Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dark Job Outlook Restrains Negative Feelings?

From Bloomberg: "Confidence among U.S. consumers unexpectedly fell in December, restrained by concern that jobs will remain scarce in 2011."

I'm not sure why any economist would be surprised at a drop in consumer confidence after reports of slow job growth.

However, I am sure the Bloomberg story says the drop in confidence was restrained by concerns about job scarcity.

That makes even less sense so I'll just go away now.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Tech is Boring

Replica of the first transistor
Because there have been no fundamental technology breakthrough – something new – in more than a half-century, that’s why.

All the millions of words and billions of dollars lavished on what marketing types insist is “breakthrough technology” makes clear our fascination with the new, the small, the cool.

But “breakthrough?” Those nifty communicators that William Shatner and George Takei wore on their Star Trek uniforms now cost about 20 bucks at Fry’s and are called Bluetooth devices. Smart phones and other handhelds are just shrunken computers. The GPS device that keeps you from getting lost on the way to the corner grocery is a consumer version of something the military has used for decades.

All of today’s gee-whiz gear, regardless how sophisticated or how it’s used, is nothing more than an evolutionary step in the development of technologies created before push-button phones became common and consumers had to decide whether watching TV in color was worth the extra money.

While the benefits of tech innovation makes our lives better is clear. But the fact remains that there hasn’t been a basic, fundamental technology breakthrough since about 1947 when the first point contact transistor (read that semiconductor) was created. Once transistors replaced vacuum tubes, momentum accelerated in the development of computers. And that was that.

Let’s argue about it.

Yes, there is the Internet, which I believe created the most fundamental shift in human communication in history. But what is it other than a vast collaboration among computers? The first Internet connection was created in 1969 between the Stanford Research Institute and UCLA so scientists could more easily work together on U.S. Defense Department projects. It came into public use in 1992. Even today, the information that surges through the Internet still travels over old-fashioned copper telephone cables. Nothing new there.

The Web allows vast populations to easily access the power of  the Internet and, therefore, drives its impact; fully 79 percent of Americans go online, according to Pew Internet, a project of the Pew Research Center. But under the hood, the Web consists of nothing more than a virtually limitless library of documents accessed using Hypertext, a computer language.

Hypertext is an offshoot of Memex, which was first described in a 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, according to the World Wide Web Consortium founded by Web pioneer Tim Berners Lee. In fact, the institute says legendary inventor Doug Engelbart created the computer mouse in the 1960s to help him work in his "oNLine Systems," which performed hypertext browisng, edited email and other duties. 

From IBM
What about solar energy, that “clean tech” that we’re all so fascinated with today? Russell Ohr patented the first silicon solar cell in 1946. Enough about that.

The closest anyone has come to a basic tech breakthrough since the research of Ohr and others right after World War II is nanotechnology. That’s the ability to manipulate individual atoms to create – well, to create. Exciting, certainly. New, nope. The concept was first discussed publicly in an after-dinner talk on Dec. 29, 1959 by the renowned physicist Richard Feynman. Scientists have been moving and positioning individual atoms for more than a decade. By now, millions of people have seen the iconic photo of the IBM logo spelled out in single Xenon atoms. 

The simple fact is, the whole tech world hasn’t had a really bright idea since before many of the people running it were born. 

And that is why I don’t get all worked up when techies start lobbing adjectives about their companies and products. I think it’s also a good reason why VCs are scared witless about having too much money and too few legitimate companies on which to dump it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Executions and Foot-long Cheese Dogs

The death penalty is senseless and achieves nothing -- except deliver the occasional dark irony that further illustrates the absurdity of executions.

John David Duty was executed in Oklahoma today but not before he fought to  block the event on grounds the state's use of pentobarbital rather than the difficult-to-obtain thiopental was risky and unsafe.

For his last meal, Duty asked the folks at the local Sonic fast food outlet for a double cheeseburger with mayonnaise, a foot-long cheese Coney dog with mustard and extra onions, cherry limeade and a banana shake. Total calories: 2,653. Total calories from fat: 1,420.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nobody Loves Ya When You're Unemployed (And Educated)

Dorothea Lange
Breakdowns of unemployment statistics make it clear the more education you have the less likely you are to be jobless. For instance, the overall unemployment rate in November was 9.8 percent. For college grads it was 5.1 percent.

Hooray for education, right? Not if you're part of that 5.1 percent.

For one thing, the numbers show the more education you have the longer you will be unemployed. Over 45, a college grad and unemployed? The only part of that description likely to change in the near term is your age.

I recently read about a woman who demonstrated with numbers how her experience made her more productive than younger workers. Her boss said she didn't care because she could hire two new college grads to cover the same amount of work and still save money. The cash register rang and the older worker was out the door.

I've talked with small business owners who would never hire someone with a college degree for a job they perceived didn't require one. They reasoned that the over-educated employee will head out the door at the first glimpse of a job that is more engaging and pays them what they think they're worth. (They might want to rethink that: 42 percent of the jobless have been out of work for more than six months.)

