Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Twitter's Sharknado Frenzy and the Future of Advertising

Everything you need to know about Twitter's promise and pitfalls can be summed up by Sharknado. Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote for MoneyBeat last week, a discussion of the campy SyFy movie "Sharknado," Twitter, and advertising, with Mark O'Brien, the head of DDB Worldwide's North American business.

I loved "Sharknado," by the way, and I really did think it illustrated something key to Twitter's future. Was waiting for a few months to find a good way to get it into a story.
Nothing illustrates the value TwitterTWTR +2.41% offers to advertisers, and the problems with Twitter for advertisers, quite like “Sharknado.” 
The SyFy channel airs scores of low-budget, cornball movies. Most of them, with names like “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” and  ”Mega Python vs. Gatoroid,” come and go quietly, even if they happen to star the occasional B- or C-list actor (the latter, in fact, featured both Debbie Gibson and Tiffany). But the network scored an unlikely hit this past summer with “Sharknado.” The Twitterati turned this low-budget piece of camp it into a brief, viral pop-culture feeding frenzy (yes, we were enthusiastically tweeting during it, too), and a ratings hit for SyFy. 
“It was a hilarious phenomenon,” said Mark O’Brien, president of the big ad agency DDB North America, and an early proponent of interactive platforms at the firm. “Think of the viewership, for what was one of the worst produced shows ever.” 
That viewership came almost wholly from the buzz on Twitter, and that little frenzy is exactly what advertisers are looking for, Mr. O’Brien said, which is simply the ability to capture the viewer’s attention. Any company advertising during Sharknado hit on a mini-windfall. 
But that kind of buzz so far hasn’t translated into profits for Twitter.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Best Writing Lesson

The best lesson I ever learned about writing I got from running.

When I was in my early 30s, I realized that drinking five or six days a week was not a particularly promising health regimen, so I joined a gym. There was one in the building where I was working at the time, in Jersey City, N.J., and it offered a corporate discount. It was a fine, modern gym,with all the fine, modern features. But I realized pretty quickly that I had no interest in weights, or spinning classes, or personal trainers, or much of anything there. The only I really like was the treadmill. I enjoyed running on the treadmill.

That realization led to another one: What did I need with a gym if all I was going to do was run? I could do outside for free. I quit the gym, and started running on the streets of Jersey City.

What's this have to do with writing? I'll get there.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Twitter: Cheap to Use, Expensive to Buy

Twitter is a great service. It might not be such a great investment, though.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Doomsters and Cassandra and Smart Alecks

I wish Fox Business would provide the embed coding for their videos, but all I have is this link to this an interview I did on Tuesday with Dennis Kneale.

This would have been a really good interview, except for the fact that I tried to get cute at the very top. What I remembered of Cassandra from ancient Greek literature was her predicting that Agamemnon would be killed by Clytemenstra. So when Dennis read his into and mentioned Troy, I tried to prove how smart I was. Dumb.

But, I am nothing if not honest. So I looked it up, saw my mistake, and later tweeted this out to Dennis:

That said, I really don't remember her being mentioned in the Iliad, or the Odyssey for that matter.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

'Gold Rush' Days

Jack and Todd Hoffman of the reality-TV show "Gold Rush" did the media circuit in the city today to promote the program's new season, and one of their stops was my show (it's nice to know we're on the publicist's list of stops).

I'll be honest, I thought I asked some pretty good questions, and I thought their answers were also very good, very illuminating. Sharp guys.

I had a lot of fun with this one.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Writing is Not Hard

Writing is not hard.

Writing well is very hard.

Writing so well that every single word is not only in the perfect, correct place, but every single word is the perfect, correct only word that could work in that exact, specific spot, so much so that the words become a moving image, the entire story becomes this living, breathing thing that burrows in your mind is so difficult that to my knowledge, the only man who's ever achieved it is James Joyce.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

'The Walking Dead' is Back

"The Walking Dead" is back, and so are my recaps, which will appear every Sunday night right after the show ends on the Journal's Speakeasy blog.

Here's an excerpt from this week's recap. I also wrote a piece about the show, its fans and the economy.

"The Walking Dead” returned to AMC on Sunday night for its fourth season. The show that was apparently too bloody and too gory for the genteel folk at the Emmys is back in all its blood-soaked glory, and it’s finding new ways to dump zombies right into our laps.

