Yet Another Case Study of Mindless Personal Technology Hype

Brought you by Geoffrey A. Fowler of the rapidly deteriorating  Wall Street Journal.

Is this dude on the AAPL payroll? He writes:

Bluetooth earphones are a thing now, so you might as well buy the best.

That short, vapid sentence speaks volumes about “journalism” in the era of consumerism. For the sake of fitting in, I certainly hope you join the Wireless Headphone Club this Christmas season. Nothing worse than being on the outside looking in. Cue the advert with baby Jesus in the crib with AirPods dangling from his tiny ears.

GAF continues:

Totally untethered headphones are a delight to use, especially when you’re on the move. No more untangling the spaghetti at the bottom of your bag. No more slap slap slap on your neck when you jog. No more being tethered to your phone like a marionette.

Maybe I just haven’t realized it. How long have my tangled wired headphones been keeping me from being my best version of myself? I won’t be joining the Wireless Headphone Club yet because I’m perfectly content running with an iPod Nano.* Hey GAF, News Alert: When running, I completely forget about my Nano and headphones. Someone at the Journal slap GAF for his “slap, slap, slap” hyperbole.

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* I’m waiting until your AirPods purchases drive my AAPL stock up $159. :)

Sentence to Ponder

From an article on Jeb Bush’s taxes in today’s WSJ.

“The average rate for middle-income households was projected to be 12% in 2013, the latest available data.”

The top 1% of earners, who do 99% of the complaining about tax rates, pays an average of 33%.

What percentage of people in developed countries would sign on to pay 12%? Trick question. Somewhat less than all because some (many?) would not want to accept the trade-offs of minimal taxes including worsening infrastructure, expensive health care, and tens of million in poverty.

Of Breakfast Tables and Technological Change

One of my fondest childhood memories involves my older brother who loved making my life miserable. He routinely read the morning sports page and comics while eating toast weighted down by peanut butter and honey. Inevitably, a few drops of the honey would spill over onto the paper, so that when our dad read it, pages would stick together. Prompting dad to snap and drop a “g*d dammit” much to my delight.

Fast forward forty years to our Olympia, WA breakfast table. The GalPal and I grew up in newspaper reading families so we’re part of the diminishing newspaper reading minority. I read lots of local and national newspapers on my laptop and iPad. But as you know, the heavy hitters—led by the New York Times—have started to charge for more than very minimal access.

We have a local paper weekend subscription which runs $13.33/month or $160/year. 52 weekends times three days equals 156 issues a year at a cost of $1.02/per. That’s a terrible value, but it’s a concession to marital peace. For some reason Betrothed has to hold the paper in her hands on the weekends. I hear divorce costs more than $160.

And we subscribe to the Wall Street Journal which runs $8.33/month or $100/year. That’s the educator’s discount price. The regular price is three times more at $26/month. 52 weeks times six days minus holidays equals about 305 issues/year at a cost of 32.7¢/per for me and 98¢ for the masses. That’s for home delivery and complete digital access on any device.

The WSJ subscription is about to expire and I’m thinking about switching to the New York Times digital/tablet edition. No home delivery. Unlimited access on any computer and tablet. Smart phone access is a little more. Educator’s discount price, $10/month; regular price, $20/month. That’s $120/year for 365 issues meaning about 32.9¢/per for me and 66¢ for the masses.

Another option is PressReader, the best choice for serious news junkies. It’s like a cocaine addict buying a personal cocoa field. For $30/month subscribers gain access to 2,300 newspapers from 95 countries, representing 54 languages. Here’s a 4+ minute video introduction. They’ve provided me with a sample subscription which I’ve been trying out. It’s a promising application, but it may not have your local paper. Also, it takes 10-15 seconds for papers to download and moving around within papers takes some getting used to. If it was my only option, I’d adjust quickly and like it, but I’m going to pass on paying three times more for way more content than it’s possible to process.