The last census update reported 27 percent of Americans hold a college degree. Do the math and find 4 million literate, middle-class, unemployed people who find it harder to get a job than someone with a high school degree.

Hooray for education?

Photo: Dorothea Lange

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lenny Briscoe Wouldn't Have Messed This Up

CANTON -- Delvonte Tisdale "more likely than not" fell out of an airplane as it prepared to land at Boston's Logan Airport last month, Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating said today, ending the criminal investigation into the mysterious and horrific death of the North Carolina teenager....

Milton Police Chief Richard Wells Jr. suggested to reporters last month that Tisdale appeared to be the victim of a vicious killer who not only took his life but also mutilated his body. 
-- Boston Globe

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Street Economics Q4 2010

Dorothea Lange
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says it could be four or five years before unemployment gets back to what we once viewed as acceptable. How are millions of unemployed people going to cope until then?

Our society isn't structured to cope with long-term unemployment at that level. Health care reform focused on broadening the availability of insurance, not how to pay for it. The unemployment insurance system is crumbling under current demand and too many lawmakers view it as welfare. It takes two W-2 wage earners to support each Social Security recipient but there are fewer people on the payroll almost every day.

When the economy crashed in the 1930s medical care was pay-to-play and if you lost your job your only hope for an income was another one. People starved to death. It's not that ugly today on a national scale because there are enough supports under the pier to prevent total collapse.

But are they adequate to handle the weight for four or five more years without some serious re-engineering?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thanks Caterpillar

Caterpillar buys Bucyrus thereby eliminating BUCY as an NYSE symbol and improving my standing in search engines. 

Now if I can just do something about that &^$#%& dentist in Auburn, Nebraska, I can own the first page of Google results for "Bill Bucy."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

More Brilliant Economic Analysis

Downward revision of GDP growth a strong signal of stalled recovery

Los Angeles Times, August 27

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cisco's Chambers Tells The Truth

We need to get something straight about CEOs and their opinions on the U.S. economy: Their guess is no better than ours.

Most of them probably never took more than Econ 101 and 102 -- macro and micro -- and believe me those are far from the most challenging courses. I know because I got an "A" in both.

What CEOs really are talking about when they discuss the economy is how their customers plan to spend in relation to their perceptions of which way the winds will blow. So, CEOs base their opinions on what other CEOs think about what others CEOs believe and we dance in an endless spiral.

Occasionally, though, a big-time exec fesses up to the fact that's he's just guessing and I regain a smidge of confidence in how at least some companies are run. That happened today when I saw an AP interview with Cisco boss John Chambers. As he put it:

"If we were to poll [Cisco customers] I'm sure the average comes in at about 2 percent growth for the second half of the year. Doesn't mean that those customers are right, just that that's what on their mind in terms of their spending pattern. We're not making a call on the economy going down, I think the probabilities on a double dip, or whatever you want to call it, are relatively low."

 Useful information offered in context and candidly. I like it.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

HP Slow to Act on Hurd Greed?

Whatever the case against former HP CEO Mark Hurd, it's crystal clear the company's board deserves none of the praise it's received for acting "decisively."

As writer Eric Jackson noted almost a year ago Hurd and his executive team have consistently gone to the company trough seeking such perks as reimbursement for such items as taxes paid on the money HP spent to feed their families in restaurants and and as much as $327,000 in personal use of a company jet. One exec, CIO Randy Mott, even got a 400 percent raise in 2008.

The attitude expressed by the greedy behavior reported by Jackson makes me wonder if Hurd's indiscreet spending amounted to no more than $20,000 as his defenders claim. And it makes me wonder if the seemingly thin claim of sexual harassment was used simply as an excuse to jettison a capable executive with sticky fingers.

Regardless, to say the board acted with dispatch to correct a problem is way off the mark.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Makes Sense to Me No. 423

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's only debate with her opponent in the upcoming election was rescheduled so it wouldn't conflict with the final of the TV show MasterChef.

“People care about who the prime minister and who the government is, but people are also pretty keen about what’s on the dinner table,” said Gillard.

The debate will be televised July 25 immediately prior to the competitive cooking show.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Manly Shave Returns

Ah, blood, pain and the closest shave you can get today. Yes, the old-fashioned double-edge razor and those thin, single blades.

A bit trendy just now, but it's a legitimate antidote to the insanity of five-blade "systems" with gooey strips of chemicals glued to the edge.

I switched to a long-handled Merkur razor and Feather-brand blades a few months ago. I also dropped that foamy stuff and went with King of Shaves oil with King of Shaves gel as backup for when I really slice myself into ribbons and need a bit more separation from the edge for a few days.

Yes, it takes longer and requires more concentration, but the morning ritual with a real razor  is relaxing and gives me the closest shave I've ever had.

