Archive for November, 2010

The Money Train Comes Again – Next Stop Christmas

November 30th, 2010
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ThinkTech Hawaii

From Black Friday to Christmas, money is king, surrounded by rampant consumerism. The national and local economies are based largely on retail, especially now. You’d think there was a bottomless pit of money to fuel the trip from here to Christmas.

The money train seems to pick up regardless of recession and trade imbalance, national deficit and credit card overspending, mortgage foreclosures and bankruptcies. So how much is on the train, and when does the train run out of gas or more aptly oil?

At Hanukah, Judah and the Macabees were blessed to find that a one-day supply of lighting oil lasted eight days. Does it work the same way with the money train? Not a chance. Absent divine intervention, all such things are finite and must come to an end.

Documentary producer Charles Ferguson, who was on Charlie Rose last night, talked about unprecedented income inequality in Inside Job (covering the bailout on Wall Street - see my blog), and columnist Frank Rich talked about it in a recent piece in the New York Times.

Get used to it. This is the generation with less money than its parents. This is the generation where wealth disparity is greater than before. There must be at least a low-level public awareness of this, and a disappointment of earlier more optimistic expectations.

George W. Bush went a long way to exacerbate the disparity, but it's not over. Given the level of federal spending and deficit, Congress may freeze federal salaries and cut earmarks. This is going to affect Hawaii big time, including many people you know. Then see what happens when Social Security and Medicare are cut.

Some say the next war will not be about oil, but water. How about neither of those, but money? While we fiddle, China is buying our paper, which could be central in a money war. And some say that such a war is going on even now as China acquires that paper.

When the dollar goes down against other currencies, they say that helps sell our exports, but actually we don’t have so many exports. We owe billions to foreign investors. We don’t manufacture – we import fuel, food and most manufactured goods. When the dollar goes down, we pay more for all those imports. Can this be good?

We take unlimited money for granted, especially at Christmas, but we shouldn’t. There’s one immutable rule – if you spend everything you have, you don’t have any more - not for infrastructure, social security, health care, or anything else. This isn’t rocket science.

It’s not a bottomless pit. We need to find ways to become less material and escape from the world of invidious comparison and conspicuous consumption, back to the world of Walden Pond and inner-directed values. What better time to do that than now?

Hawaii is rapidly becoming the Consumer State. Shopping is our avocation, our exercise and our opiate. We don't go hiking, biking or to the symphony. Shopping is the activity of choice. We scour the ads; we find the bargains; we work for excellence in spending our money. We spend so much time and money shopping that we are third in the nation for credit card debt, some $5,000 per capita.

On the train track back from Black Friday to Christmas, wouldn't it be better to focus on things other than spending money you don't have on things you don't need. Retailers counting sales may see this as anathema but that assumes shopping is our new religion.

I know nobody’s going to buy this iconoclasm at Christmas. But even if we don’t want to think about it at Christmas, we can take a look at it next year when the inequality I’m talking about is likely to be even more pronounced. We need to take a breather, and spend our money improving our community not just our storage lockers.

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The new genre of cartoons – satire for everyone

November 23rd, 2010
By



ThinkTech Hawaii

Last week I got email from a friend pointing me to a YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTUY16CkS-k. Yes, it’s a movie about Quantitative Easing, believe it or not. It’s hysterical and I recommend watching it. In fact, you’ll need to do that more than once to better understand it. Do it now, enjoy it as I did, and then come back and we’ll talk some more….

The real message isn’t Quantitative Easing, it’s xtranormal.com. That’s the place this programmable cartoon maker lives. Now, anyone can make a high quality and funny cartoon movie like this. It’s easy and you can render your work and take it away (in Quicktime .mov format) away. You have to establish an account with them, then buy “points” to finish the job, but if you can put a piece of satire together, it’s well worth it.

You do it on their website, xtranormal.com. You chose your particular cartoon character or characters, type in a line of text and then set which character will be speaking those words, what camera angle you want, and then you go to the next line of text. As you can see from the Quantitative Easing movie, you can include quite a few lines. It uses a voice engine to convert your text, rather than your voice itself.

