Days of Yore

From this Jennifer Egan interview at Days of Yore:



A: It’s a very trusting environment, but also a very rigorous environment. Because you want to know that everyone is on your side, but if they just tell you it’s great, they’re not doing you any favors. That part about everyone being on your side is really critical too. There’s nothing worse than not knowing whether their criticism is motivated by some sort of internal or external wish to undermine or whether it is valid.


Q: But it can be hard in, say, a writing workshop, to shut out the choir of voices and hear your own voice.


A: Yes. But what I lose by not listening is much greater than what I lose by listening to bad advice. Because I think I can sort of sort through with my gut what is useful and what is not useful. Whereas if I hear nothing, I know vividly what results. I am never going to let that happen again.


I think people feel somehow that they can be hurt by hearing the wrong thing. I am not convinced that is true. We might get our feelings hurt, but I don’t think there is any actual damage done. What’s bad falls away.


One thing I often say to students is, “I am not interested in hearing solutions.

The true cost of higher education

Malcolm Harris writes at n+1 about the next economic bubble in the U.S. after the housing bubble: the student debt bubble.



Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.


What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?



Harris goes into all the reasons why the cost of education has exploded, and why it's not likely to end anytime soon, and this all leads to his less than sanguine conclusion:



If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.



To me, the real tragedy of so many higher education programs is that they saddle students with so much debt that they have no choice but to consider salary as a first-order criterion for their choice of profession. When the real problem that an institution of higher education should aspire to is to teach us how to live and engage with the world, and to teach us how to be both children and adults at once. The best of my college days blended lessons in adult responsibility (how to take care of yourself without your parents as a backstop) with encouragement that the best way to pursue intellectual adventure was to follow your curiosity wherever it led.


The alpha and the loyal sidekick

Paul Allen's autobiography is about to hit, and so it's omnipresent on the web. A juicy excerpt appears in Vanity Fair. As with Keith Richards slagging Mick Jagger in his entertaining autobiography, Allen doesn't hold back about his relationship with Gates, both positive and negative.



Bill craved closure, and he would hammer away until he got there; on principle, I refused to yield if I didn’t agree. And so we’d go at it for hours at a stretch, until I became nearly as loud and wound up as Bill. I hated that feeling. While I wouldn’t give in unless convinced on the merits, I sometimes had to stop from sheer fatigue. I remember one heated debate that lasted forever, until I said, “Bill, this isn’t going anywhere. I’m going home.

Behind every autotuned 13 year old girl...

It makes sense, doesn't it, that Gawker would do the profile of the man behind Rebecca Black's Friday? Meet Ark Music Factory CEO Patrice Wilson.



Where did Wilson get the inspiration for such lyrics as "Yesterday was Thursday/Today is Friday?" "I wrote the lyrics on a Thursday night going into a Friday," he said. "I was writing different songs all night and was like, 'Wow, I've been up a long time and it's Friday.' And I was like, wow, it is Friday!"



The immense spike of interest in this otherwise unremarkable video begs for an explanation. Needless to say, I enjoy reading the attempts to explain the phenomenon more than the video itself. From one example:



Rob: I like the song too, but I don’t find that embarrassing. It feels like a confirmation of the suspicion that the best pop music must aspire to a formal purity that comes at the expense of content. The best pop songs are the emptiest. At that point, pop music has nothing to do with subjectivity or identity construction: You don’t become empty when you hear it; instead you have your own fullness confirmed.



And later:



To shift the terminology, I think we’ve been in post-Fordist relations of pop-culture production for some time now, with consumers driving the innovations in meaning that culture-industry firms then harvest and exploit. They increasingly supply the playground itself rather than the specific jungle gyms. No one owns the malleable, mutable meanings of pop culture, but the process and the medium for those transmutations is definitely owned. This is the essence of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism.



Next: 1,000 words on the great existential crisis of our time: which seat can I take?


What happened to liberal ed?

Why are fewer and fewer students interested in liberal arts and more focused on professional degrees? Dan Edelstein's theory:



The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees.



He forecasts a dire future for the humanities.



