Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Mind" -> Who Killed Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer has a little bit of a stomach, and when her record company recently suggested that her video needed to be retouched to present a more attractive body, she told them to go away (in very colorful terms). She said her record company doesn't understand her listeners. This must be true, as her legions of fans have been taking pictures of their bellies and putting them on the internet in protest of her record company.

Her image, and her music, and her fans are not about being perfect.

Every once in a while I do an album review on this site. They are far and few in between because music is covered so much in the press today. What am I going to say that somebody else isn't saying better?

However, "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" is so compelling, I'll throw another log onto the fire. With a title that is a parody of the question asked in the seminal TV show "Twin Peaks," she has create a musically uplifting but lyrically disturbing album.

The few friends and family that read this blog realize that I am a strong Christian, but I believe that all "good" art is common grace. Common grace is that goodness that God gives to the just and the unjust. And Amanda, even with all of her clearly non-Christian stands, is blessed with a lot of common grace.

The music on "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" has just a hint of Ben Folds. This is no doubt tied to the fact that Ben Folds both produced and plays on the album. It was recorded at his studios in Nashville. Ben had called the Dresden Dolls two years ago and asked them to open for him. If you listen very long, you will hear that most of the album is heavily underpinned by piano. Amanda is a piano player, and her songs come out of this instrument. While she may struggle a bit on the vocals, and her piano playing is nothing to write home about, the overall album does have excellent production values.

She first gained prominence with the musical dual "The Dresden Dolls," which was born out of the Boston art scene. If you see interviews with Amanda, you will see that she is an artist first then she is a musician second. For those that think this is backward, let's remember that one of the most constructive and impactful bands of the 80's was the Talking Heads. The heads, lead by David Byrne, was nothing more that art students. Unfortunately, in this fractured culture today, we have little hope that Amanda can drive the same impact as The Talking Heads, which headed a rebellion against the 80's glitz. However, this is not to say that she is not able to impact your perceptions in a similar fashion if you find her on your playlist.

The other half of the Dresden Dolls, Brian Viglione, has decided not to do this album with Amanda, or perhaps Amanda just wanted to be by herself. Regardless, while they did some of the songs together before the album, the album is all Amanda. The roots of the music are clearly in the same vein as the original group, which is no surprise since Amanda was the main song writer.

So, what is the music? The Desden Dolls describe their music as Brechtian punk cabaret. This is a self title in an attempt to be labeled as anything but Goth. However, the music really does have a strong flavor of cabaret type music with a few ballads thrown in. Extremely strong melodic hooks with very strong lyrics that generally have about as much story line as an Coldplay (ie no story), but instead of Coldplay's lack of real poetry, Amanda strikes you straight to the core. Much as in Bruce Cockburn, she can go completely overboard. However, in the midst of her struggles, her lyrics can strike intrinsically gripping thoughts.

If you want to start on Amanda, I suggest Leeds United. This features the original video where Amanda's stomach became the subject of the stomach debate.



Her voice is horse. She struggles a bit with intonation. However, she is brilliant. Listen to the refrain:

but who needs love when there’s law & order
and who needs love when there’s southern comfort
and who needs love
when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the mac store


Now the interesting thing about these 12 or so tracks on the album is that many of them have a video made for them. The highest production values is the video above "Leeds United," but if you go to Youtube, you will see that she made video for many of them, and while they are not slick or expensive, each one caries a gripping image to drive them.

The first track on the album is show cased in a simple video for the song called Astronaut (A Short History Of Nearly Nothing).



Somewhat inspired by the Columbia disaster, how can we not hate and love these lyrics.

YES you are, my love, the astronaut
Crashing in the name of science
Just my luck they sent your upper half
It's a very nice reminder
It's a very nice reminder


In this short post, I hope I've gotten you hooked just a bit on Amanda. One of the better people to explore as you do your musical wanderings.

All in all. A very good album.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Mind" -> Pivot The Data

My son is thinking about becoming an engineer when he grows up. At a home school assembly, he is supposed to answer some questions about his career choice. My wife and he thought I would be a good resource for information, and they were asking me what does an engineer do. Although I am in marketing today, I started off as an engineer.

One of the things that I told my son is that the hallmark of an engineer is "somebody that wants to solve problems." I find this engineering desire used in my marketing job every day, and because of this desire, I am a better marketeer.

So, if you want to find a solution to a problem, first you need to understand what is the root of the problem, and as a firm believer in "The Fifth Discipline," I know that getting to the root of the problem is not simple. There is only one way to get root cause: look at the data.

Now this sounds so very, very obvious, but I find on a consistent basis that most people don't analyze the data that they get. As a matter of fact, they often don't even use the tools that are at their disposal. So, I am immediately going to tell you that you have one fantastic tool in solving problems if you do anything with spreadsheets.

A Pivot Table.

If you don't use pivot tables, you may have your bachelor degree in solving problems, but you need to have a Master's degree or a Ph.D. in solving problems to be really successful. As a matter of fact, I work with finance people and marketing people all day, and it constantly surprises me how most people may have some familiarity with a spreadsheet, but have little to no background with Pivot Tables. The analogy is using a spreadsheet without a pivot table to analyze data is a bit like only driving your car in first gear. Your car has five gears for a reason. To have a vehicle that goes fast, you need to use all of them.

I think the biggest problem with pivot tables is that until you see them in action with somebody for a while, they aren't really clear what they are. For example, look at the description of a pivot table at Wikipedia: "A pivot table is a data summarization tool found in data visualization programs such as spreadsheets...."

Wow, that's helpful...NOT!

The best way of thinking about a Pivot table is that it is a spreadsheet that has many different spreadsheets "hidden" inside, and you can almost instantly pull them out. There are two things you need to know about pivot tables:

1. How to use them
2. How to make them

On this first post, we are going to start off on "how to use them." We'll save the creation for later.

Therefore, I am going to assume that for this first step you are just going to want to become the user of a pivot table that I made for you. Since I work in the hard drive industry, I am going to give you an example from my industry, although the data is all made up.

If you are selling hard drives, you will probably track several things:

a. What is the size of the hard drive that you are selling
b. What is the RPM of the hard drive that you are selling
c. Who sold the hard drive?
d. How many sales of the hard drives have been happening every month.

Now, let's say your hard drive boss comes to you, and he says, "Hey, how have the sales of the 5400 RPM drives doing versus the 7200 RPM drives? You look in your email and you see that I have sent you a pivot table in a spreadsheet.In this case the answer is very simple. Because when you opened up the spread sheet you have the answer right before your eyes.

You say to your supervisor, "Well I have the data right here. In January and February, the 5400 RPM models sold more than the 5400 RPM models. However, in March the 7200 sold better than 5400 RPM models."

Your boss thinks for a second, and he says "well, that is interesting, but I'm curious, how are the sales team doing sell hard drives?"

Now, normally if you wanted this answer you would have to go back to another spreadsheet and pick up all the names of the sales people and see how they have been selling. However, you have a pivot table. This is where the secret sauce comes in.

Before, we get to the next step, we need to ask ourselves, "just what exactly is a spreadsheet?" The answer maybe is not exactly as simple as you might think when I tell you that you can't describe a spreadsheet as a spreadsheet.

In reality, a spreadsheet is simply a list of something. In our case, the question are being asked about the number of hard drives sold. This is the most important point because this defines the characteristic of the pivot table. Either explicitly or intuitively, you need to understand that they only reason that your boss is talking to you is about the number of hard drives sold. In the future, he may not be interested in the number of hard drives. He might be interested in the selling price of each hard driver. He may be interested in the profit of each hard drive. However, in this case, he is interested in the volume of sales for each hard drive.

This is very important because I only gave you a pivot on the quantity sold. Therefore, you know that every cell that is between the "month's column" and the "RPM row" is going to be a quantity of HDD sold. You'll need to remember this, because we always need to be able to leave the data in the pivot. (If this is confusing, just wait a minute and keep reading.)

Now, if you can get the next part of the demonstration, you are about 90% over the most difficult part of understanding what a pivot table is. In the illustration to the left, I have identified three areas of the pivot table.

