Saturday, April 19, 2008

Peeling paint graphs the progress of runaway global warming

Peeling Paint Graphs the Progress of Runaway Global Warming
If the x axis represents time, and the y axis represents temperature, then this patch of peeling paint could be seen as graphing runaway global warming, although we don't know the exact coordinates yet, nor the precise slope of the curve. Runaway global warming will eventually reach some sort of equilibrium at a higher level. For example, the temperature of the planet Venus does not change a lot from year to year. Unfortunately, we do not know whether the equilibrium temperature will be compatible with human life as we know it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

What if Google bought the battered New York Times? Could they save it from itself?

The Battered New York Times
The business headlines the other day told all you need to know about the battered New York Times and the changing face of a newspaper industry confronted by the challenge of the Internet.

New York Times Company Posts Loss portrayed a struggling company that posted a $335,000 loss in the first quarter — "one of the worst periods the company and the newspaper industry have seen." Earnings fell far short of analysts’ expectations, as well as the paper's $23.9 million profit in the quarter a year earlier, which was also a bad year.

Google Profit Beats Wall St. Forecast told how Google's net income for the first three months of the year rose 31 percent on revenue growth of 42 percent from a year ago, topping estimates from Wall Street analysts. The trendlines don't look great for the Times.

The Times is definitely in play now. Earlier in the year, two hedge funds bought major positions in the Times Company's depressed stock. They leveraged these into two seats on the board that are expected to be approved by stockholders later this month.
The Times Company’s declining fortunes have sowed shareholder discontent, and the weak first-quarter results could intensify calls for a shift in strategy. A pair of hedge funds, Harbinger Capital Partners and Firebrand Partners, acquired a large stake in the company early this year, demanding that it sell assets and invest aggressively in Internet operations.Rather than endure a proxy fight, the hedge funds and the Times Company struck a deal, agreeing to expand the board to 15 seats from 13, with the two extra seats going to the funds. That agreement is expected to win approval at a shareholders’ meeting on April 22.
Michael Wolff writes about what's in store for the Times in the new issue of Vanity Fair. Although the new board members can't immediately wrest control of the paper from the Sulzberger family, Wolff writes that they're in a position to make life miserable for the Sulzbergers in a variety of ways.
Continued embattlement. Neither shareholders nor moguls and financiers or other media can force the Sulzberger family to do anything it doesn’t want to do. So it should just ignore the peanut gallery. That’s one stiff-upper-lip thesis.

But the peanut gallery—especially if it has managed to seat a few directors—is going to chew up a lot of the Sulzberger family’s management, not to mention emotional, resources. From a corporate-governance perspective—no matter that the family holds the ultimate vote—Sulzberger and his management team are going to have to tediously justify their every view and action. They will have gone from having a rubber-stamp board to a board of constant inquisition (one terrified of being sued for its every lapse of constant vigilance). This will, especially with a falling or stagnating share price—and a divided board won’t, in the short term, help the price—quickly develop into a battlefield situation, with all sides retaining lawyers and P.R. troops.

It’s a mess that invites other insurgencies and that will result in a dramatic turnover of the company’s shareholder base, with longtime passive shareholders replaced by additional opportunistic activist shareholders. The Sulzberger family, in other words, will find itself effectively partnered with forces, or interests, which believe that the Sulzbergers are the single largest impediment to share-price appreciation. If the family were willing to sell, the stock might double in value. Therefore, the strategy of the insurgents and arbitrageurs and other snakes of the market becomes making life difficult—truly quite unbearable—for management and its directors.
The history of every great American newspaper family is that eventually the heirs lose control of their inheritance. That recently played out at the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch's benefit. Now it may the Times' turn. Wolff runs through a number of possible scenarios. He seems most intrigued by the possibility of Michael Bloomberg buying the paper (when asked, he just smiles enigmatically). He certainly has the money. And he knows publishing and interactive media, since that's where he made his money.

