Digital Deception Redux: Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?

Two years ago I published this blog post about fake news. At the time I had no idea how big an issue it would become. After what has happened it makes for an interesting read, so I’m re-publishing the original post.

Digital Deception: Is Fake News a Laughing Matter?

An Invading Martian

(photo by wintersixfour)

It was Oct. 30, 1938 and Americans were glued to their radios awaiting further news about a reported invasion by Martians. They heard about how a meteorite had landed in Grovers Mill, N.J. An onsite reporter described how a crowd had gathered around a Martian who was sighted inside the vehicle and who incinerated all present, including the reporter. They awaited further bulletins on casualties and heard about how an army of Martians were preparing to invade New York City.

Orson Welles adaptation of the H.G. Well’s novel “War of the Worlds” is the pinnacle of fake news. At the time it was treated as an outrage by some journalists who claimed it created havoc. But we now think of it as brilliant drama.

Seventy-five or so years later, the tools to publish are available to everyone, as is the ability to promote what you publish through social media. The Web is full of fake news sites, the most popular of which is probably The Onion. While it calls itself “America’s finest news source,” its substantial following knows full well what the deal is.

But fake news also has a dark side. A recent story by the relatively unknown National Report carried the headline “17 Texas Kindergarteners Contract Ebola After Exposure to Liberian Foreign Exchange Student.” This prompted a story in Fast Company “Friends Don’t Let Friends Share Fake News About Ebola” which began: “This is a public service announcement about Ebola. If you see a story from a source called the National Report, ignore it.” The site dnaindia.com commented: “These sites claim to be satirical but lack even incompetent attempts at anything resembling humor.”

What motivates a nothing publication like the National Report to publish this kind of crap? The two million clicks it got in one day on this story, most of which were generated from Facebook. (Remember those statements from Facebook about elevating quality content in their news feed?) Fake news operations are using the same kind of clickbait tactics popularized by services like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, but without going to the expense of employing a real editorial staff.

Big American News is another fake newsjacker trying to produce clicks by feeding the potential panic over the spread of Ebola. These guys published a picture that they claimed showed an Ebola victim rising from the dead. Turns out the photo was a screenshot of a zombie from a movie. Imagine how the trend meter would percolate when you combine Ebola and zombie apocalypse.

Some other stuff that has gone viral recently includes another National Report story with the headline “The Big Lebowski 2 Filming Begins in January 2015.” It doesn’t really. And a site called Huzlers.com chipped in with “NASA Confirms That the Earth Will Experience 6 Days of Total Darkness in December 2014.”

But it is not just clickbaiters that use fake news to accomplish their goals. It has also reportedly been a tactic of both the FBI and the Republican Party.

(photo by nightfall)

(photo by nightfall)

Just last month, the FBI used fake news to nab a bomb threat suspect. (FBI Under Fire for Fake News Site to Nab Suspect.) They created a news story with an AP slug and posted it on a site that looked like the Seattle Times. They then sent it to the suspect on his My Space account. Since the story was about the suspect, he clicked on it, as they expected, and the file included malware that allowed the FBI to track his location. The Seattle Times called this an “affront to a free press.” But one also needs to consider that if catching this guy saved even one life does that result justify the tactics used?

In the ugly world of Washington politics, the National Republican Congressional Committee was reported earlier this year to have used fake news sites to attack Democratic congressional candidates (NRCC Launches Fake News Sites to Attack Democratic Candidates.) They created one page sites with names like “North County Update” to give the impression of a local news site. There were disclaimers at the bottom of the page acknowledging that the site was paid for by NRCC. The story in the National Journal also states that the NRCC had been the subject of a Federal Elections Commission complaint earlier for creating fake Democratic candidate sites.

Let us not forget, however, that there is some good satire out there, fake news that is both funny and insightful. Here are some examples:

After the governors of New York and New Jersey announced Ebola quarantine rules that went beyond what was being recommended by the CDC and the President, The Borowitz Report in newyorker.com reported “Christie Sworn In as Doctor.”

The staff at NewsMutiny apparently took note of the military arsenal available to the police dealing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., and took it one step further with this story “Local Police Department Acquires Nuclear Weapon to Fight Crime.”

And as football season draws to a close and sports reporters start to look at post season awards, the Onion felt this group worthy of recognition: “Penn State Honors Legendary 2012 Legal Team During Halftime.”

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Data, Technology and the Future of Cops and Robbers

Baltimore police

(Image by Bruce Emmerling)

What comes to mind when you think of the tools that your local police have? Guns? Handcuffs? Billy clubs?  A radio-equipped car? These haven’t changed much for decades. Perhaps the most advanced piece of technology before the turn of the century was the radar gun to catch speeders. But in the 21st century technology is delivering a whole new set of policing tools and delivering them at a pace that is probably too fast to be fully absorbed and understood by your local police department, the lawmakers or the community they are supposed to serve. There’s sensors and data, body cams, drones, aerial surveillance and facial recognition.

