Category Archives: media

Twitter Killed The Nightly Show

Last week marked the end of The Nightly Show, the Daily Show spinoff hosted by Larry Wilmore. It was a real shame, both because the show had great potential and moments of brilliance, and because its cancellation meant a real blow to the already meager diversity of late-night TV. So what went wrong?

Obviously, the proximal cause of the cancellation was low ratings. But why weren’t people watching? A part of the explanation is probably that there is simply not a large enough audience of people who are interested in / comfortable with the explicit emphasis on issues of race. But I’m not convinced that that is the entire reason.

I watched The Daily Show since forever, I loved Larry Wilmore’s segments, and I enthusiastically tuned in to The Nightly Show when it started. After a few weeks, though, I gave up, because it was boring. The problem wasn’t a lack of subject matter. Unfortunately, our country generates plenty of material to support a satirical news show with a focus on race.

The problem, in a word, is twitter. In a phrase, it’s the rise of short-form social media. Let’s rewind. For a long time — especially the ten or so years after 9/11 — The Daily Show offered some of the smartest takes on both news events and the traditional media coverage of those events. The format followed the standard topical-news satire formula of SNL’s Weekend Update and every late-night opening monolog: basically a series of one-liners. Even the correspondents’ segments were dominated by a series of thematically related one-liners. They were funny and intelligent, which is particularly impressive when the topics are actual news items, where the cycle of event to writers’ room to filming happens in less than a day.

For the last few years of Jon Stewart’s tenure, though, the show started feeling a little flat. Maybe Stewart was running out of steam — it’s certainly an exhausting schedule — but part of the story was the maturation of the ecosystem of twitter, facebook, and the like. When something newsworthy happens, the internet hivemind explores the space of one-liners with ruthless efficiency. A culture of appropriation and plagiarism means that a hundred minor variations emerge from the best takes, leading to fine-tuned joke optimization.

Over the past few years, when The Daily Show would cover a story that I had been following, I had often already heard some version of a lot of the punch lines. It’s not, I assume, that the writers were cribbing off of twitter, it’s just that the collective efforts of a million amateur comedians desperately vying for attention will outstrip any writers’ room.

Of course, if you weren’t following the news obsessively, The Daily Show was still great, it’s just that it was no longer special. There’s a limit to your show’s specialness when its content can be replicated by a Buzzfeed listicle of the 17 funniest takes on Trump’s latest gaffe. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show has been fine, but continues to suffer from this same fundamental problem: what it is offering is something that you can find a lot of places on the internet.

Contrast that with The Daily Show‘s other recent spinoff, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which feels vital in the way that The Daily Show did ten years ago. The key difference is its move towards longer-form pieces. It does the standard one liner–based news recaps, but this is a small part of the show. Each episode also features a deep dive on one topic. That deep dive features a lot of one-liners, but the featured topics are chronic societal problems, so they haven’t been freshly digested and regurgitated all over the internet.

Unfortunately, The Nightly Show went the other direction. Each show started off with the standard topical one-liners, but the show’s format centered around a round-table discussion among Wilmore and a mixture of guests and staff writers. The result was basically the equivalent of the sort of brainstorming session that might lead to a great topical news show. The results were occasionally brilliant, but more often resembled a comedy Before photo. The Daily Show‘s relevance declined when it became possible to replicate its comedy and insights with a well curated twitter feed. The Nightly Show is similar, but with less curation.

If there had been a network executive ten years ago with the courage to put The Nightly Show on the air, it might have been one of the most important shows of the decade. But now, the space of snarky news commentary and skepticism of traditional power structures is crowded — even after the demise of Gawker. The Nightly Show simply had too much competition for the limited number of eyeballs available for an in-depth look at race.

Launching The Nightly Show in a world with fully weaponized twitter is like launching a luxury rickshaw service in a city overrun with uber drivers. I hope someone figures out how to make this work. The combination of long-form investigations and elaborate stunts favored by Last Week Tonight is one option. (Next Week Tonight? Last Week Tomorrow?) But there must be some clever folks with other ideas. After all, people keep telling me that this is the golden age of television. Right?

