January 25, 2008

Memes as Headlines

I was reading the Jan. 25, 2008, edition of Economist.com. The headline for an article reporting Mexico's war on illegal drugs, is "No country for old men."

Clever.

Yet another case of editors appropriating titles and phrases from literature or popular culture, or even from the lexicon of clich├ęs , for use as headlines.

"No Country for Old Men" is the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel from which Joel and Ethan Coen adapted a screenplay and directed a movie of the same name.

How much lazy headline writing have you seen?

I've seen plenty of uses of "a clean well-lighted place" (Hemingway's short story) in headlines.

Is this lazy?

Or is it smart communication? Essentially using memes as headlines. (If you are not familiar with the concept of a "meme," follow this link.)

"Master of his domain." "Great white whale." "Will it blend?" "It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times." "Around the World in (Almost) 80 Days." "A Bird in the Hand is Better than One in the Bush." "Where's the Beef?" "Not That There's Anything Wrong With That." "War and Peace." "All's Fair in Love and War."

Please send me any memes as headlines you come across.

DennisFreire at GMail dot com


[A related area is that of editors copying the headlines appearing in other publications. That would be "headline plagiarism."]

[[Also related is the art of new media headline writing for purposes of optimizing search engine results and maximizing Adsense activity.]]

January 23, 2008

Social Flutterby, New Media Curmudgeon and theThird

Here is a summary of your responses to my call yesterday for opinions about Facebook (polling sample is a little over 50; while important to me and to those who've opined, these results are statistically insignificant).

Oh, and I was way off on the number of my 100 or so regular readers who have Facebook accounts. I guessed 15%. It's near 50%.

By the way, I don't have a Facebook account. On purpose, but I'll have to tell you why in a different post.

I've generalized your responses:

Social Flutterbyes:
About 40% don't care about the politics of Facebook's capitalists. This group is happy to have the platform, figuring they set their own micro agenda.

New Media Curmudgeons:
About 28% either said they never will participate in the "Facebook / Myspace / Et al" culture, or that they have quit that world, closing their accounts and boarding up the windows to their private lives.

A Third of You:
The prevailing opinion of a third of you was that Facebook, et al, are dominated by poseurs trying on different personae as they masquerade through the web.

Thanks for participating.

DennisFreire at GMail dot com

January 21, 2008

How Do You Spell Recovery?

HGH.

Malcolm Galdwell poses some questions about pro sports and banned substances.... questions I've been thinking and talking about.

See Malcolm's post "War On Drugs, Con't" and see the three entries below that: "The War On Drugs," "Free Fernando Vina (Part Two)" and "Free Fernando Vina!"

January 20, 2008

Sunday Night's Soup Night

The best day of the week is Sunday. The best part of Sunday is being together as a family. And our favorite meal on Sunday night is soup.

The girls like soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I like soup and crackers.

Tomato soup tonight. Awesome.

But there are more favorites: Tortilla soup. Barley and rice soup. Greek lemon rice soup. Chilled soups, like acorn squash soup, mango soup or celery soup. Chicken broth. Chicken and rice soup. Chicken and noodle soup -- homemade noodles.

No one likes minestrone. Cooked carrots are deal breakers.

I made homemade chicken soup a couple of days ago. Yum.

The girls wearing their flannel pajamas, eating soup and sandwiches and talking. We get a lot of down loading done Sunday nights with bowls of soup in our hands.

January 18, 2008

Distribution of Wealth

I've been surprised by the responses to my post about the distance that separates the compensation of publicly-traded companies' CEOs from the compensation of those CEOs' fellow employees.

Some have expressed outrage about high CEO compensation, but with no explanation why they were outraged.

Some have said, So, what's your point? it's all a matter of market forces and contracts.

Others have accused me of being in essence a John Edwardian "there are two Americas" anti-capitalism move-on-dot-org naif.

Still others suggested I was asking some questions between the lines: How is the compensation difference justified? Can you show me, give me examples, help me understand?

I think my posts on employee compensation and insurance benefits hinge on principles of accountability, proportion and ethics.

Tell me more by continuing to send email to DennisFreire at GMail dot com.

(That's right. I prefer one-to-one interaction in contrast to traditional blog comment posting. Tell me what your preference is...)

January 17, 2008

How to Make Good Bread

Insurance Benefits

Some of your responses (to my post about employee compensation) have reminded me of an ethical dilemma faced by boards of directors and executives, at least by those with consciences perhaps as refined as the Bishop of Digne's or Jean val Jean's, both of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."

In many companies, when group medical plans are established and administered, distinctions are made for purposes of setting the amount an employee pays for the annual premium.

