Wednesday, May 20, 2009, posted by Q6 at 5:19 AM
In the last eight months or so we've seen three major advertising promotions go south; and while I'm glad I don't have to spend good money and creativity on campaigns designed to get people to buy stuff they really don't need, I think there are two very important, very valuable lessons to be learned.

Last November is was Dr. Pepper, a company which pledged to give out free drinks if Guns N Roses finished its Chinese Democracy album by a certain date. They finished it, and Dr. Pepper almost finished themselves by trying to provide coupons online--customers crashed their servers all day long and became irate when they couldn't get their free Drs. Pepper. Back in February Denny's decided to give away free Grand Slam breakfasts (for reasons about which I was never entirely clear), resulting in around-the-block lines at thousands of restaurants--lines in which some patrons were content to wait in the rain for hours while others screamed like the impatient maniacs they are. Finally, KFC decided to introduce its new grilled chicken with Internet coupons and an "Oprah" tie-in; of course, the "valid" coupons were subject to mass photocopying and the flooded chain stores had to shut the entire promotion down by midday. (Writer's note: For what it's worth, I stopped eating at Denny's years ago, I eat at KFC occasionally, and I drink enough Dr. Pepper to keep them in business.)

There are those who read these stories, shake their heads, and say, "Well, you get what you pay for." As I re-read my blog post from earlier this week, it occurred to me that I left one other suggestion off the list: do away completely with all giveaways, coupons, and free deals. Quite frankly, it's all putting us in the wrong frame of mind. See, I read these giveaway disasters and say, "Well, pay for what you get."

I've never been a big fan of giveaways and coupons, and I genuinely believe that people should be adequately compensated for goods and services; at a very basic level, it's what keeps the economy going. I'm not even a big fan of receiving gifts on birthdays or at Christmastime, mostly because it's the same as getting something for nothing (I often tell people with regard to my birthday: "It happened a long time ago, and I didn't really do much but show up and complain a lot, so why shower me with gifts?"*). I've never had a problem with paying for the things that I get, or with turning away a "deal" that isn't fair.

The first lesson we learn from these failed promotions is that they have their drawbacks. In these cases, specifically, you've got bad publicity and some people walking away upset with these businesses. Clearly, backfires can occur.

The second and more important lesson is that people have come to believe that they deserve something for free; moreover, this whole "Do less, get more" mentality becomes more ingrained with each additional promotion or giveaway. Just look at how angry people get when the promotion ends, or dies, or takes too long, and you can see just how addicted they've become to getting something for nothing. The real problem, though, is how that mentality has spread to areas in which it has no place: welfare, sub-prime mortgages, and zero-down car leases to name a few. The whole system has consequently been thrown into imbalance, and the economic crisis now sitting before us is the result. WE'VE MADE IT TOO EASY TO BUY PURCHASE AND OBTAIN THINGS. It used to be more difficult; it used to be that you had to save up to purchase something you wanted. If you couldn't afford it, you had to wait--and if you wanted it, you had to pay for it. That seems all gone now. (Take, as examples, my quest for a Kindle, or my outside patio, or my hardwood stairwell: I could buy these things right now and just slap them on plastic--but I'm better off if I work hard, save up, and spend wisely, just like my mommy taught me.)

The imbalance is the issue here. If a couple of people get more for doing less, the scales don't change much; but if many people get something for nothing, the system begins to crash. "Every man for himself" doesn't do much for society as a whole, and I think there's more than one economic theorist that will back me up on this.

We are, after all, in this together, right?

* I was once told--though I've never found any evidence to back it up--that the Japanese do the birthday thing in reverse: the person celebrating the birthday gives gifts to close friends. Again, I've never been able to verify it, but it made a lot more sense to me. (I have found a great deal of information on Japanese gift-giving, the traditions involved, etc. It's fascinating stuff.)
Monday, May 18, 2009, posted by Q6 at 5:25 AM
In a presentation I often give to students and educators about technology safety, I end with explaining that much of the technology we use today was born out of ideas in science fiction. "To see where technology is going next," I explain, "we often look to the movies for answers." (I could cite some examples here, but those who are both tech-savvy and movie buffs already know what I'm talking about. Those who aren't should just keep reading; you'll get my point.) And lately I've been wondering if movies portend the future of other things as well.

