Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year’s Resolution

It is the time of year when many people make new year’s resolutions, and I have one myself. In 2012 I want to do better at staying above the fray, looking toward long-term solutions rather than arguing each day’s hottest controversies.

Contrary to what you might see in many of my posts in 2011, not to mention much of the writings of other economists, it is not an economist’s job to offer opinions on whatever political feud or business debacle people are discussing that day. Even technical insight is of little value unless it helps people make better decisions. I said last year that economists should be more like sports commentators, creating a narrative for the flow of events and for what might happen next. That would at least help people understand what decisions are there to be made. It is no accident that sportscasters sit ten meters above the playing field. They could hardly tell you how the game was going if they were down on the field in the middle of the action. It is a perspective I will try to remember in the new year as I comment on life, the world, and matters of economics.

Friday, December 30, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

To back up their various court cases against Bank of New York Mellon, government entities reportedly have inside information from the bank, including a detailed description of the methodology the bank used to generate phantom currency transactions. The bank is accused of distorting currency transactions in order to charge state pension funds billions of dollars in extra fees.

Verizon Wireless seemed to be taking a page from Bank of America’s book. It was at the end of the third quarter that Bank of America announced new transaction fees that helped to inspire Bank Transfer Day. Exactly three months later, Verizon Wireless announced a new bill-paying transaction fee. The move sparked a similar kind of uproar, along with an FCC investigation, and the backlash led to a quick reversal from Verizon. Verizon’s move came at the same time that lawmakers in the United Kingdom are working on new rules to curb the same kind of transaction fee abuses.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A More Focused Christmas

I wrote last week about my plan to give pies instead of factory-made presents for Christmas. I was not the only one cutting back on the excesses of Christmas this year. It seemed that people broadly were trying to make Christmas a more focused holiday this year.

  • There were at least 40 percent fewer Christmas lights in my local area. The mild fall weather and higher electric rates must be a factor, but are not enough by themselves to explain such a large decline.
  • Retail Christmas shopping traffic started late, only six days before Thanksgiving from what I could see, then fell off more than ever in the two or three weeks after Thansgiving weekend, picking up again just in the last five days before Christmas.
  • During the Christmas shopping season, many stores had no Christmas decorations at all on display. Others had cut back to decorations less than half the size of last year.
  • On Christmas Eve, the pope warned specifically about the commercialization of Christmas.
  • After Christmas, there was heavy retail traffic on December 26, but not much in the days since.
  • After Christmas, Sears and Kmart wasted no time in announcing a new round of store closings.
  • Stores wasted no time moving out Christmas-specific merchandise. I personally bought some Christmas items that had been marked down by about half on December 24 and again on December 27. In other stores that I visited in the days after Christmas, stores that in years past would have spent weeks clearing out excess Christmas items, there was no sign of any Christmas items remaining.
  • In a survey, about two thirds of U.S. workers were not taking any days off this week other than the holidays scheduled by their employers. I did not take any days off myself.

I saw no sign on Christmas Eve and Christmas that people were taking the holiday itself any less seriously. But people seemed determined not to let Christmas spill over across the entire month of December. The result was a more focused and arguably a more meaningful holiday.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Adjusting the Television Picture

The large-screen television wave had obviously passed its peak at the beginning of November, when I predicted falling prices, especially after Christmas. The television business, though, was waiting to see how the Christmas shopping season would work out. Now that it is winding down, they are on the verge of panicking. According to a new New York Times story, Sony is exasperated at its continuing losses on televisions. After two years of tinkering, it is planning more drastic steps. For its part, Google doesn’t seem to know how to rescue its foray into the television business, which was largely forgotten by the time the Christmas season rolled around.

Best Buy drew large crowds on Black Friday with low prices on televisions, but with the low prices, probably lost money on many of the units. It was a process that was repeated on Boxing Day, and further price cuts are inevitable next month as manufacturers are forced to cut their prices just to get products into already overstocked stores. With near-zero margins on televisions, Best Buy is reporting earnings one third lower than the year before.

Sears and Kmart were counting on strong Christmas-season television sales, along with other electronics. That did not materialize, and the company will be closing about 120 stores, it announced yesterday.

Televisions were expected to be a large after-Christmas item, but aside from Boxing Day itself, foot traffic at after-Christmas sales has been poor, as shoppers seem eager to put the Christmas shopping season behind them. With shoppers not paying attention, price reductions may not be enough to move the overhang of television inventory.

And there is a separate concern hanging over the television business. A few observers are predicting a move by Apple into self-contained television units in 2012. If, as rumored, Apple can take a 37-inch Sharp display and make it more cool than a large-screen television by making it easier to use, that could add further pressure to an already overextended category.

It could end up being good news, though. If Apple can convince consumers that the old-fashioned, 100-button, channel-surfing remote control is just too complicated, it could drive a new wave of shoppers into stores looking for something simpler.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Was the Biggest Disaster Ever

It’s no secret that 2011 was the story of one disaster after another. There were floods and typhoons in Queensland, a historic earthquake in New Zealand, a series of nuclear meltdowns in Japan, and it went on from there.

Add it all up around the world and it was the most costly year of disasters ever recorded by the insurance industry. That is only one way of measuring disasters, but by any broad measure, 2011 was a year of an extraordinary number of disasters.

I personally experienced, only a few days apart, an earthquake and a hurricane. I was far enough from the center of each, but they were nevertheless very worrisome events.

That was in August, and by then, people had become so accustomed to a steady stream of disaster headlines that many were dismissive of the worst hurricane and earthquake to strike my local area in decades.

The coming year may have been tipped as a year of major, sweeping changes, but there is reason to hope that we may have better luck in 2012 when it comes to disasters.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Near-Record Year in Arctic Sea Ice

Over the past year, Arctic sea ice has alternated between record and near-record low levels. In early September, the extent of sea ice either hit an all-time low or came close, depending on the model you used to slice the data up. Between June and September, cargo ships crossed the Arctic Ocean as if they had been doing it all along. The year ends with ice extent near the lowest it has ever been at this time of year. It is harder to guess at the thickness of sea ice, but the ice this year probably has also been the thinnest ever.

And all this happened with nothing more than the usual fluctuations in the weather. No one can predict when the Arctic sea ice could melt away completely because it would take only one spring of extreme weather conditions to make that happen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Give and Get Pie

Spoiler alert: This post describes Christmas presents that have not yet been delivered.

As I write this, Christmas Eve has turned to Christmas in much of the world. The pope took the occasion as an opportunity to decry the commercialization of Christmas, urging people to see through the bright lights and tinsel.

This is, of course, not a new thought. The satirical Christmas rock band I play in, Bah and the Humbugs, makes fun of the commercialization of Christmas every single year. But what, specifically, can one person do to make Christmas less of a competitive commercial experience?

Last year, I wrote the song “Give and Get Pie” to urge people to consider giving more personal, handmade gifts, such as pie, at Christmas. Right away, people commented that it sounded like the title of a Paul McCartney song (as if I hadn’t been aware of that), and attempted to sing the song to the tune of “Live and Let Die.” The mashup was something of a train wreck, but at least they were putting their own thought and attention into it. I remember those moments more vividly than any factory-made product anyone gave me last year.

When I wrote the song, I had meant pie as just an example, but when I thought about it, it seemed an especially good example of a handmade Christmas gift. Pie is part of the Christmas tradition already, and pie is a consumable, perishable product, so it can’t add to people’s clutter from year to year. This year, I decided I would try to live up to the idea of “Give and Get Pie” by giving pies for Christmas.

