Thursday, May 17, 2012

Best Question Of The Day

And believe it or not, it happened at a shareholders' meeting:
Another shareholder wanted to know why, if a $2 billion loss [by JPMorgan Chase Bank] is digestible, the bank cannot then reduce lending burdens and help get this economy rolling again.
Indeed. How about it, Jamie? Give your borrowers the same spirit of forgiveness you ask for from your stakeholders!

An Update To A Story Yesterday

Apparently, the answer is "yes"


A moment arrives tomorrow that is one of those markers in life that grabs your attention. My daughter graduates from college-- although she still needs a couple two credits-- and it makes all the difference.
I worry for her, as I worry for all young people of my acquaintance, from fellow bloggers to people at my gym and work, to her friends. I see trouble, deep deep trouble, ahead.
I guess if I could make a keynote at a graduation, I'd say something like this:
Today, you are glad to be finishing a stairway in your life. You've climbed to a landing, and can take a breath and look back down. Those steps, they looked so tall and steep as you walked up, but you made it. You perservered, and did what you had to and got through.
People, your parents and teachers had expectations of you based on what they knew of you, and they knew you better than you think they did. They didn't know all your secrets, but here's a secret they kept from you, and I'm going to reveal it: they never had to.
All those times you hid that cigarette or joint, the times you wiped the lipstick off before walking in the door, the times you walked quickly past the family room to hide the fact you were a little high, we knew. We didn't have to know the specifics, and we may not have figured out exactly when you did whatever it was that you did, but we were pretty sure you had done stuff.
We knew when you were slacking off your homework and when you were studying frantically because you forgot about a midterm.
We didn't always call you on our suspicions, because that would have set up an adversarial relationship, but we knew.
See, we were students once too. There's a big difference, though. When we grew up, the world was promising us, well, the world. You don't seem to have that promise anymore, but I've got another delightful secret to share with you.
It doesn't matter. The world you learned about growing up, the one you learned about in school and at church or on the ballfield or the Y, in Scouts or down at the mall is not the world you'll end up living in, but it doesn't matter.
It wasn't for your parents or your teachers. It won't be for you.
When I was a kid, baseball players made about $40,000 a year, which was pretty good money in an economy where $100,000 was the estethetic equivalent of a million. But it wasn't enough to stay unemployed in the odd-season. Ballplayers took odd jobs, working as stock brokers or even digging graves. I was a fair athlete. I could have been a Rhodes Scholar if my parents had any inkling that my athletics combined with my grades would have put me in that class, but they chose to keep me from palying sports in school for the most part.
See, they raised me based on the world they knew, and the world they knew was one of poverty and want, one that saw them go days without fresh food, living off bread and soups and stews. They learned from the world they grew up in that a brain was the most valuable asset a person could have and that it ought to be honed to a sharpness that would make a Ginzu knife embarassed.
It would be hard to blame them for missing the turn in fortunes that saw this nation go from a thriving intellectual hotbed to one where Snooki is more admired than Eric Lander. It's as if Greta Garbo would be better remembered than Albert Einstein. They'd never see that coming.
As my life unfolded, it didn't matter that I was reading college textbooks in fourth grade. I mean, it helped, but I didn't end up in an academium. I ended up in the corporate world because I was trying to live the life I thought I should live.
"Should." There's the most dangerous word in the English language. I'm here to tell you that "should" doesn't matter. The experiences you've lived and the values you've been taught up to now are important, even vitally, but you have to remain flexible because some of them won't matter nearly as much as they used to.
What does matter is the two oldest pieces of advice any adult can give you: Gnothi Seauton ( you may have seen this rendered as Nosce te Ipsum) -- Know Thyself-- and "To thine ownself be true."
It took five years out of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to understand what those really mean. I'm going to sum it up for you with a piece of imagery:
When you die, who gets buried in your casket? Not your mom. Not your teachers. Not your spouse or business partners.
You. And you alone. And in the preceding moments, as your eyelids close for the final time, is the spiritual reckoning we all must entertain: who are you?
If you are anyone else than who you are, if you try to be someone else because it's just easier than fighting people's expectations, you will have failed at life.
Once you know who you are, once you get a handle on your basic essence-- and make no mistake, you have the capacity to infinitely surprise yourself, so this is an ongoing process!-- a door will open in your soul, and what you will find is your calling. Getting to this point takes a lot of work, mind you. It's a constant process of auditing yourself and asking difficult questions like "Why? What the hell did I do that for? Is it lunchtime yet?"
Worse, as you evolve (apologies to any evangelicals out there, but you know, facts are stupid things), you change and who you are changes, too. Who you are at twenty is not who you'll be at 35, married with a couple of kids and, one hopes, a mortgage.
So take a few minutes each day to know yourself. Pay attention to the words coming out of your mouth as much as you pay attention to how other people receive those words. Lay back on the grass every so often and just listen to the world around you. In those sights and sounds lie an awful lot of the answers you seek. When something or someone annoys you, ask yourself why. When you feel enormous joy, wrap yourself in it like a blanket and enjoy. Later, you can reflect on why it felt so good (sex with the right person leaps to mind, because it's the right person).
You'll be attracted to some people and things and repelled by others. Figure out why. In those, especially, lie many answers to who you are. Treat your life like a detective story, always asking why you did what you did. A lot of the time, the answer is obvious but not apparent, like the shoe print under the window, but behind a bush.
You want to do this, because you want to follow your heart in life. The most satisfying work you'll ever have is the work you love to do, and you can't know what you love unless you know who you are. This is what the Bard meant by "To thine ownself be true." You can't be anybody else. That would be false, and you can't be true to anyone or anything else until you are true to yourself first.
And if all this sounds like a lot of work and you'd rather give it a miss, that's OK too. You just learned something about yourself and there's nothing wrong with deciding this isn't important, just as it isn't wrong to not want to wear a helmet riding while riding a bike: probably nothing will happen and you'll still enjoy yourself, but in the back of your mind will always linger the concern that you might be missing something. If you can live with that, god bless you. I tried, and ultimately could not.
Let me start to wrap this up, because I can see the champagne bottles shift under your gowns and the nervous glances at your watches: if you can be true to yourself, then nothing and no one will ever be able to stop you.
They may stand in your way, but the harder you work on yourself, the easier it will become to look upon these objects and people as obstacles, not blockades. You can get around or even roll over an obstacle. You just work a little harder. You know all those people who you read about who "overcome"? They do it because they refuse to let themselves be blockaded. They see the obstacles and figure how to get around them.
You'll have friends, true friends, because of who you are, not what you are, and they'll cheer you on without taking an ounce of credit for themselves. This is your life. Take center stage. And in the words of Steve Jobs, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
I mean, he only changed the world. You only have to be yourself.

