Monthly Archives: July 2012

Epic Vancouver 2012: Raw Food. (Also, Tea was the Red Bull of its day…)

(written May 15, uploaded July 30)

I’d outlined a piece tentatively titled “Douglas, Deng and Diocletian” as I cycled to Vancouver’s new convention centre along the largely-empty downtown bike lanes.  ;)  But alas, attending the Epic Vancouver “green consumerism” show threw those plans off-kilter.  Musings about historical figures are “evergreen” projects — they can be written up any time — but event-driven patter has a best-before date.  (Which I am gleefully violating here, with a two-month-old upload. :) )

I was surprised that Cadbury didn’t have a booth at the conference; they were the first major confectioner to switch a major product line to all-fair trade chocolate a few years back (their flagship “Dairymilk” bars) and you’d figure they’d want to make sure everyone knew it.  Heck, according to the Tommy Douglas bio I just finished, our Greatest Canadian hired one of the Cadbury heirs to help set up government-run enterprises (insurance, bus services) to help improve Saskatchewan’s finances so the province could finally move ahead with universal healthcare in 1962.  Being able to tie the Cadbury name to Canadians’ most treasured institution, would seem like a marketer’s dream…!

The Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association had a century-old electric vehicle on display (model year 1912).  I was shocked (ha) to see steering was accomplished with a bunch of levers — like a modern military tank.  I guess the automotive Steve Jobs hadn’t yet reinvented the human-car interface with the steering wheel.  (“We think this steering-wheel thing is going to be big — it’s insanely great!!“)

As is typical of these trade shows, the headline sponsors were environmentally-conscientious corporate behemoths, but the exhibitor mix went well into the “granola” spectrum.  ;)  One of these was the raw food society of BC, who seemed a pleasant if misguided bunch.  Which isn’t to imply that the rest of us aren’t misguided — we surely are, just in a more mainstream way.  ;)

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On Theft and Punishment

(originally written May 5, uploaded July 29)

Wal-Mart executives were recently accused of bribing foreign officials, a serious offence under US law. Fortunately for them, if history is any guide (and in a justice system which highly values past precedent, it so often is, isn’t it?) no one will go to jail. By and large, white-collar crime goes lightly punished, one of many possible reasons being that wealthy people in deep-pocketed organizations can muster all-star legal lineups in their defense. Perhaps we could call this the “law of the jingle”. ;)

In yet another example of how the world is different for the 99%, punishments for “blue-collar” crime tend to pick up the slack. More troublingly for our “equal before the law” ethos, many soon-to-be-prisoners are represented by overworked court-appointed lawyers, who can’t devote as much time to cases as privately-hired counterparts. One wonders how different things would be if we all shared public defenders, the way we share public healthcare…!

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As they do in so many fields, our southern cousins seem to lead the way in judicial asymmetry. In an infamous case several years ago, a repeat offender tried twice to steal videotapes from Kmart — nine movies worth about $150. (Compare this to the expansive music and video collections your, ahem, cousin acquired through file-sharing.) These being his third and fourth offences, and California having a “three strikes” law, the thief got two consecutive twenty-five year prison sentences: a half-century in the slammer. While he had committed other offences in the past, this brings to mind how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was jailed five years for stealing a loaf of bread!

Bearing in mind that it costs California about $50,000 to incarcerate someone for a year, one could say the state is “investing” $2.5 million to keep this fellow behind bars. Riffing on the economic theory that people always act in their self-interest, it would seem the criminal justice system thinks it would be even more expensive for society to leave him on the streets.

On the other end of the spectrum, executives at brokerage firm MF Global recently stole $1.6 billion from customer accounts, most of it in the “chaos” of the final days as the company went under. Because as you know, when it gets busy, banks only balance their books to the nearest billion. ;) (“Your honour, we were moving that money into so many different offshore tax-haven shell company accounts we honestly lost track of what went where. And what with all the shredding… wait, you’re not buying it?”) Unfortunately, since sentencing probably won’t happen for a few years, we’ll have to turn to older examples for comparative purposes.