As I write this, the pies are in the oven. I have never baked so many pies at once. I do realize it won’t quite work out if everyone I give a pie to also gives me a pie. I couldn’t possibly eat that much pie myself! If it comes to that, maybe we could arrange to make smaller pies. But if some of the pie ends up going to waste, that risk is no different from that of any other Christmas gift. With pie, at least, the financial consequences are slight. The cost of materials is about $3 per pie. Even if you were to go for something extravagant, it could not exceed $10. This is not much compared to gifts I have given in the past. Even the time commitment is not extravagant. If I end up spending 1 hour per pie, that is less time than I have sometimes spent agonizing my way along the store shelves trying to find a suitable gift to buy.

After people started trying to sing “Give and Get Pie” to the tune of “Live and Let Die,” I had to help them out by writing proper parody lyrics that would actually go with that tune. For those Paul McCartney fans who want to try to sing along, it starts out something like this:

When you were young and you wrote out a Christmas list
You used to say give and get gifts
But if this endless Christmas commercialization
Makes you give in and cry
Say give and get pie.

The pies are almost done, so I have to go. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

The United Kingdom is taking steps to eliminate surprise card payment surcharges tacked on by sellers. These can sometimes amount to more than $100 for a credit card payment.

Bank of America fell below $5 for half of a trading session this week. The low price put it in the “danger zone” in which many traders are prohibited from buying the stock on margin. That makes a stock harder to buy and can lead to further erosion in its price. The stock recovered the next day, in part because of reports of a legal settlement, which saw the bank’s mortgage lending unit pay less than $1 billion to settle charges of systemic discriminatory lending practices.

Kidnappers With a Conscience

It is so much harder to be a kidnapper after you let slip that you have a conscience and don’t really want to hurt your victims. All of a sudden, you have to start negotiating everything. That is the predicament the House Republican caucus will find itself in when the next session of Congress begins in a few weeks.

All year long the House Republicans have been holding the national economy hostage, threatening to blow up the train if they didn’t get their way. In July, having put the U.S. government into bankruptcy, they issued a series of demands, and when those were met, responded by issuing more demands. It was more of a tantrum than a negotiating tactic.

It was the same thing this week, but the outcome was different this time. There was something obviously off about the performance when the House Republicans stabbed their Senate colleagues in the back, then held a gun to Santa’s head and exclaimed, “What’s in it for us?” The tantrum was real, but the threats were hollow. In the end, left alone in the house with the biggest bomb they could have had on their Christmas wish list, the House Republicans failed to light the fuse.

It is the same Congress that comes back in a couple of weeks, and it will be inevitably be the same pattern of brinksmanship, but it won’t be quite the same after this. It can’t be, now that the whole world knows that the House won’t really blow up the U.S. economy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Crystal Effects at Absolute Zero

Crystals have loomed large in extreme physics this year.

Crystals have been implicated in the “faster than light” performance of CERN neutrinos. As the tiny particles passed through mountains on their way from Switzerland to Italy, they went “faster” than they would have in empty space, possibly the result of the crystals they passed through.

Separately, crystal effects are being used to cool atoms to absolute zero. A crystalline lattice created by lasers is used to bump out the warmest atoms, leaving just the coolest ones behind. This technique cools the atoms to about one billionth of a kelvin, or about as close to absolute zero as has ever been observed.

The resulting arrangement of atoms has not been formally designated as a crystal, but it probably is a crystal, based on the way physicists are describing it. Crystals are important because of the way they distort spacetime, producing coherent arrangements of energy. The coherent light of a laser beam is the best known example of this, but as more specific examples are discovered and studied, physicists may come to a more general understanding of the effect.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Avoiding the Sour Notes

Imagine if the band got together for the Christmas and just sat around. Afraid of possibly playing the wrong song or the wrong note, the musicians put off their music-making until it was too late to play anything.

That is what this year’s economic policymaking has been like. The United States urgently needs to add renewable energy capacity, end tax subsidies for unproductive activities like residential construction, find out what kind of financial threat is posed by derivatives, reduce the burden of health care costs on workers and employers, and rebuild its transportation infrastructure. These issues have been looming for at least 7 years, and are needed before the economy can be restored to a semblance of health, yet not all of the basic, first-day steps have been taken yet. Instead, Washington is paralyzed in endless arguments over unrelated or even counterproductive measures. Congress, for example, voted yesterday to phase out unemployment compensation, a move that will probably just be undone next month.

And, according to Nouriel Roubini, the situation is no better in Europe and China. Leaders there too are politically paralyzed and are responding to economic imbalances by kicking the can down the road. This may not work in 2012, he warns: “If the world’s biggest economies continue to play the same game and try to kick the cans further down the road for another year, the cans will become bigger and heavier and eventually hit a brick wall.”

It was the same situation in the lead-in to the Great Depression. The stresses and imbalances were obvious. Political leaders, afraid of hitting a sour note, stood by and did nothing. And citizens and pundits essentially sat back and waited for the king to fix everything — an attitude that you might have thought had gone out of style in the 1700s.

Given the current political pressures, governments cannot be expected to solve the problems the world economy faces. It will require individual action. The countries that wait for their political leaders to fix things will be the ones that have a hard landing in 2012, then fall behind as the new global economy begins to take shape.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Time for Something New at T-Mobile

AT&T’s bid to buy and shut down competitor T-Mobile didn’t get far, and AT&T has officially killed the deal. Now T-Mobile is forced to reinvent itself. It lost nearly a million subscribers while the AT&T buyout was pending, because people don’t like making a two-year commitment to an operation that is preparing to close. This is a financial blow, but by cutting some of the ties to the past, it puts the company in the best position of any wireless carrier to transform itself into the wireless company of the future, based on the assets it has.

As the most obvious example, since T-Mobile doesn’t own lots of spectrum rights, it could be the first phone company to finally make good use of wifi. Whatever T-Mobile’s answer is, though, now is the time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Payroll Taxes and the After-Christmas Sales

A temporary payroll tax cut looks likely to die in the House of Representatives today, with the House Republican caucus drawing a line in the sand. With it, extended unemployment benefits will also expire. As these measures expire December 31, both the temporary payroll tax cut and unemployment compensation eligibility end. The unemployment compensation will surely be taken up again when the next session of Congress convenes in January, though probably in a reduced form.

For the payroll tax cut, though, there probably isn’t any politically feasible way forward. The Senate, which passed the extension by a vote of 89–10 only to be blindsided by the House, is unlikely to try the same thing again. The expiration of the tax cut will have the economic effect of a 2 percent pay cut for workers, which may translate into about a 5 percent decline at retail, along with a drastic decline in saving. The expiration of unemployment benefits, even if they are revived after a few weeks, will also have a chilling effect on household spending.

This is an immediate worry for retailers, which found themselves overextended for the holiday season even before a dismal last weekend before Christmas. With consumers facing a take-home pay cut and the loss of unemployment benefits, after-Christmas sales may be sparsely attended, leaving retailers with merchandise they can’t sell.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Physics of Polar Warming and Extreme Weather

For those who won’t believe the link between polar warming and mid-latitude weather until they see the physics, Jeff Masters has a quick summary of it in the post “Our extreme weather: Arctic changes to blame?

To see the connection, you have to look at the way temperature and pressure give rise to wind speed and direction. The less consistently cold Arctic decreases the speed of the jet stream, and this is making a jumble out of the upper-level winds. The jet stream is the high-speed, high-energy upper-level wind pattern that keeps the other upper-level winds in line. When it has less energy, upper-level winds can blow in all directions.

