Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mega Millions and March Madness

OK. I guess at some point this morning I’ll have to get moving and put a few bucks down on the Mega Millions lottery. Hope there is no queue at the gas station. Although there might be, since it looks like Mega Millions fever — fueled by a jackpot north of $500 million — has people throughout the country taking notice.

Here’s from USA Today, “Record Mega Millions jackpot sets off ticket-buying frenzy“:

With a world record $540 million (and growing) jackpot at stake, much of the nation is gripped by Mega Millions fever.

From Vermont to Louisiana and New York to California, the jackpot has been the wistful talk of TV, social media sites, office water coolers and dreamy high rollers for the past week, electrifying ticket sales with a frenzy likely to amp up even further ahead of Friday night’s drawing at 11 p.m. ET.

The pot has grown more than $150 million since Tuesday’s Mega Millions drawing failed to draw a top prize winner for the 18th consecutive time since late January.

“It’s uncharted territory,” says Buddy Roogow, director of the Washington D.C., lottery, which issued a commemorative “I Played The World’s Largest Jackpot” ticket this week. A typical Mega Millions drawing sells 250,000 tickets in the nation’s capital. “Friday, the real frenzy sets in,” says Roogow, who expects ticket sales of 1 million.

Social media users were buzzing about the jackpot on Facebook and Twitter, mostly about what they would do with the money, but also about the tiny possibility of winning the top prize.

The odds? About 1 in 176 million.

Wow. Talk about March Madness.

[Note to self: If I win, remember to delete anything favorable I ever wrote about the so-called Buffett Rule.]

Of course, the odds don’t appear to be in my favor of winning the Mega Millions jackpot. Better I was a college basketball coach. That appears to be where the money is these days.

As we move toward the NCAA finale, in some ways it’s comforting to see that the usual suspects of college sports factories are working their way toward the big prize. But the real winners appear to be coaches at even the smaller schools who are getting huge pay increases, if they offer even a hope of getting the school and alumni to the Big Dance.

Wonder what students think about all this as they pick up the tab? I digress.

Here’s from USA Today, “Even smaller schools must pay big for hot NCAA coaches“:

Shaka Smart, the charismatic men’s basketball coach of Virginia Commonwealth University, made news last week when he told the University of Illinois thanks, but no thanks — same as he told North Carolina State a year ago.

That upset the natural order of college sports. The grass isn’t always greener at major-conference schools, but the contracts almost always are. And Smart, 34, turned down more money to stay each time.

He was the hottest commodity in coaching a year ago when he piloted VCU‘s astonishing run to the Final Four. To keep him, VCU upped his guaranteed money from about $420,000 last season to about $1.2 million this season, a raise funded largely by an increase in student fees.

This season, his Rams reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 32, missing the Sweet 16 by an eyelash — and this time Smart got “a slight increase in compensation” plus more money in his recruiting and travel budgets, according to athletics director Norwood Teague.

VCU digging deep to thwart the get-Smart bids by Illinois and N.C. State is emblematic of a widening dollar gap between major-conference schools and so-called midmajors. Football TV contracts and attendance for the six power conferences of football’s Bowl Championship Series mean big money, while competitive ambitions at midmajors often outrun their athletics departments’ ability to pay for them.

“It’s a huge issue,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert, who calls rapidly rising coaching salaries “a challenge for the lower-resource schools.”

Athletics departments at such schools are largely subsidized by university funds and/or student fees. Big money for coaches there can translate to students paying higher bills and schools facing more stress on stretched academic budgets.

Some schools like VCU ante up so coaches don’t leave for wealthier programs. Others, like budget-strapped Nevada-Las Vegas, simply get outbid by them. And then there are the Cincinnatis of the world: lower-revenue programs in power conferences depending on institutional funds to help them keep coaches.

Indeed, college basketball’s marquee event is loaded with millionaires. Coaches in the NCAA tournament are making a little more than $1.4 million on average this season, according to USA TODAY’s annual analysis of contracts and other compensation documents. Among the 68 tournament coaches, USA TODAY was able to obtain pay figures for 62 — from Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is making nearly $5.4 million, to Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods, who is making $87,500.

