government.)

Speaking of politics, I am surprised that more of my fellow Americans do not support Donald Trump in his campaign to become Supreme President. Many, many Americans seem to like Hillary Clinton and the Democrats Nationalist Committee, who has done many terrible things to her opponent, Bernie Sanders. I remember being surprised when I read all those emails.

In the newspapers! I read all the emails in the newspapers. So many newspapers I have read.

And then I forwarded all the emails to Wikileaks — I mean, my mother! I forwarded them to my mother. Ha ha, not an international repository of stolen government secrets.

"Look, Mama," I said. "Look at what Hillary Clinton and her comrades have done to poor Bernie Sanders. They have organized a coup against Bernie Sanders." And Mama said she wished Mr. Sanders would have seized power back from the usurpers, like the time Boris Yeltsin rode into the Kremlin on a tank and smashed a coup attempt.

But I have read many great things about Donald Trump. He is a good friend to President Putin. He is a fan of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea. And I know Kim Jong Un is a very big fan of his. I have seen some of their back-and-forth emails.

Uh, also in newspapers! Yes, they were in newspapers, and not at all from hacking.

But Mr. Trump would make an excellent friend to Russia. He already has strong relationships with President Putin. And his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is well known to many Russians, having received many millions of rubles — I mean, dollars — from Ukrainian politicians.

I have heard Mr. Trump has also had many financial dealings with Russia, and is said to be millions of dollars in debt to Russian oligarchs and friends of President Putin. This makes Mr. Trump ideal president to help Russia and America work together to make the world great again.

So, my fellow Americans, spasibo — I mean, thank you! — for your time. Dasvidaniya.

Photo credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office (No, I'm not kidding!) (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Karl the Curmudgeon Is Tired of Facebook Politics

"I don't know if I can take it anymore, Kid," said Karl, staring at his reflection in the bar mirror. He rubbed his face hard with his hands. "I mean, this constant bickering and nattering and droning on and on and on about how neither person can do anything right."

Your daughter and son-in-law fighting again? I asked.

"I wish. At least I can tell them to shut up." He drained the last of his beer and signaled Kurt the bartender for two more. "No, I'm talking about the presidential campaign."

I thought you didn't pay attention to campaign.

"I don't. I've purposely avoided all the commercials and media stories about who said what or who committed yet another grievous sin against the American people. I already know who I'm voting for, so there's no reason to pay attention to that cluster truck."

Karl plonked his empty mug on the bar just as Kurt set down a couple fresh ones. We were at First Editions, our favorite literary-themed bar for open mic night. Some slam poet from Florida was riffing on Benny Goodman, and the crowd was snapping its fingers in appreciation. Karl and I rolled our eyes.

I said, so you missed the story this week where Dr. Drew Pinsky diagnosed Hillary Clinton's health care by looking at some of her medical records?

Karl snorted into his beer. "I wouldn't trust that guy to diagnose the color of orange juice." I laughed so hard, a couple people nearby shushed me.

Then what's the problem? I said, ignoring them.


But you don't like Facebook. You hate all forms of social media.

"I do. Well, I did. I started using Facebook to keep up with my nieces and nephews, and now I get sucked into all these political discussions with people I went to school with."

What? When did this start?

Karl counted on his fingers. "Three months ago, I guess."

I've bugged you for years to get on Facebook, and when you finally do, you still don't friend me? What a jerk!

"Don't you think our little get-togethers are enough? I don't think we could stand that much of each other."

I thought about that. Yeah, you're right, I said. I don't want that much of a look into your private life. I already know too much. I took a drink of my own beer. So what's happening on Facebook that has your panties in a twist?

Karl shot me the side eye and took another drink. "It's just the general nastiness of the campaign," he said. "People are getting angrier and nastier with each other. Even friends are forgetting they're friends and are starting flame wars to roast each other into silence."

How is this different from the early days of the Internet? I asked. We've had flame wars and arguments online since the mid-90s. I mean, epic, scorched-earth flame wars.

