Words Drive Us to Distraction

Carmageddon begins today. That’s what wags are calling the traffic nightmare that’s supposed to befall Los Angeles because of the three-day surgical closure of the Westside’s main artery, the 405 freeway. It might as well be called Karmageddon; it seems fitting that L.A.’s lifeblood mobility should come back to strangle it. Since we're avoiding the roads, we're left to transport ourselves with thought, and here’s one that seems apropos: the English language is a lot of fun. We can play with it endlessly, savoring its ancient words and idiosyncratic pronunciation, while concocting new terms sharp or sweet with meaning.
Wordlovers are forever coming up with their list of favorites. (Wordlover is no more a "proper" word than carma- or karmageddon, yet. It's just more descriptive than the more correct logophile. Common usage tolerates the violation. In fact it doesn't give a damn.) Deshoda.com, cribbing from a blog called So Much to Tell You, recently presented a selection of 100 of the “most beautiful” [http://bit.ly/qJvnfs]. Many selections shimmered on the (web)page – how can one argue with epiphany, sumptuous, or woebegone? Then there were “ailurophile” (meaning cat-lover) and “chatoyant” (like a cat’s eye). Uh … no. Honestly, when are you ever going to use those terms (and still have people willing to associate with you)?
Other offerings such as "ratatouille" made no sense at all. Love the word, love the dish, love the movie. But it’s purebred French. If that qualifies, then why not put Beaujolais on the list? Phooey is a more worthy candidate. Oh, well. Everyone spouts an opinion in a democracy, which English not incidentally fosters because it's inclined to let people follow their bliss. English is a mutt with French, Germanic, Latin, Greek and other parentage, and its best words tend to be resilient old simpletons and crazy bastards. Whatever their etymologies, English boasts an astounding hoard, more than half a million gems and nuggets, and its enterprising promiscuity adds to the trove each day like a smartphone does apps. If you're a certain kind of person it can leave you feeling a little giddy. (Does nerdy rhyme with wordy for a reason?) Bang, dazzle, glee, languid, mist, perky, pesky, pipsqueak, resplendence, sigh, silly, smidgen, soft, velvet, whimsy, whisper, zephyr … Whoa, I feel dizzy. Of them all, I particularly favor the word laugh. You can’t help but smile just saying, or even looking at, that word. It gladdens the heart. “Love,” “joy,” and “grace” prompt much the same response – how can you resist them? They’ll help see us through any -mageddon life throws at us.

Can MySpace Get Its Sexy Back?

