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Wednesday 29 January 2003

Wealth, Class, and Success

I have come across a discussion of why American blacks and whites of the same income levels do not succeed (go to college, get good grades, get good jobs, etc.) at the same rates.

Apparently a Yale sociologist has written a book in which he shows a correlation between parental wealth (i.e., household net worth) and achievement that does not seem to be affected by skin color.

Well, obviously. But I think that this analysis mistakes “wealth” for “class”, something that happens a lot in the United States. Your social class in America is determined almost entirely by your wealth, but it’s really much more subtle.

MTV Cribs is quite valuable for observing this. Cribs is a kind of MTV Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous where every week viewers are treated to tours of houses of movie stars, celebrity musicians, athletes, etc. Everyone on the show has a high income, and most of them have had that high income for long enough to accumulate a good deal of wealth. But the choices most of these people make as to how to spend their money — bling-bling lifestyle accessories, Rolls-Royces with gold wheels, gold-plated tableware, gold bathroom fixtures, swimming pools with giant lucite dollar signs in the middle (really), incredibly ugly ‘antiques’ covered with gold leaf, etc. — expose them as low-class, whatever their wealth. If you’ve never seen MTV Cribs, Graceland and, in fact, Elvis in general also illustrate the phenomenon. (Curiously, professional athletes seem to do much better, class-wise, than hip-hop stars, at least to judge from their houses.)

There are suggestions in the Yalie’s book (see his synopsis at the bottom of this page) for class-based affirmative-action policies, policies that would encourage “minority propety accumulation”.

The question is: does accumulation of property tend to raise one’s social class, or does one’s internalization of higher-class values result in behavior that results in the accumulation of property? My strong suspicion is that it’s the latter. What the lower class needs, if it’s to succeed, is some way of learning and assimilating, on a large scale, the values of the middle class.

This is a tricky proposition, to say the least. In the U.S., efforts to get poor people to adopt middle-class habits and values would almost certainly be denounced as racism, and an attempt to “destroy” minority communities. Most of the highly-visible poverty in this country is among African-Americans, and there is a certain type of very noisy activist who is ready to denounce any exhibition of middle-class values among a resident of the ghetto as Uncle-Tomism. If you follow the logic, it appears that the denouncers regard the authentic African-American lifestyle to be one of multigenerational poverty, ignorance, and petty crime — not what I think they intend to say.

In any case, this kind of thing tends to meet with resistance even without the racial bugaboo that stalks nearly everything in American society. In 1937, George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, wrote:

In some districts efforts are not being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money. When you hear of a thing like this you feel yourself torn both ways. I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right — I agree heartily. Yet all the same, it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow.

We must learn to either hold our noses and live in a society where the poor are given shopping-lessons, though, or accept that the mass of them are going to continue drinking tinned milk.

Posted by tino at 21:23 29.01.03
Tuesday 28 January 2003

Product Placement Quickie

Apropos of a couple of things I’ve written recently:

Miramax secured an unspecified annual cash consideration when it struck the corporate agreement with the Denver brewery early last year. And the pact grants Coors the right to nix Miramax’s showing rival beer brands in its movies.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the agreement, Miramax decided to digitally alter [“A View From the Top” - (trailer)] which had already begun shooting when the pact was struck.

From Variety via CNN.

Posted by tino at 17:35 28.01.03
Monday 27 January 2003

Teaching Timidity To Kids

I’ve had this Washington Post article hanging around for a while now, and I’m not sure what to do with it. (Look here for the article if the good people at the Post have taken it down.)

It’s headlined Teaching Timidity To Kids, and it’s about just that.

Lisa and Danny Stone live in the Charles County house where Danny grew up. They know all the other residents on the cul-de-sac. When 7-year-old Danielle wanted to sell cookie dough for her school door-to-door, Lisa Stone asked each neighbor to call her as Danielle left for the next house.

“Where I live, there’s no reason for that,” she admits. “If I went out on the front porch I could see her. But it made me feel safe. I needed to know she was someplace.”

The article, from early December, examines the trend of bubble-wrapped kids, and speculates on the origins and consequences of the practice. It suggests anxiety about terrorism as an explanation for why being a mama’s boy is the default state for kids these days, but I don’t think that has much to do with it.

The threat from terrorism, as diffuse as it is, is at least a real threat. The overparenting trend seems more rooted in free-floating anxiety over things like Internet predators, school bus accidents, high-fat diets, electrical-transmission-line “radiation”, the “bad influence” of television (naughty words on MTV have long been bleeped, but now they blur the speaker’s mouth, to avoid contaminating the minds of lip-readers), etc., etc. ad infinitum. Parents seem almost exclusively worried about things that are not actually risks.

My take is that this is just another consequence of the continuing disappearance of social roles in our society.

There’s good and bad to this role-less society, as there is to most other things. The good we think we understand: women are not limited to working as secretaries, teachers, or housewives; middle-aged people are not limited by social expectations to playing golf and bridge; black people are not limited to working as shoeshine boys or elevator operators.

Forty or fifty years ago, what you were supposed to do in a given situation was pretty clear. A man held doors open for a woman, and gave up his seat on the bus if necessary. Middle-class women cooked and cleaned, and didn’t worry about that rattle in the car; that was the man’s job.

This was, as the baby-boom generation pointed out, more than a little limiting. Failure to conform carried a great price, one that few people were willing to pay. As the baby boomers have come to define American culture, those old limiting roles have largely disappeared.

Unfortunately, the baby boomers failed to appreciate that there’s also something very liberating about inhabiting a clearly-defined role. The chief advantage is that, in knowing what’s expected of you, you know when you’ve done enough and can go to bed.

There is no accepted role for what a parent does these days. Fifty years ago, it was clear enough: feed, clothe, and house your kids; see to it that they go to school; make sure that that they know enough to stay out of serious trouble and to avoid serious accidents; support them, within reason, in things they want to do, and help them out when they have a problem they can’t solve themselves. If you did those things, you were a good parent.

Note that being a good parent fifty years ago has nothing to do with making sure your children are never injured, or disappointed, or sad or lonely or bored. The parent’s responsibility, broadly speaking, was to make sure the child didn’t get killed. Everything up to that point was largely the child’s own problem.

Did the children of fifty years ago — incidentally, those would be the very baby boomers who have thrown out all the roles — make mistakes? Did they ever get hurt? Of course they did. Undoubtedly some of them were even locked in trunks and left for dead, something that couldn’t happen today.

In making these mistakes, though, these kids learned things about the world, and about themselves. That is, after all, the primary purpose of childhood in our culture: to learn how to be an independent person, and to prepare you for participation in society. Today’s kids — most of them, anyway — don’t have that opportunity.

This actually has some scary implications for the future of our country. We seem to be raising a generation of people — a very large generation, at that, the largest in American history — who will, if they take their childhood lessons to heart, see danger everywhere and who will have an almost instinctual reverence for authority. These are not what you’d call characteristically American characteristics. Character matters, as the political opponents of Bill Clinton lately liked to remind us, but instead of raising kids with character, we’re raising kids who are characters, and pretty flat ones at that.

Posted by tino at 20:05 27.01.03
Friday 24 January 2003

Dangers of Product Placement

I recently watched Demolition Man on TV. Demolition Man was made in 1993 and set in something like 2032, with Sylvester Stallone playing John Savage, an unfrozen cop from the past (i.e. our present) chasing Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), an unfrozen bad guy ditto. The basic plot is that, in 1996, Savage captures super-bad-guy Phoenix, but he is believed to have caused the deaths of some 30 hostages in the process. Phoenix is frozen in the L.A. County cryojail (remember, the opening scenes of this 1993 movie are set in the exotic and high-tech world of three years into the future), and, because of the hostage thing, Savage is frozen, too. Oops.

Flash forward to 2032, when Phoenix escapes from prison while he’s temporarily unfrozen for a parole hearing. The future police are helpless, all violence (not to mention foul language, salt, meat, tobacco, etc.) having been banished from society by a “benevolent” dictator who Phoenix characterizes as an “Evil Mr. Rogers”. Sandra Bullock plays Lenina Huxley (!), the only female police officer of the future, who suggests unfreezing Savage, the legendary cop from the 20th century. This is done, and the chase is on — but the by-the-book future chief of police doesn’t like Savage’s maverick ways.

I assure you that, despite that dog’s breakfast of clichés masquerading as a plot, this is actually a movie worth watching. To begin with, the future female police uniform consists of a catsuit, boots, and a short leather jacket. And, as I’ve already pointed out, Sandra Bullock is the only future female police officer.

