Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A light in the dark

Like a lot of people, I'm still trying to process Robin Williams's apparent suicide. I spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area, and several years with some attachment to the comedy scene, so it was impossible not to have some contact with Robin Williams. I remember in the early 1980's, I was at work when word broke that Robin was going to do a set at Foothill College, a community college in Los Altos Hills. My recollection is that the concert, which was held in the college's stadium, was free--just show up. His opening act was singer Bobby McFerrin, and as I recall, the two of them were working out material for a tour that they were about to begin. This was a few years before McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" became a hit, and for most of us, it was the first time that we'd heard McFerrin. It turned out that McFerrin's improvisational singing was a perfect match for Williams's improvisational comedy. It was a wonderful performance by both of them, and I remember it thirty years later.

About ten years later, I met Robin's first son, Zack, and his first wife, Valerie Velardi, both of whom were very kind to me. I visited their home in San Francisco and saw Zack's bedroom; Robin had made sure to equip him with the newest and best Apple Macintosh computers. Zack could have been spoiled, the son of show business royalty, but he was totally down-to-earth.

Robin Williams's struggles with drug and alcohol addiction are well documented. There was a darkness to him that was rarely visible in public but that became more readily apparent in private interchanges with his friends. I won't go further. When I first heard that he died yesterday of an apparent suicide, I was shocked, but the surprise was lessened when I heard that he had been struggling with depression. As someone who's dealt with depression for most of my life, I know how quickly and easily it can turn into a struggle to stay alive. Depression warps your perception--it makes you think that things will never get better, and that death is the only escape. Anyone who thinks that this was a voluntary act on his part doesn't understand depression at all. It isn't something that you control--it's something that controls you.

We've lost one of the best comedians of our lifetimes, and someone who could have had many more years of productive life. On the other hand, his pain is over. The pain of severe depression is overwhelming and excruciating, and it's really impossible to understand if you haven't gone through it yourself. I hope that we use this loss as an opportunity to better understand depression and suicide. More people die each year in the U.S. from suicide than from auto accidents, but the media rarely cover it out of fear that it will encourage more people to take their own lives.

We need to start paying attention to depression, and to recognize that it's a medical condition in the same way that heart disease or cancer is a medical condition. It's important for us to remember how much joy Robin Williams gave us for so long, but it's equally important for us to use his death as a catalyst to learn more about depression and make mental health as important as physical health.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Sisters have to do it for themselves

I just read an anonymous post on Forbes.com titled "What It's Like Raising Money As A Woman In Silicon Valley." The article details the sexist gauntlet of groping, marriage propositions and insults that the author had to run as part of the process of raising money for her company. Her experience is hardly unique; there's an ever-growing body of documentation of the sexist, racist and bigoted atmosphere that non-male, non-white founders are confronted with in Silicon Valley. My stomach churned as I read her article, partly because of her experiences, and partly because I saw some of my own past behavior reflected in the men that she dealt with.

Women have never had an easy time in Silicon Valley, whether as an employee (of which there are few) or as a C-level executive (of which there are much fewer.) Women have been concentrated in marketing, PR and HR positions, and people in those positions, male or female, rarely get an opportunity to run technology companies. Female software developers and hardware engineers have always been rare, and have had to put up with a disproportionate amount of sexism because of their rarity.

Social scientists say that it's much easier to pass laws than it is to change how people think. The proof of that is easy to see: Civil Rights legislation made segregation illegal 50 years ago, but racism is still easy to find. The first sexual harassment trial in the U.S. was 40 years ago, but there's still plenty of sexual harassment to go around. We can't legislate away racism, sexism or bigotry--but we can do an end run around them.

Women can't depend on male-dominated venture capital firms to change the way they do business--only four of the top 100 venture capitalists on Forbes's Midas List are female, and only four more made the magazine's "long list." There are a handful of seed and VC firms run by women, such as Golden Seeds and the Women's Venture Capital Fund. We need a lot more. We need women who have been successful in business and finance to step up and help other women succeed. For that matter, we need a lot more African-American-, Hispanic- and Asian-run seed and venture funds. All of these groups face discrimination from the VC community. That's not to say that every seed investor or VC partner is a sexist, racist or bigot--far from it. However, the investment community is largely an "old boys' club," and if you're not male, white and under 40, you're going to have a hard time finding funding, no matter how good your team and ideas are.