In particular, more upper-level loops are forming. An upper-level loop keeps the same air mass over the same area for a period of time. This can create persistent weather patterns that give rise to extreme storms, floods, droughts, and high winds.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Robocall Bill Dies in the House

A controversial bill that would have largely lifted the restrictions on robocalls to cellular phones has failed.

When first introduced, the bill was billed as a noncontroversial “technical correction” that should pass quickly and without much discussion. Its author, Lee Terry, said it wasn’t fair to businesses that they couldn’t robocall their customers who didn’t have, or refused to disclose, land-line phone numbers. The bill would have lifted those restrictions, allowing utility companies, banks, bill collectors, retailers, and others to place robocalls with virtually no restrictions. It was supported by large banks, utility companies, and phone companies.

But it was hard to find anyone else to support it. Internet commenters didn’t have any sympathy for the bill or its author. Consumer groups worried about the billions of unwanted calls that would have resulted. A letter from 48 state attorney generals warned Congress of the possible consequences. After 10,000 constituents called to oppose the bill, and 200,000 people signed petitions against it, Terry was finally forced to withdraw it.

That the bill advanced as far as it did, though, is a sign of what is wrong with the economy. Powerful commercial interests advance imagined solutions for their own problems without giving any thought to the consequences, including the hassles they are creating for others. Those hassles, then, are what ruin the economy.

Robocalls have already ruined the wireline telephone business. Unchecked, they could bring down the entire telephone network, as people stopped answering their phones. It is only people who aren’t imagining the whole picture who could imagine that this would be a form of progress.

Friday, December 16, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

A minor run on the largest bank in Latvia last weekend led to Monday worries about a possible worldwide run on the banking system. This set up a stock market rout on Monday, which hit European and Wall Street banks especially hard. The worldwide bank run never materialized, and in retrospect, the withdrawals in Latvia were nothing to worry about. People were not taking out all their money, just an average of $200 each, enough to get by for a few weeks in the event that the bank were to close its doors. That is something everyone who can should do anyway in these troubled times.

A U.S. government shutdown is still a possibility, as Congressional leaders were still looking for a path to a budget agreement as of this writing. Whenever there is a shutdown, bank regulators and deposit insurance continue to function.

There were two small bank closings tonight, each with less than $150 million in deposits.

  • Western National Bank, 3 branches, Phoenix, Arizona. An out-of-state bank is taking over the deposits and assets.
  • Premier Community Bank of the Emerald Coast, 2 branches, Crestview and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, in the Florida panhandle. A local bank is taking over the deposits and assets.

This is likely the end of bank failures for 2011. There were 92 bank failures for the year, half the pace of the previous two years. The lists of problem banks are not shrinking by much, however, nor is the economy improving enough to predict that the number of bank failures will decrease again next year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hard Disk Drive Shortage at Retail

The weather-related hard disk drive shortage is real, if not particularly severe so far. It is still no problem to purchase a new hard disk drive for a desktop computer, but there is enough of a shortage that retailers have had to restrict quantities to protect their inventory from hoarders.

Some computer hardware makers have blamed poor recent sales on the hard drive shortage, but that is likely just a convenient excuse. Businesses have slowed desktop computer purchases as they anticipate a shift to notebooks and tablets. Unless something happens to change their minds, this trend will turn into a permanent decline in the use of desktop computers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Retail Statistics Confirm Sluggish Season

U.S. November retail statistics released this morning confirm what retailers had already been saying: it was a big Black Friday, but not big enough to make up for the late start in Christmas shopping. With few early sales, shopping did not really get underway until a week before Thanksgiving.

With public opinion surveys showing shoppers tapped out after spending more than they planned on Black Friday, selling may not pick up again until the after-Christmas sales. Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on weekends this year, and many people will be on vacation for the whole week in between, finally allowing them some time for shopping.

The strong Black Friday was perhaps not such a bonanza for retailers. Best Buy, widely cited as one of the Black Friday success stories, reported a decline in profits this morning. Its profit margin is smaller than last year as it cuts prices to meet competitors. With its Black Friday price cuts, it may have just broken even on that day. Other retailers are worrying about margins, especially in clothing and electronics, and especially if it turns out that much of their merchandise is still on the shelves for the after-Christmas sales.

Monday, December 12, 2011

More Seasonal Shopping Returns

Over the weekend I saw plenty of activity at local retail early, but it tailed off drastically as late Saturday afternoon arrived, with not much to talk about on Sunday. Some of this may be the payday effect, with people returning to stores with their Friday paychecks to make late Christmas purchases.

Surveys have indicated that consumers spent more than they planned on Black Friday and may be tapped out. Retailers who are thinking of deep after-Christmas discounts may instead want to extend their after-Christmas sales well into January to let shoppers collect another paycheck. When shoppers are tapped out, they can’t buy no matter how deep the discounts go. Some of the stock, too, might be better saved for next November, as so much of this year’s seasonal stock was held over from last year.

Two weeks later, there is some caution about the Black Friday results. Apple and Amazon did extraordinarily well, from what we can tell, but with them excluded, Black Friday was not really that good.

Locally, clothing discounter Syms is going out of business. It has done surprisingly well in its liquidation, mostly clearing out the store at discounts of 30 to 50 percent. Those are not deep discounts at a store where older merchandise is automatically discounted. This liquidation success reminds me of the success of the Borders liquidation. It suggests that consumers are willing to buy at lower prices. Prices do not have to be shockingly low to get consumers to buy. This is a deflationary signal, though I do not give it much credence; there are still plenty of indications of resistance to price changes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Euro Loser

News reports are depicting the United Kingdom as the “loser” in recent negotiations in Europe, and now “isolated” as it alone opts out of the proposed European fiscal union, in which the other European Community nations agreed to cede a portion of their fiscal sovereignty to the European Union.

In reality, it is the countries that opted in that are the losers, while the United Kingdom’s increased flexibility puts it in a new leadership role in Europe. Some economists believe the new European fiscal union, assuming it succeeds in passing, will usher in a lost decade in Europe, an extended period with little or no growth in per capita GDP. The United Kingdom, though, will easily avoid this, and could plausibly form the largest national economy in Europe by the time we get to 2022.

Some good could come from the coordinated fiscal actions in Europe. Bizarre business taxes like Denmark’s coconut oil tax could be repealed, along with narrow tax exemptions that allow businesses to enjoy a tax haven in a particular country. Businesses that move operations between countries to avoid taxes are not the cause of the EU’s financial problems, though, and at this point, the fiscal union is a dangerous and problematic distraction that can only prevent Europe from addressing its real issues.

There is some indication that the fiscal union will not entirely succeed. Poland’s participation in the bailout fund, for example, appears to be larger than that country’s constitution will permit. Meanwhile, today, polls indicate that a plurality of Britons not only agree with their country’s rejection of the fiscal union, but want to take the opportunity to pull out of the European Union entirely.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Scenes of Political Convergence

As I write this, Russia’s western cities are seeing the biggest political rallies since the fall of the Soviet Union. The rallies, in the aftermath of a stolen election, have drawn 100 times as many participants as political observers had predicted.

The election in question is a parliamentary election, but the political discussion has echoes of past presidential votes voided by political elites in Iran and the United States. Signs and chants speak of corrupt old men, decaying institutions, and stolen votes.

It is a measure of the success of globalization that the same political problems and actions can pop up in all corners of the world simultaneously. Recent scenes in St. Petersburg are indistinguishable from those in Oakland. This makes Russian government claims that the United States is behind the unrest on the streets of Russia ring especially hollow. If that were the case, then who is behind the identical protests on the streets of the United States and thirty other countries? The fact that Russian leaders are parroting the complaints of the regime in Iran make their comments all the more comical.