And, as if that isn’t enough, this is an pretty well-written movie. The future dystopia is consciously a very goofy one; it’s rare to see a movie that can laugh at itself without being wall-to-wall farce.

Screenwriters don’t get a lot of respect, generally. You never see a writer’s name on the marquee at the cinema, but if a movie is good, it comes from a good screenplay. A lot can be done to screw up a good screenplay, but very little can be done to salvage a movie based on a bad one. The usual Hollywood approach to a bad screenplay is to have about seventy rounds of re-writes, and then to throw a lot of special effects and marketing at the thing.

Demolition Man’s screenplay was rewritten by one Daniel Waters, who was responsible for both Heathers and Happy Campers (among others), movies that did not take themselves too seriously. The main arc of Demolition Man is standard action-movie stuff, but there’s a lot of cleverness woven in that shows Mr. Waters’ hand.

Another distinguishing feature of Demolition Man is that it was one of the first feature films to incorporate significant product placement. GM coughed up to have John Savage drive around in an antique 1970 Oldsmobile 442, and a number of GM concept cars make appearances on the streets.

The best product placement in the movie, though — possibly the best in any movie to date — involves Taco Bell. After apparently saving the life of the evil Mr. Rogers, Savage and Huxley are invited by Evil Mr. Rogers to a gala night of dinner and dancing at Taco Bell. Fish-out-of-water Savage quite understandably considers the choice of venue a bit odd, and says as much.

Lenina responds, “[…] You do not realize that Taco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars.” (As in so many visions of the future, contractions have been eliminated from the English language.)

Savage: “So?”

Lenina: “So now all restaurants are Taco Bells.”

It’s brilliant, and all the more so because Taco Bell had the courage to laugh at itself. Remember, this is a dystopian future; the fact that all restaurants are Taco Bells is part of the horror. Taco Bell not only allowed their image to be used this potentially risky way, but, if my memory is correct, they engaged in some serious cross-promotion with the film, using a clip from the movie in their TV ads. It’s a product placement that actually adds something to the movie, too, rather than just standing there as a monument to the producer’s greed.

Anyway, so as I was saying, I watched this movie on TV, on TBS. And — they cut the Taco Bell reference, and cut it clumsily. The dialog no longer even makes sense, with Lenina now saying something like “You do not realize that the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars.” There’s a verb missing in that dependent clause.

You can see for yourself what the TV version is like, and help me exercise the right of fair use in the process, by watching this little clip from the TBS broadcast:

You need Quicktime to make this work.
If you don’t like embedded movies, you can download it here.

It can’t be that “Taco Bell” is offensive — as, apparently, most words stronger than “hell” are (another good joke was destroyed as a result of the muting of foul language; machines on the walls in the future fine you “one credit” for using profanity — which of course was incomprehensible since all the profanity was dubbed out of the broadcast cut). References to Taco Bell were left on the screen:


Here, Sandra Bullock and Otho can be seen watching the action through a glass door clearly marked “Taco Bell”.


And here Stallone examines a bottle of future “food” dropped by bandits after having made a raid on the Taco Bell.

My guess is that there’s one and only one broadcast cut of the movie, and it’s got the Taco Bell line cut out so you can sell advertising to, say, McDonald’s if you like. (As if happens, the only fast-food sponsor of the broadcast I saw was Long John Silver’s, which is owned by Yum! Brands, also the parent company of Taco Bell.) The visual “Taco Bells” are left in because it just would have been too much trouble to remove them — the Taco Bell bottle is important to the plot, so cutting the entire scene wouldn’t be possible.

(Though, with the fancy production facilities available to Hollywood, the movie in its original form had all references to “Taco Bell” changed to “Pizza Hut” — also a Yum! property — for distribution in countries without Taco Bells. How they handled Savage’s reference to “Mexican food”, I don’t know.)

Being able to sell ad time to a rival company is a reasonable concern, I suppose, but it means that product placement in movies will continue to tend toward jarring, randomly-inserted product shots, rather than the much more effective (and lucrative) integration of products into the stories: you can cut those out later if need be. But limiting product placement to only the most easily-excised — and thus, by definition, non-story-integral roles — means that it won’t work as a serious revenue-generator.

Precisely who is served by cutting product placement — some product placement, anyway, the clever stuff; all the boring crap is left in, of course — from TV broadcasts of movies is unclear. The producers lose, because their placement is worth less. The advertisers (i.e. product-placers) lose, because their name isn’t in front of the public. And the viewers lose by seeing movies cut even further to ribbons than is already the norm. I suppose the TV companies win by not giving Taco Bell any free exposure on their networks.

Unfortunately, in the process they are diminishing the value of product placement as an advertising strategy overall; they may regret this when the day comes that the TV companies themselves want to make money from product placement.

Posted by tino at 20:07 24.01.03
Thursday 23 January 2003

Toxic Torts and Housing

I’ve written before about how governmental policy contributes to homelessness. An article in City Journal points out something that’s going to result in more homelessness in the future:

During the 1980s, when middle-income condo developments sprang up across the Sunbelt, some were jerry-built, and owners and condo associations—properly—sued the contractors. Trial lawyers quickly discovered that suits against multi-unit complexes could be gold mines, since there were so many potential litigants in each case. By the mid-nineties, trial lawyers were actively soliciting condo associations across the country, offering to represent them in suits against builders on flimsy, or even nonexistent, evidence of faulty construction. Judges again made things worse, inventing a notion called “stacked liability,” which meant that not merely the builder’s current insurer but every company that had ever insured him was liable for claims concerning the project.

As a result

Predictably, insurers are fleeing the market or are ratcheting up their rates so high that builders can no longer afford to construct multi-unit housing. For example, one of California’s biggest builders, Barnett America, no longer builds the affordable, multi-unit housing that it specialized in for 20 years. Now it erects pricey single-family homes instead.

The article is about toxic torts in general, not the housing industry, but it’s all interesting.

Posted by tino at 18:36 23.01.03

Health Groups Lobby Against Tobacco Ban

The North Dakota legislature recently voted down a proposal to impose total tobacco prohibition in the state. Under the defeated bill’s provisions, sales of tobacco would have been punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine; use of tobacco by 30 days in jail and $1,000.

Most anti-tobacco legislation is aimed at making tobacco more expensive through punitive taxation, or more difficult by restricting where it can be sold, or more inconvenient by restricting where it can be used. This bill, though, would have put you at risk of jail if you lit up your pipe in your house in the middle of your 5,000 acre ranch (of which there are more than a few in North Dakota). “Medical costs” and “lost productivity” were, of course, the justification:

Before the bill went to a vote on the floor, [Grand Forks Republican Rep. Mike] Grosz told his fellow representatives that tobacco costs the state close to 1,000 lives every year and $351 million in medical and productivity costs.

According to the CDC (warning: PDF), in 1995, about 3,900 people died in North Dakota.

My guess is that Rep. Grosz’s “close to 1,000” deaths actually means “930 deaths”, taken by multiplying the number of annual deaths by 24%, the CDC’s figure for what portion of the North Dakota population smokes. If you exclude accidents, HIV, homicide, etc., 24% of the annual deaths is 864, which is still closer to 1000 than to zero.

The fact that more than 864 — or 930 — people die a year in North Dakota seems to indicate that not smoking is not a recipe for immortality, though. My guess — and remember, I’m not a physician or even a North Dakota state representative — my guess is that those people would still die, even under the benevolent hand of Rep. Grosz. But never mind.

The interesting thing are the circumstances of the bill’s failure:

[Rep. Wes] Belter [R-Leonard, chairman of the Finance and Taxation Committee] told the House that committee members were frustrated last week with the testimony from anti-tobacco groups that testified against the tobacco ban, including the North Dakota Medical Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, North Dakota Public Health Association and North Dakota Nurses Association.

What?! That’s like the WCTU endorsing Johnnie Walker. These groups are always in favor of raising taxes on tobacco and of banning smoking in public places. But here we have the American Lung Association lobbying against a bill to ban the use of tobacco? Why?

There’s no evidence banning tobacco would prevent and reduce tobacco use because no such approach has been implemented, the groups argued.

Ahhhh. Now we see. These groups are skeptical that banning tobacco would reduce its use. Some of these same groups are vocally opposed to lifting the ban on things like marijuana, on the basis that such action would increase use of those drugs. Apparently there’s no reason to believe that the same thing would work in reverse, though, and nobody, especially anti-tobacco groups, would want the government to take action based on incomplete or faulty information. But there’s more:

The ban also could take away certain funding for these groups for tobacco control programs.