The newspaper obtained 2010 and 2011 compensation information for 31 of the 34 schools appearing in the tournament both this season and last and found the average compensation for coaches at those schools increased to a little over $2.1 million from more than $1.9 million — a jump of 8.6%.

The changes in compensation range from a drop of 61% at Nevada-Las Vegas, which lost its coach to another school and hired a less expensive successor, to a 224% raise at Marquette, which paid its coach a one-time bonus of nearly $2 million. That puts the median raise at 12%.

Among public schools, the biggest raises went to Calipari, who also led Kentucky to the Final Four last year and received a contract restructuring that resulted in a $1.3 million increase; Purdue’s Matt Painter, who got an increase of more than $1 million after spurning an offer from Missouri; and Smart, whose income increased by $786,000 after he elected to stay at VCU.

With those kind of pay packages who needs to stand in a queue to buy a lottery ticket? You’ve already won!

Oh, well. As long as students and taxpayers have deep pockets, no blood, no foul. Right?

And by the way, if this turns out to be my last post, you’ll know that I came up big with the Mega Millions.

Health Care Mandates and Shopping Lists

Well, the legal debate over Obamacare before the Supreme Court is getting interesting. Concerning the individual mandate that would require nearly everyone to buy medical insurance, Justice Scalia sees a day when the federal government could force everyone to buy broccoli. Ouch. That sounds like a scenario right out of The Hunger Games.

No wonder the individual mandate is hard for conservative justices — and most conservatives, I guess — to swallow.

Yet I’ll admit that I find the whole matter somewhat hard to understand. Let’s see. The federal government can compel me to pay taxes, register for the draft, and pay into Medicare and Social Security. But if I don’t want health insurance, even knowing that at some point I will need the services of a doctor or will most likely spend some quality time in a hospital or emergency room, then so be it. My bad, if something happens. And pass the bill to someone else. [Note to self: Couldn't we figure out an affordable universal health care system so everyone would have some level of protection? A lot of people only a few months older than me seem to like Medicare.]

Anyway, since I can’t sort this out, I’ll turn to an article in WaPo, “Why the health-care law might stand at the Supreme Court“:

This much is clear after two hours of Supreme Court arguments over the constitutionality of the individual mandate, which I was in the room to hear: The president’s health-care bill won’t rise or fall on a question of law, but on how the majority of justices define the health-care market.

The mandate requires all individuals above a certain income level to obtain health-care coverage. The National Federation of Independent Business and 26 states challenged the mandate as unconstitutional, arguing that Congress does not have the power to force individuals to buy private products. The government, for example, has the power to regulate the kind of muffler your car has, but it cannot force you to buy a car in the first place. Health-care should be no different — a point made forcefully at various times by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito. If the government can mandate the purchase of health care, Scalia said, “what else can’t it do?”

Well, good thing the government has a legal expert to explain all this. Or maybe not. Appears that Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. had a tough day yesterday as he met with the Supremes. Here’s from Mother Jones, “Obamacare’s Supreme Court Disaster“:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. should be grateful to the Supreme Court for refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, because his defense of Obamacare on Tuesday may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism’s biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s—and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy.

Wow. And you thought you had a bad day at the office yesterday.

And the Mother Jones article raises a good point. Why not televise these important oral arguments before the court? It would be great reality TV. If we as a nation are able to sit through weeks of The Bachelor waiting to see who will get a rose, shouldn’t we have the opportunity to watch three days of legal debate to see who is going to get the shaft?

As it stands now, all we can do is join in the navel-gazing, trying to figure out what Justices Roberts and Kennedy are thinking. [Fortunately for those who have to bring clarity to the navel-gazing, Justice Thomas doesn't appear to think about anything.]

OK. I have other fish in the skillet today.

And since I joined the ranks of the quasi-retired, I find that a part of most days is now spent grocery shopping. Here my wife gives me a list filled with mandates: milk, butter, eggs and so on.

Today I’m checking the list for broccoli.