Balter / Science Update

Previously, we talked about this weird situation where Science Magazine cut ties with Michael Balter after 25 years, due to something or other having to do with his recent article on sexual harassment in academia, and on allegations against Brian Richmond in particular (here and here).

Balter has a new blog post up where he shares some of the information that he had gathered for the article, but that did not make it into the final version. Most of that additional information seems to back up the version of events presented by Richmond’s accuser.

[Although, as I argued at some length, even if we were to completely disregard those allegations, taking Richmond at his word, his behavior was still egregiously inappropriate.]

Also, when you’re over at his blog, note the Bob Simon quotation in his sidebar: “There are not two sides to every story.” It’s something that reporters who cover topics like this — or anything having to do with climate change, politics, vaccinations, or the New York Yankees — should keep in mind.

Balter Provides Some Background on Why Science Magazine Fired Him

Yesterday we learned that Michael Balter had been fired by Science magazine, and that it had something to do with his article last month on sexual harassment in academia. Today, he has published his promised blog post in which he has provided some additional background.

Based on the additional details he provides, it sounds like it was a combination of a couple of things.

First, a historical pattern of not being sufficiently deferential to the higher-ups. Particularly troubling was this tidbit:

I’ve already talked above about the culture at AAAS that allowed four colleagues to be fired precipitously in 2014, and will not elaborate on that here–except to say that just as I was beginning the Brian Richmond investigation, one of my editors asked me to delete a key blog post about that episode in which I criticized our Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt for parroting the party line put out by former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. I declined to engage in this sanitizing of the historical record, not least because I consider that episode to be one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s not often that one gets to put one’s career on the line for something one believes in, and I have no regrets.

Second, it sounds like the editors, or at least some of them, were never fully on board:

But it is important to note that Science did not jump on the story when we first found out about the allegations concerning Richmond last August. There was discussion about whether we should focus on this one person, about whether Richmond and his alleged actions were important enough to write a story about, and related issues. I don’t think my editors will contest the fact that I pushed the hardest for us to do a story; but even after the Geoff Marcy sexual harassment case broke at Berkeley, and the astronomer was forced to resign, there was still a great deal of ambivalence about whether the Richmond case was newsworthy.

Balter seems to suggest that Science‘s reluctance was motivated primarily by an excess of caution — fear of lawsuits, and I’m sure that was part of the story.

But it is also important to keep in mind that Science is one of the most prominent mouthpieces of the scientific establishment. That’s one of the things that made the original article so powerful and important.

That’s not to say that the scientific establishment is pro-sexual harassment per se. But, the fact is that power, including sexual power, over young people has long been one of the implicit perks of success in academia. Some people exploit that power, and some don’t, but giving away power is rarely a high priority.

I’m not arguing for a conspiracy here. It’s just that the people closely associated with a publication like Science, whether as editors, or publishers, or authors, or journalists, are people who have risen to the top in the current system — often with good cause. But it is natural for them to be wary of things that challenge the status quo.

Natural, just not admirable.

As Balter notes, it will be interesting to hear what, if anything, Science says publicly about this. In the meantime, the good news is that there’s an excellent science journalist out there with some time on his hands. You should hire him.

Update: AAAS has issued this statement:

Michael Balter was provided notice on March 10, 2016 that his contract as a freelance writer for Science magazine was being discontinued. Mr. Balter has written many stories for Science‘s news section, including one published February 9, 2016 on a sexual misconduct case.

Science editors stand by the February 9, 2016 story as published. The goal of editing was to ensure that the story was both powerful and fair.

AAAS remains committed to providing leadership on stopping sexual harassment in science and empowering women in STEM fields.

Which, you know, okay.

