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.