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The fatal flaw at the heart of social media: Compromised information

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Investment banks, hedge funds and other for-profit speculators of the world’s money supply are “scooping up computer scientists, not economists and investment bankers with MBAs,” because “artificial intelligence” is now the Holy Grail of investment strategy, not old-fashioned gurus like Warren Buffett, who are increasingly viewed as “redundant” because their minds are not “super-fast.”

As reported by the Financial Times, the so-called “quantitative investment world” of Goldman Sachs and Bridgewater, et al. is “play[ing] down the prospect of machines supplanting human[s]”—at least for now. But since “the human mind has not become any better than it was 100 years ago,” while the complexity of investments has grown immeasurably more complicated and unpredictable due to phenomena like algorithmic trading and a worldwide marketplace that includes China, “Eventually the time will come that no human investment manager will be able to beat the computer.”

Enter artificial intelligence. “A machine-learning algorithm will autonomously evolve and search for new patterns,” in the same way a human mind does, but thousands, if not millions, of times faster, making the human mind irrelevant. Buffett-style “intuitive trading strategies” will look clumsy in comparison—like 1950s NBA players competing against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry.

Well, perhaps, But consider that the notion of pure, real-time, disinterested, objectively neutral analytic devices, crunching only numbers and disinterested in any external agenda, and powered by artificial intelligence, is a fiction. That’s what we thought about computers: That they would bring about a million fold increase in the speed of calculations, a thousand fold decrease in cost, all this while scientists were ‘just beginning to explore these possibilities,’” as an idealistic 1962 prediction of the computer’s future had it. But other, more worried voices, were slowly emerging: this vast accumulation of data, an IBM analyst warned in the 1960s, “could be pooled, drawn on and used in ways for which they were not intended.”

Which brings us to viruses, bots, malware and the entire netherworld of awful stuff that crawls through and infects the world’s networks at the speed of light, seeking any and every unprotected nook and cranny. Last Thursday, a paper, published by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the branch of the U.S. military that has worked on everything from satellite technology to the Internet to driverless cars), published “The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge.” Impressed and alarmed by rapidly spreading “influence bots— realistic, automated identities that illicitly shape discussion on sites like Twitter and Facebook”–the Challenge seeks to up the scientific community’s game at detecting and combating such bots. The relationship between “influence bots” and artificial intelligence was anticipated by British physicist Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game” movie), whose “Turing test” postulated a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”

But the Turing test apparently did not anticipate a regime of outright deception and fraud on the computer side—a computer pretending to be a human that was controlled by a human pretending to be a computer. As this article, from the BBC, makes clear, bots, including influence bots, are already engaged in “automated deceit” that “can even trick the web-savvy.” The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge was created because influence bots “pose a clear danger to freedom of expression”: If we don’t know whether the results our computers spit out are pure and objective and thus “real,” as opposed to malicious, agenda-driven and thus “unreal,” then we’re clearly capable of being led down a disastrous garden path.

(The DARPA paper cites examples of malicious influence bots by, for example, Russians engaging in a campaign of disinformation about its seizure of Ukraine, and ISIS spreading radicalism.)

The bankers and investment managers who are relying on artificial intelligence to replace “merely human” analysts mean well, but there is no guarantee that their findings may not be contaminated by bots and other forms of malware that purposefully distort conditions. Can they know that, for example, Chinese intelligence is not interfering in the analysis of oil prices over the next six months? Or that Russian mafia intelligence is not creating the impression that Chinese intelligence is the culprit? And on and on, through the looking glass. As the DARPA paper points out (and this is precisely the kind of stuff DARPA worries about), “Over the next few years, we can expect a proliferation of social media influence bots as advertisers, criminals, politicians, nation states, terrorists, and others try to influence populations.” The only protection against this menace, DARPA says, is “to significantly enhance the analytic tools that help analysts detect influence bots.” Unfortunately, the bad guys are in the race, too, busily developing software that thwarts bot-detection tools.

