November 10th, 2011

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These are several notes which might become published articles if and when I get around to doing more thorough research.  The topics are; standing at work, capital punishment, aircraft carriers, distance learning, and television ads in the US.

Standing at Work

Not many people find it comfortable to stand all day, yet many retail jobs require it.  I wonder if the availability of seating or some way to get the weight off the feet might not enhance productivity in many jobs where workers must spend many hours on their feet with few opportunities for a sitting break.  After a few hours of standing most people begin to think about their sore feet, swollen ankles and stiff backs; not very conducive to good customer service or job performance.  Longer term prolonged standing can lead to permanent injury.  So far, I’ve found surprisingly little writing or research on this topic but expect to turn up more as I do my own research.

Within the US, I notice that many categories of retail employees are required to stand.  Most airline ticket counter personnel have to stand when they are on duty with Delta being a possible exception.  Whenever I talk to agents they say that their airline regards it as a matter of attentive customer service but few of them seem very happy with the policy.  In overseas airports, most agents seem to have stools or chairs.  Most bank tellers seem to stand at their positions though I have seen Chase branches where both tellers and customers are seated.  In supermarkets, clerks are almost always on their feet.  Some of the written comments I’ve found say that they could be injured if they are sitting when they try to process heavier items.

Across the industrialized world, factory workers generally sit at their posts with work in front of them or directed to their positions.  Since the early time and motion studies, industry has concentrated on efficiency and productivity and industrial work stations are just one aspect of this focus.  I suspect that the retail world has some catching up to do.

Capital Punishment

The death penalty is one of those areas where many of us find that our own views are sometimes inconsistent.  While I agree with most of the many arguments against death as an appropriate penalty for any crime, I do find myself wavering when a crime is particularly atrocious.  If the crime involved my own family or friends, I might opt for the Taliban solution where the victim’s relatives are allowed to administer the coup de grace.  Well; maybe not – I just don’t know or want to know, but emotion and intellect are inextricably conflicted. Regardless of my own feelings, it is quite clear that we are a long way from being fair and consistent in our application of the death penalty.

Coming at this issue from a different point of view, it seems to me that it is just not a good idea for any government to be able to put people, particularly their own citizens, to death.  Historically, this has rarely worked out well.  Our western democracies do have a better but very brief record.  Really brief when you consider the total span of human history.

There are many instances, even within living memory, where the leaders of even relatively advanced societies have been able to justify and legalize the killing of opponents.  They include Russia, Germany, Serbia, Cambodia and others.  Moving back just beyond what any of us can remember, the French Revolution found the guillotine a useful and efficient invention to mass produce executions.  Just another century earlier, there were very few societies including our own where torture and death could not be administered arbitrarily and for even the most trivial and even imagined offenses.

Ethnic purges, the elimination of political opponents, and genocide are all too common and recent.  The history of mankind is one of generally constant economic, technological and social progress but also of constant strife, torture and murder.  Human nature hasn’t changed throughout recorded history.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely and rulers become dictators.  Dictators gain control of every aspect of government, including the Judiciary, become “presidents for life” and no opposition is tolerated.

This seems very unlikely here or in other modern democracies.  On the other hand, it didn’t seem very likely either in the sophisticated and cultured European cities like the Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam of the mid to late 1930’s.  Would you trust every one of our current leaders to be restrained if a sequence of admittedly unlikely political events were to give him (or her) unchecked power?

History, even very recent history, shows us that it is never a good idea to allow those in authority to put their own citizens to death.

Aircraft Carriers

The US Military is perhaps unprecedented in its efforts to study the techniques of warfare and to anticipate the future while avoiding the usual fate of being well prepared for the way wars were previously fought.  I wonder though if our present use of massive aircraft carriers may be an exception to this.  We have a huge investment in these carriers and they are a critical and important component in our present war strategy.  The benefit of having such awesomely powerful mobile strike forces stationed around the world is obvious.  What may not be so obvious is that their vulnerability increases as each year passes and as other nations develop ever more effective weapons systems of their own.