You Think You Know Someone...

I grew up hearing the name "Gordon Parks" regularly. The man was a legend and a legendary New Yorker. He was the first person of color to direct a major motion picture ("The Learning Tree") based on a screenplay he wrote based on a best-selling novel he wrote.
He also directed the original Shaft.
That alone would solidify his legendary status, but he was also an accomlished jazz pianist, ballet choreographer, composer, poet, and of course, civil rights leader.
But first and foremost and what I forgot over the years, he was one of the greatest photographers in history. His photos adorned the cover of Life magazine regularly.
Perhaps his most famous photograph, American Gothic, Washington, DC, combined his fervor for fairness with his sense of humour and married them in one of the most iconic photographs in history.
So I was struck when I read that the International Center of Photography would be running a retrospective of Parks' work to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth (he died in 2006).
Fittingly for a man of the city and one who fought for equal access for all, the exhibit will be displayed not in the gallery, but in the windows facing the street.

I Support This

Unfortunately, I doubt many other New Yorkers, particularly those with money, do.
In gentrification, we've destroyed neighborhood after neighborhood. Keeping Harlem at the scale it presently exists would help preserve the single most important cultural neighborhood in the city. Think about it: you can mention any other neighborhood, and you'll get different opinions as to what they represent (even Times Square) but Harlem evokes a passion and majesty that remains consistent across generations.
That's not to say the neighborhood won't change. It will. It has to. It's one of the few affordable inner city neighborhoods left and that means there's pressure on landlords to find new tenants and gain increased rents. But there's no reason to destroy a neighborhood to enrich a few.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

C-R-A-Z-Y Lady Is Crazy. No. Really.