At a Future Tense event in Washington this week titled “Law and Order Circa 2050” these questions were asked: Will technology make crime obsolete? (no) Will crime-fighting technologies make privacy obsolete? (likely) Will technology improve police-community relations? (maybe)

One of the biggest promises of law enforcement technology is that predictive policing can lead to a significant reduction in crime. The basic idea is by using predictive analytics police resources can be deployed to the locations where and at the time when crimes are most likely to be committed. The data analysis can divide a city into a grid and identify the hot spots where crime is most likely to occur. It can, for example, project a 45% chance of a crime being committed in a specific place between 7 and 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The follow-up to that kind of information is obvious.

Crime scene

(image by Geralt)

A piece of data that is mostly missing at this point is just how accurate predictive policing really is and whether it is helping to really reduce crime. Data analytics is as good as the data itself and since the crime data being used is what was reported by the police in the past, some of the Future Tense panelists questioned whether it measures crime or police activity. Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented, “You can only predict crime that looks like past crime and if it is based on bias policing….you’re going to look for future crime in neighborhoods that are already over-policed.”

Security cameraData is not only being accumulated geographically but is also being used to identify individuals. Most of us have no clue how much surveillance is going on. Security cameras may or may not be visible, but do we know when they are using facial recognition technology to identify us? Does your police department analyze social media accounts? Do they have access to your call records?

While law enforcement is collecting data about citizens, are they also collecting data about their own policing? After Ferguson, the Obama administration created a Police Task Force on 21st Century Policing and out of that came a Police Data Initiative. The goal of that initiative was to make public data sets about such things as use of force, traffic stops, citizen complaints and 911 calls. Denice Ross, who is a co-founder of that initiative, said that participation by the City of New Orleans has resulted in a 16% improvement in citizen satisfaction with the police. But for the most part the transparency of this type of data is pretty limited.

One of the most widely used new tech tools for policing is Shotspotter. This involves installing sensors around a city that can detect gunshots and report to the police the exact location of that activity. Ralph Clark, who is CEO of Shotspotter, claimed that it is being used by 90 cities. He commented that when police respond to Shotspotter notifications, they may not apprehend a suspect but they might be able to aid victims or to capture evidence. Asked whether the knowledge that these sensors are in place and that gunshots would be immediately reported to the police department has resulted in a drop in gun violence, he cited “a reduction of up to 35% is some of our cities.” Hopeful but not yet that conclusive.

The promise of technology reducing crime and improving policing was perhaps best summed up by Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh. “My dream would be that we would see the technology of policing leading to a reduction in the amount of money we spend in locking up people, putting them in prison. And then we can use that money to have more beautiful communities, better education and better quality of life.” He noted that one quarter of his city’s operating budget is spent on police and prisons.

Alternatively Samuel Sinyuangwe, co-founder of WeTheProtesters, warned, “The other path is we double down on the police state.”

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Future Tense is a partnership of the New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University. An archived video of the Law and Order Circa 2050 event is available here.

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Once We Made Bowling Balls and Pocket Combs

Borough of Butler

Butler, N.J., is a middle class residential community in Northern New Jersey. Nearly 8,000 people live in its two square miles, a population that has increased modestly over the last couple decades. I worked for a local newspaper in Butler in the 70’s. The town has just undergone the shock of having the Amerace plant, the centerpiece of the local economy and the primary employer in town, shut down. This was a company town, a place where at one time the rubber company rented housing to its workers and donated the land for schools and churches. Once a small industrial center, Butler is a post-industrial, post-company town. But it’s a place that never lost its character.

American Hard Rubber Company sign

Butler rubber plants c. 1900

The rubber plant c. 1900

Butler rubber plant site

The plant site now.

The town is named after Richard Butler, a 19th century entrepreneur who played a large part in bringing industry to the town. He was president of the Butler Hard Rubber Company. In 1998 that company merged with two others to form the American Hard Rubber Company which some 60 years later became a division of Amerace. The Ace Comb Company was a division of Amerace. The rubber business started to come under pressure in the mid-20th century with the widespread use of plastics. Amerace moved its rubber operations to the south in 1974, leaving behind 400 unemployed workers and a massive plant in the center of town.

The building, like the town itself, has refused to die. A new post office was built at the front of the plant. Much of the space has been leased to small manufacturers. There is a brewery, Ramstein (a personal favorite) and some retail stores, Butler Place.