Even in my dotage, I can only be pushed so far.

Will Eating Chocolate Make You Thin?

Well, as with most things in life, it looks like I have this exercise and diet thing all wrong. I’m up nearly every day grinding out the miles on the treadmill or concrete. And I’m fairly regimented about what I stuff in my mouth — not withstanding the daily routine of downing Jameson during happy hour.

Better that I should just eat chocolate. And hey. I’d be OK with that. The view from the treadmill hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years, even as my waistline keeps expanding.

Here’s from USA Today, “Chocolate lovers are thinner, study says“:

Sweet news about those chocolate cravings: People who eat moderate amounts regularly are thinner than those who eat chocolate less often.

The new research involved 1,018 healthy men and women, who exercised on average 3.6 times a week and had a balanced, nutritious diet. The body mass index of those who ate chocolate five times a week was 1 point lower than people who did not eat it regularly. Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

“I was pretty happy with this news myself,” says lead author Beatrice Golomb, associate professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego. “Findings show the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining ultimate weight.”

And from the NYT, “The Chocolate Diet“:

Chocolate may not be as hazardous to your waistline as you think — at least in moderation.

A new study shows that people who eat chocolate frequently have lower body mass indexes than those who eat it less often. The researchers could not explain precisely why something usually loaded with sugar, fat and calories would have a beneficial effect on weight. But they suspect that antioxidants and other compounds in chocolate may deliver a metabolic boost that can offset its caloric downside.

Chocoholics may know that in recent years chocolate has been linked to a growing list of health benefits. Studies have found, for example, that regularly eating chocolate may lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk, and improve cholesterol and insulin regulation.

Although the new study is among the first to look at chocolate’s effect on weight, the findings “are compatible with other evidence showing favorable metabolic effects that are known to track with body mass index,” said Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Golomb’s study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine and financed by the National Institutes of Health, involved roughly 1,000 adults. The researchers looked at data on how often they exercised, the amount and type of calories they ate — including a breakdown of the types of dietary fat they consumed — and how their health and weight related to their chocolate intake. On average, the subjects were middle-aged, exercised about three times a week and ate chocolate about twice a week. There was no breakdown of the kinds of chocolate they ate, whether dark, milk or white.

The people who ate chocolate the most frequently, despite eating more calories and exercising no differently from those who ate the least chocolate, tended to have lower B.M.I.’s. There was a difference of roughly five to seven pounds between subjects who ate five servings of chocolate a week and those who ate none, Dr. Golomb said.

Sweet.

I guess it won’t be too long before someone is opining that eating popcorn may be better for you than many fruits and vegetables.

That will give me something to think about while chasing the treadmill belt tomorrow early a.m.

 

 

Trayvon Martin: Hoodies and Perceptions

In case your boob tube has been frozen on the NCAA tourney, there is a story out there these days that is bigger than the premiere of The Hunger Games. And rightly so. The story involves a black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer while he was walking unarmed, carrying only candy and a drink.

From the accounts I’ve heard and read, Trayvon was a decent young man with a caring family and an excellent future. So I would like to believe that something positive will surface from this tragedy. And at some point I would like to believe that we will actually find out what happened — and why.

We’ll see.

This is a situation that now touches on subjects of law, race and politics. And we’re also looking at stereotypes, symbols and perceptions.

And here’s where the hoodie comes into play, as described in this WaPo story, “Trayvon Martin’s death has put spotlight on perceptions about hoodies“:

“Did you see what he was wearing?” asked the voice.

“A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie,” George Zimmerman told the 911 operator moments before he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he described as “real suspicious.”

Out of tragedy, the utilitarian hooded sweatshirt, which first gained popularity in the 1930s as a practical pullover for workingmen, has emerged as a Rorschach test of racial perceptions.

On Sunday, many preachers and their congregations attended services wearing hoodies in a show of solidarity with the slain teen.

On Friday, LeBron James of the Miami Heat tweeted a photo of the basketball team, wearing hoodies and with heads bowed, alongside the hashtag “WeWantJustice.”

