Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Goldfish Brain

I woke up this morning (cue Sopranos soundtrack), just like most every morning: clock radio with NPR turns on to cue my brain to pay attention, the full spectrum light glows with morning bright, and once I am good and primed to recognize the hateful concept of "morning", the beepy alarm goes off and I hit the snooze every 4 minutes for a little more than half an hour. During that half hour, I grow increasingly annoyed at the quality and content of the so-called news.

The thing that irritated me out of bed this morning was something that has bothered me for a while. In reporting Wall Street financial numbers, there's no yesterday and no tomorrow. The format is almost always, "The DJIA is up 3 points to 1341 in early trading". It is a rare day when they say "The DJIA is up 3 points to 1141 in early trading, not yet recovering from last weeks 200 point plunge." Nor do they say "The DJIA is up 3 points to 1341, continuing its overall upward trend for the month." Somewhat like Ellen Degeneres's fish in Finding Nemo, every time you turn around it's like "Hey, look what I found! I don't know the Dow from downtown, but 1341 seems like a propitious number. And it's UP!" Even for the brief run through the headline news, would it take so long to add 14 syllables of context?

The reason I don't like this reporting is that it fosters a market timing, day trading mentality. The problem with that mentality is that even people in the business who should know better reward rash, short term corporate behavior over long term business growth, stability, and a return on longer term investments. The majority of CEOs are required first to pander to the stock market, not to make a company strong, safe, and pleasant to work with and for. Even though long term growth is in everyone's best interest, the news tells me the story that grandstanding moves like laying off 10% of a workforce will increase stock value long enough for someone watching from afar to make money, no matter the expense to the fundamentals, employees, and product potential. This mentality says, if it's not in the now, it's not worth doing.

Every so often, someone will buck the trend and come out with something that really advances technology and possibly quality of life. The last company I worked for took about six years to turn my division profitable once they decided to really fund it. Had the company's founder not championed the technology, the W.ii controller might not exist today, and your airbag's timing might not be as advanced. The division almost certainly wouldn't have survived without the protection of the parent company and the founder. In the last few years, though, it has become of one of the superstars for getting the company name positive press. It has returned on the investment which was made in spite of Wall Street thinking it was nothing more than a drain on resources.

But what usually makes the news and excites stock trading is big companies laying people off, not investing in potential. I only wish I could better articulate an example that doesn't include the popular "layoff" and provide some specific companies to show what I mean. Because every CEO tells you how the major restructuring will help cure cancer and taste like grape popsicles. Yet I wonder how many people really belive them while watching the news anchors echo the pre-fabbed talking points with a mild smile and no critical analysis whatsoever. This lack of critical analysis and context seems to be endemic to our news these days and is getting worse. And it irritates me every day.

Another thing that continually annoys me is "scientists" assuming that animals, fish, and various other life forms are stupid, emotionless, and incapable. These poseurs do not deserve the honor of being associated with a community based almost solely on careful observation and logical deductive reasoning. The "goldfish brain" reference comes from some "scientists" who, about a decade ago, posited that goldfish brains are so small that they have no short or long memory to speak of. The Mythbusters were able to debunk this in a week. Anyone who has cared for a pet or even observed nature out the back window knows that animals sense and feel, then learn and do new things based on how previous sensations made them feel. Just like us. That's not to say pets they learn what you want them to. But that is not necessarily the failure of the animal.

The only good thing to come from this study, IMHO, is a great pop culture reference that Ani Defranco translated well to song. Upon reflection, I find the first two verses can be substituted for the entirety of this blog entry, and future rant on franchising as well.
    in a coffee shop in a city
    which is every coffee shop
    in every city
    on a day which is every day
    i pick up a magazine
    which is every magazine
    and read a story then forgot it right away

    they say goldfish have no memory
    i guess their lives are much like mine
    the little plastic castle
    is a surprise every time

    it's hard to say if they are happy
    but they don't seem much to mind

Which does make me wonder how you can tell what a goldfish is feeling. Just because I can't correctly interpret fast tail twitching doesn't mean they don't get cranky.


Jacob said...

The first part of your post reminded me that I wanted to read a book by Robert Reich, that I remember seeing advertised on the subway many years ago. All I remember is that the premise of the book is that companies need to be good citizens, good members of the community, and that this is not only morally good but makes economic sense, too.

I can't seem to find the book by reading reviews on Amazon. The closest that seems probable is "I'll be short", which has this in the description:

"... Our astonishing economic growth after World War II, he maintains, grew out of a social contract: (a) anyone who wants a job should have one; (b) those who work should earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty; and (c) all Americans should have access to an education. This social contract has collapsed over decades of social Darwinism; it needs to be restored. Reich examines the roles of business (it does have civic responsibilities), government (addressing the broadening income--and wealth--gap between rich and poor is high on its list of responsibilities), and education (it's the heart of the problem). A true 'family values' agenda, he urges, needs to address the problems of millions of families living from paycheck to paycheck, not thousands of families worried about 'the death tax.' Denial, escapism, and resignation, Reich maintains, are the main obstacles to rebuilding a decent working society. ..."

Jacob said...

The last part of your post reminded me of a "the public has no memory" moment that I once had:

Sprite had some hilarious TV ads poking fun at other sodas which give away prizes -- you know, Sprite's motto is drink because you like it, not because you can win free stuff -- and the ad had people saying "I got a ___!", like "I collected 1000 bottle tops and got A SOCK!". I don't remember specifics, but it was funny. Less than six months later, Sprite was doing a bottle-top gimmick of their own where consumers could get free hip-hop clothing by collecting tops. And NO ONE NOTICED.

Today, I definitely feel that Sprite's "Obey your thirst" is intended to be a transparent lie -- a nod to their smart audience who know not to believe in advertising ("we say it, but you really know that we want you to buy our product because our ads make it look cool"). But I'm pretty sure that, at the time of that ad poking fun at getting free stuff, Sprite was still trying to say it truthfully ("we really are different, we don't do gimmicks, drink us because you like the taste"). Or am I just naive, and they never meant it seriously and it's always been tongue-in-cheek?

CrankyOtter said...

Wow! I'm going to have to check out that book. Or at least memorize that blurb. It's exactly what I'm trying to say. We had a sustainability discussion along those lines once too, and never got it said quite as well as R.Reich or his summarizer.

I also forgot to mention gas prices are a live in the now thing as well. (well, gas was expensive last year, but it's a dollar now so I'll get a hummer, then hollering when gas goes back to being expensive. sheesh).

I think you've called out sprite for bad PR. They probably did mean it the first time. This time, they're just trying to be catchy - I just think they're after both the Mountain Dew AND 7up markets. They make the ad frenetic like a MD comercial, but visually list the competition ast 7up. I still want me a shirt that say "Make 7" on the front and "up yours" on the back. Don't know where I'd wear it, but it would make me giggle to myself all day if I had one.