Butler Museum drum

New home of Butler Museum

Butler train station

Two years after the plant closed, the last train left Butler downtown station, ending train service that had begun in 1872. The station has since been renovated and is now the Butler Museum. Many of the images in this post were taken at the museum. Some of its exhibits are Butler specific like the municipal band base drum above and press clippings of a 60’s Butler High football star. But it is also a museum of historical reminders of small town industrial America.

Soda fountain from The Nugget

What small American town main street didn’t have a soda fountain that looked like this?

Butler Museum

Western Electric switchboard

Western Electric switchboard

Butler Museum fire alarms

The fire alarm system

Butler Museum adding machine

The predecessor of the pocket calculator

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Zuckerberg and Trump

In the aftermath of the presidential election the U.S. media is awash in soul searching, hand wringing and finger pointing. They have a lot to think about.

To begin with there are the polls, many of which are sponsored by, if not actually produced by, media organizations. In this so-called age of data journalism, it seems their data sucked. How could they have been so unanimously wrong? Do they all poll the same people using the same methodology?

Election 16 signMore important is the fact that the result of this election can only lead to the conclusion that the influence of the media, and specifically newspapers, has dropped off as fast as their circulation and advertising revenue. Has there ever been an election where the endorsements were so one sided? I can’t think of any. The only reasonable sized daily I know of that backed Trump is the Las Vegas paper owned by Sheldon Adelson, one of the primary financiers of the far right.

New York Magazine, among many others, offered this answer: “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook.” The author, Max Reed, pointed to “the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media,” adding, “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.”

Reed cited a pre-election story in Buzzfeed about “How Teens in the Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News.” According to Buzzfeed there were more than 100 pro-Trump web sites that could be traced to Macedonia. Their creators could not have cared less who won the election, but they seized on an opportunity to make some cash.

One example the Buzzfeed authors described was the site Worldpoliticus.com. It ran a story with the headline “Your Prayers Have Been Answered” which claimed that FBI sources indicated that Clinton would be indicted next year based on her emails. That completely fictitious story generated 140,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook, according to Buzzfeed. Now, consider that almost all digital advertising is done programmaticly with the advertiser often having little control over or knowledge of where their ad will appear. When a story generates that amount of traffic, ads get placed on the site, and the hoaxsters cash in.

While it was not a direct response to the New York story, another headline caught my eye at the same time. Mike Masnick’s piece in TechDirt carried the not-so-subtle title “If You’re Blaming Facebook for the Election Results, You’re an Idiot.” Masnick offered the now familiar argument, “This was a ‘throw the bums out’ vote, and many of the bums deserved to be thrown out. That they voted in someone likely to be worse (especially given who he’s surrounded himself with so far) wasn’t the point.”

So what does Mark Zuckerberg have to say about all this? Two days after the election Zuckerberg made an appearance at the Techonomy 16 conference in California where he was interviewed by David Kirkpatrick of Techonomy, who is also the author of the book The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that fake news on Facebook was a deciding factor in the election. He said there is a “certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news. If you believe that you haven’t internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

Zuckerberg suggested that you get a more diverse range of news on Facebook than you would get on any of the three TV news stations. This is because company research shows “almost everyone has friends on the other side.” But he also commented that while Facebook users are presented with posts reflecting a different view of the world, they rarely click on these posts.

Social networkZuckerberg described the Facebook news feed as a work in progress, something that will continue to evolve. He noted that it was originally configured primarily to address the more common usage of the service, sharing updates and photos with family and friends. Facebook’s goal is “to reflect what people want” and he promised “we’ll keep improving it.” One of the things Facebook users want is a safe community and that involves eliminating bullying and hate speech. But he acknowledged that when comments that might otherwise be considered hate speech are uttered by “the president-elect of the United States who has 60 million followers” those comments become “mainstream political discourse.” On thing he didn’t address is what about the people who might make the same hateful comments but who don’t have millions of followers. Facebook’s mission, per Zuckerberg, is “to give people a voice.An consider that Facebook tries to do this with algorithms rather than human beings. Good luck Mark.

Zuckerberg’s comments do pretty accurately reflect my experience on Facebook. I do in fact have a few ‘friends’ who supported Trump. I saw and read their posts but rarely clicked on the links they provided. I think most of my friends who backed Trump at least cast a wary eye toward fake news. (The pope endorsed Donald Trump? Seriously?) But I did see a couple get shared.

This whole election cycle has made clear how we live in a substantially segregated country that is widely divided. Neither digital media nor its more traditional predecessor seem poised to improve that. All signs are that it will only polarize us further.

(The Zuckerberg interview at Techonomy 16 is available on Livestream.)

