Thursday, December 15, 2011

Democratization of Investing

Before about 1980, if a man was described as having stocks and bonds, most of us would immediately think of him as rich. More than 30 years ago, only the wealthy seemed to have enough surplus income to buy these kinds of securities. "Stocks and bonds," was a code-phrase for well-to-do.

But that changed sometime in the 1980s. Mutual funds lowered their initial investment requirements and other retail investing services emerged that allowed people to participate in stocks and other investments that had previously been reserved mostly for the rich among us. Today a large part of Americans own such investments in the form of 401K or other workplace retirement accounts. [In fact many people who invest in this way are unaware or have forgotten about their account and are sometimes embarrassed when they criticize the capitalist class and stock holders of corporations guilty of malfeasance when they themselves are involved, too.]

But I think that when the financial industry became widely available on a retail basis to a mass of U.S. consumers some 25 years ago, the wealthy for whom the party had been invitation-only, began to look for other ways of making their money work for them. By adopting almost a, "there goes the neighborhood" sentiment, these wealthy folks turned to financial service providers who were ready with sophisticated investment vehicles, many of which required very high initial investment amounts, thereby assuring the same exclusivity of a gated community neighborhood.

Increasing the American workers stake in the U.S. economy was probably good, at least on the surface, but the tricks to which the wealthy and their financial advisers stooped in order to distinguish themselves from the "unwashed" investors ultimately led to a financial collapse early in the 21st century. Professionals in the financial services industry dreamed up all sorts of sophisticated investment products that excluded the nickel and dime players and which (it became clear) the U.S. government regulators charged with reviewing the industry could neither keep pace with nor understand.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mental Health's Second-Hand Smoke Equivalent

In the 1980s, a singer named Joe Jackson released a song called "Cancer." The line repeated throughout the song was "everything gives you cancer." It was a parody on the seemingly endless list of everyday products and practices that in laboratories has resulted in carcinoma cell development among mice. I'm exaggerating but only because the song itself was an exaggeration.

However, I do believe that sometime in the near future we are going to hear from scientists who find that the electronic audio and video that are so pervasive in our lives and that form a background of sounds to an increasing portion of our days is the mental health equivalent of second-hand smoke. In other words, published findings will demonstrate that passive listening to this noise leads to one of several neuroses like anxiety, insomnia or some more serious threat to mental health.

Popular media undoubtedly aim to cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction among viewers and listeners and are interspersed with advertisements purporting to fulfill those unmet desires. So the question for laboratory or field research will be what are is the net outcome of this dissatisfaction among the populace. Tranquility and acceptance? Unlikely. I can't help but think of teen suicide and cyber-bullying as the result of this sense of dissatisfaction which advertisers want to inject into a younger and younger audience.

In fact, it is so widely published in popular news accounts that watching television before bedtime does contribute to sleeplessness that I have no doubt the harm of electronic media will become common knowledge soon. We hear from a national pediatrics group that children under 2 should not be exposed to television as it might interfere with cognitive development.

I can only wonder whether lawsuits will ensue, asserting that television producers and advertisers knew the dangers but still pushed the medium in an attempt to downplay the effects or even spin them into some positive outcomes.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technology and Sports Officials

I have written elsewhere about the changes in sports broadcasting that interactive technologies will bring in the near future.

Advancing user of sensors, microchips and smart materials and networking them may mean big changes for professional sports. Along with training assistance and broadcasting innovation, sports refereeing will likely undergo some interesting changes soon owing to these and other technological advancements. The use of increasingly small and wired components could one day allow some judgment calls in sporting contests to be automatically determined and allow the still-necessary human referees to concentrate on other aspects of the game that require their judgment. It is unlikely that we can or should eliminate human referees, but the use of technology could be a useful tool in allowing them to focus more closely on certain aspects while automating some other rule monitoring.

When most people think of technology and sports referees, they first think of video replay technology. Video technology is a crude precursor to what can be done with current information technology and professional sports refereeing. Video, because of the delays it requires is seen by many as simply inadequate. It has become clear that this is too cumbersome and slows down the game unacceptably for fans and players and everyone except television advertisers who love the extended duration of undivided attention that these delays mean.

Technological application in sports refereeing will be more commonplace primarily due to the great reduction in the size of technological devices today, especially microprocessors. Most of the personal computers of the past decades had a processor about the size of a wallet-sized photo. But of course they have gotten much smaller in recent years. Specialized chips can today be reduced to the size of a grain of rice--or smaller. It is inevitable that these ever smaller, ever cheaper devices will be implanted in sporting equipment, uniforms, the field or playing court and the ball itself.