No kidding. Tonight’s big set-piece involves an abandoned supermarket, zombies on the roof, and an Army helicopter. It’s not just a bloodfest, though. There is some very nuanced story telling here, and as we’re re-introduced to the characters, we see how much has changed since the Governor mowed down his own people and left Rick Grimes in control of the countryside around the West Georgia Correctional Facility – and how much hasn’t changed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Carrie Telekinesis Stunt

So, I'm not in the habit of doing movie studios' marketing for them, and I'm not sure if the world needs another Carrie, but this video made to publicize the new Carrie movie is pretty damn clever.

My only wish is they cut a version of it that would be just one continuous shot of the actual stunt itself. But seeing how they set the whole thing up is a good idea, too.

I'll be back with a post about my latest story idea, which involves time travel, and Hitler, and seriously unintended consequences.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bitcoin and the Rise of a Digital Counterculture

I went to a bitcoin conference in the city at the end of July, and this was part of my dispatch (you can read the whole post over at MoneyBeat). Becoming very interested in bitcoin, not as an investment, but as a story.

It was quite the experience, and I expect I'll be writing a lot more about it. If it takes off the way its proponents say it's going to, everybody will be writing a lot more about it.

Here's the post:
You say you want a revolution? 
Several hundred entrepreneurs, dreamers, technophiles, and the simply curious gathered Tuesday in midtown Manhattan for “Inside Bitcoins,” a one-day conference promoting and exploring the mushrooming world of digital currencies. 
There was a lot of talk about regulatory hurdles, and freedom of speech, replacing an archaic financial system, and of course fiat currencies, which are almost treated like a dirty word among the faithful. What emerged from the conference, to our eyes at least, is something more singular: The rise of a digital counterculture that in its anti-authoritarian, Utopian idealism resembles the counterculture of the 1960s. 
It wasn’t just that the people at the conference – about 350 attended, according to Mediabistro, which sponsored it – were mostly male and overwhelmingly young, that sneakers and t-shirts outnumbered loafers and suit jackets, that the enthusiastic kids acted like they were at a Coachella festival as much as at an investing conference. 
Ever since the rise of the Microsoft Millionaires, the idea of whiz-kids in jeans striking it rich has been part of the American culture. What is unusual is the sense that these kids are present at the birth of something big, eyewitness to a sea change in society. To a one, the people we talked with all spoke of bitcoin in terms that echoed earlier Utopian movements. 
“This is really a revolution,” said. Patrick Griffin, an executive at the startup Ripple and a panelist on one of the sessions.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Know How to Write the Screenplay for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I know how to make Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into a film. At least, I think I do. If you're not a fan or the book, this is not the post for you. If you are a fan, or haven't read the book but are supremely bored just about now with what's trending on Twitter, well, maybe this is the post for you.

Robert Pirsig and his son, Chris, 1968.
There's a scene in Lila, the follow-up to Zen, where Pirsig has a meeting with Robert Redford, who had, I believe, optioned the first novel and wanted to make a movie of it. Redford's idea was to start with a scene where Pirsig, as a college professor, was sitting in front of his class, at his desk, not saying a word. From there, Redford planned to tell the story through flashbacks.

It never went anywhere, obviously, and Zen remains one of those kinds of books that Hollywood, I think, hates: popular, but unfilmable. There is a standard narration that carries Zen, but the meat of the book, what really makes it such a classic, is almost all the first-person thoughts that the narrator presents as he's making his cross-country motorcycle trip, and it's all very heavy on philosophical exposition. Avatar this ain't, Hell it's not even as accessibly as The Great Gatsby. Nobody could make a film out of ZMM.

But I think I could. Not only that, I think I could do it well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Greatest Band Ever, Worst Movie Ever?

So I was flipping around the channel guide like an hour ago, and saw that Blues Brothers 2000 was on; I'd already missed the first hour or so. I'd never seen it (choosing not to sully the memory of the late John Belushi by even watching it, a sentiment nobody involved in the movie seemed to share), nothing else was on, it was late, I was tired, so I figured, hey, why not see just how bad this train wreck was. The music's got to be pretty good at least, right?

Well, it was bad. Really awful. Like, you wonder how they possibly could've even let it be released bad. No doubt. But the music was good, really good, and one sequence contained what might qualify as the greatest band ever. I don't know if Blues Brothers 2000 is the worst movie ever, I'm sure it would hold its own in any discussion, but you could dump the entire Pacific in the gap between the quality of the music and the script, and this one scene, with this one band, is like a glistening pearl in a toxic waste dump. Coming across it late at night was such a shock that I'm sitting here buzzing over it, compelled to write about it and wondering if anybody else ever got far enough into the movie to notice this all-time, all-star band.