It's understandable that MySpace would want to regain its groove by hooking up with a hipster like Justin Timberlake, one of its new owners. But what does the singer-actor see in this tone-deaf cougar of social networking? An ad-placement outfit called Specific Media brought in the tastemaker as an investor in its $35 million purchase, or roughly a dollar for each of MySpace's 34.9 million U.S. users (per comScore). That’s only 6 percent of what seller Rupert Murdoch paid just six years ago for the service, which pitches music and other media to users based on their profiles. Is it a bargain
or a value trap? What can the new bosses do better?  Did Timberlake's turn as former Facebook president Sean Parker in the movie The Social Network give him some special insight for his new true-life role? Those looking to turn around a business (or a career or even a life) must first honestly assess their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (good old SWOT analysis). Beyond name recognition (now enhanced with the Timberlake association), MySpace has an immense trove of marketable user information and it's in the hot-hot-hot consumer social media sector. In the negative column, its flat-footedness has left it isolated, losing money, and swamped by numerous rivals that are well capitalized, popular, innovative, and determined. Hmm... Timberlake, with more than 5 million Twitter followers, has said he wants a place for artists to connect with fans, but MySpace has tried to do that for years without much effect; hence, Twitter. No, the big idea from Specific Media seems to be encouraging users to share favorite ads with their friends. OMG: I can’t wait to share my favorite product pitches with everyone I know!! Wait, what? Is that what passes for social exchange and enrichment? Doing the heavy lifting of advertisers? Why did Myspace ever let this happen? It was way, way ahead of Facebook just a few years ago. Now it only has some 225 employees, down from 1,400 a couple years ago, and will lose $165 million for the fiscal year ending today, June 30. Why did it fail to recruit or retain top tech talent? Why did it fail to open up its service to outside developers (Farmville, anyone?) Why did it let youngsters like Groupon and Zynga zoom ahead to valuations in the tens of billions? And why did Rupert Murdoch dye his hair orange? What MySpace failed to do, primarily, was product development, according to the real Sean Parker. "It was basically this junk heap of bad design that persisted for many, many years," the Napster co-founder told Jimmy Fallon at the NExTWORK Conference in New York. [http://tcrn.ch/iGNSOr] "There was a period of time where if they had just copied Facebook rapidly, they would have been Facebook. They were giant, the network effects, the scale effects were enormous.” Why do any of us lose our way? A variety of factors from arrogance to misplaced trust can lead us astray, but it's almost always pride that prevents us from getting back on track. All you can do is accept the new reality on the ground, dust yourself off, and keep going (hopefully a little the wiser). Parker, a bankrupt hacker not that long ago, did; look where it got him. And give News Corp. some credit. It’s fairly nimble for a leviathan. It rapidly bulked up on Internet properties and then shed them when fleeter rivals overtook them. (It also too-quickly flipped the Dodgers to the McCourts, but that’s another tale of woe.) The corporation is now doing the smart thing of developing digital versions of its real product: its television and newspaper brands. Funny how media’s other irascible octogenarian, Sumner Redstone, didn’t step up to buy MySpace once it fell into the clearance pile. After all, the Viacom chieftain canned well-regarded Tom Freston for the sin of  letting MySpace slip through his fingers and into the hands of nemesis Murdoch for a mere $580 million in 2005. (Businessweek shortly afterward referred to it as one of the savviest acquisitions ever.) Poor Freston. He didn’t want to overpay. There will always be plenty who do (viz, the $5 billion later paid for Dow Jones, once again by Murdoch). Look no farther than current valuations for new media properties. Living Social is eying a $1 billion IPO; its larger rival Groupon dreams of $20 billion. Facebook, MySpace’s vanquisher, has gone from $30 to $50 to $80 to $100 billion in valuation estimates (or is it a trillion this week?). LinkedIn’s recent public offering made it the most expensive stock in the market, with a price to earnings ratio of more than 1,000. By absorbing MySpace, Specific Media is probably laying the groundwork for its own public offering. “We have one of the most creative people driving the creative strategy,” Tim Vanderhook, Specific Media’s CEO said of Timberlake. [http://on.wsj.com/isHi2b] “That’s a huge difference than what was done in the past.”

Father’s Day and the Value of an Education

Father’s Day is as good a time as any to reanimate the PubArts blog after its months-long slumber. It’s my offspring, after all. And where would I be without my own dad, who worked so hard to make sure I had a great education and could earn a living myself. Okay, so I chose to ply the writing trade and calling that a living is a bit of a stretch at times. But still. It was awfully good of him, and I have always been tremendously grateful to him, and my mom, for their innumerable, and strangely willing, sacrifices.
It's among the most basic parental (and societal) responsibilities: preparing the young to stand on their own.
So it’s worth looking at the value of college education today, which can confer crippling amounts of debt with dubious real skills as a crutch. Does Shakespeare pay off? The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University studied lifetime earnings of degree holders to find out. The chief finding: those who majored in engineering, computer science or business earn half again as much as those who majored in the humanities, the arts, education, and psychology. [http://wapo.st/lgVnDT ] Well, duh. The study found the median annual earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering is $120,000, in pharmaceutical sciences $105,000, and in math and computer sciences $98,000. Not too shabby. Holders of bachelor’s degrees in English, on the other hand, have median earnings of $48,000, while a degree in early childhood education will likely earn you $36,000. Counseling or psychology brings up the rear at $29,000. The lesson: daddies, don’t let your kids grow up to be philosophers. Yet it’s worth noting that the holder of a bachelor’s degree still makes 84 percent more than someone who topped out academically in high school. The Georgetown study didn’t cover advanced degrees. But if money is your bag, also note that an MBA can really pay off, especially if granted by a top institution, according to research done for Bloomberg Businessweek. A Harvard MBA is particularly rewarding, netting its average holder $3.6 million over 20 years, and consulting is the most lucrative field. [http://buswk.co/k8TgUp] What have we learned? Spouting synergistic babble means big-time bucks and helping kids make good choices, not so much. That’s the marketplace. But here’s something no study can quantify or slap a price tag on: Education is still the greatest gift because it is the give of love. So a big thank you to all the good, education-minded fathers out there. ... Especially mine. I love you, Dad.