Tim Hunt and Academic Freedom

If you listen to the mewling of elite scientists and the hand-wringing of the conservative media, academic freedom is once again under attack by the gangs of social-media-wielding PC conformity enforcers. This week’s victim is Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, following his comments about the dangers of mixed-sex scientific laboratories.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s a brief timeline of events to catch you up:

  • 1943: Richard Timothy Hunt is born in the small town of Neston, located in Cheshire, England.
  • 1982: Hunt discovers the first cyclin molecule while studying the cell cycle of sea urchins
  • 2001: Hunt shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul Nurse and Leland Hartwell for discovering the molecular mechanisms that control progression of the cell cycle (e.g., cyclins).
  • 2015: Hunt attends the World Conference of Science Journalists is Seoul, South Korea.
    • June 9: Hunt gives a speech to a lunch for female scientists and journalists, during which he says, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry”.
    • June 10: Hunt resigns from his position at University College London
    • June 13: Hunt said in an interview with the Guardian that he had been forced out without having an opportunity to defend himself or present his side
    • June 15: UCL issued a dubious statement, citing Hunt’s “personal decision to offer his resignation” and claiming that the media response had no influence on their decision to accept it

Since then, a number of prominent scientists have gone to the press to criticize UCL’s firing of Hunt (e.g., here, here, and here, all paywalled). The defenses of Hunt involve the typical overwrought rhetoric. For example, Andre Geim claimed that Hunt had been “crucified”, while Richard Dawkins referred to “the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police”. (Aside to Dawkins: it is tacky to refer to a backlash against sexism as a witch hunt, for much the same reason that it is tacky to refer to a backlash against racism as a lynch mob.) But behind the rhetoric, there are basically two complaints. One, that UCL’s firing of Hunt was a disproportionate response, given the nature of the transgression, and two, that the response would have a “chilling effect” on academic speech.

I actually agree with the first point. It strikes me that a more appropriate response would be some combination of public shaming and sensitivity training. According to many of the people who have come forward to support Hunt, he is an intelligent, kind-hearted person. If that is true, then someone needs to make sure he understands how comments like this — even made as jokes — contribute to a culture of sexism, doing real, if indirect, harm to scientists and to science. (And if it’s true, he should be invested in learning this lesson.)

On the other hand, maybe this is just the most recent incident in a longstanding pattern of sexist behavior. If so, Hunt should absolutely be fired, as should every administrator who ignored that behavior up until June 9.

I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. Hunt jokingly refers to himself as a chauvinist, and many of the defenses have accused people of “not getting” his sense of humor. That suggests that he has probably been making mildly sexist, mildly harmful comments for decades, and the he has probably been approached about it many times in the past. In the manner of successful people of a certain age, he may have blithely disregarded that criticism, implicitly assuming that there was absolutely nothing he needed to change about his own behavior. If that’s right, maybe this will serve as a wake-up call — unless he gets seduced by the appeal of wallowing in his own victimhood.

No matter what the actual story is, though, UCL’s response was terrible, and would be galling if it were not so depressingly familiar. The fact is, this is the sort of scapegoating that institutions — including universities — do all the time. Despite UCL’s disingenuous protestations to the contrary, it seems clear that Hunt was fired not for sexist beliefs or behaviors or comments, but for embarrassing UCL. By firing Hunt, UCL is able to make a big show of standing up for equality, while avoiding doing the much harder work of addressing systematic sexism in science.

The formula is this:

  1. Let systematic unfairness persist, because addressing it involves effort and risks alienating powerful people who currently benefit from that unfairness
  2. If anything goes wrong, deny that there is a problem and cover things up
  3. If media attention makes strategy unsustainable, blame the individual, distancing your institution from them and disparaging them however possible
  4. Claim that the problem was “a few bad apples”, and now the institution is 100% cured
  5. Repeat

It’s the same formula for sexual harassment and scientific misconduct in universities, for insider trading and market manipulation in financial firms, and for fabrication of evidence and murder of civilians in police departments. The only somewhat surprising thing here was the speed with which UCL skipped from stage 1 to stage 3.