The same day, Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera ignited widespread criticism for saying on the “Fox & Friends” morning show that “The hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” He continued his assault on “The O’Reilly Factor,” warning parents of black and Hispanic youths not to allow their sons to wear hooded sweatshirts.

“Who else wears hoodies?” he asked. “Everybody that ever stuck up a convenience store; D.B. Cooper, the guy that hijacked a plane; Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber.”

Ah, and how about old white guys like me who wear one almost every morning heading out into the dark and going to the gym wellness center? I know. That’s not the point Geraldo and others are making. And they touch on an issue of perceptions and stereotypes that shouldn’t just be dismissed.

Like I said, I hope something positive comes from the national spotlight that is now on Trayvon Martin and the events leading to his tragic death. And if bringing hoodies into the discussion helps, then good.

By the way, I dislike gated communities. They encourage elites to become even more separated from the broader community.

But that’s just a perception.

March Madness: Let the Hunger Games Begin

Wow. What a glorious week here in NE Ohio. We’ve had record high temps for this time of year and more days with sun than not. Talk about March Madness. And Ohio State has advanced into the elite eight of the NCAA tournament, with Ohio U in the queue tonight. Wonder how difficult it will be to land a seat at The Crystal in Athens?

Probably not as difficult as getting in to see the flick The Hunger Games. Talk about March Madness. As best I can tell, this is the only movie showing at the multi-screen theater complex I generally go to, with various showings available virtually throughout the day and night.

I hope the movie lives up to the expectations. And that’s often difficult. Hey. Let’s be honest. Has there really been a good adaption of a best seller for the big screen since Gone With the Wind? Just sayin’.

And there is actually a section of Gone With the Wind that should resonate with The Hunger Games fans.

Hunger gnawed at her [Scarlett O'Hara] empty stomach again and she said aloud: ‘As God is my witness, and God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill – as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.’”
-Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, Ch. 25

I finished The Hunger Games book this week, and it is compelling. Whether the movie can remain true to the book — from the standpoint of the ethical and moral dilemmas presented in the context of essentially kids killing kids — without watering down the violence remains to be seen. But the movie has a PG13 rating. So I expect I’ll be able to get in without flashing my Ohio Golden Buckeye card. (Except for any ticket discount, if available.)

And given that the NYT has given the Hunger Games a lukewarm review, it most likely will be a great movie.

For as long as this brief scene lasts, it seems possible that Gary Ross, the unlikely and at times frustratingly ill-matched director for this brutal, unnerving story, has caught the heart-skipping pulse of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” if not that film’s ravishing technique and propulsive energy. Alas, Mr. Ross, the director of the genial entertainments “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” and whose script credits include “Big,” has a way of smoothing even modestly irregular edges. Katniss, who for years has bagged game to keep her family from starving, was created for rough stuff — for beating the odds and the state, for hunting squirrel and people both — far rougher than Mr. Ross often seems comfortable with, perhaps because of disposition, inclination or some behind-the-scenes executive mandate.

It may be that Mr. Ross is too nice a guy for a hard case like Katniss. A brilliant, possibly historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will — Katniss is a new female warrior, and she keeps you watching even while you’re hoping for something better the next time around. (Mr. Ross is onboard to direct the follow-up, “Catching Fire.”) For some fans of the three novels, the screen version will inevitably be disappointing, especially for those keeping inventory of the details, characters, grim thoughts and cynicism that have gone missing. For others the image of a girl like Katniss taking up so much screen space with so few smiles may be enough to keep faith.

I can’t wait to see Hunger Games at Thanksgiving. Long after either Ohio State or OU cut down the nets as NCAA champs.

And here’s another quote from Gone With the Wind to help guide those at OU and elsewhere watching the game tonight:

Rhett Butler:
“I’m very drunk and I intend getting still drunker before this evening’s over.”

Ah, March Madness.

Tebow to Cleveland Browns: Why Not?

OK. Let’s admit it. There is no team in the NFL that would benefit more from divine intervention than the Cleveland Browns. So why not put Tebow in front of the Dog Pound now that he apparently is no longer welcome or appreciated in Denver?

