Dynamist Blog

We're the Phone Company, Cont'd

In response to the post below on how service providers stifle mobile-phone innovation, reader Michael Radanovich writes:

As someone involved in antenna design for cellphones, I see firsthand the network operators' stultifying effect on handset design. In particular, the greatest obstacle to further progress minaturizing phones is the continued need to support the original 800 MHz band. (Maybe the WSJ article covers this...it is a pay site so I can't see.) I've seen pendant designs, wristwatch designs, and Zippo-sized flip-opens die because it is impossible for antennas to operate well at 800 MHz. Lower frequency means longer wavelengths...remember how long those 33 MHz CB antennas were? No way around it.

New entrants to the market are particularly prone to getting whacked: sensing the demand for a smaller handset, they come to us, only to later discover that they can't meet network operators' RF specs in their oh-so-cool form factor, after wasting both their & our engineering resources (miniature antenna design is a laborious and inexact art; you don't know exactly how much you can squeeze the size down until you try).

If the operators would permit PCS-only phones (1900 MHz), consumers would flock to their heretofore unattainably small sizes (starting with people who have to wear formal/business attire often). The market pressure to convert the lower frequency networks would be tremendous. (Sprint is PCS-only, but the CDMA protocol they use presents different barriers to minaturization...the effect of the two opposing forces is that they about hold even with the GSM phones.)

As it is now, handset makers compete by piling on cameras, smartphone features, etc. into a form factor that hasn't really shrunk in years. Granted, it's nothing like the the old Ma Bell days...thank God for that.

On a semi-related note, I use Sprint PCS and often find myself without service while people all around me are yacking on their cell phones. Should I switch? And, of so, to what network?

UPDATE: I switched to t-Mobile. Thanks to everyone who wrote in with advice.

Come for Your Looks, Stay for Your Health

When I visited the dentist yesterday, they gave me a new incentive to keep up my regular checkups (as though all the dental work I suffered through after not having regular checkups weren't enough): free whitening for life. This approach suggests a whole new approach to promoting preventive health checks. Since their behavior suggests that most people care more about their immediate appearance than their long-term health, maybe doctors should offer discounts on Botox (or Viagra?) to get patients into the exam room.

Sugar Rush

On this blog, I've often opined on the enduring problem of sugar protectionism, which drives sugar-using businesses out of the United States and stifles growth in developing countries that produce sugar far more economically than American farmers. Beet farmers and cane growers have tremendous political clout, even greater than environmentalists, Coca-Cola, and Hershey (not to mention free-trade advocates or consumers, who count for almost nothing in Washington).

Recent reports in the WaPost and NYT, however, suggest that maybe, just maybe the sugar lobby has overstretched. Here's the Post account, which focuses on beet farmers--the sugar lobby's secret weapon, or so I'm told by someone who unsuccessfully took them on some years ago.

"We should not allow the very tiny minority of U.S. agriculture that believes it will be negatively impacted to derail this agreement," said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing last month, noting that farmers in his district who produce rice, almonds, walnuts and other crops have enthusiastically backed CAFTA, which they feel offers important new export opportunities.

The specter of CAFTA collapsing over sugar is particularly galling to economists who have long criticized federal restrictions on sugar imports. "Sugar is a prototypical case of a policy that favors the few at the expense of the many," wrote Kimberly A. Elliott, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development, in an analysis last month....

To critics, that's an argument against the U.S. sugar program. "It's true that beet farmers don't make much money, but that's because it's inefficient to produce sugar from beets -- the rule of thumb is that it's about twice as costly as cane," said Donald Mitchell, a World Bank economist.

According to a study Mitchell authored, eliminating the distortions created by government policies in the United States, Europe and elsewhere could create 1 million jobs in developing countries that are more efficient sugar producers. And American consumers would benefit; workers in sugar-using industries might benefit, too.

The Times report emphasizes "big sugar," ignoring the beat farmers. Here's the opening:

At the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, confectioners of everything from gummy bears to red hots, rail cars used to deliver three million pounds of sugar a week to its bustling plant just outside America's candy capital here.

Today, the trains bring only half as much, barely enough to fill the factory's 65-foot sugar silos. That is largely because Ferrara, in an effort to avoid the high cost of government-protected American sugar, has been moving some of its century-old operations to Canada and Mexico.

The reason for this decade-long shift can be traced to global economics and the domestic sugar industry, which is fast being branded as a spoiler nationally and internationally. "Big Sugar" is in trouble not only here in Chicago, where it is losing some of its customers, but also in Washington, where it is losing some of its longtime political allies.

Rightly or wrongly, the sugar industry is being blamed for an assortment of evils: undercutting the American food industries that rely on sugar, fighting global diet guidelines that aim to improve children's health and curb obesity, and, most recently, for hurting the chance for passage of the Bush administration's top trade priority, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as Cafta.

"More and more people have begun to realize that this is an indefensible program from a trade policy standpoint," said Clayton K. Yeutter, a former United States trade representative and agriculture secretary, who is now senior adviser to the Food Trade Alliance, which represents companies in food processing, retailing and restaurants that are lobbying in favor of the agreement. "Beneath the surface one can sense that the house of cards has begun to shake a bit."

From your mouth to God's ears, Mr. Yeutter.

BTW, if you follow the links to my earlier discussions, you'll need to scroll down the page to find the entries. To keep the number of files manageable, my older archives don't break out separate posts.

Breakthroughs Wanted

For reasons I'll explain at a later date, I'm looking for good examples of breakthrough innovations in 2004 or 2005. (They could have been invented, tested, or marketed in this period.) These should be applied inventions, not theories, but they don't have to be fully developed products. Some recent breakthroughs are obvious--most notably Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One--but not every important innovation gets international press. I'm hoping readers can help me find some overlooked gems. Email me with your ideas, vp-at-dynamist.com. Thanks.