The area in the upper left hand corner is the "holding pen" for the rows in the data. I have identified this with a red line. If you want to put certain types "classifications of the data" out of the current grid, or put "classifications of the data" into the current grid, you drag the classifications in and out of the holding pen.

The pink line is the "active data classification rows" that is currently being used. In the current case, it is very simple. The spreadsheet is set up to show the sales of hard drives per month, and the row shows the data classified into two different rows: 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM.

Finally, the green area is the labels for the data area.

Notice, the first column has all the "data classifications" listed: in our example, we have the ability to classify the data by Capacity, Salesman, or RPM. These are the only three things in the first column that have the special gray box.

Now, there is another gray box, but it is in the second column. It says "data," which is important. No matter how I construct the pivot table, the second column is always going to be some type of generic "data" type label. (Over simplified, but a good way of thinking about it right now.)

Now, lets go back to the second question of your supervisor. He wanted to know sales by salesman. Very simply, drag the RPM out of the row area and into the holding pen, and this action takes out the RPM classification. Then, you drag the salesman from the holding pen to the row area, and this puts the new classification in.

If you are successful, then you will have the spreadsheet off to the side. Now, the first time that you drag a row label out of the first column, it may be a little confusing. They way that you do it is to put your cursor on the grey box RPM, then click and drag the grey RPM into the holding pen.

Then click and drag the gray Salesman box onto the row area. As a hint, make sure to drag the grey box onto the row area. Remember that since the row area and the column area intersect at the top left hand corner of the spreadsheet, if you drop the label onto this box, the pivot table will try and put the salesman onto the column area and not the row area! In this case, you would have to pull the label until it was on top of the "Total" box. However, if you do this, you'll have the table with the data quickly called out. You have the answer for your supervisor with one drag of the mouse.

The final trick on a pivot table for today is the "nesting of rows."

After your box asks you this, he says, "Well that is interesting, I wish I could see the breakout of the sales of 5400 and 7200 RPM drives by sales person."

One of the magic items in pivot tables is that you can build up the row area. In this case, all we need to do is pull down the RPM into the column area without pulling out the salesman item. If you put it in the left side of the row area, the RPM will show up first. If you drag it to the right side, the salesman will show up first. If you want to switch the order on the rows, just simply drag the gray boxes either right or left.

In this case, we get this table. The answer only takes one click and drag.

Your supervisor says, "Well Sally isn't selling any 5400 RPM drives. She just got into sales, and it looks like she doesn't know how to sell them. I'll go and make sure that she gets training on how to sell these drives."

This is the magic of pivot tables. Once you have the table, you can find answers hiding in the data in seconds rather than hours. This type of work allows you to get to the bottom of questions extremely quickly.

Today, we used a very simply example. This is very good to start on. However, once you get down how a pivot table works, you will find that they can be use in much more flexible ways.

They truly are a revolutionary tool.

Learn 'em.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Mind & Spirit" -> Exposed: Christianity as an Evolutionary Advantage

Well Ben Stein is right.

I have to admit it, I was prepared not to like the Ben Stein film "Expelled." After all, I am an evolutionist. I have grave issues on intelligent design ("ID"), and if ID is a conjecture or a science. I was ready to see a vitriolic and mindless anti-evolution diatribe. Even before seeing the film, I had read anti-Expelled web sites that talked about how Ben Stein had twisted the truth. I was ready to see through this because I had been prepared.

I was surprised.

Now mind you, Ben Stein does over represent that there are scientists on both sides of the issue. To be in the ID camp, you will probably be in the 1% of those with Ph.D.s. In reality, because saying that you'd like to study ID is a bit like saying that you're into picking your own nose and saving the results, even those that might consider ID in the academic environment would never admit to it.

However, there are just enough academics that hold to ID that it allows it to be discussed. Into this fray, Ben Stein inserts himself.

Stein's thesis is very simple:

1. To say that you base your belief system on a creator is political suicide in academic environments.

2. However, in almost all other areas of life we have the right to at least debate the issues.

3. The ID proponents are not babbling idiots.

4. Therefore, there is something amiss in the system. We should be able to question the prevailing system no matter what is the question.

Now, if Stein had stopped here, he would have only created a minor uproar, but what pushed his message into the red zone is his contention that Darwinism can lead to the idea of Social Darwinism, which helps to directly foster events like the Holocaust.

It is this last point that I agree with the most, and the point that is the most highly disagreeable to those in the academic environment. I have written some of this before, but allow me to again summarize the reasons that there is religion in the world. The following statements are mostly exclusive in their ability to reflect truth.

Hypothesis 1: Religion is around because there are gods or God that created the world. These deities that may ask us to somehow follow them. We have religions because an external force caused us to have religion.

Hypothesis 2: Religion is a construct that was created by natural forces.

Anyone that does not believe in a religion as an external force must believe hypothesis 2. However, the formation of religion or evolution of religion becomes problematic. Why was it created if it was not created by an external force?

The common sense answer to the average Joe is that "when early man didn't understand something, he would be comforted by the idea that there were gods or God behind everything." If this is true, that having religion makes one feel better, then religion is a necessary advantage to those that have it. Getting rid of religion is counter productive because it removes something that gave an evolutionary advantage over those that did not have religion. The common trait of religion is what gives a people group strength.

(This point is not mine, but I steal it here. The above thought is so obvious that many atheists spend hours trying to explain away the helpful nature of religion by saying that religion must be a spandrel or a meta-meme, both of which weak hypothesis when compared to the idea that religion results in an evolutionary advantage for those that hold onto it.)

You have two sets of conflicting hypothesis:

1. This world was made by a personal creator

2. This world was made by a fortuitous series of events.

If this world was made by a series of fortuitous events, there is no reason to help others out other than yourself. In reality, in a system that is based on evolution, you simply cannot explain how you can have free will. After all, you are a constructed being that is programmed with a certain programming. Perhaps, there was some core of chance in the way that your DNA sequences were fulfilled, but at the end of the day "it'll be all about the genes."

Evolution leads to the strong devouring the weak. It leads to fatalism. It leads to lack of control. The best of the atheist's philosophers, Dan Dennet in Freedom Evolves (and yes, I have yet to read the book, but I have read summaries) tries to argue that while man is predetermined, our ability to make informed choices--even though we are wired to make those choices--means that we have free will. Classically this is call Compatibilism. This mean that human beings may be predetermined to make a choice, but the fact that the person make the choices himself means that predetermination and free will are compatible.

To step one more time into this hole: You may determine that you don't like the weight that you are at. In fact, over 90% of people that go on a diet immediately gain back the pounds in two years. This would indicate that your programming of weight over rides your will. However, even in this case, you could pay somebody to starve you until you hit the proper weight. This is freedom. You can make a choice regardless of how you are wired.

So, by jumping through a tremendous amount of mental gymnastics, we get to an illusion or a type of free will. However, from a practical standpoint, the total population will never hear this message.

For the average Joe, all they will hear is that "we evolved to this state." There is no free will. Our wiring determines how we will react. Now, wrap this back into the idea of how we treat others. I have many discussion with atheists where they say that they are more moral than all the Christians they know. I may even agree with them, but my point is that their morality is driven by a desires to show that they are good. In more of the cases where I have asked an atheist why they are good, they have no answer.

The reason should be obvious to anybody that understand their own human nature: there is no reason that you should do good. Why help the weak and deprived if it won't help you. As a matter of fact, those that can't pull their own weight should be discarded. If you remember my last post, which can be found here, I pointed out somebody that I knew that was talking about "upgrading the team." The idea is that you should be going through the team and throwing away some individual and upgrading the rest. This is a bit of the survival of the fittest right in the work environment. I clearly see this thought process of the work upgrade as coming directly from the influence of evolution. The strong will survive.