For example, at the administrative level, the employee may pay $330 a month for family enrollment in the group medical plan. For the same benefits, however, at the executive level, the employee may pay $120 a month for family enrollment in the group medical plan.

Thus, the employee with the least amount of annual salary is required to pay the greatest amount of the employee portion of the group medical premium.

And the employee with the greatest capacity to pay the larger employee portion of the group medical premium pays the lowest possible amount.

I personally know, and admire, several executives who have recognized this lopsided and nearly arbitrary differentiation of employee cost of medical benefits.

EBay is a good example. It has built into their cost structure the full group medical premium for each employee: it pays 100% of the group medical premium. If you make $26,000 as a inbound call customer service representative, or $126,000 as a brand manager or power channel coordinator, eBay pays 100% of your group medical benefits.

I have done many budgets where the group insurance benefit line item has increased an average of 12% to 15% a year, year in and year out. There are prevailing macro-economic forces beyond most employers' control (and most employers are small to medium sized businesses) that cause the steep premium escalation.

But where possible, I personally would seek other areas to control costs besides passing the bulk of the burden on to the employees with the smallest capacity to pay for group medical premiums.

Does that make me a socialist in your eyes?

Employee Compensation

Larry Ellison co-founded Oracle in 1977 by making a capital investment and contributing his intellectual property, which was the relational database he created. His 2004 salary of $40.6MM, I assume, was a product of his risk bearing as a major stakeholder and founder, and his leadership as CEO.

Assuming an average employee salary of $60,000 per year at Oracle, Mr. Ellison's compensation was 677 times greater than the average Oracle employee.

In the United States, the average teacher salary in the 2005-06 school year was $47,602. During the same period, the average principle salary was nearly twice as much at $92,965.

I'm not pointing to distribution of wealth. What I'm interested in is the compensation variance of employees.

Thus, for my purposes here, I would exclude Larry Ellison as an example, because he is a company founder. I exclude the local home builder, an excavation contractor, a Quizno's franchise owner or the obscure but cash-flowing website owner. I exclude those who bear real risk with their real assets. If their venture loses, they lose.

I am comparing employees at publicly traded companies.

For example, the CEO of Wells Fargo made $37.8MM (here, look at this way: $37,800,000) in 2004. Again, assuming an average Wells Fargo employee salary of $60,000, the CEO made 630 times more money than his fellow employees.

But the Wells Fargo CEO did not bear any risk in the start-up capitalization of Wells Fargo. Nor did he bear risk later by making additional paid-in capital contributions. Nor did he invest in Wells Fargo with large amount of his own after tax dollars and thereby accepting burdens of risk as a stock holder.

No. He was an employee who advanced through the ranks, finally entering levels of management where annual compensation charts on a logarithmic scale.

Here are some comparisons to consider:
(Executive Salary , Avg Worker , Variance , Office)
$400,000, $40,000, 10.00, President
$217,000, $40,000, 5.43, Supreme Court Justice
$165,000, $40,000, 4.13, Congressman

(CEO Salary, Avg Worker, Variance, Company
$148,000,000, $60,000, 2,466.67, Colgate-Palmolive
$70,500,000, $60,000, 1,175.00, United Technologies
$37,800,000, $60,000, 630.00, Wells Fargo
$32,800,000, $60,000, 546.67, Apollo-Education Group
$30,200,000, $60,000, 503.33, Kohl's
$23,300,000, $60,000, 388.33, PG&E
http://www.forbes.com/2004/04/21/04ceoland.html

(Avg Principal, Avg Teacher , Variance )
$92,965, $47,602, 1.95
http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos069.htm


The variances which are the most mystifying to me, of course, are those among CEOs of public traded companies and their fellow employees. Particularly when CEOs, most often, improve the financial performance of their companies by increasing profits in the short-term by massive cost cutting; profits flag later because products and services do not capture new sales.

My exposure and perspective are limited, but I have failed to see how, in most cases, a publicly-traded company CEO's performance justifies exponential differentials that so vastly separate employee compensation within one company.

I first became aware of CEO compensation extravagance as a shadow on the wall of Plato's cave, when I was in high school. Lee Iacocca became CEO of Chrysler and became a celebrity for brokering a deal with the Federal government, securing from the Feds loan guarantees to stave off bankruptcy. Yes, Chrysler repaid the loans, even seven years ahead of schedule, but the company still went from one crisis to the next. Where was the long-term solution? How did Iacooca's short-term fixes warrant his huge compensation? And by now you know that by "huge" I mean "huge" when compared to the average worker at Chrysler.

