Tina K. Russell

January 28, 2009

This might take you a moment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:18 pm

A Day of Layoffs, Across Industries and Continents – NYTimes.com
And Texas Instruments said after the market closed on Monday that it would cut 3,400 jobs or 12 percent of its work force through 1,800 layoffs and 1,600 buyouts or retirements.

Surely it should be 58,008 jobs cut, right? After all, to reduce costs, sometimes you need to turn the company upside-down.

December 18, 2008

Dogbert economics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 2:22 pm

Dilbert comic strip for 12/13/2008 from the official Dilbert comic strips archive.

It’s rather scary when an entire global financial crisis can be so accurately represented by a snarky, three-panel Dilbert comic. Anyway, this comic inspired me to use the Dilbert.com strip editor to tell the rest of the story. The first link below is to the above strip, but with new dialogue by me in the last panel. The second link is to a different strip, but I’ve rewritten the whole thing to make it a “sequel” to this one. Please read!

AAA Rated

Dead Cow Crisis

November 27, 2008

Funny money

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:36 am

The End of Wall Street’s Boom – National Business News – Portfolio.com
The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

I read this article after Thomas Friedman recommended it in a column. Anyway, I highly recommend the article. It’s a portrait of financial Cassandras, people who warned of and betted on doom and gloom and wouldn’t have minded being wrong. Moreover, by the end, these valiant wet blankets discover something horrifying: in a way that could only work in the surreal parallel universe of Wall Street, their very skepticism, their bets against the market, provided the money to fuel its downfall. It’s a story of gain and loss, of easy money, of repentance, of forgiveness, of survivors’ guilt, of wondering if you’re the crazy one and realizing it really was everybody else. It’s a story of taking a walk on Wall Street the day after the Apocalypse, and seeing the damage that you, in a perverse, roundabout way, helped wreak.

Four stars! A plus! That crazy GamePro excited head thing! Besides, the last time I read a cynical feature article about Wall Street in Condé Nast Portfolio, about a year ago, it was awesome. This is similarly awesome. It’s a must-read if you have time to kill.

November 26, 2008

New Experience Required

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:12 pm

Tina’s Xbox Live avatarI have tried Microsoft’s vaunted “New Xbox Experience.” Hmmm… I can say that what I was most looking forward to was making my avatar, at right, which was fun. My impression was that Microsoft had found the happy medium between too simple (Wii’s “Mii” system) and laughably overwrought (PlayStation 3’s euphemistic “Home”). The “NXE,” as they call it, made it simple and fun to make an avatar that looked like me and carried a real visual weight. Yes, it has big heads, unlike on PS3, but they also have discernable bodies, unlike on Wii. Here’s a tip: use a “chiseled” chin for some transsexual chic.

I picked the green shirt, plaid red skirt, and “Goth Boots,” but I also enjoy trapsing around (in my imagination) with the yellow spring dress and matching pumps. For once, somebody at Microsoft has my number. (Really, I just enjoy any fantasy in which I look good in anything I want to wear. Eat that, Tina’s body.)

To the service’s shame, only one game so far really uses these avatars for their intended purpose as game characters: the downloadable title A Kingdom for Keflings, which I must admit was amusing. The demo had me giggling with its simple tasks and lovable presentation. That said, it gave me no confidence that this enticement held up over time; as my brother observed, “it’s the economic part of an RTS” (real-time strategy, like StarCraft or something). It’s the build-up, but without any competition… and unless I can customize things to my liking, as in Animal Crossing, there isn’t much to the power fantasy of building a self-sufficient society on my own. …Well, there is, but it wears off. I don’t just want my kingdom to love me; I want to ride through the streets on a human-carried sedan, wearing a bikini and sensually holding a fan, while citizens clamor to catch of glimpse of their beautiful leader.

…I may have issues. In any case, strolling around a forest as a giant, picking tiny people up and putting them down to get them to do work for me, and in time building up a beautiful kingdom for them to live in, is a pretty enticing proposition. I just want to be sure that, in the end, they roll me in shimmering gold dust and proclaim me their golden matriarch.