Implanting a microchip in a baseball for example, could allow sensors, the computers which monitor them and the officiating crew which monitors these in turn, to determine whether a ball was, for example, out of bounds. Or if the home plate in a baseball stadium was wired, whether the ball was inside, outside or right in the middle of the strike zone. It could tell whether a ball was foul or whether it was a home-run, based on which side of the foul/fair pole it passed. (I'm continually amazed at how difficult a call this is for umpires to make).

Perhaps more sophisticated but certainly technologically feasible is tracking the exact moment a fielded and thrown ball suddenly stopped its trajectory and whether the additional pressure of the base-runners foot was applied to first base before or after the sudden stop of the ball's momentum was recorded. Modern GPS and tracking technology will allow sensors to determine the speed and movement of a ball and the exact instant when it stops. This could be compared instantaneously with pressure sensors on the first base bag to determine whether the ball stopped (i.e. arrived in the first baseman's glove) before the runner's foot touched the base.

Similarly, a chip embedded into a (American) football together with sensors embedded along the length of the goal line would allow referees (or their sideline monitors) to determine quickly whether a ball carrier at the bottom of a goal-line pileup actually crossed the line. This might alternatively be done using precision GPS technology. In either case, this would relieve the field referees from disassembling the mountain of 300 lb men in the scrum to find out where the ball is or whether it crossed the goal line during the squirming that takes place even after the sound of the referee’s whistle.

New materials being developed called "smart materials" could be used in uniforms and shoes. These are cloth or other synthetics that can contain sensors without feeling or wearing any differently than normal cotton clothing. For example I can imagine shoes having microchips (as thin as a postage stamp) to record whether a player's foot or both feet were in or out of bounds. It could also likely be used for 3-second calls in the NBA given that the lane could be wired enough to sense whether the same player is standing in front of the basket for more than 3 seconds.

Sensors would be helpful to referees on the field and GPS technology. Tennis lines, basketball lines, the lane, 3-point line, football out of bounds. Sensors are so small and inexpensive these days that they could easily be used to line a field or court along the out of bounds lines or in the case of football, the goal line. In cooperation with sensors embedded in the balls or equipment, they could be used to quickly identify and generate a visible or audible signal for out of bounds or other infractions. As noted above they could identify scoring in a goal-line pileup but they could also be used to spot tennis balls that are served long or otherwise on the line. Currently tennis officials use some form of camera monitoring to see on which side of the line a ball landed. But increasingly we see an aversion to the need for a human to visually review a videotape. Sensor technology would presumably emit an 'in' or 'out' call immediately.

The technology for many of these advances is already available. The only impediment to seeing them put to use and to relieving modern referees from the burden of catching every player's movement on every play is acceptance of these innovations. Agreement would ultimately have to come from sports league owners but opinions of general managers, coaches, players and fans would also have to be considered. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these applications of technology came in piece-meal with media sponsorship of certain components.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Compensation in Question

For many years well educated, experienced (and sometimes well-connected) people have generally earned more than their workplace peers. American labor history has traditionally treated seniority, knowledge and skills as most important in deciding how much to pay someone. But given current trends in the business environment those standards may no longer be applicable. Certainly worker longevity and workforce continuity hold some value to business and other organizations but trends in employee turnover and the corporate emphasis on near-term results has undoubtedly eroded this value. Technology and the ability to measure more precisely a worker's activity and contribution may render obsolete these traditional measures of employee value and displace them with more quantifiable measures of worth to a firm.

Experience and seniority sometimes matter, but the employee-employer relationship has evolved to place much greater attention to a worker's contribution to the firm's short-term goals. And with the exception of unionized and some state employees, few workers expect or negotiate any additional compensation for being with a firm for an extended period of time. Nor can firms today expect to employ the same person for much more than the current product cycle given the fluid and unpredictable movement of global production and supply chains.

Paying wages according to an employee's true value to a firm is increasingly measured in terms of productivity. In the past this been largely limited to piece-work, typically on a farm or small manufacturer where the worker is paid a fixed amount per bushel harvested or other unit of measurement. Many factories in early-industralizing economies pay workers by the piece and therefore the more productive are compensated above others although at a relatively lower wage than those in other industries. Farm workers are still often paid this way. In advanced industrialized economies currently the only system of compensation that factors a worker's productivity are in sales commissions where those who generate the most sales for a firm are more highly compensated than those who don't.

Productivity is broadly meant to mean the level of output per unit of hours worked. In the 1990s, productivity of American workers grew very quickly owing largely to the Internet and the efficiencies that digital communication and information handling allowed workers. Technology has historically increased worker productivity from the time of crude tools fashioned with wood or metals to the telegraph, printing press, telephone, etc.

