Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Three Cheers

(January, 2015 USA Today photo)
Oil has fallen from $100+ per barrel to under $50 today. At first glance the drop in the price of this modern necessity is like cheap (and plentiful) food, clothing, and shelter: a great boon to humanity.

So why aren't the markets cheering? Two reasons [bold added]:
First, China is now the world’s second largest economy and its most voracious energy consumer–and its economic slowdown has dented oil demand. Given that China has provided the majority of global growth since the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street is spooked. The benefit from falling oil prices for U.S. consumers and companies may well be somewhat offset by a slower China, given that so many American businesses depend on sales in the Chinese market.

But there’s another factor at play. Plunging oil prices are pressuring the American shale-oil and -gas producers responsible for the domestic energy boom–which comes with its own ramifications for the economy. Shale oil is relatively expensive to get out of the ground; much of it requires prices of around $70 a barrel to be economical.
There's a third factor at play: according to the cognoscenti's current consensus, cheap gas encourages more carbon-based energy consumption that would accelerate global warming and ocean acidification.

As for me, I can't take the latter seriously until the let's-do-something-about-global-warming types stop flying around in private jets (H/T Glenn Reynolds).

Two dollar gas? Hip-hip-hooray!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Melted Like the Glaze

Why did Krispy Kreme diminish in popularity? Answers range from over-saturation, competition from Dunkin' Donuts, and high prices, but I suspect that for many like us it was the desire to limit carbohydrate intake.

When someone gave us two boxes, years of self-control melted like the glaze on a warm doughnut. Thank goodness there were other people around to share in the bounty, else it would have been ugly.

Monday, January 19, 2015

No Controversy Today

(Photo from
Martin Luther King wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail nearly 52 years ago. Excerpts [bold added]:
We repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?

One may want to ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.
Like Gandhi, whom he studied and admired, Dr. King was successful in part because he challenged the dominant culture to live up to its own ideals. He had his personal peccadilloes but was steadfast where it counted, refusing to waver from non-violence and "accept[ing] the penalty" for breaking "unjust" laws.

It took 14 years (1986-2000) for all 50 states to recognize Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday. Today there is no controversy; the passage of time often clarifies the greatness of a man.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not Easily Reached

First Baptist Church, 2012 (Seattle Times photo)
[Note: this post is about church, not civil, recognition of same-sex marriage.]

Why same-sex marriage is a wrenching issue to Evangelical Christians (no, it's not because they're afraid of, or hate gays):
For many Evangelicals, the marriage debate isn’t really about marriage or families or sex–it is about the Bible itself. And that makes many evangelicals all the more uncompromising. The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. Evangelical faith prizes the Bible’s authority, and that has meant a core commitment to biblical inerrancy–the belief that the words of the Bible are without error.
In my own denomination, the Episcopal Church, the Bible has long been superseded by the promotion of social justice, anti-isms (except for environmentalism), and the expansion of the secular state. Hence, it was easy for the Episcopal clerisy to override traditionalists' Scriptural reservations and fully embrace same-sex marriage, as well as the ordination of practicing gay priests and bishops.

But such a 180-degree shift in theology is not so easy for Christians who take the Bible seriously. (BTW, they have an easy answer to critics' quotation of Old Testament dicta, e.g., stoning of adulterers and animal sacrifice, that modern Westerners find ridiculous or repugnant: Jesus himself, through words and actions, did not follow many of these laws.*)

Such Christians first look for guidance to the New Testament, where St. Paul declares:
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
If Paul was wrong about homosexual behavior, then what else is he wrong about? The Episcopal Church by implication has told drunks, slanderers, and swindlers that they don't have to repent, the Episcopal Church will still welcome them. For Evangelicals, that's a conclusion not easily reached.

(*Jesus did not say that the Old Testament was N/A. Matthew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.")

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New Economics = New Math

The Economist waxes enthusiastic about how economics is helping firms at the ground level:
Economics is evolving, with a mission to solve firms’ real-life problems at its heart.