Now if we don't like this mess of a philosophy, we can construct a very simple counter set of hypothesis to the evolutionary one. These are the other set that we started this section with:

a. There is a God.
b. He made you in his image, therefore you have free will
c. It is your choice to do the right thing

If you are a good Christian supervisor, you understand the following:

*The Lord is your master
*The Lord gave you responsibility for those under your care
*You are to be a good supervisor, and plan for the success of your people

This does not mean that we pay everybody the same. This doesn't mean that if a layoff comes that you fire people at random. It doesn't mean that somebody with a bad attitude should not be fired. What is does mean is that you are responsible for your people, and there are expectations that are given by the Lord for you to be fair and right. I would argue that in my experience that those that build this type of an organization are the ones that go to the top. A well led group of B-String players will outperform a warring class of A-String players every time.

Now. let us look at beyond the work place.

In reality, the advent of Christianity has done more than anything to make our nation powerful and great. Unfortunately, the world tries and says that this nation was not founded on Christian principles. This is a ludicrous statement. I was reminded of this by a High School friend that sent me a video that can be seen here. In a very short course in this link, David Barton gives a quick lecture on the culture of America. There is a straight line from how we were founded to the worldview of the Christian.

Over the last 50 years, the United States has been trying to dissolve this bond. Only the future will tell us how much it will hurt.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Mind & Spirit" -> More Views On Anime And The Weakest Link

Dattebayo!

This is the phrase that is constantly added onto the end of sentences by our fictional guest today, Naruto Uzumaki. What does Datebayo mean? You might suspect that it is simply a translation of some Japanese phrase, because you know that almost all anime comes from Japan. However, it means nothing other than a key phrase that the lead character from the anime Naruto puts onto the end of his sentences. For our American audience, you might remember that the character played by Billy Bob Thornton switchblade in the movie "Switchblade" always would say "Uh, huh" after his sentences. Dattebayo is a bit like this, and it make Naruto one of the most interesting and unique characters in anime.

The twists in anime are so interesting and the span of the story arcs are so large that I do not want to spoil the anime for you. However, Naruto has a well deserved fan base because of the story. In many ways, the morals that the story tells cut right to the heart of Japanese culture, and they are the morals that make the Japenese culture so engaging.

As I have posted before, there are things that will make this anime unsuitable for smaller kids. There are multiple instances of old men that are Peeping Toms that sneak up on younger woman so they can watch them bath. The interesting thing about Japanese culture in this aspect is that they don't condone the behavior. Normally, this is considered perverted behavior and the characters will call it out as such. Also, there is alcohol that flows. In terms of actual sex, there is none. In terms of violence, there is a lot. And while not all of it is graphically shown, it can be very, very shocking. Clearly people die in this anime. If not simple death is disturbing enough, we have sororicide (killing one's sister), infanticide (the killing of a child), filicide (killing of one's child), patricide (the killing of one's father), matricide (the killing of one's mother), mariticide (the killing of one's husband) and uxoricide (the killing of one's wife) as Wikipedia would put it. If there is a "...cide" it will be found in Naruto.

However, I am not here to burry Naruto. I am here to praise it.

Why? Because all of Naruto has core values that cause the anime to be strongly redeemed.Those that are in Christ are going to recognize many of the core values of the anime are ones that we can embrace and pull close to our hearts.  These themes are ones that flow from the gospel.

These themes are as follows:

1. You only have one calling in life. To take care of those that call you family or friends. If you live your life for others, then you will find a well spring of strength inside of you.

2. Those that are cursed are not to be despised. If you hate those that are cursed, a curse will come back on you. Those that are cursed will cause your destruction.  But more than this, there are many who are cursed by things that go beyond their control, and while these people do horrible things, they are not beyond the grasp of those that can see beyond their pain.  The best thing a man can do is make their enemy a brother.

3. Life is centered around the team and the village. You should give your life for the village and the team.

This last value is one that I never see much in the USA and an attribute that I will devote the last half of this post to. 

In the anime, the story revolves around the warrior culture. Each of these characters are trained to be killers from a young age. If you have any talent, you are expected to be a soldier by the time you are 12-13. The truly exception killers are those that can lead at 10 years or younger.

However, these teams are given over to groups of three. This is the core of the warrior culture in the anime.   One of my favorite bits of animation in this series is the opening of episode #28 and following.  As the series has gone from year to year, they come up with new openings.  This particular year features a song from Asian Kung-Fu Generation, which is called Haruka Kanata. While the song is a great song, the animation is what perfectly captures the aspect of the team. Most of it is centered around images of the core three member team.

This group of three is normally lead by a leader or Sensei. The power in the culture is to have the three to operate as one. Often in this team, you will have the following:

1. The superstar
2. The leader
3. The brain
4. The strategist
5. The power

Now, depending on the group, these roles may be scattered around. In some, the superstar/leader/power may all be in one person. However, in most groups each member may take on some part of these roles. Therefore, it is only in the competion of the team does the real power happen.

While the weakest member of the team may call out that they are insecure because they know that they are the weakest, I almost never see the stronger members of the team say "hey that person is weak, let's get an upgrade to that person." Instead, the philosophy is "because I am strong, I will protect the weak."

Now, mind you, just because the weak person is weak, this does not mean that they can slack off. They must work hard. They must help the group any way that they can. They must be faithful. However, they do not have to worry that the other team members are going to leave them behind. As long as even the weakest team member is faithful, there will be a spot on the team.

Contrast the difference between this Japanese anime and the the American culture.

In the USA game show "Survivor," the constant struggle is to find the "weakest link" in the the tribe and vote them off the island. There is a constant battle of alliances an temporary agreements for people to know that they will continue to survive. However, at the end of the day, there will only be one left. It is about watching out for oneself.

Recently, I had a conversation with somebody on how they shape their team. They were saying that they were always "looking for an upgrade." In other words, they thought that the team was pulled together for them. In essence, they had control over the team, and you should be swapping out part of the team like you would be swapping out pieces of a car. If you found a better muffle on eBay, you should order the new muffler and throw out the old.

I philosophically disagree with this. The teams that we are given are not about "what can they do for us" but "how do we work together for the common good." Mind you, I believe in those that do more work should be paid more. You need to reward the superstars on your team. Those that do less should not get the same compensation as those that do more. However, people are not mufflers. Each person has something to add to the overall team. If you find that you are paying a person too much money, then you should downgrade their salary. If you find that one person is doing 150% of the work of another person, you should upgrade their salary to compensate.

Those with a bad attitude? Shoot those people on site. They pollute the entire work force, and diminish good beyond expections.

But at the end of the day, it is about the team. And team don't give up on each other.

As a parting shot, here is the opening video and lyrics.  Now, I'm never sure quite how long a video will be posted to Google video, the post does not depending on this video being around for a long time.  But if it is here, please click on it and watch it.

What you will see is a variety of images, but notice how often a series of three pops into the frame.  In almost all instances, these are the teams of three that compete for each other.

Maybe Americans can learn a bit from the Japanese.



Haruka Kanata (Far Off Distance)

Hit the gas! There's no need to finagle, oh yeah!
We'll go all through the night.
I'll complain at the end, the balance is zero, oh yeah!
We'll whittle the days away...

When you open your heart a little, and pull someone close to you,
Your feelings will surely reach them deeper, yeah...

Hurry it up! Wring it out!
Though my legs are all tangled, they will surely take me far...
Even if I steal it and manage to grasp it,
If it isn't you, then what's the point?

So I'll go further and further away!

Hit the gas! There's no need to finagle, oh yeah!
We'll go all through the night.
I'll complain at the end, the balance is zero, oh yeah!
We'll whittle the days away...

When you open your heart a little, and pull someone close to you,
Your feelings will surely reach them deeper, yeah...

Hurry it up! Wring it out!
Though my legs are all tangled, they will surely take me far...
Even if I steal it and manage to grasp it,
If it isn't you, then what's the point?

So I'll go far into the distance...

Your world will become a thing of deceit
painted all in white...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Mind" -> Account For Yearly Gains On Etrade

I have written before how I believe that having both stocks and working covered calls can work to your advantage. However, once you get into using these tools for making money, you might not realize two very important things:

1. It becomes a little more difficult to keep track of how much money you've made or lost.

2. You absolutely need to clean up your account at the end of the year, or you'll be paying a lot more cash than you want to to the government.

