Stories behind the stories — Feb.16, 2013

In my day job, I deliver the news of the day in several industries. But there’s always the story behind the story — the context, the background, the human interest, or just the fun and silly. Most importantly, it’s the stuff I’m most interested in.

Each weekend (I hope!?), I’ll highlight a few links that go beyond the recent headlines — and to do so without ripping off my employer and the great Dave Pell. We’ll see how this goes.

Who dials a phone anymore?
Story: One-third of all calling minutes globally last year were made over Skype. Forget landlines, it’s cellphones that suddenly seem unnecessary for voice communication. Meanwhile, Connecticut, Kentucky, California and Illinois are among states being pushed to drop mandatory landline investment, 911 isn’t always working for some Nevada landline owners, and Los Angeles-area landline users are getting priced out.
Disturbingly, AT&T is the main driver in every one of these stories.
Behind the story: It was not that long ago — grandparents and great-grandparents will surely remember — that phone service was only over landline, was not necessarily ubiquitous, and involved pronounceable-word exchanges rather than dialing digits. Oh yeah, you had to manually dial each number. The guy who invented all-digital dialing and led efforts on today’s modern phone layout has died.

It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans.

Nemo’s father
Story: That devastating, historical snowstorm that hit New England and other areas this month was obnoxiously named Nemo, and the unofficial, self-promoting and inconsistent naming of storms by the Weather Channel has upset people (though the idea of naming storms has intriguing defenders).
Behind the story: There’s actually a tradition of naming storms that’s endearing and makes sense. Predictably, it’s in a place that actually knows how to deal with winter storms: Buffalo. And Buffalo being that non-publicity-seeking town it is, doesn’t make a big deal out of the weather reports — they’re mostly to help meteorologists and other officials distinguish between the numerous storms each season.

The names are used mostly for internal purposes; the information is available to anyone following Weather Service reports, but are not typically picked up by local media. An early October 2006 snowstorm responsible for two feet of snow virtually overnight was titled—they were using insect names that year—”Lake Storm Aphid” by the NWS, but ask any Buffalonian and they’ll refer to it as the October Surprise.

The greatest asshole of them all
Story: Michael Jordan turns 50 on Sunday. It’s sort of a story, but more of an excuse for ESPN to air endless hours of Jordan retrospectives and try to provoke Kobe Bryant and LeBron James into fights over who’s the next Michael.
Behind the story: An obvious one, but if you haven’t read Wright Thompson’s very, very long but very, very good behind-the-scenes MJ profile, you’re missing out. MJ has some sort of post-basketball PTSD that sounds ridiculous (and sort of is) but for him is a true torment. He still talks about 218 — his playing weight — as if it were the key to the universe instead of just another obsession. Still, as humanizing and open as we’ll ever get from Jordan.

His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. This has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy. If the boy in those letters from Chapel Hill is gone, it is this appetite to prove — to attack and to dominate and to win — that killed him. In the many biographies written about Jordan, most notably in David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps,” a common word used to describe Jordan is “rage.” Jordan might have stopped playing basketball, but the rage is still there. The fire remains, which is why he searches for release, on the golf course or at a blackjack table, why he spends so much time and energy on his basketball team and why he dreams of returning to play.

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