And hey. If Tebow could somehow pull off a miracle and win five or six games a year in Cleveland, he would be answering the prayers of the long-suffering Browns faithful.

Probably won’t happen. Here’s some conjecture from the NYT, “Casting Begins for Tebow, the Sequel“:

Now that Peyton Manning has signed with the Broncos, it is time to speculate on where Tim Tebow will land after the Broncos inevitably trade him. Tebow speculation is similar to Manning speculation: no outcome is too far-fetched and every team has something to gain — and perhaps a little to lose — by acquiring the incredibly popular, athletic, erratic-armed lefty. Here is a breakdown on what a Tebow trade could mean for each N.F.L. team.

CLEVELAND BROWNS The Browns use their two first-round picks to surround Tebow with star running back Trent Richardson and standout receiver Kendall Wright, yet still manage to be boring.

Oh well. And if you are inclined to pray, you might want to drop to one knee and hoist one on behalf of John Elway and the owners of the Denver Broncos. Signing Peyton Manning to a five-year, nearly $100 million contract requires some major moola and balls [no, not footballs] the size of coconuts.

Manning was a great player, and he appears to be a decent guy. But the sports landscape is littered with stars who faded at the end of their careers, unable to make the transition to another team. Remember Franco Harris — the receiver of the Immaculate Reception on the day now so long ago when God first started waving the Terrible Towel — playing out the clock in Seattle? Sigh.

And that won’t happen to Hines Ward, the excellent wide receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ward said yesterday that he would retire a Steeler, rather than continuing his pro football career with another team.

All over the region, silence fell.

On television sets in homes, offices and eateries, there was Hines Ward’s ebullient face, smiling as always. On radios across Pittsburgh, there was the smooth voice, rising and dipping between confident and shaky.

At a South Side bar, a 44-year-old man watched from his stool as Mr. Ward, adopted by this town 14 years ago, cried tears of finality. The volume was off at the establishment, but Mr. Ward’s emotions made the sound unnecessary.

At a sports merchandise store in the Strip District, the volume was on. Two women stood in front of the cash register, sobbing as Mr. Ward, wearing an all-black suit with a snazzy black and gold tie, announced his retirement from football.

“Today,” he said, “I’m officially retiring a Pittsburgh Steeler. And as much as I will miss football, my teammates, coaches and everything about the game, I don’t want to play it in any other uniform. The black and gold runs deep in me, and I will remain a Steeler for life.”
Godspeed, Hines Ward.

March Madness and Budget Proposals

Well, as Dutch Reagan might say, here we go again. The Republicans in the House are getting ready to unveil a new budget proposal, one that apparently will call for major changes in personal and corporate tax rates and stiff spending cuts.

My bracket selections have a better shot of coming out on top in the March Madness pool. And without putting too fine a point on it, I have no chance. Zero. Zilch.

So I wonder why in an election year the GOP wants to take the lead in heading down this road to nowhere? Hey, the Democrats in DC haven’t passed a budget in three some years. So what’s the rush? And given that the GOP is going to get its collective lunch eaten in November, it seems strange that they would invite all the Dems and other miscreants to what will be an all-you-can-eat buffett over a budget — when most don’t want anything to change if it involves them.

Well, I heard the architect of the budget plan, Paul Ryan, say on Morning Joe that it was the obligation and responsibility of lawmakers to step up to the plate on this. Well, yeah, you would think that might be the case. But politics raises its ugly head as well.

The budget proposal aims to define where the Republicans stand in a presidential election year in contrast to the guy who is currently sitting in the Oval Office. Good strategy.

Probably not.

Here’s from WaPo, “Paul Ryan’s budget is bad politics. Just ask Republicans“:

To much fanfare, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan will unveil his 2012 budget plan in Washington today.

The debut of the House Budget Committee chairman’s vision for what conservative governance could and should look like might win him kudos from the conservative policy class, but it elicits only groans from GOP political professionals.

