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Democrats must expel extremists if the party is to survive

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You can say whatever you want to about nextdoor.com, but one thing’s for sure: it’s an accurate reflection of what’s on people’s minds at any given time.

I value that. We need to have these conversations about important issues, especially during this pandemic. I realize that discussion can get heated, but what’s wrong with that? Lately, the number one topic in my nextdoor.com neighborhood is homelessness and the rapidly spreading tent cities that are taking over vast tracts of Oakland.

There are basically two sides: what I’ll call “pro-homeless advocates” (for want of a better term) and those who are begging the city to establish some sort of control over the camps. The advocates are essentially saying that homeless people are our unhoused brothers and sisters. They need our help, and we ought to provide them with what they need. At their most extreme, the advocates demand free housing for each of Oakland’s 4,500 homeless people, as well as healthcare, psychological counseling, job training, basic lifecare supplies and so on. The advocates never say where the money for all this should come from. Yes, they make vague sounds about raising taxes on the rich, or on corporations. They point out that America, as the richest country in the world, should be able to take care of its homeless citizens. But it seems to me that the advocates are unschooled in the realities of politics and economics. Whenever I read a comment on nextdoor.com that begins with, “Oakland should build free housing for all the homeless people,” I think: Here is a person without the slightest comprehension of how the real world functions.

The other side is those of us (me included) who want the city to do a better job managing the camps. Since our current mayor, Libby Schaaf, was elected in 2014, homelessness has spread like a plague. There are camps everywhere: in public parks, blocking sidewalks, under freeways, at intersections, next to schools. I think what especially provokes some of us is the filth accompanying the camps. The homeless advocates consistently portray all homeless people as fine, upstanding human beings who have been victimized by a capitalistic system of white patriarchy, but those of us who are living with the camps all around us see the homeless people every day, and we know that they’re not all angels. One commenter on nextdoor.com called some of them “swinishly sociopathic,” a description with which I agree. Perhaps they are suffering from mental illness, and perhaps some of them are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, but society has never recognized those conditions as allowing for individuals to wantonly destroy our neighborhoods. The piles of garbage and junk that are strewn everywhere in Oakland are insults to those of us who pay taxes and have tried very hard to make Oakland a safe, livable city.

The two sides—pro-homeless advocates and those who would control the camps—speak past each other. The advocates seem unable to accept the fact that there is no solution to homelessness. There is not enough money in all of Oakland to accomplish what they want, and there never will be. I should think that stark reality would be enough to make them accept some reasonable degree of camp management by the city, but no, they want no controls over the camps at all. To even suggest that campers keep their areas clean is, to the advocates, fascism, or racism, or elitism—they have a lot of “ism’s” they toss around, when they’re unable to deal with criticism on a rational basis.

As someone who keeps close track of the political and cultural pulse of Oakland, I sense that things are changing. The negatives of living here—not just the filth, but the soaring crime rate—are pushing even liberal people over to a more hard-edged realism. It’s one thing to be a Bernie Bro when you don’t have to fear for your life walking down a dark street at night, but when that fear becomes visceral, suddenly even the most ardent Bernie Bro starts wondering if “defund the police” is really a sane policy. More and more of my neighbors on nextdoor.com are openly expressing support for the police, and disgust with a Schaaf regime that is unable or unwilling to do anything to tackle Oakland’s real problems. What we get from this regime are platitudes about racial justice, not actual solutions to the things that bother real people.

As a white male, and as a gay American who has seen the viciousness of homophobia all my life, I’m proud to call myself a Democrat. The Democratic Party has always fought for the rights of minorities, and we should not allow the fact that there’s still a long way to go, to obscure the many wonderful things that Democratic legislation has accomplished, at the city, state and federal levels. I loathe the Republican Party for what it has become under trump: a cult of ignorant white supremacists, paranoids, religious fanatics and debased gun owners. It’s common knowledge lately that the Republican Party is trying to figure out its future—how it should deal with the insane people in its midst. Well, the Democratic Party is also struggling with an identity problem. Are we going to be the party that supports leftist anarchists burning down our cities and looting our stores? Are we going to be the party that insists homeless people have to right to occupy public spaces and trash them? Are we going to be the party that defunds police departments? Are we going to be the party that renames public schools named after Abraham Lincoln and George Washington because some leftist radicals think they were evil racists?

I sincerely hope not. Going down that road will lead to permanent minority status for Democrats. It will cost us control of the House of Representatives in 2022, and possibly of the Senate, as well as of the presidency in 2024. We Democrats simply have got to take more “moderate” positions with regard to the issues; the suburban women who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020, and the Black women who gave us amazing victories last year, are not Antifa radicals. Just as the Republican Party must expunge the Marjorie Taylor Greenes from their midst, we Democrats must expel extremist elements from our party. They are not doing us any good, and are actually hindering progress toward the social justice and economic fairness we all want.