"Yeah, but those idiots had the good sense to hide behind an an anonymous screen name, like a proper coward. They made sure no one knew who they were before they insulted other people or accused each other of being worse than Hitler. But the problem really started when they started getting on news media websites and leaving horrible comments to news stories."

I remember all that. Then the media got smart and started tying comments to a person's Facebook account. That way, their friends and family could see what they were spewing. That helped put a stop to it, didn't it?

"No, that's when the real problem started. Now, the a-holes have found they can survive a little public exposure. They're posting anti-religious statements on their Facebook page. Or homophobic slurs. Or racist jokes. Now, I see people openly embracing their racism and sexism. They're not hiding it, they're flaunting it."

I've seen that. There are usually plenty of people calling them out on it, though, so they're starting to slink back under their rocks.

"True. But this year's campaign has made them think they can come out from there in the first place. It's making people to behave badly toward each other more than ever. I'm just tired of it."

The Florida poet finished his Benny Goodman poem, and the audience clapped like normal people. We joined in.

True, I said. But you could just block anyone who disagrees with you. Then your Facebook feed will be peaceful and friendly.

"Yeah, but Thomas Jefferson said, 'I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,'" said Karl.

So why haven't you friended me yet, you jerk?

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, August 12, 2016

That's Not a Bat, This is a Bat

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2004. Since the Olympics are going on, it's a sports-related column. Sort of.

Teaching is a noble profession, one that should attract the best and brightest to a rewarding career of shaping young minds and encouraging lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, some of these teachers become administrators, which grinds out any lofty ideals they had when they first entered the profession (that, and the fact that after 32 weeks of school, most of them can't stand the little monsters anymore).

But occasionally we find news stories about these same administrators, and the phrase "couldn't find it with both hands and a flashlight" springs to mind.

In 2004 in Fort Worth, TX, administrators at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School were peering into students' cars in the school parking lot, when one of them spotted an eight inch wooden bat inside a car. They tracked down the driver, sophomore Cory Henson, and pulled him out of class, disrupting his educational process. They ordered him to unlock the car and searched it thoroughly, as more students disrupted their educational processes and watched from the windows.

When they discovered the bat had fallen off a baseball trophy — Cory is a junior varsity baseball player — they dropped their flashlights, declared the mini-bat to be a weapon, and immediately suspended him. He was suspended for four days, under Texas' Zero Tolerance scheme, which was hatched in 1995.

Zero Tolerance is the mantra of school administrators who ensure their schools are safe from plastic butter knives, anti-PMS medicine, and students who say "hell" or "gay," as I have mentioned in previous columns.

And the administrators had focused on this mini-bat so intently that they completely ignored the regulation-sized aluminum bat Cory carried in his trunk.

That's why Ignacio Torres, the school's assistant principal, said the mini-bat, and NOT the full-sized bat, was considered a weapon.

I can only imagine the scene, as young Cory Henson was yanked out of class, and told to unlock his car — a machine that generally weighs over a ton and kills thousands of people each year. They then confiscated the little wooden bat, and ignored the big aluminum bat, forgetting that bats are a favorite weapon of seedy bar owners and guys who "wanna know what you said about my sister."

The administrators then escorted Cory into school, which is filled with pens and pencils, which are great for stabbing. Cory may have heard the band practice as he walked, listening to the drummers beat their drums with sticks the same size as the one clutched in an administrator's sweaty hand.

Cory's head may have hung as he walked past the cafeteria, filled with metal forks and knives, and into the assistant principal's office, which contained more pens, pencils, and several pairs of scissors. I imagine he then had to call his mother, who drove her own one-ton vehicle to the school.

But apparently none of this concerned LoEster Posey, the director of student affairs for Fort Worth schools. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that if an item is only "prohibited," such as a pocketknife, pepper spray, or firecrackers, the student will be given a warning. But if the item is "illegal," like an eight-inch mini-bat, then the student is suspended.

In other words, if you can stab them, blind them, or blow their fingers off, you're just given a slap on the wrist. If you can whack someone with it, you'll be suspended. But if you can actually kill someone with an item like, say, a full-size aluminum baseball bat, you're allowed to keep it.