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Boondoggle in the Meadowlands: Pt. 3 – They Forgot to Put Fan Experience on the Agenda

Since its opening in 1976 I have been a pretty consistent customer of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. I was at one time a season ticket holder of both the New York Cosmos and the New Jersey Nets. I attended hockey, basketball, soccer and football games there as well as concerts in both the stadium and arena.

Some of my most memorable moments of watching sports were at the Meadowlands:

  • In the 70’s, it did not appear as though there was much interest in soccer in the U.S., outside of some ethnic neighborhoods. But when the New York Cosmos brought over some of the biggest names in world soccer they amazed everyone by filling up the football stadium. I saw some of the greatest legends of the game at Giants Stadium, players like Pele, Franz Beckanbauer and Carlos Alberto, but at the time what was even more astonishing was seeing 70,000+ plus fans in the Meadowlands to watch soccer.
  • In the NCAA basketball tournament East Regionals in 1990, I watched the miracle shot by Connecticut’s Tate George that beat Clemson at the buzzer and sent the Huskies to the regional final. Alas, two days later, another buzzer beater as Duke’s Christian Laitner knocked out UConn. Two brilliant days of college basketball.
  • In 1994, soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup, came to Giants Stadium. I saw three or four cup games that year, but the one that stands out was a match between Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Neither team seemed likely to advance to the later rounds but they put on a excellent display of high scoring (3-2), skillful, attacking soccer. And again there were 70,000+ in attendance. Where else in the world would that have happened?
  • Three times I watched the New Jersey Devils make a run through the NHL playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. In 2003, I was lucky to see the 7th and deciding game of the final series against the Anaheim Ducks. The Devils won and I left the arena ready to celebrate. But there was nothing outside but a parking lot.
  • After years of watching the Nets live up to their billing at the minnows of professional basketball, I attended every home game as they twice made their way to the NBA finals, in 2002 and 2003. They lost both times, but along the way were some outstanding games, like the double-overtime victory over Indiana in the deciding game 5 of their series.
  • Just this past summer, I attended the Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at MetLife Stadium. I got to watch the best soccer that has been played in America since the 1994 World Cup. But I also learned to appreciate that the Latin American fans, unlike many of their European counterparts, don’t have to be separated from each other and are happy to enjoy themselves without any venom directed at the fans of their opponents.

    A full MetLife Stadium

    More than 80,000 fans filled MetLife Stadium for the Copa America Centenario final.

These are all great memories of my experiences at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. But what I also remember is all the things that weren’t quite right at these venues. It is as if the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority forgot to put fan experience on the agenda. Here are some of those experiences, ranging from the comic and stupid to the outright tragic.

  • Beer and football tend to be inseparable when you are out at the stadium. While college football hasn’t been much of a success at the Meadowlands, they did for a number of years host an early season game called the Kickoff Classic. I attended one of those with three friends in 2001. We entered the stadium, bought a round of beer and to this day we all remember that as the worst beer we had ever had. It seems inconceivable but from the taste of the beer they had apparently left the keg tapped since the previous season.
  • Beer is no less important to hockey fans. But when you are dealing with big events at big facilities who use big distributors, it can be tough to get beyond the usual BudCoorsMiller swill. So at intermission of a Devils playoff game, my son and I were happy to get in line at a stand with a sign for Guinness and Harp. The line was moving slowly and there seemed to be some discussion over every transaction. When we got to the front of the line we realized why. Like the people in front of us and the people in front of them, we ordered two Harps and were presented with two cups of black beer. When I suggested that we had ordered Harp, not Guinness, I was gruffly advised by the server, “That is Harp. It says so right on the keg.”
  • One of the advantages of having multiple facilities at the same location is you can share parking lots. I was happy to discover when going to the arena that I could pull into the stadium and ideally park in a less congested area. One of the first times I did this I drove past the stadium and toward the section of the lot that was closest to the arena. They were all set up for this, but they overlooked one thing. The pay booth had been erected on the passenger side of the incoming cars, rather than the driver’s side.
  • The New Jersey Devils had arrived here from Colorado and in the early years, they were not a strong team. Over time however they became regular participants in the NHL playoffs and these games played at the Continental Arena were invariably sold out. On one of those early playoff years I pulled into the parking lot at the arena and was dismayed to see the line to get in stretching all the way past the entrance, down the stairs, across the street and back into the parking lot. I thought this was a reflection of the size of the crowd but when I got closer, I discovered the real problem. On this, the biggest hockey night of the season, the arena only had one turnstile staffed at the entrance nearest the main parking lot.
  • The Meadowlands is built at the intersection of three highways. There are few options other than to drive there. Finally, some 35 years after the complex opened, a train station was opened on the site with service from Hoboken and Secaucus and by connection from New York City. I was excited to use this new service when attending a soccer game in the summer of 2010 at the equally new MetLife Stadium. (At the time it was called New Meadowlands Stadium since the original naming rights deal fell through after it was made public that the insurance company involved had insured Hitler’s engineers at Auschwitz. Not a good brand name for an area with a large Jewish population.) I took the train from Hoboken and enjoyed a fast, comfortable ride to the stadium. But I also had to get home. When I left the stadium it took me an hour and half to get on a train and more than two hours to get back to Hoboken, a 7.6 mile trip that Google advises would have taken 90 minutes by bike.
  • That soccer game involved Argentina and the Meadowlands, knowing they would have a big crowd, was advising fans to get there early. It was an 8 p.m. game with doors opening at 6. My friend and I decided to take their advice, get there shortly after 6 and have a stadium dinner. But when we got there, no food was ready. The woman at the sausage sandwich stand advised us of the problem. They wouldn’t let the employees in before 6, so no one had the time to get ready for the early arriving fans.MetLife Stadium
  • Bad traffic flow is legendary at the Meadowlands despite the fact that it was built amidst a bunch of highways with little else around it. It hasn’t gotten better after all these years. See the bridge on Route 3 at the left of the Google street view above. It is only a few hundred yards away from the entrance to the parking lot. In June, I arrived at that bridge 90 minutes ahead of kickoff for a Copa America game and it took me another hour to get from there to the parking lot entrance. And after the game… I waited two hours before even getting in my car to leave because the parking lot roads were solid gridlock.