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About ten years ago, two top executives at Tyco stole $600 million from the company, eventually earning sentences of up to 25 years each. Pulling out ye olde calculator app, each Tyco exec got a maximum of 25 years for $300 million, or roughly one day’s jail time per $33,000. Grading on the curve for the failed Kmart thief, he would’ve gotten six and a half minutes, a bit less than the time it takes to sing “Hey Jude”.

Scaling the other way, each Tyco exec successfully stole two million times as much as the Kmart felon tried to, so in a parallel universe they both would’ve gotten one hundred million years in prison. By comparison, the dinosaurs only lasted a hundred and sixty. Forget watching paint dry, they could’ve watched oil form! (And if they had, no doubt they’d shake their heads at our tar sands extraction, muttering “what are they thinking? That junk needs to cook another million years at least!”)

It would be unfair to blame the justice system for these iniquities, because the root of the problem is probably more fundamental to our human nature. (Similarly, blaming religion for all the terrible things done in its name overlooks the fact that we’re really, really good at finding excuses to kill each other.) Many societies distinguish between higher-esteemed and lower-esteemed communities — you may recall from school that in feudal Europe, the aristocracy were called the nobles, and the serfs, villains. Nowadays we have respectable businessmen and impoverished ethnic minorities. And sentencing sure seems to depend on whether the accused is subconsciously classified as “one of us” or “The Other”.

We can see hints of this in the difficulties of the earliest Christians in the city of Rome. Europe having been the “home base” of Christianity for so long, it’s easy to forget that the first Christians arrived there from the East. Community leaders were darker-skinned folks, probably impoverished and illiterate, who didn’t speak Latin (though some might’ve known Greek). They had newfangled ideas that irritated the more respectable members of their own synagogues, like worshipping a man who’d been executed as a common criminal. And they were rumoured to’ve been cannibals.* They were such a perfect “Other” that Nero simply could not have found a better scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome, if he’d told his people to try. Heck, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did…!

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It’s also plausible that the thought of retail theft (purse-snatchings, stick-ups) triggers a fight-or-flight response in us, and accordingly, demands for harsh punishment. In contrast, wholesale thefts (diddling the business books and similar corruptions) tend to be banal actions involving computers — hardly adrenaline-pumping stuff. This may also help explain why they’re treated less severely, despite involving much larger sums. A recent example of the latter is the “robo-signing” scandal in the US, where banks have been shown to’ve foreclosed on thousands of homes they did not in fact have title to, then tried to falsify documents after the fact, and now seem poised to escape with fines representing a small fraction of their winnings.

This explanation unfortunately turns into the logical pretzel that if a society punishes (theft of $100 + threat of violence) more severely than (theft of $1,000,000’s), when you balance the equations, the courts treat one threat of violence as the equivalent of millions of dollars. Which just seems odd; it almost comes across as incentive for wannabe white-collar crooks.

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No doubt all these issues have been addressed with careful nuance and subtlety in the Conservative Canadian government’s recently-passed crime bill. It is an omnibus bill, after all. ;) It’s also encouraging that they’ve shown such restraint with their opponents, instead of caricaturing them as “hijacking radicals”. That would be a subtle attempt to link environmentalists with the 9/11 terrorists; to their credit, thus far they’ve kept “hijacking” and “radical” in separate sentences. ;)

To offer other credit where it’s due, much of the above was influenced by The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book I read at university. After getting mugged. While I was pretty much a cookie-cutter law-and-order type beforehand, it raised some formidable questions about why we choose to focus most of our crime-fighting on the bottom of the pyramid, instead of the top. (Admittedly, having the Avengers do a forensic audit of Conrad Black’s dealings, would make for a Very. Boring. Movie.)

