Sunday, June 17, 2012

Two Gems from Today's Inquirer

This one* I need to remember for school, an interesting speech for rising seniors in high school.

And then we have a brilliant piece of sports writing. The first lines are so good, paint such a dispiriting picture that one doesn't even need to read the rest of the piece.

*Oh, blast it, doesn't have this link from their non-paywall section of the site. Oh well. It was an interesting advice column written to the high school class of 2013 telling kids that they need to be the adult in the forest of well-wishers and optimists who sometimes fail to frame college choices as realistically as they should be framed. It challenges me to remember how often students benefit from being told no. Adults (teachers and parents) often have to enforce boundaries that help kids grow properly. Do I, as a teacher of upperclassmen, properly set boundaries for the kids to choose a great path to a successful adult life?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cars and Tech

Interesting article in the New York Times today profiling the technology promises in automobiles. It's the second time this week I've seen an article referring to how the pace of change in automobiles is struggling to keep up with the pace of change in media and technology. Makes me wonder when an automaker is just going to collaborate directly with Google or Apple to create an App that does what these automakers have been trying to do.

The Times article also brought to mind an interesting commentary in one of the leading auto magazines about the falling proportion of young drivers. That article brings up some good points explaining the falling car ownership and licensure: that young Americans are more urban and suffering from a poor economy. I think the article is missing two other subtle but deep changes in the last generation. First, the proliferation of personal entertainment devices. The last generation has experienced a sea change in what one can do on a long car ride, from personal game systems to video players to cell phones and smart phones. For our kids today, a car ride essentially equates to a time to zone out.

More importantly, let us not dismiss the impact of changing laws regarding child safety in cars. Kids can't sit without a special restraint until they are about 8, and they are forbidden from sitting up front until they're at least 12. So by the time they are untethered from safety and legal restraints, they're at that awkward I-don't-want-to-be-in-the-same-area-code-as-mom-and-dad phase of adolescence. I chuckle when I see students picked up at school by parents who pull up to the curb and then power open the side door of the minivan so the student can step on into the back. There was a day when the quest to sit "shotgun" was an all-consuming passion, even when mom or dad was in the driver seat.

Oh, and let's not forget the impact of driver licensing laws that make kids wait until well after their 16th birthday to actually get their license. Then there is also the fact that high school kids are so engrossed with studies and co-curriculars (not a bad thing, mind you) that there isn't time to get the job to earn the money to buy the gas for the car you've not really been that interested in saving.

So for young Americans, why the heck not just wait it out for Google or Apple to figure out how to make a car drive itself?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Some interesting survivors

So, I have two new laptops, it would seem: the excellent HP on which I'm typing right now and the HP I was issued by my school. Both are excellent machines. The keyboards have excellent tactile feedback and feature a number pad. The finish of the machines feel substantial. It takes little time for either to boot. Both have clear and vivid displays.

But wait! I thought laptops were dead, slayed by the tablet. Though I find the tablet really neat (we've had an iPad for more than a year) it doesn't satisfy my interests in creating content or sending e-mail. Perhaps others feel like me. What I speculate to more interesting, however, is the competition the tablet has brought to the laptop market. Manufacturers had to create some compelling products for us. The iPad has probably made the market more desirous of Macbooks, which Apple has kept pricey, so HP, Dell, Samsung, Asus, and the like have had to respond by creating laptops that would woo us away from tablets or the sleek machines Apple tries to sell. As a result, we're benefiting from better machines at better prices.

In addition to the surprising survivor we have in laptops there is radio as well. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer this morning described NBC Sports attempts to start a sports radio network. They've already engaged ESPN on TV, now they want to do so on radio as well. Fox Sports is also interested in increasing their TV and radio reach. The article quoted an NBC Sports executive in talking of how such great growth potential in sports radio. A WIP executive claimed that because sports contests are getting too expensive to attend in person, people are becoming more passionate about their sports talk outlets.

