Thursday, May 29, 2008

20 Questions: 2008

Time for another round of those niggling, nagging questions I have about life and the universe. Any help here would be appreciated.

1. Why do people encase their license plates in those frames that are just advertisements for the dealership? Who would do this voluntarily? Are they employees of the dealership? Seems like there's a lot of them.

2. Why does every supermarket have 3 times more aisles than they ever use?

3. Why the hell, when we were conquering huge swaths of territory from the Mexicans in the 19th century, did we stop short right at the Baja? Who made the decision that we didn't want Baja California? Were they insane? Wouldn't Baja have been an awesome 51st state? I'd be there right now.

4. Do you think sometimes the ambulances don't really have an emergency and they just feel like they're too good to sit in traffic? I have a strong feeling that this happens.

5. If I use illegal file-sharing to download a Ken Burns documentary, is that really unethical? I mean, it's PBS. It was free to begin with. I think I'm on firm ground here.

6. When I press stop on the microwave and quickly open the door to take my coffee cup out, how fast do the deadly microwaves dissipate? What I'm worried about is that for a split second, my hand is getting roasted in the microwave. Yes, the light bulb in the microwave turns off when the door opens, but that really doesn't tell you diddly. Wouldn't the microwaves still be bouncing around in there for another few seconds?

7. Why do PC monitors have USB ports placed so close together that you can't actually have two flash drives inserted side by side?

8. Let's talk zombies. Unlike the original Night of the Living Dead (which in my opinion basically got it right, with slow moving, stupid, fall-over-dead-at-dawn zombies) these modern zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead remake, Land of the Dead, and I am Legend which I just saw) feature, essentially, energizer bunny zombies. Meaning, years after their original zombification, they're still walking around, just as powerful as ever. I'm sorry, but this just defies all common sense. After the initial feeding frenzy where they wipe out most of humanity, what are they eating on a day to day basis? Okay, in some zombie movies there's a supernatural element, so you can argue that the normal rules don't apply. But most zombie movies go out of their way to remind us that there is a highly scientific explanation for the zombism. Every zombie movie has the obligatory newscaster on scratchy television footage explaining about a mutated Hanta virus or something. So, how can zombies walk around for years at full power with no food?

9. Do you think the deaf know how to quiet their farts? Is it something that can be taught?

10. What is it about being homeless that makes you want 10 sugars in your coffee? Don't believe me? Just keep your eyes open. I've seen this going back decades. From my teenage stints at the local soup kitchen where homeless guys would empty entire sugar bowls into coffee mugs, to modern Starbucks fixins bars where the homeless go crazy with the chocolate powder and the cinnamon shaker, it's just a fact. I have a private little bet with myself that I will give all the cash I have on me to the homeless person who says "No no no, just black, please."

11. Sort of a legal question here, but why do we sometimes see the headline: "He will be tried as an adult."? I don't get this. Isn't there a cutoff age for juvenile crime? Maybe it's different from state to state, that's fine, but what's with the prosecutor saying 'We're going to seek to try him as an adult."? How does that make sense? If he was under 18 at the time of the crime, he's a juvenile. If he was older than 18, he's an adult. Who gets this discretionary power to decide who's really an adult? What's the criteria for seeking an adult trial? That the kid looked at the prosecutor funny? That the crime was heinous? And where is the fairness if one kid gets the adult treatment and the other doesn't? Someone needs to explain this in detail.

12. You know the tired old argument that men are supposed to leave the toilet seat down to be considerate. Well, without hashing it all out here, I do have one question that's always stumped me. The women in these arguments always point out that one time at 4 in the morning, they actually fell IN the toilet, because their idiot man left the seat up. This is what I want to discuss. Who the hell sits down on a toilet without looking at it? In my entire life I have never done that. I don't care what hour of the morning it is, I don't care how bleary eyed, tired or drunk you are, who the hell just parks their ass on a toilet sight unseen? What if the toilet had been closed entirely? Would you have peed on the lid? I mean, how dumb do you have to be? It takes less than a second to look at what you're about to sit on. You get no sympathy from me.

13. Sharks. Every time there's a shark program on TV, the narrator reminds me that if you bleed even a single drop of blood into the water, a shark can smell it up to three miles away. I'm sorry, but I just can't believe this. I realize I'm probably wrong, but how is that possible? For animals on land, they can smell you when the wind cooperates and sends your smell along. But the wind has to be just so, and there's a time lapse. Now, for sharks, how can they have instant awareness of blood from three miles away? Doesn't at least one molecule of blood have to make the physical journey from my location to the shark's nose? Wouldn't that take time, considering that it's water, not air? And wouldn't the shark have to get lucky, being on the receiving end of that specific current? Right? I just can't believe that I put one drop of blood in the water, and suddenly, three miles away, a shark says "Hey! Blood!" Just doesn't make sense.