The book’s now in its ninth edition, which means that even if the book it’s wrong, it’s pervasively wrong — not unlike today’s standard economic models. ;) The bottom line is that, because of it and other tomes, I’m one of the few people who ever got less conservative on crime, after being a victim of it! How’s that for unexpected? :)

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* some Christian traditions hold that the communion bread and wine literally becomes Jesus’ body and blood when it is consumed; others treat this metaphorically. If even one Christian proselytizer were to explain this to a local Roman without proper context, you could see how claims of cannibalism would arise…

Japan visit 2012 (part 3)

We stayed with my in-laws while in Japan, who head a two-person, six-cat, thirteen-umbrella (!) household. That theory about squirrels forgetting where they buried their nuts, no longer seems farfetched to me…  :)

Mom-in-law’s years of experience herding cats have been invaluable in managing her husband, an atypically adventuresome Japanese entrepreneur who possesses the kind of jaunty self-confidence that has helped many an investor make a small fortune in the Japanese stock market, out of a big one. Lucky for him, that’s a hypothetical: he didn’t start off with much to begin with. ;) And he’s got lots of company. If your country’s principal stock index has been trending down for the past twenty-two years, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose investments haven’t endured some downsizing!

After years of asserting his maverick status by driving foreign cars despite the steering wheels being on the wrong side, dad-in-law settled on a Prius, which has been among the top-selling cars in Japan for the past few years, thanks partly to public policy favouring fuel efficient vehicles. To offer up a statistically irrelevant but deceptively impressive anecdote, there are three (and soon to be four) Prii on the lane where they live.

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Cars…

Some of you may remember the phase in the 1980’s when American automakers fell in love with the “ie” sound, jamming it into the Cutlass Ciera (GM car), the Sierra (GM truck), the Fiero and Fiesta (Ford cars). h/t to The Straight Dope for that factoid!

Well, in contemporary Japan the “it” sound is… “it”, as evidenced by the Honda Fit, Toyota Vitz, and Sukuzi Wit — all three of them compact cars, directly competing for the same customer dollar!

Japanese carmakers sometimes rebadge cars when they’re exported to other countries, because the home-market names can be a liability: how many of us would drive around in a Nissan Bluebird or a Daihatsu Naked? I think we’ll all agree though, that the prize for least-exportable brand name goes to the committee that came up with the Mitsubishi Toppo BJ. That is not a typo, and it is a real car. The initials stand for “Big Joy”, which really doesn’t help things. As relaxed and liberal-minded as I think I am about such topics, I still felt compelled to avert young son Leo’s eyes when I saw it. ;)

Sticking with cars a bit longer, I saw the Nissan Leaf TV commercials while over there, which upended all my expectations for automotive advertising. They basically position the electric vehicle as a mobile family energy reservoir:
– charging at night when demand on the electric grid is low
– or when the family’s solar panels generate electricity (Japan announced a massive solar feed-in tariff recently)
– providing power to the household during peak times (easing the strain on the grid)
– and of course it can drive you around town, too

Irritatingly, I can’t seem to find the solar panel-containing ad on the Nissan YouTube channel, but the others are there.

The Leaf comes with a 24 kWh battery — enough to power a Canadian household for a day, or a Japanese household for two. Since Nissan has sold 30,000 Leafs, they’ve already put 700 MWh of potential “grid storage” on the market. Put all the automakers’ electric-vehicle plans together, and we soon get enough grid storage capacity to do very nifty things, in the event of natural disasters.

I could imagine that by 2015, one of the carmakers will come out with a major ad campaign built around a testimonial from a customer saying how their Chevy Volt / Nissan Leaf / Mitsubishi MiEV / Ford Focus Electric / or other electric vehicle helped their family get through a [hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster]-related power outage, safely, by keeping the lights or heat on / the radio working / or some such thing. I didn’t include the plug-in Prius in this list, since its battery is a lot smaller than the aforementioned cars, and would run out of power sooner.

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Sports

Soccer seems to have replaced baseball as the most popular sport in Japan — I wonder if the growing number of baseball players going to America has the effect of diminishing Japanese baseball, making it seem like a minor league. It was interesting that the sports section of the news had the usual local sports, then tacked on a review of how each Japanese player in Major League Baseball had done the prior evening.