The common suggestion that political corruption is the cause of the popular protests is equally implausible. The United States government has sought to draw some distance between itself and corrupt business interests in the last six years, while the government in Russia has drawn ever closer to its corrupt and criminal commercial supporters, yet in both places, along with many others, the protests are happening now.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

The same European countries that were instrumental in turning Greece’s accounting problems into an international financial crisis are now promising coordinated fiscal action, with the details of a treaty to be worked out in the coming weeks. The European Central Bank lowered interest rates this week in an effort to reduce banks’ and governments’ borrowing costs.

A live letter-bomb was sent to a Deutsche Bank executive, but was intercepted by mail workers and disarmed by police. The return address indicated the package was sent from the European Central Bank. Police say a political group, in a letter written in Italian, claimed responsibility for the device and possibly two others.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Is Etsy Doing Palling Around With PayPal, Anyway?

Much of the recent online discussion surrounding PayPal has focused not on Regretsy, PayPal’s latest in a long string of innocent victims, but on Etsy. Etsy may have helped inspire the name of Regretsy, but the main reason people made this connection is that Etsy shares the same business flaw of being effectively dependent on PayPal to clear financial transactions.

In business terms, this is an inexcusable lapse on Etsy’s part. From what I have read in the latest discussions, Etsy’s rules virtually require its buyers and sellers to make payments via PayPal, a payment processor owned by Etsy’s largest competitor, eBay. This puts eBay in a position of conflict of interest: it can, through its security decisions, effective bar buyers and sellers from Etsy, its competitor. It is an arrangement that puts Etsy and its customers in a particularly vulnerable position.

But it is not just a matter of a flawed and fragile business model. It is also an incongruity, a lapse of community integrity for Etsy. Etsy is a site where sellers can sell only items they have made themselves. This is part of the reason for Etsy’s success in a marketplace dominated until recently by eBay. Although eBay’s marketplace policies officially permit sellers to sell articles they have made themselves, eBay’s security policies make it clear that it frowns upon such activity. A person who sells handmade items on eBay does so at risk of being banned from the site. Hence, it makes much more sense to sell these items on Etsy.

Etsy, in this role, offers a way for shoppers to bypass the whole distribution network. They can buy articles directly from the people who make them. Cool. But then, the payments for these articles have to go through a huge corporation that is in bed with Wall Street, and this huge corporation takes a substantial cut, generally more than 2 percent, of every transaction. Not cool. Etsy is largely negating its cool factor by palling around with PayPal.

This is particularly awkward at the time of the Occupy movement, the Move Your Money campaign, and the buy-local meme. Millions of people are actively looking for ways to bypass the corporate control of commerce. They want to buy and sell things more directly, without the involvement of huge corporations acting as gatekeepers along the way. Etsy could be providing this. But it isn’t. Weird.

Etsy has not publicly commented, but with so many of its sellers worrying openly about PayPal, Etsy must realize that it has to do something.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Management Inattention and Two Security Fiascos

Wow! How can big companies with reputations to protect fumble so badly?

That’s the reaction to two unbelievable stories of the past two days.

  1. PayPal froze the account of a well-known business, Regretsy, just because it was collecting donations for a Christmas-season toy drive. There was not the slightest indication that the business was doing anything wrong or anything different from what PayPal publicly recommends. News outlets accused PayPal of ruining Christmas for hundreds of children.
  2. CBS-owned CNet, one of the best-known software download sites, has been bundling malware with its downloads for at least two days. The new CNet installers trigger alarms in security software, and computer security experts say the extra software they install could damage users’ computers. Dozens of news headlines combine “CNet” and “malware,” words that previously no one would think of putting together.

In both cases, the big question is, where are the managers? CBS cannot afford the malware association any more than Sony could with its music CD spyware (the Sony spyware saga, recall, led to the closing of most U.S. record stores), and PayPal could lose billions in revenue because of the chilling effect of so publicly freezing innocent customers’ money. So why are low-level workers being permitted to put the company’s future at risk, while the real business people at the company learn of the problem only through the news media?

It is the same thing that happened to AIG. That insurance company’s executives did not even know that technicians routinely traded the company’s net worth thousands of times over in securities of the most dubious kind. By the time senior managers understood what this actually implied, it was too late to save the company.

With these two stories, PayPal and CNet, popping up simultaneously, it makes me wonder if this is a trend. Have big businesses in general given up on oversight of their own operations and employees? If they have, of course, then there is more trouble on the way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Poll Confirms Holiday Shopping Over the Hump

A Reuters poll conducted by America’s Research Group confirms that Thanksgiving weekend was the midpoint of Americans’ holiday shopping plans. In the survey, 32 finished most of their holiday shopping by the end of November, and another 6 percent during the first weekend in December.

Shoppers spent more than they planned to on Black Friday, and have little money left to spend in the stores in December.

The survey suggests that in spite of the late start of holiday shopping this year, with not much happening until one week before Thanksgiving, shoppers still see the beginning of December as the time to start wrapping up their holiday shopping. It is an earlier schedule than we saw just a decade ago, and in my opinion, this shift is driven by the time pressure that many people experience during the holiday season.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New TV Show: The Young Turks

For those who watch television, The Young Turks is debuting tonight. Based on the Internet history of the people involved, it will be the rare TV news show that has some relevance in the discussion of the state and flow of the U.S. economy.

Mail Slowdown Forces USPS Slowdown

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is about to propose a slowdown in mail processing. This would mainly affect first class mail. Instead of being delivered within 3 days, usually in 1, first class mail will be delivered within 5 days under the new plan, and usually in 2 or 3.

The way I see it, this is a prudent step toward reducing the frequency of mail delivery. With the USPS months away from running out of money, and its biggest customer, the United States government, also having to cut back, mail delivery will surely soon be cut back to 3 days a week instead of the current 5 or 6. In the long run, 20 or 30 years out, I believe it will have to be 1 day a week.

The volume of mail has dropped 20 percent from its peak and will inexorably drop to less than one fourth of current levels. Raising postage rates across the board would accelerate the decline in mail volume, as it has done already. The USPS will have to cut costs, and quickly, and that mainly means cutting back on the level of service.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hard Disk Drives Returning

The flooding in Thailand might have been worse than forecast, but the hard disk drive factories are bouncing back faster than anyone expected. Some factories have already resumed production, and near-normal production levels are expected around April.

Demand for desktop computers continue to be soft, so widespread shortages of hard disk drives are not so likely. However, the potential for shortages did put something of a damper on price promotions for desktop computers during the Christmas season.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The S.T.E.M. Scam

In the past two weeks there has been a big push for “S.T.E.M.” — training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The United States, it is said, is falling behind the rest of the world in these technical areas. Supposedly, large number of jobs in these fields are going unfilled. Handpicked commissions are calling the situation a crisis.

Don’t fall for it. If it is true that the United States is falling behind, it is not because of lack of training, but because of lack of interest from business. Plenty of people, millions actually, have all the training you can get in an area of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, but aren’t working in their field because the jobs aren’t there. How many jobs are there really? Go to any major job site and search for “mathematician” as a job title. Good luck finding anything at all, anywhere in the United States. Nor do botanists have it much better. I found 1 job for a mathematician and 2 for botanists when I searched at Were you thinking of becoming an astrophysicist, seismologist, or oceanographer? Where would you work? When I searched, I could not find a single job opening with those words in the job title. A search for “Geologist” turned up 70 openings, but still, that is 70 jobs for the thousands of unemployed and underemployed geologists in the country to fight over.