Let's talk about both of these issues.

This is because the numbers that Etrade show are based on what you paid for stock, and they are not based on how much your cash position has changed over the year.

Let's say I walked into the tax year with $10,000 that I had in my pocket. On January 2, I put this money into etrade and bought myself $10,000 worth of stock by buying 100 shares of $100 stock at XYZ corporation. Once I had the 100 shares of stock, I then turned around and sold the cover calls on the stock for an additional $1000. Since I now had $1000 in my pocket, I decided to buy ten more shares of stock of XYZ. So, I have $11,000 worth of stock.

Etrade shows a running total of what you made and what you haven't made in the market. So, after the covered calls have expired, it will show you that you have $1,000 worth of gains because I sold the covered calls. In this case, let's say that it is short term because covered calls are always this. So, Etrade would show that I made $1000 short term gain.

However, let's us say that my stock, which was worth $11,000 at $100 per share, fell to $90 per share. So, I would have $9900 worth of stock. Since I bought it for $11,000, I have lost $1100. My portfolio is down 10%! What a horrible year. I lost a bunch of money.

Or have I?

If you remember, I walked into the year with $10000. If I sold all of my stock, I would get $9900. In fact, since I buy dividend stock, I also got a dividend on all of the stock. This gave me another $300 for the year (after tax). This means that I entered the year with $10000, and I exited the year with $10200. I didn't lose $1100. I made $200.

So, you need to look at all of the data to truly understand what is happening.

The challenge with Etrade is that it doesn't say that "hey you had $10000 at the beginning of the year." Instead, it will simply give you three sections that you need to check:

1. The amount that is in your banking account (Seen on the home Account Tab)
2. The amount that is in your stock account and current position (Security Tab)
3. A running total of short/long gains in your Security tab under the sub-tab.

So, even if you didn't write down how much money you had at the beginning of the year, the overall answer is pretty easy. Here are the steps:

1. Figure out how much you are worth if you liquidated everything today. In the case above, if I liquidated everything today, I would have $9900 worth of stock.

2. Now you need to figure out how much you had at the beginning of the year. This is simply taking your liquidated value ($9900) adding the losses of $1100 because the stock went down and then subtracting the short term gains from selling your covered calls.

$9900 + $1100 - $1000 = $10000 your starting cash

Now, to get your performance during the year it is simply (ending cash)/(starting cash) = 1% loss on your portfolio before we got our money from our dividends.

So, life isn't all that bad unless you forget that Uncle Sam is coming after those short term gains. This is a major issue, and one you must not get surprised on. One part of the tax code that really boths me is the fact that Uncle Sam makes it so he can get the maximum amount of tax.

Let's say that you have a job where you are making $100,000 per year. Uncle Sam and Uncle California says that you need to pay them 35% of this money to them. So, you have take-home pay of $65,000. However, they see that you had all this money from selling covered calls in the market. According to them, you made an additional $1000 in the stock market. This is income, therefore they are going to come after it. However, this is a special type of income. It was considered "easy money" and you make a big salary of $100,000. Since this was easy money and you are making a good job, they will take roughly 40% of your $1000!

Now, lets go back to our example:

You started with $10000. If you sold the stock at the next year for $90 per share, you would get $9900. So you lost $100. This isn't all that bad, until you find out on your TurboTax that the government wants another $400! This is because they say that "you made $1000 by selling the covered calls last year." So by the time that you pay your money to the government, you find out that your 1% (or $100) loss has gone to a 5% (or $500) loss. $100 because you sold the stock and the other $400 because of the government.

However, you can try and miss most of this burden.

At the end of the tax year, let's say that you knew that the stock was down and that the government was going to tax you on all your short term gains. In this case, you have a $1000 gain coming, and on December 30th you see that the stock is at $90 and you know that the stock is going to be flat for a while.

At this point, you need to sell part of your stock to register that you have a loss. Let me explain it this way. The goverment will allow you to "offset" the gain from options if you have a loss. So, all you need to do is say "well, I need to show the government that I had a loss." You do this by selling your stock that is under water to the extent that it balances out the gain.

In our case, if the stock is $90 on December 30th, we are losing $10 per share for every stock that we sell. Therefore, if we have $1000 of gain that we want to cover, we need to sell 100 shares. The $1000 in money we made in the cover calls is offset or covered by the $1000 we lost by selling the shares.

So you walk out of the year with:

$9000 from the stock that we just sold
100 shares worth $90 per share

Total = $9900

Now, since we have neither gains or losses on this, Uncle Sam charges us absolutely nothing. So by doing this one simple act, you have saved yourself $400 or 4% of your money. This is a massive difference.

Now, this is where the tax code starts to have a massive dorking effect on the economy. This is going to be a bit complicated, but stay with me. In the above example, I was assuming that the stock price was going to be $90 exiting the year and $90 during the start of the new year. However, lets say that I had a perfect time machine. I knew that the stock price was going to be $90 on Dec 30th, but $92 on January 3rd. So, if you waited just 5 days, you could sell he stock for $2 more. Would you wait?

Well we just did the first case. In this case, we would have $9900 in money left over. But what about the case where we waited?

In this case, lets say that we held our stock until January 3rd and sold. So you would have

110 shares * $92 = $10120 worth of money. However, the government still thinks that you made $1000 last year on the options, therefore, they still are going to charge you another $400 for the money you made last year, regardless if just 3 days into the new year you sold the stock for a loss. So, your net gain?

$10,120 - $400 = $9720 or $180 worse than if you had sold for $2 less just 5 days ago!

This fact is not miss on anybody that is handling money a lot.

Always clean out your accounts at the end of the year

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Mind" -> Soul Eater

Okay, I'll admit it.

Soul Eater has to be my favorite anime right now.

Now perhaps you know about anime, and in this case, this post will absolutely no interest to you. After all, you know the beat and what is going on. If you are not familiar with anime, let me introduce you to my subworld.

Anime is nothing more and nothing less than a Japanese cartoon. Anime = animation. Anime has played a pivotal role in Japanese entertainment. While it traces it roots back to USA animation, really the core of anime took off in the 70's and from Manga. Manga is basically a comic book. Similar to the USA cartoon characters--Superman, Spiderman, Batman--what appeared in comic books (Manga) eventually got animated or turned inot anime. What we have today is a very robust manga industry that eventually take popular manga (cheap to produce) and turn it into popular anime (more expensive to produce).

Anime landed many years ago in the USA, for example "Speed Racer" started as part of the first way of anime in the 70's anime explosion. However, taking the chance that a Japanese cartoon could be shown in the USA after being dubbed and distributed was a fairly risky deal. So, for the most part, anime was a very small niche, and then mainly applied to cartoons for children. However, in Japan the entertainment form continued to grow and press the boundaries of what was kid entertainment and what was suitable for people 16 and older.

If the USA distributors were scared to bring over children entertainment, they did think at all about bringing over the more sophisticated entertainment. Afterall, this was too risky.

As you might expect, the internet changed everything. Anime is here in force in the USA, only anime is watched almost exclusively on the internet in the USA.

I am sure that sooner or later, this is going to be shut down for copyright infringement, but until it is, the art of Japan is seeing its way across America. The train is as follows:

1. On Wednesday, Soul Eater is shown on Japanese Television
2. Somebody in Japan records it off the air.
3. They then place this onto BitTorrent
4. The US/Japanese speakers grab the Torrent
5. They put subtitles on the file
6. The file is sent forward in a variety of different formats
7. The movement grows

These subtitling of the anime from Japan TV is called "fansubs" and they can generally be found many, many places on the internet. You can view thousands of hours of "fansubs" of Bleach, Naruto, and others. Some of these are so big that eventually they are bought and dubbed. The Cartoon Network with their "Adult Swim" time slots has caused a much wider acceptance of this entertainment.

Now, there is some very sophisticated anime. As an example of this, "Ghosts in the Shell" and "Death Note" have an unbelieable amount of weirdness and eruditeness about them. Some, such as Blood+ have some very disturbing elements involving things such as rape.