As if the newspaper subscription water isn’t muddy enough, two more options include the online news aggregator Zite which I’ve reviewed before (here) and Pulse another news aggregator which I really like and highly recommend (both available at iTunes). Pulse works especially well for skimmers. In fact, I dare you to find a rival.

For the love of all things digital, someone please convince the GalPal the answer is obvious. Read the local paper online, use $120 of that $160 in savings to subscribe to the New York Times, and use the remaining $40 to buy more dried mangos.

What Explains School Suspension Racial Disparities?

Jason L. Riley in the Saturday/Sunday Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is waving around a new study showing that black school kids are “suspended, expelled, and arrested in school” at higher rates than white kids. According the report, which looked at 72,000 schools, black students comprise just 18% of those enrolled yet account for 46% of those suspended more than once and 39% of all expulsions.

In his embarrassingly misguided critique of the report Riley sees want he wants to see and makes an argument for tougher school discipline and greater access to public charter schools and private schools which “typically provide safer learning environments.” He writes, “This is yet another argument for offering ghetto kids alternatives to traditional public schools, and it’s another reason why school choice is so popular among the poor. Riley’s use of the term “ghetto kids” is all you need to know about his qualifications for weighing in on this sensitive, complex topic. Instead of using the report to advance his political agenda, imagine if Riley had instead asked questions about its meaning. Most importantly, what explains dramatic differences among which students are most often suspended from school? I don’t have an answer, but based upon three decades of work in culturally diverse schools and last week’s “The Teaching Profession Desperately Needs Some Linsanity” I offer four variables: 1) Subconsciously, mostly white, mostly middle class educators reward students for coming to class with their materials, raising their hands, being quiet, staying still in their seats, and submitting to their authority. Intelligence is equally evident among all ethnicities, but substantive cultural differences translate into different ways of behaving at home and therefore, in school. Instead of relatively homogeneous teachers and administrators adjusting their expectations to their increasingly diverse students, they expect their students to adjust to their white, middle class expectations. And it’s a lot easier for students raised in white, middle class families to demonstrate the aforementioned “teacher pleasing behaviors”. Simply put, teachers are less likely to discipline quiet and submissive students than louder, non-conforming ones. 2) Most white, middle class families see academic achievement as integral to long-term success in life; as a result, they usually monitor their children’s progress. Of course non-white, non-middle class families do too, but maybe not as high a percentage. For some non-white, non-middle class families schooling is neither positive or negative, for others it’s decidedly negative. For these families schools have been inhospital places that too often assume everyone defines success the same way—graduating college and making decent money. School administrators believe their discipline policies, procedures, and decision-making are rational, but what’s rational depends in part upon one’s cultural context. This article on a Bakersfield, California high school cross-country running program is an extremely poignant example of this. And this book, Unequal Childhoods, is another related, highly recommended read. 3) Despite rapidly changing demographics and accelerating global interdependence, most school curricula remains decidedly Eurocentric; consequently, non-white, non-middle class students are even less interested in traditional course content than students more generally. Course content is rarely, if ever, relevant to their life experience. The less interested students are, the more likely they are to act out. 4) Black students are sometimes oppositional not because they’re incapable of cooperating, but because they’re frustrated they can’t do what’s expected of them. Sometimes they start kindergarten already behind their peers, and then slip farther behind each year, ending up several grades in the hole. By middle school, absent individualized attention and coordinated remediation, their reading comprehension and numeracy skills make school a source of constant embarrassment and frustration. Riley seemingly assumes the “ghetto kids” are out-of-reach bad seeds and that we should just cut our loses and create some charter schools for the “students who are trying to get an education”. I propose a different approach. Schools truly partnering with parents by asking them what they want for their children and then providing struggling students with extensive one-on-one tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Do those two things and watch the black suspension rate steadily fall to somewhere around 18%.

Save or Spend?

There are three types of people in the material world: savers; spenders; and somewhere, someone, who perfectly balances the two. Too bad young lovers rarely get around to asking, “Saver or spender?” because mismatched partners no doubt deal with more than normal stress and conflict.