But if productivity is what firms are buying in today's labor market, and if the application of technology in the workplace results in higher productivity then it stands to reason that employers seek those with advanced technological skills because they produce more per hour worked. In the past 20 years, technological aptitude has accrued to the younger (and therefore) less experienced workers. Management guru, Don Tapscott says, for the first time in history "younger people know more than their elders about the biggest innovation of the day." This disparity between skills and experience leads me to conclude that there will be pressures to limit the wages of the most senior (and generally less technologically adept) while inflating wages of the digital natives and neo-natives.

Information technology makes productivity more measurable and with the skills obsolescence cycle shorter, I wonder how we will in the future decide how much each person earns. I suppose the first reaction is that we shouldn't decide, we should let the market decide. If that were allowed to happen, most of us would be in for big changes. The most productive workers would receive the highest compensation in a purely market-base approach to determining salaries and that would in large part mean the younger are paid more than older workers.

[Postscript: Of course Marx would have added, "Need" as a factor.  "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need." Would it be fair if a single parent with 4 children who produces as much as I do (a married, childless man) should be paid more based on his need?]

Sunday, August 7, 2011

American Broadcasting and the Deaf

For most of the history of American electronic media, the deaf were excluded from participating. Certainly radio and sound recordings were useless to most deaf people, although if you turn up the music loud enough to generate vibrations, the deaf will get up and dance as readily as the hearing.

Silent movies turned out to be a real benefit for the deaf since they could follow the story as well as anyone else. Many silent films, although they contained captions every few scenes or frames, also included a lot of physical comedy or exaggerated acting for obvious reasons.

Sometime in the early days of Hollywood, someone began applying subtitles to films even though they were English language films and the captions were in English. This was for the handicapped-the deaf, primarily. And at state schools-for-the-deaf across the U.S. and at many deaf clubs, captioned movies were a big hit.

But when television came along closed-captioning was still decades away. It may be because the content was created too quickly for anyone to take time to caption each episode. In any case, the deaf were forced to either try to read lips, or to watch programming that didn't require any text translation. Sporting events is the clearest example of this. Many deaf people who probably would otherwise not be sports fans (including many women in the days when this was a much more male domain) began watching sports on television for lack of any other intelligible programming. My mother loved watching the big three professional sports as well as college football and basketball.

My mother also told me that when she was in college and just afterward, one of the programs she used to look forward to watching was, "Your Show of Shows." This was an American hit in the 1950s featuring Sid Cesar, Carl Reiner and many other comics. She pointed it out to me once when I was a teenager and had stumbled across some reruns. She said it was hilarious. And I guess it was appealing mostly because of the physical nature of the gags.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jackson-Jackass, National Bo

In my neighborhood as a kid, there was a kid whose father was a real pistol. He was of the no-nonsense World War II generation and he had trouble seeing the foolishness that the second half of the century brought us, particularly among us teenagers. He made quips about popular culture and people in it some of which I carry to this day.

For example, he called Michael Jackson, "Michael Jackass" and thought he was real cute about it. This man watched Michael Jackson grow from a small boy into what he considered an eventual freak. He loathed almost anyone who was famous but had real some pet-hates that he wouldn't leave alone. Michael Jackson was one of them. 

I was at the age where when he said, Jackass instead of Jackson, I took it and ran with it. Everyone became fair game: Phil Jackass, Samuel L. Jackass, Bo Jackass and even president Andrew Jackass. 

It's awful of me to write this and I'm sure this term unfairly describes those mentioned above and the world population of Jacksons. I wouldn't say this to any of those I've listed above but I only include them here as examples. I never say it aloud but only mentally but it is a compulsion owing to my acquaintance of this particular schoolmate's father. Maybe writing this blog about it will rid me of the nasty habit.

The compulsion I had with repeating everyone's last name this way reminds me of another compulsion with substituting a word. I went to college in Baltimore in the 1980s and at the time the locally brewed rotgut beer was National Bohemian. This was in the days before micro-brews and artisan beers. National Bohemian and its sister brand, National Premium, were brewed and bottled en masse on the outskirts of the city. 

We referred to it so frequently in my day that we shortened it from the Baltimorese, "National Bo" to our local, "Natty Bo." 
Sometimes after an especially bad hangover, you'd call it Nasty Bo.

But the enduring name with me was Natty Bo. I became a habit and I began extending it to everything with National in its name. The pro-baseball's Natty League. Natty Aquarium. But then I got a job at the Smithsonian where almost every edifice is named the National Museum of  . . . (Natty Museum of . . . see? I can't resist).