I realize that a small wooden bat can be used as a club, but so can nearly ever other item in a school. A large reference book, a cafeteria tray, and even a well-thrown baseball can all become weapons in the right hands.

Suspending a student for having a small bat while ignoring a full-size bat borders on gross ineptitude. But labeling knives, pepper spray, and fire crackers as only prohibited, while a small stick is illegal only reinforces my thoughts about school administrators.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but when you combine it with a little power and very little common sense, you've got something deadlier than any miniature baseball bat.

Maybe we should ban administrators instead.

Photo credit: Peter Miller (Flickr, Creative Commons)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Big Brother Isn't the Government, It's Corporate America

The Internet is spying on me.

Not the Edward Snowden kind of spying, where the NSA hides a listening device in my toaster. (Which my daughter accidentally ate in her cinnamon raisin bagel.)

I mean, the Internet keeps close track of the things I do. For one thing, if I go shoe shopping online, all my friends will make fun of me.

Also, an ad for the shoes will follow me to every other website I visit. If there's a space for an ad, those stupid shoes will be in it.

That's because the original shoe website puts a small piece of code called a "beacon" onto my browser. This beacon follows me (and everyone else) around and shows the same shoes over and over until you punch your laptop and wear old Kleenex boxes on your feet in protest.

But this is not a major problem. It's been going on for years, so don't hurt yourself jamming on your tinfoil hat.

It's just the software algorithms that make the Internet work.

For example, Google uses algorithms so its search engine can better predict what we might be searching for. The more you search for things, the better they get at finding what you want.

If you Google Nazareth, the 1970s band that sang "Love Hurts," you'll get a mixed bag of results about the band, the city in Pennsylvania, and Jesus' hometown. But if you only click on the band's search results, play their videos on YouTube, participate in Nazareth fan forum discussions, and visit as many websites as possible about the band, your family will think you've lost your mind.

Also, Google will figure out that you're not interested in the cities, so future results will be more band-specific.

You can even affect what Google fills in the search box as you start typing. Let's say you start typing the phrase "How do I." Right now, Google will show you several frequently-typed phrases like, "how do I get a home," "how do I get a passport," and "how do I love thee."

But if you and several of your friends frequently search for, "how do I hide a dead body" over a long period of time, that phrase will eventually begin to show up more and more, displacing one of the other phrases.

So, if a few hundred people were to repeatedly ask Google whether a certain presidential candidate is a Cheeto-faced bankruptcy factory, the search engine would auto-fill that phrase anytime someone typed in his name.

Who benefits by knowing all this stuff about us? Who's keeping track of all this?

It's not the government. I'm not that worried about what the government will do with my search interests.

No, I'm worried about marketers. And I say that as a professional marketer. If you want to be afraid of Big Brother and a dystopian Orwellian future, be afraid of the people who sell you stuff. Disney's Wall-E should give you a pretty good idea of where we're headed.

Google's search algorithms are written so we'll have a positive experience, and come back to them over and over. And they'll encourage us to use their other products, like YouTube and Google Drive. The more we use them, the more they learn about us. And they'll begin to show ads geared specifically toward the things we want, like, and need.

Imagine if your TV only showed commercials of the things you need right now, as if they peeked inside your refrigerator and cupboards. You would see ads for your favorite mayonnaise, your favorite beer, and those little cheese balls you swore you would stretch over a week, but finished in one sitting.

That's who's driving the Internet. It's not the government. According to most of the people I went to high school with, the government can't even secure a single private email server, so what makes you think they can successfully monitor all of us?

That's because marketers can't touch anything without ruining it. We're the black mold of the Internet. Once someone creates something new and clean and pure, marketers are your perpetually dirty cousin who's always working on cars or massaging pigs.

"Hey, let me see that," they say, grabbing it out of your hands. "That looks pretty cool." They pass it back and forth between their grimy hands, hold it up to their ear and shake it. They even bite down on it to see how solid it is. When you get it back, you don't even want it anymore.

But don't think quitting Facebook or never using Google again will stop them, you're too late. They already know a lot about you, so you might as well face it, embrace it, and benefit from it.

Besides, Amazon is offering free shipping if you spend over $25 and buy my books.

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.