What is Academic Free Speech?

The issue of free expression is more complicated. As everyone should know by now, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. The fact that you have a right to say something does not mean that you have a right not to be criticized. And, even in the US, where free speech has explicit constitutional protection, you can be lose your job if you say something that causes embarrassment for your employer.

But for freedom of academic expression to be meaningful, it has to be subject to a higher level of protection. As an academic, your job is to seek truth and to share it. Your job must be protected if, in the course of your truth seeking, you say something that is embarrassing or distasteful to your department or university. Without that protection, any claims of academic freedom are hollow.  And it does not matter if we are talking about tenured professorships, or honorary appointments, like Hunt’s position at UCL. While these distinctions may affect the legality of firing someone for something they say, it doesn’t change the ethical considerations.

The question then becomes, What is academic speech? Is it any statement made by an academic? Any public statement? It can not be either of these, because then we would be providing protections not to a particular class of speech, but to a particular class of people — people who, by the way, already occupy a position of relative privilege. Instead, we need to limit these protections to speech that is intended as a contribution to academic discourse.

Were Tim Hunt’s comments academic speech, then? It depends. If, as some have suggested, these comments were “just a joke”,  then no. A joke that you make at a scientific conference is just regular speech. If you make an offensive joke at a conference, and you are punished for it, your academic speech has not been curtailed. If he was not being serious, then UCL does not owe him any special consideration.

On the other hand, we can interpret the comments as an articulation of the potential negative consequences of male-female dynamics in a laboratory setting. How the composition of a lab group affects the process and progress of science is certainly a legitimate subject of academic inquiry. We could say that Hunt has put forward the following hypothesis: Due to the complications that arise from romantic feelings, as well as systematic differences in the ways that men and women communicate, mixed-sex laboratories are less desirable than single-sex laboratories.

If we say no, you are not allowed to discuss or investigate that hypothesis, because challenges an inviolable assumption that men and women are equal, or even interchangeable, we would absolutely be constraining academic freedom. If we care about academic inquiry, we have to stand together and defend the right of Tim Hunt — or anyone else — to ask questions like this.

But . . .

If we agree to treat and defend Hunt’s statements as a form of academic speech, we also have to evaluate it as academic speech. The problem is, as academic speech, it is appalling — not because of its conclusions, but because of its profound lack of adherence to the most basic scholarly standards. This is a vague interpretation of anecdotal evidence, presented and interpreted in a vacuum that ignores any cultural context or consequences. Worse, from a purely academic perspective, it completely ignores any and all prior scholarship on the topic. If I got this in an undergraduate paper, I would probably give it a C+ — in the context of contemporary grade inflation.

To claim that mixed-sex labs are bad because you have had unpleasant (and perhaps inappropriate) interactions with women is not intellectually very different from claiming that global warming is not real because you were cold last winter.

It is 100% legitimate to ask about the consequences of having men and women working together in the same laboratory. But if you are going to ask about that, here are at least a few of the things you need to consider before you open your mouth.

  • What does the empirical data say about scientific productivity, or career success, as a function of the composition of males and females in a laboratory?
  • If we accept the assertion that women cry more. . . Is crying necessarily a bad thing? Is it because they respond more emotionally than men do to the same criticism, or is it because they receive harsher criticism? If women cry when you criticize them, why do you seem to assume that the women have a responsibility to toughen up, and not that you have a responsibility to be less abrasive?
  • Given that getting a good postdoc or faculty position depends substantially on connections and letters of recommendation, wouldn’t segregation perpetuate any historical inequalities?
  • If we accept the idea that men and women think and behave in systematically different ways . . . Does the benefit of avoiding the occasional uncomfortable situation outweigh the benefits of having a more diverse set of brains thinking about scientific questions?
  • How does your analysis change when you consider the fact that not all scientists are heterosexual?