Which brings me to my headline. Re-read it. Influence bots mean that malicious coders may well influence the masses. Social media always has been over-hyped, but this news further undermines its early promise as the great leveler and democratizer of mankind. It turns out it may be anything but. How the world will deal with online information, including social media, that may be hopelessly compromised will keep “the good guys” busy for a long time, and could make an already anxious public more suspicious than ever of social media.


A wine review, and a Millennial take on wine snobbery

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King Estate 2006 Block 4D Clone 777 Pinot Noir. Originally $75. The appellation on the label is “Oregon.” Wine Enthusiast (I think it was Paul Gregutt) gave it 92 points back in 2009; oddly, they said nothing about its ageability. Spectator gave it only 89 points and recommended drinking it only through 2014. I think Enthusiast was more accurate about the score. It really is a very fine wine; I’d rate it 94 if I were scoring it now. Here we are in 2016 and it’s rocking with a good future. Loads of blackberry, boysenberry, cassis, and such nice, sweet toasty oak and vanilla. Great tannin structure, good acidity, lowish alcohol (13.5%) and a rich earthiness, like Portobello mushrooms and an umami tang, like prosciutto. At nine years of age, a wonderful, rewarding, silky wine that offers plenty of pleasure. Just what you want in a fine West Coast Pinot Noir, and I think that earthiness signals its Oregon origin.

*****

And now to some controversy. This post raises so many issues that it’s impossible to address them all in a single post, but let me just say that I sympathize with the sentiment expressed by the author, Maxwell Leer, who says he’s a sommelier. To some extent it’s a rant against the 1 percent but, hey, that’s fine with me: Maxwell had me when he compared Cristal to Prosecco and said “you can…be fucking happy, too” with the cheaper wine.

Now, Maxwell’s position is something that every wine writer has expressed since, well, forever. I know that the meme of post-Prohibition wine writers was “Wine snobs make wine sound too fussy” and probably there was someone running around ancient Rome saying the same thing. Every generation has to discover the same truths, so I cut Maxwell some slack. Still, that doesn’t take away from the force of Maxwell’s argument, which he expresses strongly and well.

It’s funny when he writes about pouring Kistler Chardonnay into a glass that was rinsed with bourbon. I bet that’s a seriously tasty sip! Maxwell seems to be saying, don’t worship the Kistler itself and think you have to experience it in all the profundity that has been lavished on it by wine critics—which is exactly what you’d think from reading the critics. You want to have a few drops of bourbon in there? Fine! (Hey makes you think of an American Kir, doesn’t it?) What wine is about, as Maxwell writes, is love, peace, love, unity, and respect.” As I pointed out in my post the other day about Premier Cru’s troubles, wine is not about snobbery or elitism or the fear that just because you can’t afford Petrus you’re missing out on the best. You’re not! Maxwell understands that and it’s a message we have to continue to get across. My generation did a horrible job of it, despite our best intentions. We perpetuated the myth of “cult wines” and while I do have some issues with Maxwell’s suggestion of “simplifying” wine, he’s onto something, especially for younger drinkers. He’s right when he says that “Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.” That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone over thirty. It does mean that, as Maxwell says, “we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, ‘OK, show us what you got.’” They want interesting wines, wines with stories, wines that drink well with the foods they like. They don’t want to spend a fortune on them, and the good news is that they don’t have to.


Pffft! That’s the sound of the wine blog bubble bursting

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Kudos to Tom Wark—the original wine blogger—for doing research showing how interest in wine blogs has been waning now for a good six years …”.

Tom ran the numbers to prove his contention. And there it is, in his first graph: interest in wine blogs, as indicated by Google Trends, peaked in 2009, and has been falling steadily ever since.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We live in an age of bubbles: Wine blogs had their own bubble, an era of super-popularity that seemed like it would continue to expand forever until wine blogs, like The Blob in the 1958 movie, would take over the world. Of course, nothing expands forever: that which expandeth eventually bursteth: That is the definition of a bubble. (Okay, enough with the old English word endings.)