Now Accepting Canadian Dollars

Prompted by Canadian reader John Campbell, I've joined Amazon.ca's Associates program, so that Canadian Amazon customers can share Jeff Bezos's wealth with Dynamist.com. Click on the link below (or the Amazon.ca ad to the right) to place any Canadian Amazon orders.

The Evil Rich

California's definition of "rich" is going lower and lower, even as the cost of living (and especially the cost of buying a house) is going higher and higher. Writing in the Orange County Register, taxpayer-activist Jon Coupal explains:

Under a plan announced by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, those "rich" people making more than $142,582 will see their taxes go up by 7 percent to a marginal tax rate of 10 percent. The "super rich," those making more than $285,164, will see their tax rate go up by 17 percent.

If the Democrats are successful in placing this "tax the rich" scheme on the ballot, some voters may be tempted to approve it because it will not affect them. It was the late Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana who summed up the approach this way, "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree." After all, it's no great sacrifice to vote to tax other people, and the "rich" are always a tempting target. (It is interesting to note that Speaker Núñez, whose pay will go to $127,512 this year, plus a daily tax-free allowance of $138, would not not see his taxes go up.)

However, before anyone is tempted to support the Democrats' proposal, he might want to look at how fast the definition of "rich" for tax purposes has declined. Just last November, voters approved another soak-the-rich measure, Proposition 63, the mental health tax that increased the levy by 10 percent on those making $1 million or more. In just seven months, the political definition of rich has declined by 85 percent to just over $142,000. If we were to continue at this rate, by the beginning of July, those making minimum wage could expect to be classified as rich....

[W]hen the "wealthy" include tradesmen and nurses headed to Las Vegas for a lower cost of living - including taxes - the rest of California ought to be worried. If those making more and paying more in taxes flee the state, those left behind may discover that it is they who will inherit a higher tax burden.

As a percentage of the population, people making upwards of $142K are indeed an elite. But, at least in California, they don't feel particularly rich. "In Los Angeles," a friend once said, "the middle class is people making between $200,000 and $800,000." I might not inflate the range that much, but speaking in psychological class, rather than income, terms, she's right.

Support Your Local Blog

If you use Amazon to order gifts for Father's Day, graduation, weddings, or yourself, you can costlessly support this blog by following any Amazon ad or link to place your order. I get a percentage of whatever is ordered through this site, whether you follow a link directly to the item (as with my books) or simply enter Amazon from any link on Dynamist.com.

At least I'm not begging for donations like my friends over at the for-profit D Magazine blog, FrontBurner. Not that I don't appreciate donations.

Too Much Choice?

My Reason feature examining the arguments that Americans (and residents of market democracies in general) have too much choice is finally online. Here's the beginning, with links you won't find at Reason Online:

When customers enter the Ralphs supermarket near UCLA, they see a sign announcing how many different fruits and vegetables the produce department has on hand: "724 produce varieties available today," it says, including 93 organic selections.

Sixty dozen varieties is a mind-boggling number. And that's just in the produce department. Over in the cheese section, this pretty run-of-the-mill supermarket offers 14 types of feta alone. Not so long ago, finding feta of any type required a trip to a specialty shop.

During the last couple of decades, the American economy has undergone a variety revolution. Instead of simply offering mass-market goods, businesses of all sorts increasingly compete to give consumers more personalized products, more varied experiences, and more choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. "Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and--I swear--it will make you dizzy," writes design critic Karrie Jacobs. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.

The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.

"Since graduation, we've struggled to make our own happiness," Jenny Norenberg, a young lawyer, writes in Newsweek. "It seems that having so many choices has sometimes overwhelmed us. In the seven years since I left home for college, I've had 13 addresses and lived in six cities. How can I stay with one person, at one job, in one city, when I have the world at my fingertips?"

It's all too much, declares the latest line of social criticism. Americans are facing a crisis of choice. We're increasingly unhappy, riddled with anxiety and regret, because we have so much freedom to decide what to do with our money and our lives. Some choice may be good, but we've gone over the limit. The result is The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, the title of Yale political scientist Robert Lane's 2000 book on the subject.

To these critics, providing too many choices is the latest way liberal societies in general, and markets in particular, make people miserable. "Choices proliferate beyond our pleasure in choosing and our capacity to handle the choices," writes Lane. Like cheap food and sedentary labor, the argument goes, abundant choice is not something human beings are biologically evolved to cope with. We'd be better off with fewer decisions to make.

"As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear," writes Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice, published in January 2004. "As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize."

Schwartz's book has become a touchstone, not just for social critics but for self-help gurus and marketing professionals looking for the Next Big Thing. Its argument also offers a scientific-seeming alternative to public policies that expand choice, notably in health care and retirement accounts.

Schwartz, writes Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in an article on private Social Security accounts, "shows how a certain measure of choice can be liberating but how too much is a treadmill--sometimes even triggering depression. Freedom and choice are wonderful things that allow us to realize our human potential. But there's a limit to how many choices each of us has time to make, and most people in the rich world are pretty much maxed out already."

Read the rest here. For related articles, check out this site's Variety section.

Apple Switches

Apple is expected to announce today that it's switching to Intel chips. According the the NYT report, Apple is looking for faster laptop chips that don't throw off so much heat. CNET reports that "Apple plans to move lower-end computers such as the Mac Mini to Intel chips in mid-2006 and higher-end models such as the Power Mac in mid-2007, sources said." What exactly the switch means for Mac buyers planning to upgrade isn't clear, though the Register account suggests there won't be too much disruption.

In other Apple news, GeekCulture.com features a "dress Steve Jobs" game. Instead of his standard black T-shirt and jeans, you can play digital paperdoll with pimp costumes and armor.

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