Category Archives: Movies

Using Website Visitor Statistics As An Early Warning System

Like the canary in the coal mine, warning of the presence of deadly gases, or the seismograph warning of an impending tsunami, website (or blog) visitor statistics provide a valuable early warning system of current events, breaking news stories, and things that will be making news in the days ahead.

Google has known this for quite a while. Google’s Zeitgeist provides statistics that show the latest search trends. You can even go back and see what searches were hot on a previous date.

Like many bloggers and Webmasters, we keep tabs on Routing By Rumor’s traffic statistics. In the past 24 hours, we’ve seen a spike in visits that are related to several of the articles we’ve written in the past. An unusually high number of visitors have landed at our doorstep after doing searches for “Walmart” (or “Wal-Mart” or “Wal Mart”), “Ashley Alexandra Dupre” and “Blackrock layoffs”. We welcome the “business”, but we’re always curious as to why people end up here.

Searches for “Walmart” have always been a top search engine source of traffic to our blog. We’re guessing that a few items related to Walmart that have been in the news in the past few days have a lot to do with the sudden spike in traffic related to Walmart. Perhaps the news coverage of Walmart’s (and other retailers) day-after-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales have a lot to do with the increase in search engine traffic.

Ashley Alexandra Dupre is the alleged prostitute allegedly associated with the (alleged former New York Governor) Eliot Spitzer scandal, who received some coverage in this alleged blog a few months back. But why is she suddenly a top search engine topic once again? A bit of research gave us the answer. It seems that Ms. “Dupre” will be interviewed by Diane Sawyer, in a piece that will air on ABC’s 20/20 broadcast this Friday. Who ever said that crime doesn’t pay ?

We were scratching our head on the “Blackrock layoffs” searches that were bringing visitors to our blog. We wrote a piece last winter about layoffs at WCBS-AM, which we titled “Bad Day At Black Rock”. Black Rock is the nickname for CBS’s New York City headquarters building, owing to the dark granite facade of the skyscraper. But we had not heard of any new layoffs at CBS, so why the sudden interest in layoffs at “Black Rock” ?

A bit of digging yielded the answer. There are rumors floating that a round of layoffs are about to be announced at investment company Blackrock, Inc., the largest publicly traded asset management firm in the United States. Nothing to do with CBS, but close enough that it created a spike in visitors to my blog !

So, Webmasters and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts take note. If you see unexpected increases in traffic to your site that you can’t explain, dig deeper to find the source. Search engines rarely lie. It may be a case of mistaken identity, as with our “Black Rock” visitors. Then again, it may be an early warning of something you should know about, possibly relating to your website, your company, or a competitor.

We wonder whether mainstream media has caught on to this as a news gathering tool. It is no secret that journalists often “find” stories because they have already been covered by another newspaper, TV or radio station. Search engine statistics should be able to scoop other sources of news. The statistics are real-time, not requiring the printing of a newspaper, or the taping and editing of a television or radio news report. We would like to think that if the Internet existed back in the days of The Daily Planet, that cub reporter Jimmy Olsen would be using his computer and Google to scoop the other reporters.

We were wondering if we would get credit for coining the term “zeitgeist journalism“, so we decided to Google the phrase. Edward Rothstein, for one, used the term in this New York Times article about trend-spotting a dozen years ago, although obviously not in reference to Google, so we probably can’t claim ownership. Maybe we’ll just call it “Google journalism“.

Great Caesar’s ghost !

– Routing By Rumor

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Dead Man Walking

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Los Angeles (March 11) – New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (see our previous post) has reportedly signed a movie deal worth $75 million. He will play Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn‘s character) in Tim Robbins’ remake of his 1995 blockbuster, “Dead Man Walking“. Filming is scheduled to start this Summer in Angola, Louisiana, subject to Mr. Spitzer’s availability. When asked why he decided to pick Spitzer for the role, Robbins said “who better than Eliot Spitzer… he has walked the walk”.

When asked whether he expected filming to interfere with his responsibilities as Governor, Spitzer said “I do not expect that to be a problem”, and then added “if Arnold what’s-his-name in California can do it, so can I”. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a successful Hollywood career before going into politics, had some advice for his counterpart in New York. Governor Schwarzenegger suggested that Governor Spitzer should “terminate himself, before the New York Legislature does it for him”.

Casting has not been completed yet, but Mr. Robbins indicated that the tentative release date for “Dead Man Walking II” is Summer, 2009.