A search for “scientist,” “technology,” or “engineer” is more fruitful, but these words are mostly found in combination with other words and long lists of required skills and experience. It is not enough to be an “engineer” or even an “electrical engineer” if you want a job. If you are an electrical engineer with experience in automotive safety, there may be a job for you, but that is not a skill combination you can qualify for based on education alone. It is the same story with most S.T.E.M. jobs. They require rare combinations of very specialized skills. When you look at the jobs available within any specialty, the numbers are small. And when technical workers apply for jobs outside of their area of specialty, they have the same chance that a dishwasher or taxi driver would have applying for those openings.

As a society, we shouldn’t be trying to push people who have an apprehensive feeling about technical work into technical fields. As an individual, you will do better, financially and otherwise, working in a field that appeals to you. If you really, really want to be a scientist, you will find a way to make it work. But if you go into a technical field just because of the promise of large numbers of jobs, you are likely to be disappointed. And for businesses, the skilled workers with advanced degrees are there for the taking, whenever they decide they are really interested in hiring.

Friday, December 2, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

The discussion surrounding the financial condition of the failed hedge fund/brokerage MF Global shows that many people don’t recognize the prominent role that off-balance sheet accounting plays in banking. These creative accounting techniques hide bad assets and worryingly large liabilities outside the company, often in shell companies nominally owned by independent investors. Recent commentary suggests that some observers and journalists had imagined that this was merely an accounting fraud employed by the likes of Enron and Worldcom. In fact, though, off-balance sheet accounting is a recognized and pervasive part of the banking industry. Among other things, the U.S. credit card business would not exist without off-balance sheet accounting.

MF Global’s accounting maneuvers appear to be legal, at least in their details released so far, and not so different from accounting practices at its competitors. MF Global hid, or at least deemphasized, the extent of its exposure to sovereign debt. Other banks, brokerages, and funds, you may safely assume, use the same approach to hide other categories of weak assets, and the public may never notice until the company goes under.

Too big to jail: The term “bankster” used by political activists to describe shady and self-serving bank executives is often an exaggeration, but not in Spain. The government there has decided to pardon a convicted criminal, Alfredo Saenz, so that he can continue to serve as CEO of Banco Santander, that country’s largest bank. Santander’s holding company is also the parent company of Boston-based Sovereign Bank, one of the United States’ banking giants. The presence of a felon in the executive suites of a bank is not as significant as the specific crime Saenz was convicted of. In the 1990s, Saenz and two other bank executives fabricated accusations to send four customers to jail (though all were released when the truth was discovered) in an attempt to squeeze an extra €4 million out of them. Banking regulators in Spain could still take action to bar Saenz from the banking industry based on his criminal record, but that would have been automatic if Saenz had been sent to jail.

On Wednesday, the NCUA liquidated BCT Federal Credit Union, of Binghamton, New York. It had 3,900 members. Member accounts were transferred to Visions Federal Credit Union.

Another credit union was liquidated tonight. It was O.U.R. Federal Credit Union of Eugene, Oregon, with 1,379 members. Member accounts were transferred to Northwest Community Credit Union.

Deja Vu: General Motors Kills the “Electric” Car

The advertising line for the Chevrolet Volt, “Somebody has to be first,” takes on a whole new meaning with the recent revelation that the car’s battery pack has a strong tendency to smoke or catch fire. No one has been hurt, but it is just a matter of time. General Motors is worried enough to recall the car before it has had time to think about a fix. Supposedly it is removing the Volt from the road temporarily, but it also has not made any promises about how soon the car could be redesigned and rebuilt.

At the time that General Motors released the Volt, it appeared as if it was rushing to release a second-round prototype design that hadn’t been meant for production. Two recent revelations about the battery pack reinforce that perception. First, as mentioned, the finding that the battery pack is fairly consistent about generating excess heat, smoke, and fire when damaged. This suggests that General Motors had not had time to test for this before or at any point in the first year of the car’s release. Competitors have been testing their cars in this manner for more than a decade, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Volt was released very early in the product development cycle. Second, that there was no published procedure for discharging the battery pack after it is damaged. That is the kind of maintenance procedure that would be normally be written and tested for a year or two before a car’s release. For it not to still not exist a year after release is hard for automobile industry observers to understand. It creates the impression that the product design work is not very far along at this point.

General Motors had little choice but to trot out the Volt a year ago to support its stock offering. But it did not have to ship it by the thousands while the design engineers were still working. Now, a noticeable fraction of the funds from the stock option must be used to repair the cars that were shipped prematurely, along with the damage done to the Chevrolet brand and General Motors’ reputation. With a flurry of actual electric cars coming to market in the coming year, boasting the kind of thorough product testing that the Volt obviously did not have, General Motors looks a lot like the new kid on the block, trying to catch up with an industry that has a several-year head start on it. Which, of course, it is.

It does not help that General Motors insists on calling its hybrid vehicle an “electric.” General Motors famously killed its actual electric car in the 1990s. Now it has killed its ersatz “electric” car. It’s like it just can’t help itself.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Upsell Kills Bally Total Fitness

In the end, Bally Total Fitness did not survive the upsell strategy it put in place five years ago.

Bally planned to boost revenue by getting more members to hire personal trainers. To this end, it reminded its members of the availability of personal trainers about 20 times on each visit to the facility. Members who did not have personal trainers were put off by this approach, and membership numbers and attendance both plummeted. Bally went bankrupt twice. It closed and sold many of its locations, especially in the center of the country.

Now Bally is selling most of its remaining locations, covering its best facilities, most of its geographical areas, and more than half of its members, to LA Fitness, in a deal that closed late yesterday and takes effect at the start of business today. Bally will retain just 100 locations, along with its exercise equipment products and other product lines. The deal appears to be structured so that LA Fitness is buying just under half of Bally’s assets.

LA Fitness is purchasing the assets of 147 Bally locations but will be selling or closing some of them this month.

The majority of the acquired clubs will remain open, but some will be closing before the end of the year.

LA Fitness plans to hire the employees from the locations it is acquiring, including the locations it will be closing. It will be moving equipment from the clubs that close to its other locations.

Bally will continue in a sense, but faces an uncertain future after its transition from a national brand to a local one. More important in a business sense, its serial bankruptcies ensure that its previous owners and creditors will not profit from its continued operation.

It is a cautionary tale for executives who would imagine that upsell is a risk-free way to grow a business. Sometimes upsell is an appropriate strategy, but the risks are greater than with most marketing strategies. If your marketing approach alienates prospective customers, that is a problem, but if it alienates your existing customers, you could lose your whole business.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The New Novelist

It is the end of November, and I have just written the end of my first full-length novel. I wrote it this month as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I like this kind of gimmick that gets people to focus on a particular area of action, and I took on the NaNoWriMo goal of writing 50,000 words of new fiction during the 30 days of November. Having completed that goal, in the form of a novel, I feel like I am now an official novelist.

Writing a novel has prompted me to see people in a new light. Characters are key in a novel, more so than in any other form of fiction. In a novel it is important to have characters who are colorful and conspicuously different from each other. That is important in real life in a similar way. After guiding my characters through a long, involved story, I have a heightened appreciation for everything that makes people different from each other. Even people’s bad qualities are good in this sense. In economic terms we know that we will get more done if we all take on different points of view. Real life and the story lines of novels are very similar in this sense.