None of these customer service failures compare with what happened in 1998 when the Grateful Dead played a series of five shows at the arena. Nine Meadowlands security guards, rent-a-cops from a company called Burns International Security Services, were accused of assaulting fans. The manager of the arena suggested that some of these guards “were taking short cuts at crowd control.”

That is a gross understatement if you consider what happened to 19-year-old college student Adam Katz. No one was ever charged and there was never any official explanation as to what caused the death of Adam Katz, a fan who was attending one of the Grateful Dead concerts. But the Katz family did their own investigation and concluded that their son was ejected from the concert, beaten by security guards and his body was then thrown off a bridge onto the highway. They sued Burns Security and ended up settling for $1.5 million.

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The Boondoggle in the Meadowlands Pt. 2 – A Swamp Half Full or a Swamp Half Empty?

Back in 1972 when ground was broken for what would become Giants Stadium, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society were there to protest the paving over of the wetlands. Not surprisingly to no avail. In fact the term wetlands might currently be more applicable for the Meadowlands as an expression of how much beer is sold on the premises.

The original Meadowlands Sports Complex consisted of a racetrack, a stadium (both opened in 1976) and an arena which opened in 1981. The racetrack is alive if not altogether well, the stadium has been replaced with a new one, and the arena lies dormant amidst of pile of unfinished construction.

Is this a sports complex that’s half full or one that’s half empty?

Half full

MetLife Stadium

MetLife StadiumThe stadium is the cornerstone of the complex. It was the commitment of the New York Giants to move to New Jersey that really paved the way for the Meadowlands Sports Complex. The Giants played their first game there in 1976. In 1984, the New York Jets moved in. The stadium also briefly hosted a third team, a Donald Trump venture called the New York Generals. A typical Trump venture, they lasted three years after which the league folded and Trump sued the NFL.

The stadium was home for the New York Cosmos in the 70’s and 80’s, hosted several games of the 1994 World Cup and welcomed the New York/New Jersey Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls) in 1996. Sellout crowds of 70,000+ watched the Cosmos and the World Cup, but for the Metrostars, who were never very good, it was a cavernous and largely empty home.

In 2010, Giants Stadium was replaced by MetLife Stadium at a cost of $1.6 billion. If you’re a fan you have to scratch your head because the new stadium hardly seems any better than the old one. Both are, from a utilitarian standpoint, good stadiums. But they are equally characterless. The new stadium is owned by the two NFL teams so while it is more of the same for fans, it is all about more money for the Giants and Jets.

MetLife Stadium still hosts two football teams and as such has more NFL games than any other stadium. In 2014 it hosted the Super Bowl. It is the pro football that makes the complex come alive, or should I say keeps the complex alive.

Meadowlands Racetrack

Meadowlands Racetrack

The racetrack, the first facility to open, drew an astonishing crowd of 40,000 plus for its first night of racing in 1976. It hosts both thoroughbred and harness racing and is home to one of the most prestigious events in harness racing, the Hambletonian.

