Will Facebook and Google Violate Your Privacy?

There’s a growing drumbeat of worry over the fact that Facebook and Google (as well as Amazon and Apple) know more and more about us every day and might violate our privacy (perhaps unintentionally) in their efforts to continue growing revenues and earnings.

PrivacyCertainly the risk is there, and not only from internal actors, as the Equifax hackers so clearly demonstrated.

But I’m not worried, and here’s why.

First, I’m confident enough that the increasing attention devoted to the problem will eventually minimize the risk. Contrary Opinion philosophy states that the real thing you should be worried about is what no one else is worried about.

And second, I’m optimistic that as these companies mature, and as the communitarian do-no-evil ethos of millennials gains increasing weight, these companies will find more and more ways to use the vast amounts of information they gather for the common good!

We already benefit substantially from Google’s intelligence, without paying a penny. Information of all sorts is available on demand (and we already take it for granted.)

But I can envision even greater benefits as these giants learn more about us (both individually and communally), and use artificial intelligence to guide us to making ever-smarter decisions in our lives, from the foods we eat, to the media we consume, to the places we go, to the people we socialize with.

artificial intelligenceThe fact is, we are entering the age of artificial intelligence, and this nascent age will be equally as disruptive (in a positive way) as all the previous revolutions in human history, from the agrarian to the industrial to the digital.

I look forward to it!

Gun Control

More than 33,000 people in the U.S. die from gunshots each year. That’s 90 per day.

Two-thirds of these are suicides, which skew white and older—and male.

Those murdered, on the other hand, skew young and black—and male.

Only in mass shootings, as in Las Vegas, are 50% of the victims women.

And mass shootings aren’t a particularly big problem, compared to the whole. The 59 deaths in Las Vegas are less than a full “regular” day. But mass shootings get more media coverage, not least because in most cases, the victims are all blameless; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here’s another fact.

Roughly 40,200 people died in car crashes in the U.S. last year, or more than 110 per day. That was an increase of 6% from the year before, almost certainly due to people trying to drive and use their cell phones at the same time.

Happily, a solution to that problem is evolving, as self-driving cars become increasingly capable.

But where is the solution to our gun problem?

Do we have a problem at all?

We certainly have a lot of guns. In fact, we have more guns per person—1.2—than any other country in the world. (Right behind us on the list are Serbia with .76, Cyprus with .36 and Uruguay with .32.)

With 5% of the world’s population, U.S. residents own roughly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.

But we are far from the highest in the rate of deaths by firearms. In fact, we’re eleventh, trailing Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Swaziland, Guatemala, Jamaica, Colombia, Brazil, Panama, and Uruguay. Still, eleventh is a pretty rotten position, especially considering the fact that we are one of the richest and most developed countries in the world.

The firearms-related death rate is lower in Nicaragua, Serbia, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico, to name a few.

So yes, the numbers say that we do have a problem.

And the chart shows that the problem is greatest in rural states, where residents tend to have more guns…

Gunshot Deaths

…and where politicians are most likely to defend the rights of citizens to own guns.

In part, this is natural, a remnant of our Wild West culture. Some people still need to carry guns to defend themselves from wild animals.

But I believe there are too many guns in our country, and too many guns in the hands of unstable people.

I believe that eventually this will change; the frontier mentality will slowly change.

But it will take time, and the road to change leads through our politicians and the National Rifle Association, which in my mind has been an accomplice to all these firearms-related deaths.

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In Defense of Air Travel

The New York Times recently ran a large story, complete with photographs, by a woman who criss-crossed the U.S. on airplanes four times over eight days, taking 12 flights on four different airlines—and then wrote about the experience. You can read it here.

flyingPredictably, she wrote about how the experience was dehumanizing, tiring, crowded, etc.—things we’ve all heard before. But that, of course, was exactly her reason for taking 12 flights in eight days. She had no other purpose in taking these flights than getting material for the story. And then, having achieved her goal, she complained about it!

Now, I recognize that one reason people love to complain about air travel is that misery loves company, so complaining strengthens social bonds.