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Now, if Garry Marshall does a remake of his 1990 movie, “Pretty Woman“, we think Eliot Spitzer would have to be cast as Edward Lewis. He even looks like Richard Gere, don’t ya think? When contacted for comment, Julia Roberts said she was looking forward to working with Eliot Spitzer, should the movie be made. She noted that “he looks so much like Richard, it’s spooky”.

– RoutingByRumor

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You Have The Right To Remain Silent

…But it might not do you any good.

Forget about rounding up the usual suspects. Now, every one of us are suspects.

This story is about what you get when you cross George Orwell’s 1948 novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984), with Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, “Minority Report“. This, however, is not about science fiction. What I’m going to discuss is happening today, in the United States. It’s scarier than any movie, and it affects every American.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, Big Brother was watching you. It was a totalitarian society, with the “Thought Police” and the “Ministry of Truth”. There was the inescapable network of telescreens. Resistance was futile. “Thoughtcrime” was punishable by death.

In “Minority Report“, which was a look at law enforcement in the year 2054, a computer decided who the suspects were. Since it was incapable of making mistakes, it was a foregone conclusion that the suspects would be found guilty. The Police “Pre-Crime Division” would not arrest you after you committed a crime. They would arrest you before you committed a crime. Not willing to go quietly? No problem. They’ll just “halo” you. If you have any doubt, just ask John Anderton (aka Tom Cruise).

Fast forward (or rewind) to the year 2008. I just read a newspaper article (here’s another article) about a relatively new tool that police departments around the United States are using (also see article from Wired Magazine). It is called the”Mobile Plate Hunter 900“. The MPH-900 can be used in a fixed location, or mounted in a police vehicle. The system records the license plates of vehicles that pass, or are passed by the police vehicle containing it’s set of cameras. The system identifies the vehicle tag, and does a lookup of the vehicle tags against data in FBI, state and local databases. It will alert the police to something as innocuous as an expired vehicle registration, to more serious things like stolen vehicles and vehicles associated with wanted persons.

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The “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”

In my opinion, what we have here, plain and simple, is a high-tech fishing expedition. Not that this tactic is anything new, though. I suspect that ever since police departments started installing data terminals in police cars in the last few years, many police officers with nothing better to do have “run” tags through the system with no cause for suspicion, but rather just to see if they could catch some fish. The “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” simply automates the process, allowing as many as ten thousand tags to be checked during an officer’s shift. Of course, if you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to fear. Or do you?

Perhaps the most troubling part of what I’ve read (see newspaper article), is that the police are building historical databases from the data gathered by this system. They are mining that data to identify suspects to crimes that might have not even been committed at the time the system recorded the vehicle tag! Talk about Pre-Crime!

According to Remington ELSAG, the manufacturer of the MPH-900…

This system reads plates from a stationary location or at highway speeds and cross references them against an onboard hotlist. The system alarms within a second of identifying a plate on the hotlist and can process hundreds of plates per minute. An onboard image and GPS coordinates of every plate scanned are stored and can be referenced later.

Here’s an excerpt from the newspaper article I referenced earlier…

The plate hunter had success in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where a State Police car using the cameras in January of last year identified a tag linked to a vehicle owned by a man who committed a quadruple homicide.

Once Mark Serrano emerged as a suspect, authorities were able to search the system and determined his vehicle was near the scene on the morning of the murders, said Sgt. Ira Promisel of the New York State Police. A jury convicted Serrano of first-degree murder last year, based in part on information the cameras gathered.

If that isn’t straight from the Pre-Crime Division in Minority Report, my name isn’t RoutingByRumor. What does the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have to say about something like this? I don’t know. But here’s what the New York Civil Liberties Union said…

…such efficiency comes at the expense of every motorist’s civil right to avoid police surveillance unless a law has been violated, officials with the New York Civil Liberties Union argue.

“Police really should be in the business of investigating crimes, not tracking law-abiding citizens,” said Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“When we are driving and we are always having our licenses plates examined, then everybody on the road is being treated as a suspect,” she said.

In 2008, we may not have George Orwell’s telescreens everywhere, but we do have video iPods, camera phones, and surveillance cameras everywhere. I find it amazing how many crimes are recorded on video these days, whether by law enforcement, businesses or private citizens. The police may not have the Halo yet, but they do have the Taser. Are you scared yet?