On that topic, Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners got his 2500th American hit a little while back. If you add his Japanese league hits he’d now be third on the all-time hit list, having recently passed Hank Aaron. If he’s able to get 3000 hits in the US, he’d have more trans-Pacific hits than all-time hits leader Pete Rose (who gambled on baseball and was banished) and second-place Ty Cobb (who gambled on baseball and was pardoned). No word yet whether Suzuki likes to gamble. ;) Still, he’s had a miserable past two seasons so it’s doubtful any team will keep him around long enough long enough for that.

Japanese baseball is infamous for trying to prevent foreigners from breaking records held by Japanese players, so it’s worth noting that when Hank Aaron (black) broke the all-time home run record held by Babe Ruth (white) in the 1970’s he received a lot of hate mail — and even death threats. I’m almost old enough to’ve been alive back then!

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and Baby Races

What else… oh yeah, Leo won the second of the two baby races he participated in — these are events put on at various malls by the local baby-goods retailers. He got lucky too; if I remember correctly, one of the other three babies was in the lead, but then got distracted by one of the baby toys placed partway along the course. (If you can call a four-metre stretch of foam flooring, a course.) Fortunately for him, Leo was interested in the toy that was at the finish line, so crawled all the way there before sitting down to play with it. :)

The decision by baby-goods retailers to put these community events on was one of the many, many examples of thoughtful service that seem to permeate Japanese culture. Another example was a discount grocery store which had a complimentary dry ice dispenser, so people’s frozen goods would stay frozen on the drive home… especially if they needed to make another stop elsewhere. Such a level of service must necessarily result in higher prices, but customers seem willing to pay the extra money to get that level of satisfaction. Even the store run by Wal-Mart (!) seemed more heavily staffed than the grocery stores over here.

In that vein, I wonder if people would grumble less about taxes if staff counts at government centers was doubled, and employees were forced to be cheerful. As gauche as I am, even I’ve grumbled Fraser Institute-like words after waiting in long lineups in an unpleasantly stuffy office, only to have a rude clerk give me unhelpful (later to be proven incorrect!) advice.  (For US readers’ benefit, the Fraser Institute is essentially the Heritage Foundation‘s Canadian franchisee.)

Another example of the “proactive” thinking was a Hitachi fan which automatically shuts off once someone touches the metal grille around the blades. I imagine they use the same kind of technology used by SawStop for their table saws — which also immediately shut off once they detect a finger. (A very small electrical current is run on the saw blade; body parts or hot dogs cause a change in the measured resistance, causing the saw to be immediately halted.)

Given the sweltering weather of the past few days, and the fact that Leo is now almost tall enough to reach the base of our floor fan, I’m kind of wishing we’d bought that Hitachi unit and brought it back. I’ll be rigging some safety netting up (I’m too cheap to buy one of those nifty Dyson fans) but it’d be nice to think that North American appliance-makers valued kids’ fingers as much as the Japanese ones do…!

Japan visit 2012 (part 2)

(written June 3, uploaded July 21)

As I’ve occasionally mentioned, one of my favourite things to do in Japan is to visit the fridge section of leading electronics retailers. The product selection puts ours to shame!  This may be because each of Japan’s tech conglomerates (Sharp, Hitachi, Panasonic, etc.) tries to differentiate their refrigerators.  The Japanese government’s Top Runner program probably helps too, as it forces companies to improve product efficiency, meaning innovation is incentivized.

From the looks of it, Sharp’s patent on magnet-based refrigerator doors is still in effect: this allows the design of a fridge door which can open from either side, and they continue to be the only ones offering this feature.  (When you open the handle on the left, the magnets on that side disengage, and the door pivots open from the still-engaged magnets on the right.  And vice-versa.)

