Wednesday, March 24, 2010

History On The Tiny Screen

I ran across a short article with big implications in the latest issue (spring 2010) of American Heritage magazine about historians and cell phone technology. Historical parks and museums have been using cell phones for guided tours for a while now, but it looks like we are on the verge of a great leap forward. The combination of internet, video, and GPS can bring full-scale productions and education to lesser known historical sites. The idea is already branching out in several ways.

Ron Coleman, a computer science professor at Marist College in New York, has developed an open source program for the Staatsburgh State Historical Site that features a GPS triggered prompt that starts a video “mobi-sode” (mobile episode). The idea is to expand the system throughout the Hudson River valley. You can find out more about the open source project at geoplicity

Documentary film-maker and author of the article, Eric Stange, teamed with Michael Epstein of MIT to produce a “terra-tive” (a narrative about a place) about the 1849 Parkman-Webster murder case in Boston. There are several sites relating to the murder still visible, and combined with old photographs, maps and so forth, a visitor can take a kind of "walking cinema" tour, learning about the case while standing at the spot where things happened.

It’s not hard to imagine this being applied to Nevada. Quite a lot of our history is still here. From mining towns to emigrant trails, pony express stations and train routes, mansions and courthouses, the list is endless. Places like Tonopah/Goldfield and Austin could benefit. In Virginia City alone, a visitor could spend a week and still not see everything.

One website mentioned in the article is historic map works. You can overlay old maps onto current maps to see how things have changed. There are several old maps of Reno there, one dating to 1885. Also of interest is the 1906 map, the year of the original California refugee following the San Francisco earthquake and fire. There is also a demonstration video to show how it works.

This would not only help bring back the tourists, with something other than comps at the casino, but also help with historic preservation efforts. It is also the kind of thing that eventually leads to small business start-ups. In the right hands, this could be the next big idea.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Needed- A Blog Strategy For Unhinged Eccentrics

Ever since I started blogging a couple of years ago, there has been a question nagging me that I can’t seem to shake. “What is your blog about?” It came back again when the subject of this years Nevada Interactive Media Summit came up. I attended last year and had a great time. I learned a lot, met a ton of interesting and friendly people. But, when it came around this year, I decided to skip it. Why? It has to do with what we might call, “the rules of engagement.“

Marketing people, as well as others, can tell us all about the importance of staying focused, to set a goal and work towards it. If you’re going to sell shoes on the internet, then By Jove sell shoes on the internet. Never let a day go by when you’re not blogging about shoes. Get on Twitter and tweet about shoes. Start a Facebook Shoe Fan Club. Join a shoe forum. It’s all shoes all the time, 24/7. “Need a shoe? I’m your man.J”

But bloggers aren’t selling anything, so why would we need to limit ourselves? For bloggers, this sort of thing seems just plain wrong. It brings out the worst of all possible tyrants; the tyrant of the self. It represents the conscious choice of a free individual to confine himself, to stamp a label on his own forehead and willingly enter a box, never to come out again.

The ability to have disparate interests is a common human trait. If the internet were a true reflection of humanity, there would be very few goal oriented, single focus blogs. It seems that bloggers have adopted a set of rules that don’t necessarily apply to us. We have accepted a strategy that encourages self limitation. Even if you think you are marketing yourself, surely your product is greater than a single dimension.

So, taking it to the other extreme then, what would an unhinged eccentric’s blog be like? Y’know, some guy let’s say, oh I dunno, a jet boat racing court stenographer with a bee-keeping hobby, who rides a Harley, wears brown shoes with dark suites, listens to Black Sabbath and has an H.O. train diorama set-up in his basement. What would his blog strategy be? Would those of us who are only a half bubble off center, find it useful?

At first, I thought a kind of anti-brand was the answer. But, it turns out that an anti-brand is still a type of brand. The deliberate lack of a strategy is still a strategy. Is there no escape from the yoke of the tyrant? Even if you set about to purposely make your blog a chaotic whirlwind of meaningless futility, the whirlwind would be your strategy and futility would be your brand.

What is needed is a method of random subject selection. It would be like being lost in a maze with each dead-end representing a different subject. True, entering a maze with the deliberate intention of becoming lost is a strategy, but once inside, aimless wandering can take place. Once the aimlessness is achieved, the randomness of the dead-ends (new subjects) become possible.