Telegram, Signal, and how the Insurrectionists communicate

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There’s a lot of hand-wringing in national security circles over two new apps, Signal and Telegram. They both utilize so-called end-to-end encryption, which means (explains the New York Times) that “no one but the sender and receiver can read its contents.”

Security professionals (Homeland Security, the F.B.I., Secret Service and so on) see at least one advantage in older social media platforms, like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter: they were public. It wasn’t easy for posters to shield their comments from scrutinizing eyes. When Qanon and the Proud Boys planned their insurrection on social media sites, everybody knew exactly what to expect (which makes the lack of preparedness of law enforcement on Jan. 6 all the more egregious).

The rightwing Trump radicals now know (if they didn’t know before) that Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and similar sites are not safe places for them to talk. For a while, they flocked to Parler, but that social network has now been effectively neutralized, after being banned by Amazon and Apple from their app stores.

Hence the rise of Signal and Telegram. And that rise has been rapid and phenomenal. In the last week alone, Telegram has become “the second most downloaded app in the United States,” with 540,000 U.S. iPhone owners installing Telegram in the six days following last Wednesday’ Insurrection, reports the Moscow Times. (The sourcing is interesting, as Telegram’s co-founder is a Russian, Pavel Durov.) Amazingly, adds the Moscow Times, “Only Signal, another secure messaging app, saw a bigger surge in the past week.” That surge appears to have been prompted after Elon Musk tweeted on his Twitter account the words “Use Signal,” which subsequently was retweeted by Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.

What’s going on here? A couple things. The reasons why Musk endorsed Signal are not hard to understand, says the online media site, CNET. Let’s ignore his dislike of Facebook, which is common knowledge. The real reason, says CNET, is because “Signal…has a history of fighting any entity that asks for your data, and adds features to further anonymize you where possible.” Musk is a privacy freak, which is why he banned SpaceX employees from using ZOOM for video conferencing, after it was revealed that ZOOM suffered from numerous security problems.

In this sense, what Elon Musk has in common with the rightwing Insurrectionists is an insatiable desire for absolute, uninvadable online privacy. Which poses questions that are especially important at this moment in history. We all want online privacy. Nobody wants to be hacked, or overheard, or have their data shared with third parties. One problem with existing social media, obviously, is that mega-companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter make money by selling our data to third parties. With that income stream, these companies would cease to exist.

Telegram and Signal, by contrast, do not share data, nor do they sell ads. How, then, do they make money? Here’s what Telegram says on its public blog: “We believe in fast and secure messaging that is also 100% free. Our founder and CEO Pavel Durov, who financed Telegram throughout most of its history, has outlined a strategy to make Telegram sustainable. While Telegram will introduce monetization in 2021 to pay for the infrastructure and developer salaries, making profits will never be an end-goal for us.”

Durov further addressed the issue of a business model on his personal Telegram “channel”: After conceding that, once his personal investment in Telegram ends, Telegram will require “at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going,” Durov vows that “We are not going to sell the company.” The needed income, he says, rather vaguely, will be obtained in “a non-intrusive way…Most users will hardly notice any change.” Durov insists he will continue Telegram’s policy of no ads “in private 1-to-1 chats.” But—and it’s a big “but”–Dirov says Telegram will start selling ads on “public one-to-many channels.”

Since it is Telegram’s (and Signal’s) “one-to-many channels” that are the way rightwing Insurrectionists communicate (you can hardly plan a revolution one-to-one), I wonder how long it will be before the people who are fleeing Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. will start fleeing Telegram and Signal. It’s beginning to look like the digital equivalent of a Cold War-style arms race: users flock to new, free, non-commercial sites to communicate. Those new, free sites, which can continue only by making money, will gradually erode the purity that attracted people to them in the first place by becoming commercial, leading those people to seek someplace more amenable. It’s whack-a-mole on the Internet. Besides, isn’t it just a matter of time before federal authorities find ways to bust into Telegram and Signal? They seem eager now to find and break up the Trump thugs–and in a Biden administration, I should think law enforcement will double their efforts.

The good news is that this splintering of communications platforms will make it much harder for militant radicals to find a common public square in which to get their acts together. They simply will be unable to plan, plot and organize their activities efficiently, on a mass basis. That may be the first step toward, if not getting rid of them, then at least making them nuisances rather than threats. The technology that helped spawn them, ironically, may help to bring them down.


Why would restaurateurs or wine merchants want to hear the thoughts of an aging critic?

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You’d think they wouldn’t give a hoot. Wouldn’t they rather hear about the toast level of barrels, the composition of the soil, the angle of the slope with respect to the rising and setting of the sun, the type of crusher-destemmer, and the all-important details of pH and acidity?

Well, actually, no. On these trips I occasionally go on, buyers routinely let me know how happy they are to leave all that geek speak behind and get down to what they really like: gossip!