Divining hidden “types”—the buyer and the browsers, the content and the disgruntled—is a common challenge in the new realm of firms are often platforms on which buyers and sellers meet...Knowing more about a customer’s type can help the platform suggest a better link.
Facebook, Amazon, Google, LinkedIn, etc. have a detailed profile of their visitors that previous generations of market researchers could only dream of. The companies know many of visitors' personal attributes, including age, sex, location, employer, friends, family, and race. They know or can make shrewd guesses about wealth and income. The watchers know whether the visitors browse or buy, whether they comment or merely read, and whether they prefer to get their information from text or video.

The methodologies are not new, but what is revolutionary is the ability to sort oceans of data into dozens or more variables, and then associate the variables with certain behavioral outcomes.

To this observer the discipline is more statistics than economics, but we're quibbling about nomenclature.

If you have a solid knowledge of math, facility with tech tools, and the ability to put into perspective both the power and limitations of the new "big data" technology, the 21st century is your oyster.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I'd Rather Be Lucky, Though

According to research, appearing intelligent is not too difficult to pull off if one practices certain behaviors [bold added]:
They include showing self-confidence, speaking clearly and smoothly, and responding thoughtfully to what others are saying, research shows. And put away that phone: One of the strongest and most accurate signs of intelligence is looking at others when you are speaking to them.
(Psychology News photo)
Note, however, that the aforementioned are social signals that don't necessarily correlate with the mathematical and pattern-recognition intelligence that is highly valued by many who live here.

The type of personality that likes to dive deeply into a computer program often makes a poor salesperson for herself as well as her company.

We're probably overthinking this: just wear eyeglasses.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Picture that Straightens, not Sags, Over Time

Pyramid to dome to column (Economist graphic)
A profound shift with consequences that are only partially grasped by policy makers [bold added]:
The pyramid was characteristic of human populations since the day organised societies emerged. With lifespans short and mortality rates high, children were always the most numerous group, and old people the least. A population chart of England in 1700 looks like a pyramid, as well.

But now look at the chart of the global population in 2015. It looks more like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC (middle chart). Young children are still the largest group, but now make up only 10% of the population, and those above them are almost as big a cohort, with 9.5%. The age groups start to become markedly smaller only about the age of 40.
Some forecast a forlorn future where "looking after parents and grandparents will be as big a, or a bigger, social requirement ­as bringing up children and grandchildren."

But there's another view. Extrapolating from the current pace of technological advancement, it is entirely possible that developments in medicine, robotics, and/or artificial intelligence will enable the old to live independently (and happily) much longer than today. (As I near retirement, I am keenly interested the future turns out that way!)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An Exciting Year

Quality, features, and supply rise faster than costs, except in three major sectors:
in America the number of hours of work that it takes to buy a car, or a wardrobe full of clothes, has halved in the past generation. But in three big areas it has singularly failed to operate: health care, education and housing.
All three areas are subject to extensive government regulation, government subsidies, and barriers to entry in the name of public safety (you or I, dear reader, cannot treat a patient, teach a course, or build a house without credentials that require years of experience, education, and testing).

Government solutions call for more spending and higher taxes, but the public's desire for more of the same seems to have peaked.

Limits spur creativity. This will be an exciting year, except for those trying to preserve the status quo.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

It's Only January, So There's Still Time

Having made little progress on New Year's resolutions (broad categories: health, work, organization), I am receptive to advice on "how to stop being lazy and get things done."

Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport :
  • To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.
  • Assume You’re Going Home at 5:30, Then Plan Your Day Backwards
  • Make A Plan For The Entire Week
  • Do Very Few Things, But Be Awesome At Them
  • Less Shallow Work, Focus On The Deep Stuff
  • Can't hurt to give it a try. I'll start next Sunday :)

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    Two Cheers

    Having forgotten--or never knowing--that I had signed up for text fraud alerts, I was a little taken aback by a message received today from Chase Bank. Actually, I wasn't sure that it was from the bank, so I followed protocol by calling the 1-800 number on the paper statement that I receive every month.