“As a campaign issue, the budget is a significant challenge for GOP candidates,” said Bob Honold, a GOP strategist and partner at Revolution Agency. “As a campaign strategy, it is so much more difficult for Republicans to communicate their responsible solutions than it is for Democrats to spook seniors with rhetoric.”

Another senior GOP strategist was far more blunt. “Didn’t they learn their lesson?” the source asked. “House Republicans are still under the mistaken impression they have to lead. It’s a presidential election year; they’re along for the ride.”

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) sought to paint the Ryan budget in the best possible political light during a briefing with reporters on Monday.

“I believe that we will get credit for effectively, first of all, having a budget, which the Democrats failed to do,” said Sessions. “I think the public will give us credit for having answers, and I think they’ll give us credit for being credible about the plight that we’re in.”

Maybe. But, the concern within Republican campaign ranks is that Ryan’s budget plays out much like it did when he put out his “Path to Prosperity” last year.

In that budget document, Ryan called for Medicare to be transformed into a voucher program — a proposal that Democrats immediately seized on and used to great effect in a surprising special election victory in upstate New York.

For their part, Republican presidential candidates did everything they could to pretend that the Ryan budget didn’t exist — expressing general praise for the idea of a conservative alternative to the Obama budget but avoiding any support for specific proposals. (The one exception was former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who offered his unequivocal support for the Ryan plan. And we saw how far that carried him.)

The debate over the politics of Ryan’s latest budget plan speak to a broader divide within the Republican Party.

Ryan as well as his fellow members of the House Republican leadership believe that, as the majority party (in the House, at least), it is incumbent upon them to produce a blueprint for how they would govern the country.

The other, more pragmatic (or cynical, depending on where you stand) wing of the party — the vast majority of political professionals are in this group — believes that there is no expectation on the part of the American people that Republicans provide any sweeping vision of what they would do if they are in power. By offering one, all Ryan is doing is giving Democrats something to shoot at, politically speaking. And that takes away from GOP attempts to keep the 2012 election spotlight shining brightly on President Obama.

What both sides in this Republican argument can agree on is that Democrats are likely to go at the new Ryan plan hard, and that if the party handles it as poorly as it did last year, it could be in serious trouble.

“The verdict depends on if Republicans can quickly define this plan among seniors before the Democrats define it for them,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime Senate aide and now a Republican strategist. “Republicans had a turbulent practice run last year, so they should be well-prepared for the onslaught of negative attacks the other side will likely unleash.”

Well, good luck with all that. And I’ll admit it. I’m getting ready to enroll for Medicare. So the last thing I need or want is the Republicans mucking around with this program. Hey. I’m already growing my hair long so when I go before one of the Death Panels I’ll be viewed as Comrade Rob rather than Mr. Jewell.  For us pensioners on fixed incomes, a little Socialism might go a long way. Just kiddin’. [Or not]

Better the GOP lawmakers fret over the sweet 16 — or is it Kentucky and the Round of 15?

 

 

Customer Surveys: A Mad As Hell Moment

OK. I’m cranky today. My March Madness bracket is kaput — much like the hopes for a GOP candidate knocking Prez O out of the White House in November. Next year I’m making my picks based on the mascots. Grrrrrrr.

In the meantime, go Bobcats.

I’m also annoyed by what has become a really troubling practice — the deluge of customer and other surveys that hound you online and in real life. OK. Constructive feedback is beneficial. But having to take time to answer questions just about everything you do something is, well, bordering on the abusive.

When I travel, I stay at one of the Marriott properties, Residence Inns and so on. That automatically triggers a series of surveys — and if you don’t complete them, you are bombarded with others. Sigh.

As usual, I’m not the only one out of the ledge yelling, “I’m Mad as Hell.” There are actually some thoughtful people who are voicing concerns about this disturbing trend, as evidence in the NYT story, “When Businesses Can’t Stop Asking, ‘How Am I Doing?“‘

A commercial transaction, in its simplest form, involves a customer paying for goods or services. But these days, that is just the first step.

Businesses want your opinion of them, too, and their requests for feedback, like relentless tugs on the sleeve, now seem to come with every purchase, every call to a customer service department and every click of a mouse that is followed with a pop-up ad pleading with users to take a survey about the “Web site experience.”