Los Angeles and New York have been making a strong push to compete with Silicon Valley for startups and technical professionals. One way that they could succeed is to help build a community of seed and venture funds in their cities to serve underserved groups, like women. Silicon Valley VCs often make it a stipulation that out-of-town startups must move to Silicon Valley in order to get funding, and the vast majority of startups offered money with that condition agree to move. Startups offered money by Los Angeles- and New York-based investors with similar stipulations are very likely to move as well, especially if they can't find funding in Silicon Valley.

As the number of investment firms targeting women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians increases, founders will be able to bypass investors who engage in sexual harassment, racism and bigotry. Those investors will see their deal flow diminish, and they'll be forced to either change their behavior or get out of the business, because at the end of the day, another song title describes what's most important to them: "It's Money That Matters."

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Beware the Monoculture: The risks of focusing on San Francisco and New York

I just finished reading a good analysis of the market opportunity for valet parking startups, written by Charles Hudson. He writes that the real competition for these startups may be public transit, Uber, Lyft and ridesharing services. In San Francisco, where he's based, he notes that these services have cut down on the use of cars, and therefore, the need for parking. However, it was while reading his post that I realized that San Francisco is primarily representative of San Francisco, and that extrapolating from the San Francisco market could get startup founders, as well as investors and analysts, in trouble.

San Francisco has been a parking nightmare for decades--at least from the time that I moved to the Bay Area in 1983. It's hard to find commercial parking, and it's expensive when you do find it. On-street residential parking is a nightmare. On the other hand, despite the many complaints about the Muni bus system, San Francisco has a very good public transit system, with busses, subways, streetcars, cable cars and trains. It was an early Zipcar market, and it's also the home of both Uber and Lyft. The availability of so many transit options grew out of the natural limitations imposed by San Francisco's geography and the concentration of startup talent.

You don't have to go very far to find a counterexample to San Francisco. Los Angeles is much bigger and more spread out than San Francisco, even though its downtown is smaller than San Francisco's. Los Angeles's public transit options range from poor to nonexistent. Cars are essential for getting around Los Angeles--its geography shapes the market for transit options just as surely as San Francisco's does, but in a different direction.

That illustrates a problem that many startups are faced with: There's demand for them in the area where they were founded, but demand tapers off dramatically when they move into different markets. For example, meal delivery services have flourished in both San Francisco and New York. Even though New York is much bigger than San Francisco, both cities have highly concentrated populations and multiple transit options. Both cities also have a proportionally large population of high-income earners, who can afford to pay for convenience. However, conditions are very different in, say, Omaha, Denver and Dallas. That limits the growth potential for those delivery services--they may do very well on the coasts, but find limited viable markets in the rest of the U.S.

There are many other services that you can think of that take advantage of the population concentration, transit options and high-income populations of San Francisco and New York, but that may not play as well in other places. There are also services that target other unique market characteristics--for example, a dating service that targets techies might be very successful in New York and San Francisco but less so in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, which have much smaller young techie populations.

You might say "We did lots of customer development and found that there's high demand for our service." That may well be true, but where did you talk to potential customers? If you only talked to them in your home city, you've probably got a biased sample. It's important to talk to people in multiple cities with different underlying conditions. Only then can you begin to understand where your service will and won't work. That, in turn, will help you to more accurately gauge your Total Available Market, and you'll be able to launch in the markets where your business is most likely to be successful. In short, successful customer development requires that you not only get out of your building to talk to customers, but that you get out of your home city as well.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Jobs you can't afford to take

A multi-year consulting project that I worked on ended several months ago, and I've been trying to find work since then. I've spent much of my career working as a product manager; my software developer career is far behind me. Like many people, I keep current resumes on all of the popular job sites, as well as an active presence on LinkedIn. From the last time that I was in a long-term job search (2008) to now, a lot seems to have changed. Here are two trends I've noticed:
  • Insurance jobs that aren't jobs
Every time I post a new resume or revise an existing one on Monster or CareerBuilder, I get bombarded with emails and phone calls from insurance companies, all of which are interested in talking to me about sales jobs. I've not seen the same activity when I make resume changes on sites like LinkedIn, SimplyHired or Indeed, which leads me to believe that Monster and CareerBuilder have a function that allows employers to mass email jobseekers who've posted new or changed resumes.

