Monthly Archives: November 2011

What Are the Hidden Costs?

There’re hidden costs in everything we do. The idea should be to keep these costs to a minimum, to do as little harm as possible.

For example in the picture to the right, twice as many soldiers died by their own hand as were killed in the Iraq war during 2009! In 2010 there were 468 suicides and 462 combat deaths.

All of the US combat troops in Iraq should be out by the end of this year. A symbolic end to a war that’s gone on for eight and a half years. I said symbolic because we’ll still have some presence in Iraq in the form of trainers and the like.

We’ve spent lots of blood and treasure in Iraq and a real hidden cost is the suicides which will hopefully come way down after the war is over. Soldier suicide is the ultimate and most tangible manifestation of the mental distress caused by war.

The actual cause of the suicides is hard to figure out according to the military. For example, more than half of the National Guard suicides last year were committed by soldiers who had not left the US. Maybe we’re getting the number of US combat deaths down so low that the suicide number takes on a greater significance than it might have in past wars.

I’m just glad were finally getting out of Iraq and I hope the hidden costs come way down.

Giving Thanks For YouTube

Whenever I want to see a video online and see that it’s on YouTube I’m always happy. YouTube videos load and play quickly; plus the video has good quality. The video itself might be crap but that has nothing to do with YouTube, only with whoever shot it.

I haven’t posted any videos on YouTube, but my guess is that it’s easy to do. On the consumer end, a YouTube experience is not remarkable which is really all I’m after – I just want to be able to quickly see a decent quality video on my computer.

My original title for this rant was “F***ing Vimeo!” That’s what I usually say to myself when I see that a video online is from Vimeo. The video quaility is good but the wait for it to load is long and very unsatisfying. If there are supposed better resolution or other advantages that come from posting via Vimeo it’s not worth it from a consumer’s  standpoint.

I won’t even click on Vimeo videos any more unless I’m very compelled by the subject and therefore willing to wait around (and around) while it loads.

I guess I’m just amazed that such an unsatisfying experience is still surviving on the internet. I hope it evolves or dies off soon.

Do We Need Snapshot Waivers?

Remember when film cameras were all that was available? Most of the pictures were looked at once. Some wound up in the trash. But, if they were deemed worthy, the rest went into a drawer of unsorted snapshots, typically accumulating  decades worth of memories. Most homes had at least one of these end-of-the-line photo graveyards.

I can’t tell you the last time I saw a regular person with a film camera. Now lots of snapshots get quickly deleted or stored on a computer hard drive. But lots of pictures are posted for the public to view. Facebook has 800 million users and the average user has 130 friends. That’s just the average. If you drop the people who joined but don’t use it the numbers of friends that regular users have goes way up.

So for now it’s ok to shoot photos and put them up on the web for everyone to see. The snapshot I used here is one I randomly pulled from the internet, I don’t know them. Back when you took a film snapshot very few people saw it, just the folks who were at the party and probably not all of them, thanks to film processing times.

Smart phones are overtaking digital cameras the way digital cameras made film cameras extinct, a Darwinian world of image collection and who knows what’s in the waiting room?

What’s the number of people who’ll see a picture before you’ll need a waiver for the subjects –  for releasing an image with them in it? No one seems to care, I don’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the attitude changes one of these days. Not everyone wants their fifteen minutes worth of fame.


The Kettlebell

The kettlebell is an iron weight to exercise with; it looks like a small bowling ball with a thick “tea kettle” type of handle on top. It’s a workout tool that’s been popular in Russia for a long time. I first heard about kettlebells about ten years ago via a Russian sport specialist who’d moved to the US and was promoting them.

The most basic exercise is the “swing.” You stand with a medium wide stance, holding the kettlebell in front of yourself with both hands. Then hinging at the hip, you swing the kettlebell up, like a pendulum, arcing until your outstretched arms are at face level and then arcing back down to crotch level, swinging through your spread legs. Then repeat. Most of the movement is accomplished snapping the hips and it works lots of muscles. It builds strength and endurance while burning fat. Pretty much what most people are looking for.

A kettlebell can weigh anywhere from 15  to over 100 pounds. But the standard one is about 36 pounds. There’s a size for everyone.

You can do most kettlebell exercises with a dumbbell instead. Which is what I’ve been doing because kettlebells were too expensive when they first arrived in the US. But the prices have come down. So, I finally bought one and had it shipped to a friend’s house in California who’s driving down to Mexico this week. I’m flying to Phoenix to meet him so he doesn’t have to drive for two days through Mexico by himself.

There’s going to be a visible display of globalization in action this week. If you know where to look, you might be able to see two Americans, wearing clothes made in South East Asia, parked on the side of a Mexican highway, standing next to a Japanese car, while doing a Russian exercise with equipment made in China.


I’d like to point something out that seems to be under the mainstream media’s radar. It’s tough to win one world championship; but Kelly Slater just won his 11th(!) world surfing championship. I know, if you’re not a surfer, so what? I’m the same way about baseball. Winning one world championship is an incredible achievement in any sport. Eleven world championships is unheard of.

He was the youngest world surfing champion when he was 20 and is also the oldest at 39.

From 1994 – 1998 he won five consecutive titles.

Unlike the American Football or Argentinian Tango World championships, the surfing world championship really is worldwide, with surfers from all over the globe trying to win the title. Kelly’s an American born in Coco Beach, Florida from a humble background. His heritage is Irish and Syrian for what that’s worth.

Surfing is a sport that sees subtle and difficult style and technique changes every five years or so when a newer generation moves onto the stage. But Slater’s been able to go from being one of the young guns to an old hand. And one who’s able to master the new styles as well as the challengers showing them off.