In addition to that I would add that television itself is getting so expensive it might drive us to radio as well. When I watch TV at home and sit through a commercial, I feel my time is being wasted. When I hear a commercial on radio, I figure that's what I need to sit through. After all, I'm in a car most of the time I'm listening. As I start to look at watching sports as an inefficient use of my time, I'll tune in to WIP's excellent program more and more. WIP can give me satisfaction about sports consumption while I'm on the way to something rather than sitting at home through a contest that may make me happy but will subject me to untold numbers of W.B. Mason and Citizens Bank commercials on the way to that unsure ending. And as Spotify and Pandora take music away, the music stations left become more competitive or switch to formats we find more appealing. The old WYSP has become WIP and is must-listen radio. It's only a matter of time until 1210 AM switches over to 98.1 FM with its new lineup.

Schumpeter once wrote that capitalism is a perennial gale of creative destruction. For the most part he's correct, but even horrific windstorms leave some survivors in their wake. Laptops and radio might just always have a place in the stormy environment that is media.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Goliath vs. Goliath

So, Slate reports that Apple is getting ready to do battle with Google Maps. (Will Apple call their new App the "mApp?" Sorry, couldn't resist). We're entering another round in a war for our future spending that will cost billions of dollars. At least lives won't be lost in this one.

Let me get this straight:

  • Apple is competing with Google Maps.
  • Google is creating a Chrome Store. 
  • Amazon, Apple, and Google now are forming their ecosystems.
  • Facebook is interested in searches. How long can it be until Apple launches a search engine app? 
  • Google+ seems to have potential, and Google has the cash to dump into this thing for years until it's a profitable competitor to Facebook. 
  • Apple has already gotten into antitrust hot water over e-books, and Amazon is grinning from ear to ear. 
  • Amazon is aggressively pushing its MP3 store. As is Google pushing its Play store. 

I don't for a moment think Microsoft is completely out of any of these contests. It's overcoming its own diseconomies of scale and its entrenched mindsets, but it will be joining the party somehow someway.

What will be interesting is to see which one of the four Goliaths loses their edge first. Facebook's humbling IPO might teach it some helpful lessons. But the other three have gone some time without a humbling moment like Facebook's fumble, or Netflix's Quickster disaster last summer.

As consumers and citizens I think we have more than a rooting interest in this squabble. These companies have awesome power and awesome access over information we have given to them. Further, I don't know if we have antitrust laws that really can go after anticompetitive practices, and even if we do I don't know if our courts can move at the speed of digital change.

I think what we need is a disequilibrializing new competitor to enter the field, one too big to be plucked by one of the aforementioned.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Tragedy of the Commons

The supposedly free internet is coming to an end. This might not be an entirely bad thing. After all, it might disabuse many of the notion that information should always be free. But I'll put aside my grumpiness about kids' belief that Wikipedia represents a great revolution in human understanding for a few moments. 

I've been following stories about newspapers cutting their publication. New Orleans' big daily newspaper will now publish only three days a week and will move its subscriptions over to the internet. I think it's only a matter of time until others do the same, though some (like the New York Times) will be able to hold out for some time. And perhaps it's time that we who value good journalism financially support the sources from which we get our news. Good journalism costs money, and I'd rather have good journalism at a relatively small price than lousy journalism for free. 

Facebook's IPO, I think, is opening a lot of eyes to the underwhelming revenue that comes from online advertising. It's a model for paying for services that works well for Google and that's about it. Most of us have conditioned ourselves to just ignore the cheap ads that finance Facebook, and we tolerate the more sophisticated ads that make us wait 10 or 15 seconds to read that story on the Times or Post. It might say a very good thing about us that we have tuned out the tacky advertisements. 

Eventually our social networks will have to experiment with charging for premium content, a premier service that might allow us to do more than just post and poke. We might find that they have interesting services worth our money. Or not. One can see media outlets laying the groundwork for this, such as at where they mark certain journalists as "Insiders." It's only a matter of time until that website is charging for people to read what their exclusive insiders have to say. To that, however, I have no choice but to yawn. Sports is really hitting the law of diminishing returns for me (with one exception: playing wiffle ball with my kids in the back yard).  