The problem with the insurance company "jobs" is that they're not jobs at all. The companies are looking for people with sufficient assets to set up their own insurance agencies, and the compensation they provide is 100% commission, at least until a threshold is reached. At that point, the insurance company kicks in some money, but it's usually to help fund setting up the agency, not salary for the salesperson. A few companies make this clear in their solicitation emails, but most of them don't, and the jobseeker learns the truth by doing their own research or by participating in an amazingly easy-to-get interview.

I've gotten to the point where I simply ignore the flood of emails from insurance companies, but recently, a few of them have stopped taking silence for an answer. Some send multiple follow-up emails, and one has even taken to making follow-up phone calls. I can only imagine that there's tremendous turnover in their agent ranks, and why wouldn't there be? If you want to buy insurance, have you ever had trouble finding an agent? Not likely; in fact, it's very likely that in any given week, a life or home insurance agent will send you a letter soliciting your business. Any new agent that an insurance company adds has to succeed by carving away business from an existing agent. That makes the chances of success very small, and the agents who do succeed are both highly motivated and highly profitable for the companies.

If you receive an email from an insurance company as the result of posting a resume, they're offering you a small business opportunity, not a job. Unless you really want to be an insurance agent, get off their mailing lists.
  • Contract jobs that require relocation
Since the 2008 Great Recession, companies have increasingly made jobs that were once permanent into contract positions. At least half the positions that I'm contacted about are contract ones. I understand companies' preference for contract workers--they don't have to pay for benefits, and there's no hit on their unemployment insurance if they let a contract worker go. I'm happy to do contract work in the Chicago area where I live. However, contract employment agencies are now recruiting employees from all over the country, without offering any relocation assistance.

A phone call I got this morning from one such recruiter is illustrative: He said that a major brokerage firm is looking for a product manager in Austin, Texas, and noticed that I had expressed interest in moving to Austin. He asked me if I'd be interested in a job in Austin, and I said yes. I then answered a series of questions about my background and experience for him. Then, as his final question, he asked if I'd be interested in a six-month "contract-to-hire" position. I asked if there was relocation assistance, and he said no, so I replied that I wasn't interested and ended the call.

Most recruiters are more straightforward about disclosing the nature of the job as contract, but the problem goes further than simply withholding the nature of the job until the end. Contract jobs are ephemeral, and either the employment agency (the real employer) or their client can end the contract at any time. Some companies are notorious for not hiring their contract employees, and all that "contract-to-hire" really means is that the agency and client have agreed that the client can hire its workers after a certain period of time.

The real problem is that I've never encountered any employment agency that was willing to pay relocation expenses, or even share a portion of the expenses. There are times when I've had enough money to pay for relocation myself, but most times, the money I've put away is to cover taxes, with a little left over for emergencies. Employment agencies are looking for truly desperate people who are willing to uproot themselves and their families for a six-month contract, and who are willing to foot the entire bill for and risk of relocation.

This is bad enough when a candidate is being asked to relocate to a city like Austin with good job opportunities, but it's far worse when the candidate is asked to move to a city where there's only a handful of major employers. I was approached by an agency for a 12-month contract position as a product manager with a major consumer products company in Racine, Wisconsin. There's only one "major consumer products company" in Racine: S.C. Johnson. I could commute to Racine, but I'd spend three hours each day in my car. The agency suggested that I could stay in a hotel in Racine three or four nights each week, but I'd be responsible for paying for the hotel, as well as the additional expenses for taking care of my cat while I'm gone. Over the course of a month, I'd spend almost as much for the hotel, gas and other expenses as I'd pay for an apartment. I could move to Racine, but when my contract ended, I'd almost certainly be forced to move again.

Not long ago, I interviewed for a 12-month contract position with a Chicago-area company. The agency sent in five candidates for interviews, all of which had been well pre-screened, but the company ended up turning them all down. After meeting with company managers, it was clear to me that this job was critical enough to the company that it should have been a permanent, full-time position, yet the company wanted to hire a contract employee to save a little money.