Until the tuition imbalance stabilizes – and eventually Congress may well intervene to ensure that it does – humanities departments need to act more aggressively to ensure their survival. Increasing the turnout of majors may be beyond our reach, but we perhaps need to rethink the relationship between research and teaching. Do highly specialized courses offered by individual departments provide the best kind of background in the humanities for students headed for careers in law, engineering, finance, or science? Or do we need to offer more cross-disciplinary courses, ideally team-taught by faculty from different departments, on core questions and topics in the humanities? The bulk of our teaching is geared toward majors and graduate students. If we do not want to be the victims of the next recession (or, if it lasts long enough, the current one), we also need to target those students who feel they do no longer have the luxury of specializing in a humanistic subject.



If I were to choose one subject to start this movement to more practical instruction, it would be writing. Non-English majors are often forced to take some eclectic literature course when a more focused class on writing well would prove so much more practical over the course of their lives. I'm amazed how few people I encounter in the professional world who can write with clarity and command.


If we look at the Internet space, the world seems ready for a new and more focused educational paradigm for the modern age. Or at least an alternative to the traditional educational roadmap in the U.S.


RELATED: It's been clear for some time now that the tech sector is in the midst of a huge software engineer shortage. This weekend the NYTimes wrote about the wide variety of perks companies are dangling to not only hire new employees but keep the ones they have from bolting.


In a market like this, it wouldn't surprise me at all if a company like Google started its own alternative educational institution to train software engineers from an even earlier age in life (high school, perhaps), in exchange for a first look at candidates or just to expand the pool of candidates in general. Just as in sports, the cheapest candidates are those fresh out of school, before their salaries correct over time to match their contributions. Given how much of their work can be leveraged across a global audience now, the return on investment from a software engineer is massive.


 


More public rail is always a good thing...right?

Patrick Chovanec explains why China's buildout of high-speed rail is failing to alleviate the congestion there.



The problem is that high-speed rail is expensive both to build and to operate, requiring high ticket prices to break even.  The bulk of the long-distance passenger traffic, especially during the peak holiday periods, is migrant workers for whom the opportunity cost of time is relatively low.  Even if they could afford a high-speed train ticket — which is doubtful given their limited incomes — they would probably prefer to conserve their cash and take a slower, cheaper train.  If that proves true, the new high-speed lines will only incur losses while providing little or no relief to the existing transportation network.



Instead of shifting people from slower modes of transportation to faster ones, the high-speed rail is pushing commuters downmarket by stealing market share from airlines and by displacing slower, cheaper rail lines and pushing those customers to buses that just congest the roads further.


Another example of the law of unintended consequences. Urban planning isn't easy.


The Super Bowl Ads...a day in review

I spent the day at Hulu HQ with a team of folks watching the Super Bowl to release ads to the Hulu AdZone as they aired on TV during the game. It's a crazed day, and I only have a fuzzy recollection of how the game itself actually unfolded.


But here's a running diary of my notes from watching the ads as they aired...


Pregame


It was a much ballyhooed battle between similarly unstoried franchises with many similarities. Of course I'm referring to the battle between LivingSocial and Groupon. After Groupon confirmed it had bought a Super Bowl spot, LivingSocial quickly followed suit. If this coupon site war is one of scale, LivingSocial didn't want to be left behind.


Which company's ads will come out on top? And will their ads during the Super Bowl help consumers to understand the difference between the two companies?


Both aired spots during the pregame. LivingSocial's spot came with the message that it could change your life, a lofty claim indeed. Strangely, the transformation it showed was the evolution of a Harley Davidson-looking grease monkey into a...woman?! Transsexuals may not be large enough a demo to raise too much of a protest online for being used as a punchline, but regardless, it's an odd way to debut your service to over a hundred million people.


Groupon's first ad features beloved forgotten actor Cuba Gooding Jr. enlisting our help to save the whales. Oh, wait, no, we're not appealing to your environmental sympathies, we're using it as a joke! See how edgy we are! Early votes on the AdZone are not rewarding this strategy. Somewhere, an ad agency is working on his "Any PR is good PR" explanation.


And then Christina Aguilera screws up the lyrics to the National Anthem. This will be amazing if it's a live ad for Southwest Airlines: [ding] "Wanna get away?"


Commercial Break 1


The first of the Doritos crowdsourced ads runs: "Pug Attack." Since the Doritos and Pepsi ads were chosen by user votes, they've already been vetted and should do well in the Ad Zone. If you treat this entire body of work from the crowdsourced creative community as coming from a single ad agency, the style holds up as coherent: the ads are all comedic, featuring some twist of a punchline in which someone either does or doesn't get away with something.