Although it only works on a PC, not Apple, you can make the movie on the PC and then transfer it anywhere you want. It’s perfect for making fun, with judicious use of profanity, as in Quantitative Easing. It’s kind of anonymous but somehow powerful because it’s a machine voice, not yours or anyone else’s, and also because there are cartoon characters rather than real photos of real people. And all that makes it funnier and somehow safer for you as the wise guy author too.

I mention this because I think it’s the way to the future. A great way to deliver a message, not only a funny message but a political message, as you can see. It’s painless but pointed, and effective. And anyone can do it, anonymously, quickly, and for cheap. Then put it on YouTube and there go you, published. I predict we’ll see a lot more of these cartoon satires, maybe even some from you.

Want to see another one? Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMvARy0lBLE&feature=player_embedded. And you can see, tons more of them on YouTube, just search on xtranormal and there’s any number of them on any number of timely, topical and sometimes arcane subjects, increasing daily.

While xtranormal has been developing itself into satire, anther product, CrazyTalk, is now at version 6 and really good. You can pick a stock face, and there are many, or a photo of a person or an animal or cartoon, to say anything you want, using either a recorded sound file or typing text-to-sound. While earlier versions were not all that convincing, version 6 will knock your socks off. Check this, for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxVY54hUUEs&feature=related See what I mean?. Regrettably, it's also limited to PCs.

The future is replete with cartoons and movies, especially satires evolving into these mind-expanding cartoons. It’s almost like another kind of freedom of speech, grass-roots and emancipated from old fashioned faces and voices. And I found there’s one other face cartoon product you’re got to see. Tat’s called Crazyface and it’s made for the iPad and most recently for the iPhone too. What fun. Take a look. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzCSP925OMc All things considered, it’s probably better on your iPad, since your iPad, placed in front of your face, looks like a kind of animated mask. Shock and awe!

The graphical-sound transformation is all about animation. It some ways it’s cute, but in the end it’s all about using video to send a message. The real dynamic here is not just making faces, it’s making movies and doing satire and online video with xtranormal.com. That’ll be the sustainable one, and there’ll be many more of them like that. You don’t have to be Disney or George Lucas or his Industrial Light and Magic to do animation these days. Check back in six months, and remember this conversation.

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Inside Job - a documentary you can't put down

November 17th, 2010
By



ThinkTech Hawaii

I never saw a deposition, or even a courtroom movie, as good as the interview questions in Inside Job. Charles Ferguson, the producer and writer of this movie, asks the questions himself. Matt Damon is narrator, and that’s good for bringing the audience in, but it’s Ferguson who puts the rubber on the road. His interviewees wither and stammer and sometimes fall apart in obvious lies. One Treasury official says “can you please turn that thing off?” He demolished himself.

Ferguson scored so many times that it became entertainment. He took the art of the interview to new levels. For that matter, he took the art of the business documentary to new levels. Nothing before was like this, not even Ferguson’s first and only other movie – the award winning No End in Sight – the American Occupation of Iraq.

Sometimes Ferguson would challenge his interviewees directly – he would say “how can you say that,” or “that’s simply not true,” making it clear he thought the guy was lying. Other times, Ferguson would just let the man answer, each answer making it all the more clear that the man was lying. It is more than entertainment when powerful men are caught and memorialized in lies. It’s hard to forget that.

Run don’t walk, to see this movie - Inside Job. It’s really shocking. We all knew there was some serious trouble in Wall Street going into the 2008 crash but this shows you how it started and how it unfolded and how it never really got resolved. It makes you wonder about the President and whether he might have made a political deal with Wall Street that tied his hands when things hit the fan, and now.

The movie is timely to a fault. The stuff it brings out all happened in the last two years, and you’ll be surprised how much you didn’t know about so recent a period. Add to that the movie’s really high production values, and on top of that his command of the facts and larger financial and social issues and the impossible acronyms of Wall Street, and you get a movie that raises your levels, holds you bound to your seat, and makes you wonder what the founding fathers would say about all this.

Documentaries that do this are more than documentaries. They’re revelations that take you somewhere – unhampered investigative reporting and powerful commentary about what’s going on in our country. Newspapers don’t do much investigative reporting anymore, and they don’t tackle iconoclastic dangerous material very well, especially where the power structure, their advertisers, are involved TV stations are likewise unwilling to take risks or attacking those who own them.