The trend toward hiring contract employees, even for positions that should be permanent full-time, is increasingly turning employees into fungible goods. Companies see these contract employees as interchangeable, even though they often apply the same standards to them that they apply to their permanent employees. Contract employees learn to live with multi-month income interruptions every six or twelve months, and with the minimal benefits offered by employment agencies. In turn, the contract employees get very good at "spinning" themselves into whatever employers are looking for, and employers are faced with much higher employee turnover because the contract employees may be able to talk a good game but not execute.

I fear that U.S. businesses are burying themselves in order to save a few dollars. As for me, I'm old enough that I'll be out of the labor force very soon, and the only problem left for me will be not how to pay for my apartment but where to spread my ashes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Chelsea Handler: Netflix's MacGuffin?

Last week, Netflix announced that it will launch a talk show starring Chelsea Handler. The announcement triggered speculation about Netflix's reasons for launching a talk show, and what kind of a talk show it would offer. After all, Netflix is a video-on-demand service that features movies, old television shows and new series, while talk shows are one of the most time-sensitive show formats, after news and sports. Is Netflix trying to copy HBO shows such as "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "Last Week Tonight?" Would Handler's show be shown the day of production, or even live, or would Netflix delay it? Would Netflix try to create a new type of talk show that's not, as Variety says, "perishable"?

You may know of Netflix's first original series, "Lillehammer," starring Steven Van Zandt. It's never gotten much critical notice; certainly nothing like "House of Cards" or "Orange is the New Black." Netflix has renewed it for a third season, even though I suspect that most television viewers have never heard of it. When Netflix announced "Lillehammer," industry observers thought that was the story, and discounted its (and Netflix's) impact when the show turned out to be mediocre. The real story, however, wasn't "Lillehammer," but the fact that Netflix was targeting HBO with its own original series.

An important nugget in Netflix's announcement of Chelsea Handler's talk show is that the show won't go into production until some time in 2016. That seems like an awfully long time, given that talk shows are usually launched in a matter of months, not years. A daytime talk show can get "greenlighted" in the spring and be on the air in the fall. Why is it going to take Netflix more than 18 months to get Handler's show into production?

I believe the reason is that Netflix is preparing to launch a live service in addition to its existing VOD. Given that all of Netflix's infrastructure and all of the software that people use to watch Netflix was developed solely for VOD, Netflix has a lot of work to do in order to offer live programming. Once Netflix gets it working, however, it opens up entirely new opportunities for the company. One of them is Pay-Per-View (PPV). Typically, PPV is used for big-ticket sporting events, such as boxing and wrestling matches, as well as live concerts. These PPV events are one of the biggest profit generators for cable, satellite and IPTV operators. They would also be a big profit generator for Netflix, above and beyond the company's monthly "all you can eat" subscription revenue.

Another opportunity is live sports--the kinds of events shown by broadcast and cable networks: Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, soccer and tennis. Sports can be very lucrative for networks. Games on Netflix would be very appealing to viewers who could watch them without commercial interruption. Consider something like DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, which offers subscribers every out-of-town NFL game. It costs from $230 to $330 for a six-month (full-season) subscription, depending on the level of service, and it's one of DirecTV's most profitable offerings. In fact, NFL Sunday Ticket is said by many observers to be one of the biggest reasons why AT&T wants to acquire DirecTV. If Netflix develops a live streaming capability, it can offer a similar service to subscribers to any high-speed Internet service. All 99 million U.S. households become potential buyers. No cable, satellite or IPTV company has that kind of reach.

With that in mind, it becomes clear that the real story isn't that Chelsea Handler is getting a talk show on Netflix, it's that Netflix plans to offer live programming--and live programming is increasingly the lifeblood of broadcast and cable networks alike. In short, if your television business is known by initials (HBO, TNT, ESPN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox--okay, those aren't initials--etc.), Netflix is coming for you in 2016. And, Chelsea Handler is the least important part of it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We're doing it for consumers (not)

Last February, Comcast announced that it had agreed to acquire Time Warner Cable for a bit over $45 billion. The Comcast press release announcing the deal had the sub-head "Transaction Creates Multiple Pro-Consumer and Pro-Competitive Benefits, Including for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses." The press release had three discussions of the benefits that the merger would bring to consumers, and in subsequent Congressional hearings, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives have touted how their merger will benefit consumers.

