Power of the Press

Last fall the New York Times reported on the abusive tactics of DecorMyEyes.com, seller of designer eyeglass frames.  The site’s owner, Vitaly Borker, intentionally practiced horrible customer service, figuring that customer complaints on online consumer advocacy sites would raise his site’s profile–more mentions of the company’s name, more links to the site, more buzz for search engines to pick up–and generate more business.  His insight was true, for a while.  Google’s search algorithms did not adequately distinguish between positive and negative references to a site, so any press was good press.  Until it wasn’t.  The Times reported that when one customer complained about receiving counterfeit frames and said she’d call her credit card company after the site refused to resolve the problem, someone identified as Mr. Russo said

“Listen, bitch,  . . . I know your address. I’m one bridge over” — a reference, it turned out, to the company’s office in Brooklyn. Then, she said, he threatened to find her and commit an act of sexual violence too graphic to describe in a newspaper.

The Times reported that the site’s campaign of threats, retaliatory lawsuits, and harassment continued for months.  Borker freely admitted what he did:  “I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Here’s why not.  The Times story prompted Google to revise its algorithm to prevent this type of gaming, and prompted law enforcement to investigate Borker’s practices and bring criminal charges.  A few weeks ago the Times reported that Borker pleaded guilty “to two counts of sending threatening communications, one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud.”  He’ll be sentenced on September 16.  Under federal sentencing guidelines he could receive 5-6.5 years; his lawyer expects a sentence of 12-18 months.  Another case in which the Internet amplifies the consequences of stupidity/a failed moral compass/poor judgment.

Real Estate Project

I planned to begin the summer by revising the real estate course.  I carted a briefcase of real estate books to Maine–it went unopened and remains where I set it down in the mudroom when I returned home last Friday. I was about to unpack it until I remembered I’m returning to Maine tomorrow and could just put the briefcase back in the truck.   Revising the real estate course remains my first academic project but others have elbowed ahead of it in line:  pressure wash the entire Maine deck, plant and transplant perennials and weed the perennial garden, replace deteriorated deck in Maine, and rebuild an entire portion of the deck at home. This project grew more complicated as I removed existing decking and discovered no flashing, water-damaged trim, sheathing, balusters, and rails, an uninsulated crawl space beneath the old sun porch I converted to an office (so that’s why my feet are always freezing in the winter, jerry-rigged stair stringers, and other horrors.  What I figured to be a couple of afternoons of cutting and nailing turned into a full day of demolition, improvised structural fixes, and multiple trips to National Lumber and Home Depot.

But it is real-estate related.

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron’s death last week was the sad end of troubled man.  He was 62 and addicted to crack cocaine, as detailed in a The New Yorker article last year titled New York is Killing Me. I’d not often thought of him or his work since the 1970’s, and the story of his addiction, arrests, imprisonment, and tortured existence cast a depressing pall on my memories.  I mulled how to note his passing, given that many who read my musings likely have no idea who he is.  Then I saw this headline in Saturday’s New York Times:  The Fitness Revolution Will Be Televised (After Leno), with the allusion to the title of Scott-Heron’s work, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which has burrowed into the cultural subconciousness.  I listened to it often in the years after its 1974 release, but probably the last time I heard it before today was during my early years of law school.  Its references may be obscure for today’s audience, but its scathing look at pop culture still resonates:

The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

I listened, also for the first time in decades, to The Bottle.  It could have been recorded yesterday.  Listen to both songs for Scott-Heron’s distinctive voices, poetical and musical.   The next time you read or hear “[x] will not be televised” (or its variation), you’ll know its source.

CSI: Fish Pier

You ordered mahi-mahi but is it really Vietnamese catfish on your plate?  The NY Times reports that researchers compared genes of commercially-available fish with a database of gene sequences of identified species and “consistently found that 20 to 25 percent of the seafood products they check are fraudulently identified.”   Seafood sold in the U.S.–84 percent of which is imported, according to the Times article–travels “a multistep global supply chain.”  Along the way the reported percentage is mislabeled, both to upgrade to more expensive species (“tilapia may be the Meryl Streep of seafood, capable of playing almost any role”) and to disguise an overfished species that conscientious consumers might avoid as something plentiful.   The Times quotes a doctoral student who has worked on the research:  “If you can’t even trust that the name is right, then how can you trust anything else on the package, including the date?”  Let’s see the invisible hand of the free market solve this problem.

More Complicated

A pet peeve of mine–the only one, really, since I’m so accepting of other’s thoughts and behaviors–is blaming every extreme weather incident on global warming and related climate change.  I understand global warming enough to be confident of three things:

  • It exists
  • Mankind exacerbates it
  • Its effects are complicated, nuanced, and not always obvious

So I appreciated the Times’ response to this question:

Q: Can the intensity of this year’s tornadoes be blamed on climate change?