Audi runs "Release the Hounds." It feels like a direct attack on Mercedez-Benz and a more tangential attack at BMW. Mercedez = old luxury. Audi = middle-aged luxury. And an appearance by Kenny G! Where has he been? Does he have a Vegas show?


Commercial Break 2


The second crowdsourced ad: Pepsi's "Love Hurts." Yep, it fits my earlier thought on the style of the crowdsourced ads. I wonder if the tone would be similar if a more luxury brand crowdsourced an ad, though by definition those brands would probably be least likely to try such a move.


Commercial Break 3


Budweiser's places a product ad about product placement in the Super Bowl.


Commercial Break 4


Hyundai's "Hypnotized" is an attack on some of Volkswagen's past spots (like this). Will enough people actually get that? I didn't realize Hyundai was attacking that ad style until the end of the ad, and I enjoy the VW ad style, so the reversal didn't work out quite the way they'd intended.


Commercial Break 5


In Kia's "One Epic Ride" a wealthy tycoon surrounded by bikini-clad babes a 200 foot yacht hires a henchman to steal a Kia Optima with a helicopter and fly it over the ocean to the yacht. The Kia ad ends noting that prices start under $19K. I think that guy on the yacht could just buy a Kia Optima with his black Amex card. I feel cognitive dissonance.


Commercial Break 6


The Bridgestone ad serves as a good time to remind people that the ability to recall an e-mail doesn't really work.


Commercial Break 7


Budweiser's "Wild West": copyright Cameron Crowe.


Teleflora's Faith Hill ad is a historic moment. I have no evidence to support this claim, but I believe it's the first time a nationally televised ad in the U.S. has used the word "rack" in that connotation. You know what connotation I mean. Not like a spice rack. Unless, well, I guess with some people you could use it that way.


Commercial Break 8


The girl in Motorola's "Empower the People" spot looks like the offspring of Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar, if they could actually conceive a child together.


Commercial Break 9


We meet yet another one of the Matthews clan, this brother is starring in Thor.


And then we see an ad that was already unveiled to the world earlier this week, Volkswagen's "The Force." Like most people, I'm a fan. What little boy didn't want so much to believe in The Force when they first saw Star Wars? The boy who lived in the house across the yard from me growing up believed so strongly in the idea that he'd blindfold himself and have me throw objects at him while he yielded a plastic sword and tried to swat them away. What occurred was more of an endorsement for the scientific method than the existence of The Force, though I draw on the visual memory of racquet balls bouncing off of his head whenever I need a laugh.


Incidentally: German auto manufacturer, John Williams "Imperial March" theme song, the well-known intentional visual parallels between the costumes and formations of the Imperial Army in Star Wars and German troops from WWII? Interesting subtext.


Speaking of Hitler Germany, if an advertiser licenses the Hitler rant scene from Downfall and remixes it into a Super Bowl ad one of these days, the Internet will explode.


Commercial Break 10


Snickers is doubling down after its success with Betty White last year. Richard Lewis, Roseanne...can Eric Roberts and Joan Rivers be far behind?


Finally, more footage from J.J. Abrams Super 8. The music (James Horner?) and imagery evoke early Spielberg. My nostalgia for early magical Spielberg (E.T., anyone) is almost as strong as my nostalgia for my childhood.


Also, it features Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) from Friday Night Lights. The series finale is this week, and I am beyond sad to see the series end. Why the networks will replace such a fantastic show with some new show that gets cancelled after 3 episodes is beyond me.


Commercial Break 11


Many are disappointed that we live in the year 2011 and haven't achieved the Jetsons future once predicted for us. We don't have jetpacks or robot maids that we can order around just by speaking to them, we can't live forever, we haven't cured cancer, and our cars don't hover or drive themselves...but what's this? Our cars can now read our Facebook news feeds to us? Hah! Advantage...ummm...Facebook?


Paramount unveils its trailer for Captain America: The First Avenger. It looks like the usual paint-by-numbers superhero action flick, but if there was ever a time for a Captain America movie, this might be the year. Given our economic difficulties in recent year, the story of a scrawny American who takes a super serum and turns into a muscular superhero may be the type of escapist fantasy Americans turn to Hollywood for. Let's have him create some jobs at home while he's unseating oppressive regimes around the world.