I’m sure there are plenty more considerations. This isn’t my field, so I don’t really know what they all are. The point is, it’s not Tim Hunt’s field either. That does not mean that he could not make a legitimate contribution. After all, he seems to be a very intelligent person, and he has decades of personal experience in the laboratory setting. But if he legitimately wants to contribute to this discussion, he has a responsibility to think deeply about it, and to grapple with the decades of work by other very intelligent people who have thought deeply about it. If he is having trouble, a little time on Google Scholar or a stroll over to one of the many Sociology departments in London would set him on the right track.

I’ve never met Tim Hunt. I’ve met a few of the people who have defended him, but I don’t know any of them well. So, I’m not in a good position to judge what he is like as a person. However, the picture seems to be of a smart, decent human being who has done a lot of good. It would be a damn shame if the outcome of this was that he was excluded from science. It would also be a damn shame if the take-home lesson from this was that academic freedom is only safe if treat the ill-considered opinions of senior academics with a sort of breathless reverence.

The Weird Racism of Doctor Who

Is Doctor Who a racist show? On the surface, it seems like a silly question. After all, there have been a number of prominent non-white characters. Moreover, the interracial and same-sex relationships in the show are presented as run-of-the-mill, everyday occurrences. Perhaps relatedly, the franchise has a strong reputation for its diverse and well-rounded portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters.

This is one of the great affordances of science fiction. Particularly in a show set in the future (or at least set intermittently in the future, or in an alternate reality), you can take a strong prescriptive position, where the race, sex, or gender of someone’s romantic partner is unimportant or even uninteresting. Whether or not this would be a realistic expectation of how people would act in the real world, you can assert that obviously no one will care in the future. Or you can construct a plausible alternate universe where no one cares.

Basically, in science fiction, you can choose to portray certain aspects of your world not as they are, but as you believe they should be.

So the treatment of race and sexual orientation strikes me as the product of a conscious decision by a show with a progressive agenda. But that just makes the places where the show falls short all the more puzzling.

What do I mean? Well, there are two things, and I’ll go through each one separately. First, while there is a reasonable representation of non-white characters, they are almost entirely of African ancestry. People of South Asian descent (including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) appear infrequently and only in minor roles. This despite the fact that South Asians constitute by far the largest minority in England. Second is that the mixed-race romantic relationships between major characters don’t seem to work out.

First, let’s look at the racial diversity in the show. There are different ways to do this, and I’ve examined four possible approaches. All four give the same qualitative answer: the cast is about 85% white, and among the non-white characters, people of African ancestry outnumber people of South Asian ancestry by a ratio of somewhere between 4:1 and 8:1.

More specifically, a few weeks ago I went through IMDB for the new Doctor Who series (post 2005), and collected all of the (222) characters who appeared in at least two episodes. So, this data is current up to about 2/3 of the way through the new season, but the numbers are large enough that the past few episodes won’t change the results. For the vast majority of characters, it was straightforward to identify them as European, African, or South Asian. Only one actor, Chipo Chung, did not fit this categorization, being half Zimbabwean and half Chinese. For purposes of this analysis, she was given her own category.

Using these categorizations, I calculated the number of characters/actors of each race (where David Tenant counts as 1 European and Matt Smith counts as 1 European) as well as the number of character appearances of each race (where David Tenant contributes 52 appearances by a European and Matt Smith contributes 48 appearances by a European). Each of these was calculated both including and excluding Aliens — characters whose race was not perceptible in the show (Dalek operators, Silurians, etc.). Here are the results for the four combinations: Character Demographics

The code here is blue for European, green for African, mustard for South Asian, and red for Chipo Chung. The outermost ring (appearances by actors of identifiable race) is the one that seems to me to be the best match for what we’re interested in.