Last Sunday, AT&T announced that it has agreed to acquire DirecTV for $49 billion. The joint AT&T/DIRECTV press release mentioned consumer benefits twelve times, including this quote from DIRECTV President and CEO Mike White: “This compelling and complementary combination will bring significant benefits to all consumers, shareholders and DIRECTV employees."

Earlier today, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the major broadcast networks, as well as radio and television station owners, issued its own press release questioning the consumer benefits of the AT&T/DirecTV deal, while emphasizing its own interest in looking out for consumers. NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton was quoted as saying “AT&T’s proposed merger with DirecTV demands a hard look in an increasingly consolidated broadband and pay television marketplace. It is hard to see how decreasing competitors in the pay TV marketplace – while increasing regulatory restraints on local TV stations – truly benefits consumers.”

Let's be clear: AT&T, Comcast, DIRECTV, the National Association of Broadcasters and Time Warner Cable couldn't give a damn about consumers. They're saying what they think they need to say in order to get the appropriate governmental agencies to approve or block the mergers. Let's look at what the parties really want or are afraid could happen:
  • Comcast wants Time Warner Cable's subscribers in order to increase its subscriber count to 30 million households, or about a third of all households in the U.S. that watch television. The merger will increase Comcast's revenues and profits dramatically, after years of little or no subscriber growth. It will also make it much riskier for broadcast and basic cable networks to threaten to black Comcast's channels out during retransmission negotiations, because losing Comcast's households would mean immediately losing a third of their viewers, and substantially more than that from major markets controlled by Comcast. That would directly impact ratings and force networks to make up the lost viewership to advertisers.
  • AT&T gets a national footprint by acquiring DIRECTV. It will be able to sell TV service, and to bundle mobile and TV service, anywhere in the U.S. It will be able to sell DIRECTV out of every AT&T mobile retail store. The merged company will have roughly 26 million subscribers--second only to the merged Comcast/Time Warner Cable. That will give AT&T the same leverage in retransmission negotiations that Comcast will have. AT&T also gets access to DIRECTV's unique programming, including NFL Sunday Ticket, which generates $300 of revenue per subscribing household each year.
  • The National Association of Broadcasters fears its members' loss of leverage in retransmission negotiations as much as Comcast and AT&T are looking forward to it. Instead of negotiating with ten big cable operators, two big satellite providers and two big IPTV providers (AT&T and Verizon,) broadcasters' negotiating partners are going to be Comcast, AT&T and everyone else. Broadcasters are afraid that Comcast and AT&T will squelch their ability to raise retransmission fees, and may even be able to lower them.
  • Smaller cable operators (represented by the American Cable Association) are concerned that if the broadcast and basic cable networks can't get the money they're looking for from Comcast and AT&T, they'll try to get it from the smaller cable operators, which have far less negotiating leverage.
None of this has anything to do with improving service or lowering costs for consumers. As Bloomberg Television pointed out yesterday, Comcast and AT&T could do something that would be of great benefit to consumers: For far less than the $45 to $49 billion that each merger will cost, they could dramatically increase consumers' Internet speeds to 1 Gigabit per second. That would give customers near-instantaneous access to Internet content and services. However, Comcast and AT&T are only planning to offer 1 Gigabit service in those markets where Google Fiber either already offers it or plans to offer it in the future.

The Justice Department: Your bank balance determines its prosecution strategy

Yesterday, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had settled a criminal case against Swiss bank Credit Suisse for helping U.S. taxpayers to evade taxes by transferring funds to overseas locations. Credit Suisse agreed to plead guilty to the charges and paid $2.6 billion, in the form of $1.8 billion to the U.S. government, $715 million to the New York Department of Financial Services and $100 million to the Federal Reserve. Only $670 million of the $2.6 billion went to the IRS for compensation of actual lost tax revenues. A few Credit Suisse employees will be dismissed or reassigned, but no one will spend a day in jail.

The settlement, as are most settlements of this type, was announced at a self-congratulatory press conference led by Attorney General Eric Holder. Attorney General Holder said “This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law.” He also said “a company’s profitability or market share can never and will never be used as a shield from prosecution or penalty. And this action should put that misguided notion definitively to rest.” Anyone who’s followed the Justice Department’s actions since the financial collapse of 2008 knows just how untrue--in fact, how hilarious--that statement is.