Specifically, I'm thinking of a movie that was released back in 1979: "Americathon" was a campy film, the type popular at the time, that I expect wasn't seen by many people--or, at the very least, wasn't widely remembered. The IMDB plot summary puts it best: In the not too distant future, the United States government is virtually bankrupt and in danger of being foreclosed on by a group of Native Americans, now owners of the massive Nike Corporation. A desperate President decides to make a last-ditch effort to save the country... by raising money with a telethon!

I remember part of the film's opening sequence: people wake up in the morning inside their cars--in which they are living--and walk or ride their bikes to work. All phones are pay phones. Since it's a comedy, their destitute nature is something they make the best of, as if they don't even remember when things were good.

I'm no economist--a point which should be made very clear right now--so any thoughts I have about our nation's dire financial situation are probably naive and half-informed. I'm a layman, after all; but perhaps what's needed here is a perspective so fresh that it doesn't come from the business or economic communities at all. Once we have an idea, then let the experts kick it around. The Economy is tricky, and something seemingly counterintuitive to me the more I think about it. It would make sense to say, "Save your money, quit spending so much," but then businesses don't thrive. We could say, "Extend credit to all and buy, buy, buy!" but we've seen what that kind of thinking did to the housing industry. Every time I try to come up with an idea, there's some economic precept that raises another problem. It's an intellectual game of Whack-A-Mole. Douglas Adams's detective Dirk Gently called it "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things."

So I've been thinking a lot lately about radical solutions for the troubled economy, partly out of a sense of national altruism and partly because (if I do come up with a solution) I'd like to hear talk-radio change the subject. I'm just an average guy with a family, a couple of mortgages, a couple of cars, very little savings, and a job in a profession that's about to have a major funding-ectomy whether the Governor gets his way or not. In short, I'm just like millions of other people out there.

I began work on my ideas not long after reading an editorial letter in the LA Times about the $700 billion plus stimulus package. The idea has since circled the Internet half a dozen times, but it basically goes like this: There are roughly 40 million people in U.S. over the age of 50; give each one a million dollars with three conditions: they must leave their jobs, buy a house (or pay off an existing one), and purchase a U.S.-made automobile. The whole idea, radical in nature (in that "it's-so-dumb-it-just-might-work" sort of way), revitalizes the banks, the housing industry, automakers, and employment rates. Of course, the only problem with the idea is that it's author did the math wrong and missed a zero; although he thought he had a $400 billion solution on his hands, it would actually cost a whopping, cost-prohibitive $40 trillion. However, I like the way this guy thinks.

So what are some other ideas? (And so we're clear, I'm, not claiming any of the following as original ideas. I'm quite certain that others have thought of these things before, and I'm not trying to take any credit for their intellectual property.)
1) I thought about a Universal Salary Cap. Every job in every industry gets categorized in a gradient scale, and each job at each level is capped at a certain salary. First, this eliminates the corporate bonuses that have offended us all over the last eighteen months. Second, after everyone's paid there's a leftover sum (I think it's called "profit," but it's been so long since anyone's seen one . . . ) that can go back into the business, making it successful or enabling it to expand and hire more workers. Third, it helps to prevent money-grubbing, do-as-little-for-as-much-as-possible types from taking the CEO's chair--certainly SOMEONE must fit that bill. Hell, the President of the United States makes $400,000 a year; I'm not saying other jobs are more important than his, but I'm sure your average high school teacher gets more done in a week than he does. I know the problem with this salary cap idea is how it gives the finger to a free-enterprise system, and I'm sure somewhere along the line I'm going to sound like I'm endorsing Socialist or even Communist ideas; this isn't my intention. I love living in a free country, and Democracy and Free Enterprise are great; but if you think we can't look like Russia in the late 1980's at some point, you haven't been paying enough attention. I'm just trying to come up with ideas.