But its status is somewhat in limbo. Since it was built, casinos have sprung up in surrounding areas and online betting is now legal in New Jersey. Attendance, which in the early days averaged 20,000 a night, now is more like 2,000. Since 2011, it has been leased to an operator who pays $1 a year. The grandstand was replaced, at a cost of $88 million, in 2013. There has been a constant stream of rumors, including conversion to a NASCAR race track and a casino. But at this point it is still on the half-full side of the ledger.

Half empty

Izod Arena

Izod Arena

While the stadium, at least on autumn Sundays, appears to be thriving and the racetrack still has its lights on, the other side of the complex has gone dark. In 1991, Bruce Springstein opened what was then called the Brendan Byrne Arena (named after a former governor) with six sold out shows. In all Bruce played some 56 shows at the arena and another Jersey boy, Frank Sinatra, played a 75th birthday gig there.

In 1996 it was renamed Continental Arena, after the airline which all New Jerseyians look back at fondly after seeing what United is like. In addition to Bruce, the arena had an NBA team, an NHL franchise and a Division I college basketball team. It hosted two NBA finals, three Stanley Cup finals and some NCAA East Regionals.

But by 2000, the Daily News was reporting: ”the traffic appears headed one way, south to Newark. The Devils, Jets, Nets and MetroStars are restless. They want to leave, despite offers of fresh concrete and girders. They want their own urban homes, a sense of identity, a hipper inner city fan base.”

The Devils left in 2007, moving to the vastly superior Prudential Center in Newark. Seton Hall, whose campus is much closer to Newark, left with them. So did Continental Airlines. Izod, a Nets sponsor, picked up the naming rights. But the Nets were also on their way out by 2010 as they were now under the ownership of a real estate developer who was looking to make a killing on a big development in Brooklyn. The name Izod stayed with the arena even after the company stopped making payments. It closed, seemingly for good in 2015.

The American Dream

Unfinished indoor sky slope

With the stadium now under the ownership of the football teams, the racetrack in decline and the arena standing vacant and unused, the NJSEA turned its attention to the idea of a shopping and entertainment complex. A mega-mall. Brilliant strategy? Consider that the Meadowlands is 8 or 9 miles south of Paramus, where there are three major shopping malls; 13 miles east of Willowbrook Mall; and about 6 or 7 miles west of the biggest shopping and entertainment complex of all, midtown Manhattan. Not only that but the Meadowlands site is in Bergen County where they still have blue laws that close retailers on Sundays.

So how has that worked out? The Xanadu/American Dream plan has had three owners, bankruptcies, foreclosures and lawsuits, and has cost billions of dollars, not only in construction but in tax breaks and government bonds. So far, what we’ve got to show for it is a pile of incomplete buildings that a friend of mine once described as looking like “something that was salvaged from Shea Stadium.”

 

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Time to Vote!

Borough of Butler ballot box

Old school ballot box. From the Butler (N.J.) Museum

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How One Korean Dog, Plucked From a Cage in a Butcher Shop, Found a New Home and a New Name

A few months ago I posted a story about Adami, a one-year old Korean Golden Retriever who was rescued from a meat market by an animal rights activist and sent to Los Angeles through an arrangement with the Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue. Adami arrived with some serious medical issues and has been undergoing treatment since his arrival in April

I am now pleased to report that this story has a happy ending. Adami, who has since been renamed River, has been adopted by the Ladera Ranch, Calif., family who fostered him since the Spring. Here he is with his new family.

River adoption photo

River came to this country with a severe case of heartworm. He was originally treated with two injections of Immitricide. In May he was released to his foster family but his treatment required two additional hospital stays. In addition to his medical care, River had to be kept quiet, not an easy task considering he is a playful one year old and there are four children in his foster home.

In September, blood tests showed he was free of heartworm and he was put on heartworm prevention medication. One month later he was neutered and had a non-cancerous cyst removed from his head. He is also receiving training to socialize him with other dogs, something that became necessary because of his months of isolation. At this point he was ready for adoption and it was the foster family “won over with his beauty and sweet personality” that offered him a permanent home. Here’s what they have to say:

“After five months it’s a real treat to throw a ball in the backyard and be playful with our very own ‘River Boy.’  We didn’t know what we were taking on back in May but couldn’t be more thankful to have had this journey with him. We are so excited to officially make him a part of our family and finalize River’s adoption.”

The Tess McIntyre Foundation, of which I am a trustee, used funds contributed by donors to help pay the cost of River’s treatment. The foundation, a 501(c)3 charity founded last year, is dedicated to helping rescued dogs who need medical attention receive the care they need in order to be adopted. Contributions to the foundation can be made at the organization’s web site.

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If We Don’t Own Our Stuff, Do We Own Our Future?