Ah. Well. So the position of the American Lung Association et al. is roughly this: we should not ban tobacco because that would reduce funding for tobacco control programs. It seems to me, though, that banning the sale and use of tobacco is a tobacco-control program. It’s just not a tobacco-control program that involves various “public health” groups receiving funding from the government.

It would be worth remembering this the next time you see any of these groups arguing for higher taxes on tobacco in order to “discourage” tobacco use and produce positive “health” results.

Posted by tino at 13:05 23.01.03
Wednesday 22 January 2003

New York City Is Not Invincible

If this is actually true, Bloomberg has indeed gone off the deep end. According to Matt Drudge, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg was watching the live HBO broadcast of a Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden, when he saw — horrors! — members of the band smoking on stage. First Altamont, now this! What, indeed, is rock and roll coming to?

The Mayor sent police to the Garden to issue summonses to Keith Richards and Ron Wood; but apparently the cops elected to watch the show before issuing their citations — a decision that probably avoided a riot, actually — and since the band left in a hurry after the show, no summonses were actually issued.

Bloomberg seems to believe that New York is immune to market forces, forces he should be familiar with from his previous career. Not satisfied with what he’s done to boost the bar and restaurant business in Hoboken, he’s now determined to see to it that the Rolling Stones don’t play in the city any more.

New York has a lot going for it, but the very reason that people are willing to pay the high cost, both financial and personal, of living in the city is that it allows for more possibilities than most other places. The city is a product, like any other: it offers a certain value at a certain price. Raising the price — the commercial property tax was recently hiked 18% — while lowering the value offered shows either an incredible faith in the attractive power of New York City, or, as I think more likely, an incredible amount or hubris and contempt for the realities of commerce. People and companies have fled the city before, most famously in the 1970s. I do not understand what makes Bloomberg think that it will not happen again if the place is made sufficiently inhospitable.

Posted by tino at 23:34 22.01.03


I’m watching George Bush on TV, giving a speech. He says: “In my judgement, in my considered judgement, there is a real risk to our friends and allies in Iraq.”


What the hell are these people applauding? They’re an invited audience, so we can be certain they’re not from the Workers World Party and happy that there’s a risk to the friends and allies of the hegemon USA. I have to wonder whether they’re actually listening to what the guy is saying.

Posted by tino at 22:44 22.01.03

Dangers of Translation

Jacques Chirac is quoted by CNN today as saying “As far as we’re concerned, war always means failure,” which is an interesting point of view.

Certainly, when international relations becomes a matter of people from one country shooting guns at people from another country, something has gone wrong. You might say that was means a failure of diplomacy, but saying that “war always means failure” is just fatuous.

Chirac was mis-translated, though. What he actually said was “La guerre est toujours un constat d’échec”, which means, literally, that war is always an establishment or acknowledgement of failure.

So Chirac said not “war always means failure”, but “war always means an admission of failure.” This is a much less idiotic statement than the CNN translation because, yes, going to war is an admission that what you’ve done to avoid war has failed.

Posted by tino at 22:43 22.01.03
Tuesday 21 January 2003

AOL Time Warner, Part II

An article in Sunday’s New York Times about AOL Time Warner contains an interesting passage:

Although America Online is still profitable and its margins are better than the parent company’s music and movie divisions, they are rapidly diminishing. America Online’s customers are increasingly shifting to high-speed Internet access, an area in which AOL faces much lower margins and much tougher competition.

So this is the “troubled” division? Monday’s New York Times — this is, remember, the newspaper that on Sunday pointed out that AOL is more profitable than two of AOLTW’s other flagship businesses — says “Stephen M. Case, the chairman who was widely blamed for many of the problems at the company’s America Online unit, finally resigned.”

What problems? That its revenues and margins have been falling in the early stages of a deflationary depression? That it’s going to have to change its business to continue to make money, unlike every other business in the world, which can go on making money forever without changing anything? Or that it wasn’t invented at Time Warner?

Actually, any of those is possible. Everyone wants to be seen to be outperforming the economy generally, and most people seem to be in serious denial about the condition of the economy. Time Warner, and its cohorts in the media businesses, are stubbornly focussed on not changing any of their business models to accomodate the reality of changing technology. And nearly all companies — except the most successful — have a strong bias again things Not Invented Here. The AOL - Time Warner merger has also resulted in remarkable bitterness among the Time Warner people at the failure of AOL to be the goose that laid the golden egg.

But the story on Sunday is one of the very, very few places you’ll be able to spot this incongruity in the major media. Almost all of the big-media accounts of the AOL Time Warner debacle place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Steve Case, and to portray him as an idiot. The recent trend has been to play up the fact that he worked for Pizza Hut in the 1980s:

The 44-year-old Mr. Case, a former Pizza Hut manager who brought e-mail and Web browsing to the heartland, plans to remain on the AOL Time Warner board.

To begin with, the Times is clearly attempting to portray Case as having worn a paper hat and made pizzas. In reality, he was in a management role with the Pizza Hut company — information that’s readily available in all sort of places. According to legend, he’s responsible for Pizza Hut offering pineapple as a topping.

Whatever he did at Pizza, Hut, what the hell does this matter? It doesn’t. But it makes Steve Case look like someone who stumbled into his situation through pure luck, rather than through ability — he’s just a pizza maker! By extension, it makes AOL look like a company that was just in the right place at the right time, rather than a company in the right place at the right time that managed to come to entirely dominate its industry by doing things differently.

What we’re seeing is a full-court media-industry press on a non-media company that tried to elbow its way in. And it seems that the media, normally an incredibly introspective industry, either can’t see this, or doesn’t want to.

Posted by tino at 22:20 21.01.03
Monday 20 January 2003

Air Rage, From The Other Direction, Part II

The Wall Street Journal had a story recently about “air rage” on the part of airline staff. (Link requires paid subscription. Someone has re-posted it here and here.) This echoes some observations made here a few months ago. The Journal has some specific examples:

How bad is it? In one widely reported case, an American pilot went so far as to throw a balky steward off the plane. According to an airline spokesman, the attendant started “exhibiting rude behavior” so badly the pilot had to make an emergency stop in Dallas. (Both the airline and the flight attendants’ union declined to comment further.) In another case, Josh Holdeman says he couldn’t believe it when a stewardess turned him down for pretzels — and told him to watch his waistline. “I’m still furious,” says the New York art expert, adding he works out three times a week. (The airline, which happened to be American, says his experience was “very unfortunate.”)

The Journal article carries a sidebar that’s not included in the re-posted versions, headed ‘What’s an Airline to Do?’ Here are some of the suggestions, without the Journal’s commentary:

  • Toss the food carts

  • Better seat, bigger price

  • Less booze

So, to correct this problem of airline employees abusing passengers, airlines should provide generally less service while at the same time raising their prices.

Hey, weren’t we told that the cause of passenger air rage was that fares were so low that yobs were flying more, and that people were drinking too much? The airlines are so anxious to raise prices and lower the standard of service that they come up with that response no matter what the problem is.

Does no one notice that Southwest, with its cheap fares, booze the same price as all other airlines, and, most importantly, non-union, non-career cabin crews doesn’t have a big air-rage problem?

Posted by tino at 18:59 20.01.03

Expect More Of This

Last night at the Golden Globe awards, the absurdly lovely and reasonably talented Renée Zellweger won the award for best actress. I didn’t watch the show — I wasn’t even aware it was on — but this morning CNN et al. were running the highlight reel. Here’s Ms. Zellweger, after winning her award:


Note that it takes both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Gere to keep her from pulling that Kalashnikov from her cleavage and taking out everyone in the auditorium. Who’d have ever guessed that her name was really Renée Al-Zellweger?

Just kidding. In the picture, she’s really overcome with emotion, so beside herself with glee and honor at having won a Golden Globe, that it’s all she can do to remain vertical.

She’s this overcome with emotion despite the facts that:

  1. She’s an accomplished and well-paid actress in constant demand whose celebrity and talent are not in doubt;

  2. The Golden Globe is a B-list prize;

  3. She already won a Golden Globe, also for best actress, in 2001.

To put it bluntly, this exhibition is a sham. It pains me to complain about Renée Zellweger this way, because she’s probably my favorite actress. I’d go see a movie of hers even if it were nothing but two hours of her standing there and staring blankly out from the screen. Hell, I’d see it especially if it were two hours of her staring out from the screen. I’m not ordinarily a fawning fanboy type, but there’s something about that girl that just makes me shiver all over.