    By the way, that's another reason for relying on dead-tree communications: it's easy to make a fraudulent message or website look legitimate, but a printed missive is much harder to fake. Paper quality, typeface, grammar, typographical errors, and logos all have to pass the eyeball and touch tests.

    The Chase customer service rep confirmed that someone had tried to use our Visa card with an online merchant but was turned down because the $1,249.61 purchase looked suspicious. A quick check of our wallets showed that we still had our cards, so our number could have been skimmed from any number of sources, e.g, restaurants, movie theaters, stores, or other online vendors. The new cards will be sent shortly in the mail.

    Everyone's uncomfortable about how governments and companies track what private citizens are doing, but in this case I'm happy that the bank understands our normal behavior well enough to know when a transaction should be investigated. Here's hoping that the technology is sophisticated enough to nail the bad guys as well. For now, two cheers for big data.

    [Update - 1/15/15: in related local news
    Menlo Park police arrested Menalto Cleaners owner Edwin Gary Smith on Wednesday in connection with a large-scale credit card fraud. Smith, 63, was served with an arrest warrant that alleges 40 felony counts including identity theft, credit card fraud and elder fiduciary abuse.....Menalto Cleaners defrauded 38 clients out of a total of $678,000 between December 2011 and October 2014 by overcharging their credit cards, police said.]

    Sunday, January 11, 2015

    Vocabulary Lesson

    Do you aspire to asperge the assembly?
    One benefit of being a member of the Episcopal Church is the exposure to uncommon words and concepts.

    Asperge (verb) has nothing to do with asparagus (the French word is asperge) or Asperger's syndrome, the autism-spectrum disorder named for the doctor who discovered it. It means "to sprinkle the congregation with holy water."

    Saturday, January 10, 2015

    No Pressure

    Yesterday morning I had to circle the block a couple of times to find parking on Ocean Avenue. Two spaces had been set aside for Zipcars, one of the new car-sharing services that have sprouted in metropolitan areas.

    A monthly subscription plus hourly usage fee entitles members to use cars stationed at various locations. Mobile-phone apps make it easy to reserve a car, and a member's access card uses RFID technology to activate it during the period of the reservation.

    One drawback of the Zipcar system is that the auto must be dropped off where it was picked up. Other services, like car2go, are trying to do away with that limitation.

    The transportation marketplace has exploded with new technologies, equipment, ownership, and rental alternatives. Given such ferment we're inclined to select terms for our next vehicle, such as a three-year lease, that don't entail a long-term commitment. Meanwhile, with gas at $2.40 a gallon (and even under $2 in other parts of the country), it's easier to keep our clunkers going, and there's no pressure to rush a decision.

    Friday, January 09, 2015

    Organic Overkill

    Consumers show a marked preference for organic food and are willing to pay "20 percent to 100 percent more than their conventionally produced equivalents."

    Not surprisingly, food vendors use the organic designation whenever possible. However, there's such a thing as overkill.

    Memo to the Campbell Soup Company: 34 mentions in 15 lines is a turn-off.

    Thursday, January 08, 2015

    Location, Location, Location

    Information from
    We're used to seeing outrageous prices for homes in Palo Alto---excellent schools and proximity to Stanford and Silicon Valley provide a partial explanation---but $5 million for a 610-sq-ft house on a 5,000-sq-ft property was an extreme outlier.

    The explanation: Bernard Newcomb, founder of E*Trade ($6.7 billion market cap), lives next door and made the owner an offer he couldn't refuse.

    Good fences make good neighbors, but a successful IPO makes even better ones.

    Buyer on the left, seller on the right (Google street view)

    Wednesday, January 07, 2015

    Men's Kaffee Klatsch

    Tuesday morning at Starbucks
    Men as a group don't engage in conversation as much as women do, but that broad general statement, of course, masks infinite variations.

    At Starbucks a group of older guys carried on conversation and experienced bonhomie for well over an hour. It's common to find women's kaffee klatsches but coming upon the male version is rare.

    It takes a while to regain one's footing during retirement. These guys had found theirs.