Home with 2-car garageEver since the wave of prosperity that followed World War II, the American lifestyle has been defined by the house in the suburbs with a two-car garage. The vision assumes ownership of the garage, the cars that go in them, the house and its contents. But technology has been whittling away at that foundation of ownership. Software is replacing hard goods, the digital is replacing the mechanical and the cloud replacing the bookshelf. It seems somewhat inevitable that at some point we sacrifice ownership of our home environment. How much control over our lives is lost with that?

That is one of questions discussed this week in Washington at the Future Tense event “Will Technology Make Ownership Obsolete?” You can watch an archived video of that event here.

One of the first areas where this decline in ownership seems obvious is music. The recorded music industry has taken us through a progression of vinyl and tape in all its iterations, 45’s, albums, cassette tapes and CDs. But they lost control over the delivery of their product when technology companies like Apple began to offer the same product but in easier to consume chunks. Even with digital music, the first step involved purchasing files that were stored on your computer. Not exactly a stack of records or tapes, but a library for which you had some claim to ownership. Streaming services that offer on-demand music offer an alternative that completely eliminates the need to own you own library.

Google driverless car

(Grendelkhan)

One of the most potentially consequential changes in ownership involves cars. The combination of the proliferation of ride sharing services and the development of autonomous cars suggests a future in which the personally-owned vehicle is no longer a necessity. And, as Lauren Belive of Lyft, pointed out at the Future Tense event, there are some compelling societal reasons to find alternatives to car ownership. She noted that 80% of the seats of cars driving down the highway are empty and that 96% of the time an average car is idle. There’s the amount of space that has to be dedicated to parking, the cost of car ownership (about $9,000 a year according to Belive) and the number of people who are killed or injured in motor vehicle accidents.

In many of our larger cities it is already the case that using ride sharing services is both more efficient and more economical that owning, maintaining, garaging and insuring a private vehicle. That may eventually become the case in suburbs as well, although we seem a long way from that scenario in more rural areas.

The potential elimination of the private owned auto would have substantial repercussions on the employment picture in the U.S.  Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute said there would be 90% fewer car sales if we stopped owning cars. The auto industry is estimated to be responsible for 7 million jobs. We probably won’t ever need 7 million Uber drivers, and even if we did, they’d likely fall victim to driverless cars. In fact, one of the things we might not own in the future is a job, at least not your classic 40-hour a week onsite job with its vacations and 401k’s and other benefits. More and more Americans are instead stringing together “gigs” like driving a rideshare vehicle, renting a home out short term or providing some other type of on-demand service. Lund claimed that 27% of the working age population in the U.S. doesn’t have a traditional job.

The question of whether or not to own is not entirely new. For example, on those few occasions when I need to wear a tuxedo I’ve always rented one rather than buying. A fair percentage of car owners are more precisely car leasers. Do we in fact own our homes if we purchased it with a bank mortgage that we are still paying off?

The influence of technology has muddied the idea of ownership of even some of the most straightforward household devices, your thermostat, your security system, maybe even your home lighting. If one of these devices contains a computer chip which stores information about your home in the cloud and is operated remotely by a device you may or may not own, it seems somehow less of an owned commodity. Do you in fact own your smart phone that you use to control these systems if that phone is part of a two-year contract with your carrier?

For those of us who are part of older generations (I’m a boomer), ownership has been equated with freedom. The private vehicle has historically had an enormous impact on American life, fundamentally changing our options of where we would live and how we would spend our time. Many people my age relished the freedom that cars gave us as teenagers, not just as a way of getting from place to place but as a private space as well.

The ability to own your own music freed you from having to listen to broadcast radio with its commercials and its sponsor or corporate generated playlists. Buy the records, tapes or whatever and you could listen to whatever you wanted. The same is true for movies. Buy and you can watch what you want, when you want to and where you choose.

But I wonder if for younger generations there is a perception of freedom from ownership, as in being free to hear what you want to hear without digging out the CD. Or, free from the need to make car payments, buy new tires and shop for the cheapest insurance. It has become clear that millennials are showing more of a preference for urban environments than their parents. Part and parcel of that is a decline in car ownership among that age group.

Lund suggested that people will cling to ownership of what they love. Evidence is the revival of vinyl despite the lower cost and convenience of streaming. Aficianados of exotic and vintage cars are not likely to trade them in for an Uber app. In my case, I can never envision myself letting go of books printed on paper, despite the fact that digital versions may be significantly cheaper and that I’ve got tons of books I’ve already read taking up an enormous amount of space in my house.

Fixing your car

(Ryan McGuire)

There is no doubt that in many ways we have lost some control over our environment and lost some of our ability to interact with that environment. Nobody changes their own oil anymore. In fact most people don’t even wash their own cars. You used to be able to take apart and potentially fix pretty much any device in your home as long as you had a screwdriver and access to replacement parts. Try taking a screwdriver to your iPad. Each new model of appliances, electronics or devices takes them further from the owner’s control.