Generally, however, many of the anime show the following:

1. A boy or a girl coming of age. Call it from 13 up to 18

2. Many times there will be a lot of sexual overtones, although not a lot of graph nudity

3. Some bad words, and maybe some inappropriate touching (which always results in the man being slapped silly by the touched woman, which always meant to be humorous. Clearly nothing that would fly in American culture.)

4. And if you think #3 is bad, some Japanese show racial stereotypes that would cause a race riot in America.

But, even with all these problem, the stories or "Arcs" in the various series are amazing in their span and their attention to detail. Each episode will build on each other with stories that are carefully weaved together over dozens of hours of animation.

If it stop there it would be highly interesting.

Now, I have always been a fan of movie soundtracks. The ability of a great composer to help drive a mood is very important to the entertainment value of film.

And what is done on a successful anime holds up against anything that is done for the US cinemas. One of the best composers today for this music is Taku Iwasaki, who is pictured here and is the genius behind the music of Soul Eater.

I was already a fan of his from his music for the anime "Read or Die," and he has really outdone himself for this series. Just brilliant, brilliant stuff. As a composer (read mediocre to bad) myself, I can appreciate his ability to go anywhere he wants: New age. Moodscape. Hard Rock. Rap.

It is all in there. Each track builds brilliantly. These songs are woven into the story. For instance, the current series is up to 26 episodes (there will be 50 in all). If you watch the anime weekly, you will get a point where you notice how well the songs are crafted into the story. Without even knowing what is happening, the songs will carry you along.

Unfortunately, his music is lacking in the US. Luckily, you can go to Last.fm, which is a Brit internet radio station, and you can listen to this type of music. Not perfect, since there is no Taku Iwasaki radio station, but at least you can get some sense.

In addition, the animation art is just wonderful stuff. It is warped and strange, and yet familiar. Really, the art is simply images that can burn into your brain. At first I wasn't sure if I liked something so stylized and strange. Now, I can't get enough. You will be a very short time into the first episode when you'll meet the hero of the anime.

However, one of the non-convential things with the Soul Eater anime is that the hero is actually a heroine. Maka. You can see a picture of her to the left.

She is the central character of the anime, and captivating in her style.

Thing that you love about her is the fact that she is 100% a young woman that has a wonderful blend of personality traits: She is 100% aggressive in her stance as a "Meister" of justice. She is more than willing to give her life in the fight against evil. Yet, she is incredibly insightful into human nature. Although it takes over 20 episodes to get to one of the cruxes of the story, I was very moved when she has brilliant insight into how to reach a person that was hurting. It grabbed me on a very deep emotional level. She is the heroine of the show and while she is very smart, she is not the strongest. This makes her all the more appealing.

Now, the characters go beyond Maka. You have probably heard that the Japanese are all about team work. Many times in USA based dramas we will show a "team" or "essemble" cast. However, regardless off all the characters, we know that CSI is really about Gil Grissom. You know that 24 is about Jack Bauer. Mind you there are some essemble casts, but often one person will rise about the rest.

In anime, it is the cast that pulls it all together most of the time. Each member will often reflect a key emotion. An you need to see all the emotions...because anime is all about emotions.

The Japanese have a very reserved culture, and anime is the way that they express emotions that they other wise can't. In the story you have the young braggart that does nothing but say how great he is. You have the Father that bursts into tears because he believes that he'll never be a good Father.

Personally, for an anime to really strike home, you need to have a character that you really resonant with.

For me, this is Franken Stein. Yes, the name is a clear tribute to the horror novel, and this them is used over and over in the novel. I will not ruin the anime by describe how he is used in the plot, but I can see a lot of myself in him. I can see that if I was not who I am today, and placed in a similar circumstance stance (no matter how unbelievable since it is fantasy), I would be this character.

I will not destroy the anime by describing the character completely, but he is a bit unhinged, extremely scientific, and explodes when pushed too far. A man after my own heart.

Now, I have thought that I would like to show this stuff to my own kids. There are some very valuable lessons in these stories. However, you'll find several issues:

1. There are bad words that the characters say. Sigh, I wish I could find a version that had #$(@*)% as the swear words. Strike one.

2. Somehow, there always seem to be some type of mild perversion in Japan anime. Many times this has to do with inappropriate relationships between older men, fathers or brothers with younger girls. Maddening. Why do the Japanese seem to think so much about incest? Mind you, it is never, never said. It is kidded about. Inappropriate? Sure.

3. Finally, there is almost always some fixation on breast. Why? I guess it is the Japanese way.

So, I won't be showing this to my kids.

In summary, you have all the emotion that you'd never see in real life. Is it over the top?? You bet. And I love it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Mind" -> Allais Paradox And My Investment Strategy

As we often do on this blog, we have a special guest for today.

I am happy to say that we are going to be spending a little time talking about the psychology of risk with Maurice Allais. Unfortunately, this Nobel Prize winner is dead, but we can honor him by kicking around one of the more famous of his concepts, then we'll use this idea to examine the stock market today.

The Allais Paradox is a hallmark of the way that we are wired, and the best way to look at this is by having you immediately take a quiz. To be effective on this, you are going to have to actually take the quiz, and not just read ahead. Okay? Here we go.

I am a very generous blog writer, and I find a comment that you have posted on my website. I like your comment so very, very much that I write you an email, with the following being written:

"Dear XXXX,

You insight and comments on my blog posting are so very, very good, that I want to reward you somehow. However, I have been taking a look at risk lately, so I am going to reward you with a decision. I am going to give you 2 choices:

Choice A: I will give you a 100% chance of giving you 1 million dollars.

OR

Choice B: I will give you a 25% chance of winning 5 million dollars.

Thanks Again For Your Comments,
Theo"

Now what choice would you take? Come on. Be honest.

Why or why not? Just stop and think about this for a while. You may even want to write down your answer. You'll see later what most people pick. (Because this is "illogical," this is referred to as the Allais paradox, after our good friend Maurice. You have just participated in the Allais Paradox.)

Let's do another quiz. This is a follow-on to the Maurice Paradox.

Let's say that you are pulled up in front of a judge. He is very mad at you for speeding. So, he says the following:

"Hey look, I have a 6 sided dice," he says. "I'll roll the dice. If it comes up as a 1, you'll pay us zero. If it comes up any thing else, you'll owe $6000. However, to make it interesting, I'll give you another choice. No dice roll, but you'll pay me $5000 right now. So what will it be?"

So, would you take the 1/6 chance of paying no fine, or would you simply pay the $5000. What would your answer be? Again, why don't you write down the reason for your second choice. Also, note if you changed your mind after thinking about it for a while.

The first example involves upside. This was the original Allais Paradox. The second example involves downside. This was a variation on the Allais Paradox. This was done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.

Here is a picture of Kahneman. Unfortunately, Amos Tversky died of skin cancer. However, Kahneman went on to win a Nobel prize for the work he did with his long time collaborator. Too bad Tversky was not there to see it.

What is the answer to above questions?

Well on the letter from me, most people would pick the "sure fire" $1M dollars over the 25% chance of winning $5M dollars. As for the speeding ticket? Most people would pick the "roll of the dice" over handing over $5000.

If we only played the odds, we would have always picked the $5M upside opportunity. After all, getting a 25% chance at $5M dollars is $1.25M on average. As for the roll of the dice, there should have been no preference. Both come out to be $10.

However, people are not wired that way. On "upsides" most people want to lock in the "sure fire" thing. On downsides, they believe "well, it won't happen to me. I won't be picked."

What is interesting is that researchers have looked at this trend in all types of cultures and all types of languages. You would think that the response to this issue would be driven a lot by culture, however, whatever culture you are in, the reaction is basically the same.

Once you start testing this on large groups of people, you can start to plot out the "value vs the risk" on a scale. Kahneman and Tversky did just this. The eventual curve that they built is now known as the "Prospective Curve."

The "Prospect Curve," which I've stolen from Wikipedia, is shown to the side of this text.

If you examine this curve, you will see that it has two axis. The curve plots out the value of gains and losses.