But I think that everyone who complains about the poor food, the tight legroom, the crowds, etc. should first do an honest self-appraisal. When they bought their seats, what factors did they consider?

Chances are, they considered two factors above all—schedule and cost. And then they chose the cheapest flights that would get them where they wanted to go when they wanted to go. And thus they ended up surrounded by hordes of other people who did exactly the same thing.

Factors these fliers could have considered are the airline’s safety record, on-time record, food quality, lost baggage record and seat width and pitch, but to most people, price is the number factor.

And the airlines know this! They don’t squeeze us into tight spaces because they’re cruel and insensitive. They do it because they’re trying to give customers what we prize above everything else. And what we want is to get where we’re going, for the lowest possible cost.

They’ve tried giving everyone more legroom, but it didn’t pay off. And they’ve tried spending more on food and passing the cost along, but that didn’t work either.

But low prices are working very well—and part of this is due to the deregulation of air travel in 1978, which opened the gates to competition.

In 1965, no more than 20 percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane. By 2000, 50 percent of the country took at least one round-trip flight a year. From the 1970s to 2011, the number of air passengers tripled.

And a lot of it is due to falling prices.

airline ticket pricesIn the U.S., there’s some worry that the big carriers—American, Delta and United—have a stranglehold on the business. But I see plenty of competition, including Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin, and Spirit.

And for international routes, there are a slew of low-cost competitors muscling in, including Norway Air, WOW and Turkish Air.

In my mind, the biggest problem in the airline industry is our antiquated air traffic control system. As a part of the federal government, it is by nature bigger and slower moving than a private (or public-private) enterprise could be. Canada, for example, has a more advanced system than ours.

In the meantime, I continue to enjoy every flight I take. I think that simply being up there is a miracle, and the fact that more and more people are able to do it at lower and lower cost is a triumph of our (relatively) free market.

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Uber vs. Fasten

Everyone knows Uber. It’s the 800-pound gorilla of the ride-sharing business, operating in 570 cities worldwide, and enabling more than 40 million rides per month. Uber has changed the world in a good way.

Old Uber logoBut Uber has been under pressure lately.

Most fast-growing companies hit bumps in the road as they grapple with the demands of managing a mushrooming workforce

But Uber’s troubles include charges of sexual harassment, insufficient employee diversity, and a very aggressive corporate culture that prioritized growth over everything else.

New Uber logoStill, most people will keep using Uber because it’s better than the alternative, taxis.

In some cities, though, you can’t use Uber, and one of those cities is Austin, Texas, where I spent a few days last week.

You see, in May 2016, Uber (and Lyft) stopped operations in Austin, Texas after citizens voted to institute a background check system on all ride-sharing firms that included fingerprinting drivers.

So very quickly, alternatives popped up, including RideAustin, which is a non-profit homegrown product and Fasten, which was originally developed in Boston (Cambridge) and is still an alternative to Uber there.

FastenI used Fasten five times while in Austin and here’s what I found.

Fasten is just as easy to use as Uber. The main differences from the customer’s point of view are that you see the fare running in real time on your phone as you ride, and you can leave a tip for the driver through the app at the end of the trip.

The main difference from the driver’s point of view is that Fasten is less greedy. Fasten takes a fixed $0.99 commission for every trip completed by a driver, while Uber takes 20-38% of the fare. Perhaps this is why the drivers I had in Austin seemed happier!

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The Experts Were Wrong Again

La La Land was the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Instead, Moonlight won.

La La Landmoonlight

Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to win the Presidential election in 2016. Instead, Donald Trump won.

Hillary ClintonDonald Trump

Everyone “knew” that if Trump did manage to win, the stock market would dive. Instead, the stock market soared.

Everybody “knew” that sensible people in England would never vote to leave the European Union. Instead, Brexit happened.

Day after day, week after week, people assume that experts know what will happen. And day after day, week after week, the experts prove that predicting the future is notoriously difficult.

Yet people continue to listen to experts!

WHY IS THAT?

1. Because we tend to give experts more credence than they deserve. The “Argument from Authority” is a fallacy that derives from people giving undeserved respects to the opinions of “experts,” especially when those experts are opining about matters that are not in their field of expertise.