When blogs were young, they were the hippest, sexiest thing in wine writing. That’s the main reason why I myself started blogging, in 2008. I saw the rocket ascending towards the heavens, and I wanted a front-row seat to go along for the ride.

But all the while, I doubted the glowing predictions on the part of many wine bloggers that wine blogs were the journalistic and reviewing wave of the future. I knew that was false. I said as much—and got body-slammed by the wine bloggers who didn’t like my message. Hey, hate the message, not the messenger!

And now here we are. It’s been evident to me for years now that wine blogs don’t have the energy or momentum they once did. A year or so ago, I considered giving up this one, until my readers persuaded me not to. I continue for them—for you–and also because it’s not that hard to crank out a blog everyday, and it gives me immense enjoyment.

Where I disagree with Tom Wark is in his contention that the reason for the diminution of interest in wine blogs is because those who had been showing interest in blogs, including wine blogs, have migrated to social media.” I don’t see any evidence of that. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think people feel they have to choose between reading wine blogs and participating in other forms of social media. It isn’t either/or: You can do both; they’re not mutually exclusive. If wine blogs offered wine consumers enough reason to keep on reading them, then consumers would continue to seek them out.

The problem, let’s face it, is that they don’t: most wine blogs are really boring. The ones that just spurt out reviews are unreadable, except by P.R. types who “Search” through the blog for their winery’s name. I mean, does anyone else besides a publicist care that some blogger somewhere reviewed their Cabernet?

I’ve thought from this blog’s inception that the only way to succeed to motivate viewers to click on it is to have creative writing that is interesting, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know there are blogs that are way more popular than mine. I can’t compete with them, nor do I want to. I want to continue to write about things that are on my mind, about issues of relevance to the wine industry, especially in California, and I want to continue to hear comments from my readers. Lots of those comments don’t appear on my actual blog. Many are on Facebook, which runs my daily blog, and quite a few people email me directly with their comments. So I know this blog is still reaching lots of minds. Tom referred to Julie Ann Kodmur’s theory that people today are “silo-ing” their blog reading; instead of looking at “a number of wine blogs, today they stick with and are loyal to only a few and perhaps even one wine blog.” I think that’s true.

A REVIEW

Zaca Mesa sent me this wine, so I’m reviewing it.

Zaca Mesa 2014 Estate Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley, $18. I’m not a huge fan of California Viognier, which can be blowsy. The variety has a naturally strong flavor that makes it difficult to pair with food. This particular wine has potent apricot jam, peach pie, pineapple and honeysuckle flavors, with exotic hints around the edges: papayas, guavas, nectarines. It was aged in a little oak, not too much; in fact, all the barrels were more than eight years old. Just enough to soften and mellow the wine. The alcohol is a refreshing 14.1%; the acidity is okay, but the wine does feel a little soft. The blend includes a few drops of Grenache Blanc, which perhaps contributes a taste of tangerines. I can see drinking this wine next summer as a late afternoon aperitif, with little finger foods: egg rolls, chips and guacamole or hummus, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears, sliced watermelon, fried shrimp. It’s not terribly complex, but it is a nice sipper, and deserves a score of 89 points.


Another inquiry into the selling power of social media

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in which we consider Elaine Chukan Brown’s (Hawk Wakawaka) contention that social media “has…created…a revolution in what it means to sell wine.”

Hawk Wakawaka is one of our finest wine bloggers. She is absolutely correct to state that “social media has dramatically changed how information is shared” and that “Wine experts and consumers alike now more often share information about wine via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and wine blogs.” She may even be right when she says that, due to social media, “consumers today are swayed far more by the influence of their online peers rather than expert authority,” although that is an allegation and a belief, not a fact, and I don’t see any way to prove it.

But, even allowing that social media is this big, important phenomenon in communication, I don’t think she’s right when she implies (but doesn’t come all the way out and say so directly) that social media actually can sell wine—to a degree where it actually matters, and not just a few bottles here and there. The closest Elaine gets to expressing that is when she says “[social media] engagement can lead to consumer consideration and review of wines that otherwise might not have been seen by the traditional wine critic.”