The human mind seems to insist on making plans. Reaching the apex of randomly scattered, diffuse nebulosity won’t be easy. I’m still working on it. In the mean-time, my next post will likely be about the same damn thing my last post was about.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nevada's Numbers- A Personal Journey

There are many arguments over methods in economics. For instance, during the depression, when GDP was invented, we were an industrial nation. Now that we have become a service based economy, many economists question the validity of GDP as an accurate measuring device. There are other lesser disagreements that at times become mind-numbingly arcane, but one statistic that is difficult to misinterpret is income. There are traps for the unwary, like full-time versus part-time employment and comparing total, or per capita income, to population trends. One can get lost in the maze pretty quickly. Looking at income democratizes the economy in a way that corporate profits and industrial output don't. The trick is to keep the questions simple. How do people in Nevada make a living? As a group, how well, or not so well, are we doing? Are there any clues on how we might avoid another economic train wreck in the future?

Thanks to the REAP website and the BEA's new interactive regional section, there are now quite a lot of statistics for our area published on the web. With my growing familiarity with Open Office, I've begun assembling a spreadsheet that is already turning into a monster. But, undaunted, I've made some charts that will begin to answer some of the questions. I intend to follow the numbers wherever they lead, and I've already found some surprises, at least, they surprised me.

Nevada Income Overview-BEA
Source: BEA

The first surprise is in mining. The stability of the trend line can be accounted for by the fact that there have been no major discoveries lately, but why the low level? For all the attention mining gets, there seems to be few Nevadans who make their living this way. Mining does provide a base of support for other businesses and this is something I'll want to look at in a future post.

The second surprise is retail. Conventional wisdom holds that retail is a leading economic indicator. Looking at the late 1990's, we can see that construction led retail in the downturn by a full two years. In 2007, construction is already heading down while retail is still in the turn. For income in Nevada, construction is the better economic indicator.

As I dug around some more, I began to wonder about the low numbers in the basic commerce categories. If we don't make much from mining, manufacturing, or retail, then how do we make a living here? I switched from looking at categories to just looking for large numbers. I found some in a category called, "Interest, Dividends, and Rents."

Other Nevada Income
Source: BEA

I included construction and retail from the previous chart for reference, along with the ever increasing transfer payments. Assuming that the rents make up the lion's share of the amount, I can only conclude that we seem to be a society determined to create living space for people who really don't buy very much. In other words, we have an economy not so different than that of a Carribean island nation; a few hot spots for the tourists with a lot of low wage workers and an ever increasing amount of government involvement just to keep everybody alive.

One benefit of the Great Recession will be that we now have the opportunity to ditch this economic model and replace it with something more sensible. Whether we will or not is an open question, but the chance to do so is upon us.

In a post to be published soon, I'll look at Reno/Sparks in detail and eventually a look at the importance. or non-importance of mining.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bankster PR

It's been pretty quiet in the banking sector lately. That's not to say the banksters haven't been busy. According to the LA Times, they've launched a PR campaign to improve their image, complete with interviews and OMG! they're even blogging now! And here all this time we thought they were blood-sucking pond scum. But no, it turns out that behind those Italian suits and manicured fingernails, they're just regular Joe's like you and me.

Tim Pannell, CEO of Financial Marketing Solutions, is quoted in the LA Times article explaining the strategy:

We realized that we really need some really genuine, believable pathos -- look you in the eye and say, 'We acknowledge the troubles, we understand maybe we could have done things differently,'...

...Like not looting the public treasury , for instance. In what appears to be his first attempt at "really genuine, believable pathos", Citigroup CEO, Vikram Pandit has this to say:

It's clear that we made some mistakes coming into this environment, and we have to acknowledge that...We have to take responsibility for what we didn't do correctly.

It's almost enough to make you want to start a Citigroup Fan page on Facebook. Of course, most people's "mistakes" generally don't threaten the continued existence of the western democracies. For that we need people so morally bankrupt that even hedge fund managers look down on them. Finance, we have a carnivorous sales force that eats its young, and sells their grandmothers near worthless CDS at par. Forcing this rapacious group of Ferengi to comply with fair cost disclosure is not asking too much.

But it is asking too much. This week the House passed a finance reform bill that puts the new consumer protection bureaucracy inside the Federal Reserve, right where the banks wanted it, right where it will do the least amount of protecting. The Fed was already supposed to be regulating the banks and maintaining our country's financial stability for the benefit of everyone. The results of their work are found in the dismal numbers all around us.

I ran across an Ayn Rand quote in Ilana Mercer's column last week that sums up things pretty well. Whatever one thinks of Ms. Rand and/or her adherents, the truth is still the truth.

When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion – when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see money flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – when you see that men get richer by graft and pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you – when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – you may know that your society is doomed.

I can see it. A lot of people are seeing it. A PR campaign can sometimes change perceptions, but it cannot change what has become obvious. The Banksters compel taxpayers to cover their losses. Their losses come from producing nothing but the trading of favors. Their corruption of Congress is our doom.