Thoughts on Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview

January 20, 2013 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

oprah-lance-armstrong

I confess. I was one of those people who was really looking forward to Lance Armstrong’s two-part interview with Oprah over the last couple of days.

Some say why waste your time with that loser, but personally, I have been fascinated with the whole saga and wanted to see him squirm a little and be taken out of his comfort zone. I wanted to see how much of it was genuine and how much of it was staged. Was he sorry for what he had done or was he only sorry that he was caught? Would he try and squeeze out a tear? Frankly, I just wanted to see the best of the best (at lying, that is) try and explain himself out of an unexplainable situation.

On the whole, I thought the interview went relatively well.  As expected, the first part was more explosive and the second was more emotional. We got some answers to questions we already knew (still good to hear them come out of the lion’s mouth), and we didn’t get some of the answers we wanted.

In a nutshell:

  • Armstrong confessed to cheating for all seven of his Tour De France titles, including using EPO, testosterone, cortisone, blood doping, you name it  — but intentionally shied away from specific examples of how he did it;
  • He said he was sorry (duh), was reaching out to people he hurt and will try and make up for it for the rest of his life — but didn’t think he deserved a lifetime ban (which he labelled a “death sentence” when others before him only got six months;
  • He denied being the ringleader of the doping scheme and/or intentionally pressuring others on his team to dope — said he did not create the culture of doping but didn’t stop it either;
  • He denied doping after returning to the sport in 2008, which runs contrary to blood test findings by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency);
  • He denied donations to the dodgy UCI (International Cycling Union) were to cover up positive drug tests;
  • He contributed his bullying and bad behaviour towards others as his desire to “control everything”;
  • He didn’t shed an actual running tear, but his eyes watered up when discussing how he told his son to stop defending him — even if you think everything else is an act, you can at least assume that the emotion here was legit;
  • He preferred to focus on himself and not name names (such as people in the UCI), probably for legal reasons, though Oprah did not exactly push him either.

It was a riveting yet frustrating interview for many reasons, none more so than the fact that you just don’t really know what is true and what is not when everything that had come out of Armstrong’s mouth up to that point had been a massive lie. It’s hard not to be cynical when he said he would not hold back and yet did precisely that when he didn’t want to answer some of Oprah’s questions (including whether Betsy Andreu’s claim that he admitted to doctors he had used PEDs was true).

On the surface, Armstrong made stepping up to the plate for the interview seem like he had balls (well, more correctly, ball). His supporters, and there are still many, have undoubtedly lapped it up. But was it enough to at least put a dent in all the negativity towards him? I don’t think it was. One look at the headlines today and you’ll see that almost all of them are cynical and are tearing the interview down as a calculated and carefully planned strategy to clean up his image for a potential new start somewhere down the road.

For starters, reports indicate that Armstrong’s entire “team” — agents, lawyers, publicists, PR experts, image consultants and crisis managers — was there for the interview to ensure that everything went according to the script they had prepared.  They would have come up with every possible question that Oprah might have asked and prepared answer guidelines. You could tell roughly where the boundaries were whenever he tried to avoid answering the question by changing the topic, glazing over it with generalities or simply “lay down” and refuse to answer.

It was obvious to anyone watching that Armstrong was walking a tightrope throughout the interview, and that his uneasiness was probably due to that as much as any feelings of embarrassment or disgrace. There was of course the legal ramifications of his responses (financial and criminal, including for perjury), and I’m sure he knew where the line was for that, but there was also the difficult goal of appearing sympathetic to audiences without making it seem like he was grasping for excuses.

The attempts were subtle but consistent. For instance, he said his doping scheme was not the worst in history because the East German ones in the 70s and 80s were worse. He said no one could have won seven consecutive Tour de France titles like him without doping and that he didn’t have access to any drugs that others didn’t, suggesting a level playing field and almost as though he was “forced” to cheat.

He tried to distance himself from himself, if that makes sense. The evil Lance, the one that cheated and lied and bullied was not really him, kind of like when murderers plead temporary insanity. He said stuff like it was “scary”, “scarier” and “scariest” when describing his mindset “at the time” because he didn’t even believe it was cheating or that he was doing anything wrong. He said he looked up the definition of  “cheating” in the dictionary and that what he was doing didn’t fit the definition of gaining an unfair advantage because everyone else was doing it. He called it the “EPO era.” He even said “look at that arrogant prick” while watching old footage of himself.

It was the same thing when it came to his bullying, although it was obviously more difficult to come across as sympathetic. Apart from apologising and promising to make amends, he tried to make his sociopathic, psychopathic behaviour seem like it was some kind of mental illness, claiming that he needed to “control the narrative” (you could argue that the interview was simply another attempt at that). When referring to all the people he had sued over the years for telling the truth about him, he said “we” have sued so many people that he had lost count, as though it wasn’t really his decision to make in the first place.

Another tactic was to play the sympathy card immediately after that. Armstrong talked about his difficult upbringing, about not knowing who his biological father is, about how he let his supporters and family down, and of course, the battle with cancer. What he’s going through right now is nothing compared to the cancer, he said.

Oprah was also the perfect platform to air his confession. She’s been known to tug at the heart strings and look for silver linings and moral stories (she even asked him what the moral of the story was towards the end). And she was less likely to go after him like some of the more “hard-hitting” journalism programs. For the record, I think she did OK; better in the first half than the second. She certainly could have pressed him more, especially on the irreparable damage he caused to the lives of some of his closest former friends, but I think she could see that she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with that approach. I know she has been criticised a lot for the way she handled the interview, but I don’t think there was a point in turning the environment hostile when Armstrong’s just not the kind of guy who would crack under pressure. It’s not Oprah’s style, anyway.