…I’ve gone too far, again. Download the demo, though; watching yourself pick people up like that and order them around is a sight to behold, as is helping them build beautiful houses for them to live out their happy tiny-people lives in. Awww…

I should discuss the rest of the “Experience,” besides building avatars to fulfill my narcissistic messiah-complex fantasies. (What else is there?) Um, well… I haven’t been using my Xbox 360 in a while, and, given that Sonic Unleashed (breaking my heart!) has had a lukewarm critical reception, I probably won’t use it for a while longer. Meanwhile, hard as Microsoft tries to proclaim its system as some kind of gateway to orgasmically joyful media consumption, it’s difficult to believe they’re doing me a favor when you must pay by the pound at a steep price for everything. I mean, there’s nothing inherently wrong with charging two dollars a single half-hour TV episode laden with DRM on a system with an estimated lifespan of two more years, you just won’t see me clamoring to take them up on the deal. Their movie “rental” service, with its arcane rules, is more sensible to one’s budget ($3 for regular, $4 for HD… I think), in the sense that it does not involve physically going to a decaying Blockbuster outlet and hoping that it is not out of business within the five-day rental period. However, it’s simply not a substantially better deal than other services, and the selection is lousy. Every movie studio is willing to hand over its dregs, and only its dregs, to this experimental Xbox movie service, so you have the second two Matrix movies but not the first one, Shanghai Knights but not Shanghai Noon, etc. This service has been around for two years and its selection is still pathetic. Hmmm, I wonder if Microsoft could score a deal with a hip new (in relative terms) movie rental service to enhance its selection?

That’s where Netflix comes in, at full throttle, you might say. The “NXE,” which I refuse to type unless I can use quotation marks, adds the Netflix streaming service to the Xbox 360. It works if you have a Netflix subscription and an Xbox Live Gold subscription, which are fairly pricey together. Fortunately, my brother has both; a Netflix subscription so that he can watch the TV shows and movies culturally assigned to him in college, and an Xbox Live Gold subscription so that he could play Carcassonne with potty-mouthed 14-year-olds (no doubt trying to figure out how to “hump” your opponent in a board game). I can indulge my brother’s overabundance of free time, then, by using his Netflix account to watch old movies and TV shows. And boy, if you thought the Xbox Live movie rental service had slim pickings…

I think Netflix’s movie streaming service (in which you pay by subscription, as God intended, not by the title) actually has a substantially bigger library, in volume, perhaps by orders of magnitude, than Xbox Live’s movie rentals. However, the Netflix streaming service manifests Netflix’s reputation of having “the obscure stuff” in an unfortunate way… it has an implausibly random selection of completely obscure stuff, and there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason as to what’s on. Seriously, browse the selection.

Oh, wait, you can’t! In an impenetrably stupid marketing move, you cannot see the Netflix streaming library, what titles are in it, unless you have a Netflix subscription. Actually, maybe that’s brilliant; you have no idea what you’re signing up for! I used my brother’s subscription to browse the catalog, and do not worry… you aren’t missing anything. Well, unless they happened to stop the wheel on your favorite obscurities, in which case… auuugh! Netflix’s marketing “logic” is cooking my brain.

As a sample, here’s what I picked out, one lonely night, from the catalog to place on my “Instant Queue”:

  • Heroes, season one (I like ’em cheesy and idealistic, and I hear this show delivers… too bad the exposition appears to be at least a third of the freaking season)
  • Heroes, season two (Back for more punishment)
  • Transamerican Love Story (I have to admit, if there have to be vapid TV dating shows—and after seeing half of the first episode and failing to finish, I can tell you it’s predictably awful—it’s nice to see trans-positive vapid dating shows. Maybe we can see trans-positive emptily pretentious cop dramas, or trans-positive HBO gutter serials. Oh, what a bright future…)
  • Girls’ High (I can’t remember why I picked this one. It’s an anime. Their anime selection is also maddeningly arbitrary.)
  • Some other anime with a strange name. I haven’t a clue why I picked it.
  • Air (I watched the beginning of this anime, and it did seem cool, except that it confirmed that Netflix only streams anime dubbed, gyaaaaahhh!)
  • Justice League: New Frontier (because they didn’t have those Avengers DVD releases, and I like superheroes)
  • Our Brand is Crisis (about American political consultants exporting our, uh, brand of democracy abroad; it sounds interesting)
  • The Beauty Academy of Kabul (I’ve heard of the story before, and it sounds interesting)
  • Yes, Minister (an old British comedy series about politics; it’s funny)
  • Network (I’m mad as hell that I still haven’t seen this movie, and I’m not going to take it anymore)
  • Easy (it’s a cheesy romance movie. It sounds pretty stupid. Hannah, I’m too ashamed to ask this in person: want to come over and watch it? If it turns out to be too awful at the start, we can watch something else.)
  • Sonic Underground, volumes one and two (this deserves its own paragraph… or two)