So if we start paying more to digest web content, what will we stop spending money on? My money (no pun intended) is on cable TV, which I think suddenly has much to fear. The advertisement I heard on the radio for a Spike TV show about horrible tenants didn't really make me mull over the awesome offerings on pay television. Perhaps the print magazine industry will get hit harder than they already are. 

But if I could go back to newspapers for a moment . . . I recall reading a former editor of a local newspaper mulling over a decision at the beginning of the century made by his paper to upgrade their presses to a new state-of-the-art means of publishing their dailies. He regretted not taking that capital investment and plowing it into an ahead-of-the-curve means of publishing digitally. Now I don't think the public was ready to support that business decision with subscriptions that would pay for that upgrade. But we might be seeing newspapers live out the credo "If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My movie queue is finally getting touched

So, why on earth did it take me so long to watch A Beautiful Mind? Did it take me a decade because everyone said "you gotta see it" when it was first out in theaters? Probably, I can be stubborn that way. I will say that twenty minutes or so surrounding Nash's relapse were some of the most gripping moments of cinema I've seen in some time. I think my blood pressure shot through the roof when Nash's wife found the shed behind their Princeton home.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

There is no such thing as a free lunch, foreign policy version

For some time I have found the use of drones by America's armed forces troublesome. My first reaction to reading of their use was ambivalence, which gave way to unease. Now some journalistic attention is being shifted to the use of drones that is helping me figure out what bothers me. A cartoon some of my students found on Daryl Cagle's website reveals much of the unease I have about their use. Charles Krauthammer wrote a fairly critical piece about the Obama administration's reliance on them in yesterday's Washington Post, and in that essay he refers to a somewhat troubling story from the New York Times.

I cannot help but couple the increasing use of these drones with the problems our military has had employing the F-22 fighter. Is it possible that air warfare has become complicated to the extent that it surpasses human abilities to execute on the scene? If so, are we just the first nation to employ these drones? Is this what warfare's future looks like?

I don't necessarily blame President Obama for the employment of this weapon. We began using them on George Bush's watch. And I think any commander-in-chief would jump at an opportunity to use a weapon that increases damage to the enemy and keeps our brave servicemen safe. Still, there is a creeping sensation to using a weapon that, from the perspective of the user, is sanitized. When the cost of something deadly becomes something that is only monetary, it becomes easier to resort to it and kill more often. It lowers the threshold by which a commander orders the use of deadly force. Further, it does little to build affinity amongst the civilians for whom we claim to be fighting. It's hard to respect a power, even a deadly one, that strikes from afar and is immune from their own personal harm. This is a lesson we have witnessed many times since the end of World War II. Hearts and minds change with boots on the ground, not drones in the air.

Bill Bennett likes to say that in history, if a people were to see a flag come over the hill, they would hope it was ours. For the most part, our military power has been used to expand freedom and end totalitarianism. The people of South Asia and the Middle East already doubt our intentions greatly and might never come to welcome the flag of our nation coming over the hill, borne by our own young men. I think it much less likely they'll ever embrace the flag of a nation that is on the small tale of an anonymous agent of death from the sky, operated by an officer in a cubicle in Colorado.

So, here's another reason the TV is dying

Today my wife's parents called us from Denmark. We had a video chat over the iPhone. My kids got to see their grandparents, see their grandparents, six timezones away. Their grandfather got to show the kids what it looked like out the window. No video hiccups, no poor quality of voices (other than my kids' poor enunciation), just two people we love telling us how their vacation was going. 

It's enough to diminish my interest in what's on TV. Screen time should be chatting with friends and family far away. But as my kids grow, they'll take for granted something that I look at as an awesome thing (I grew up in the age of 3-6-and-10 bunny ears): using screens as a way to see loved ones. Why will they settle for commercial programming? 

Interestingly, The Economist ran a great article about two years ago analyzing why TV will be such a great survivor. Might that be another prediction my favorite magazine got wrong?