We all had a pretty good laugh at the woman who got up in front of the Lincoln, Nebraska city council and railed on about homosexuality in response to the proposed "Fairness Ordinance" extending anti-bias protections to the LGBT community.
Select quotes:
  1. "A huge percent of gay men in school grounds molest boys, partly because they don't have AIDS yet."

  2. "Whitney Houston was found without clothes in a bathtub. Every corpse found without clothes has a partner who did away with them."

  3. "P-E-N-I-S goes into the anus to rupture intestines. The more a man does this, the more likely he'll be a fatality or a homicider."

You get the drift. We all had a good laugh. We all might want to rethink that laugh:

[Jane] Svoboda lives at an assisted-living facility in Lincoln and is listed as a protected person, according to court documents. Her brother, Patrick Svoboda of Ogallala, is her conservator because she is incompetent, the documents say.

He was unaware of the video's popularity, but wasn't surprised -- he knew it would be a matter of time before she got in trouble somewhere.

He said he's disappointed the video garnered such attention and jokes without the whole story.

"To me, it shows how little society really cares about people with mental health issues," Patrick Svoboda said. "She does have a very tender heart ... but anything she says is certifiably schizophrenic ... she's not some crazy conservative."

Apparently, she speaks in front of the council regularly at their open mic sessions, which allow anyone of the general public to speak for up to five minutes on any topic. And believe it or not, this might not be the most outlandish speech she's ever given. She's talked about "Chinese subliminals," radio signals sent through our cell phones, brought a large stick figure and said it was the ghost of her mom and regularly hands out fliers on the U Nebraska campus.

I empathize with her brother and his comments, to be sure, and see his point. I have a mentally challenged brother and my mom was, well, possibly less than stable. And I've spent tens of thousands of dollars in therapy to come to grips with my own....shall we say, unique?...mental and emotional challenges. I don't think I'm normal in the way most people would define that term, but then I don't think there is a normal anymore.

But here's the thing: in her speech, she sounds perfect rational and reasonable for a right-wing conservative. She may not honestly believe what she's saying...indeed, it's possible she picked up these thoughts along the way and is merely echoing what she's learned and not what she believes, as a parrot would...but it's such a convincing performance that we all took her as being not unusual for that sector of society.

That says a lot more about that sector than it does about this woman. Still, we probably all should take a look in the mirror tonight.


Yea...And So?

George Zimmerman's injuries were worse than first reported.
OK, and...? There's not one injury listed that is inconsistent with the story as it has unfolded: he stalked a young black man in a hoodie and murdered him. Did he expect that young man would do nothing while being threatened?
All it takes is one good punch in the nose to break the nose AND give two black eyes. Or a clumsy fat oaf to fall flat on his face running away from a murder. That would do it too.

Is Google Doomed?