But I still like the idea of Google buying the Times that was floated by John Ellis in Real Clear Markets last January. They couldn't do worse than current management. They would probably do better. And they have the financial muscle and the technological savvy to help guide a great American institution through the tidal wave of technological and financial changes that are changing the landscape of the media world as we have known it. Who knows? Google might even save the New York Times from itself.

A few footnotes to Charlie Gibson's history lesson

This was the graphic that Charlie Gibson threw up on the screen the other night in that weird, misleading history lesson he used to introduce his question to Clinton and Obama about whether they would commit to putting the runner-up in their race on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate -- on the apparent theory that if it was good enough for the Founders, it should be good enough for them. Why wouldn't they commit? What was wrong with them? Were they un-American?

The quick peek at Article II, Section 1 without any explanation must have resulted in some real head-scratching and puzzled conversation in millions of households across the country. Was this really the law of the land? A few footnotes:
1. The quoted passage is about the Electoral College, not primary elections. There were no primaries at the time. In fact, the public didn't even vote directly for president at the time -- electors were chosen by state legislatures. So much for historical relevance.

2. The process stated here didn't work very well for the Founders, either. This was why, in the election of 1796, Thomas Jefferson (a Republican in the nomenclature of the time) ended up as vice president in a contentious relationship with President John Adams, a Federalist -- adding fuel to the fire of a lifelong enmity that lasted nearly until the day they both died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

3. In any event, this section was repealed and replaced by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. It's had nothing whatsoever to do with the selection of the vice president for more than 200 years. So why bring it up? Or, if you do -- given that most people learn what they know of the Constitution from television -- shouldn't you at least mention that it no longer applies?
Probably this was just some producer's cute idea of how to make the debate and its Constitution Hall setting more "relevant." But it was typical of the way show business packaging has taken over the network production of the debates. The. Worst. Debate. Ever. They should give the debates back to the League of Women Voters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Um, Senator McCain, when did you last leave the campaign trail long enough to actually drive a car?

Since your wife is worth over $100 million, give or take a few million, and since you move through life in a cocooned campaign bubble of chartered jets and motorcades, you probably don't spend much time behind the wheel of a car, I'm guessing. The rest of us do. It's how we get to work, how we do our shopping, and occasionally, take a little vacation. I read in the paper that, at a time our economy seems to be entering a recession at the least and a total systemic meltdown at the worst, at a time our infrastructure is crumbling, especially the roads, you think we can get a grip on our economic woes by repealing the gas tax. Before you go ahead and starve the Highway Trust Fund of money this summer, I'd like to invite you to rent a car and drive it around the streets of my hometown for an hour or so. I'd be curious to see if you still want to repeal the gas tax. Most of us don't. Really.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The University of Wisconsin leverages its brand

From "Sifting and Winnowing" to Branding and Marketing
The University sure likes its "W" logo. It's popping up everywhere. One of its more recent star turns is on the new Grainger Hall addition at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue. It's all about branding. The University used to value "that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." Today the administration seems more concerned with the value of their brand.

"Sifting and winnowing" can be laborious and time consuming. Why not get on the fast track to truth, or at least truthiness, with a good PowerPoint template that "leverages the powerful University of Wisconsin brand"? That seems to be what University Communications ("Creativity from Within") seems to be suggesting in promoting their new PowerPoint template designed to be used by faculty, staff and students.
PowerPoint is a common office tool that often suffers from poor execution—canned slides, boring templates, and weak design choices. If a standard format doesn't meet your needs, we can provide an alternative. University Communications is pleased to offer University of Wisconsin PowerPoint templates for your use.

Download these professionally designed templates and customize them with your content for a compelling presentation that also leverages the powerful University of Wisconsin brand. We’ve designed three distinct templates specifically for use by UW–Madison faculty, staff and students. Each template integrates the university’s colors, logo and iconic imagery. By emphasizing the Wisconsin brand, your presentation will be relevant and memorable for both internal and external audiences.
Microsoft's psychically deadening audience management tool has done enough damage in the business world. Using PowerPoint to make classroom presentations more "relevant and memorable" while leveraging the UW brand makes my eyes glaze over. Hasn't anybody at University Communications read Edward R. Tufte? They might start with his article in Wired, "PowerPoint is Evil," which is subtitled "Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely."