French Misrepresentation in U.S. culture mid-20th century

When I was growing up I was exposed to stereotypes of a wide variety of people via popular media. These messages were of course untrue and unfair but some of them were so distorted and pervasive so as stick with me and many other kids of my generation for a long time. One of them dealt with the French, particularly French men. The juvenile American television, movies and cartoons I watched caricatured males from this country to the point of ridicule. I've met plenty of Frenchmen throughout my life who are no different from American, English or Australian men, but as a boy I was left with the impression that French men were weak, effeminate and overly emotional. 

Kids growing up in the U.S. in the mid 20th century were told repeatedly that the French man was a namby-pamby weakling. They were often either artists or chefs or some other occupation stereo-typically associated with women and they displayed this in their interpersonal behavior, for example when they cried if they heard the French song, 'The Marseilles'. 

Additionally, most French men in comedies, dramas or (especially) cartoons had what we might consider thin and very weak mustaches. While Americans had Mark Twain or Teddy Roosevelt mustaches, strong and thick and robust as the American west, the French either had pencil-thin mustaches or goatees or something that seemed to violate an American sense of virility.

This caricature of French males could have grown out of government propaganda just after the Second World War, perhaps because of the American GI rescue or maybe it came from some personal vendetta among those in Hollywood and other media production types. I suppose it grew out of a young America seeing France overrun twice in the first half of the century.

There were some notable exceptions to this unfair media stereotyping. One was the French-Canadian lumberjack type who appeared in several cartoons of the period. He was an unshaven, burly guy who wore a knit hat and plaid hunting jacket. Two other exceptions, the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau and Warner Brothers' French skunk, Pepe Le Pew, defied most of the messages that Frenchmen were lily-livered weaklings, although neither was terribly masculine like John Wayne or James Bond. And both perpetuated the bumbling idiot portrayal of French males to  American men.
The stereotype sometimes suggested homosexuality or hyper-sexuality (as we see in the Warner Brothers' Pepe Le Pew). I've nothing against French men or gay men but it reminds me of a bit of graffiti I once saw in a Baltimore restroom:

"Brian Murphy slept here with 4 french sailors and is still a virgin."

There were four of them.
They were sailors.
They were French.
And they still turned down Brian Murphy

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shaquille and Ali

Recently Shaquille O'Neal retired from professional basketball and in thinking about his career, I can't help but consider him the "Muhammad Ali" of his time. 

Ali and O'Neal are both larger-than-life professional athletes, but beyond that they both arrived in the spotlight as cocky and some would say, threatening figures only to later evolve into respected and well-admired public personalities. They both began to spend time involved in the media outside the sports world and were in some sense informal ambassadors to various groups.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Media Innovation and Over-kill

One thing I've noticed in media and advertising is the over-use of a certain innovative technology well beyond its initial appeal. This can go on for years where a nifty little trick is used in the movies or television and while it is intriguing at first, it is often repeated ad-nauseum. Sometimes the new technique becomes the sole focus of an advertisement.

Let me offer an example. Someone once devised a method to film a human figure and apply some graphics technology to alter the mouth and lips to mimic almost any speech that was played as a sound-track to the film. I think it first appeared in the film, "Look Who's Talking," but I never saw the film (only brief snippets) and it could be that this technique had been used even earlier. The movie featured a baby appearing to speak the lines of an adult. I understand it was very popular when it was released--now more than twenty years ago!

Since then we've seen too many derivatives of that cinematographic maneuver. Animals appeared to talk in the movie, "Babe" and many other movies and eventually a series of advertisements for a financial brokerage launched that showed babies conducting financial affairs under the vocal guise of some adult. It's all been a bit too much.

Maybe financial service firms share a common ad agency because there's another film-making trick going around that's getting old fast. The ad features testimonials from individuals who purchase or need to purchase financial services and are considering this particular firm. The people speaking look almost real but their faces are somewhat animated with regard to skin tone and hair highlights. You're looking at an animation but it's clear that the footage you're viewing has been made from video of a real person. But again, it's too much. This company appears to be going on 4-5 years with little more to offer than a neat video sleight-of-hand. Certainly the substance of what the actors are saying hasn't changed much in that time nor the services offered by the company.

I suppose you could make the same criticism of some musicians who discover a particular sound effect or combination of chords and, lacking any real music-composition talent, choose to release song-after-song featuring little more than their new-found trick.

Still someone, somewhere is entertained by these things and they either don't mind the repetition or don't remember it from one occurrence to another.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Third World-Western cultural economic exchange

In recent times, the world was divided into what were called the Industrialized World and the Third World.

