“Falsehood flies, truth comes limping”

Chinese President Xi Jinping said today that his government “does not engage in theft of commercial secrets in any form.” (WSJ)

“The Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft…” Mr. Xi said. (NYT)

“The Chinese government will not engage in commercial theft or encourage or support such theft by anyone,” Xi said. (USA Today)

All three quotes were reported from the same speech given by Mr. Xi to business leaders in Seattle on Tuesday. The variations conceivably could arise from different translations of Mr. Xi’s remarks from Mandarin into English. But no matter the exact language, the message is clear.

And that message is: It no longer matters if you say demonstrably untrue things to the American public or the American media.

It’s a lesson that a majority of American politicians — especially presidential candidates — seem to have grasped already. The key objective is to get your message across, and sometimes the most effective way to do that is to lie, and then to have the American media repeat the lie to their audiences.

imgres No, wait, that’s not true. The most effective way is to repeat the lie over and over — fact checkers be damned — until the shuffling, glassy-eyed, mouth-breathing crowds can recite it as a mantra.

In journalism school back in the 20th century we were taught that fairness and balance required simply reporting, as accurately as possible, what someone said. If we as reporters knew, or even had a hunch, that the speaker was lying, we quoted his or her words anyway, and then found someone else to go on record to offer a contrary quote. In a best-case scenario there might be time to “check it out” before publication, and we were expected to do so.

imgresBut that was when it was a 24-hour news cycle. In these days of perpetual digital deadlines, the original untruthful quote is instantly published and replicated to a vast audience. Very rarely do reporters demand on the spot that the speaker back up the statement. Very rarely do editors refuse to publish a statement until it is verified. (Very rarely these days are there even editors.) In a few cases, someone might “fact check” the statement after it has already been disseminated.

The problem is that people are lying so much, and so extravagantly — I’m talking to you, presidential candidates and politicians — that a fact-checking fatigue sets in. The lie, repeated often enough, becomes the narrative. The fact-checking becomes background noise.

Even in cases where the lie is confronted, and proved demonstrably false — I’m talking to you, climate change deniers, Obamacare haters, weapons-of-mass-destruction apologists, Planned Parenthood video vigilantes, anti-vaccine valetudinarians, et. al. — a rebuttal of “politically motivated!” or “the facts are lying!” has proved effective.

So what is a reporter to do? The modus operandi seems to be to quote the lie as accurately as possible, get it in front of the most eyeballs possible, and then hope that there will be time later on for someone to fact-check it. But by then people will have glommed on to it and passed it along to their Facebook and Twitter followers, and the shitball is now rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum.

It is unrealistic to expect media organizations to simply not abet the politicians in propagating their lies and distortions. Outrageous statements drive ratings; how else to explain the popularity of Donald Trump?

So, a modest proposal: Immediately add the phrase, “… although (speaker) did not / was not able to / offer any evidence to support his / her statement.” This presupposes that the reporter is willing to challenge the speaker on the spot, which, although unlikely, is at least not an absurd request, and one that is congruent with the tenets of journalism.

President Xi’s assertion that China is shocked — shocked! — that anyone would accuse it of commercial espionage is the howler of the year. But I am unable to provide facts to support that assertion.

imgres-1“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…” — Jonathan Swift, 1710

He’s Everywhere!

My nephew Michael Lewis is spending the year trekking across Australia. While diving recently on Agincourt Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef, Mike — understandably spouting WTF? bubbles — came across this big fish, a Maori Wrasse.

Maori Wrasse

Look familiar? images

Siri for President

By offering its own financing plan for its new iPhones, Apple is poised to disrupt yet another industry. Wireless carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, et. al.) are about to see their business models upended, just as Apple has already upended the computer, music, software, television, movie, and cable TV industries.

The wireless carriers won’t be the last industry forced to change because of Apple’s business innovation. The fun is in guessing who’ll be next.

safe_imageIn the old iPhone pricing model, carriers subsidized the purchase of the iPhone and other mobile devices in return for customers agreeing to be locked into inflexible two-year service contracts. (When customers are trapped, customer service becomes largely irrelevant. See; Comcast, Time Warner.)