A consummate saver, I’m a distinct minority. News outlets have been churning out report after report about Baby Boomers not having saved nearly enough for their impending retirements. Look for older and older employees in the workforce.

Recently, a Wall Street Journal writer (article link—Want to Retire Wealthier?) asked, “Why is it so difficult for people to set aside money for the long-term future?”

Then answered, “Low earnings and high temptations are obvious reasons. But perhaps the most basic cause is a fundamental human frailty: We view our future selves as strangers.”

The intriguing article continued:

Estimating with any precision what you will want 30 or 40 years from now is almost impossible. You don’t know your future desires, because you don’t know your future self. What will you want or need when you are 65 or 70 or 80 or older? Who knows?

Viewed this way, it isn’t surprising that the young typically don’t want to save for their retirement, since that stage of life feels as if it will be lived by someone else. And when you save money today on behalf of your remote future self, you deprive your immediate present self of cash you could use right now.

Of course, if you spend tomorrow’s savings today, you won’t have cash when you need it in the future—but that day of reckoning is decades off. That is true for those of all ages, but the lost opportunity is greatest for young people, because money set aside at an early age has more years to grow.

Yet it is highly unusual for people to think more vividly about their future selves than about their present selves, say psychologists.

The project underway at Stanford seeks to close this gap between the present self and the future self, without turning young people into misers. By enabling the young to see themselves as they will be when they are old, virtual-reality technology can transform their urge to spend for today into a willingness to save for tomorrow.

Interesting finding. Pictures of people’s future elder selves inspire them to save more.

Reminds me of the “marshmellow study” described here.

In that study, researchers learned that young children who couldn’t wait to eat one marshmellow (“low delayers”) and thereby sacrificed receiving a second one, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes for a second marshmellow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

You and I know S.A.T scores are inconsequential in the bigger picture, but it’s hard to underestimate the importance of delaying gratification.

I wonder, what’s the secret to striking the best possible saving-spending balance? Put differently, how should one balance living in the present on one hand and in the probable future on the other? And if virtual-reality technology holds promise for helping spenders save more, what might help hyper-savers strike a better balance?

Two Worlds

One world is inhabited by 73-year-old Richard Stoker, his wife Jane, his dogs, and his new neighbors in their Miami, FL luxury condominium development.

Stoker was featured in a recent  WSJ article on an increasing number of investors purchasing homes with cash in the belief prices have bottomed out.

“The prices were just irresistible,” Stoker said. “Florida’s been hit pretty hard.”

The article continues:

To pay the $1.8 million, $1.2 million and $1 million prices on the condos, Mr. Stoker and his wife, Jane, cashed out of some financial investments and sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting and an Alexander Calder mobile. Since mid-October, Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, the development Mr. Stoker bought into, has sold 35 units, with a third of the buyers from overseas and many others retiring from the Northeast. . . . The Stokers have a home in Potomac, Md., but spend most of the year in Florida. Mr. Stoker doesn’t plan to rent out any of his new properties, saying he and his wife will live in one with two dogs, his son might live in another and the third will house an older dog and guests.

What are we to make of Stoker and his world? We don’t have many details, but in 2011 America, here’s what I think I’m supposed to conclude. “Good on you. Probably worked hard your whole life and played by the rules. Enjoy the spoils of your labors.” Besides, who knows, maybe he’s an inspiring philanthropist who has given similar amounts of money to good causes.

But I’m tired of the status quo, so instead of giving him a pass and congratulating him, I have some questions.

What kind of person agrees to participate in an article like that under their own free will? What kind of person admits to the world that they bought a $1m condo for their dog? Why are there only two socially acceptable responses to conspicuous consumption in the U.S.—laissez faire nonchalance or awe? Why aren’t we embarrassed for the Stokers of the world when they publicly flaunt their wealth? Why don’t we freeze them out?