So, the Blues Brothers band, for reasons I missed, enters this weird bayou battle of the bands, and the band they're going up against, the Louisiana Gator Boys, well, just look for yourself:

This is the second song they did in the movie, and you can see who's in the band. It's an absolutely unbelievable assembly. B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Jimmy Vaughn, Gary Bonds, Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, Clarence Clemens, Isaac Hayes, Koko Taylor, Travis Tritt, Steve Winwood, people I didn't even recognize. The clip above is okay, but the first song they did, the B.B. King song "How Blue Can You Get," is way better than this, although I couldn't find a clip of it. But it's absolutely sick. It seriously might be the greatest single assemblage of musical talent, like, ever. Can you think of a better one? The entire God-awful movie is worth sitting through just to get to that one scene.

This song's pretty good, too, with Erykah Badu singing, after she turned the Blues Brothers into what I think are supposed to be zombies, and a pretty impressive piano solo from Paul Shaffer:

And all for this lousy movie. It just doesn't make sense, but there it is. Those are the only songs I saw by the way. Now I'm seriously thinking of going back and watching the rest of this train wreck, just for the music.

Also, it all reminded me, if you've never been to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, you are missing what is surely the best music festival in the nation, hands down. Go. Just, go.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Walking Dead Season 4 Trailer: Sanctuary

"Sanctuary. Those who arrive...survive."

If this trailer was on cassette tape - if you're old enough to remember cassettes - I'd have already worn it out. I can't stop watching this thing, and October can't come fast enough.

From about midseason on during season three, I was writing the Walking Dead recaps for the Journal's Speakeasy blog. I think I'll be doing it again. It ends up taking much more time than you might think; the reviewers get sent "screeners," so we can watch the episodes ahead of time. Which means I'd end up watching it two or three times during the week, and then write the recap, which always ended up being like 1,300 words that I'd try to whittle down.

So, after my day job, my family life, and The Walking Dead, well, that was pretty much every waking moment. Oh, and football, of course. Can't forget football.

You also lose a little of the excitement of seeing the show live on Sunday night with the rest of the fans, everybody screeching on Twitter and the text messages between me and my sister, and all that, you kind of get pulled out of that community a little bit, the visceral, holy sh..! moments that are so much fun.

On the other hand, it was kind of fun to do the recaps, to be on that other side. I'd never done that before, and it was a challenge to write good reviews, to capture the show, find the flaws, and to satisfy the readers who invariably are also heavily invested in the show.

One way or another, can't wait for Oct. 13.

"Sanctuary. Those who arrive...survive."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bitcoin ATM

This week we got out of the MoneyBeat studio to meet the Josh and Zack Harvey, who have developed what they say is the world's first bitcoin ATM, which may be coming soon to a restaurant or retail store near you (assuming, of course, that bitcoin expands past the small group of online aficionados who use it.)

You can read the post here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Yumblr? Yamblr? Yahoo's Got Work To Do

Here's myself and the Journal's Spencer Ante talking about Yahoo and its Tumblr deal on Monday's MoneyBeat show.

The bottom line is that Yahoo is still playing catch-up, and it's going to have to prove that "Yumblr" or "Yamblr" or whatever the cool kids call it isn't another waste of time and money. Nobody's giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The most telling thing about this whole deal was that Yahoo, right at the top of its press release announcing the deal, promised "not to screw it up." You don't hear that kind of thing from companies very often; never, actually.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Amerigo

This is a short story I wrote that's going to be part of a longer piece I'm working on.
“The Amerigo was the big time,” Randy said.  “The Dorsey Brothers, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, everybody played there.”  He arched his rough, scarred hands across the wheel, one over the other, easing the truck into a turn, shifting the cab’s three occupants leftward.  Each man braced just a little, to avoid too much physical contact.
“I never heard of it,” Chris said.  Sitting in the middle, he had the fresh, tousled look of somebody who hadn’t heard of a lot of things.  The truck rumbled down an empty two-lane highway, winding through the morning mist and green hillside dense with green oaks and sycamores, and pines and walnut trees, the sun just poking through the leaves.
“They turned it into a rock club when I was growing up,” Bruno said from the passenger seat.  A good 35 years Chris’s senior, he sat with one hand slung out the window, already warm from the July sun, the other holding a styrofoam cup of coffee.  He had smooth hands, office hands.  “The Amerigo-go, they called it.  Just local bands, nobody very good.  But I saw Springsteen there in ’72.”
“You don’t say,” Randy said.  He was a burly man, with deep-set dark eyes, a heavily creased face and a thick black and gray beard.  Wiry hair escaped from under a rumbled, blue-striped seer sucker baseball cap on his head that looked completely out of place up there.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Far Better Resting Place for Jim Kirk

William Shatner made a surprise appearance on my show, The Markets Hub (, in 2011. He was in the Wall Street Journal newsroom taping an interview for his new (at the time) book, and one of our producers thought it would be exciting to have him walk onto our show live.