Don’t Tase Me, Bro

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I think the closest thing the police have to Minority Report’s “Halo” is the Taser. The police use of the Taser received wide coverage in September 2007, after Andrew Meyer, a 21 year old University of Florida student uttered the phrase heard around the world, “Don’t Tase Me, Bro”, and was promptly tasered by police (see this youtube video). His crime? Attempting to ask a question at a UF town hall meeting featuring (U.S.) Senator John Kerry (see Kerry’s bio), and as some have accused him, being obnoxious. Unfortunately, I searched the Florida criminal statutes hoping to find the specific statute that covers obnoxious college students, but I couldn’t find one. I find it quite disturbing then, that the University of Florida Police were able to use potentially lethal force against Mr. Meyer, since his crime does not appear to warrant the death penalty.

I have watched a couple of videos of the UF tasing event, and read some of the police reports on the Meyer incident that were posted to the Web. Mr. Meyer is not some thug or terrorist. He graduated from Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Florida, where he was a member of the National Honor Society. He is (or was) a journalism major, and on the staff of the UF student newspaper. But I also think he was a self-appointed agent provocateur, who appears to have been out of order when he commandeered a microphone to ask Senator Kerry a couple of loaded questions, after the Q&A session was closed. Perhaps Mr. Meyer was seeking his 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps he just wanted to embarrass Senator Kerry. Perhaps he has some mental health issues. I don’t really know what his motivation was.

What I am quite certain of is that there was absolutely no reason for the Goon Squad to treat Mr. Meyer to an electroshock therapy session, or the audience to a horror show. The police report states that Mr. Meyer was “arrested and transported to AC/DC”, which it later indicates is the “Alachua County Detention Center”. Then again, perhaps “AC/DC” refers to the electrical waveform of the electroshock torture they administered.

If you watch this video of the arrest from The Gainesville Sun, it is clear that there were a half-dozen goons piled on top of Mr. Meyer. Yes, he was yelling. Yes, he probably should have just gone limp and let the goons drag him away. But he clearly was not going anywhere, and was not a threat to the members of the audience or the police officers.

My opinion is that he was tasered to punish him, and possibly just so the goons could get their jollies and assert their authority. Police do not have the latitude to determine guilt or decide on a punishment. It was an unnecessary use of force and an abuse of police power. But I think it was also exactly what Mr. Meyer wanted. His intention was to create a scene. The more controversial, the better. The messier, the better. The more publicity it generated, the better. He has certainly gotten his 15 minutes, and then some. He has appeared on NBC’s Today show.

RoutingByRumor awards Andrew William Meyer it’s 2007 “Most Memorable Quote Of The Year” award, for his contribution of “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” to the American lexicon, and for unwittingly bringing the Taser issue to the forefront. The incident has caused the University of Florida to reconsider whether to arm it’s police department with Tasers. Sometimes, good things result from bad situations.

In some instances, the Taser has become a weapon of torture, used to inflict pain, punish, and in some cases, unintentially kill suspects. More than 300 individuals have died as a result of being tasered. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has said that Taser use “constituted a form of torture” (see this article). Amnesty International USA has called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers by police, saying “The penalty for resisting arrest should not be death” (see this article). Read Amnesty’s Taser abuse article here.

Because it is viewed as a less-lethal weapon, police are much more likely to use it, as opposed to a firearm. But because of it’s potential for abuse, including being used to torture, and the potential to cause death, the Taser is much more dangerous than Minority Report’s “Halo”. Police feel free to use the Taser in situations where they would never consider shooting an individual. Watch this youtube video (viewer discretion advised) of a Utah Highway Patrol officer tasering 28 year-old Jared Massey, who was suspected of nothing more than speeding. His most serious crime, it seems, was asking the officer how fast he was speeding.

The Utah Office of Tourism might want to use Jared Massey as it’s spokesman.  Under a heading of “Come See Utah, Close Up”, they can show Jared face down on the asphalt, eating gravel and writhing in pain, as Utah Highway Patrol’s Trooper John Gardner repeatedly sends 50,000 volts through his body, while Mr. Massey’s wife screams hysterically in the background.  Oh yeah… that horror show should draw tourists to the great state of Utah.

Why am I digressing the discussion of the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” into a discussion about misuse of the Taser? I don’t think it’s too far fetched to assume that sometime in the not-too-distant future, if it hasn’t happened already, something similar to the following scenario might play out…

A police officer on patrol is alerted by his “Mobile Plate Hunter 900” to the presence of a stolen vehicle. The officer approaches the vehicle, but because of a language barrier, the occupants do not understand the officer’s instructions. A confrontation ensues that causes the officer to use his Taser on one of the suspects, who goes into cardiac arrest and dies.