A Business Phasing Out Email

It’s no secret that email is messy. You can never say with certainty that a message, once sent, will be delivered, and when you receive a message, you cannot really tell where or when it originated or who wrote it. The vast majority of email messages, more than 99 percent, are junk messages, mechanically generated by organized crime groups. Most are filtered out at servers along the way, and legitimate messages are filtered out along with them. Both junk and legitimate email can carry destructive computer programs such as viruses, and can hide links to malicious web programs. It is no surprise that people are looking for ways to move away from email.

And in France, Atos has decided that time has come. Susanna Kim writes about this company’s efforts at ABC News: “Tech Firm Implements Employee ‘Zero Email’ Policy.” In a study, Atos found that its 74,000 employees receive an average of 200 email messages per day. It is a pattern that is too unproductive to carry on, they say, so they are cutting back on email with an eye toward phasing it out.

With 200 email messages per day, the workplace becomes the written equivalent of a shouting match. It is hard for the important information to rise above the noise. There are no easy answers for a worker who receives this many messages. If they were to spend one minute reading each message and five minutes responding to one message out of ten, there would be no time in the workday for anything else. Yet not every message can be read in one minute. Aside from the time spent on receiving messages, email is also an awkward format for searching and archiving, both of which are essential for business messages.

I personally receive an average of 1,000 email messages per day. For the most part, I keep up with this flow, but how do I do it? Let’s just say it is a skill I couldn’t teach and it does not feel like the right answer.

Executives at Atos have already stopped sending email, and employees in total have cut back by 20 percent. The company says it can cut back email back to “zero” within two years. It may not happen that quickly, but the flow of messages can easily be reduced by 95 percent in that time. That much can be accomplished by finding more appropriate forums for broadcast messages, notifications, reminders, collaborative discussions, and similar forms of messages that fit only awkwardly in the email format.

Downward Spiral in Iran?

It is never a good sign when a country starts attacking embassies, and political observers in Iran say the attack by “student demonstrators” who looted the British embassy in Tehran has all the signs of a state-sponsored attack.

That embassy is now, of course, closed, and the organized crime groups currently running Iran are further isolating themselves from the world.

There are some echoes of events in Syria, so is Iran starting to follow that regime’s downward spiral? There are a few reasons to think that is possible. Notably, first, Iran and Syria previously had a long history of collaboration in support of crime groups in Lebanon and Gaza. To the extent that regimes in Iran and Syria have supported each other, a decline in one place would imply a decline in the other. Second, it seems possible that the corruption in all four countries is driven by oil money, and that is a formula that has proved less potent in other places around the world over the last five years.

Iran’s government has been very publicly feuding with itself since before the last bungled election, and the process of overturning that election cemented the country’s status as a failed state. Now the establishment figures who had agreed to pose as opposition candidates in that election have been locked up. That is a potent symbol of a regime that is giving in to paranoia and running out of friends. That was the dysfunctional psychological state that brought down the regime in Libya and if it progresses in Iran, could ultimately bring down that regime too.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Decline of Content in Pharmaceuticals

Fortune has a story pointing to the same problem in big pharma that has already stung the major record labels and the newspaper business: the decline of content. Dan Primack writes “No new drugs? Blame Wall Street.” The big companies are cutting research and abandoning more products before release because the bean counters believe they can make a quicker profit by investing in things like marketing and lawsuits. The inevitable result is that big pharma will fade away the same way as the record and newspaper businesses. With few real musicians and writers, the giants of these industries are shadows of what they used to be. With fewer new drugs invented and tested, big pharma will become, in essence, a giant sales force selling empty pills — and that, obviously, won’t fly.

The decline of a few large companies would not be such a big deal if new companies were coming along to pick up the trajectory of the pharmaceutical industry, developing the next generation of drugs, but that is a problem too, with the big money pulling back. Primack writes:

Early-stage startups are having a much tougher go of it, with 17% fewer raising venture capital during the first three quarters of 2011 than during the same period in 2010. Moreover, a number of veteran VC firms are formally ending their pursuit of pharma startups.

The decline of big pharma will be blamed on other things five years from now, such as consumers’ growing skepticism of commercial medicine, but you are seeing the real cause here. It is the reluctance of executives and investors to pay the expenses that are required to keep the industry going. Big pharma will continue to put out new drugs, just as the major record labels continue to put out new records, but most of them will be products of limited consequence, ones that you may never hear about.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Successes and Failures on Black Friday

The three big success stories at retail this weekend are Best Buy, Walmart, and Apple. The busiest parking lots I saw were at Walmart, which had the appeal of low prices and a wide range of products. Apple’s advantage is not just having products people want, but also a relatively frictionless buying experience. If you wanted to, you could go into the Apple Store and drop $5,000 in less than ten minutes, while being absolutely confident that you had gotten the right things. Products people want and a relatively frictionless buying experience could also be said this year of Best Buy, which did not have the problem of maddeningly thin inventories that had plagued it the last two Christmas seasons. The thin inventories may return at Best Buy before Christmas rolls around, I am told, but for Black Friday, it was properly stocked, and at prices that competed with the likes of Walmart and Sears. The midnight opening on Black Friday also seems to have been a big success at Best Buy, more so than at other retail chains.

These three success stories should not overshadow the many stores that found only modest success on Black Friday weekend. This was not just individual stores, but whole shopping centers where the throngs of shoppers never arrived and the parking lot was never more than one third full. Suburban retail parking lots in the United States are built for Black Friday, so if they are not at least half full at some point during that day, something has gone wrong.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday and “Momentum”

By most accounts it was a strong Black Friday at U.S. retail. After a late start in holiday shopping, consumers had more things to buy when they went out on Black Friday. But retailers looking for “momentum” in the Christmas season are up against consumers who increasingly see Christmas shopping as a one-and-done occasion.

It was hard to imagine retail momentum when I saw local commercial areas this morning. After yesterday’s rush, today started off slower than a normal fall Saturday. Traffic picked up in the early afternoon but appeared to have peaked before 2 p.m.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday Overnight Adventure

The most interesting note in the early Black Friday retail reports is the suggestion that the overnight store openings seem to have had some appeal to under-30 shoppers. The after-midnight shopping expedition provided a sense of adventure, an excuse to escape the holiday evening at a reasonable hour, and a chance to buy an television or small appliance that was actually needed. Most younger shoppers avoid Black Friday entirely because of the crowds and inconvenience, but the overnight store openings allowed them to get in on the action and still avoid the crowds.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Mindfulness Attention Exercise for a Holiday Weekend

Part of the Thanksgiving tradition in the United States is the idea of spending a few moments consciously controlling what you pay attention. Instead of automatically griping about the details of life and the state of the world, you are asked by newspaper columnists and others to “count your blessings” — to focus one by one on things that are favorable or are going well. It is possible to turn that momentary exercise into a practice of mindful attention.

What occupies your attention all day long? It has barely occurred to most people to notice what they pay attention to, a necessary first step before you can start to consciously decide what to pay attention to.

I won’t repeat all the research that has been done on this question, which can easily be found elsewhere. It is enough to say that most people’s patterns of attention are highly repetitive. Repetitive thoughts are a sign of emotional insecurity, and so you may conclude that almost everyone is highly insecure about something in their lives, and whatever that topic is in your life, it is likely to occupy a disproportionate share of your attention.

It is hard to overstate the potential benefits of taking more control over what you give your attention to.