That leaves it to documentary makers. They are the new media heroes. The channels that bring them to us are also heroes. This is where the first amendment works best. You come away from Inside Job thinking I’m so glad Ferguson made that and I’m so glad I got to see it. I didn’t like what happened but I loved knowing about it.

Here’s a movie to affect the way hundreds of millions of people feel about Wall Street and the financial sector. Here’s a movie that puts unforgivable greed into perspective and makes us want to do retributive reform to make things right and avoid a recurrence.

Ferguson points out that the crash was global and in some places steps were taken to make sure the abuses don’t happen again. But he also makes it clear that the federal government hasn’t done jack to prosecute the Washington and Wall Street wise guys who made it happen or to renew the regulation they fought so hard to stop.

They’ve all apparently forgiven themselves. No one has been prosecuted or even arrested for what led to the loss of trillions with millions losing their jobs, homes and savings. Do we now just forget it?

He makes the case that at least three presidents let things go, with old boy irresponsibles shuttling between the Fed, Treasury, Congress, Goldman Sachs and Citibank and through the sacred business schools of academia. Many of those irresponsibles made millions or hundreds of millions, but no one has been forced to give it back.

Will our history of upward mobility change out the managers because of this? Probably not - just as inequality of income has been growing in America, so has inequality of education. The younger generations not only earn less but learn less than their parents. And the rich get richer, even more now.

Ferguson asks rhetorically “aren’t some things worth fighting for?” as he flied by the Statute of Liberty. It’s not just reform for the sake of it. It’s for national survival. The greed guys are very powerful and spend billions to stop regulation or reform. Ferguson is calling for reform. He’s calling for us to watch the old boys and make them change. That’s a long shot, but at least here the issue is raised.

He doesn’t lecture; he just pulls the curtain back and lets these guys tell us about themselves. You can see them sweat in trying to answer his questions and you begin to understand what happened. You don’t have to look very far to find they’re responsible, but take absolutely no responsibility.

This is not an ordinary documentary. It’s Ferguson’s look into an open wound, and it’s not pretty. But it’s a movie you’ve got to see, convincing for the argument that Wall Street has lost touch with its power. If we don’t clean house, these things will happen again, and worse. As they said in one go nowhere Congressional investigation, this is not hypothetical, it’s real.

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The magic word today is not Plastics - it's Video

November 9th, 2010
By



ThinkTech Hawaii

Aside from our two hourly TV shows on OLELO, Sunday and Tuesday, ThinkTech is now producing a 30-minute show on OC16 on Sunday nights and other times during the week. We proudly call it ThinkTech on OC16. The format is different than our OLELO shows, and for that reason involves a startup curve, but it’s a great experience to explore new levels of production and broaden the scope of our coverage.

Our OC16 shows have covered the Recovery and Transformation program in August, the Energy Policy Energy Day Pacesetters, medical students at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, the entrepreneurs at HTDC’s Manoa Innovation Center, the international LLM students at the William S. Richardson School of Law, traffic problems and solutions for Oahu, the engineering students at the UH School of Engineering, the scientists and researchers at Oceanit, and the new generation of musicians going forth from Hawaii.

We’re delighted that OC16 has structured its offerings to include this kind of programming. This week guitarist Jeff Peterson on global slack key, next week Kaiser Hospital on operating room tech, the week after that Senior Tech by a group of local companies helping seniors age at home, and so on. We have several more shows in the pipeline and a great number of them on the drawing boards, including the new agriculture in Hawaii, the expansion of the Shidler Business School, tech competition with China, and many others. It’s really great to have this combination of dissemination outlets for our content.

There’s a lot to come on ThinkTech on OLELO and ThinkTech on OC16. We want to cover sea changes, trends, controversies and concerns, and we hope to look down the line of what is happening here and engage in good discussions on edgy subjects relating to the status and development of our state. At the end of the day, we want to examine the realities and work for the common good on all things Hawaii.

Two factors are at play. One is that for an increasing number of people video has become a preferred way to get information. We want to be on that. Remember the line from The Graduate movie in the 1960’s – “I want to say one word to you, young man - plastics.” But the magic word today isn’t plastics, it’s video. In Hawaii as elsewhere, this revolution is enhanced by the reorganization of the conventional media – fewer print press newspapers with much more on the web and even more by way of video.