Can’t argue with that. Yes, if you tweet the heck out of your wine, you’ll get it in front of eyeballs that might not otherwise have seen it (and, by the way, getting seen by lots of eyeballs is not a guarantee of the wine’s quality!). The question is, is social media a reliable way for a winery to actually sell wine? Is it worth the cost? Does it offer a good return on the investments of time and money? After all the rah-rah chatter about social media (most of it on social media), what does it actually accomplish for wineries when it comes to bringing in the bucks?

To begin to answer these important questions, consider that, if you compare a list of the 30 biggest U.S. wineries in 2004 compared to 2014 (and thanks to WineBusiness.com for doing such a fantastic job), it’s amazing to consider that the list practically hasn’t changed at all in eleven years, which is to say: pre-social media and post-social media. Gallo topped the list both years. Constellation and The Wine Group jockeyed for second and third, Bronco veering between fourth and fifth. Also at the top were Trinchero, St. Michelle, Delicato, Jackson Family Wines, Diageo, Treasury, and so on. To quote WineBusiness.com, “Though there are now [2015] 8,287 wineries in the U.S., WBM 30 companies represent nearly 90 percent of the domestic wine sold annually in the U.S. by volume.” In fact, “The three top companies by themselves represent more than half of U.S. case sales.”

I don’t think these top 30 wineries consider social media as the most important of their “how to sell” strategies. Rather, they focus on such traditional things as a trained sales force, pricing strategies, paying attention to consumer trends, forging good relationships with distributors and key accounts (on-premise and off-premise), courting wine writers (including bloggers) and a host of other proven best practices that social media has had barely any impact on. Yes, these wineries practice social media—but the people who run them and are responsible for their bottom lines have always understood that social media—for all the nice things it accomplishes—is not the magic bullet for sales that so many proponents of social media claim it is.

I think Elaine also is misled when she claims that social media has “led to fewer wine critic positions” and to “the near demise of print media.” Those are charges we heard in 2009 and 2010, but we shouldn’t be hearing them today because we now know they’re not true. I don’t know how you would take a census of “wine critic positions” in America: many small papers seem to have a local gadfly, while many of the leading writers are widely syndicated, and just about every regional magazine I’ve ever seen has a wine section. There have never been very many paid wine critics in America, simply because the market for them has been small; but I don’t think there are fewer today than there were in 2004. (And, if you consider all the wine reviewing blogs, you could argue there are more wine critics than ever. Well, actually, there’s at least one fewer critic today than in 2004: Me.)

As for the “near demise of print media,” what’s the evidence for that? Print media did come disastrously close to falling off the cliff in 2009-2010 but that wasn’t because of social media (although social media adherents said it was), it was due to the Great Recession which caused advertising revenues to plunge; and advertising, not sales or subscriptions, is what pays the bills at print publications. Last time I checked, magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, The Tasting Panel, Wine & Spirits and others seemed to be doing quite well.

Look, the importance of social media has never been questioned by me on this blog. But I have wondered, and I continue to, just what impact social media has on sales, especially for smaller wineries—the 8,200 that will never make the WBM 30 list. It can’t hurt them; it can help around the edges. It’s fun, and can enable proprietors to think differently about their wineries. It may be helpful in promoting customer loyalty (but so were old-fashioned wine clubs, tasting rooms and newsletters). But social media cannot replace sales teams and all the other traditional best practices I described above. To believe in it so uncritically is to believe in the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.


Millennials, social media–and the death of wine wisdom

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“A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a story.” That’s a quote from a New York somm, Jason Jacobeit, cited in Lettie Teague’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal.

To whom is this “mediocre wine” being sold? None other than “Millennials,” who, according to sommelier Jason, “are more interested in the narrative of the wine rather [sic] than the wine.”

That’s scary, but it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of capitalism that the sizzle, not the steak, is what was sold, which is why the Latins, inventors of the concept of caveat emptor, realized, two thousand years before P.T. Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute.