So, you say, market forces drive CEO compensation. Is that correct?

If so, how is it that only one side of the market forces blade is felt by CEOs? Why aren't CEOs fired when the company's fortunes turn south? Or at the very least, why aren't their salaries adjusted down to be, say, only 10 times that of their average co-workers?

Book Recommendation

Seth Godin's "Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?"

This book should be read by the CEO on down the line. An understanding of Seth's thesis will help companies:

  • avoid out-of-sync and therefore costly forays into new media
  • judge how their enterprise fits in this age of atomized information and unlimited channels
  • align behavior with stories
"Meatball Sundae" should be read by educators for insights concerning how attention is won and information is sought and consumed.

The book should be read by parents for a reminder of the market of ideas, products and services available to their children and grandchildren -- choice is king and we can educate our children about their power to shape their own consumption.

January 6, 2008

Debt

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Polonius giving advice to his son, Laetres
(Hamlet, Act I, Scence 3)

What's the relationship between debt and being true to your self?

January 5, 2008

Seeing It Soon Enough

I received a request from a friend to help analyze a difficult situation.

The fountain head of the problem is a series of decisions made three years ago, in 1995. From that fountain head flows a river.

Over the course of three years' of additional decisions or lack of decisions, tributaries and run offs and waterfalls have added volume and speed and inevitability to the flow.

Today it is too late to build a damn.

Changing the course of the flow
nearly would be impossible.

The good news is

(1) we were able to compile data, model the future, make some interpretations, coolly accept economic realities, and identify several paths to take,
(2) an option has become available that would be of equal help to my friend and to the third party, and
(3) numbers 1 and 2, above, happened soon enough.

Reminds me of what Mike Leavitt said, as quoted by Washintonpost.com:

"There is a time in the life of every problem when it is big enough to see but small enough to solve."

January 4, 2008

Vaulting Ceilings and Education

The responses to my posts The Third Teacher and Good Design, Wrong Agenda helps me see there are a lot of folks who question the established learning environments for children.

I wonder about cathedrals and a sense of eternal perspective and how that perhaps promotes spirituality... So I ask, is there a relationship between the vaulted ceilings of a cathedral and an expanding view and spiritual sense?

And here's a corollary: What about the flights of emotion and passion and even feelings of deep reverence evoked by mountains and forests and grand blue skies or ominous gathering storm clouds? Or the vastness and depth and pertual motion of the ocean? Or the brilliance, beauty, and diversity flora and fauna?

Physical spaces inspire and promote thought and creativity. John Muir spoke of standing a top mountains an vistas in the Yosemite area of California Sierra Mountains and, though he was alone, uttering mighty "Yulps!" as the seemingly best visceral expression for what he experienced with his five physical senses and his other emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative faculties.

A learning space for children ought to be calculated to not be so calculating; to not reward only the ever eager, hand-raising, I-got-the-answer type of student, but to elicit more of a Socratic approach of presenting questions for analysis and discussion -- I think space can promote dialectic approaches to guiding even young learners to self-propelled discovery.

Check out these summaries of studies about the effect of ceiling height on learning: A Schools for Children blog post and a PDF document The Influence of Ceiling Height.

Working in groups, teams, committees, subcommittees, on projects, assignments.... in contexts of division of labor and returning and reporting/synthesizing. Thus, why not eliminate classroom desks and instead have conference tables, open chairs for circular and other arrangements, etc.? A friend of mine likes the idea of having yurts available -- yes, even indoor yurts, for certain activities.

Dr. Todd Petersen has some well-defined ideas about classroom furniture and learning environments, and has developed a growing education philosophy (not the typical blah, blah, blah) supporting his ideas.

January 3, 2008

"The Cheapest Way To Build An Empire"

This is stream of consciousness, maybe ill formed, but I wanted to chunk it out to look at it later.

An oft-touted wealth-creation strategy:

Expectation of being the target of a purchase or merger; planned aforethought; sure, we could slip into the set of argot containing "flip," but we won't. The principles are bearing risk and seeking commensurate reward.

There's another mind set, a kin to Expectation:

Anticipation of being the target of a purchase or merger, but it wasn't always so; in the beginning, there may have been a desired independence from equity lenders, perhaps an aversion to debt, and so forth. Here, anticipation truly means hoped for, and the hope arises in the firm’s evolution.

And a cousin to Expectation and Anticipation is: Acquiescence to Inevitability.

In Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch," a character named Hassan identifies an interesting principle, "reward for surrendering," where the tactical and strategic movements of a conquering nation "gives the surrounding nations a reward for surrendering. And a reason not to rebel."

