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Fast Forward

Of English, math, surveillance and books

Hope Stephan
Hope Stephan

I've got so many tidbits for this week's Rewind — those updates to previous blogs I tack at the end — that this week's edition of Fast Forward is one big rewind.

First up, English majors. I wrote recently about the apparent declining value of word skills. Incoming college students are being discouraged from going into the humanities, some think English majors have a tougher time getting hired, and so forth. Here's an argument for the other side, which I heartily agree with.

The only exam I ever failed in all my college years involved a business school math test (calculus, actually, which I had never taken as an undergrad) and that was in my final semester in a course that, if I didn't pass, I didn't graduate.

But that dismal term was preceded by many years as a successful English major and subsequent years of teaching expository writing and critical thinking — and that was how I triumphed in the end.

I survived all the math-heaviest courses because I could write well. While exams were solo misery, class projects carried more weight in the final grade and we did those in teams. There I was, invariably the sole English major thrown in with engineers, accountants and tech folks. They ran the numbers, we analyzed them together, and I then wrote the case studies we had to present. It was a win-win for everybody, since they were as comfortable with words as I was with formulas.

More important, it emphasized the need for diversity on a work team and the paramount importance of clear communication. As a team, we aced the assignments, while our classmates often struggled with that final step.

Next up, surveillance. While Edward Snowden continues to sit in the Moscow airport transit area awaiting an answer on his asylum request, privacy continues to erode on all fronts, and not at the hands of government. If you're carrying a cellphone, you're leaving a trail of electronic bread crumbs everywhere you go. The New York Times last week wrote about an experiment high-end retailer Nordstrom cut short after it informed customers their movements were being tracked as they wandered through the store, albeit anonymously. Not surprisingly, the customers complained.

I have two questions. First, why is it OK to be watched on stores' closed-circuit cameras or even by a store employee as you wander from small kitchen appliances to shoes to the sale rack in ladies' apparel, but not electronically? And if, as he contends, Snowden is fearful of being tortured if he's returned to the U.S., why doesn't he just come home now? He'd be better off here than enduring a fifth week eating, sleeping and otherwise trying to pass the hours where he is now. If you've ever been stuck in an airport overnight, you know what I mean.

Maybe that's why he thinks he's "torture-proof."

Finally, books and reading. Last week I commented on ebooks, which many people think will eliminate physical books from the marketplace. A new Pew Research Center study finds that young people value books, reading and libraries far more than their elders think and are still reading on multiple platforms. In fact, it's the top age bracket that's falling away.

And according to this study, chocolate may save the day for booksellers.

The week ahead

Reporter Brent Burkey will have part two of his analysis of manufacturing in the midstate. You can read part one here. And real estate reporter Jason Scott talks with a local real estate agency that may be bucking a trend as it drops its franchise affiliation and goes independent.

Midstate networking opportunities for the week are available here.

The emphasis this week in economic reporting is on homes: existing sales (Monday); new sales (Wednesday); and durable goods, which includes things homeowners want, like appliances, televisions and cars, and affects their ability to buy them, since making them provides wages (Thursday).

The Beige Book is out. While it's not blockbuster beach reading, it is interesting. Anecdotal evidence collected from all around the country indicates we're in recovery. Modest recovery. I'll take that.

The rewind

Here's a different kind of privacy issue — a fascinating look at how the anonymity of the Internet could hurt your business. Given the opportunity, some people who don't buy your product will trash it in an online review regardless, and very convincingly. (By the way, I think I recognize the retailer cited in the story. I considered buying one of its products recently and, yes, backed off because of the disappointed reviews. Do you have any thoughts?)

Hope Stephan is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal.  A Pennsylvania native, she’s a graduate of Penn State and Xavier University.  Her journalism career has taken her  full circle, from daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, then back to the commonwealth.

 Although a journalist is usually trying to make sense of events happening now, for Fast Forward she prefers to stand at the intersection of now and tomorrow looking for hints of what may be racing toward us. In addition to peering into the future, her interests include travel, music and reading – anything from the classics and history to mysteries, biography and science.

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