NFC Digs Fresh Ground

Near field communication (NFC) is a technology that allows a device like your mobile phone to be recognized by a specially programmed tag or machine, allowing instant transfer of information as well as transactions such as buying tickets or checking into hotel rooms. It essentially transforms customer service into software. It will send a lot of clerking and sales jobs to the boneyard.
You might find more human interaction among actual graves, where headstones may soon be NFC-enabled [http://on.mash.to/gtWs5s]. One day you'll be able to stroll down memory lane (not necessarily your memories) listening to voices from the beyond tell their tales with a simple touch of your mobile. So those Tuesdays with Morrie don't have to come to an end. You might want to avoid the cemetery on Memorial Day unless you enjoy a cacophony of old war stories.

The Future Is Near

What do movies, ballgames, and operas have in common? If you want to watch them in person you have to stand in line to purchase your tickets or print them out online. Then you have to queue up again at the event to hand over your paper slips. Soon there will be no reason to perpetuate this quaint routine. With near field communication (NFC) you tap your mobile phone against a designated point or tag to process your request: info, seat choice, or payment. NFC, in other words, proposes to transform customer service into software. If the powers that be and wanna-be have their way we soon may be the flesh-and-bone equivalents of cars zooming through the toll booth with the FastPass on our dashboards. Wireless communication between devices is nothing new, but unlike a Bluetooth connection, your mobile and the other device don’t have to be programmed to work together; they can simply touch to establish a connection. Just tap your mobile to a pay station employing something like MasterCard’s PayPass program or Visa’s payWave and off you go. If your phone isn’t NFC-enabled you can attach a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag to its back to perform the same magic.
Corporations and governments will be able to track our movements and spending habits accordingly. Which may seem kind of creepy, but should add to efficiencies and better allocate resources. For instance, traffic congestion will ease and municipal coffers will fatten when people pay to drive within a defined area; the City of London has done this successfully for many years. Don’t want to pay? Go another route or take public transport. And instead of feeding a parking meter with coins, you’ll simply tap it with your phone. The information that the space is occupied would then be transmitted to a central server; that database could be accessed by services (apps) letting drivers know where empty spaces exist.
NFC is the leading technology for paying via mobile. Such payments will reach $264.8 billion by the year 2015, according to a recent report, and are especially popular in densely populated Asian Pacific nations, followed by Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa – in other words, the more “under-banked” areas of the world. There are some four billion mobile phone users worldwide, and 1.6 billion bank accounts. You do the math: Mobile payments have huge potential as the gap between the two numbers narrows, and the First World catches up the the Third. http://bit.ly/gPFydf NFC and electronic wallets won’t be ubiquitous of course until most merchants, airlines, buses, train operators, hotels, and entertainment venues adopt the technology. But that day is coming. The biggest mobile carriers and manufacturers support NFC and are pushing retailers to join them in a technology that has been around for years without getting traction – before the advent of mobile smartphones made it, well, smart. “Looks like the technology is getting moving,” says Gerald Madlmayr, an NFC expert in Vienna. “Finally.”  http://bit.ly/fg9G8s As for all those ticket takers, you’ll have to look for human interaction somewhere else. Zoom, zoom.
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