Of course, the question is, compared to what? The natural comparison would seem to be the demographic composition of the UK, since it’s a British show, and most of the scenes set on Earth are set there. Here, using the same color scheme, is what that looks like:

England Demographics

The first thing to note is that diversity, overall, is pretty good. By the four different metrics, Doctor Who’s cast is somewhere between 81% and 87% white. The thing that is striking is the difference in the composition of the non-white portion. In England, South Asians outnumber Africans by more than 2 to 1. In Doctor Who, Africans outnumber South Asians by 4.7 to 1 (counting characters) or 8.4 to 1 (counting appearances). That’s a distortion of 10-fold or more.

What about the mixed-race romantic issues? There are three big ones: Rose and Mickey, Martha pining after the Doctor, and Clara and Danny in the season that just concluded. Let’s review.

When Rose first becomes a companion, she is dating Mickey. She sort of gradually breaks up with him and becomes attached to the Doctor. Mickey keeps after her for a while, but eventually gives up. After some regeneration shenanigans, the Doctor sends his doppelganger off to live happily ever after with Rose in another dimension.

Martha is the Doctor’s next companion, and although she has a romantic interest in the Doctor, it is completely unrequited from start to finish. Eventually, Mickey and Martha become a couple in a (different) alternate dimension where they fight Cybermen all the time. So, what we have is two black characters who are in love with white characters, but are rejected by them. The two white characters fall in love, and the two black characters become a couple in what seems to be both of them settling for their second choice (in a dystopian hell-scape no less).

Until the season finale aired, I was holding out hope that the mixed-race romance between Clara and Danny would reach a happy conclusion. Instead we got a pattern similar to the other two. Danny was devoted to Clara, but while she loved him, her primary commitment was to the Doctor. The fact that Danny was and would always be playing second fiddle was spelled out in pretty explicit (and heartbreaking) detail in the finale.

Now, three is a small number, and you can always argue that this is just coincidence, rather than some systematic racial thing. I’m sure a dedicated enough Doctor Who apologist could rationalize the racial composition of the show as something unintentional. Or that we should cut them some slack because of all of the things the show does right.

What bothers me most, though, is that these patterns exist in a show that seems to have made a real effort to be careful about race, making me think they point to something really taboo. That despite a progressive agenda and a conscious effort to portray racial diversity, there are a couple of places that the show is unwilling or unable to go.

On the absence of South Asians, here’s the most generous theory I’ve come up with. Globally, American media has enormous reach and influence. Traditionally, having a diverse cast in American TV was more or less synonymous with having some African American characters. Only quite recently have other ethnic minority groups started to show up on TV in large numbers. So, maybe there’s a naive but deeply rooted notion in the minds of British producers that “diversity = black”. Maybe they’re unconsciously basing their model not on British society, but on American TV and movies of twenty years ago.

A less generous (but more plausible, in my mind) theory is that the show is simply avoiding engagement with the strongest form of British racism. My own experience, anecdotal though it is, is that most white British folks don’t really harbor negative racial stereotypes about immigrants from Africa — or immigrants of African descent from the Caribbean. However, attitudes toward South Asians are a very different (and offensive) story.

I have had multiple interactions that went something like this. British person talks about how racist Americans are, citing the treatment of African Americans. British person takes up moral high ground, citing their own open views towards Africans. British person says some really awful racist crap about Pakistanis or Indians — the sort of thing you never heard in public in post-Archie-Bunker, pre-Twitter America. When hypocrisy is pointed out, British person defends stance, saying something like, “You don’t have them. You don’t understand what they’re like.”

So, theory B is that if Mickey and Martha and Danny had all been Pakistani, Doctor Who might have alienated much of its British audience, including some people who self-identify as liberal. Or at least the producers feared that would happen. So, they cast black people for diversity, but avoid the racial group that is the focus of the greatest antipathy in Britain.

Similarly for the romantic relationships. Maybe it’s just coincidence that a white couple, Amy and Rory, get a happy ending (even if they do have to endure an insufferable series of World Series wins by the Yankees), while the mixed-race relationships fail when the white person just doesn’t feel quite the same way.

