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?