14. Here's a pretty naive one: Why are ancient ruins buried underground? Why is it that the deeper you dig, the further into the historical record you go? I don't get it. So, if I abandon my house and come back 2,000 years later, it's going to be underground? How is that? Is it weather patterns? Continental drift? Erosion? I thought erosion exposes things? So, eventually everything on earth is going to be buried, and the whole world will someday be three times as large, covered by unlimited, magical new layers of topsoil?

15. Daylight savings. Why do we spring forward on saturday nights and lose precious, precious weekend sleep? Wouldn't it be much better to spring forward on say, Tuesdays, at 2 in the afternoon? This is a no brainer.

16. Do you think the Wii shortage has actually fueled its popularity?

17. Those videos you see during karaoke songs. The couples walking through gardens and the sailboats and all that. That's like thousands of hours of footage. Where does it come from?

18. How come, when A&E or the History Channel or Discovery airs a documentary on the history of video games, it's always showcases games that you have not once in your life ever seen or heard of? Oh, they do the obligatory 30 seconds on Tetris and Super Mario Bros., but then the balance of the show is some moron, some absolute moron, waxing philosophical about technology while on the screen we see endless footage of some blocky, polygonal Everquest type of game that you have never seen before in your life. Some circa-1998 questing game where a valkyrie or a barbarian is endlessly running across a featureless plain. The guy in the background is talking about how computer modeling can now accurately capture emotions on faces, and meanwhile we're watching the most dated, ugly 3D tech-demo shit on the screen. What the fuck? This is the history of video games? When is somebody going to make an actual video game history documentary that doesn't feature the opinions of a teacher at some technology institute and that doesn't canvas the screen with bullshit?

19. Why do ATMs that can only dispense twenties ask you to specify how much cash you want down to the penny?

20. I just saw American Gangster on DVD recently, and it's not a bad movie, but at one point I started counting all the cop movie cliches. You've got the main character taking a bullet... in the fleshy part of his outer-upper arm (the all-purpose body part for gunshot wounds that don't have to be there in the next scene). You've got a lieutenant type screaming about how "Internal Affairs is breathing down my neck." You've got the detective who puts the tiniest amount of white powder on his pinky, then pats it against his tongue and can instantly say "Yep, that's pure heroin." But then there is this one cliche that really has me intrigued. You've seen it before. The bad guys have a drug lab, and in the lab are beautiful women, all naked and wearing face masks, seated at long benches, quietly doing something-or-other to the drugs. They're naked, explains a character, so that they can't steal.

Okay, did this ever, in real life, ever happen? The beautiful naked women in the crack lab? I'm open to being told yes, by the way. By all means, dazzle me with a documented example. I've seen this in movies going back as far as those 1980s Steven Seagal bone-crunchers, and probably earlier. Is this phenomenon really based in fact, or was it invented to provide a flimsy excuse for nudity in a movie too busy to include a strip club scene? I would like to know.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

People Who Love Telling the Chevy Nova Story About How "Nova" Actually Means "No Go" in Spanish

If I have to hear this cautionary marketing tale one more time, I may just start slitting throats. I don't know what gets me more - a) that the story is a bogus urban legend (more on that in a bit), b) that the entire rationale for diversity in business seems to rest on the strength of this one anecdote...

Or c) that every nincompoop, tie wearing, pit stained professional who clears his throat and says "Let me tell you a little story about the Chevy Nova" seems to be under the impression that no one has heard this story before. I think "C" wins. Over the dozens of times I have heard the Chevy Nova story, the speakers have all had this beatific attitude like they were about to relate the parable of the good Samaritan to virgin ears. Nobody, and I mean nobody who tells an audience the Chevy Nova story ever considers that we've heard it 18 times. There's just something about the Chevy Nova story that makes a man think he can dazzle an audience. I am here to tell you that it is not so.

Of course, it's not just the Chevy Nova story that suffers from this weird problem. Other factoids and bullet points from the history books also tend to lather people up into this lecture mode. Have you ever had someone tell you, with solemn authority and a clear expectation that your worldview was about to be shattered, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? That Jesus was Jewish? That Hitler came to power legally? Oh, the worst is Schrodinger's cat. What is it about Schrodinger's cat that makes everyone think they can blow your mind?