The Wall Street Journal reports I'm not the only one swimming against the tide. One store in Manhattan says its sales of traditional shaving gear is reaching parity with the modern stuff.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stirring Things Up in California Politics?

As a voter who declines to state a party preference (DTS) I usually feel slighted during the California primary election. There are still lots of candidates in local races and ballot measures for me to decide. But I miss the plaintive tug at my sleeve offered by humble partisans seeking my love.

So, this year I requested a Republican mail-in ballot under a state law that attempts to keep us DTS types interested in voting by letting us muck about in other people's business. What fun.

Like many voters, including Republicans, I knew nothing about most of the GOP candidates other than their deep desire to be used as sacrificial lambs in the November election - at least around here. Absent knowledge, I turned to alternative decision making methodologies.

For instance, I opted for Orly Taitz over Damon Dunn in the secretary of state's race simply because I liked her name. Mike Villines got my nod for Insurance Commissioner because his opponent, Brian Fitzgerald listed his profession as "Department's Enforcement Attorney." Does anyone think the department really does that good of a job?

I asked myself whether we really needed more ex-prosecutors sitting as judges and voted for the non-DAs in all three local judicial races.

My negative mindset carried over to the governor's election. Meg Whitman's preferential treatment in IPOs when she sat on the Goldman Sachs board just didn't sit well with this morning's oatmeal so Steve Poizner got my vote. Similarly, Tom Campbell received my approval because Carly Fiorina had been "friended" by Sarah Palin and the radicals in the Tea Party.

As for the ballot measures, only Prop. 14 piqued my interest. If it's approved, the top two vote-earners in a primary race would appear on the general election ballot regardless of party affiliation. It shouldn't take more than 10 seconds of thought to realize how that system would rock California's complacent political infrastructure to its core.

And if nothing else, I'm all about stirring things up.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Soulful Miss USA Solves Middle East Crisis

"We are so often described as terrorists and killers, but we Shiites love life and beauty -- and mainly the beauty of the soul, which is what is so special about Rima."

-Afifa Fakih, aunt to Rima Fakih, soulful pole dancer and the first Arab-American chosen as Miss USA

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No, the UK is Not a Democracy

The Brits were in a dither over who's going to run the country because they operate within a semi-feudal-anachronism rather than an honest-to-goodness democracy like ours.

Look at the facts:

The people are called "subjects" rather than "citizens" and never in their history have they been allowed to vote for their nation's leader. Instead, the head of government is selected by a handful of politicians and a hereditary monarch.

Without a vote of the people, the political party in power can swap out the head of government simply by choosing a new leader and any time it wants

There is no written constitution.

Some legislators are barred by law from voting on specific issues. Others are selected by the above-mentioned hereditary monarch and cannot be removed from office.

If the UK didn't possess nuclear weapons I might propose the U.S. invade and bring its people American-Style democracy.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Why Unemployment Will Remain High

Worker productivity is at an all-time high. Off the charts.

So, as our creaky, cranky economy slogs forward, companies will stretch overtime before hiring more employees. Given their increasing experience with "contingents," companies will consider contractors, consultants and temps before hiring more employees with all the burden.

How do we make a living? We stop thinking about "job" and start thinking about "work" to seize the second option.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Fergie Toe-Job"

To me, UK daily journalism peaked on Aug. 20, 1992 when The Sun ran the above front-page headline and photo of the Duchess of York and her then-paramour, Texas rich guy John Bryan.

As reporters Robert Jobson and John Kay wrote, "This is the sensational picture of Fergie having her toes kissed that will finish her marriage for good."

I just found a copy of the original in my basement. Cool.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Three More Reasons Why Aliens Don't Visit Earth

Wisconsin has adopted an official state microbe -- lactococcus lactis, a bacterium used in the creation of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese.

A 25-year-old man was beheaded in a sacrifice to the Hindu goddess Kali during a ceremony in a remote Indian village. Most Kali worshippers nowadays substitute pumpkins for heads, officials said.

Party girl Laura Hall, 20, has become the first person banned from every pub, club and liquor store in the UK.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How the UK Stifles Innovation

Paul Hutton wondered if his daughter's Barbie car might travel faster than its usual top speed of 4 mph if he added larger wheels. Unfortunately, he never found out because he was busted by Essex, England police during the the first test drive. For drunk driving.

The relative lack of threat to public safety prompted the judge to place him on probation for a year and nick him for £85 court costs rather than send him to jail. However, Hutton lost his driving privileges for three years because it was his second DUI conviction inside 10 years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Teaching Bad Bankers A Lesson -- Sort Of

"As the White House and Congress consider a host of new regulations for Wall Street, a commission studying the financial crisis harshly criticized the heads of the nation's biggest banks Wednesday for their role in the near collapse of the economy in 2008." (MarketWatch)

"Despite leading their companies into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, 92 percent of the senior officers and directors of the 17 top recipients of federal financial bailout funds are still in their posts."  (American Progress via The Week)