Let’s look at a still of the performance for which she won the award, just for fun:


Hell, yeah. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, Ms. Z’s little performance when she won the award. I noticed that the highlight reel also featured Jennifer Aniston winning an award for Friends, and also reacting as if her long-lost childhood puppy had suddenly been found, was still a puppy, and had in the intervening years managed to accumulate a fortune of several billion dollars, which he was now presenting to her.

Ms. Anniston makes $1 million a week, starring in one of the most popular shows on TV, and she’s been in a number of successful movies. Her worth is already well-validated. Winning a Golden Globe for her, like for Renée Zellweger, may be an honor but it is not such an unexpected one that you’d expect her to be at risk of fainting.

All of this is, I think, a result of Halle Berry’s performance at last year’s Academy Awards. Ms. Berry, you will recall, won the best actress award for her performance in Monster’s Ball (and won it undeservedly, because Renée Zellweger was nominated for Bridget Jones’ Diary), whereupon she gasped and sobbed on the stage for several minutes:


Berry was the first “African-American” to ever win the award for best actress, and, according to her speech (delivered around the sobs), this was the reason for her emotion.

Fine. But Ms. Berry recieved an enormous amount of publicity — at least as much for her reaction as for her actual accomplishment — and her sobbing was on TV for days afterward.

Since Hollywood is all about publicity and image, there is no doubt in my mind that the various image consultants to the stars have advised them — the female stars at least; you didn’t see Jack Nicholson getting weak in the knees last night, it wouldn’t have the same effect — that apparently America Likes Emotion and the more emotion, the better.

I presume the theory is that these glittering celebrities will appear to be more human, more ordinary to the audience if they react to winning a Golden Globe in about the same way I would react. (I, not being an actor, would be taken quite unawares, I think it’s safe to say.) The problem with this is that the whole point of celebrities is that they’re not like ordinary people. Nobody looks that good, to begin with, without the personal attention of fashion designers, makeup artists, hairstylists, poise coaches, etc. (though I am certain that Ms. Zellweger rolls out of bed looking that good.) What the rabble like about these people is that they’re so different from the ordinary.

And further, when these people at the very top of their game seem to overwhelmed at winning one of these awards, it doesn’t make them appear grateful so much as it makes them look insecure. Now, actors are famously insecure, but since they are, after all, actors and all, they might try to hide it, at least in public. The nominations for these prizes are announced in advance, and when these people go to the awards ceremony, they know that they’re one of five people in contention. You know that you’re one of the best people, according to the awards’ criteria, at what you do. Pretending that you’re taken totally unawares when the award is actually made, then, just makes you look like you have no confidence whatever in your abilities.

The Golden Globes are, in more that one way, a rehearsal for the Academy Awards. I shudder to think what we’ll be treated to then.

Posted by tino at 13:08 20.01.03
Friday 17 January 2003

Television ‘Branding’ and The Future

Back in the 1980s, I remember occasionally seeing excerpts from foreign TV on the American TV news programs. These excerpts were almost always flickery as hell, because they were produced by someone in Tehran pointing an American TV camera at a television set, and hitting ‘record’. The United States uses electrical power at 60 Hz — the current alternates sixty times a second, which is why it’s called ‘alternating current’. Most of the rest of the world — Japan is the notable exception — uses alternating current at 50 Hz, which means it alternates fifty times a second. There’s probably an interesting story behind this difference, but I don’t know what it is. Undoubtedly the American engineers thought that it was perfectly reasonably to divide a second, itself 1/60 of a minute, which is 1/60 of an hour, by sixty again. The European engineers who designed the electrical system over there, on the other hand, were steeped in the metric system, and opted for fifty. (Update 20 January: I have been informed that this is not the case, that 60Hz was originally selected by Tesla for obvious reasons, and that 50Hz was selected because it’s the minimum frequency at which incandescent light bulbs will work well. Later, GE & Westinghouse in the U.S. standardized on 60Hz possibly to preclude competition from European manufacturers. In any case, this is a very murky topic, and only very tangentially related to the matter at hand.)

Anyway, the result of this is that televisions in the United States (and Japan, and Canada, and a few other places) show 30 frames of video per second (60 divided by 2), while TVs in most of the world show 25 frames per second (50 divided by 2). (In the early days of TV, it was simpler to just use the AC signal as a kind of clock, I suppose, rather than handling all that inside the TV. These days, it doesn’t matter since TVs contain their own clocks; I think this is why you no longer have to adjust the vertical hold occasionally.)

It’s difficult to impossible to see the difference in framerates in person, but if you point an American video camera at a foreign TV set, you see a lot of flicker, since the American camera is trying to record 20% more data than the TV is trying to provide. That 20% shows up as severe flicker in the image.

None of that has anything to do with anything, though. The other thing that struck me about their foreign TV broadcasts, and the thing that’s relevant to this discussion, was that they almost always carried some kind of logo on the screen, letting you know what channel you were watching. Maybe in some countries, the logo meant that the broadcast had been approved by the Generalissimo, but generally it incorporated a number, and I think it’s safe to assume that this was a little reminder of which of the two state-owned TV channels you were watching. The practice always seemed strange to me.

It’s no longer strange and exotic to Americans these days; nearly all of our TV now carries some kind of logo in the corner. News programming is pushing the envelope here, with as much as 25% of the screen devoted to their corporate logo, the crawl, the slug for whatever they’re talking about now (‘Showdown With Saddam’ or ‘North Korea Nukes’ or ‘Missing Child 3000 Miles Away From You’ or, increasingly, ‘Breaking News’ to mark their regular on-the-hour recaps), etc., etc.

TV people maintain that these logos — called ‘dogs’ or ‘bugs’ in the jargon — are necesasry to differentiate their channels from others, particularly as people begin to watch more and more of their TV through mediated means, like with a TiVo.

And there’s the problem. TiVo as it exists now threatens the very existence of TV networks, besides screwing up their business model.

NBC’s Thursday night schedule is a good example of how this works. At 8:00 p.m. this Thursday, NBC shows Friends, and at 10:00 p.m. it shows ER. NBC doesn’t make any money on Friends and ER; they’re very popular shows, so the producers can charge NBC a fortune for the privilege of showing them. It’s a loss leader, if you will. NBC makes its money between 8:30 and 10:00 p.m., when it shows Scrubs, Will & Grace, and Good Morning, Miami. The hope is that viewers who watch Friends and ER will remain parked in front of the TV for the 90 minutes in between, driving up the ratings (and thus the ad price) of the three relatively inexpensive shows in between.

This is how all TV networks work; the very popular shows are loss leaders, and they’re surrounded by inexpensive crap whose ad price can be inflated out of all relation to the quality of the programs by people who are tuned in to watch the expensive show. There’s nothing dishonorable or sneaky about this; it’s how NBC can afford to show Friends without it being a 10-minute program with 20 minutes of ads.

And it’s not going to work any more.

The TV networks fretted when remote controls became commonplace, because viewers were then more likely to not watch ads. Now, with things like TiVo, they’re going to miss out even on the ability to use ‘loss leader’ shows to boost their ratings. To combat this, they’re cutting costs and rolling out all kinds of zany schemes that will do nothing but further alienate viewers.

The problem is this: do you care what network a particular show is on? Does something being on, say, NBC, make it better than if the exact same program is on The Discovery Channel, assuming you get both channels? No.

And as more and more people use TiVos and TiVo-like devices, it’s going to matter less and less what network carries a given program, and even whether a program is on the same network from week to week.

This is likely to be a boon for the people who make TV programs — there are going to be more opportunities to get hold of a (relatively) large audience — but it’s going to be murder for the TV networks, which are going to be relegated to the status of mere conduits.

In the meantime, I expect a period of pain, as the current regime fights to remain in existence. We’ll see a lot of hostility toward viewers, I predict, as programmers try almost anything in an attempt to force viewers to watch ads for products they’re not even slightly interested in.

Eventually, though, I think that the experience of watching TV won’t change all that much from what it is today in TiVo-equipped households. You’ll tell the machine what you want to watch, and you’ll watch it when you like. The programs will be interrupted with commercial messages periodically, but they’ll actually be advertisements for things that might interest you, instead of being for Viagra, adult diapers, and Billy Mays products, as all ads on TV seem to be today. In this way will the advertisers get you to pay attention.

The viewers win, the advertisers win, the producers of TV shows win. Everybody wins, except the bloated bureaucracy currently running TV broadcasters (including cable TV channels). These organizations will still have a role to play in the future, but it’ll be much diminished from what it is today.