If you’re curious, here’s a short, three-minute, video recap of Kelly’s highlights this year on his way to sealing his 11th world championship (before the contest year is even over).

He’s also a golfer with a two stroke handicap which seems pretty good for a guy who surfs a lot.



When Bonuses And Bailouts Mix

Nassim Taleb wrote an interesting op-ed in the NYT about bonuses in banking. I’ve taken the liberty, below, of boiling it down.

Pairing big bonuses with “too big to fail” has lead to catastrophe. The change needed to stop bankers from taking risks that threaten the general public is to eliminate the bankers’ bonuses.

Bonuses in banking are incentives to take risks. The bonuses encourage bankers to game the system by hiding the risks of rare and hard-to-predict but consequential blow-ups. For bankers, there’s a bonus if they make short-term profits and a bailout if they go bust, violating the effect of liability that’s so fundamental to capitalism.

The promise of “no more bailouts” in last year’s Wall Street reform law, is just that – a promise. The financiers (and their lawyers) always stay one step ahead of the regulators. And financial institutions are still blowing themselves up; look at MF Global and Jon S. Corzine.

Anyone working for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed, should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions like big banks, some insurance companies, and even huge hedge funds should be strictly regulated.

We trust military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.

Banning bonuses would go a long way in reducing the separation between an agent’s and his client’s interests. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi’s code specified: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

The Babylonians understood the builder will always know more about the risks than the client, and can hide fragilities to improve his profits, by cutting corners in the foundation, for example. The builder can also fool an inspector; the person hiding risk has a large informational advantage over the person trying to find it.

From 2000 to 2008 there was a very large accumulation of hidden exposures in the financial system. But, 2010 brought the largest bank compensation in history. Supervision, regulation and other forms of monitoring are necessary, but are insufficient considering the Federal Reserve insisted, as late as 2007, that the rapidly escalating subprime mortgage crisis was likely to be “contained.”

What would banking look like if bonuses are eliminated? It wouldn’t be too different from what it was like in the 1980s before the gutting of regulations, culminating in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the law separating investment and commercial banking. Back then, bankers and lenders were boring “lifers.” Investment banks, which paid bonuses and weren’t allowed to lend, were partnerships with skin in the game, not gamblers playing with other people’s money.

Hedge funds, which are loosely regulated, could take on some of the risks that banks would shed. While we hear about the successful hedge fund, the great majority fail without making the front page. Typically, their investors manage the governance and ensure the manager is hurt more than any of his investors if there’s a blowup.

Simple processes are necessary for some complex problems. So instead of thousands of pages of regulations, we should enforce a basic principle: bonuses and bailouts should never mix.

Cool Tools

I was a big fan of the now defunct “Whole Earth Catalog” (WEC) and wrote about it here in January.

The WEC was a very large “coffee table book” size paperback printed on coarse, unbleached paper. There were tools, resources for independent study, and things that weren’t already common knowledge. If something was inexpensive, or high quality, and was readily available by mail, then there was a good chance it would show up in the WEC.  Also accompanying each item were excerpts from submitters, staff reviewers and if it was a book, quotes.

A sort of WEC is on the web it’s called “Cool Tools.” I look at it a lot but didn’t think about its similarity to the WEC when I wrote my post in January.  “Cool Tools” is one section of Kevin Kelly‘s site. He was involved for a time with the WEC as the editor, so it all kinda makes sense.

There’s a daily post of a cool tool that’s been submitted by readers. Depending on your interests, the posting might be galvanizing or a yawn but they’re usually at least interesting. The categories span “general purpose tools” to “big ideas.” For example, on different days you could find a recommendation for a small pry bar or a cool espresso maker or the best rechargeable batteries.

I’ve been a fan of Cool Tools for years and I think if you were a fan of the WEC you’ll like it too.

Words and Stories

Now that there’re about 7 billion of us around the world bumping into one another; it’s hard to imagine we were constrained in small kinship groups for thousands of generations. And one of the primary activities was probably telling stories to each other.

If I ask you to describe this picture, you’d likely tell a story to describe it.

I teach an English class here in Mexico. One of the most popular and effective exercises is showing the class an interesting photo or image they’re not familiar with and asking them to make up a story about what they see. They always like creating a story.

Data doesn’t mean anything to us until it’s presented as information and when the information can be told as a story there’s a better chance that we’ll absorb it.

If you wanted to, you could say “less is more” by writing down this “<=>.” It’s kind of cool and clearly represents the idea in the shortest way. A formula is more concise than using words. But, it lacks the warmth of words the same way you don’t enjoy the ceramic logs in a hissing gas fireplace the same way you’d  enjoy real logs on fire crackling in a fireplace. Both forms have their place, but I think generally we prefer stories.



the small world and writing

I was surprised to find a fellow writer living on the same street I live on in Mexico. She just returned to Mexico; and while chatting, we stumbled across our common interest. We even use the same setup and general layout for our blogs. It really is a small world. If your keen, here’s her site.

She’s has been looking for a writer’s group, or to form one, in our town. There’re a few other people who might be interested. We’ll see.

Thinking about a writer’s group got me thinking about writing and what works for me and what I’ve gleaned that seems to work for other writers.

First, I suppose is to just do it. And just do it a lot. If you have a schedule or deadline set that helps. Don’t worry, you’ll come up with stuff to write about; have you ever gotten up in the morning and not had something to say? If you have stuff to talk about, you have stuff to write about.

That leads to the second thing about writing; which is the more you do it the easier it becomes to continue doing it. Sort of like forming a habit. And I guess it goes without saying that you have to enjoy writing or you won’t keep going.

Aim to make your writing interesting, or at least useful.

Why use a long word when a shorter one will do? And cut out extra words where you can.

The actual how of writing is pretty simple. Say it clearly.