It turns out that the vehicle was not stolen. The license plate number of a stolen vehicle had been entered into a police computer incorrectly. The dead suspect had done nothing wrong. He was, as they say, just “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. If police were not going on high-tech fishing expeditions, the fellow would still be alive.

Of course, I’m ignoring all the cases where criminals are caught, and stolen vehicles are recovered, thanks to tools like the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”. The issue I am raising is whether Americans are well served by the use of such technology, or whether it infringes on our constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.

You have reason to be concerned if your local police use either Tasers, or the “Mobile Plate Hunter 900”. If they close your municipal swimming pool so that Agatha, Arthur and Daschle can take a dip, you’re really in trouble. You’ll need to talk to Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith).

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Agatha (Samantha Morton), one of the three “precogs” in Minority Report

…To be continued

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eBay – A Buyer’s Market or a Seller’s Market?

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I love eBay. I hate eBay. I’ve used eBay since 1999.

If you are looking for a hard to find, vintage, used, discontinued or rare item, eBay is the first place to look. If you want to find the latest tech gadget at less than retail, check eBay first. A lot of people won’t even consider buying something online or at a “brick-and-mortar” local retailer without checking the price on eBay first.

With all those “Get Rich Selling On eBay” books and seminars out there, you would think everybody could quit their day job and watch the money pour in when they become an eBay seller. Don’t bet on it. Most eBay sellers hardly make enough to make it worthwhile. When you factor in the amount of time you have to invest to set up an auction, respond to buyer’s questions, deal with deadbeat bidders, and pack & ship the item, and the cost of eBay’s and PayPal’s fees, it’s hard to make a profit. Meg Whitman, eBay’s CEO, and eBay’s stockholders have made fortunes on eBay. If you want to make money on eBay, buy some eBay stock rather than trying to sell on eBay.

eBay has incrementally introduced new features over time that makes it a more secure and useful platform, but eBay has also devolved into an uneven playing field that benefits few but eBay itself. In category after category, you have sellers selling items for pennies, but charging outrageous amounts for “shipping”. Even the majority of sellers who aren’t selling through “Buy-It-Now” auctions for $0.01 are still inflating their shipping charges to try and make some money. This is especially true with sellers from countries like Chins, which have become a larger and larger presence on eBay.

I’ve seen it over and over again… For example, very small items selling for a few pennies, but with a $29.00 shipping fee. Shipping that will cost the seller anywhere from a first-class postage stamp to perhaps a dollar or two. Few buyers or sellers seem to care much about the practice, and eBay is certainly not complaining. There is so much competition between sellers that they all have to resort to this tactic. eBay actually helps sellers inflate their shipping fees by allowing them to build their margin into eBay’s auction shipping charge calculator.

Why is this happening? eBay does not charge a commission (final-value fee) for shipping charges assessed by a seller, so sellers shift all or most of an item’s cost to the shipping fee. eBay appears to have made no serious attempt to curb this practice. Why? I think it’s because eBay also owns PayPal, the bank thru which the vast majority of eBay transactions are paid for. If eBay doesn’t get their cut thru auction fees, it will still earn it’s money through PayPal fees.

If you’re looking for a bargain on the latest high-tech gadget, I doubt you’ll find a bargain on eBay. Items that are in demand usually sell for prices close to retail, especially when you add in the “shipping” charge. Most eBay sellers will not accept returns or issue refunds. Many manufacturers will not honor rebates or warranties on items purchased thru online auctions. While most sellers do a good job of describing an item and it’s condition, some do not. Some are deceptive.

For items like used or out-of-print books or DVDs, eBay is great, and there are many bargains available. I think eBay has done more for the environment by keeping stuff out of landfills than any recycling program has ever done. If you want to get rid of it, don’t throw it out. Put it on eBay.

One of eBay’s strengths is it’s feedback system. I like the very democratic rating system, where buyers get to rate and comment on sellers and vice versa. It encourages people to treat other eBayers they deal with fairly. It also holds you hostage to some extent. You have to avoid giving negative feedback to someone you’ve dealt with, even if it is justified, for fear of receiving retaliatory negative feedback. The feedback system is a double-edged sword.

…When I continue, I’ll discuss some of the issues I’ve touched on in greater detail.