But the global economic integration that has taken place within the past decade or so has meant a shift that for many is much desired and for others is dreadful.

Many of the day to day conditions of the developed North American, European and Japanese have been exported to cities throughout Asia and Latin America. You can find parts of Bangkok and Bogota that can emulate just about anything you find in the Anglo, European, Japanese countries.

But unfortunately for many Americans, it inevitably means that this spread goes the other way. Many ways of life from the less developed world are being exported to the West.

And it's really an accident of history and that's why I wrote it here.

Third Party Payer and Fee for Use

Most people agree that there are services which the government must provide since they would be unavailable were we to leave it to individual initiatives and the free market. Some that come immediately to mind initially are fire and rescue/police, national parks, sewers and sanitation which if we left it up to the private sector to provide individual consumers, would be so scarce as to have adverse social effects. Therefore we pool our resources in the form of taxes in order to pay for and provide them to all citizens.

I think of the case recently in Tennessee where a rural community, unable to afford it's own fire department, left its residents to pay an annual fee to a fire department in a nearby municipality to ensure that fire trucks would respond were their house to catch fire. But one gentleman did not pay and as you might have guessed, his house went up in flames. The fire trucks from the nearby town which sold the fire engine subscription service arrived only to douse the homes of his neighbors with water. Those neighbors who paid the annual fee, that is. The homeowner begged the firemen to turn their hoses on his burning home but they refused. Most of us would, on hearing this story argue for universal fire and rescue coverage paid for by taxes (perhaps federal) so that there are not situations where small municipalities have to watch their homes burn for lack of payment to the authorities. Imagine how this would be if police required an annual payment.

But as information on the usage of publicly-provided goods and services becomes more readily available and finely tuned, we can probably start to charge directly for some services the government provides. For example, usage of certain roads through the use of transponders might be a way to supplement the taxes which are most commonly used in funding for road maintenance. Certainly regional and state parks use can be charged back to the individual. For those who choose not to use parks, while they still benefit from their proximity and availability and would continue to pay a base tax to support parks, would ultimately bear less financial burden than those who actually visit and pay a supplemental fee to do so. Many national parks charge usage fees but I don't know how much this income contributes to the general budget to keep them open and running.

Unfortunately were the government to become involved in payment processing for usage it would add some overhead expenses to the administration of (for example) parks and roads and there would have to be language absolving the government of additional liability from accident or mishap while using the facility beyond the current indemnity.

In these and other cases, the heaviest users of a resource can be billed more accurately. Outside of government it can and should be employed. For example, the issue of Internet neutrality is countered by a need to charge individuals who use bandwith at a far higher rate than others who pay the same monthly fee. As a librarian I'm all about free speech and free press and I hope content neutrality can be guaranteed in providing access to users. But my understanding is that a large chunk of Internet traffic is due to file sharing of music and movies and it comes from a very small segment of the total user population. So why not charge them for the bits they use relative to others.

One could argue that all citizens benefit from roads and parks whether they use them directly or not. And for this reason there should indeed be across the board charges (mostly income and property taxes) levied against all citizens of a jurisdiction to pay for these things. But a certain portion of the total cost (perhaps one third or 25%) should where possible be borne  by the direct user. In the case of roads that would include delivery drivers who would presumably pass along any cost increases to the consumer in the form of higher delivery charges or price for the commodity being delivered.

Advances in information technology will make such direct charges possible and the distribution of support for these public efforts more equitable.

Wealth, Envy and Happiness

Most adults agree that money will not make us happy yet we would almost all accept more money if offered.

I use "adults" to mean not a chronological period which a person has exceeded in age, but a point at which each of us matures to understand the most important things in life. There are plenty of 20 or 30-somethings (and older) who believe that more money means more stuff means more happiness.

I guess my meaning of the word, "adult" is best characterized by a saying which I first heard from John Wooden. He said, "It's what you learn after you know it all that's important." So I guess the point at which each of us no longer believes that we know it all is when we reach adulthood.

But anyway . . . back to money  and happiness.

There have been a spate of studies in recent years trying to quantify happiness and although they rely on self-reporting (there being no as yet objective way to measure happiness) they are reported and evidently trusted. Some of them deal with wealth and happiness and it seems that below a certain income level or economic standard of living, each additional increase in money does lead to greater happiness. But this level is fairly modest (by U.S. economic standards) at around $40,000 per year. I realize that a lot of people live on less than that but plenty of those who make more still believe that increasing their salary will lead to greater happiness.

And the evidence just doesn't support it.