One might begin to see the seeds of its decline here:
 iMore reports that Google may make four times the ad revenue off of their use in iOS than they do from their own Android platform. Apple wants to change that. Apple has already begun intermediating search queries though Siri, effectively cutting Google out of the valuable identity information associated with those searches. Next up is that other large data components on iOS, maps.
Google's revenue stream is based on advertising coupled with its unique monopoly on data-farming. In layman's terms, Google's software can extract information from you and sell that information to advertisers. Worse, it can do this on a micromanaged level: every click-thru you make from a Google page is one more data point, and eventually, the blizzard of data you provide presents a frighteningly accurate profile of who you are.
Most people come across a Google page at least once a day (I'd bet it's a lot more often than that) whether it's the search engine or a Gmail account or Google+. The only website that could possibly rival it for data-farming would be Facebook, but Facebook has all those stupid games and apps that really don't tell that much of a story (apart from the fact there are a frighteningly large number of would-be farmers out there.)
Most people don't opt out of this data dump by signing out of their Gmail or other Google accounts. It's plain laziness coupled with a "who cares?" attitude. Not unreasonably, I guess I should add. After all, for the most part, it's pretty benign tracking and the convenience of being presented with targeted advertisements is in some respects a plus: imagine if you turned on your television and instead of seeing reverse mortgage or penis pill commercials, you saw commercials about things you care about, like raising your kids or your favorite hobby?
So Google's livelihood is wholly dependent on being able to quickly amass data and quickly provide that data to its advertisers. The question becomes, then, what happens when its data becomes fuzzy or inaccurate?
The advertising becomes less effective. Click-thru wane. Views per sale spikes precipitously as the inverse, sales per views plummets. The personalization and tailoring of advertisements becomes more generic and less targeted. 
In other words, if you thought Google's mad scramble to get into mobile telephones was silly and ridiculous, guess again. They saw the writing on the wall: computing had to become less and less about the computer and more and more about on-the-go data access-- mobile computing. 
I suppose the writing on the wall for Google parallels that of MicroSoft's: brand extension into areas in which it had no expertise (the X-box, pen-tablet software, BOB) because it saw the demise of its core business as a real threat. Think about the last time anyone got excited about the next Windows software. System 7? Oh wait, that was Apple. Windows 95? Ever since, MicroSoft has wasted billions of dollars on software development (Steve Ballmer estimates that the development of Vista cost 200 man-years more than it should have).
The parallels are pretty remarkable, and seem to fit how American businesses operate over the past century: a spectacular rise to market dominance followed by a plateau where innovation is hard to come by and market forces begin to intrude on the business itself, and then a meteoric plummet to at least mediocrity if not outright obsolescence.
There's a lesson there for any business in this nation: you don't want to become so big that you can't be nimble.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Now This Could Be A Problem....


The Question Becomes...

Does she fall on her sword or sell her boss out?
My money's on the latter, since she's already radioactive in the industry. She'll do no one any favors by keeping her mouth shut.


The results of this poll sort of reflect my own feelings and experiences with Facebook:

According to a new AP-CNBC poll, 57 percent of Facebook users say they never click ads or other sponsored content when they use the site, with another 26 percent saying they hardly ever engage in such activity.

While the company makes money, in part, simply by displaying sponsored content, user clicks are a critical part of an advertiser’s calculus when gauging how effective those ads are and how much they’re willing to pay for them. In the first quarter, Facebook generated 82 percent of its $1.06 billion in revenue from advertising sales.  In the company’s online IPO pitch to retail investors, CFO David Ebersman says the company is working to make ads “more relevant, more social, and more engaging” as it looks to grow.

And while Facebook has been able to decrease its reliance on sponsored content (down from 98 percent of sales in 2009), the hopes of expanding the company’s e-commerce footprint also faces public resistance, the poll shows. A majority of participants (54 percent) said they wouldn’t feel safe using the platform for financial transactions like purchasing goods or services. Only 8 percent said they would feel extremely or very safe in doing so.

This does not bode well for the long-term future of the company as a public entity. For my part, I'll occasionally click ads to investigate a product more, but I can't remember the last time I've actually bought something off that first click-through.

And "liking pages" allows me to enter contests and keep informed on a particular entity or activity, but usually I find those items in my newsfeed as opposed to clicking over.

There may, in fact, be too much stuff in my newsfeed for me to keep tabs on everything I want to. I don't really need to read the latest Farmville news from friend A, yet the ability to opt out is more work sometimes than its worth. It ought to be an opt-in policy (e.g. if I sign up for Farmville, I ought to be asked if I want to see my friends' activity there, rather than have to go back to my settings to opt out.)

What you'll end up with is a fad: a huge, lasting fad, but a fad nonetheless, with little opportunity to expand beyond its current capacities or abilities. People will get bored.

I think Facebook has plateaued, although that plateau could last a long time. There are some 900 million users and seven billion people on the planet. There's room for growth there.

Zuckerberg probably waited a year, maybe two, too long to issue an IPO. He'll make a boatload of money but the funds to invest in some kind of expansion into some new territory were needed last year: Facebook could have, for instance, partnered with Google to develop a true competitor to the iPad and promised an huge user base with its audience. It would also have prevented Google+ from getting underway-- which has been underwhelming anyway-- and given Facebook a genuine e-commerce stream.