The carriers bought the phones from Apple, and then re-sold them to customers for a down payment of $200 and up, plus 24 monthly payments that were camouflaged in the monthly service fees. Just as with anything bought for “low, low monthly payments,” the consumer typically winds up paying more for the phone than if he or she had bought it outright.

Now Apple itself will offer to finance the consumer’s iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s+purchases. Being creatures of habit most consumers will probably continue to buy their new phones through their carriers, but Apple is offering a simple, alluring, but not inexpensive alternative: For a monthly cost ranging from $32.45 for the entry-level 16GB iPhone 6s, to $47.45 a month for a fully loaded 128GB iPhone 6s+, based on a 24-month agreement, Apple will provide the customer with the phone he or she wants, along with Apple’s vaunted AppleCare+ extended warranty and damage protection plan. After 12 monthly payments — in other words, about the time Apple comes out with a new iPhone model — the customer has the option of trading the old model for the new one, restarting the 24-month clock.

If you’re not the kind who has to have a new phone every year, an even better deal is to buy the phone outright. The baseline iPhone 6s costs $649; the top-of-the-line, fully tricked-out iPhone 6s+ costs $949.

(Based on a 24-month agreement, the difference in cost between the buy-it-and-own-it-forever plan and the get-a-new-phone-every-year-plus-AppleCare+ plan amounts to $5.41 a month for the most basic iPhone 6s to $7.91 a month for the Big Bopper. For many people, that’s a no-brainer.)

The catch, of course, is that the phone is just a paperweight until the customer pays a carrier for wireless service, plus a probable activation fee, on top of the purchase price of the phone. Those service plans cost anywhere from $45 a month to more than $300 a month, depending on a variety of factors.

But — here’s the thing — as more and more customers buy their phones directly from Apple, the two-year lock-in now belongs to Apple instead of the carrier. The carriers will have to compete to win the customer’s business by offering the best service at the best price.

Imagine that.

VarTophits1It has happened many times before. The iTunes store shattered the way music was sold by allowing consumers to buy a single song rather than a packaged collection of songs (known in the 20th century as an “album”). By bringing a la carte pricing to video, Apple allowed consumers to break away from cable’s monopoly of selling only packages of programming. The recently revamped Apple TV gateway device solidifies this trend.

The two-year wireless service plan is destined for the same fate as the music CD, the software productivity suite, and the cable TV package that forces you to pay for Jewelry TV, QVC, the Polka Channel, and 200 other channels you’ll never watch.

Wireless carriers will resist, but resistance is futile: Eventually they will have to offer month-by-month or even a la carte pricing. For the first time (to my knowledge) it is conceivable that an iPhone buyer will be able to shop around for the best and/or cheapest plan, regardless of carrier, and switch to another carrier at any time without penalty if a better deal comes along.

The irony is that while Apple is busy toppling oligopolies in other industries, it is meticulously building a monopoly of its own. Apple’s goal has long been to lock consumers into the Apple hardware, software, and services ecosystem. Those who use the Mac OS X operating system on desktop and laptop computers are likely to use the Apple iOS operating system on iPhones and tablets. With iCloud and unified apps to knit it all together, customers in the Apple ecosystem have a familiar, unified, seamless experience that was impossible in the old system. And because it works so well — most of the time — customers are happy to pay a premium for incarceration on the Apple archipelago.

The strategy is working well — so well, in fact, that analysts are speculating that Apple might become the first company in history to reach a $1 trillion market cap. The downside, if there is such a thing as a downside for a company with revenue of $50 billion per quarter, is that Apple is increasingly vulnerable to the Law of Big Numbers. Apple basically has to invent multiple billion-dollar business segments each year just to move the needle. Its forays into wearables and smart homes and healthcare applications are all attempts to create big, new businesses.

Which brings us back to the question: After telecoms, what are the next industries to be disrupted by Apple?

Healthcare is a broken oligopoly. Automobiles too. Education is not exactly an oligopoly, but it is ripe for disruption.
Here’s something else to think about: A century ago, most “things” were mechanical. Then came electricity. The electrification of things created trillions of dollars in new business opportunities. Today, we’re on the verge of adding intelligence to things. Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick of +WIRED, put it best: “Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize.”

TrumpApple seems well positioned to add smarts to all sorts of dumb things.

Maybe even the current crop of presidential candidates. A Siri in very pocket!