Oh, I don’t mean who’s doing what to whom, behind whose back. That can be delicious, but it’s best postponed for the afterparty, when everybody’s half tanked. The lunches, dinners and inbetween tastings I do feature wine, and wine is certainly the rationale for our gathering, and I can usually talk with some degree of specificity about them. But often enough, what people really want, when you get right down to it, is good conversation about this industry we all love and are lucky enough to work in: Wine!

Look, these wine buyers spend half their days being pitched by salepeople. Most of them are pretty knowledgeable already about the wines, wineries, regions and so on. There may be some divots in their understanding, and if there are, they’ll let me know; if they request specific information, hopefully I can provide it, and if I can’t, I always have my trusty computer with me, and can look up the precise percentage of Semillon in that blend.

But—and this is simply my impression—restaurateurs and wine merchants who care enough to take three hours of their day to come to an event Steve Heimoff is hosting want more than technical stuff. I can’t tell you how often they tell me me how boring they find techno-sessions to be—a recital of geeky trivia. Yes, they want and need a certain amount of it. It’s necessary for them to have some technical foundation they can pass on to their own buyers—customers—as part of the story. But, like I said, most of them already have a ready store of knowledge, and if they don’t, they know they can find it online. So why would they happily spend the better part of a business day with yours truly? Because they want good conversation.

They want good back-and-forth, and not just about Jackson Family Wines. They want to talk about their jobs: the challenges, the complexities, the ironies. They want insider information about what really goes on behind the scenes at wine magazines: not just the P.R. but the facts. They want my opinions—and I always stress, in no uncertain terms, that these are my OPINIONS, although in most cases the circumstantial evidence for my opinions is substantial—about stuff like: is there a relationship between paid advertising and scores? Are wine critics paid off by producers? What will happen when Parker dies (which God forbid won’t be for a very long time), et cetera. And I get it: When I started blogging, in 2008, I didn’t even know what the word “transparency” meant. I didn’t know how untransparent we critics were: lordly autocrats, dwelling in ivory towers, who allowed our reviews to flutter down to the masses in the streets, who had to accept them without question. Thank goodness the early commenters on my blog taught me the lessons of transparency: tell us everything about how you review wines, every single last detail, or run the risk of one of us finding out that you’re a liar and busting you on social media.

Because, after all, restaurateurs and merchants—many if not most of them, anyway—still have to figure in the ratings and reviews of wine critics in order to sell wine. A few, here and there, don’t, and I applaud them. But many others do need to cite a score on a shelf talker, bottlenecker or newsletter, because that’s what customers want, and the customer is always right. So they—restaurateurs and merchants—have a natural curiosity about how the process works, and moreover they have a right to know.

I never give away information so confidential it could compromise me. I tell the truth. I explain how the commenters on my blog, and other wine bloggers, taught me about transparency, and how grateful I am that they did, and how happy it makes me to tell them everything I can, without violating confidentiality agreements that could land me in a lawsuit. What I think I bring to the table, when I’m on the road helping Jackson Family Wines’ sales force to sell wine, is something unique: anyone can talk about technical data. Anyone can give his or her impressions about the wine. What few others can do is to talk about wine from the perspective of a former famous wine critic who’s been there, on the playing fields, at the center of the action, and who moreover—and by happy serendipity—started a little wine blog eight years ago that dragged me into the wonderful weirdness of social media. I don’t always tow the J.F.W. P.R. line. I told my employers when they hired me that they knew who I was, that I wasn’t going to turn into somebody else—at my age—and that, if they could live with that, I would be happy to represent J.F.W., a winery company I had admired and respected for twenty years, founded by a man whom I loved and revered. They said, “Fine. That’s what we want. Go out there, be you,” and that is what I do. So, bottom line: There is no job I can imagine that is more satisfying than to be paid to visit with these wonderful restaurateurs and merchants and relax, over great food and great wine, tell them what I can about the wines, describe my admiration for Jess, and discover areas of conversational interest that engage us. My biggest challenge on the road is to stick to a schedule: We tend to talk so much and so interestingly that, before you know it, we’re thirty minutes behind schedule for our next visit, and in L.A. or S.F. traffic, that’s a haul! Professionally, that’s a problem. Personally—for me and the restaurateurs and merchants I’m with—it’s a delight.

Anyway: I’m back in Oakland tomorrow (today, as you read this) after two weeks in Texas and Southern California. I will be reunited with Gus, the mere thought of which beings me comfort and joy. Have a fabulous weekend.


Has Vintank tanked? Not clear. My thoughts

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Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.

By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.

I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).

Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.

Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.

I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”

The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.

ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.

 


Can wine bloggers make money through reader financial donations? Maybe…

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Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.

Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.

This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.

I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.

Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.

In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.

Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.

Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.

Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.


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