I can’t blame Netflix too much; they’re excuse for why the pickings are so slim is that they have to go through the arduous process of licensing every movie in their massive stockpile all over again. I’ll extrapolate further: movie studios are loath to “cannibalize” the sales of their good movies, so they prefer dumping their refuse onto any promising new service that asks. Now they can say they’re “with it” and working toward the future, except that the new service can’t survive under the weight of such mediocre titles. Thus, the service remains unpopular, and the existing, increasingly outmoded business models are saved. I think the lesson they’ve taken from Apple’s conquering of the digital music market is simply not to license good content; keep that in the physical realm. (The lesson should be to get the jump on Apple with a superior service, but telling content holders to innovate is like telling overcompensated CEOs to earn their fat paychecks. Oh, wait, it is telling overcompensated CEOs to earn their fat paychecks. My bad.)

Remember that big content holders tried to stop FM radio, tried to stop home video and are furiously trying to stop BitTorrent. Holding back the future seems to be easier than adapting to it, in the minds of the already powerful.

I’ve been using the streaming service, now, to watch entirely too much Heroes at a time (maybe, in the next episode, something will happen!), to watch Yes, Minister, and… Sonic Underground. This is a cartoon that I’m quietly resisting bringing up… it was made in the late nineties (before Sonic Adventure), which is by far the most miserable, most abominable period of Sonic history, surpassing (yes) even the current malaise. This is a cartoon in which Sonic wears a magical medallion that transforms into a three-necked guitar that shoots laser beams… and believe it or not, it’s all downhill from there.

I will say one thing in its favor: Sean Connery makes a guest appearance (at least one, as far as I’ve seen), telling Knuckles “the fate of Mobiush is in your handzsh!”, and I will treasure that forever. If he later speaks of the “Chaosh Emeraldzsh,” I will die happy.

UPDATE: I’m heartbroken to have to retract that about Mr. Connery; I became curious when I did not see his name in the credits to the relevant episodes, and can now confirm his name is no longer listed on the IMDB page for Sonic Underground (I’m pretty sure that was my original source). Instead, IMDB now lists Maurice LaMarche in that role, no doubt doing a pretty good Sean Connery impression. (LaMarche does appear in the credits; however, with the exception of Jaleel White as the three hedgehogs, character and actor names are not matched.)

As it happens, I can’t find any independent source to verify that character’s actor. The closest I can find is an offical press release, from the distributor, for a Sonic Underground boxed set (I didn’t know that show had 40 episodes! Painful), boasting that Sean Connery appears in that role. Since IMDB is so widely used, even in professional copywriting circles, I can’t really accept that as definitive. All that would convince me now of Connery’s involvement in that sorry chapter of Sonic history would be confirmation from DIC, or for that matter, Connery himself. Given that LaMarche is about nine million times more likely, I’m going with that for now.

Remember, IMDB is not an official source. It’s pretty reliable for run-of-the-mill stuff, but if you see something that makes you say “holy $@#!,” you should probably check it first. If you make the mistake of believing IMDB implicitly, you’re not alone; I made that mistake just now. (The same goes for Wikipedia. It’s really a wonderful source; just make sure it’s not your only source.)

November 21, 2008

Market failures

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:32 pm

UPDATE: The letter-writer responds in a comment below! How cool. Just so you know, people who are addressed, directly or indirectly, in my posts should totally leave a comment, because those comments are awesome.

Letters – Rescuing Detroit – The Great Debate – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

I agree that letting the Big Three domestic automakers collapse would result in a catastrophic loss of jobs, but find the terms of your proposed bailout counterproductive (editorial, Nov. 15).

Companies as large and complex as automakers simply cannot afford to replace top management in the middle of a crisis. Doing so would also be pointless when the industry’s troubles stem primarily from the temporary spike in oil prices and the continuing financial crisis, not poor management.

After all, the Big Three did not specialize in trucks out of shortsightedness or social irresponsibility, but because that is what the market demanded.

Pah! I found that statement amazing. The trouble isn’t that they were following the market’s demands; the trouble is that they thought, arrogantly, that those demands would last forever. And, when the market stopped demanding SUVs and trucks the size of small moons, the automakers didn’t notice. Now they’re on the brink of collapse, and they want us to bail them out.