If the target of a Justice Department investigation has vast financial assets, the Justice Department offers or accepts a settlement that involves payment of money to the U.S. Government in return for dismissal of all outstanding charges. The vast majority of the time, the target doesn’t need to plead guilty or take responsibility for anything. Even if the Department does manage to get a guilty plea, as in yesterday’s deal with Credit Suisse, no one within the company will go to jail. (In the Credit Suisse case, the Government prosecuted not to recover any of the trillions of dollars lost by individuals due to financial manipulation and malfeasance leading up to the Great Recession. It prosecuted to recover a few hundred million dollars of lost Federal taxes.)

On the other hand, if the Justice Department decides to go after someone without vast financial resources, or if it has to defend its own actions, its tactics are dramatically more aggressive. In fact, after decades of fighting organized crime, the Justice Department seems to have adopted organized crime’s tactics. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to determine who the “good guys” are, and a scorecard doesn’t help.

If the Justice Department’s target is an individual without large financial assets, it uses intimidation in the form of threats of prosecution with trumped-up charges and the potential of decades of prison to get the subject to plead guilty to a reduced set of charges. It does that even (or especially) if it knows that it’s unlikely to get a conviction if the case goes to trial. A good example is Aaron Swartz, who downloaded a huge cache of academic journal articles, most of which had been written with taxpayer dollars and should have already been in the public domain. However, the Justice Department charged Swartz with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The charges came with a maximum of a $1 million fine and 23 years in prison, which the U.S. Attorney told Swartz’s attorney that she intended to ask for in court. After two years of government harassment and two days after a plea bargain offered by his lawyer was rejected by the U.S. Attorney, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Rather than discipline or dismiss the U.S. Attorney who refused the plea bargain, Attorney General Holder commended her.

If the target might be helpful in testifying against a bigger target, the Justice Department uses the same tactics, often stretching out the case for years in order to destroy the reputation of the target, eventually dropping the case before going to trial. The reputation and business of the target cannot be reestablished with an innocent verdict, so the individual or business is destroyed. Last week, Bloomberg reported on three previously unknown philanthropists who have created a $9.7 billion trust that’s bigger than the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations combined and is bigger than all of them except the Gates, Ford and Getty foundations. The three philanthropists were once part of a company called Princeton-Newport Partners, the world’s first quantitative hedge fund. Four Princeton-Newport managers were charged with racketeering and tax fraud (the three philanthropists were never charged with anything.) The Justice Department’s goal was to get the Princeton-Newport managers to testify against Michael Milkin. There’s no evidence that the Justice Department could have won a conviction against the Princeton-Newport employees if the case had gone to trial. The Justice Department eventually dropped all charges, but the reputation of Princeton-Newport was destroyed and the company collapsed.

If the Justice Department itself or the U.S. Government is the target of a civil or criminal case, it actively withholds evidence and lies to the court. A good example is the ACLU’s case last year in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to have the FISA Amendments Act ruled unconstitutional. The Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutional issues, instead ruling that the ACLU and its plaintiffs didn’t have standing to pursue the case—they weren’t affected by the Government’s actions because the Government wasn’t surveilling them. The Guardian reports that the Supreme Court came to that conclusion because the Justice Department told it “1) that the NSA would only get the content of Americans' communications without a warrant when they are targeting a foreigner abroad for surveillance, and 2) that the Justice Department would notify criminal defendants who have been spied on under the FISA Amendments Act, so there exists some way to challenge the law in court.” Both of these statements were outright lies.

In the case of #1 above, one of Edward Snowden’s revelations was that the NSA engages in what the agency calls “about” surveillance, in which it captures an enormous number (trillions) of emails and text messages between anyone in the U.S. and anyone outside the country, whether or not either party is in any way under investigation. Thus, the NSA got the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant AND without a targeted foreign party. In the second case, last July, the Justice Department admitted “that the government hadn't been notifying any defendants they were being charged based on NSA surveillance, making it actually impossible for anyone to prove they had standing to challenge the FISA Amendments Act as unconstitutional.” In most cases, the Justice Department acknowledges and alerts the court in question when it has given false statements or presented false evidence, but in this case, the Justice Department has refused to do so.