In the end, everybody will have their views on the interview, including whether he was genuinely contrite. I’m kind of on the fence with this one. He would really have to be a complete psycho to not feel even a tiny shred of remorse, so my inclination is to lean towards “yes”, but what is pulling me back is the knowledge that he was nowhere near as open and upfront as he could have been. Body language experts have all put in their 2 cents and apparently he was “defensive”, “argumentative”, “competitive” and “rejecting opinion.”

Still, I was impressed that he actually came clean, even if it was in a half-hearted kind of way. I had been convinced that Armstrong would never admit he cheated because he had convinced himself it was true, kind of like this legend.

Bill Gates is better than Batman

January 20, 2012 in Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

At least until I watch The Dark Knight Rises

(Thanks to Adam from Frugal Dad for sending this through)

The website also has some very interesting and very bitter comments.

microsoft infographic

Source: frugaldad.com

 

The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

[Update: 12 November 2011 — Anh Do’s new book, ‘The Littlest Refugee’ is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book’s publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay’s sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I’m sure any writer in Do’s position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ‘To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.

Lin Biao’s Underground Bunker

June 12, 2011 in China, Social/Political Commentary, Travel by pacejmiller

I thought Hangzhou was all temples, scenery and tea leaves, but there’s a little bit of history too.  Our driver next took us to this fascinating bunker that was built by Lin Biao, one of Chairman Mao’s closest comrades.

I didn’t know about the history of the Communist Party but Lin Biao’s bunker was still an interesting place to see.  It’s like a mini-maze, with cold, stuffy air and long corridors enforced by thick steel doors.  Paranoia must have been rife back in those days.

The story of Lin Biao’s life and his ultimate demise was also compelling to learn.  According to official reports, Lin Biao (who was second in command by that stage) attempted to assassinate Mao several times before he and his family died in a plane crash while defecting to Russia.  Despite all the battles he fought for China and everything he did for the Communist Party, Lin Biao is still officially condemned as a traitor.

Others suggest that was not that case at all.  Lin was a war hero and highly respected in the Communist Party, but had apparently become too respected, to the point where Mao got a little nervous.  The ‘accidental’ plane crash?  More like a pre-emptive strike.

Who knows what really happened?  All I know is that the bunker was pretty cool.

Farewell, Borders

June 5, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary, Technology by pacejmiller

I had been wanting to write about this ever since news broke a few days ago but for whatever reason held off — maybe hoping that it wasn’t true or that it was a mistaken report.

Oh well.  There’s no use denying it anymore.  The last remaining nine Borders bookstores across Australia will close down over the next six to eight weeks.  The fate of the Angus & Robertson chain, also owned by the in-administration REDgroup, remains uncertain at this point.  The only good news is that its online bookstores will remain open.

I still remember the first time Borders opened up in Australia years and years ago.  I loved them.  They had the broadest range of books and I could spent literally hours and hours browsing from one end of the store the other.  It was perfect for people with short attention spans like me, who just want to read the back cover, maybe read a few pages, and move on if it doesn’t interest me.

When I was living in Cambridge (which had all the big booksellers such as Waterstones, WHSmith, Heffers, etc), I pretty much camped out at Borders.  Nothing to do?  Let’s go to Borders and read all afternoon!  Books, comics, manga, magazines, whatever.  It was better than any library.

But that was the problem.  People loved to browse Borders but not buy from them because their books were so bloody expensive, particularly in Australia (I’ll get to that in a sec).  If they were on super duper special, then maybe, you’d consider buying a book or two, but everybody knew that Borders was a place where you went to do your research, not the place you’d ultimately purchase the books from.

These days, especially, it’s all online.  Not just e-books but also paper books from places such as The Book Depository and Amazon.  Yes, if all things were equal, Australian consumers would no doubt want to purchase locally — but when prices were, excluding GST, 35% higher, or in many cases, 50% higher, financial considerations always trumped loyalty.

No wonder Borders struggled so much.  The stores tended to be in areas where the rent was ridiculous.  They required loads of staff and the wide range meant stacks of inventory.  Without competitive prices, they really had no chance.

Interestingly, the online chatter that has come out of the closures have been similar to my sentiments.  Most bemoan the loss of a terrific place to ‘browse’ books, but not much more than that.  Some were even glad that these evil big book chains which bully the independent booksellers have gotten their comeuppance.

Does this represent a fundamental shift in the publishing industry?  If supposedly mighty bookchains such as Borders are collapsing, it makes me wonder what the future holds for other chains such as Angus & Robertson and Dymocks, and to a lesser extent, Kinokuniya.

Is it finally time for the parallel importing restrictions to be lifted?  For those who don’t know, Australia has in place restrictions intended to protect local publishers and writers.  If an Australian holder of publishing rights to a particular title decides to publish it within 30 days of the book becoming available elsewhere in the world, then Australian booksellers are prohibited from importing the title from overseas.

A Productivity Commission report in 2009 recommended that these restrictions be lifted, partly because the bulk of the benefits stemming from the restrictions flowed to offshore publishers and authors, rather than local ones.  The recommendation was never acted upon because of campaigns from domestic publishers and authors, who also have very valid arguments.  Opening the already fragile Australian book industry to the rest of the world has potentially frightening consequences for everyone.

No easy answers, unfortunately.  I just hope the remaining bookchains in Australia have enough support to keep battling on.

Farewell, Borders.

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