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Deception Engineering

I wonder how long it will be before MIT, Caltech, and other engineering schools add a new degree to their curricula, BSDE (Bachelor of Science in Deception Engineering), right along with their highly respected programs in mechanical, electronic, computer and chemical engineering.

Granted, the program will probably have a friendlier title, such as “Product Engineering”, or it will be a concentration within their Industrial Engineering programs. Some schools might already be offering courses in this technology, because there is certainly a demand for workers skilled in this field.

If you haven’t noticed, consumer product manufacturers are using every trick they can come up with to hide the fact that you are paying more for less. My guess is that there are entire departments at some companies that research how to avoid or minimize consumer perception of shrinking products, whether through creative marketing, deceptive packaging, or playing games with package weights or product quantities. If you walked through their corporate offices, I don’t think you’ll find a door that says “DECEPTION ENGINEERING LAB”, but you can be certain it’s there somewhere, in some form.

Here’s just a few examples I’ve noted within the last few years…

Ice cream: The standard half gallon (that’s a two quart) ice cream container has been downsized by nearly all brands to between 1.5 and 1.75 quarts. It seems that manufacturers have resorted to several new package shapes to try and camouflage the fact that you are getting less product.

Soda: The 2 liter soda bottle has shrunk to 1.5 liters in many cases. Brands like Coca-Cola have come up with interesting names for their new packaging, like “Smooth Serve”, and introduced different bottle shapes. But less is less, no matter how you slice it.

Paper products: Even though they aren’t sold by weight, have you noticed how packages of toilet paper, paper towels and tissues are getting lighter and lighter, and run out sooner and sooner? No, it’s not your imagination. Mr. Whipple must be turning over in his grave. Take Scott toilet tissue, a brand that I feel is still one of the better values out there. Their flagship product has always been 1000 sheets per roll, and it still is. But the size of those sheets has shrunk substantially in both width and length (and some would argue, in quality and strength) over the last few years. Yet they still advertise “1000 sheets per roll”. That’s sort of like saying a loaf of bread is still a full pound, but redefining a pound as being 13 ounces. It’s deceptive marketing, pure and simple. And I’m sick and tired of having to clean myself up after sneezing into tissues. Lint and bits of paper all over my shirt, because the tissues disintegrate when you sneeze into them.

Snack foods: Ever wonder why your bag of potato or corn chips, cheese doodles, etc. is two-thirds empty when you open it? I have too. An example… that 8 ounce bag of chips and other snacks have pretty much universally shrunk to 5 ounces, 4.5 ounces, 4.25 ounces, and even less. That’s about half as much for the same or higher price. At least air has zero grams of trans-fat, and zero calories per serving.

Candy: I’m a chocoholic. I love Hershey’s chocolate, but that 1 pound bag of Hershey’s chocolates has been shrinking and shrinking over the last couple of years. Most of their products I see in the supermarket are now down to between 10 and 11 ounces. And no, it’s not just Hershey’s chocolates that are shrinking, but they are my favorite.

Yogurt: The 8 ounce container was the standard for as long as I can remember. Try to find it today. Almost all brands have switched to 6 ounce containers, with some as light as 4 ounces. Most interesting to me is the lengths some brands have gone to in an attempt to make their containers look bigger, such as false bottoms, cups big enough to hold 8 ounces , but which contain only 6 ounces, tapered cups, etc.

Cheese: I’ve noticed that most brands of prepackaged, sliced cheeses (Munster, Swiss, Provolone, etc.) that used to be sold in 8 ounce packages have shrunk to 6 ounces lately.

Canned vegetables: Just try and find a 16 ounce (one pound) can of anything anymore.

The above examples only scratch the surface. It’s not limited to one category of food or other product, or to one brand. Shrinking products are everywhere. It’s an epidemic.

In searching for other websites that document shrinking or downsized products, I stumbled upon mouseprint.org. It’s a wonderful site, especially their food /groceries category. Check it out !

And forget the advice about “Plastics” given to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film “The Graduate”. My advice, Benjamin, is “Deception Engineering”.

The impact of deception engineering on everyday life, and on our shopping habits is becoming so great that RoutingByRumor has started a Shrinking Products category on this blog, where we will spotlight some of the best examples (or maybe that’s the worst examples) of shrinking products and how manufacturers are trying to deceive consumers.

I did a few web searches for “deception engineering”, but didn’t find anything. Perhaps this will be my claim to fame… having coined that phrase. Maybe some engineering school will honor me by creating the RoutingbyRumor School of Deception Engineering.

Ya never know.

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