Posted by tino at 13:23 17.01.03
Thursday 16 January 2003

Drunkenness and The Law

January 7, Washington Post, on the topic of the Fairfax County, VA police arresting people for being intoxicated in public with fairly flimsy probable cause:

Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the operation was a tool to reduce drunken driving and would be evaluated before it is repeated.

The same woman, January 16, also in the Washington Post, speaking about the same issue:

Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said she had “serious concerns” about a tactic that has won little community support. Hanley said the sting was unlikely to be repeated.

The police, of course, are unrepentant:

Asked where one could get drunk, [Police Chief J. Thomas Manger] replied, “At home. Or at someone else’s home, and stay there till you’re not drunk.”

So all of that stuff about designated drivers that the police and MADD & Co. have been telling us for years? Never mind. They were mistaken. (Which begs the question: why should we give a damn what these clowns tell us now?)

Instead, we’re being told to drink at home, at least until they decide to ban that. We all know that sitting around drinking at home is healthy behavior.

Anything as long as our delicate sensibilities are not disturbed by what the Virginia ABC gives as telltale signs of the drunk:

  • Difficulty in lighting a cigarette

  • Person is overly loud or friendly

  • Person is overly quiet and subdued

Because we wouldn’t want people to be too friendly, or too loud or too quiet. Given the recent jihad against smoking, though, one would think that “difficulty in lighting a cigarette” would be cited by the Surgeon General as a beneficial effect of drunkenness.

But, in Virginia, there are no beneficial effects of drunkenness, except for the incredible pile of money the state collects from taxing beer and wine, and from selling hard liquor itself. (In Virginia, all hard liquor must be purchased from state liquor stores or from distributors who must purchase their stocks from the state. In fiscal year 2002, the state raked in over $189 million in revenue, invluding over $46 million in profits from its liquor-sales operation. Almost 4% of the state’s revenue comes from taxes on and sales of alcoholic beverages.)

Posted by tino at 12:02 16.01.03
Wednesday 15 January 2003

These Kids Today Redux

Yesterday, I wrote with skepticism about an epidemic of “violence” in elementary schools. My general skepticism about the problem is undimmed, but an article in City Journal shows another facet of the problem. The author, Joshua Kaplowitz, tells of his experiences as a Teach For America teacher at an elementary school in Washington, D.C.

To start with, from all that I could see, [the principal] seemed mostly to stay in her office, instead of mingling with students and observing classes, most of which were up at least one flight of stairs, perhaps a disincentive for so heavy a woman. Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment. The threat of sending a student to the office was thus rendered toothless.

Worse, Ms. Savoy [the principal] effectively undermined my classroom-management efforts. She forbade me from sending students to other teachers—the one tactic that had any noticeable effect. Exiling my four worst students had produced a vast improvement in the conduct of the remainder of my class. But Ms. Savoy was adamant, insisting that the school district required me to teach all my children, all the time, in the “least restrictive” environment. This was just the first instance of Ms. Savoy blocking me with a litany of D.C. Public Schools regulations, as she regularly frustrated my colleagues on disciplinary issues.

It seems like there might be absurdly high expectations for middle-class kids, and absurdly low ones for lower-class kids. Most of the educational policies you hear about in the suburbs involve building the most restrictive environment possible.

Posted by tino at 18:54 15.01.03
Tuesday 14 January 2003

These Kids Today

If you believe the news, today’s kids just keep getting violenter and violenter, and at younger ages. According to this article in USA Today:

  • In Philadelphia, the first part of this school year brought the suspensions of 22 kindergartners.

  • Minneapolis schools have suspended more than 500 kindergartners over the past two school years for fighting, indecent exposure and “persistent lack of co-operation,” among other offenses. […]

  • In Massachusetts, the percentage of suspended students in prekindergarten through third grade more than doubled between 1995 and 2000 […]

  • In 2001-2002, Greenville, S.C., schools suspended 132 first-graders, 75 kindergartners and two preschoolers.

This rise in “violence” isn’t because of zero-tolerance policies that don’t differentiate between a child who’s a pain in the ass and one who’s truly dangerous, though. Oh, no.

Educators blame everything from rising rates of mild disabilities to violent video games to a bad economy.

Richard Barbacane, who chairs disciplinary hearings for the Lancaster, Pa., school district, says more children are arriving at school from stressed, single-parent homes. He also suspects medical problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Children now are surviving pregnancies and births that 10 years ago they weren’t, and they’re coming to school with minimal brain dysfunction and growing needs,” he says. “We’re just now seeing these children in our schools.”

It’s because of everything but the schools, in other words. The kids are braaaaiinnnnn daaaaamaged, like the crack babies were supposed to be. There’s nothing the schools can possibly do except expel them, because the schools function perfectly. If only it weren’t for these damned kids!

When I was in school, it felt like a prison to me, with nonsensical rules, hypocritical power figures, and a seeming total lack of concern for the students and for education. From what I can tell from where I sit today, it’s far worse now. Combine this stultifying atmosphere with a drive to identify, quantify, record and punish anything a student does wrong, and it’s no wonder that school “violence” is on the rise.

Those truly interested in reducing the level of “violence” in schools would do well to notice the psychological violence against students that seems to underly most of American public education these days.

Posted by tino at 14:09 14.01.03
Monday 13 January 2003

AOL Time Warner

Yesterday, Steve Case announced his resignation, effective in May, as chairman of AOL Time Warner. This closely follows the broadcast on CNBC of a documentary called “The Big Heist”, about the AOL/Time-Warner merger. CNBC’s take on things can be inferred from the title of the film. (And if you can’t, you will notice, if you follow that link, that CNBC is in bed with MSN, AOL’s biggest competitor.)

The merger has been a failure, to be sure. But I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom that the cause of the failure is the poor performance of the AOL unit. I’d say that what we’re witnessing is a victory, on an Atlas Shrugged scale, of Time Warner people who are afraid of change, over Steve Case & Co. and the future.

Remember, Time Warner is a company whose basic businesses are under attack from all sides, according it its own executives and lobbyists. TV viewers are committing “theft” when they don’t watch commercials. The threat to the music industry from piracy is so dire that government aid is needed to prevent a total collapse, and movies are expected to soon be in the same boat. “Harry Potter” fan websites must be some sort of threat, too, because Warners spends time and money trying to shut them down.

Yet it’s the AOL online unit, we’re told, that’s dragging down the company.

At the time of the merger, I’d been predicting AOL’s doom for years. In 1995, I was firmly of the opinion that proprietary online services like AOL – there were still several others in business, in 1995 – would be killed off in short order by open-standards-based systems like internetMCI. It just seemed inevitable: internetMCI and similar ventures had the potential to offer everything AOL offered, only instead offering it through a proprietary interface, you’d offer it through web pages. You get the bonus of not having to maintain a huge custom-built system, and you can throw in the wonders of the Internet for free (in 1995, AOL had just barely dipped its toes into the Internet water, making access to non-AOL content very painful for AOL subscribers).

As it happens, I was right, except for the timing. I thought that we’d have seen the last of AOL – then a small operation behind a Cadillac dealer in Tyson’s Corner – by 1997. I now think 2004 is likely.

What I predicted has largely come to pass, except that there’s really no role at all for the online service – these days, the ISP – to play in providing content. (I am afraid that I use the word ‘content’ a lot here, sorry. Deal with it.) The online banking, the online news, the online shopping is all provided directly by the banks, news organizations, and merchants themselves. The ISP is just a conduit. A lot of ISPs try to offer some kind of ‘portal’ at the same time they’re providing the conduit, but none of them are good at it.

AOL has, at various times, prospered because it offered something that people wanted. What this something was has changed over the years.

In the early days, AOL offered a much more user-friendly experience than the competing online services. While on CompuServe, to get to a specific content area, you’d type

Go mxlfxj

(or go whatever-you’re-interested-in), and be transported there, after looking at a message that said

Request recorded, one moment please

For a while at $6 an hour. On AOL, the same process involved clicking with your mouse on an icon, and moments later being presented with a different easy-to-understand graphic page. This was big stuff in 1990.

Eventually, CompuServe cobbled together a graphical interface, and more people started getting on the web, and AOL’s pretty graphics were no longer so special. This wasn’t a problem, though, because AOL had a large stable of content providers as partners.