Forcing automakers that accept a bailout to produce only micro cars that get 50 miles per gallon would deprive Americans of the larger, sportier vehicles they prefer, while placing the rescued automakers at a competitive disadvantage when gas is cheap.

Oh, my Lord! Has this person seen an SUV dealership, lately? There’s one near my apartment, and its signs now shout loudly, “Fuel-efficient cars here!” (or somesuch) and hope the message is loud enough that you don’t notice row after row of gas-guzzling tanks. The SUV market is a disaster; nobody wants to buy a heavy car in this market. I give that SUV dealership six months, tops.

This brings me to the really depressing part of the bailout, and the whole act of legislating more fuel-efficient cars: it’s a failure of the market. No, not us; we want more fuel-efficient cars, we buy more fuel-efficient cars, and it just so happens that they’re made by foreign automakers (which, by the way, often have factories in the US). In a just world, in a world where the CEOs of the Big Three car companies had more than half a brain, we wouldn’t need fuel-efficiency standards; companies would simply compete on fuel efficiency until America produced cars that ran on little or—get this—no gasoline at all. It’s in vogue; everyone would want to buy a Chevrolet or a GM hybrid. It just so happens that they missed the boat; well, more accurately, they missed the boat, denied there was a boat, and are lobbying the government for their right to continue failing.

That’s the depressing part: we have to legislate that these companies make cars that people will buy. We have to demand that Detroit’s car magnates make money. Why are they so arrogant? Why not jump on the fuel-efficiency bandwagon when there’s so much money in it? I can only imagine it’s sheer obstinance, and if the jobs provided by these car companies are important enough for the government to step in and help the company out, they’re important enough for the government to step in, change the rules, and fire the management.

The federal government must help the Big Three weather the current financial crisis; they are truly too big to fail. But such assistance should not be used as an excuse to dictate the types of cars that Americans can drive.

Karl von Schriltz

Washington, Nov. 15, 2008

Ha! More like we have to force the automakers to make the cars Americans want.

November 13, 2008

An Apple car wouldn’t drive far from the tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:47 pm

Thomas “Omega” Friedman ends a column on our auto industry’s failure to innovate with a rhetorical device that really bugs me.

Op-Ed Columnist – How to Fix a Flat – NYTimes.com
Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.

Here’s what it would do: it would look shiny and new right when you got it, back when it was cool to have one. In five months, it would look scratched up and awful, but no fear; auto magazines will already be drooling over the next-generation iCar announced by Jobs at his CarWorld keynote.

You could only get your oil changed at iCar franchise dealerships, and if you run out of gas, you’ll have to send it back to California so that they can swap out the gas tank. Also, you can’t open the hood; that would violate the manufacturer’s rights!

October 26, 2008

A new raison d’Êtroit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:11 pm

General Motors, Driven to the Brink – NYTimes.com
What is clear is that Detroit, among its other miscues in recent years, particularly overindulged its romance with S.U.V.’s, leaving it tethered to a product line that may prove to be the industry’s undoing.

Pa-haa! Who could have guessed that the success of the SUV was entirely predicated on a glut of cheap oil that would not last?

The sad thing about fuel-efficiency standards is that conservatives opposed to it are partly right. They say that if the public really wants fuel-efficient cars, companies will make them. Ideally, that will happen, but the automakers in Detroit coveered their ears, sang “la la la,” and kept pushing out gas-guzzlers (and a few efficient PR pieces) when customers were clearly willing to pay more for a car to forego the expense and inconvenience of having to refuel practically every few meters. Now that the Japanese (again! Damn their ability to make our inventions better) have beaten us to the punch with the Prius, Detroit is left with a black eye, with America losing its title and facing the bloody consequences. It’s depressing when the government has to force companies to do what will make them money, but it happens.

(I should note, here, blasphemy of blasphemies, that $4 gas finally sparking interest in the electric car is evidence that we should have been taxing gasoline into that range all this time. Cheaper gas following the Carter era’s highs meant we forgot all about the kind of investments that could have spared us our energy crisis. Wow, we’ve been putting off an energy crisis, a healthcare crisis, an economic crisis, various foreign-policy crises… we’re in a mess…)

(I also made a promise to myself, as a kid, not to buy a car that isn’t electric. Now that I’ve been diagnosed with ADD, the government—at least in Portland—subsidizes my bus passes, which is perhaps a sign that I should stay off the road entirely save for public transportation. But, I do promise that I won’t consider buying a car until I can find one that runs on a force first discovered by the ancient Greeks and named for their word for amber.)