Ms. Teague, who seems to agree with sommelier Jason, cites a few other instances of obscure wine that has had or is having its moment in the Millennial sun: “orange wine or Slovenian Chardonnay [and] Pét-Nat,” in addition, of course, to the wine that may have started this whole Millennial-social media thing, Moscato. Each seems to be the product of “rebellious tastes” that “lead [Millennials] into trouble” due to their “enthusiasm for the obscure.” Ms. Teague quotes another young wine director, Taylor Parsons, of the L.A. restaurant Republique (a very good restaurant), who observed that this obsession is due to “Millennials’…incessant search for the next cool thing…”.

How did we get here?

You know, when I was 17 years old, in my first semester at college, my parents drove up from New York to visit me, and my father was shocked by me wearing my white button shirt untucked. I mean, that’s not exactly the most rebelliously outrageous fashion statement in the history of teenage angst, but from my father’s point of view dress shirts were meant to be tucked inside the belt, not fluttering below the waist like a skirt. Boy, was he pissed—and I vowed to myself never, ever to get old and grouchy and complain about “this younger generation.”

To a great extent I’ve avoided that booby trap. But sommelier Jason and wine director Taylor are onto something. The biggest change, wine-wise, that’s occurred, in my judgment, between the Millennial generation and all that preceded them is that, as sommelier Jason points out, “few of his [Millennial] generation peers [take] the time to understand why certain wines are greater than others.” Champagne is better than Pét-Nat, and this is why Pét-Nat is likely to have the lifespan, in terms of popularity, of Moscato; I mean, does anyone even drink Moscato anymore?

But we have to understand why this fundamental shift has occurred. Partly it’s because (as Ms. Teague points out, citing a Wine Opinions poll) “Millennials regard the 100-point scale as the creation—and the provenance—of their older wine-drinking peers.” Actually, Millennials probably wouldn’t even call those of us who are members of older generations “peers”; Ms. Teague was no doubt being kind to avoid more offensive terms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a new generation kicking over their parents and grandparents and exploring and discovering things on their own. It’s the way Life proceeds. But this tendency, which has occurred throughout human cultural development, has been greatly exacerbated, as never before, by another modern phenomenon: social media.

We used to have, here in America, some sort of social consensus. It extended from our values and practices all the way to our choice of wines. People tended to believe in the same things (the American dream, the Presidency). They went to the same movies, listened to the same music, ate the same kinds of foods, dressed similarly and more or less lived their lives in similar ways. You can criticize this as group-think if you want, and point out, rightfully, that this system harbored all kinds of social injustices: but one thing it got right was that it united us, as a people, so that we weren’t always quarreling over the smallest trivialities.

Not so today anymore, as our smart phones and tablets let us hang out, digitally, with those who really are our true peers: people who think just like us. Trouble is, there are so many sub-groupings, more all the time, and it’s so easy to find them and then to plug yourself in, that we are well on the way to living as much in the digital or virtual reality of online as in the “real” world. It’s McLuhan’s “global village” gone amok, not a “village” anymore but a series of isolated neighborhoods.

But how to account for this obsessive drive for novelty, for “the next cool thing”? I trace it to the pre-Internet media sensations of, first, People Magazine, and then MTV. Both shortened America’s attention span: People’s articles were short, pictorial, celebrity- and freak-oriented and addictively readable (the opposite of the New Yorker), while MTV was famous for never allowing a scene in a music video to last longer than three seconds. A generation that grew up watching those constantly-changing videos developed a craving for novelty, for incessant change—they wanted to be entertained with something new and more interesting than the previous thing, ten or twenty times a minute—think about that!—which suggests something evolutionarily radical and destabilizing. Throughout human history we—our forebears—were required to live with, and be satisfied by, an external reality that hardly ever changed at all. The walls of the cave were the same as they always were, the ground beneath your feet was the same ground you had trod all your life, the people who surrounded you were the same family and tribal members you were born into. Change was non-existent; you found value, meaning and joy, if you found them at all, in the actual world around you.