Back then – I’m thinking of the early-to-mid nineties – AOL charged by the hour, and if you provided content for the service, AOL would cut you in on the take from time users spent reading your stuff. It’s easy to forget this now, but in the early days of the web, it was damned hard to find certain classes of information. The web then consisted mainly of home pages of engineers, and corporate sites for a few forward-thinking computer companies. If you look at the registration dates for the domain names for certain companies, you’ll see how little really was out there in the early days:

nytimes.com:\tJanuary 1994

wsj.com:\t\tMay 1994

espn.com:\t\tOctober 1994

yahoo.com:\tJanuary 1995

aol.com:\t\tJune 1995

washingtonpost.com:\tNovember 1995

Those dates are just the dates for the registration of the domains, of course; they shouldn’t be taken to mean that ESPN, for example, started offering online services in October, 1994. They definitely didn’t start offering them before October, 1994, though.

To compete against all this exclusive content that AOL was offering, most ISPs then, as now, offered all-you-can-eat pricing. This was a big change: up until then, most online services were pretty expensive, with charges ranging from $6 an hour for AOL and CompuServe to $12 and more for things like Dow Jones News/Retrieval. CompuServe even charged you more if you were using a faster modem, and more yet if you used the service during ‘peak’ hours in the daytime.

Eventually AOL had to meet the pricing challenge from the ISPs; they moved to a flat-rate model in December 1996. Charging users a flat rate per month meant that it was no longer possible to share hourly revenue with content partners, and those relationships went down the drain.

Making matters worse, part of AOL’s strategy for making up revenue lost by moving to flat-rate pricing was to charge content providers for the privilege of having their stuff on AOL. It’s as if your employer sent around a memo telling your salary was being reduced to zero, and that if you wanted to continue working there next month, you’d be expected to pony up a few grand.

It didn’t take long for the content partners to leave. Since AOL users by that time had some rudimentary web access, and since you’d have to pay to stay on AOL, it suddenly was more attractive to build your own website. If you were going to spend the money, you could spend it this way, have greater control, and be accessible to more people.

This is where AOL’s decline began. Flat-rate pricing led to greatly increased use, which led to busy signals and class-action lawsuits. By April of 1997, AOL was in the position of having to spend millions of dollars beefing up its network and apologizing to customers on television.

Subscriber numbers kept rising – though whether AOL’s subscriber figures were ever accurate is open to debate – as people continued to take advantage of what was now AOL’s competitive advantage: its dialup network.

Nationwide unlimited-use dialup service from a ‘real’ ISP like UUnet or MCI was very expensive. For $20 a month, you could get effectively the same thing from AOL.

Trouble was, people who paid their $20 a month and then used the Internet and not the AOL service – and were thus not exposed to AOL’s copious advertising – weren’t very valuable to AOL. People who did use the service weren’t happy that their experience was now more ads than actual useful content. AOL started looking around for a way to replace the content they’d lost by moving to flat-rate pricing, and by the increasing prevalence of consumer broadband Internet access, which made AOL’s dialup network less valuable.

After a few years, they’d found the big steaming pile o’ content they’d been looking for in Time Warner. Thousands of songs, hundreds of Bugs Bunny cartoons, hundreds of movies, books, TV shows, magazines, etc., etc., etc. Time Warner was and is one of the world’s great collections of content, and AOL bought it.

Or was it the other way around? To read the news coverage surrounding Steve Case’s resignation, you’d think that he was a huckster who managed to sell Time Warner a pig in a poke, and that now that Time Warner has managed to rid itself of this idiot, the company will be free to go along with its plans for world domination – unless the boat-anchor that is AOL (the hated, despised, horrible money-losing AOL) drags it down first.

That’s not the case at all, of course; Steve Case, as chairman of AOL, bought Time Warner because its back catalogue, so to speak, was just what AOL needed. AOL then failed to take control of Time Warner, and the Time Warner people have spent the last few years pissing in the bathwater.

Case likely isn’t blameless in all this; he did, after all, allow Time Warner to destroy the value of the merged companies. But the proximate cause of AOL Time Warner’s woes is not in Virginia, it’s in New York.

Let’s look at exactly what AOL Time Warner is. It consists of, as I’ve said, an incredibly rich collection of all kinds of entertaining and informative content; the apparatus for generating more entertaining and informative content; several different distribution channels for this content; a beefy IP transit network; software development divisions that produce web browsers, media players, and communications programs; a large cable-television network; one of the country’s largest networks of cable-modems; and the last of the walled-garden online services. The company operates an enormous amount of bandwidth into nearly every home in America, with TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, TCM, WB, CNN and affiliated networks, HBO, and Cinemax, before you even start thinking about what we’d ordinarily call a data network.

What challenges does the company face? Well, the entertaining and informative content is being pirated at an increasing rate as the costs of duplication and distribution drop to near zero; Time Warner, like all media companies, is constantly talking about the dire threat to their survival posed by people listening to MP3s and trading . The transit network, like all transit networks, doesn’t make any money on its own. The software developers are under competitive pressure, primarily from Microsoft. The cable-TV network has regulatory problems, the cable-modem people are in the position of offering a commodity product in a competitive market, and nobody in interested in walled gardens anymore.

Clearly, the solution to this is situation is to offer one or two Christina Aguilera videos on AOL each week, to plaster CNN and Comedy Central with ads for the online service, to continue to pummel your customers on the media front, and to roll over for the cable-TV regulators.

A quick check of AOL’s stock price since the merger will show you how well that’s been working for them.

The trouble is that the Time Warner people are still firmly in charge, and they see AOL Time Warner as a big media company with an AOL hung on the side of it. Steve Case’s view, and the view that leads to wealth, is to see the company as a hell of a communications network that happens to also be able to create its own world-class content.

If you insist, as the Time Warner execs do, on preserving and growing every one of your current revenue streams, of course you’re going to see a communications network as a millstone. Time Warner and AOL were, ultimately, in the same business: moving data around. The Time Warner people who are in charge of moving data by selling DVDs don’t want to see that data-moving channel threatened by another division of their own company. Someone who catches up with The Sopranos by watching a full-screen, full-motion, surround-sound version over their AOL cable modem from and AOL media server is less likely to buy the DVDs.

The thing is, though, you make more money from the guy who doesn’t buy the DVDs, but who instead pays you, each and every month, for a Super-AOL subscription.

AOL is in the position of being able to provide you with phone service, cable-tv service, Internet service, and a huge library of video-on-demand titles, without having to win the cooperation or paying a dime to any other company.

If you add up what you spend on communications, movie rentals, and some fraction of media purchases every month, it’s probably a fairly substantial amount. AOL could potentially get that amount out of you every month in a combined phone/cable/HBO/AOL bill, if it only had the corporate will to do so.

It would once again be offering a compelling, unique, useful product, and before long people who aren’t on Time Warner cable systems would be demanding the same.

I don’t expect any of that to happen any time soon, because it threatens too many of Time Warner’s existing revenue streams. Like most companies there days, they want growth, but they want growth on their terms. They want to sell you more DVDs, and at higher prices, rather than sell you something that will cost them less to produce and that will give you added value that you’re willing to pay for.

Eventually, someone will do it – the unified data stream into your house is just too obvious and too potentially lucrative an idea to be passed up forever. It’s a shame, though, that since the merger, AOL Time Warner has been sitting in the catbird seat and wilfully ignoring the possibilities of its position.

Posted by tino at 17:34 13.01.03
Saturday 11 January 2003

TV Prepares To Shoot Itself In The Foot

Hydroelectricity is one of those technologies that’s admirable in and of itself for its innate cleverness and sensibility. It takes advantage of something that’s going to happen anyway: water is going to seek the lowest level. Put a turbine in the water’s path, and you get almost free electricity.

That’s a gross simplification, of course, and building a hydroelectric plant often means flooding a lot of land where people used to live, but the general idea still is emblematic of people making lemonade from lemons.

So different from today’s business world, where everyone seems determined to take lemons and make them into shit. The intermediate step in that process — eating lemons — is generally unpleasant and will make most people sick, and shit isn’t particularly valuable anyway. Still, lots of people are being paid lots of money to come up with the idea of turning lemons into shit, particularly in the media business.

The music industry’s lemons-to-shit program is well underway now. Their former customers started pirating music when the price of CDs rose and the cost of illicit duplication fell; the music industry’s solution to this, so far, is to raise prices still and to mount legal challenges against online file-swapping services, thus ensuring that successive systems would become more and more efficient and difficult to police. They’ve already sealed their own doom, and they don’t even seem to have noticed.