2) Perhaps outsourcing certain industries to foreign competitors would give us time to work on other things. Since the auto industry is about to be pulled off life support anyway, why not let Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and the others have it? We could use the workers, the resources, and the effort to develop a better domestic mass transit infrastructure. Think about it: what better way to kill the foreign auto competition by making the automobile obsolete in most metropolitan areas? More mass transit means fewer cars, less pollution, fewer injuries and deaths in automobiles. Once and for all, we would limit supply of foreign competition by reducing demand; it hasn't worked for the drug war, but it could work here. (The nay-sayers will complain that this will kill the insurance companies, car washes, auto component makers, and cripple the oil industry. I never said the idea was perfect, but at least they're not complaining that reducing accidents would hurt the medical profession.)

3) Let's re-think foreign investment: instead of combating it, let's embrace it. Is the world map ever really finished? Let's find a country that's got it going on and partner up. Let's take a page from the corporate playbook . . . it's merger time. This isn't a new idea; corporations have been doing it for decades. At the very least, we could consider a few countries with loads of capital and add a few stars to the flag (no one said there was a ceiling on the number of states we could have, right?) I know this sounds a lot like Manifest Destiny and world domination, but I'm thinking more about those KFC/Pizza Hut or KFC/Taco Bell locations: they're saving money by sharing space. (I know, they're all owned by the same corporation; they weren't always, though, and it helps with my "we need a roommate to share expenses" metaphor.) It sounds radical, but it would be a better alternative to, say, national foreclosure. If we don't do something, soon those eBay hoaxes about states being for sale won't be hoaxes.

If someone else has other ideas, I'm all ears. I really don't think the blueprint for America's rescue is going to come from the economic eggheads in Washington; I think the solution is going to come from some ten-year-old in the midwest who develops a sound economic stimulus model from World of Warcraft scenarios. It's gonna come from somewhere unexpected, and it's going to be a radical idea.

I just hope it works.
Friday, May 15, 2009, posted by Q6 at 5:30 AM
Probably the best thing about all the "Star Trek" reboot hoopla is that it's genuinely warranted. I saw the film last Saturday morning (and that's more about line avoidance, but there's something decadent about it, too) and would have been perfectly content turning around, walking back in, and seeing it a second time. (This may be a good film to see a second time in IMAX, a format I've not yet experienced.*) I'm not gonna go all spoiler-warning on you, but I do have three things to share: (1) since the Star Trek origin story has been referred to but never actually filmed anywhere, die-hard Trekkies** have no right to complain; (2) I wanted more Scotty (Simon Pegg stole every scene he was in); and (3) I really like the way this played out: the entire Star Trek universe has been rewound to the beginning, but will play out a different way.

What does it say about the movie business right now, though, that remakes have been shoved aside in favor of franchise reboots? These are good films, no question. "Star Trek" was outstanding. The new "Batman" stuff has been wonderful to see. I loved "Iron Man" as much as any other geek out there. It's getting really hard, though, to see the word movie anymore without seeing the implied business after it. Clearly, Hollywood is worried about the economy, too. I think we may be seeing a series of hail mary passes here, and it's got me a little worried about the future of good, original movie content.

And we were doing so well, too. Independent films were an excellent avenue for small, creative filmmakers; now, they're almost the norm, with large studios handling the distribution so often that we can hardly tell the difference anymore. Between the reboots, which are trying to lure new viewers as well as the dedicated fans (the pre-paid audience***, if you will), and the Judd-Apatow-Seth-Rogen-esqe over-the-line-type-of-humor films that seem to frequent the cineplex of late, studios are telegraphing their blows: "We're going where they money is guaranteed." Some of these films are good, and some aren't. That's not my concern here. It just seems that creativity and variety need to wait in the other room until Mommy and Daddy are done making some money.

Which, I guess, explains why I don't go to the movies as much anymore.

* I know, I know: "You've never seen an IMAX film? What kind of geek are you, anyway?"

** They're trekkies. I don't care what they want to call themselves anymore. This is what they started as and this is what they'll remain in my mind. Anyone who prefers trekker just seems ashamed of it, to me.

*** I'm just as guilty: when I heard about the new Trek film, I decided to see it on spec. I'm part of that pre-paid audience, and I admit that. But are the studios so desperate to avoid low box office that they must arrange the audience first, THEN make the film? A third-world leader once saw citizens running through the streets in support or opposition of something and said, "There go my people; I must find out where they are going so i can lead them." It feels a lot like that.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009, posted by Q6 at 11:00 AM
I went to the chiropractor yesterday--it's been a while--and he asked me what my problem was. "I'm turning forty tomorrow, and my body is starting to fall apart," I didn't say. "I can no longer stand up or sit down without some sort of popping noise," I didn't add. "I sometimes feel like my poor diet and lack of exercise are finally taking their toll," I didn't conclude.