Because of this continuity, the human race developed the notion of the wisdom of the elder. Life was nasty, brutish and short; the only way to survive was to learn the tricks of the trade from the elders. You could rebel, but at the risk of getting into trouble. Now, I’m very proud of the fact that my generation, the Baby Boomers, did rebel against the stultifyingly uncreative, unconscious, environmentally stupid, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist culture of our parents. We really moved this country, and the world, forward. But maybe, in opening up Pandora’s box, we created a Frankenstein’s monster: Millennials have taken our independent streak and so boosted it up on steroids that, functionally, there is no unifying stitch to American culture anymore. It’s an everyone-out-for-himself world of tribes, cults, peer groupings and associations.

And so we come to the cult of excitement, the lust for novelty that characterizes the Millennial approach to wine. And we come, also, to the concept of “the story” that can be so annoying and misleading. Most of the stories wineries convey, so far as I can tell, are ersatz fairy tales that seem to have little connection to the actual wine. As a wine writer who really, truly loves wine, its history and culture and place in the world, I find it appalling that a winery could hire a P.R. firm to invent a story they thought would sell their wine, instead of focusing on quality; I have nothing against stories, but the phony, predictable ones that routinely hit the media are so trite, so boring. And because of this fractionalizing of our realities into millions and millions of separate spheres, experienced through our portable devices, the world of wine has shrunk to momentary entertainment—to a quickie–to a world where spin and hype and process are more important than the wine itself.


Another dark side of social media, especially blogs

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Hardly a day goes by when I, as the author/owner of this blog, don’t get at least one pitch from someone selling a product or service. The pitch usually begins with the writer telling me how much they enjoy reading steveheimoff.com, and then they identify themselves, tell me about the product or service they’re selling, and add that they’re convinced that my audience—my readers—will be interested in said product or service. This is followed by an invitation to me to be sent a free sample of the product (it can be a bottle opener or an aerator or whatever), or, if it’s a service, the writer will sometimes offer to pay me a fee of some kind.

Well, I don’t even bother responding to these pitches; into the Trash bin they go. I’m a fairly polite person when it comes to replying to personal communications (and Lord knows I hate it when somebody doesn’t respond to mine), but these pitches don’t feel like they were written expressly to me. They feel like templates that just happen to arrive in my in-box, but really the identical email could have arrived (and probably did arrive) in 1 Wine Dude’s in-box, or Jo Diaz’s, or any of hundreds of other bloggers who are perceived to have some impact in the wine industry.

I suppose there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with such an approach. But it does raise, to me anyway, questions about transparency. If I were to blog about some sensational new aerator, would it be incumbent upon me to let you know that the owner of the aerator company sent me a few of the gizmos? If I told you that, would it color your perception of my review? Or let’s take it a step further. This morning I got this article in my in-box detailing “marketing strategies that don’t involve social media.” One of them suggested that bloggers might be asked to host a giveaway on his or her site by collecting email entries you can add to your newsletter.” The way that would work, I guess, is that I, the blogger, would announce a contest on my site in which you, the contestant, would send me your entry via email, which I would then “share” with the manufacturer of the thing to be given away. Now, that would pretty much make me a marketing agent of the manufacturer, not an independent blogger, wouldn’t it? And what would I get out of it? A quickie post, for sure, but also the author of the “marketing strategies” article adds this: “Understand that you may have to give them [the blogger] a freebie of your product and/or a fee to be featured or reviewed.”

Wow. I have a lot of problems with wine blogs, but this non-transparent collision of editorial independence and paid shilling takes the cake.

It is very, very important for readers to thoroughly know if a blogger is benefiting in any way, shape or form from the content of a post. Ideally, the blogger will volunteer that information upfront (and the Federal government has taken and is taking steps to ensure such candor). Still, there are ways for bloggers to hide indirect forms of compensation. I would never do that; neither would most bloggers I know, but some would; and the problem extends beyond blogs to other forms of social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a positive word or image about a product or service can be advertising. If somebody sends me that aerator, and I praise it on Facebook, do I have an obligation to inform my “friends” that I got a freebie? Just asking.


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