2 Because we like being part of a group of people that thinks similarly. Being lonely is uncomfortable; having other people agree with us feels good.

And most of all—

3. Because thinking differently is difficult! It’s much easier to let your thoughts wander down a familiar road than to create a new trail unfamiliar terrain.

Contrary Opinion, however, teaches that it pays to think differently, especially when the vast majority of people have succumbed to groupthink.

If everyone believes Apple (AAPL) is going higher, it may be a good time to short APPL, simply because buyers perceptions will have pushed the stock higher, and at some point there will be no new buyers of AAPL left to push the stock higher.

If everyone believes that companies will go bankrupt, as they feared in the Great Recession of 2008-2009, stocks will get pushed to extreme lows—and the brave person who stands up at the bottom and says, “I think you’re all wrong; I’m betting that stocks will go up from here.” can make a killing.

And if everyone believes the U.S. is doomed to a future of increasingly slow growth, simply because that’s what they see in the rear view mirror, it might be quite profitable to bet on the alternative.

Golden Toilets

The world doesn’t need a golden toilet, so why make one?

As art of course.

Contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan announced back in April that he would make one to be displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And not just displayed but actually hooked up to plumbing and used by regular visitors—with a security guard standing watch, one presumes.

gold-toiletBut then in May, Cattelan admitted that the foundry in Italy had run into unexpected difficulties in the casting process. So the Guggenheim is still waiting. Luckily they have other toilets that are working fine.

But the mere fact that the art market can support such silliness as a golden toilet is to me a sign that there’s a lot off loose money floating around in these circles.

And my perspective as a student of long investment cycles means I’m alert to parallels in history.

In this case, I found one right here in Salem, at the exhibit Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age.

gold commodeThis lovely item is a portable commode. Made in Japan, it was brought to the Netherlands in the 17th century when that civilization was at its peak, and it made its way to the Chateaux de Versailles in the 18th century as the French grew ascendant.

The commode is made of wood covered in laquer, with gilded mounts and mother-of–pearl inlay. On the inside, it’s luxurious red velvet (a velvet throne!).

I have no idea what it cost originally, and the folks at the Guggenheim aren’t talking about what their golden toilet (funded by private money) is costing either. But the parallels are obvious.

Lastly, getting back to the silliness of today’s art market, which one of these golden toilets would you prefer to display in your house?

Solar Powered Airplane

A solar powered airplane just flew from Hawaii to California, in the process taking us one step closer to the future, where clean, abundant, free solar power increasingly replaces dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.

solar powered plane, Solar Impulse 2Solar Impulse 2, which seats one person and has wings longer than those of a Boeing 747, originally took off from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in March 2015. Since then, piloted alternately by Bertrand Picard and André Borschberg, the plane has stopped in Muscat, Oman; Ahmadabad, India; Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma); Chongqing, China; Nanking, China; Nagoya, Japan and now Mountain View, California.

solar powered plane, Solar Impulse 2The leg from Japan to Hawaii took five days and nights (117 hours), while the leg from Hawaii to California took three days and two nights (62 hours) — which included a couple of hours flying above the Golden Gate bridge creating photo opportunities while waiting for night to fall.

It’s a slow way to fly certainly; the plane’s maximum speed is just 87 miles per hour, and it’s usually flown even slower to conserve energy. Plus, conditions need to be near perfect for takeoff and landing, with very little wind—which often means taking off at dawn and landing at night.

Still, the plane, which is powered by 17,000 solar cells that feed four 41 kWh lithium polymer batteries that each power one propeller, is breaking records. And its human pilots (Borschberg flew the Japan to Hawaii route, while Picard flew the Hawaii to California route) are doing the same. While most people complain about being stuck in a plane seat for longer than a few hours, these men do it for days at a time — and they don’t watch any movies!

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the plane’s long-distance flights is the way it needs to climb to high altitude (roughly 30,000 feet) while the sun is out, so that it can drift slowly downward overnight, and then use battery power to maintain altitude while waiting for the power of the sun’s rays to power another climb to altitude. The following graph, which depicts both the altitude and the battery power stored during the California leg, shows that cycle.

solar power cycle

The plane is scheduled to make three more stops in U.S. before crossing the Atlantic, and if you get a chance, I urge you to see it. The future is bright!