  1. You can substantially change your personality just by changing what you pay attention to.
  2. Rendering a strategy successfully depends mostly on paying attention to the right details. And yes, this includes that strategy for making a million dollars. If you don’t pay attention to the right things, you won’t get the million dollars.
  3. You will automatically become more popular if you are more consistent in paying attention to the people immediately around you.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

How do you get started? Here is one approach especially suited to a family holiday. Start by quietly making a list of things you have thought about more than once in the past hour. Try to include the things that are so obvious that you hesitate to write them down. The things that are so plainly evident to you may go unnoticed by others.

Then, separately, ask the people around to point out things they think you might have overlooked. You might just ask, “What’s interesting here that you think I might not have noticed?” Some of the things people point out will be things that you hadn’t noticed until they were pointed out to you. This works especially well with people who know your tendencies and blind spots, but it can work to an extent with random strangers also.

By comparing the two results, you can see that you notice some things and overlook others. The things you focus on obsessively are not necessarily more important than the things you fail to notice at all. This observation is a starting point for intentionally changing the things you focus in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Germany’s Knife-Edge Euro Strategy

The failure of a German bond auction today highlights the risks of Germany’s euro strategy. Germany’s efforts to separate itself from the weakness found in the “peripheral” euro countries runs directly into the challenges posed by a common currency. A country cannot entirely separate itself from the economies of other countries that use the same currency. For example, if Italy falls into an inflationary spiral because of its problems, the inflation will occur in Germany too.

German, along with France and a couple of other countries, would do well to remember that the main reason the euro exists is to save them the costs of currency conversion in trading and travel among the countries of Europe. These benefits occur roughly in proportion to the wealth of individuals and states. Of all countries, then, Germany gets the greatest benefit from the euro zone and will pay the greatest price if the euro fails.

Germany’s approach of trying to gain advantage by short-changing the euro zone cannot end well. If it works so well that the euro falls into the inflationary spiral I mentioned, the cost to Germany will be far greater than any advantage it may have gained over its neighbors.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christmas Shoppers Come Out

It has been a startlingly slow Christmas shopping season so far from what I am seeing locally in southeastern Pennsylvania. With half-hearted retail displays and retailers also holding back on discounts, no one could fault shoppers for holding out. It was not until the lunch hour at Thursday, November 17, one week before Thanksgiving, that I saw the first inkling of holiday shopping traffic. All Sunday afternoon, there was conspicuous retail traffic, though this may have been boosted by the fact that the local NFL team was playing a night game. But the heavy traffic on the streets did not arrive until this afternoon.

I am not sure this means a mob of shoppers will come out on Black Friday, either. I have seen a noticeably lower level of conversation surrounding the leaked and officially released Black Friday offerings. Instead, the main Black Friday headline thus far is about the petition to shorten Black Friday. Workers and shoppers are asking stores not to open until around 5 a.m. to give people a chance to enjoy Thanksgiving. If there is an especially busy day on Black Friday, the traditional peak of the shopping season, it still would not make up for the sales lost over the last three weeks. The slow start does not have retailers scaling back expectations by much yet, though they worry about low prices and thin profit margins.

Shoppers may have bought presents already without creating extra traffic. Many gifts were purchased during the summer, particularly at the Borders liquidation. Many Christmas-season items are picked up during other store visits to save time. Some of this year’s top wish list items, notably the iPad, don’t require a store visit. So it may be that shoppers are shopping, but trying to do it without the extra driving that generates the heavy traffic of Christmas season.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Political Price of Inaction in Spain and the United States

Voters in Spain gave the Popular Party a ruling majority in yesterday’s elections. The Popular Party might be a deeply corrupt pro-business conservative party whose policies did much to create the economic problems Spain now faces, but voters are in no mood to accept failure, and the Socialist Party, in seven years, has not been able to do much to revive the country’s tepid economy.

It is just the latest in a series of anti-incumbency votes that have been sweeping across Europe, replacing some governments more than once in the last three years. It is not really much of a victory for the Popular Party in Spain, whose pro-business theories and tendency toward corruption are not likely to do much to reduce unemployment or make voters feel better about the state of the economy. The way things are going in Europe, they could be out again as soon as next year if the problems in Spain get worse. A sharp slide in stock markets today suggests that the ownership class that supposedly would benefit from the Popular Party’s programs does not have high hopes.

All this bodes poorly for Republicans and Democrats in the United States, whose two-party special budget committee, facing a Wednesday deadline, is expected to announce failure today. The committee was designed to deadlock, as any recommendation it made would next face a vote from a House that is adamantly opposed to any cuts in the largest categories of spending. But that doesn’t mean voters, or investors for that matter, will understand the lack of action.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Big Money vs. Infrastructure

On Thursday I saw CNBC flipping back and forth between reporting on an Occupy Wall Street march and snippets of their new feature series on the decay of infrastructure, focusing especially on bridges. Yet CNBC’s reporters were somehow unable to draw the connection between those two stories. When you consider CNBC’s financial interests, this can probably be considered an intentional omission. But in case the connection between Occupy Wall Street and crumbling bridges is not obvious to all, I will connect the dots here.

Infrastructure is a fancy word for public products that enable workers to get work done. A bridge, for example, allows a road to connect one point to another. On that road, products can be delivered and people can go to work. (There are other uses for bridges and roads, of course, but when we look into it, we find that when people are out on the roads, it is mostly for the purposes of work or commerce.) The political opposition to bridges and other initiatives to support work is summed in the phrase “big government.”

You can see that “big government” really means infrastructure when you look at the views of the political opponents of “big government.” Some of them oppose military interventions in foreign countries; others call for the United States to be more aggressive in intervening in matters halfway around the world. Some want to create a new national police force to interfere in one way or another in people’s sex lives; others believe the government should not take a position on people’s sex lives. Some of the “anti-big government” crowd want to spend billions in public money to fund institutions that are essentially religious in nature, or to add religious indoctrination to public schools; others want to keep government and religion separate. Some of them, holding office, are busy about diverting public funds for personal profit; others are busy investigating the corrupt practices of the officials I just mentioned. The one point they all agree on is about not spending money on anything that would help workers get anything done. That is precisely the “big government” that gets them so mad. If they can eliminate funding for transportation, the Internet, the electric supply, or health-related initiatives (workers who are healthy do more work), they consider that an accomplishment.

Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street is out on the street calling for a government that works for the people. They use the phrase “the 99%” to make it clear that by the people, they mean the workers, rather than the “1%,” the billionaire-investors and other very wealthy people who make up the ownership class. If the government supports “the 99%” rather than “the 1%,” it will be helping people who want to do things rather than those who merely want to control everything.

You see the same dichotomy in the current tax conversations. Most of the presidential candidates who are talking about taxes at all want to raise taxes on workers while lower taxes on owners. The more extreme proposals would abolish the capital gains and estate taxes. The two taxes that the ownership class cannot entirely avoid under the current system would be abolished. The ownership class would, for all intents and purposes, no longer pay taxes at all. Personal income taxes, payroll taxes, and sometimes consumption taxes — the taxes that particularly hit workers — would be increased to make up the difference. Occupy Wall Street seem to be the only ones out there saying that workers should not have to pay more than their share of taxes.

Bridges are crumbling because the big-money interests don’t want them. These are the same big-money interests, the “1%,” that Occupy Wall Street is warning us about. And it is not just bridges that are crumbling. The whole economy is crumbling because the big-money interests oppose anything that supports workers and work, and as a result, less and less actual productive work is getting done. It is also crumbling because of a tax system that encourages people to get away from working, the one area of the economy that is most heavily taxed, as quickly as possible.