But I digress. Let's fight one battle at a time. Here, just for the record - and not to imply that you don't already know it - is the short version of the Chevy Nova story. General Motors wanted to sell the popular Chevy Nova in their two largest Latin American markets: Mexico and Venezuela. However, because they didn't embrace diversity, it never occurred to anyone at GM that "Nova" in Spanish means "No Go". The car was a complete failure in those markets as a result. The lesson? Diversity. Hire some brown people.

Now, I can't remember the first time I ever heard the Chevy Nova story. I know that every textbook I had from high school onward was legally bound to include it somewhere. And every teacher found some excuse to invoke it. But things didn't reach a critical mass until I started going to business school in 2004. Business school, as it turns out, is not about preparing you to succeed in the professional world. It is actually an elaborate Chevy-Nova-story delivery system, complete with its own staff, campus, endowments and government sponsorship. UNLV had one mission - and it was to tell me the hell out of that story.

It got to the point where I would start judging the professors on their skill at telling the story, like some ancient Greek Homeric recital where we all know the story, we just want to see the craft of the storyteller. Would there be some flourish of the arms? Would there be some invented detail about how the CEO cast his eyes sadly around the room, and realized he didn't see a single brown face?

I am not the only one fed up with the Chevy Nova story. A quick search on google will reveal dozens of web sites all sounding the same alarm: the story is completely bogus. GM knew full well that "no va" meant "no go" when they launched the car in Latin America. But they launched it anyway, with the correct reasoning:

1. The word "Nova" did exist in Spanish (e.g. Bossa Nova) with the intended meaning intact. There was even a brand of gasoline in Mexico called Nova.
2. No reasonable Mexican would confuse "Nova" with "No va." just as no American would confuse "carpet" with "a pet that belongs in your car".
3. "No va", in Spanish, is incoherent as a statement that a car is broken. A person would say "no marcha" or "no funciona" instead.

Did the Nova bomb in Mexico? No, it sold well. In Venezuela it exceeded sales expectations. The thing about the Chevy Nova story is that requires stupidity on all sides - the executives at GM had to be rock-stupid, and the entire population of Mexico/Venezuela also had to be exquisitely dumb - for the story to make sense. But then, to buy the Nova story as some sort of compelling rationale for corporate diversity, you'd have to be pretty dumb yourself.

You see, the argument for corporate diversity is that without it, you end up in "Nova" type situations. You end up making some terrible blunder. You don't appreciate cultural differences, you don't truly understand your customer, so you end up botching your marketing or your customer relationship management. A secondary argument is that without diversity, you don't get the full advantage of all perspectives in your internal operations.

Now, the viking in me wants to pick up a broadsword, some sort of Claymore or Zweihander, and just start hacking my way, screaming and foaming, through the dense bullshit in those arguments. But to keep this completely on point, I'll just point out the errors in the Chevy Nova morality tale as they relate to the diversity case.

Let's say the Nova story was not urban legend. Let's say it was more or less true. Can we conclude from it that GM suffered from a diversity deficit? Putting it another way, does the Nova debacle justify jettisoning a race-blind hiring policy and instituting a race-conscious hiring policy? Because that's what diversity ultimately comes down to. Do we consider race as a factor in hiring, or do we regard that as unconscionable? The Nova story says: "As uncomfortable as you might be with it, you have to consider race in hiring - because the alternative is business failure."

But no, it isn't true. The argument, much like the Nova story itself, is a pungent crock. If I hired a Hispanic person who spoke no Spanish, I'd be no closer to avoiding the Nova disaster. If I hired a white guy who spoke fluent Spanish, I could avoid the Nova disaster. The ethnicity of the employee is irrelevant. If GM wants to launch a car in a new market, they need native language speakers and marketers who are knowledgeable about the target market. Even though experts in Venezuelan marketing would indeed be disproportionately Hispanic, they would not have to be Hispanic. And so to make "being Hispanic" a plus in the hiring decision, you are discriminating unfairly.

And this, mind you, is in the very limited case of an exporter looking to introduce an American product to a foreign market. How the Nova story is supposed to be universal is completely beyond me. If I run a hardware store in Omaha and need to hire a stocking clerk, how does the cautionary Chevy Nova tale inform my hiring decision?

These are the thoughts that go through my head when some lecturer launches into the exciting story of the Chevy Nova, and the ironclad case it makes for embracing workforce diversity. This is what I go through when I see an affirmative action debater masterfully recite the tale as if she's playing the ace of trumps.