Commercial Break 12


Given some of the occasional social controversy over where and in what conditions our consumer goods are manufactured (e.g. Foxconn), it's a bold and bizarre move for Sony Ericsson to play into that meme head on with their ad depicting an Android mascot being operated on in some dingy back-alley hovel in some unnamed Asian country. Also, the metaphor of grafting a thumb onto the Android mascot is a strange one as it implies, perhaps unintentionally, that the gaming controls in the ad were grafted onto this smartphone rather than being built into the phone from the start.


Halftime


The Salesforce.com ads for Chatter.com (here and here) were shot to bookend the halftime show by the Black Eyed Peas, so they may not play as well out of context. Actually, they didn't play that well in context, either. Were they meant to be abstract? Their only saving grace was the fact that the Black Eyed Peas' halftime show was so awful it served as a much larger target for vicious feedback on Twitter.


Commercial Break 15


Not content to just offend environmentalists, Groupon airs its second ad: "Tibet." Perhaps the blowback from the ad will fade in time. How many people still nurse a grudge over the homophobic Snickers ad or the two racist SalesGenie.com ads from Super Bowl XLII? But for now, it serves as an distasteful nudge to unsubscribe from the Groupon mailings, none of which have been topically or geographically relevant to me for months now.


Coca Cola doesn't dance anywhere near the line of controversy. Their second ad, "Border," and their first ad, "Siege," are two data points that draw a straight line. This is the Watchmen plot remixed. It's not a common foe that will unite is in world peace but our love of sugary carbonated sodas.


Commercial Break 17


This entire ad break is one epically long two-minute ad, and it's a great one. It builds to a dramatic and unexpected twist, signaled by the quiet fading in of that great guitar riff from "Lose Yourself." Who better than Eminem as the symbol of Detroit reborn: raw, blue collar, tough, steeled by rehab? B-Rabbit! B-Rabbit!


By the way, when is Eminem going to act again? He was good in 8 Mile.


Commercial Break 20


Looking for the Angry Birds secret code in the Rio trailer? It's in this moment embedded below.








Or if you just want to see it...


Hulu - AdZone 2011

Commercial Break 21


With their second ad "Black Beetle" it seems that Volkswagen will be the big winner in the Super Bowl ad battle. Some brands and agencies might extrapolate from this that they should also release their Super Bowl ads before the game itself, but that's the wrong conclusion.


Commercial Break 24


Kim Kardashian for Skechers. You know, I think that sex tape worked out for her after all.


And your Mr. Irrelevant for 2011: Fox's house ad for their new program Terra Nova. The tagline should read: Lost, except on Fox.


Okay, I'm headed home to catch up on this football game that happened today. It's amazing how much people have started caring about that football game that runs during the ads each February. I really think this whole Super Bowl concept might turn into something for the NFL.


Variable rate parking in Seattle

Seattle is launching market-based pricing for parking. This is possible now that they've installed those curbside machines that you pay to print out a parking slip for your curbside window (as opposed to the old-school parking meters for each space that took quarters). The machine adjusts pricing based on time of day and could conceivably other factors like geography, parking utilization, weather, local events, etc.


Consumers probably won't enjoy having to pay more for parking at certain times, but from an economic and environmental standpoint this makes all sorts of sense. Curbside parking has always been underpriced, overdemanded, and undersupplied. Anyone versed in microeconomics would predict higher pricing as a more optimal scenario in these cases. Variable pricing of tolls in Singapore and London has been one of the only successful means of reducing traffic there.


Over the holidays, I drove into NYC once, and at many curbs they've now installed these parking machines in the place of parking meters. I wouldn't be surprised to see variable parking pricing arrive in NYC in the next two years.


The article mentions two logical extensions of this technology, and which of the two is positive depends on your perspective:



During an interview in Seattle's Central District, Streetline rep Paul Toliver pulled out his iPad and tapped his map of Hollywood. Red and green showed filled and open spots. Parking officers can see exact spots where cars are sitting overtime, and head out to write tickets. The firm just announced an iPhone app that can send real-time price and space updates to motorists.