"My shoulder hurts," I replied.

The pain radiated through my right shoulder, neck, and upper arm for a week before I finally called for an appointment. It turns out that my right rhomboid muscle, to whom I was politely introduced yesterday*, is in full-blown spasm mode. Twenty minutes of twisting, prodding, tweaking, and vibrating later, I was told that it might still hurt for a day or two. As I type this, it's nice to know that he's right about that, at least. It hurts less, though.

I realize that "The Big 4-0" is supposed to be this big milestone. We went over that (and no, I have no nipple-piercing appointment scheduled). I accepted with grace years ago that some facts and givens in my life will either be forgotten or disappear altogether. I'm not as bothered by this as people might suspect; my near-future plans include staying in the here and now.

Over the last month or so, however, I've been gently slapped in the face with my age in a completely different way. Recently, my mother wound up in the hospital with a blood pressure spike. She's had to be careful of such things since her thyroid gave her problems (which was soon after summarily fired and evicted--"Sorry, pal, but yer just not doin' yer job") and her breast cancer recovery. The solution--a mere adjustment of her medication--was simple, but spending the day in the hospital with her (something that she will forever maintain is thoroughly unnecessary) helped to ring the bell of reminder that we're all a little longer in the tooth than we'd like to admit. (My mom, of course, relishes laments the fact that she's old enough to be the mother of someone who is now forty. I don't get any "old man" comments from her.)

Last weekend, my brother was admitted to the hospital with a cardiac problem (it's important to note here that he's two years younger than I). His heart just kept stopping, then restarting anywhere from five to fifteen seconds later. Even with the placement of the pacemaker--one of few gadgets I have no interest in--he's still experiencing episodes and awaits further adjustment to his implant. Meanwhile, I've come to two conclusions. The first is that problems such as his can happen to anyone at any time; and although I'm in pretty good health, I know that at 40 the medical checklist gets a little longer, the diet and exercise priorities rise (inversely proportional to desire, of course), and a little more attention must be paid to such things. The second conclusion is that I'm perfectly content to continue walking into the hospital as a visitor.

As far as this birthday goes, I've already been run through the spanking machine several times: my mother made her annual early-morning phone call, my wife hid two cards in my briefcase, my daughter and her friends called from school to sing to me, my work mailbox is full of cards and candy, and my Facebook page is overflowing with well-wishes from every aspect of my life, old and new . . . .

. . . a life that's pretty full, now that I think about it. So this what forty looks/feels like, huh? Not bad . . . .

* I often find it amusing that there are so many parts and functions of our bodies of which we do not know or to which we pay no attention until they become problems. I will also never get used to having the chiropractor force loud cracks and pops out of my body in the name of "adjustment."
Saturday, May 02, 2009, posted by Q6 at 6:02 PM
Things are probably better for me financially than they've ever been. I credit a lot of that to my wife, whose support (and her own fiscally sound behavior) have allowed me to curb my spending without leaving the family in want or need of something.

Still, there are things I want to do--particularly to my home and yard--and there isn't really a budget for any of it. My situation will improve slightly in the next 70 days or so (it seems that driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle opens up certain rebate possibilities), and it'll improve again in September (4% raise!), but home projects aren't the only thing I've got going on finance-wise. Summer's comin'.

I'll be spending some time with my kids, and they'll want to do something fun (cha-ching); some of my former colleagues are talking about going back out to Vegas again as soon as school gets out (cha-ching); and there are two trips pending to Northern California over the course of the summer (cha-ching). Back at home, I'm looking at paving stones for two patio areas (and possibly a third), some sort of water feature in the patio area, lighting fixtures for the dining room and stairway, laminate flooring for the stairway, and three fruit trees.

Using my funds wisely--without compromising quality--hasn't always been my strong suit, but I'm getting better at it (thanks to the wife). Still, I wish it weren't something I had to put so much thought into.