And now, to calm down, I will play some Grand Theft Auto IV. Take me away from all this, GTA. Make the hurt stop.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Anti Cigarette Ads

I loathe these ads. These anti-smoking TV commercials produced by Oh the arrogance. Oh, the preachiness. There are several variations of them where anti-smoking crusaders with megaphones set up camp outside the swank offices of "big tobacco", and loudly chastise "big tobacco" with evidence of how many people are killed by cigarettes every year. Here are a few examples.

Now, call me crazy. Call me wacky. But aren't the smokers themselves 100% responsible for their own deaths? Not 95 or 98% responsible, but 100%, all-the-way responsible for any cigarette-related ailment that might come their way? Entirely, wholly and absolutely responsible?

No? Well then don't you have to show me an example of someone who was successfully bamboozled by "big tobacco" into thinking there was nothing wrong with cigarettes? Don't you have to show me a guy who says "Wait a minute, you're saying cigarettes are hazardous to my health?" Because I'm seriously doubtful that guy exists. Historically, sure. Maybe as recently as 40 years ago, there might have been one person left in American who hadn't gotten the news. The warning on the pack became mandatory in 1966. Our schools, our TV programming, our entire culture is saturated with the anti-smoking message. It's just not possible to grow up in this country and be ignorant of the fact that cigarettes are dangerous.

Having said that, if you want to continue to blame "big tobacco" for cigarette deaths, you have to do enormous logistical cartwheels. First, you have to absolve parents of any responsibility in monitoring their children. Then, you have to make a case that peer pressure so clouds a young person's judgment that they are literally forced into the irrational decision to start smoking. Then, you have to ascribe such addictive power to the cigarette that a person is entirely blameless in not being able to quit. And above all that, you have to weave a complex conspiracy theory about how cigarette companies are using the most artful and devious methods to hook new generations of young smokers, even though they are legally bound not to and would face staggering penalties if caught.

Where is this damning evidence of Big Tobacco's lies and deceit? Oh, the Truth has evidence. They have a great, damning, Tobacco executive quote from, wait for it... 1971.

19 friggin 71. Is that the best you can do, Truth? You got any quotes from 2005? 2006? We all know that the cigarette companies disseminated lies about smoking health's risks - dozens of years ago. Punitive damages ensued. Enormous settlements were paid. The cigarette companies don't lie anymore. They walk on eggshells. Don't you know that? Where's your more recent evidence of lying? Got any?

These commercials are an elaborate kabuki dance with one purpose and one purpose alone: to remove any kind of agency from the smoker himself. To absolve the smoker of all responsibility. It is this disrespect, ultimately, that angers me when I see these commercials. It's this worldview that holds that a human being is passive and powerless, and can just be swept along in the currents of whatever "big tobacco" wants you to think. It's a profoundly dark, uncharitable and contemptible view of humanity. It places (in this case) the anti-smoking megaphone-holding activist in a position of superiority over the poor smoking plebs. This is the same worldview that says the lottery is a tax on the poor, or, recently, that voters are disenfranchised if they have to show photo ID at the polling station. What a bunch of wretched, lobotomized fools you and I are assumed to be. Incapable of taking any responsibility for any action. In this worldview, business is saddled with all the moral agency, and individual people have none.

Let's say that the "Truth" commercials worked. Let's say that everyone at the big 4 or big 5 cigarette companies simultaneously looked in their bathroom mirrors at home and said "My God. What am I doing? What have I become?" - and they all quit. Let's say they were all driven to paroxysms of guilt by the Truth ads and they all closed up shop. How long do you think the average smoker would be inconvenienced by the shortage?

My guess is: they wouldn't be inconvenienced at all. Because smaller, independent, and foreign suppliers would smell opportunity and immediately step in to meet the demand. See, that's the thing about capitalism. If it costs 50 cents to get a pack of smokes to a consumer, and the consumer is willing to pay $4 for that pack, you better believe that consumer will be getting his packs. Where there's demand, there will be supply. You can't guilt-trip all the suppliers in the world into abstaining from making their profits. Eventually someone's going to say "I need to feed my family, I have a tobacco crop, and smokers know what they're getting into." And you know, he'd be right.

So maybe cigarettes should be banned? Maybe that's what "The Truth" should push for? Does "The Truth" want to ban smoking? ... No, of course they don't. Besides the fact that we have a little thing in this country called Freedom, it would be impossible to enforce. So, if the Truth doesn't want to ban the manufacture of cigarettes, and if they won't lay any blame at the smoker's feet, and if they know, deep down, that megaphone-wielding 21 year olds can't really bring the global production of cigarettes to a halt, then what, exactly, are they trying to do?

Maybe they're just a bunch of imbecilic, confused jackasses who just enjoy making preachy commercials? Yep, I think that's it. And hey, I don't smoke! Never have!