October 13, 2008

Shooting from the Tip

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:40 pm

The Food Issue – Why Tip? – NYTimes.com
Tipping, its defenders say, improves service by rewarding good waiters and punishing bad ones. But that’s not what Porter saw when he looked out on his dining floor. In his brief experience, working for tips encouraged selfishness rather than teamwork. Moreover, good service was not always rewarded with a big tip, nor bad service with a poor one. “No other profession works like this,” Porter told me, “and I don’t see why the restaurant business should either.” At his restaurant, Porter and his staff agreed, it no longer would. The Linkery would be more than just a restaurant; it would become perhaps the nation’s only anti-tipping laboratory.

I’ve mentioned before that I hate tipping with a fierce passion; if you’re going to judge me by some unwritten social rule that changes from place to place and that I can never reliably determine, then screw you and the apron you rode in on. (Obviously, my opposition to this unwritten practice doesn’t extend to politeness in general, which I feel is critical to society; but, unlike with other unwritten social rules, not tipping extends you scorn rather than a warm benefit of the doubt. Oh, and tipping is an excuse to pay service workers jack-shit and leaves their income at the arbitrary whims and moods of customers, pass it on.) So, here’s an article on a restaurant that has a fixed service charge, and forbids tipping outright. When you’re done, you’ll learn about how tipping began as a way for English aristocrats to feign pity towards social inferiors, and wish all restaurants had this new diner’s policy.

(More on why I don’t like tipping: it encourages servers to be peppy and annoying. It denies the kitchen staff their due for their hard work. It creates enmity among employees who recieve different levels of tips for factors completely outside their control. It combines awkward social pressures with math at the end of the meal. And… I’d just prefer a fixed charge rather than awkwardly nudging to me to think of every single person involved in making this meal and how much teeters on the amount of my clumsily-arrived-at final figure.)

(And, the diner has a “charity of the month” for people who still want to give extra, which is great.)

September 30, 2008

Washington Mutual fun facts

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tina Russell @ 12:18 am

Steve Duin, at The Oregonian, serves up, you might say, some factoids. (I’m quoting the full post, here.)

Five Fun Facts About the Death and Afterlife of Washington Mutual – Steve Duin – The Oregonian – OregonLive.com
1. With $307 billion in assets, Washington Mutual is the largest bank failure in history.

2. Industry analysts told The New York Times that as many as 5,000 WaMu employees will lose their jobs.

3. WaMu chief exec Alan H. Fishman, who’s held the job for less than three weeks, is keeping his $7.5 million signing bonus and may get another $11.6 million in cash severance payments.

4. Texas Pacific’s David Bonderman — who, Oregonians might remember, once tried to buy Portland General Electric using the influence of Neil Goldschmidt and Peggy Fowler — was one of the biggest losers among WaMu shareholders. As The Oregonian’s Ryan Frank said, “Somewhere, Erik Sten is dancing a jig.”

5. Fishman, who was on a transcontinental flight when JP Morgan Chase purchased WaMu from federal regulators for $1.9 billion, may yet walk away with $19.1 million for his three-week babysitting gig. Or did I mention that already?

I should admit, right here, that Washington Mutual is my bank. I mean, it’s where I keep my dough. I must say, though, I’m happy that it went belly-up and happy to do a dance on its early grave. Washington Mutual was a key player in rebranding second mortgages as “home equity loans” to keep you indebted to them in perpetuity, and the more I visited the bank and saw those hard sells, the more disgusted I always became. On the downside: now, Washington Mutual’s genetically perfect, vat-raised tellers will now roam the streets in search of inadequately chirpy customers to condescend to.

(I discussed this second-mortgage rebranding thing with my mom, who argued that, even if the bank made the pitch, it’s still the customer’s responsibility for signing on to a bad deal. That’s true, but a con man is never absolved by a gullible mark.)

August 4, 2008

Vanity by the quarter

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:23 am

Xbox Live Avatars “May” Bring Charges | Edge Online
Microsoft might charge for virtual accessories for the recently-announced Xbox Live Avatars, a new report says.

Can anything ever just be fun?

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