A: Probably not. Over all, the number of violent tornadoes has been declining in the United States, even as temperatures have increased, making it likely that this year’s twister outbreak is simply a remarkable and terrifying — but natural — event. Climate science has long predicted that global warming will cause more weather extremes, however, and statistics suggest that this has started to happen . . . That said, scientists are reluctant to attribute any specific weather event to global warming. And, at least so far, only a handful of studies have suggested that tornadoes are likely to become more frequent or more intense on a warming planet. Frustratingly, it is likely to be a year or two before we get good published analyses of the causes for this season’s strange weather — and it may be decades before science can conclusively demonstrate whether or not human-driven warming is affecting tornado frequency.

This is part of a continuing series titled “It’s a Handy Explanation, But It’s Wrong.”

More on Recent Graduates and Employment

The NY Times Online followed up Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling (see And Now That You’ve Graduated) with The Downsized College Graduate, seven op-ed articles with reader comments debating “reasons besides the economy to explain why today’s group is different.”  One explanation is that it’s your own damn fault:

[S]ome older readers cited factors other than the economy for the drop in the number of new graduates in the work force: that young people have a sense of entitlement, were sheltered by their parents, and partied through college. Or, if they worked automatons, they took no risks, expecting to be rewarded no matter what.

Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,”  (see Not Getting What You Pay For), offers reasons neatly summarized by the title of his piece, Aimless, Misled, and in Debt:

  • “[P]ronounced and unprecedented” indebtedness
  • Young adults who “are highly motivated, but often directionless.”  They are “‘drifting dreamers’ with ‘high ambitions, but no clear life plan for reaching them.’ Indeed, more than a third of college graduates in our study reported that they aspired to own their own businesses, even though there was little evidence that entrepreneurial skills were being developed.”
  • Lest you think Arum lays all blame on this cohort’s character, he states “colleges and universities are implicated in the difficulties that graduates are facing, since not only did they fail to ensure that college students experienced rigorous academic coursework associated with the development of higher order cognitive skills, but, more troubling, they typically have abandoned responsibility for shaping and developing the attitudes and dispositions necessary for adult success.”

Other contributors have different perspectives.  Overall the articles and comments are provocative.  They are worth the time as you sit in the coffee shop reading your laptop with other under-employed graduates.

One Gets Oats, the Other Gets Only Hay

At Well-Paying Law Firms, A Low Paid Corner reports on “in-sourcing,” the growing practice of big law firms hiring “career associates” or “permanent associates,” full-time non-partner-track lawyers staffing offices in places like Wheeling, West Virginia and Dayton, Ohio.  They do much of the same work as their partner-track colleagues, travel less, work more regular hours, and often earn less than half–the article mentions salaries of $60-$70k–than the $160k starting salary of a partner-track first-year associate.   Such positions make good economic sense for firms trying to control costs (“[e]veryone acknowledges that $160,000 is too much, but they don’t want to back down because that signals they’re just a midmarket firm . . . It’s a big game of chicken”), for clients demanding that firms reduce billing rates, and for lawyers looking to combine big-firm type work with family responsibilities.  They also contain the seeds of frustration and discontent:

[A] two-tier system threatens to breed resentments among workers in both tiers, given disparities in pay and workload expectations. And as these programs expand to more and more firms, they will eliminate many of the lucrative partner-track positions for which law students suffer so much debt.

In other words, there are trade-offs. It would be corrosive to work in such a position as a 3o-ish recent law graduate who thought he or she deserved a shot at partner. Being a donkey in a stable of show ponies can rankle if you focus too much on what you do not have and too little on what you do.  Thus sprach the non-tenure-track faculty.

And Now That You’ve Graduated . . .

. . . you face greater economic uncertainty than your predecessors.  In an article with a headline that says it all, Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling, the NY Times reports “[e]mployment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”   Some of the grim facts:

  • The median starting salary for college graduates entering the work force in 2009 and 2010 declined 10%, from $30k to $27, compared with college graduates who entered the work force from 2006 to 2008
  • 56% of 2010 grads has held at least one job by this spring, compared with 90% of 2006 and 2007 graduates
  • About 50% “of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree”
  • “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.”

Timing and luck determine for more of our circumstances than commencement speakers acknowledge.  They say follow your dreams .  Never give up.  Live your passion.  A 1989 or 1990 birth year–not lack of merit, lack of academic achievement, lack of work ethic–will diminish the number and quality of choices available to most 2011 graduates compared to those born in 1985 or 1986.  A sad but true fact of life.

The Crapture

The Rapture might have occurred last night and I just missed the signs.  Maybe Matt Albers’ fastball went to heaven, which would explain how he gave up six runs to the Cubs to break the Red Sox’ seven-game winning streak. So I checked the news this morning to be sure.  We’re still here.  What do the Rapturists do now? Beg for their jobs back?  Repossess their former possessions?  Stop listening to charlatans?