So if we no longer own our stuff, do we still own our future? My answer is a qualified yes. Qualified because I’m as wary as the next guy about the so-called Internet of Things. When there are sensors that can capture and communicate information about me out in public, like on utility poles, as well as in my car and in my home and when these mini-computers can wirelessly send information, can’t everything around me be hacked? What if some unknown enemy hacks my fridge and makes it continuously churn out ice cubes while I’m away for the weekend? But more realistically I’ve already had it up to here with “targeted marketing” based on tracking everything I do online. I can’t buy enough “leave me the hell alone” software whether its ad blockers or robo call catchers or online tracking eradicators.

The “gig” economy is okay with me, but only to the extent that people are doing it for the freedom it provides and not because traditional jobs are harder to come by, don’t pay enough to live on and are degrading. But I also think that many of the changes that are coming will make our lives easier and give us in fact more control to focus on what we choose to pursue, freeing us from mundane and time consuming tasks. I’m not nostalgic about pulling a map out of the glove compartment to try to figure out where I am rather than simply clicking my phone a couple times. I look forward to the day when I don’t need a car to get where I’m going quickly and conveniently. And maybe this is all going to make us a less consumption oriented society. I’m down with that.

(Future Tense, the organization that sponsored the event which inspired this post, is a partnership of Slate magazine, Washington D.C. think tank New America, and Arizona State University. Their focus is on how emerging technologies will impact our lives.)

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Boondoggle in the Meadowlands: Pt. 1 – A Graveyard for Grandiose Plans

What is this?

American Dream

Is it the baseball stadium that was dangled in front of the Yankees as far back as the 1970’s in an effort to get the team to pack up and move across the Hudson along with their Yankee Stadium cohabitants, the New York Football Giants? Nope.

Is it the result of the 1991 plan to build a Legoland Amusement Park, or maybe Sony’s proposed theme park to rival Disneyland? No, neither of those proposals ever got off the ground.

Is this the $50 million dollar amusement park that Donald Trump proposed to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 1993? No, not that either.

Is this Xanadu, a project that was awarded to Mills Corporation in 2003 with the initial completion date of 2006? A plan that included an indoor ski slope, a Legoland, a movie theater and a concert hall. A plan that prompted Star-Ledger columnist Phil Munshine to comment, “What were the guys from the Meadowlands who thought up our vision of Xanadu smoking? Crack?” We’re getting closer. This is the ruins of the never-completed Xanadu.

Is this the Hard Rock Café casino, plans for which were unveiled in June of last year? Definitely not, because casinos are not allowed in New Jersey outside of Atlantic City. And while the question of allowing two casinos in North Jersey is on the November ballot, polls show it is likely on its way to a resounding defeat.

Is this the American Dream? Well, this building, which has been called “the ugliest dam building in New Jersey and possibly in America” by Gov. Chris Christie, is in fact the planned site for the American Dream, an entertainment and shopping complex under the direction of Triple Five, the developers of Minnesota’s Mall of America.

The American Dream is perhaps the most grandiose plan of all. And could well be the biggest boondoggle of all. Here are just a few of the things that the developers say will be included:

  • The country’s largest indoor amusement park.
  • The country’s largest indoor water park.
  • An indoor ski slope.
  • A 300-foot tall ferris wheel with views of Manhattan.
  • A SeaLife aquarium
  • An 800-room hotel
  • A dine-in movie theater with the added feature of being able to smell scents from the movie.
  • A Legoland Discovery Center
  • A kosher food court
  • 500 stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, the Gap and Toys “R” Us.

You might imagine that would have a pretty hefty price tag, even with the state providing the land and waivers on tax collections. The first two developers spent $1.9 billion on the unfinished buildings in the image above. The second of those, Colony Capital, which took over after Mills went bankrupt, was cut off by its lenders and the property foreclosed. New Jersey taxpayers had kicked in with $80 million in road and infrastructure improvements to support the project. It was later turned over to Triple Five. The Christie administration then pumped in with another $1 billion in tax breaks and subsidies.

Meadowlands cranes

Is this a parking lot for giant cranes?

So you might think the American Dream is back on the road. And while there seems to have been some work going on in 2015 it all came to a halt last fall. Turns out Triple Five could use another billion or so and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority is lining up a sale of that amount of bonds, backed largely by future sales tax receipts and payment in lieu of taxes. Triple Five, which now estimates the total cost of this now 13-year old project at $5 billion, is projecting a 2017 opening date. Whoops, that’s now been pushed back to 2018.

Here’s Uncle Floyd’s take:

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