Now, it appears, it may be commercial TV’s turn. A story in the New York Times (see here after the NYT starts charging you $1 to see that article) covers one of TV’s first responses to the devil that is TiVo.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, TiVo is one of a class of devices known as personal video recorders. These are computers that live under your TV set and mediate your TV experience. They do a lot of things, but one of their functions is to time-shift TV programs, much as you’ve been able to do for almost 30 years with a VCR. The difference is that TiVo and its cousins make it easier to watch your favorite programming time-shifted than to watch it “live”. Rather than screwing around with the blinking 12:00 and finding blank tapes, you tell TiVo that, for instance, you like The Simpsons. TiVo will then record every episode of The Simpsons, whether it’s a new one on Sunday night, a rerun, or one of those “gotcha” Simpsons that Fox likes to occasionally drop into the Wednesday night lineup with little fanfare. Should The Simpsons show up on another channel for some reason, it’ll be automatically recorded, too. You, the human being, no longer have to worry about any of this; you have a robot to make sure all this stuff is available for you to watch when you want to watch it. It’s a brilliant device.

I have had a TiVo for a few years now, and the net result is that I watch a lot more television than I did before. You’d think that the TV companies would be delighted at this — more consumption of their product! — but they aren’t. The truth is, while I watch more TV, I watch fewer TV ads than before.

When you have a TiVo, you tend not to care when a particular show is on; you watch it when you feel like watching it. Since you’re watching a show delayed some minutes, hours, or days from its actual broadcast time, you can fast-forward through commercials pretty easily. And this is what has the TV people up in arms.

The solution described in the Times article is to produce a program that incorporates advertising into the fabric of the show itself:

Among the possibilities he cited was a permanent Pepsi display behind every music performance on the show. He said the producers had also come up with suggestions like having some rap artists, like Method Man and Redman, go to the Nokia headquarters in Finland to take part in their internship program. “We could make a little three-minute funny film out of that,” Mr. Davies said.

The Pepsi idea doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference to the viewer, except that after watching a performance, he might subtly want a Pepsi. The idea of Method Man and Redman going to Nokia in Finland actually strikes me as potential comedic gold.

But it won’t work, and I’ll tell you why:

  1. It doesn’t fit in with the current economic model of TV, which is: make money on the first run, and then make more money by syndicating the show. This show won’t be able to make as much in syndication, since the ad space on the stage you originally sold to Pepsi can’t now be sold to someone else. And if Pepsi refuses to pay, you either give them free advertising in syndication or you forego all your potential syndication revenue.

  2. Sponsors are famously finicky about how their brands and their products are portrayed. Method Man and Redman might go to Nokia as interns, but it will be necessary at all times to make sure that Nokia and Nokia’s products are portrayed as the be-all and end-all of technology. I can see the company even balking at the notion that people like Method Man and Redman would be allowed in the doors of the place. It’s hard (but maybe not impossible) to be entertaining when you have such serious restrictions.

(That actually might be the largest part of the problem: advertisers, by and large, are reluctant to have their products appear in anything but the best light. This means not only the obvious step of never suggesting that Ivory soap does anything but get you nice and clean, but also of never suggesting on TV that anyone but the best, most-upstanding pillars of the community ever use the product, and in the very blandest, most inoffensive surroundings possible. TV ads are under such restrictions from sponsors who do not want to take any chances at all with their product’s image that they’re cultivating the image of blandness — and producing TV ads that offer nothing to the viewer in exchange for his attention.)

The producers of this show — Live From Right Now, it’s called — seem to forget, too, that what they’re doing is selling the audience to the advertisers; that is, they have to attract an audience, and then sell some of that audience’s attention to people who want to publicize their product.

Mr. Davies added that the show could charge a movie company, for example, for an appearance by one of the stars of a new film. It could also charge for guest hosts.

The problem with this is that if a celebrity is truly interesting, and if there’s a good possibility that an audience might actually want to see this person on TV, they’ll appear on Saturday Night Live or Jay Leno without paying for the privilege. You will never be able to get a star who’s actually in demand to appear on this show, because such an appearance will be strong confirmation of B-list status. And we’ve already seen, with commercial radio, the results of programming for the benefit of the industry, rather than for the benefit of the putative audience: people stop listening.

That won’t apply to Live From Right Now, though, the producers believe. There’s an unmet demand out there for shows hosted by minor celebrities like Corey Feldman or Todd Bridges and featuring “a series of fast-paced, entertainment-driven infomercials” with “frequent mentions of [the sponsors] and their products”. It’s going to look like “an HBO program — running without interruptions”, they say. The telling bit here is that they consider the defining characteristic of The Sopranos to be that there are are no commercial interruptions.

The irony of all of this is that TiVos and similar devices have the potential to save broadcast TV, if only the TV people would stop fighting — every story I’ve seen about this has used the word “fighting” — their audience and instead embrace what technology can do for them.

It seems to me that a TV station is effectively idle for up to six hours a day. From about midnight until whenever the network morning shows start (I say “whenever” not because I’ve never been up early enough to find out but because it varies by time zone), most broadcast TV stations rent time to people like Billy Mays, of OxiClean fame. The time is of so little value that the TV people can’t even be bothered to program it themselves.

Why not, instead of attempting to force people to watch advertising by interweaving it with the entertainment (and in the process screwing up your own business plan beyond repair), present them with shows and ads they want to watch?

Imagine a world in which everyone who watches TV uses a TiVo. Since this is a hypothetical future world, TiVos have a few capabilities that current models do not.

Let’s imagine that you are a Fox network executive, faced with a show like Family Guy. Family Guy was a cartoon show that got rave reviews and won a number of Emmy awards. The show was ultimately cancelled after a run of a couple years, though, after the network screwed with the scheduling enough to put the ratings in the toilet. At the end, it was almost impossible to figure out when it would be on.

In a totally TiVo world, scheduling doesn’t matter. Show it at 3:00 a.m., and everyone who likes it will find it on their TiVos the next day. Those who don’t like the show are unlikely to stumble across it in the wee hours of the morning, so they won’t be offended.

It’s the hypothetical features of future TiVos that make for especially attractive and lucrative options. If you have cable TV, you’ve certainly noticed that once in a while an ad for a local carpet cleaning service or car dealer shows up on CNN or some other national network. Your cable company has sold these ads locally and inserted them into the CNN feed before it’s sent to you. It wouldn’t be too much trouble to apply this same technology on a much smaller scale, and to target ads to individual households.

After The Family Guy is finished at 3:30 a.m., Fox could show an hour’s worth of commercials. Nothing but ads for a solid hour. Nobody in their right mind would ever watch this, but your TiVo would, and it would record the ads. It would now have 120 commercials on hand, ready to show you whenever a program carried an ‘Insert Ad Here’ message. Unlucky people who are still watching TV the old-fashioned way would see whatever default commercial had been broadcast with the show in the first place.

Being able to target ads like this would mean that I wouldn’t have to see any more ads for adult diapers and impotence drugs, neither of which I have the slightest use for (yet). The TV people would be free to show me and people like me ads for antique Porsche parts, computers, fancy TVs, and other things that I might actually want to purchase. Not many people would see the more obscure ads, but the CPM — the price advertisers are charged based per thousand people who see an ad — would be relatively high, because the advertisers would know they’re targeting exactly the people they’re going for, rather than the people who happen to watch a particular show.

The TV networks could, by using instead of fighting the technology, and by mining rather than tricking their audience, charge more for ads and be able to show 25%-30% more programming that carries these more-lucrative ads. They won’t do that, though, because their goal isn’t to make more money, it’s to make more money within the little world they’ve created and are familiar with. They understand how to manipulate Neilsen ratings and how to make money by selling ad packages that don’t meet the needs of either their advertisers or their audience. They then understand how to whine when new technology makes it impossible to continue to ignore the flaws in their business model.

Just remember, when some TV network does this and their CEO is proclaimed a genius, you saw it here first.

Posted by tino at 12:33 11.01.03
Friday 10 January 2003

Saving Money at the Virginia DMV

The Washington Post is running a story about how the Virginia government is tying itself in knots about budget cuts that have resulted in the total closure of some of the state’s DMV offices, and the closure of the remaining offices on Wednesdays.

These closures have resulted in public outcry. It took hours to get anything done at most Virginia DMV offices before, and now that most offices have, under normal conditions, lines out the door, it’s become impossible in some areas to take care of DMV business. More frustrating, perhaps, is that once you reach the head of the line, the process is very efficient; so you’ve waited for three or four hours to conduct a transaction that only takes five minutes to carry out.

As I said, the public are not amused, and the legislature and governor have vowed to re-open the 12 offices closed several months ago. There has been, in turn, complaining about this from other people and organizations at the public trough:

But other constituencies that have borne budget reductions are infuriated by the emphasis on DMV.

“It’s just disturbing to me that we are so concerned about the length of time someone has to take to get a driver’s license and at the same time we are losing apparent interest in how long it takes someone to graduate from college,” said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, who said the school has lost $30 million in the last two years.

