The Megabus Hour

My standard departure hour from work is about 6 p.m. or so, which happens to coincide with the time that the Megabus coaches roll through downtown Columbus.  The Megabus stop is at the corner of Fourth and Spring downtown, which is right along my route home.

IMG_2088Megabus is an interesting business concept.  Owned by a British company called Stagecoach, it’s scheme is to provide low-cost, high-quality intercity bus service that competes with Greyhound.  Unlike Greyhound, however, Megabus doesn’t have bus terminals — it just stops on the street at the appointed time, drops people off, picks people up, and rolls on.

Russell has used the Megabus and thinks it is a pretty good deal.  The coaches are clean and equipped with the modern amenities, like plug-ins and wireless, and since there’s there’s nothing particularly glamorous about bus terminals he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on anything by waiting on the street to catch a ride.  Judging by the number of Columbusites I’ve seen using the Megabus, he’s not alone in that sentiment.  There’s always a crowd waiting to board and always a crowd debarking, too.

The Bus-Riding Conservative is a big fan of bus companies like Megabus, and thinks we are foolish to try to rebuild rail infrastructure when Megabus can offer reasonably priced long-haul passenger transportation.  I see the merit to the BRC’s analysis.  Companies like Megabus use existing infrastructure and don’t require the expenditure of cash needed to permit high-speed rail travel in rail-free states like Ohio.  Megabus also won’t need the ongoing governmental subsidies that rail travel seems to demand.  If businesses like Megabus fail, taxpayers won’t be on the hook and stuck with a white elephant terminal — the intersection of Spring and Fourth will just be a little less crowded come 6 p.m.

Richard At The Trib

This week Richard started an internship at the Chicago Tribune, on the business desk.  He’s living in Hyde Park, just across the street from the President’s old house.  If you’re interested you can follow his work through the Tribune website, here.

Internships often are derided these days, but they have gotten Richard some wonderful experience.  Between San Antonio, Pittsburgh, and now Chicago, he’s gotten a real taste of what it’s actually like to work on a big-city daily newspaper.  In the process, he’s covered some great stories and compiled an impressive set of clips.  He’ll get a chance to add to that set this summer; Chicago is one of the best business cities in the country.

Richard has always had a strong affinity for Chicago, and now he’s back in the Windy City, working for one of America’s finest newspapers.  This will be an exciting summer for him!

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

Car2go 4 Cols

Car2go has come to Columbus.  Walking in to work this morning, I saw two of their cars parked along Gay Street — which is appropriate, because Gay Street is the coolest street in downtown Columbus and car2go is a pretty cool idea.

IMG_1617According to the website and its FAQs, it works like this.  You fill out an application form and make one $35 payment to register after your application is accepted.  You are mailed a membership card.  You download the car2go app to your smartphone then use it to locate cars.  When you find one, you swipe your card, answer some questions, get in, and drive.  You are charged 38 cents a minute for use of the car, and you return it to a metered space within the car2go home area, which covers German Village, downtown, the University district, and Clintonville.  The charges are billed to your credit card.

It’s an interesting idea that is based on a core reality of urban living — owning your own car can be a pain when you live in a city.  You don’t need a car most of the time.  Parking spaces can be hard to find, and figuring out where to put your car can be a hassle.  With car2go, you only have a car when you really need it, and you only pay for it as long as you use it.  The two car2go vehicles I saw today were the small, two-seater models that seem well-suited to their limited purpose.

Will Columbus car2go work?  Beats me.  But if you want to offer an urban living lifestyle, as Columbus does, it seems like a pretty good idea that would fill a void.

 

First-Day “Glitches”

Today was the first day Americans could try to access health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — known to some as “Obamacare.”

It’s fair to say that the process didn’t go smoothly.  The Chicago Tribune reported, for example, that consumers seeking information encountered “long delays, error messages and a largely non-working federal insurance exchange and call center Tuesday morning.”  It’s not entirely clear how widespread the problems were, and are, but the prevailing theme of the news stories was about difficulties, failures, and frustrations.  As the video above shows, one MSNBC anchor tried to obtain information about options on-line, to try to help viewers understand how the process worked, and was hit with error messages, inability to resolve the issues through an on-line chat session, and finally being put on hold for more than 30 minutes before hanging up because her patience was exhausted.  

The President says there will be problems and “glitches” because we are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.  I’m not sure that is quite right — there are commercial websites that handle significant volumes of traffic without problems — but his reaction, I think, misses a fundamental point that would not be lost on a businessman.  One of the selling points for the Affordable Care Act was that people could quickly and easily get information about competing health insurance options with a few clicks of a mouse.  Given that pitch, a business would never roll out a website without being absolutely certain that it worked well, because businesses know that consumers can quickly become frustrated — and a frustrated consumer is one that is not likely to come back.  It says something about the government mindset that they would go live with websites that clearly aren’t ready.

The people implementing the Affordable Care Act missed a real opportunity today.  The negative publicity about the websites and their problems are the kind of thing that could become fixed in the minds of the American public, with people coming to accept as conventional wisdom the notion that the websites, and exchanges, are an enormous hassle fraught with delay and failure.  When you’re trying to convince people who aren’t insured to become insured, and you’re trying to overcome the drumbeat of Republican criticism of “Obamacare,” a disastrous first-day roll-out just makes your job immeasurably harder.

General Business

In junior high school, amidst the courses in trigonometry and English and American history, I took a class called General Business.  It harkened back to the days when President Calvin Coolidge famously observed:  “The chief business of the American people is business.

The class was taught by a friendly woman who ran her own business and was filled with enthusiasm for capitalism.  She taught us about profits and losses, balancing a checkbook, and basic bookkeeping concepts.  We learned about principal and interest, mortgages, and things to keep in mind when you were applying for a loan and trying to decide how much to borrow and how much to make as a down payment.  We read about stocks and bonds and how they were different and talked about how businesses were run and why some succeeded and others failed.  It opened our eyes to everyday things we’d never thought about — like what a cash register actually does and why you got a receipt when you bought something.

Through it all, the message of our cheerful teacher was consistent and packed a punch:  you’ll need to understand this stuff in the real world.  If you want to take control of your own future, get out on your own and be successful and independent, you have to this kind of practical knowledge of how the economy works and how you can participate in it.  You don’t want to be a know-nothing who is easy prey for shysters and frauds.  You don’t want to go bankrupt, either.  Even the most uninspired student paid attention when the teacher was explaining how a car loan works, because we all wanted to buy a car some day.

I still think of that class whenever I write a check, because I write it just the way I was taught more than 40 years ago.  The high concepts of trigonometry have been lost in the mists of time, but the basics of business are still there in my brain, accessed regularly.  I’m glad they are there, and I wish I could meet that teacher and thank her for the years of useful guidance she provided.

Do schools still teach classes like General Business?