Global food shortage

Global warming is the environmental movement's pinup (though it faces perhaps its own crisis of coverage fatigue and noise that is a critical drag on momentum*). One ever growing and related crisis that may be underestimated by the public is the global food crisis. The issues are related because whether it's wind farms or a roast chicken, it's all about energy: "The core of the climate problem lies in the reality that  the world doesn’t have the energy options it needs for a smooth ride toward roughly 9 billion people by mid-century, all seeking decent lives."



Tonight, there will be 219,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table, and many of them will be greeted with empty plates. Another 219,000 will join us tomorrow night. At some point, this relentless growth begins to tax both the skills of farmers and the limits of the earth's land and water resources.


Beyond population growth, there are now some 3 billion people moving up the food chain, eating greater quantities of grain-intensive livestock and poultry products. The rise in meat, milk, and egg consumption in fast-growing developing countries has no precedent. Total meat consumption in China today is already nearly double that in the United States.


The third major source of demand growth is the use of crops to produce fuel for cars. In the United States, which harvested 416 million tons of grain in 2009, 119 million tons went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That's enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest. In Europe, where much of the auto fleet runs on diesel fuel, there is growing demand for plant-based diesel oil, principally from rapeseed and palm oil. This demand for oil-bearing crops is not only reducing the land available to produce food crops in Europe, it is also driving the clearing of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil plantations.


The combined effect of these three growing demands is stunning: a doubling in the annual growth in world grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year in 1990-2005 to 41 million tons per year in 2005-2010. Most of this huge jump is attributable to the orgy of investment in ethanol distilleries in the United States in 2006-2008.



The underexposure of this crisis is one reason I was so excited that the most acclaimed science fiction novel last year centered around food shortage. I've just started Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, 2010's Hugo Award winner for Best Novel (tied with China Miéville's The City & the City), and so far it's as original as advertised.


A socially valuable role for art in society is to present critical issues to people in the most emotionally compelling manner, and that's one reason the success of this novel is exciting. While I'm skeptical anytime Hollywood tries to adapt one of my favorite books, this might be an exception. We may need to push the food crisis through every means available to mobilize the world so we can avoid a soylent green future.


*FOOTNOTE: In the NYTimes article "Climate News Snooze," Randy Olson is quoted:



Perhaps it’s just my bias as a communicator, but I think this is THE most important variable of the future. Things can be hot, flat, and crowded, yet still civil if there is effective leadership AND the people are able to hear the voices who know how to lead. But try starting a food fight in a crowded, NOISY lunch room and see what happens. Pretty hard to impose order.


I have a feeling that Al Gore would agree with this speculation. He tried to lead, but got shouted down by an already-noisy society. There is a coming “dark ages

Industrial Organization and the NBA

Via Marginal Revolution, a reference to a study of 11 NBA seasons that indicates that teams with one highly paid star and many lesser paid players win more games. 11 seasons doesn't sound like a large enough data set, but it is intriguing to wonder how the Miami Heat do this season with two alpha dogs, whether they will how and when to defer and how and when to lead. The Bulls benefitted all those years from Pippen being willing to play lieutenant to Jordan's general, and in crunch time there was never any doubt whose hands the ball would end up in (regardless of whether he chose to take the last shot or pass it off, as he did to Air Canada in his comeback double nickel game against the Knicks).


I'm not sure if it's a salary or talent issue as much as it's a personality issue. Salary is a symptom. Will Lebron and DWade be happy not being the guy to take the last minute shot for the win? Are they wired that way?


A player's mindset on his place in the pecking order can evolve. The year Jordan left the NBA to play baseball, Pippen wanted to step up to be the Man. The result was that a player that been the consummate glue guy for years on the Bulls melted down in the playoffs when Phil Jackson diagrammed the last shot for Toni Kukoc instead of him.


It was a black mark on his reputation, but I'm sympathetic. Most competitive people aren't wired to defer again and again, and it takes a special personality to play second fiddle for life (it's especially useful if your point guard is wired that way).


As of today, the Heat are 8-6, so the early returns are mixed. The center of their defense is a gaping hole. Lebron still should have gone to Chicago, he would have had a star in Derrick Rose who'd be willing to play sidekick and two guys in Noah and Boozer who could provide interior defense and scoring.


Well, I hear the weather in South Beach is nice this time of year.


Interview with Matthew Weiner

Lots of good nuggets for Mad Men fans in this interview with Matthew Weiner. In light of the Epstein interview I posted the other week, I thought this sentiment from Weiner was interesting.