You can see, that minor gains are appreciated, but quickly they level off. So, in this case, you may feel good if I gave you a million dollars. However, you won't feel "five times as good" if I give you five million dollars. This is why most people chose the "sure thing" over the $5M dollar gamble. You have almost four times the risk on $5M, but you won't get twice the pleasure.

On the other side, you can see that losing $1M is more painful than gaining $1M dollars! The curve goes down further for losses than it goes up for gains. Once you have something, it is hard to give it up.

On the down side, if if the odds look "about even," and the pain is pretty painful, most people will pick the result where maybe they'll get lucky and pay nothing. This is section of the down curve where it is less than a 45 degree angle.

"Well, once I lose $5,000, it is only a little more painful to lose $6,000," you might say. "Besides, maybe I can lose nothing and really feel good."

One of my co-workers says, "I'm numb" once he gets beyond a certain point in a quarter. I believe him. However, he is willing to take a little bit of a gamble, and get all the way back up the curve.

This is exactly what happens on the stock market, and this is why I am adjusting my portfolio.

The market is down 15% for the year. The financial sector has many skeletons in their closet. The government is taking over all the major financial institutions. And what is the hope of most of the people on Wall Street? They are rolling the dice, hoping to get lucky and cause their portfolio to regain the loses that they have had for the year.

However, I think that all the cards are pointing to a difficult 18-24 months. I hope that I'm wrong, but I'm in the part of the curve where I haven't lost much, and I want to preserve what I have.

Let me take you though some high level trends.

What I am showing on the chart to the side is the S&P 500 index. This is the "average" value of the stock market over the last 10 years.

Why am I showing you the S&P 500?

You are probably familiar with some type of mutual fund because you have a 401K plan. What you are doing is handing money to "professional money managers" that are supposed to give you good returns.

However, the real secret is that 80-90% of "professional managers" don't beat the S&P500! The other 10% are simply lucky.

The only guy that seems to have a 30 year track record of beating the street is Warren Buffet. He has been preaching for years that having a professional manage your money means that you will suffer. Finally, somebody showed up from New York, and challenged Buffet on this. Very simply, they wagered $1M on the following:

“Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.”


Buffet will pay $1M to a charity if he loses. However, he won't lose. The bet can be found here.

So, now we are looking at a graph of what a "good" return should be. If you look at the S&P 500 index, you will see that it had a tremendous run-up going into calendar year 2000. If you remember back in time, the run up was due to the "tech bubble." At that time, the best way for Investment Banks to make money was to get any tech company that looked even half making a lot of money was to found a company and take it public.

Once you did your IPO (Initial Public Offering) everybody in the market would jump in and make money. Tremendous money was flowing into the technology sector, and stock price was going absolutely crazy. The real winners were the investment banks that made a ton off of every public offering.

However, technology wasn't backed by anything that could give returns. When it was found out that many of these companies couldn't make a buck, the tech market collapsed. Unfortunately, many investors lost a ton of money.

I think that I am "unique" in recognizing that our problems today go back to the problems in the technology sector. There was a massive machine all tuned up and ready to make money. This was the investment banks. Now, I hate and love these guys. They are greed personified. They do all types of stupid stuff to make money. However, they serve a very good purpose. This is how people get their companies started. Without them we'd be in trouble also.

With a lot of people losing a lot of money, Alan Greenspan, who may go down as a worse Fed Reserve chairman than George Bush was a president, lowered the Federal Reserve rate down to 1%. Now, considering that Greespan had given extremely cheap money to anybody that wanted it, all that the banks needed to do was find somebody to borrow it.

The idea that you could borrow money cheap, then lend it out to house owners was beyond anything that Wall Street could turn down.

So when there wasn't a technology industry to make money, the commercial and investment banks started doing stupid loans off of the "new bubble." The new bubble was this real estate.

Now, this is bad enough. However, to make this plausible, they need some type of insurance in case things went bad. However, insurance needs a reserve "just in case" somebody needs to actually use the insurance. However, there wasn't enough money to actually insure all the lending that was going on.

Therefore, Phil Gramm (former McCann man that was helping him with how to handle the economy in his election campaign for the presidency, pictured here with McCann) sponsored credit default swaps in our senate, with a little help from Phil Lugar.

As a matter of fact, this former McCann staffer may be the single reason for the melt down in the market today. Again, credit default swaps is just another name for "insurance." Only, Gramm was able to drive a bill that made it illegal for credit default swaps to be called insurance. Unlike insurance, which is tightly regulated, these vehicles require NO BACKING IN CASE OF DEFAULT.

In other words, the insurer is not required to be able to deliver the insurnace.

When Buffet heard about this, he said that credit default swaps were "time bombs." How right he was. The bombs are starting to go off. Interesting, Buffet is voting for Obama. While Buffet has talked about tax rates, I think one of the main issue is that McCann seemed to embrace Gramm (until Gramm put his foot in his mouth once too many times by saying that the economy was just doing fine, and anybody that said different was a whiner).

Buffet has picked the lessor of two evils by picking Obama in his mind.

However, things run in cycles. We are not in the great depression, no matter what some headlines are saying. We don't have a run on the bank. We have crippled outselves with large debt loads as a nation, but the core of the USA is fine. It is just an extended house remodeling that we need to do.

The interesting thing about the "general problems" with the last bubble in the economy was that it took two years to hit bottom. In our new situation, I think that we will also take about two years to hit bottom. Clearly, we have launched into an unknown space. The government has made the most massive investment (or bail out) in our history. The impacts of this will not wind its way through our economy for 2-3 years from now.

So, what is my suggestion?

Well, if you like risk, you can start to short the market. This is what I've been doing all this year through a moderate "covered calls" strategy. Because of my strategy, my portfolio is down 5% for the year instead of the 15% for the S&P 500. I was actually up 5% just a couple of months ago, but made some slip ups in my investment strategy, which was completely foreseeable. (Basically, you can't run a personal portfolio AND do a stressful job. You will slip up on something.) However, I'm pretty proud of outperforming the market.

However, this last week gave me quite a scare. There was a point where the market was down over 20% year to date. If not for a phenomenal intervention by the government, and a crazy rally on Friday, I would have been down 15% for the year.

When the market popped back on Friday morning, I immediately liquidated part of my assets. I now have 20% of my liquid net worth in cash. In 27 days, once the next option expiry date, I will convert another 20% of my portfolio into cash. So exiting October, I will have at least 40% of my money in hard cold cash. By December, exiting the year, I will have 80-85% of my portfolio in cash.

So, once you have all your assets in cash, what do you do?

1. Put them in a safe place.
2. Wait for the market to turn around

Where is a safe place? Well the BEST place is T-Bills or government back bonds. However, they both have a problem in that they are are not liquid. The best thing about have cash is if the market does take a massive nose dive, you may want to actually buy something along the way. A house. A car. Even an investment. If you are a Wall Street firm, this is no problem. If you are an individual, there is nothing like a savings or checking account.

Now, lets say that you've been saving for a number of years, and you have at least $150K saved up. My suggestion is to have your money in at least four FDIC banks, spread evenly with no more than $100K at each bank (or $200K if you have a joint account with your spouse). The key is a minimum of four banks, regardless if you have a $800K or $80K. FDIC banks will cover any bankruptcy up to $100K for single people, and $200K for married couples.

If you are just starting out with $1K for savings, my advice is getting saving more. Cash is king in an uncertain time. However, you can probably get away with just one bank.

The reason for multiple banks is to be able to get you your cash at anytime regardless of bankruptcy. A local bank IndyMac, went bankrupt because of the market. While the invest is secured, it takes an extended time to get your money out of the bank. Spread risk by having your bank accounts spread out.

Some of my ideas for banks?

Ing Direct (if you ask me for a referral, they'll pay me $10!) They pay around 3% on savings accounts.

E*Trade Bank. While there are cheaper stock trades, E*Trade blends them all together seamlessly. They also pay around 3% on savings.

HSBC Direct. Another online bank with a 3% interest.

Finally, I have an account at Bank of America. They pay lousy, lousy. But their cash machines are all over the place.