In any event, the University has its sights set on bigger game than mere PowerPoint templates. A few months ago the NYT ran an article, "The Graffiti of the Philanthropic Class," about how institutions of all sorts -- museums, schools, medical centers -- are in a mad scramble to sell off their names to the highest bidder. Apparently the Wisconsin School of Business tried to sell its name for $50 million, but they didn't get any takers. That's when, according to the Times, they had a better idea -- greenmailing their alumni into paying them not to sell their name.
As The Associated Press reported last month, the dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business couldn’t find anyone to pony up a cool $50 million to get his or her name on the school. So the dean switched strategies and discovered that several givers were willing to chip in to ensure that, for 20 years at least, the school would not be personally branded, but would instead simply remain the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business (a long enough handle, surely). The non-naming fund eventually reached $85 million.

“It is an unprecedented act of selfless philanthropy,” Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, told The A.P. “I hope it is the start of a trend.”
There's lots more information about the transaction gift on their website.

That puts a whole new spin on that big "W" on Grainger Hall, which is part of the Wisconsin School of Business. It's not just a brand. It's a constant reminder to alumni that in 20 years they'll have to pony up again, or the "W" just might morph into a well-heeled corporation's logo instead. Meanwhile, think of all the other schools on campus that can put their names up for sale. If the business school is worth $85 million, think what you could get for the Physics Department. Heck, even the English Department might be worth a few bucks. They're sitting on a goldmine.

A couple weeks ago, the Daily Cardinal ran a story headlined UW sues Sesame Street for using the letter ‘W’. It was an April Fool's Day joke, but when you think about it, they had a point. Brand equity is important. The University owns a valuable resource. Why should they give it away? Today Sesame Street, tomorrow the world!

Monday, April 14, 2008

President Bush confesses he's a war criminal, so let's change the subject to Barack Obama's elitism

Last Friday, George Bush admitted he knew about the meetings of top administration officials to orchestrate torture policy and techniques ("enhanced interrogation," these guys are nothing if not euphemistic). In other words, he confessed to war crimes in his own words to ABC News.
President Bush says he knew his top national security advisers discussed and approved specific details about how high-value al Qaeda suspects would be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to an exclusive interview with ABC News Friday.

"Well, we started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people." Bush told ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. "And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved."
Apparently they didn't study the Nuremberg Trials at Yale, or he was absent, or he just doesn't care.

On the same day, the media reported on Barack Obama's words to a San Francisco fund-raiser a few days earlier.
. . . a weekend war of words between the two candidates over remarks Obama made April 6 to donors in San Francisco. His statement -- that some voters have ``gotten bitter and cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them'' -- became public on April 11, and Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain immediately used them to attack him.
The Bush story sank virtually without a trace, while the Obama story became a firestorm of self-righteous commentary in the media and on the campaign trail. Obama had committed the crime of paraphrasing the argument of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? in language that was far too impolitic for the campaign trail. You would think that John McCain and Hillary Clinton could have spared a few words about White House crimes that made everything for which Richard Nixon faced impeachment seem like child's play, but apparently they were too busy piling on.

The news blackout on Bush was not total, of course. Many spoke up in the blogosphere, including Digby, who was plain-spoken and eloquently indignant.
I think we know what was happening now, don't we? The "principals" were all sitting around the table devising torture techniques based on the previous episode of "24" (or their favorite S&M website), and when Powell meekly objected, they called him a faggot. In the White House. If Bush wasn't in the room, he was listening on speaker phone. This has codpiece written all over it.
Unfortunately, over the weekend attention was focused not on constitutional "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- but something far more important. The burning question was whether an affluent black man, a graduate of Harvard Law and the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination should be allowed to get away with an apparently condescending attitude toward small town America. Compared to the magnitude of that offense, who could possibly object to a little torture for the greater good?