The other aspects of things that are going on in entertainment right now are frustrating to me. I’ve been very disappointed with whatever has happened to the business model that has made the movies so incredibly unattractive to me. I’m so starved for things, for any kind of entertainment. The Oscar things are coming out right now – maybe they saved everything good for right then and there. But it’s been a bummer. It’s a bummer to see movie after movie where so many talented people get together and so much money is spent, and they’re just bland, lifeless, familiar, fake. I’m not a superhero, it’s not one of my interests. It’s O.K. for it to be a fraction of the entertainment that’s out there, but it can’t be everything. And I have four little boys so I’m seeing everything. And they’re tired of going to the movies.



Later:



It’s a bummer. But we have things we watch together. We still watch “The Simpsons.

The music business...doing great?

The music business is dying. Or is it? If you look at all revenues, the pie may be growing. Maybe the music business isn't dying, it's just evolving, and recorded music is just becoming the loss leader that fuels the engine.



The longest, loudest boom is in live music. Between 1999 and 2009 concert-ticket sales in America tripled in value, from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion.


It is not that more people are going to concerts. Rather, they are paying more to get in. In 1996 a ticket to one of America’s top 100 concert tours cost $25.81, according to Pollstar, a research firm that tracks the market. If prices had increased in line with inflation, the average ticket would have cost $35.30 last year. In fact it cost $62.57. Well-known acts charge much more. Leading musicians have also, by roundabout means, seized a larger share of the mysterious “service

How TV and Movies switched roles

Edward Jay Epstein offers an explanation as to how TV become elite entertainment while movies became mass entertainment. What's interesting is that he attributes most of the switch to structural conditions and not creative choices.



This role reversal, rather than a momentary fluke, proceeds directly from the new economic realities of the entertainment business.


Consider what happened to Pay-TV. When HBO , now a subsidiary of Time Warner, initially signing up monthly subscribers in the 1960s, it provided the only way home viewers could see movies uninterrupted by commercials, and it (and Cinemax unit) eventually signed up through their local cable systems 40 million subscribers. HBO gets a fixed a fee– about $4.5 per month– for each subscriber, no matter how little or often they watch HBO. To continue to harvest this immense bounty, HBO has to perform a single feat: stop subscribers from ending their service. But since nowadays its subscribers can get movies cheaper and fast from other sources, such as Netflix, retail stores and the Internet, HBO needs a more exclusive inducement to keep them. And so, beginning in the 1990s, it began putting more and more resources into creating its own original programing that would appeal to the head of the house. Not restricted by the need to maximize the audience (it has no advertising), ratings boards (it has no censorship) or non-English speaking markets, it was able to create edgy character-driven edgy series such as Sex and the City, not only succeeded in retaining their subscribers but achieved surprising acclaim in the media. Other pay-channels followed suit. So did other networks so as not lose market share. The result is the elevation of television, or at least some tiers of it, to a medium of entertainment for the elite.



The descent of movies into mass entertainment, a glut of franchises, remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations, is less mysterious given the rise of the multiplex and its dependence on brute force marketing and the need to create a differentiated experience versus the home theater DVD rental alternative.


The rise of TV as an outlet for elite entertainment is a bit more surprising to me. The ability to write for grown-ups on ad-free channels is certainly an attractive outlet, though it took some time for those channels to gain the scale to finance productions on the level of Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire, all of which had feature film size budgets. What also fascinates me, though, is the rise of cable as an outlet for serial dramas. A show like The Wire is perhaps the epitome of a type of entertainment that seems entirely impossible prior to the existence of HBO. No broadcast network could have aired that, and even if they had, it's difficult to imagine any broadcast network keeping it on air with its ratings as low as they were during its run on HBO.


The multi-season, multi-story-arc serial drama is a fairly new archetype in the TV world, and cable seems to be the best place creative people can paint on that broad a canvas. It's not just that I'm older, but a night in with a few episodes off of my DVR feels like a huge favorite versus a night out at the movies nine times out of ten these days because cable is where the most ambitious storytelling has migrated.



Groupon and other deal sites - not great for business

These survey results confirms my suspicion that this current consumer craze for Groupon and the gazillion similar sites isn't all it's cracked up to be for participating businesses.


I don't argue with their popularity among consumers. I have friends who seemingly plan their entire dining and social calendars around deals obtained through one of the dozen or more daily deal services they subscribe to. Between last year and this year, these services have exploded in popularity.


