business news in context, analysis with attitude

Today’s New York Times has a story about how a small number of colleges and universities are actually giving incoming students a present - a new iPhone. (The school provides the hardware, while the kids – or their parents – have to pay the monthly charges.) While some professors fear that this will better enable students to tune out of boring class lectures, the Times notes that “the always-on Internet devices raise some novel possibilities, like tracking where students congregate. With far less controversy, colleges could send messages about canceled classes, delayed buses, campus crises or just the cafeteria menu.

“While schools emphasize its usefulness — online research in class and instant polling of students, for example — a big part of the attraction is, undoubtedly, that the iPhone is cool and a hit with students. Basking in the aura of a cutting-edge product could just help a university foster a cutting-edge reputation.”

Now, as the father of two college students and a daughter about to start high school, I have several observations about this, my first reaction was that I’d prefer lower tuitions to marketing gimmicks like this one…especially since most kids already have cell phones. But iPhones aren’t that expensive, the schools are probably all getting a break, and if it helps keep my kids safe and informed, I’m okay with that.

Having pondered it further, I actually have decided that I have less sympathy for the professors who worry that the students might tune them out. I actually think it is a teacher’s job to educate students in a way that doesn’t allow them to tune out – to be engaging and compelling, to encourage higher-level thinking, that makes them part of the experience rather than just an observer. There are way too many teachers out there who, having gotten tenure, think that the hard part is over…

I was reading the other day an essay by someone who reflected that, as a teacher, his biggest challenge is that “I keep getting older, but the students all stay the same age.” I read that, and I immediately thought that he had a rare privilege, being constantly exposed to young and passionate minds that haven't yet been corrupted. This is something to be treasured, not diminished.

Give the kids the iPhones. And, then, when they are in the classroom, make sure that they never have a reason to look at them.

BTW, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Microsoft, tired of being smacked around by Apple in those Mac vs. PC commercials, is about to launch a new $300 million advertising campaign…and at least $10 million of that money will go to one of its new spokesmen, Jerry Seinfeld.

Now, I love Seinfeld. Not just his series, but his humor. Seinfeld’s concert tour documentary, “Comedian,” is a classic. His Superman commercials for American Express were terrific. And I’m sure he can bring some pizzazz to Microsoft.

But the first thing that flashed through my brain when I saw the story was that, on the old “Seinfeld” series, there used to be a computer on a desk in the back of Jerry’s apartment.

And it was a Mac.

Here in the US, there is an ongoing debate about what commercials ought to be allowed to run on television programs aimed at kids.

But in France, they’ve taken it one step farther.

According to the Associated Press the French broadcasting authority “has banned French channels from airing TV shows aimed at children under 3 years old, to shield them from developmental risks it says television viewing poses at that age.” Cable channels specifically targeted at kids that age won’t be allowed to be developed by French producers the government also has ordered that “cable operators that air foreign channels with programs for babies to broadcast warning messages to parents. The messages will read: ‘Watching television can slow the development of children under 3, even when it involves channels aimed specifically at them’.”

No word on what will happen to French parents who plop their toddlers down in front of the TV set. I’m thinking guillotine, but maybe the government has something less drastic in mind…

There are band-aids and there are cures. According to new research from the IHL Group, the economic stimulus package that was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Bush, putting $92 billion in extra cash into the pockets of Americans stressed out by higher prices for practically everything, was little more than a band-aid.

In fact, the research shows that close to 144 percent of that money “was swallowed up by higher fuel and food prices in the past year,” according to IHL, which said that “for the twelve months ending August 1st, consumer prices for fuel and food increased $132.4 billion, and stimulus checks have been used for debt reduction and other necessities instead of discretionary spending, according to recent analysis.”

The only good news, IHL suggests, is that fuel prices have declined a bit in recent days, which may give Americans more money to spend during the back-to-school season.

However, while I would never suggest that Americans not spend what needs to be spent to outfit and prepare their kids for school, it would be rank foolishness for people to start thinking that declining gas prices mean that things are going back to the way they used to be.

Lower gas prices are a tease. Nothing more. They’ll go back up again, and probably higher than they were, because Americans’ tolerance for high fuel prices will have been expanded a bit.

What really has to be expanded is the nation’s energy policy. Everything needs to be on the table – drilling, solar, wind…everything. But we need to develop a real strategy, not just tactics to get votes.

But as a country, we’ll only develop such a strategy when we, as consumers and citizens, start thinking the same way. If we think about the recent hard times as a blip on the radar, and not an indication of the hard realities that will face us for years to come, then we are destined to make the same mistakes all over again.

And speaking of mistakes…

I was fascinated to read in the Wall Street Journal this week that the city of San Francisco is being prevented from expanding its bicycle lane system by, in essence, one gadfly who believes that these efforts are being run by anti-automobile extremists, and who is demanding that an environmental impact study be done before the system is expanded. His reasoning? More bike lanes will lead to more traffic jams because the same number of cars will be trying to get through the city via fewer open car lanes. Hence, more pollution.

In a perverse sort of way, this almost makes sense…though one could argue that the point of expanding the bike lane system would be to get people to stop driving their cars and use either bicycles or mass transportation. In fact, if you had any real sense, that’s exactly what you'd argue.

It is both unbelievable and utterly believable that one guy could have such an impact. And somehow it figures that this guy is from San Francisco, a place that was once described as “49 square miles surrounded by reality.”

I highly recommend that you see “Bottle Shock,” the new movie about the so-called Judgment of Paris – when, in 1976, for the first time wines from California were compared to French wines in a blind taste test. It isn’t giving anything away to say that the results shook the wine world down to its roots.

Heading the wonderful cast is Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant who is having trouble breaking into the French wine establishment. He is very much an outsider yearning to be accepted, and he decides to visit the Napa Valley – then very much in its winemaking infancy – and sponsor a blind tasting that he believes will embellish the French sense of wine superiority and gain him some friends on the inside.

When he gets to California, though, he finds the unexpected – really, really good wines. Among them is a Chardonnay made by Chateau Montelena, which is run by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a lawyer who has decided to indulge his passion for the grape, and his son Bo (Chris Pine), a hippie who is more interested in girls and beer than in making a commitment to the business.

“Bottle Shock” meanders a bit, but never unpleasantly, as the camera lingers over the sun-kissed Napa vineyards and the interesting characters who work there – especially Freddy Rodriguez as Gustavo Brambila, an Hispanic worker who is secretly making his own wine while working for the Barretts; and the gorgeous Rachael Taylor, who plays an intern with more than a passing interest in wine, Bo and Gustavo. I suspect it’ll also teach you something about winemaking and the history of Napa, but the lessons go down as easily as a cool, crisp Sauvignon Blanc on a warm summer evening.

Mostly, “Bottle Shock” is about outsiders yearning to be accepted for their passions in a world that often is more interested in tradition; almost everybody in the movie is on the outside peering in. It is a lovely movie, funny and touching and when it is over, if you’re anything like me, you’ll head to the nearest wine bar to try something new, something different.

One other note: watch Chris Pine carefully, and you’ll see hints of charm, arrogance and mischievousness – all of which should serve him well next year when he appears as the young James T. Kirk in the new “Star Trek” movie that traces the early days o the characters many of us have loved for more than four decades.

May I recommend a couple of nice wines, in keeping with this theme?

The 2006 Ceuso Scurati Bianco, which is a blend of Grecanico, Grillo and Chardonnay, and is terrific with everything from seafood to scrambled eggs.

The 2006 Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine, which is rich and bold with flavors of papaya and mango…a wonderful after dinner drink.


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