Toshiba came out with a model where you can open the fridge door simply by pressing a touch pad — no yanking open required! Aya’s sister bought one, and she thought it Awesome… until her eighteen-month-old son got just… barely… tall enough to slap the touch pad while on his tiptoes, causing her to have to walk past a giggling infant to re-close said fridge’s door, dozens of times per day.  :)

Meanwhile, my in-laws have a Panasonic which beeps when the door is left open too long.  As ridiculous as it felt to be scolded by an appliance (!) for wasting energy, I immediately changed my behaviour to avoid further harrassment.  So, it worked…!

I’m also pleased to report that you can still take the electronics stores’ massage chairs for a”test ride”, and that the technology has continued to advance.  :)

In other shopping observations, the 7-11’s don’t just sell Vitamin Water; someone has come out with a Vanadium Water product, bottled around Mount Fuji.  The usual health benefits are claimed; realistically, every trace element is probably helpful for Something! :)

In addition to its convenience store empire, 7-11’s Japanese division owns a supermarket chain and a baby goods retailer; the latter hosted a Baby Crawling Race we entered Leo in.  Patterned after a marathon, it involves the babies crawling roughly one ten-thousandth of 42 km (that’s 4.2 meters) across a foam “racetrack” to their cheering parents.  At least, that’s the theory.  Ever seen a horse race where half the field sat drooling at the starting line?  ;)

But that tale, I’ll have to tell next time…  :)

Japan visit 2012 (part 1)

(originally written May 28, uploaded July 20)

Usually, when I visit my in-laws, I take the train from Tokyo. This time though, I flew in to Sendai Airport, which had been flooded in the post-earthquake tsunami last year. (Japanese folks have taken to referring to the disaster as 3/11.)

As we drove in, we passed a number of FEMA-type emergency housing trailers, where people who had lost their houses in last years earthquake/ tsunami are currently living. Apparently the earthquake damaged some condo complexes (Japanese condos are called mansions, hilariously enough) so some of those have been abandoned as well. There’s enough work to be done rebuilding things as it is, so these damaged buildings haven’t yet been torn down. They just stand there, projecting a ghostly emptiness.

Though it’s in the temperate zone – Sendai is at about 38°N instead of Vancouver’s 49°N – there is a distinct tropical feel to the place. Part of this may be the persistence / virulence of the greenery here – it sprouts out of every nook and cranny, like facial-orifice hair on very elderly gentlemen. :)  Seeing this, one immediately understands the inevitability that jungles would overrun the ruins of abandoned-but-not-all-that-ancient civilizations.

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With too many people crammed into too little space, it’s still common to see rice fields in the sorta-rural enclaves between towns. Although this makes no sense from a purely economic standpoint, it makes sense from a geopolitical one: while they could probably generate more revenue from land by developing it, Japan already imports about one-third of its calories!  Becoming ever-more depending on food imports would be a bit of an Achilles’ heel…

There remains a tradition of giving fruit as gifts in Japan, which is what sparks the insane food price inflation the country is infamous for.  While I saw a high-end general-purpose mango for 1200 yen ($15 Cdn), gift mangos, blemish-free and beautifully boxed, retailed at the bargain price of 12,600 yen ($150) per pair.  Yowza!

The to-may-to, to-mah-to of economic statistics

(written June 28, uploaded July 16)

There was an alarming report out a couple weeks ago alleging that China was vastly underreporting its emissions, because the coal consumption reported by the Chinese national government was smaller than the sum of consumption totals reported by various Chinese provinces. Purportedly, the Communist Party didn’t want to reveal to the outside world just how much pollution it’s emitting, trying to raise the country’s standard of living.

This was followed the other day by a report that coal inventories in Chinese ports are at record highs (in other words, it’s not being burnt as fast as it’s being imported). The theory is that Chinese provinces have been overreporting electricity production to meet national targets for economic growth. If this is the case, then the national government is correct to apply a “fudge factor” and report lower production totals than the sum total of the numbers they’re given!