Just hang onto cash for the next 18-24 months.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Mind" -> The Lack Of Science In Global Warming

The topic for today is how the scientific community tries and comes to agreement about what and is not true.

Science can be more than a bit of religion. Mind you, I am not talking mathematics. Math is often pure and perfect. Science is dirty.

There is a story by Richard Dawkins, the high priest of science, where he describes a classroom setting and a professor and a student that are having a debate over the proof of a concept. When the student showed that his idea was true, the professor graciously said, "Good job, I'm glad to see science happening." Then the classroom breaks into applause at how the scientific method happened.

This nice little anecdotal story belongs in the fiction section of the bookstore. In reality, I see most of science of having as much bias (ignoring math) as any other field or endeavor. The issue is the the "problem of the mind and biases."

The problem with the mind is that it is so powerful in its ability to define reality that most people cannot escape this. It is the same for both Christians and non-Christians. We see what we think that we should see. I am not blaming the scientist, but I am saying that the scientists are no more and no less susceptible than anybody else. Once we expect to see something, we do see it.

So, with that lengthy preamble, let us dive into Global Warming.

Take the advent of global warming as driven by our carbon dioxide footprint. If you listen to public radio, the impacts of global warming is said so often that it must be one of the most often theme that is said.

Drought in Australia? Human carbon dioxide emissions.
Hurricane Ike? Carbon dioxide from humans.
The Netherlands? Soon to be impacted from carbon dioxide when the sea rises.

With the massive impact of the global warming, you would think that the information on this would be widespread and greatly debated. Yet, I have had many conversations about this with people. On both sides of the debate is an amazing lack of knowledge at the lay level.

Even worse, I often find the liberals that believe in global warming, and want the US bought into the Kyoto accord, but have yet little idea of a fundamental tenet:

a. What will this cost?
b. What will be the benefit?
c. What is the payoff?

Instead, there is banal whining about "well our children will have to pay for it." My question is, "What will they have to pay?"

There are the conservatives that don't believe the idea of global warming, but my conservative friends haven't even the most passing knowledge of the data behind those facts. They just say "well I don't feel hotter." They really have abdicated their responsibility to understand the facts.

So, let's talk about global warming at a high level. Conservative or liberal, we should have some idea of the concepts of global warming, and what that means for us.

There are three main ideas, and each much be looked at separately.

Climate change
Global warming
Carbon dioxide (or CO2 in chemistry terms) as the source of global warming

So here is the logic. Man has been introducing industry. This industry releases Carbon Dioxide or CO2. This CO2 increases something called greenhouse gases. These greenhouse gas will trap more heat in the earth's atmosphere. The earth will heat up. However, the heating up just doesn't mean that the earth gets a little hotter. Instead, this increase in heat unleashes cooler weather and hotter weather. It unleashes hurricanes and tornadoes. The impact of the warming is much higher than the movement in temperature.

The first rule of science is to try to watch out for correlation vs causation.

I often am very, very happy that I only have one wife and an exceptionally strong marriage. However, I look at myself and many, many times I think to myself "anybody could live with my wife. She is cheery, full of laughter, and very helpful. What person would ever get divorce living with her?" In other words, I can't take credit for a good marriage. Just because I'm in a good marriage, doesn't mean that I am the reason that the marriage is good.

Climate warming is a bit like this. It is very true that C02 is coming up in concentrations. However, most people don't understand that we measure C02 in parts per MILLION. In other words, CO2 is almost non-existent. If you read any reports on climate change that blames CO2, you will see scary graphs. Almost all of these are shown in highly deceptive fashions designed to create an emotive result.

Let's talk a bit about CO2. Perhaps you have fallen asleep or heard that people will fall asleep in high concentrations of CO2. This is at the 1% level. If the CO2 levels get to 7-10%, then most people will get dizzy. Let's look at a chart that shows the concentration of CO2 at Mauna, HI since 1959. The bottom of the chart is 0% CO2, and the top of the chart is 1%, where we would start to feel drowsy, but nowhere near toxic levels that would immediately kill you.

CO2 is a colorless and odorless gas. For all practical purposes, it very inert. You should be very familiar with it. Every time that you buy a soda pop, the bubbles in the water is carbon dioxide. If CO2 was a highly toxic substance, you certainly would not be drinking it!

Now, let's go back to the chart above.

As can see from the chart, the levels of carbon dioxide have increased and incredible 7 one thousandths of 1% over forty years. In other words, the increases in the percentage of carbon dioxide is unmeasurable with all but the most sophisticated equipment.

Now, mind you, you should not wallow in CO2 as it can create carbonic acid inside of your body. According to Wikipedia, any above one half of one percentage (which is equivalent to half way up the graph) is going to have bad health effects. However, as you can see, the amount of CO2 in the air is basically flat. Now, in recent years, I have read some papers that say "well humans may not do well in environments higher than 400 ppm. However, as far as I'm concerned, the concern that 400 ppm would hurt in anyway is simply laughable.

The best data we have is from people that have extensive times on nuclear submarines. A number of years ago, our sailors were exposed commonly to concentrations of CO2 of 3000-4000 (on averge) ppm without any clear deleterious effects according to research published by the US Navy.

Considering our long term use of CO2 and the lack of any good data showing that it harmful, we should not be worrying about slightly higher levels in our atmosphere.

If you believe in an old earth, as I do, then you can start looking at this question along even longer timelines. Having slightly higher levels of CO2 is a minor nit if you consider that higher levels of CO2 have been the norm over the span of the earth's time line.

Once you start to examine the earth's atmosphere in terms of many millions of years, the story even becomes a lot more clear. This site has some nice graphics of the overall temperature of the earth.

If you look to the right, there is a chart that shows both the CO2 levels and the temperature of the earth. (This chart comes up a bit small, but you can click on it to see a bigger picture. However, let me also describe this to you.)

The chart shows the average temperature of the earth over the last 600 million years. The Co2 levels are in black. The temperature is in blue. Now take a look at 450M years ago. The CO2 levels are very, very high. Yet the temperature plunges down to 12C. This caused what is known as the Ordovician–Silurian Extinction. So now we have an extremely cold earth. So cold that it caused massive change. Yet, the CO2 levels were much, much higher than today's environment. It should strike you as strange. There have been clear times where CO2 has been much, much higher than today, yet the temperature was much, much colder.

Some say that there was a massive bit of gamma radiation coming from a star 6,000 light years away that impacted our earth and this created a special condition that dropped the temperature. They think that it may have stripped away all the ozone, and this somehow triggered a massive ice age. Regardless if this is true or not, the issue is clear. The earth has seen much greater swings in temperature, and some how it has been able to survive them.

In reality, the earth is about as cold as it has ever been. Now, we may not be at the absolute bottom, but we are very, very close to the absolute bottom. The earth is running a little over 12C as an average temperature. This is vastly different that the majority of the past, where the earth have been running at 22C as an average.

We can get a bit more of a picture around this if we look at a much smaller time period. One of the neatest things that we been able to use to determine "short term" time periods are the polar ice caps. Humans had gone to the poles, and we drill down into the ice. The ice is like layers of a cake, with the lower levels being deposited many thousands of years ago. Just like looking at tree rings, we can determine the amount of snow fall, and even the atmosphere conditions that were present. This data can be use to figure out the amount of amount of ice that was deposited. If you look at the chart above, you can see a clear cycle in the ice that is deposited.

There are very clear cycles in how much ice accumulates over the last half of million years. What we are seeing now looks just like the same pattern as we have always seen.

We are actually living in an ice age. This is called Quaternary glaciation in most people's book. The earth simply has been abnormally cold for many millions of years. The problem with ice ages is that we really don't understand what creates them or gets rid of them. There is evidence that we've had ice ages when CO2 has been high, and ice ages when it has been very low.

Inside of these rather large cycles, we have a smaller "ice age" cycle. For example, just 11,000 years ago, we had our ice cycle. We can take core samples from the ice caps to discover the rate of ice accumulation. The chart above is a chart from Wikipedia. You can see that roughly every 100,000 to 150,000 years, ice either builds up or doesn't build up. The movement from build to non-build is very quickly.