On the telephone, in the mail, on their computers, smartphones and iPads, American consumers are being solicited as never before to express their feelings about coffeemakers, hand creams, triple-bypass operations, veterinarians, dry cleaners and insurance agents.

One reason is that software companies like SurveyGizmo and QuestionPro have made it possible for small companies to create customer surveys at a fraction of the cost of traditional surveys done by established research companies. Businesses of all sizes, desperate to lock in customer loyalty, see surveys as a window into the emotional world of their customers and a database that will offer guidance on how to please them.

“It’s like the gold rush now,” said Jonathan D. Barsky, a founder of Market Metrix, which develops systems for measuring customer satisfaction in the hospitality industry. “Anyone who can craft a customer survey and throw it on the Internet is doing it.”

There is no way to determine exactly how many consumer satisfaction surveys are completed each year, but Mindshare Technologies, a small company that conducts and analyzes on-the-spot electronic surveys, says it completes 175,000 surveys every day, or more than 60 million annually.

ForeSee, an offshoot of the American Customer Satisfaction Index in Ann Arbor, Mich., a company that measures consumer sentiment about business and government, says it collected 15 million surveys in 2011.

Consumer patience may be fraying under the onslaught. The constant nagging has led to a condition known as survey fatigue and declining response rates over the last decade.

“The frequent requests to fill out these surveys, especially with no incentives, have been so annoying that people just stop doing it,” said Richard L. Oliver, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University and the author of the textbook “Satisfaction: A Behavioral Perspective on the Consumer” (McGraw Hill, 1996). “In the old days, you felt as though you had been selected to represent the community, or even the nation. But this is the information age, and people know their information is worth something.”

If customers balk at taking what can feel like an SAT test, the fault may lie with the surveys themselves. Many businesses, often against the advice of the experts they have hired to construct their questionnaires, cannot resist the urge to ask, ask and ask yet again. Exasperated consumers, assured that the survey will take only five minutes to complete, often bail out as they approach the 10-minute mark.

Sigh.

Since I delete most of the surveys as soon as I see them, I’m gone long before the 10-minute mark these days.

From the flick Network, Howard Beale: I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Just sayin’.

 

Goldman Sachs and the Ethics of Doing What’s Right

Wow. Johnny Paycheck caused a minor kerfuffle, while providing the national anthem for disgruntled employees everywhere, when he warbled, “Take This Job and Shove It.” But when Greg Smith exited Goldman Sachs this week via an Op-Ed that questioned the ethics of Goldman’s culture and integrity of its management, he sparked a debate (See “Does Morality Have a Place on Wall Street?“) that has the stock flat-lining and management scrambling to contain the crisis, while hoping to restore the trust and credibility of the venerable Wall Street firm.

Good luck with that, since the perception is that Goldman Sachs is greedy and corrupt and working in its best interests [consider huge bonuses and other perks not generally available to even available to the other Captains of Industry], not the interests of clients. That may or may not be reality, but it’s how many, if not most, view Goldman these days.  Hey. I guess when you play a role in nearly cratering the USA economy, it leaves a bitter taste for years after.

Back to Smith. Here’s from his Op-Ed, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs“:

TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

And a key point:

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

When I was teaching a class in media ethics at Kent State, one the many thoughtful discussions we would have in class: Would you quit a job over a matter of ethics?

In abstract, the answer is easy: yes. But in the real world outside the classroom, with mortgage payments and gym membership payments due, it’s another matter.

So I give Smith credit for stepping out and stepping up to what is an important issue in this nation — and not just on Wall Street: ethical conduct on behalf of management. If the senior management of an organization doesn’t establish the solid foundation for ethical conduct, then there is no hope. That’s why I chuckle whenever I see or hear claims that the senior public relations officer is in effect also the chief ethics officer. LOL. I digress.

Anyway, as a sidebar to the Goldman Sachs debacle, I read this week that Rushworth Kidder had died. Among his dozen books, Kidder wrote “How Good People Make Tough Choices.” I used it as the text for the media ethics class because it provided a readable overview of ethics and some difficult, yet common sense, solutions to ethical dilemmas.