Oxygen Causes Cancer

Healthcare professionals have known for decades that there is a negative correlation between lung cancer and altitude; the higher the place you live, the less likely you are to get lung cancer.

But until now, they never knew why.

Then last month brought the news that a major study—which corrected for all kinds of factors like age, education, race, gender, occupation, weight, alcohol use, meat consumption and more—identified the main factor as oxygen.

oxygenBecause there’s less oxygen at higher altitudes, there’s less lung cancer. Specifically, for each 1,000-meter rise in elevation, there were 7.23 fewer lung cancer cases per 100,000 people.

Now, that’s not a lot. Smoking is still far and away a bigger factor in your risk of developing lung cancer. But it’s something. And it makes sense!

Oxygen is what energizes our cells, and like any fuel, it creates waste products, notable free radicals that can mutate DNA, increase cancer risk and speed tumor growth.

Furthermore, this finding supports, tangentially, the free-radical theory of aging—that organisms age over time because of damage from free radicals, molecules that have unpaired valence electrons (frequently oxygen).

Drug companies already do a booming business in antioxidants targeting people’s growing awareness of the risk of free radicals, and it will be interesting to see how this new knowledge of oxygen’s role in lung cancer will be incorporated into our health routines.

Red Meat Causes Cancer

When I saw online that the World Health Organization (WHO) had concluded that processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat might be carcinogenic as well, I clicked to read the whole story.

baconAnd soon after, I was presented an ad for Armour bacon.

That’s how the Internet works.

But I was definitely not an appropriate target for the bacon ad, because I haven’t eaten bacon in decades (it’s the chemicals that scared me first). And I haven’t eaten red meat in years.

I came to the same conclusions as the WHO years ago after reading the book “The China Study,” a book by T. Colin Campbell that was published in 2005 and has sold over a million copies.

Now, even the U.S. 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is on board: its recommendations from February of this year said, “a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.”

Granted, part of the reason for the committee’s recommendation to reduce red meat consumption was its impact on the environment, a factor that some argue was outside its purview.

In any case, the growing case to reduce meat consumption has the meat lobbyists up in arms. This is their livelihood we’re talking about, and they’re not going down without a fight.

Leading the way, apparently, will be the North American Meat Institute (formed in 2015 via a merger of the American Meat Institute and the North American Meat Association, which in turn was formed in 2012 via a merger of the National Meat Association and the North American Meat Purveyors.)

Note: the head of the North American Meat Institute is Barry Carpenter, who’s been leading the organization (and its predecessor) since 2007, following his retirement from a 37-year career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s got friends in high places, but not at the WHO! And he’s clearly got a fairly hefty budget, though I was unable to discover how hefty.

In any case, the trend away from processed meat and red meat is clearly under way (though still early), and I look forward to watching the trend’s evolution.

Meat Trends

Strandbeests

“What is Art?”

That’s the age-old question that came to me when viewing Theo Jansen’s unique creations at the Peabody Essex Museum recently.

Jansen is a Dutchman who’s spent 25 years working with PVC conduit—material usually used by electricians—to create increasingly complex machines that “walk,” either with or without human assistance.

Because they walk, they seem a bit alive (as opposed to things on wheels.)

And because the best place for them to walk is the beach, they’re called Strandbeests, which in English translates to beach beasts, or beach animals.

You can see more here.

I had the opportunity to push a smaller Strandbeest back and forth across a carpeted floor inside the Peabody Essex Museum, but the video isn’t good enough to share. Here’s a detail.

strandbeestsJansen talks about the Strandbeests evolving over time, but it’s really him who’s done all the work and made all the improvements, and while he would like the animals to keep evolving at the hands of others, the odds are that they’re at (or near) the peak of their evolution now.

Jansen is 67 years old, and having his moment of fame among the U.S. art world, but after this what?

When Jansen is gone will his creatures “survive?”

And—is it art?