You can watch the video here; Shatner comes on right at the 16:00 mark, and if I don’t seem all that surprised, trust me, it was just because I was keeping cool. Capt. James Kirk was a childhood hero, and to have the guy who played him come onto my set unannounced was an out-of-body experience.
Also, and much to his credit, he actually talked about the markets with us.
Anyhow, as you may imagine, I had Capt. Kirk on the brain a lot after that appearance. I started thinking Kirk deserved a better send-off than the one he got in Generations (as a truly deranged Trekkie, I will watch just about any Star Trek story if I come across it on TV, but Generations is pretty lame when you think about it). I started thinking if J.J. Abrams could screw with the Star Trek universe for his silly re-boot (see my take on that one here), then why couldn’t we redo Kirk’s final tale? That’s when this Kirk story started forming in my mind.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Investment Lessons from 'The Walking Dead'

Here's a snippet from my latest MoneyBeat post, "Investment Lessons from The Walking Dead."
Gene Page/AMC
You can learn a lot about investing by watching a show about a zombie apocalypse. 
I’ve been moonlighting as a TV critic for our Speakeasy blog, writing the recaps for AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead. I’d watch the show, then watch it again, then watch it again, looking for themes, angles, the human element that raised the story above a mere zombie gorefest. 
What I also realized is that there’s some good lessons in the show for investors, as well. Because, really, investing these days is not exactly unlike trying to survive in a plague-riddled Georgia countryside after a zombie apocalypse hits.  
Here, then, is a short list of lessons that investors can draw from The Walking Dead, with relevant market analogies from two long-term, value-focused money managers and fans of the show, Jim O’Shaughnessy of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management in Stamford, Conn., and John Schwinghamer of ScotiaMcLeod of Montreal. 
Don’t toy with zombies, kid. In season two, young, curious Carl Grimes comes across a zombie trapped in mud. Rather than run, Carl plays games with the zombie. He toys with it, throws rocks, pokes it with a stick. Of course the zombie gets loose, nearly eats Carl, and creates havoc down the road.
Relevant market analogy: “A lot of companies are like zombies that are stuck in the mud, they’re moving but the lights aren’t really on,” said Schwinghamer, who’s also author of the book Purple Chips. “These are companies that keep diluting earnings, are top-line oriented and don’t do any favors for investors.” 
 You can read the rest at MoneyBeat.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

William Shatner on the Euro Crisis and the Best Trek Movie

Here's one of the Markets Hub shows from October 2011, when we were surprised on the set by William Shatner. Click in at the 15-minute mark to get an idea of what we were talking about before Shatner came on. He comes on set at the 16-minute mark.

Back then the shows were a half-hour (they're only 20 minutes now) and we had two anchors. So Michael Casey and I were interviewing Shira Ovide about banks in the U.S. and Europe when who do I see getting mic'd up on the set, but William Shatner. I think to myself, wow, William Shatner's here. But I'm wondering where he's going (you can see at one point in that 15-minute frame where it becomes obvious I've noticed him). I didn't think he was coming onto my show.

That's because Shatner was not scheduled to be on the show.

Emmitt Smith Doesn't Like the Outdoor Super-Bowl Idea

 This is an interview we shot back in January on the Markets Hub, with the Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, with his take on the Super Bowl and his opinion on playing the next one in New Jersey, in the outdoors in February.

The Star Trek Reboot, Rebooted

With the new Star Trek movie coming out soon, I've been thinking more and more about the 2009 Star Trek reboot, too much probably but that's another story. I've grown to both hate it and have an unhealthy fascination with it. It's not a good movie. But you can see where it could have been a good movie, and that's where the fascination lies.

The movie actually has a lot going for it. The special effects are superb without seeming cartoonish (like the Star Wars prequels or Avatar). The sets are well designed, the casting is good to even inspired, the movie's fast-paced, doesn't take itself too seriously, has fun with itself, and throws a ton of welcome homages and references to the original series.

It's just the story that's an absolute wreck.

Really, there's so much going on in this movie, and it moves so fast, you don't even really notice at first one key thing: the plot is absolutely incomprehensible. It literally makes no sense. Let's review it, in detail.

Okay, look, I can't do that here. It's too convoluted and it'll take too long (Red Letter Media does a very good job of breaking it down, anyway). Besides, I only want to bash the story as a setup for my alternate story. So I'll assume you're familiar with the plot. If you want to debate me on this its putridity, have at it.

Here's just one example of a plot hole you could, well, pilot a starship through.