Here’s from the NYT:

Mr. Kidder taught that thorny moral decisions rarely involved choosing right over wrong; rather, he said, they demanded selecting among various “right” solutions. Making ethical judgments, he said, included balancing considerations like truth versus loyalty and short-term versus long-term effects. He urged that people think through such matters regularly to achieve “ethical fitness.”

Maybe Rushworth Kidder should be required reading in business degree programs — and in boardrooms on Wall Street and elsewhere.

Cell Phones and Driving: A Deadly Combination

I know. I’ve opined on this previously. It troubles me — no, make that scares me shitless — when I see a driver with his or her ear glued to a cell phone merrily speeding toward the rear end of my Jeep. Although I guess I should consider myself fortunate. At least the driver isn’t texting.

And, yeah, I know. This may be generational. I’ve reached the age where walking and chewing gum can be a challenge. And I’m not convinced that constantly multitasking is the best, or even the most productive, way to spend my days.

Anyway, back to cell phones and driving.

Here’s a story that should give you pause the next time you pick up the phone while behind the wheel, “‘I Love You and I’ll try to do [all] I can to make you happy’ : Heartbreaking final text message of car crash victim.’” Here’s from the Daily Mail:

A boyfriend has published the heartbreaking final texts between him and his girlfriend before she died as she used her cell phone at the wheel of her car.

Emy Brochu, 20, was killed on January 18 when her car plunged into the back of a tractor-trailer as it merged with traffic near Victoriaville, Quebec on January 18.

Her boyfriend, Mathieu Fortin set up a Facebook page in memory of his girlfriend, whom he called ‘BB’ and to warn others of the dangers of using a cell while driving.

At the time of the accident police said they were looking into the possibility that a distraction, such as a cellphone, was the cause. An investigation has confirmed this to be the case, according to Mr Fortin.

On the Facebook page he writes: ‘This conclusion was a shock because during the tragedy, I was having a conversation with her by text.’

He has posted photographs of their exchange, along with a message urging people to pay attention while driving.Ms Brochu’s final message to her boyfriend, just before 11am, reads: ‘I also love you and I’ll try to do I can to make you happy, Mr. fort.’

And the point:

‘I hope every time you look at your cell phone while you’re driving, you think of Emy and those who loved her.

‘How can a text or an email more important than life itself? At what point is something on your phone more important than the people that you love?’

C’mon, folks. Think about it.

And not convinced there is a problem here, consider the info in this 2010 LA Times article:

You know that texting while driving is dangerous. But just how dangerous is it?

According to researchers from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Ft. Worth, texting behind the wheel accounted for 16,141 deaths between 2002 and 2007.

The researchers arrived at that figure by analyzing nationwide traffic data from the Fatality Accident Reporting System and texting records from the Federal Communications Commission and CTIA, the wireless telecom industry group.

Crunching the numbers, they calculated that if text messaging had never been invented, there would have been 1,925 traffic fatalities per year due to distracted driving beween 2002 and 2007. But in real life, they rose from 4,611 in 2001 to 5,988 in 2007.

Some other factoids from the study:

  • The percentage of all traffic deaths caused by distracted driving rose from 11% in 1999 to 16% in 2008.
  • Distracted-driving crashes are more common in urban areas. Overall, 40% of all crashes happened in urban areas in 2008, up from 33% a decade earlier.
  • Only one-third of Americans had a cellphone in 1999. By 2008, 91% of us did.
  • The average monthly volume of text messages was 1 million in 2002. By 2008, it was 110 million.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 6% of US drivers are observed using a cell phone, a percentage unchanged since 2005,” the researchers wrote. “The increase in traffic fatalities since 2005 appears to be related to a shift in how handheld devices are used.” Nowadays, they beep at us or vibrate much more frequently – and when they do, they demand that attention be turned to the screen.

For the thousands hundreds one of two of you who will comment on this post, please wait until you get to work. You’ll have plenty of time. And unlike while driving, no distractions.