As it was, they took forever to come out with an app for the iPad which is basically just the Safari browser with the Facebook logo slapped on and a pretty shoddy app at that (again, you have to opt out of things like location services and chat.)

My suspicion is that Facebook is a one-trick pony, and that the IPO is a recognition that they've done about all they can with it, and it's time to cash in their chips.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Easy Pickings

Barack Obama taking on Mitt Romney's abysmal job creation record is a little like critiquing Stalin's abysmal human rights record:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is casting Mitt Romney as a greedy, job-killing corporate titan with little concern for the working class in a new, multi-pronged effort that seeks to undermine the central rationale for his Republican rival's candidacy: his business credentials.

At the center of the push — the president's most forceful attempt yet to sully Romney before the November election — is a biting new TV ad airing Monday that recounts through interviews with former workers the restructuring, and ultimate demise, of a Kansas City, Mo., steel mill under the Republican's private equity firm.

"They made as much money off of it as they could. And they closed it down," says Joe Soptic, a steelworker for 30 years. Jack Cobb, who also worked in the industry for three decades, adds: "It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us."

The ad, at the unusual length of 2 minutes, will run in five battleground states: Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado. The campaign declined to describe the size of the ad buy though it's in the middle of running a $25 million, month-long ad campaign in nine states. A longer version of the ad was being posted online Monday.

What President Obama can do that numbers don't is put a human face on the suffering that Romney and Bain Capital created. Following a decade of weak job growth since the dotcom bubble burst, Obama can neatly tie vulture capitalists to the job insecurity that plagues the United States working classes.

It's this simple: there once was a mutual loyalty betwixt an employer and an employee: it was for life, or at least as much of life as could possibly exist. Spending 25, 30, 40 or even 50 years working for the same company was not unusual, and neither were retirement parties where the worker's longevity was celebrated with a gold watch and a nice pension.

Factories didn't shut down and jobs didn't move to China. People belonged to unions which protected them from this kind of economic servitude, a job that was constantly under threat. People were fired only for cause and not because they were caught up in a market contraction.

In return, people put in a 40 hour week and if there was more work than could be done in that time, another hand was hired, because it was cheaper than paying double overtime.

Quality products were manufactured. We made things that were inexpensive but not cheap.

You could point to any number of things that contributed to the loss of these opportunities: automation, the expansion of the workforce over the decades, the exploitation of economic inefficiencies, or most likely, the combination of all three.

Worse, if Bain and Romney didn't do it, someone else would have, and in a heartbeat. Thing is, none of them is running for President, and if we want to send a message, if the electorate really wants to show its frustration at people who skim the cream of profits off a company before making it deal with less than 80% of its income in order to manage its future, this is that chance.

No one in America...well, very few of us...want to deny anyone the opportunity to make money, even to make as much money as they can. There are limits, however, something a radical capitalist would turn blue in the face trying to deny.

Taking capitalism to its extremes, we would find the most efficient organizations would make nothing and earn as pure a profit as they can.

We call those "investment banks." And in truth, this is where capitalism and democracy have their toughest battles, for democracy is about equal opportunity and the corporatocracy is about protecting opportunity for those who already have it.

And ain't that the story of America in a nutshell? From the Revolutionary War, where only wealthy land-owners had a say in governance, through the civil rights movement, which finally broke two hundred year old ceilings on opportunities, and to today, where the corporatocracy is reforming in bribery and graft-like political activism, America has paid lip service to equality in favor of restoring an aristocratic rule.

That has to change for this nation to have any chance to survive. If President Obama can make this case, that change is inevitable and that we must be that change we seek (and not just sloganeer it, as seemed to be the case in 2008) then we can start down the road of altering our futures for the better.

I do not envy those who are just leaving the cocoon of family and school and staking their claims to the world. You have a lifetime of hard work ahead of you, and if you've been smart, you've paid attention to the news and to events around you.

The one gift that President Obama may have given this nation that may be beyond measure was the activation of the political instincts of an entire generation of kids who might merely have grown into unintentionally ironic hipsters, poised merely to comment and not commence.