With or without a massive influx from humans, it is clearer that we have seen a massive change in how much ice has been building up over the last 11,000 years.

Really, if the earth is warming because of a greenhouse effect, it is not carbon dioxide driving this. There is really one greenhouse gas that we need to worry about.

That is water vapor.

Here is a nice little chart from this web site.

One of the best things about the industry that I am in is the tools that we use to find "root cause." Let's us say that you have a customer that wants a hard drive that fails less. So, you have customers start to ship you the hard drives back and asks you why they failed.

What you will find out that hard drives fail for a variety of things. So, we graph out all the ways a hard drive fails, and we have found that we always need to start to focus on fixing the issues that are the "top hitters."

We need to do the same with the greenhouse gases that we have. We need to figure out what is the contribution to the "problem" of greenhouse gases.

So, what is the #1 greenhouse gas? The answer is water vapor. As a major of fact, water vapor so dominates the results, everything else is inconsequential to the equation.

Right around 3.5% of the green house gas is from carbon dioxide. 95% of the effect of the green house gas is caused by good old water vapor. The problem become even more clear when we start to talk about man's contribution to CO2. This is estimated as anywhere from man is creating 30% of the problem for the increases in the amount of CO2 that is in the air down to around 3-4% of the CO2 that is in the air is due to man. There has always been CO2 in the atmosphere, and what is exceptionally clear is that we are at a very, very low level of CO2 in the air in this time.

As you might expect, one of the major issue that we have is no clear cause and effect of man's output of carbon dioxide and the concentration of the carbon dioxide that is in the air. The chart from the side is from this site.You can see that there are two lines. One of the lines show the concentration of CO2 in the air. The other line shows the impact of man's introduction of CO2 into the air after the industrial revolution.

This is one of the ironic charts that people hope to show the "horrible impact of man," and if you can just read the chart, you can see how it directly does not support the ideas.

The first curve is the impact of concentration of CO2 in the air. If you compare this chart to my earlier chart, you will see that they nicely line up with each other, with one exception. This chart cut the Y-Axis so that it starts at 280 ppm before the industrial age. This means that our atmosphere was approximately .03% (3 one hundredths of one percent) CO2. Now, after hundreds of years of carbon emission, the level has gone up to .04% (4 one hundredths of one percent).

By the way, you should be able to clearly see that before the industrial revolution, the CO2 in the air was going up. Why? What was causing it to go up, even though we had no massive influx of human activity to drive it.

Now, lets take a couple of key data points off of the chart, and you will have to work with me. Often when we see a chart like this, we simply don't understand that it drives an emotive reaction. We see two lines going up, and we say "oh, they must be related." A way of getting around this is to look at case examples of the data off the graph.

In 1950:

*The CO2 concentration was 300 ppm
*The man made Metric Tons was 1 million

In 2000:

*The CO2 concentration was 370 ppm
*The man made M Metric Tons was 6.5 million

The contribution from made went up 650%. The free CO2 went up 23%. Anybody can see that if the two numbers are correlated the leverage between them is tiny. In other words, man had to ramp his production like mad, and even then the impact on the CO2 levels look to be tiny.

What you will often here is "well CO2 is up 23%! But remember that it is water vapor that is driving force in the greenhouse effect. This means that CO2 may have gone from 4% of the green house gases to 5% of the green house gas in the atmosphere. Big deal. This is not the primary problem that we have.

We can go back to before the industrial revolution, and if man is 100% responsible for all of the increases in the CO2 levels increasing (but since the levels were rising before our industries arrived, this is highly doubtful), we would be able to "lower" the green house gas by 1%.

No matter how you cut the data, man can not simply impact our global enough to seriously impact global climate conditions to the extent of the concerns that are being voiced.

Now, let us add an even more jade eye to the subject. Let's say that we give in, and agree with all the dire projections that are being given out. Wikipedia has a nice chart of all the models that are out and the total increase in temperature that could happen. Here is the chart.

100 years from now, the earth is going to be somewhere between 2 to 4.5" degrees hotter than it is today. Shocking. How will we ever survive such a massive swing in our temperature.

I'm obviously being sarcastic. When compared with the span of the earth, an increase in temperature of this swing is no where outside the norms of what we might expect. Will it cause us to re-examine where we live? The answer is yes. Is it a global catastrophe? The answer is no. Even under these highly pessimistic models. The earth has been colder. The earth has been hotter. We were able to survive all of this.

Now, you might look at me and say, "well that guy does not believe in all this stuff. I bet he is driving a big SUV."

The answer is no. As far as I know, I am probably the most "green" person that I know. Only, I don't do it because I believe in global warming. I do it because of two things:

1. Pollution
2. Peak Oil

Even if Global Warming and CO2 impacts are not meaningful, the same behavior that solves for the perceived problems of Green house gases, also solves truly difficult problems.

We are doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

As a final shot, here is a short video by Bob Carter. Well worth your time.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"Mind" -> The Disturbing Surfwise

Doc Paskowitz and his family is the subject of a fascinating documentary called Surfwise. This documentary is available on Netflix direct streaming, and if you don't want to deal with spoilers, I suggest that you see the film then read the rest of the post. For those that don't mind a bit of revelation, you can read the following:

Doc, as everybody seems to call him, was a medical doctor that got his degree from Stanford. He was pursuing a very successful career, when he started to experience panic attacks. Because of this, he flipped out. He basically walked away from it all, and decided to start surfing. Through a series of adventures, he eventually meets his third wife. One of the main points of this relationship was a very robust sex life. From here, he plotted a life that is far different than any that I have heard before.

His wife and he started to have a family. A big family. 9 children with 8 boys and 1 daughter. Rather than living a normal life, he placed all nine children into a very small trailer, then started to drive all of North America and some of of South America. He would go every where with his family and they would surf. With hardly a penny to their name, he considered it a great adventure for the family.

The father was a dictator. He insisted that all of the children surfed. However, all of the children learned to love the sport. However, he also decided that sugar was absolutely horrible. Their main staple in the morning consisted of some type of feed that Doc would buy for them. It was unclear exactly where this feed came from. One of the brother on NPR stated that the children thought that it might have been horse feed or bird feed. For dinner, they would have some type of soup or beans.

One doesn't have 9 children without having sex. And in the movie all the children seemed to hate the fact that their parents would have loud sex all of the time. After all, there was 11 of them in and extremely small trailer, and everyone could see what was happening every night.

Doc declared that there was knowledge and there was wisdom. Sending children to school only gave knowledge and no wisdom. Therefore, none of the children went to school. There is a particularly heart melting scene when one of the children describes the fact that his desire to go into medicine was crush when he found out that he was so far behind that he could never get a regular college degree. He would never be a doctor.

This is not to say that the children were dumb. They read a lot, even if they didn't do much math. Opera was played all of the time, and several of the children went into music later in life.

When the children was in the family with the iron dictator running the trailer, everything was happy. The main issue is that having an iron hand from somebody else on your life only creates children that had no ability to govern themselves.  Eventually, the children decided that they had enough, and one by one they all left the circle that they stood in.  As they left the family, they really left the family.  While some of them were a little closer than others, the film basically shows that the family had been in each other's way for so many years that they could no longer stand to be intimate any more.

I think we have all been tempted to leave our current life behind us. We desire to leave the pressure of our lives behind, and take off in a trailer to live our own life. This film is highly instrumental in showing the pleasure and the price for living this type of life.  Children leave the family social structure never to return, and at best they can be called quirky.  At worse, they can be called highly disfuntional.

What is my take away from the film is that living the free life messes you up. Responsibility is not something to flee from, but something to be embraced. Keeping your children separated from the world is not to say that they will be safe from the world.

Hebrew's 12 tells us

"No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."

Your children deserve to be treated with love and respect. Sometimes this means that you need to get them to do their school work, and clean their rooms. But this film shows that their is a limit to how hard to push. You cannot make your children into your own image.  You cannot ask them to turn their back on the world.  What we must do is teach our children how to stand in the world.

Moderation is a virtue. We should all experience more of it.