In light of the high coal inventories, I’d side with the national government on this one, and assume China is slowing down. And since China consumes so much of everything (urbanizing thirty million people per year takes a lot of material!) a slowdown there would drag down prices of most of the resources Canada is so good at exporting raw and unfinished — lumber, metal ores, bitumen, and so forth. Sigh — it’s as if we suffer from a lingering “economic colony complex”…

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A Chinese slowdown would exacerbate the problems our Albertan friends are facing: the price of oil is already sagging to levels which threaten the economic viability of (some) new tar sands projects. This Globe article lists a consultant study saying $80 per barrel is needed for a variety of projects to break even. As I write this, the price of the West Texas Intermediate Crude (“WTIC”) benchmark is $79. And as the Globe article notes, our countrymen aren’t even getting this much, since oil from North Dakota is clogging south-flowing pipelines in the US, forcing Albertans (who are upstream) to sell at a discount. Selling unrefined bitumen would incur a further discount.

And it just gets worse for our Calgarian cousins/rivals: US oil consumption peaked six years ago, and is set to keep falling. Not only are fewer teens getting licenses, and fewer total miles being driven per year, but those miles are being driven in more fuel-efficient vehicles, as the gas guzzlers of the cheap-oil-era early 2000’s get traded in for more fuel efficient ones. And while electric cars won’t displace much oil demand in the near term, some truck fleets are beginning to switch to natural gas — and trucking represents a huge 12% of US oil consumption! Not all of them will switch, and natural gas will get more expensive again, but the net effect will be that US oil consumption is likely to keep… on… falling, like a Japanese stock market index. (Incidentally, kudos to our friends at Westport for persisting in that natural-gas-vehicle market long enough to get to this tipping point; it’s a good lesson for us fuel-cell folks to learn from.)

Without a path to Asia, Alberta would be stuck selling its oil into a declining market — and that would make it impossible for them to shift the heart of Canadian power westwards, as has been their dream for decades. It’s a 180-degree turn from the message everyone has told our neighbours for the past several years, namely that they faced unprecedented wealth. With stagnant US and European demand, the only way for the oil patch to keep those dreams alive is to force pipelines through BC. Which is what the Prime Minister is agitating for, with the determination you’d expect from the son of an Exxon accountant. (Harper’s dad worked for Exxon’s Canadian arm, Imperial Oil / Esso.)

If we assume those coal mountains in China mean the country is slowing down, the oil price is likely to drift lower in 2013 (commodity trader group-think suggests a bounce up in the near term; not sure what Nostradamus’ take is). A lower oil price would probably mean further gnashing of teeth and scapegoating of “BC radicals” in Calgary* though the root cause would of course be that the market is a fickle god: it giveth, and it taketh away. Not infrequently taking its cues from those godless communists. ;)

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* Misplaced anger also applies to the 1970s’ National Energy Policy. While Trudeau reduced the oilpatch boom, he didn’t actually cause the bust; in fact, when oil prices dropped in the early 80’s, Alberta got more-than-market-rates for its oil. The guys who caused the real pain in Calgary were the Saudis, who turned the spigots on enough to drive the price of oil so low, they were basically the only ones making money. (They were punishing other OPEC members for exceeding their production quotas. Every other oil producer in the world, became collateral damage.) More recently, Alberta’s Wildrose Party seems convinced that over-regulation is what caused a slowdown in bitumen development in the past few years, neatly overlooking the Massive Financial Crisis of 2008/09 that caused the oil to drop to about $40 per barrel, before gradually floating back to the low $100’s, from which it has resumed sagging.

Ouroboros

Where else to start at the beginning, but the end? :)

– – – – –

The good news is that my former employer is going to have a very good chance to break even in a couple years.

The bad news is that it’ll happen without me.

The hilarious news is that later today, I get to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing an “out of office message” that begins:

“Hello,
 You have reached the mailbox of Matthew Klippenstein. I will be out of the office indefinitely…”
:)

It’s almost as cool as the time a few years ago when I had the chance to send a broadcast email to the effect of:

“attn- to the owner of a grey mountain bike, your light is on…”

 

The very best thing is that I’ll have a bit more time in the interim to write, tweet, and upload a backlog of missives into this blog. Oh, and help take care of my young son, too. Mustn’t forget that…!
:)