Or maybe the producers (rightly or wrongly) worry that Britain is not quite ready for a successful, normalized mixed-race couple, at least not one involving one of the show’s stars.

Or maybe the producers would say that this was just who the characters are, that it just would not seem right for Clara to go all in on her relationship with Danny. That given everything we’ve seen Clara go through, she would not be able to separate herself from the Doctor in that way. Fine. Perfectly defensible. But maybe if they had made Danny white, it would not have felt out of character to them.

Anyway, if Russell T. Davies and/or Steven Moffat are regular readers of the blog, I would invite them to share their take(s) in the comments.

H & R Block Wants to Rip You Off

So, for the past few weeks, you’ve probably been seeing those ads from H&R Block. You know, the ones where they tell you breathlessly that Americans who are foolish enough to prepare their own tax returns are missing out on a billion dollars. A BILLION DOLLARS!!

The implication, of course, is that the amount paid to the IRS by people who do their own taxes is a billion (BILLION!!!) dollars more than it would be if they had H&R Block do their taxes.

Let’s assume that’s correct. What does it mean for you, the taxpayer?

According to the IRS, about 145 million income tax forms were filed in 2011. According to Pew Research, about a third of people do their own taxes. That means there are just shy of 50 million self-prepared income tax returns filed every year.

So, that billion (BILLION!!!!!) dollars amounts to about twenty-one (21!!!) dollars per self-prepared return.

According to H&R Block’s 2013 Report to Shareholders, during their fiscal year ending on April 30, they prepared 22 million US returns, for which they brought in $1.7 billion, which is an average of $77 per return (including returns that users prepare using their online tools, at prices ranging from zero to $50, depending on the complexity of the return).

That average is actually on the cheap end overall. According the the National Society of Accountants, the average tax preparation fee for returns without itemized deductions is $152. Nevertheless, speaking in averages, H&R Block’s argument is that you should pay them $77 so that you can pay $21 less to the US government.

There are legitimate reasons to use a tax preparer. For instance, there’s the calculation of how much time you would save by paying someone to do your taxes, and how much your time is worth to you, factoring in how much you like or dislike doing your taxes. What pisses me off is the way these ads exploit the fact that a billion is a large number to imply a big payoff.

It’s like saying, “Americans spend millions of dollars every year on snow shovels. So you should hire me to shovel your driveway. I’m not going to tell you how much I’ll charge you, but you can (probably) safely assume that it will be less than millions of dollars!”

On a related note, keep in mind that, like other corporations that make their money from tax preparation, H&R Block spends millions of dollars every year lobbying congress, much of it to oppose legislation to simplify the tax code.

USA Today thinks blue balls are "cool"

So, Jim Romensko has shared this memo, which was apparently circulated to USA Today employees this morning by Gannett marketing officer Maryam Bankarim’s. It represent’s Sam Ward’s effort to justify explain USA Today’s redesign.

Here are a few of the best lines from the memo:

I have a dream . . . that one day all Americans will join hands and declare their undying love for our balls . . . .

Just what are our balls? Well, they are what we will make of them. I believe our balls are symbols of who we are and where we’re headed. They are not stories, graphics, or illustrations. They are signposts, perhaps; reminders that offer inroads into America’s stream of consciousness. . . .

We should use our balls at the right time and for the right reasons. They should be important, and never feel too planned or overly scripted. We should think of them as we think about sex: sex is great but we don’t want to have it ALL the time. Well . . . maybe that’s the wrong analogy, but you get the point. . . .

There is an aspect of this that defies explanation. I cannot prove that it exists, but I “feel” that it does. Let’s call it a sense of “coolness,” for lack of a better term. I don’t have any statistics on this, but I believe most people consider themselves to be cool; and they would like to feel they are reading a publication that is cool. They may not totally understand why, but they still want to be a part of it. . . .

Yes, I believe things are moving fast now and that our mojo is back . . . and we have the balls to prove it . . . 

 All corporate memos should be like this.