Cinematheque shows the film in which Bogie is called a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel"

Saturday night we saw a real treat at the UW Cinematheque -- a sparkling restored print of the Nicholas Ray film, "In a Lonely Place." The epithet hurled at Humphrey Bogart comes during a really over the top moment in the film. An enraged Bogie is driving wildly through the night in the Hollywood hills, costar Gloria Grahame at his side, when he sideswipes a car driven by a young man. The other driver jumps out of his car and screams at Bogie that he's a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel." The words are comically inappropriate, but they enrage Bogie further. He attacks the other driver and almost kills him.

Maybe that's one reason the film notes describe the film as combining noir and screwball comedy elements. It may also be one reason the movie wasn't very successful or well regarded at the time of its release. For example, Pauline Kael was no fan -- in "5001 Nights at the Movies" she totally dismissed "In a Lonely Place."
Humphrey Bogart, as a cynical, tired Hollywood screenwriter named Dixon Steele, in an atmospheric but disappointingly shallow murder melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray.
But eventually the French New Wave turned their attention to Nicholas Ray, who became one of their iconic American auteurs, a favorite of both Truffaut and Godard. "In a Lonely Place" has been growing in critical esteem on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. By 2005, Time magazine named it to its list of the All-Time 100 Best Films, although in 1950 their critic had written, "'In a Lonely Place' is a Humphrey Bogart melodrama that seems to take forever getting to the point and just about as long driving it home."

Director Nicholas Ray was a Wisconsin native, born in Galesville, and his pre-Hollywood years intersected with some other famous Wisconsin native sons, including fellow director Joseph Losey (they attended the same high school in La Crosse), Thornton Wilder and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Born in small-town Wisconsin in 1911, Nicholas Ray's early experience with film came with some radio broadcasting in high school. He left the University of Chicago after a year, but made such an impression on his professor and writer Thorton Wilder that he was recommended for a scholarship with Frank Lloyd Wright, where he learned the importance of space and geography, not to mention his later love for CinemaScope.
Film writer David Thomson wrote an admiring essay in The Guardian about the troubled Ray. "The Poet of Nightfall," he called him. He especially likes Ray's early films of the forties and early fifties.
None of those films did especially well. They were all black and white. But they are filled with anguish and ecstasy and a kind of framing and lighting and camera movement that steadily deepens the routine script material. In a Lonely Place is less showy than Sunset Boulevard, but it is the truer portrait of Hollywood compromise and hypocrisy. The love affair between Bogart and Gloria Grahame fixes on one of Ray's characteristic situations: lovers who are bad for each other. It was a situation from life. The marriage to Evans had broken down, and Grahame became Ray's second wife in a partnership doomed from the start by infidelity and mistrust.
If there was a lot of Nicholas Ray in Dixon Steele, there was also a lot of Humphrey Bogart. In her memoir "Lulu in Hollywood," Louise Brooks devotes an essay to Bogart, a friend in her Hollywood days. It was called "Humphrey and Bogey" to distinguish between the private and public man. The latter, she thought, was eventually undone by what she saw as Bogart's "fundamental inertia." She thought "In a Lonely Place" gave him the opportunity for one of his greatest screen performances because it drew heavily on his own personal traits.
However, before inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey's own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character's, the screenwriter's, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.
I first saw "In a Lonely Place" late at night on television more than ten years ago. I thought the "knuckleheaded squirrel" remark was bizarre, and that was about all I remembered. This time I was blown away, and the the film remains vivid in my memory a day later -- a rare event these days, most films being so forgettable. The performances of Bogart and Grahame (now perhaps best remembered for her role as bad girl Violet Bick in "It's a Wonderful Life") are among their best, and Nicholas Ray puts them in the spotlight on his own distinctive dark stage.