We're committed to video, and we want to find the quiet but critical pockets of news and comment and bring them to life. As over the years, we want to raise public awareness about tech, energy, environment, agriculture and globalism in hopes the public can formulate thoughtful opinions and be better prepared to participate in civic and government affairs. If you have suggestions for our coverage or shows, or if you want to help us on them, please write to us. Check us out on OLELO.org and on OC16.tv. We’d love to hear from you. thinktech@hawaii.rr.com.

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A used car dealership at the CompUSA site is not a good idea

November 2nd, 2010
By



ThinkTech Hawaii

Aside from successful evenings for the Abercrombie campaign, the CompUSA property on Ala Moana has been vacant for nearly three years. In 2007, CompUSA was paying rent of about $120,000 per month to the owner Kamehameha Schools.

That land is in a primary location only a stone’s throw from downtown, and one would have expected any broker to be able to lease it at that rate or better long ago. The vacancy has been an eyesore, so we have to wonder why all the delay.

Ironically, on the same day Neil Abercrombie had his celebration at CompUSA, the Star-Advertiser reported that despite KS’ earlier plans to develop the area, it had decided rather to enter into a 33-month lease to AutoMart USA for a used-car dealership, deferring all of these development plans.

Whatever the rent, it isn’t worth it. This lot is the urban keystone connecting Ala Moana to downtown. KS owns both sides of Ala Moana all the way from Ward to South, a large neighborhood. There are already several automobile dealerships on the KS parcels. Do we now actually need a used car lot too?

The AutoMart lease confirms if not seals the character of the area as a strip of car dealerships, a far cry from KS’ promises that it would build a new low-rise residential community there. A Times or Safeway would have supported that residential community, but a used car lot doesn’t and won’t.

Do we need more cars in our gridlocked community? Is that a desirable use for this area? Aren’t we moving on to better public transit? Aren’t we moving on to electric cars? This will be a used car lot, unlikely to sell electric cars.

Also, for the past ten years KS has also been promising the “Asia-Pacific Innovation Center” (APIC) one block across Ala Moana. There were press releases, programs, models, the whole nine yards. At the beginning, APIC was exciting for the tech industry, but after all these years there’s still no sign of it.

In 2008, when KS was facing a bill to increase affordable housing requirements on the mauka side, they claimed that both sides of Ala Moana had to be penciled together and that the only way APIC would be feasible was if affordable housing requirements on the mauka side were not increased.

In the end, the legislature did not make any significant increase in the affordable housing requirements. That was two years ago, but KS has still not gone ahead either with its residential development on the mauka side or its tech development on the makai side. Was the feasibility argument a construct?

KS had agreed to include the pumping station for Honolulu Sea Water Air Conditioning in APIC. The lack of any movement on APIC would appear to leave HSWAC without a location for that pumping station. Don't hold your breath on that project either.

This land has access to Waikiki, the shopping centers, Kakaako Park, Aloha Tower and downtown. So why exactly do we leave it dormant for three years then lease it to a used car lot for another 33 months. This has no rhyme or reason and leaves the tech and residential development of the area in a lurch.

We are so concerned about land use and sense of place and the quality of the environment around us, so why do this? Surely, this is not what the KS master plan or the HCDA planners had in mind. Given the enormous housing problems in Honolulu, proceeding with the development after all this time would have been the better course.

It’s not just that KS made this decision without concern for the look, feel or development of our city, but the government stands by in silence without saying a word. Does it agree with this strange pattern of non-development? Surely, there are planning principals and rules that require a better result.

With all of its resources and as the owner of land in the city’s center, we might have expected KS to have some sense of place and obligation to proceed with meaningful urban development. After decades of delay, it ignores the promises and divides, confounds and stagnates the city. At this point, we can have no confidence that this project will ever get done.

This stagnation suggests that large landowners have little concern for the proper development of the city or the community. As an exempt nonprofit, KS could be far more sensitive to these issues and work for the greater good. If they can’t do that, we need to adopt new levels of planning and regulation by which we can move things ahead and build a city we can finally be proud of.

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