Another character, Hanuhpu, expands on this thought with an example from history:

"Just the way so much of the Roman Empire didn't have to be conquered. The Romans seemed so irresistible that kings of neighboring countries would make the Roman senate the heir to their thrones, so that their kingdoms would pass peacefully into the Roman system. It's the cheapest way to build an empire, and the best, since there's no war damage to the newly acquired lands." (Orson Scott Card. "Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Tor. NY, NY. 1996.)

Enticing succession and perpetuation solution for the "retiring royalty." From surviving corporations' perspectives, analogous to business development through affiliation, acquisition or merger.

The politics are the same, too. Egos. Saving face. Avarice. Risk and Reward.

In 1995, the vendor that provided the customer service and financial accounting software my company (I was an employee) used was acquired by one of its larger competitor. Our vendor's software ran on an IBM/Unix platform. The database was flat. The worry was Y2K computing errors five years hence.

The installed base of users of this software was fairly large. The acquisition did not arise from the desire to take a shortcut to better products and technology. It was the customers these particular Romans wanted. Evidence of this came quickly. Representatives came calling to explain that "we are migrating from your legacy system to a new Windows-based program."

For us, the portent was increased item cost (data base license, user licenses, training, etc.) and decreased productivity in selling our products and servicing our customers.

This company disappeared, swallowed up like Atlantis in an ocean of competition.

Rather than allow talk of "migration from legacy systems" and such become a ring in our noses by which we would be tugged and pulled on a path dictated by the vendor, we requested bids from other vendors.

We knew we wanted a Windows-based system (remember, this was 1995) and we preferred a relational data base for greater reporting capabilities. We wanted to avoid Y2K disasters that were widely predicted at the time.

We identified two vendors and asked them to present their stuff. We selected the winner.

Okay, here's the part that is relevant. I accompanied the team that went to the winning vendor’s corporate headquarters to negotiate terms for licensing, installation and training. This company had their own "legacy system" but had spent their cash and human capital on building a product from scratch based on the Microsoft SQL Server.

Bingo! These guys created something new and exciting. Windows based, not a DOS product running on Windows, but a from-the-ground-up Windows product. A relational database allowing us to map data fields to Excel or Access for custom reporting. Client / Server operation, which was preferred in those days.

Our contract signing was in May. The company was acquired in August of the same year.

The purchaser in this case was not interested in the installed base of customers. In fact, there were very few installations. It was brand new software. Moreover, the targeted vendor's customers on the vendor's "legacy" DOS-based software were comparatively small in number.

The purchaser was in it for the product, the technology, the resources. They did not have to risk capital in product creation, building, testing, and retesting.

Today, the purchaser in this transaction is in the top two of vendors in its particular industry.

EBay, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, Berkshire Hathaway. Other examples you could name. These sovereignties have prosecuted both types of acquisitions: buying customers and buying technology. And like the Caesars, these empires have allowed in many cases the exiting royalty to live the remaining days with some dignity, lots of wealth, but with declining influence and authority.

It is doubtful that surrounding countries planned to flip (dang, I used that jargon) their thrones to Rome. No. I’d ascribe capitulation to Rome as Acquiescence to Inevitability.

“The Romans seemed so irresistible that kings of neighboring countries would make the Roman senate the heir to their thrones, so that their kingdoms would pass peacefully into the Roman system.”

January 2, 2008

Helping Others Find An Audience

Of course, by "an audience" I refer to people who are engaged and interested in what someone is creating or saying or selling.

I met today with the owner of an up and coming commercial web site selling specialty products. He has a narrow niche and a loyal following. He's ready to step up from his current plateau of sales and operations.

About every concept we discussed has been taught by Seth Godin.

We discussed search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). We talked about viral videos, blogs, and social media. Next time we meet we'll discuss he concept of social gestures and social objects.

What I liked about the guy (one of the things I liked about him) was his desire to avoid cynical, interruption-based marketing (you know, the I-don't-care-if-I-offend-50- people-for-every-5-orders-fulfilled" mentality of direct marketing), and instead has created genuine interest in his business. As a result of his keeping his promises and staying true to his story, he has very satisfied customers.

But he needs more customers and he wants to stay the course as to the tone and character of his site.

He has the beginnings of a remarkable story. I'm eager for our next meeting and brainstorming and analyzing and shaping a strategic plan for marketing to his email subscribers and bringing the right people to his site.

Many have said that each web site is a small needle in a huge haystack. I am eager to watch his progress.... when duties of confidentiality have run their course, I may be able to share additional details that I believe will be quite fun to learn about.