The Guardian explains what Attorney General Holder’s Justice Department has instead done, which is to deny its behavior and confuse the issue:
” The government's response, instead, has been to explain why it doesn't think these statements are lies. In a letter to Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall that only surfaced this week, the government made the incredible argument that the "about" surveillance was classified at the time of the case, so it was under no obligation to tell the Supreme Court about it. And the Justice Department completely sidestepped the question of whether it lied about notifying defendants, basically by saying that it started to do so after the case, and so this was somehow no longer an issue.”
In the FISA Amendments case, by any measure, the Justice Department should have at least been disciplined by the Court for deliberately lying, but nothing is going to happen. If the Justice Department can lie to the Supreme Court with impunity, it can lie to Congress, targets of prosecution and the American people with equal impunity. In fact, after looking at these cases and many others, it’s difficult to distinguish between the Justice Department’s actions and what it accuses its targets of.

The Justice Department has played a critical role for decades in civil rights, prosecution of organized crime and political corruption. It’s an essential part of our legal system, and I’m the last person who would argue that we don’t need it. However, we need a Justice Department that’s worthy of the people of the United States, and today, we don’t have that.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Craig Ferguson is leaving "The Late Late Show" in December

Last night, Craig Ferguson announced that he's leaving CBS's "The Late Late Show" when his contract expires at the end of 2014. According to press reports, he contacted CBS management earlier in the day to alert them that he intended to announce his departure, and the network sent out a press release a few hours before the show aired on the East Coast. Ferguson will have completed ten years of hosting the show when he leaves in December.

From the beginning, Ferguson was one of the most unique hosts in U.S. late night television. His monologues are what got early notice--the common style was (and still is) to make a series of jokes about the events of the day, while Ferguson frankly discussed his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and other personal topics. He makes a show of tearing up the "blue cards" that his producers prepare with information about his guests. The show isn't rehearsed, which sometimes leads to problems but far more often gives Ferguson's show a spontaneity missing from the rest of late night.

Ferguson is also unique for not only how he interviews, but who he interviews. He won a Peabody Award for his interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. He devoted an entire episode of the show to an hour-long one-on-one interview with Stephen Fry without a studio audience in 2010. He also interviewed philosophy professor Jonathan Dancy, and admitted later to Dancy's son (Hugh Dancy, star of NBC's "Hannibal") how intimidated he felt during the interview. Ferguson has interviewed a "Who's Who" of British, Scottish and Irish actors, many of whom are his long-time friends. These interviews are never as rehearsed or forced as the interviews these actors have on other late night shows; instead, they're conversations between two friends catching up with each other.

Ferguson, who's a published novelist ("Between the Bridge and the River") and autobiographer ("American On Purpose"), has interviewed a wide range of authors, including (in 2013 alone) Lawrence Block, Jackie Collins, Michael Connelly, Helen Fielding, Doris Kerns Goodwin, John Green, Philip Kerr, Dennis Lehane, Ben Mezrich, Jo Nesbo, Anna Quindlen, Anne Rice and Jon Ronson. You'd be hard-pressed to find any authors of note on any of the other broadcast networks' late night talk shows.

In his cold open Monday night, Ferguson said that the decision to leave "The Late Late Show" was his, and he had actually planned to leave in 2012 but was persuaded to stay for two more years by CBS's commitment to give him a new, larger studio. Despite the stories that began to swirl around after David Letterman announced his retirement, I take Ferguson at his word. If CBS had discussions with other potential hosts, it was (at least initially) to provide a backup in the event that Ferguson decided not to renew his contract at the end of this year.

I've always compared Craig Ferguson to one of the greatest late night show hosts, Jack Paar. I was very young when Paar hosted "The Tonight Show" (from 1957 to 1962), but what I remember from that time and gained a better appreciation for when I was older was that Paar was both intelligent and risky. You never knew for sure what would happen on Paar's show: In 1960, he left the show for three weeks to protest NBC's censoring of a joke, and he left the show for good two years later. Paar wanted guests with whom he could have interesting conversations, not just guests who had something to plug.

Like Paar, I've expected Ferguson to at some point thank his audience, turn on his heels and walk out of the studio, never to return. As of Monday night, we now know that time will come before the end of the year. When Ferguson leaves, it'll be the end of an era. I'm going to enjoy the remaining eight months with Craig Ferguson, because it's very unlikely that the host who replaces him will be as interesting.