Caitlin Binning, interim deputy director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the “pain of waiting in line at the DMV is not equal to the pain that the people I care about go through when they have inadequate services.”

Mr. Merten and Ms. Binning seem not to care that postsecondary education and services for the mentally ill can (and are) provided by institutions that are not part of the Virginia governmental apparatus. However, it’s impossible to get a Virginia driver’s license or to register a car with the state of Virginia — as required by law, if you live here — anywhere but at the Virginia DMV. Even the state seems to misunderstand this, though:

Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement told lawmakers that even with additional funding, Virginia’s DMV offices must continue to trim costs because they cannot afford the level of services that residents demand. Agency officials said new obligations, including handling voter registration and the administration of car-tax relief, have strained services. [emphasis added]

People don’t demand anything from the DMV. The DMV, rather, demands things from them. If you’re going to drive a car in Virginia, you have to deal with the DMV to obtain a driver’s license and to get license plates for your car. The state uses the threat of violence — they’ll put you in jail, ultimately, if you don’t obey — to compel you to obtain these things.

The people then, quite reasonably, expect the state to be able to handle this task — this task which it has created the necessity of — with dispatch. The state, of course, sees this expectation as a “demand”.

(And don’t give me any of this horseshit about driving being a “privilege”, not a “right”. If everyone in Virginia tomorrow refused to continue to exercise this “privilege”, the state’s economy would grind to a halt more or less instantly.)

What Whittington Clement means is that the Virginia DMV — the Virginia government — cannot afford to carry out its regulatory tasks.

“The personal service doesn’t come without a cost,” Clement told members of the House Transportation Committee. “We really need to change customer behavior to rely more on self-service options. We can’t do business in the future as we have in the past.”

Mr. Clement is here referring to various systems that allow you to transact DMV business without actually dealing with a human being. You can renew license plates and driver’s licenses, and do a certain number of other tasks, on the web or by using an ATM-like machine at most DMV offices. The trouble is, you can’t do everything through one of these systems, and using them requires that you have a PIN issued by the DMV and mailed to your address of record. If you have no address of record (or if you haven’t previously applied for a PIN and then remembered what it was), you can’t use the machine. The ATMs won’t accept a barcoded Virginia driver’s license — issued by the DMV, mind you — as identification, even though the humans inside will.

The DMV doesn’t (or likely can’t, by statute) allow for any less certainty or completeness in its tasks in order to save money. The DMV wants to be able to do precisely the same job it’s done in the past, and to do it for less money; 100% of the savings will come from forcing you, the hapless citizen, to put up with worse service.

If the state were truly interested in solving the problem — that there isn’t enough money to run the DMV — they would issue license plates that never expired, would turn the driver’s-license-renewal process into a basic verification that you’re still alive (it’s not much more than that now, honestly), and would scrap any regulation they do that you can’t do over the web or one of their ATMs. They could then close every DMV office, and nobody would care.

What they’re interested in doing, though, is maintaining their level of control (admittedly, not that great in Virginia) while saving money. They know, on some level, that this can’t be done, but bureaucratic inertia being what it is, they’re going to subject everyone to a lot of pain before either accepting the inevitable or finding some money under the state sofa cushions.

Posted by tino at 14:30 10.01.03
Wednesday 08 January 2003

Drinking Under The Influence

The Washington Post has now picked up the story of the Fairfax County Police’s policy of raiding bars and arresting for public drunkenness anyone who has a blood-alcohol level of greater than .08, the new legal limit in Virginia.

That’s the legal limit for driving a car, of course (and a legal limit that some studies show doesn’t even provide probable cause — i.e. evidence of drunkenness — for a breath test). The law doesn’t actually say how drunk you have to be to be publically intoxicated. The web of laws, and our social customs governing drinking would seem to indicate that there’s some happy state in which you can be considered unfit to drive a car, but safe for society in general. That the drunk-driving laws are there mainly to keep you from killing people, and that the drunk-in-public laws are there to keep you from being a pain in the ass.

My impression has always been that drunk-in-public laws were really obnoxious-drunk-in-public laws. That the probable cause for being arrested for being drunk was that you were behaving like a drunk asshole.

I still think that impression is correct, but

Police said the holiday raids, first reported in the Reston Times, were born of a community policing goal of discouraging crime before it occurs.

So perhaps they were trying to arrest people before they got drunk enough to be a problem? Interesting that that statement seems to indicate that no crime had yet occurred at the time of the raids.

Fitting in neatly with that bit of Big-Brotherism is this:

At Champps in Reston, general manager Kevin O’Hare described police as “antagonistic.” He said they “pulled” people from their chairs who were making no commotion. “They’re always welcome to come in anytime,” he said of police. “It’s not an issue when they talk to our guests. But when they actually pull people out of their seats, it is an issue. When it’s borderline harassment, it’s an issue.”

I would say that describing pulling people from their chairs as “borderline harassment” is a sign that something is seriously wrong. I don’t blame Mr. O’Hare for his weasel words — this guy has got to run the Noisiest Bar In Reston, which means that he’s got to be on good terms with the police. But if anyone other than the police were to come into Champp’s and start yanking people from their chairs, it wouldn’t be called borderline harassment, it’d be called assault and battery and possibly inciting to riot.

As far as I am aware, the Fairfax County police are the first to employ this policy of requiring that you be sober enough to drive at all times while in public. If this kind of jack-booted prudery stands up here, though, you can look for it to spread.

Posted by tino at 00:18 8.01.03
Tuesday 07 January 2003

Baja Fresh and the Customer Service Rules

Tonight, I was at a Baja Fresh, part of the chain of semi-fast-food Mexican restaurants run by Wendy’s International.

At precisely 8 p.m., workers began collecting the hot-sauce bottles from the tables, and rolling up the mats on the floor — blocking the path to the restrooms with a pile of mats in the process.

According to the hours posted on the door, this place is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, or 11 hours — which means that they start rolling up (literally, in the case of the mats) when they’ve still got 20% of their business hours ahead of them. I would like to call everyone’s attention to Customer Service Rule #2:

Be prepared to deal with customers during the whole of the hours of business posted on your door. If you are a restaurant, you are not allowed to start stacking the chairs on the tables before your official hour of closing. You are not permitted to perform any regular mopping, vacuuming, or other periodic day-end cleaning until the customers are done and out of there. During your regular hours of business, the entire purpose of your enterprise is the direct sale of goods and services to customers. Housekeeping, bookkeeping, restocking, re-arranging, and ready-to-leave-getting should be done after the customers are done and you have their money. If business is so slow that it’s not worth actually being prepared for customers during the last hour you’re open, or worth paying your employees past closing time to take care of the housekeeping, maybe you’re staying open too late, or charging too much, or selling something that nobody wants. Or maybe your would-be customers just don’t feel like dodging the cleaning crews while trying to spend money.

If confronted about this, they’d probably claim that they have so few customers at night that it’s not worth bothering. (They in fact have more customers at night than your average fast food restaurant.) I wonder whether they’d have more customers at night, though, if they didn’t go out of their way to make the place uninviting after 8 p.m.?

Posted by tino at 22:45 7.01.03
Thursday 02 January 2003

The Trouble I’ve Seen

So the plan was for Christmas vacation to end yesterday, with Tino’s triumphant return to Virginia after having won yet another Christmas by getting the most presents. It seems that that isn’t to be, though.

Last night, on I-70 just east of the Indiana-Ohio state line, the car made a THUNK noise. It was the noise you hear when you run over a big clump of ice on the road, and I thought nothing of it, even though there was no ice, snow, etc. anywhere nearby.

A few seconds later, another THUNK, and then a couple more. I looked in the rearview mirror to see what the hell we were running over, and noticed that there was smoke spewing from the car, filling my entire field of view in the mirror.

It turns out that the engine-mounted cooling fan had shed a blade, probably due to some microscopic bubble that had vibrated into a crack. With one blade missing, the fan is seriously out-of-balance and under a lot of strange stress; the rest of the blades were shed in quick order. These blades, when launched from the fan at high velocity, took out the radiator hoses and the belt that runs all the accessories on the front of the engine, including the alternator.

We had the car towed into Dayton, and we’re waiting for it to be fixed now. Trouble is, it’s started snowing now, and this car doesn’t really work well in the snow. We’ll wind up creeping back to Virginia at about 20 miles per hour, probably.

After we return, and after I get all my built-up obligations out of the way, I’ve got another rant on customer service for you.

Posted by tino at 11:06 2.01.03