The problem is that each carrier is a small city containing between 5,000 and 6,000 individual lives.  In the context of most prior wars, the loss of several thousand lives would be tragic but the numbers of dead would be relatively small compared to the overall total loss of life or indeed the losses sometimes suffered on just one battlefield.  Thankfully and hopefully an augury for the future, fewer lives have been lost in our recent conflicts.

Although aircraft carriers will eventually become obsolete we might consider hurrying the process in a way which is consistent with our strategic and military needs.  As we develop new weapons systems and as we change and update our military strategies we should keep their increasing vulnerability in mind and phase these carriers out as quickly as possible.

Distance Learning

The rapid advance of internet and computer technology will revolutionize advanced learning.  High speed internet and low cost and/or used computers, netbooks, smart phones and touch pads are increasingly available worldwide.  Books and course materials will be available online.  Database technology, storage and software are ready to support a democratization of learning across the globe.

With the cost of books and incidentals, not including living costs, a university education in the US costs between $8,000 and $45,000 per year.  Graduate and vocational study can cost even more.  These are numbers which are difficult for our citizens and impossible for most potential students across the world.

What if a vocational, university or graduate education could be offered for $500.00 per year?  Or, some other relatively low number.  No one knows how distance learning will develop but we can be sure that it will be much less expensive than a present degree, that many more people across the world will be able to avail themselves of advanced education, that the courses and degrees offered will be vast and often very specialized and that some of our present great universities will become leaders in this field.

Problems which seem difficult or even insurmountable such as how to teach writing and research or how to handle laboratory work will be solved as technology and experience advance, probably in ways which are inconceivable now.  Although the most effective learning will always involve person to person contact there is now no reason why distance learning cannot be a real alternative for those who are unable to attend a physical educational facility.

Imagine a university with one million students at $500.00 per year or a budget of $500,000,000 for online education.  Expect regional examination centers where students’ identities can be verified.  Some universities will have many relatively small branch campuses.  The most effective and popular teachers or lecturers, not necessarily tenured professors, will be paid like rock stars or sports figures.  Local study groups and tutoring systems, both formal and informal will be created.  YouTube, Google and other methods for distributing and accessing information, some not yet invented, will become integrated into learning systems.  There will be many levels of degrees ranging from a certificate of completion to a degree with the highest honors.  Perhaps the best students maybe the top one tenth of one percent will earn free tuition and living at top universities.

Looking at it from the perspective of a potential student, it is easy to see that low cost and accessibility will be important factors in choosing a particular university or vendor of a course or degree, it is more difficult to see how future educational institutions will add value or excellence and differentiate themselves from competing institutions or providers.  At present, the institutions with the best reputations attract the best students and excellence becomes self-perpetuating.  In part, this is a consequence of limiting access.  US medical schools are a good example of this where scarcity creates intense competition for entry. Though this is true within the US, there are equally good medical schools and very good doctors in many other countries where access may not be quite so competitive.  Maybe the potential reward of free or low cost access to on campus study at a traditional university will become a differentiating feature.

Distance learning will become a recognized and valid alternative to a residence degree and it is likely that the numbers of students will soon greatly surpass those in “bricks and mortar” courses.

Television Advertising in the US

US TV audiences accept commercial advertising that runs between eight and twelve minutes in every thirty minute segment.  With station identification, this adds up to between 30% and 40% of each hour.  It is difficult to understand why we as the TV audience accept this.  Most other countries don’t.

If you multiply national audience sizes by the time consumed by commercials, it adds up to a massive and profligate use of time, some of which would certainly be devoted to different and probably more productive activity.  The time devoted to commercials has gradually increased over the years and maybe the free market has pushed the boundaries beyond reasonable limits.

The airwaves are public property and if advertising were to be limited to a very much smaller portion of the time available (five percent, ten percent?), I suspect that the quality of programing would not suffer at all.  Maybe it would improve.  If advertising were rationed, advertisers would almost certainly value it more and be willing to pay more for more exclusive access.  With TV rapidly combining with internet access and with increased programing available, maybe it is time for regulatory change too.

It is worth a thought.

E. P. Wilbur

October 29, 2011