The first issues is that businesses that participate in these deals immediately devalue their product. Sales in general set a new price anchor for consumers. If a restaurant offers me $50 for $25, their brand is immediately tarnished in my mind, even if subconsciously. Paying full price there won't ever feel comfortable again. Retailers that do annual sales train users to wait for those. I'll never buy a towel at full price from Restoration Hardware because I know once a year they have a bath sale (though they are some nice towels). I'll never pay more than 80% of the listed price at Bed, Bath, and Beyond because they have flooded the market with 20% off coupons.


The second and related issue is that these deals appeal most to price sensitive customers, not the type of loyal customers most businesses are hoping to be set up with.



Restaurants were the most unprofitable category, describing Groupon customers as "entitled," poor tippers, and definitely not repeat customers. Spas, on the other hand, were the most profitable (though their Groupon-using customers were still bad tippers).





...when asked whether they would run a promotion again, almost half (42 percent) said they wouldn't. That number includes one in five of the businesses that ran profitable Groupon promotions.


"There is widespread recognition among many business owners that social promotion users are not the relational customers that they had hoped for or the ones that are necessary for their business’s long-term success," reads the report. "Instead, there is disillusionment with the extreme price sensitive nature and transactional orientation of these consumers among many study respondents. "




Perhaps the worst aspect of these daily deal e-mails for me is the lack of targeting. Most of the deals seem to be targeted towards women. If I receive one more e-mail with an offer for a spa day or pilates or a facial...well, actually, I won't, because I just unsubscribed to most of these.


The game

Damned if you do, but maybe not so damned if you don't. That's why I could never be a politician, I couldn't put up with the randomness of so many outcomes. It feels like a game with badly constructed rules.


As badly as Democrats have done recently at constructing narratives (a very underrated skill for leaders, especially in bad times), the Republicans seemed to fumble an easy path to a sweeping midterm takeover in November. David Frum thinks so, and Nate Silver, while not going that far, certainly believes that electing O'Donnell in Delaware was a poor outcome for Republican chances to take over the Senate.


Being interesting > being happy?

Interesting as ever, Tyler Cowen answers a reader who asks why Cowen thinks being interesting is more important than being happy.



"Happiness" to me sounds boring, as if the person has a limited imagination when it comes to wants and an inability to be frustrated by the difficulty of creating new peak experiences.



I'm not sure if I believeHe points to a Penelope Trunk post on the same topic where she posts a survey to test whether you're inclined towards one pole or the other. The test indicates that I'm inclined towards being interesting, and perhaps that explains why I feel like I could be happier.


Writes Trunk:



The culmination of my four-year obsession with happiness research is that I think people need to choose between an interesting life or happy life. (Note: This does not mean you are interesting or not interesting. I am talking about what values guide your decision making.) I think the things that make life happy have to do with complacency, and the things that make life interesting have to do with lack of complacency.



Lowering the costs of parenting

Bryan Caplan writes that the negative impact of children on parents' happiness is overstated, but more intriguing to me is his suggestion that parents are working too hard on parenting, with little impact on outcomes for their children. It ties in to a book I read years ago by Judith Harris called The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Harris asserts that parents play a much smaller role than peers in children's emotional and intellectual development.


Caplan extends the idea that micro-managing parents are largely ineffectual. Like Harris, he cites behavioral genetics studies that show that variance in parenting techniques has shown little demonstrable effect on children's morals, happiness, grades, health, etc. But he sees this as a good thing.



Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it's great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids' future rests in your hands, you'll probably make many painful "investments"—and feel guilty that you didn't do more. Once you realize that your kids' future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.


If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you're not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents' consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids' development, so it's OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids "for their own good" rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.



And if parenting is not as stressful and costly, then he says you might as well consider having more children.


The only part of this thesis that doesn't mesh with my experiential assessment is that first generation Asian parents in the U.S. are notoriously strict with their kids, and growing up I came to accept that as a reason why 1.5 or 2nd generation Asian-Americans like me studied our butts off. Has anyone has done a study to assess whether there's any validity to that theory or whether it's just a myth? I certainly don't have any confidence in just the anecdotal evidence from the childhood experiences of me and other Asian-American peers, but I'm not willing to dismiss it out of hand, either.