In the fantasy world of Wall Street as shown on CNBC, there is no connection between crumbling bridges and the Occupy protests. But when you look at what is actually going on in the world outside, it is hard to avoid making the connection.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Consistent Neutrinos and More Bad Science Reporting

A refined version of the neutrino experiment produced the same results and eliminated hypotheses involving mistaken identity of the neutrinos. Neutrinos again traveled faster than would be expected under the conventional scientific view of space, time, particles, rocks, geometry, and geography.

The new neutrino observations are an important development because neutrinos can’t be reliably identified. There are several types of neutrinos, but a group of neutrinos can’t carry an identifying signal because neutrinos change their identity frequently through a mechanism that is not well understood. Experimenters compensated by generating much smaller bursts of neutrinos so that there was less room for statistical doubt about which neutrinos were which.

As before, there were embarrassing headlines about “faster than light” travel. This is the logical error known as “assuming the conclusion,” which involves using an intended conclusion as the starting point for an argument. Light, of course, was not included in the neutrino experiment, and scientifically it cannot be said that light and neutrinos travel at different speeds until there is an experiment that generates and measures light and neutrinos together. No one is even proposing such an experiment. The fallacy of assuming the conclusion could be seen in various other forms in the reporting on the neutrino experiment. It goes to show how mind-bending this particular experimental result is.

If reputable physicists are saying that it is better not to speculate about the results, it is not that they are stonewalling. There have not been many measurements of the speed of neutrinos going long distances through solid materials, and a better picture of what is happening will be possible after such measurements are made in more places and under a greater variety of circumstances.

Friday, November 18, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

With the success of Move Your Money and Bank Transfer Day, will the large banks start closing branches? In fact, bank branches close every week, and most of the large banks have quietly closed branches a few at a time over the last three years. It’s a trend that most industry observers expected to pick up in 2012 even before retail customers started to flee.

In my local area, Citizens Bank announced 7 branch closings today. There were earlier reports of 15 branch closings, but the smaller announcement probably just means the other 8 closings will be announced at a later date. Citizens was already 12 branches less than at its pre-crisis peak. It will have 173 after the new round of closings, and that is probably still more than it can afford.

One reason banks hesitate to close branches is that they lose customers every time they do so. Many bank customers almost automatically close their accounts when the branch they use closes. Large banks will become more eager to close branches as the number of active customers declines.

Tonight, state regulators closed Central Progressive Bank, which had 17 locations in lower Louisiana generally along Interstate 12 north of Lake Pontchartrain. It had $350 million in deposits. First NBC Bank, based across the lake in New Orleans, is taking over the deposits and purchasing 90 percent of the failed bank’s assets. First NBC Bank effectively doubles its footprint with the deal.

The failed bank’s holding company had tried everything to sell the bank, even filing for bankruptcy a month ago in the hope that that might help close the deal. The bank suffered from improper activities of its former management, along with the effects of the real estate slump and, given its location, more than its share of hurricane disruptions. Some observers said it was the only New Orleans area bank in serious financial trouble.

State regulators in Iowa closed Polk County Bank. The FDIC has transferred the $82 million in deposits and the assets to Grinnell State Bank. State regulators blamed the failure on real estate loans.

With tonight’s two bank closings, there have been 90 so far this year. That is a pace that would result in about 96 bank failures for the year, or roughly half the pace of the previous two years.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street vs. the Roman Empire

If you look at some of the century-old architecture that surrounds the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, with the heavy weight of concrete and stone, tall columns, and broad staircases, you can get the impression of a protest against the Roman Empire. There is some truth in this. The greed, corruption, and abuse of power targeted by the protestors are patterns of conduct that are direct descendants of the centers of power in ancient Rome.

It is surprising in a way that this particular protest movement is so needed in the United States. This is a country, after all, that was founded substantially by Protestants, who two centuries before had shrugged off the Roman Empire’s outsized lingering influence on people’s lives. Protestants objected to such details as religious fees that had no rational justification and forcing people to speak in Latin, the archaic language of Rome, when they had no familiarity with the language. The United States was founded with an emphasis on individual freedom that would have been unthinkable under the Roman Empire. But the Protestant Reformation was focused on personal lives and religious institutions, and the Roman influence and corruption carried forward in government, commerce, and education, and most especially when it came to money, law, and anything else that formed the common ground for commerce. The many things the Protestants could not accomplish fall to the protestors of today.

It is no trouble at all to pick out Roman influences on money, law, and commerce in the United States. The United States has always stamped Latin affirmations on coins and currency to try to lend legitimacy to its money. United States law, like law in most places, is loaded with Latin phrases and Roman legal principles.

The root problem with this side of the legacy of Rome is that the Roman Empire was out to cheat the whole world with its control of the common currency and a habit of exploitation of legal ambiguity. The successors to this tradition are found on Wall Street. The U.S. dollar is the currency of reference for international transactions almost everywhere in the world. Meanwhile, Wall Street banks have become more than notorious for a pattern of surprising their customers and trading partners with unexpected interpretations of contract language. Every day, lawyers of Wall Street banks are in court explaining to a judge how a contract allows them to assess a fee that the contract never mentions or why they are exempt from living up to their side of a deal because the words in the contract do not mean what they seem to mean. It is as if the Roman Empire never left us.

The corporate news media has whined for two months about the supposed lack of specificity in Occupy Wall Street’s positions. There can be no doubt, however, that the protestors are railing against greed. I believe they are speaking specifically against the kind of greed that leads powerful institutions to cheat people left and right, and a system that allows this kind of greed to operate unchecked. They are protesting, in short, against the modus operandi of the Roman Empire.

This particular influence of the Roman Empire has been with us for 30 lifetimes. It is hard to imagine a world without it. Yet other vestiges of the Roman Empire have fallen away over the past centuries, and looking back, we find it hard to believe people used to act in such an antiquated way. This one will fall away too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plastic Going to Waste in Ireland

The Edie story “Ireland poor on plastics recycling despite manufacturing demand” highlights a vexing and ironic problem. Ireland needs recyclable plastic as a raw material and imports it by the shipload from other countries. At the same time, it discards three fourths of its own waste plastic, with most of it going into landfills.

This is a multi-billion-dollar problem in Ireland alone, and on the face of it, it is a mostly solvable problem. Plastic is everywhere you turn and costs $1 per kilogram or more, but getting the waste plastic to the right factories just an old-fashioned logistics challenge. The persistence of big problems like this goes to show that the economy is far from optimized. There is still plenty of room for improvement at a basic level, before you have to resort to anything fancy or risky.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Google Is Tracking My Location in Real Time

A week ago today, when I attempted to sign in to Blogger to write my post in this blog, Google asked for permission to do something no one else had ever suggested to do. Google wanted to track my location in real time and pass that information along to unspecified third parties (i.e., anyone in the world). I would have assumed those third parties would be advertisers — like the local retail locations that want to advertise to people specifically when they are already in the neighborhood — but that wasn’t the language Google was presenting me with. They were essentially asking if it was okay with me if they could tell the whole world where I was from moment to moment. I don’t have a way to recover the exact text of Google’s request, which is a problem in itself, but that is the gist of it.

Until I agreed, I could not sign in. I could not access any Google services at all: not YouTube, not Google Plus, not Google Checkout. I faced a difficult choice: I could let Google, in effect, stalk me, or I could say goodbye to all of these services permanently.

Obviously, since you are reading this, I clicked the button to give Google the permission it was seeking. But since then, I have been having misgivings about it. It does not seem like an entirely fair trade. It is not that I don’t value Google’s services. But personal security is valuable too. It is perhaps more valuable than all information services combined, and there is no such thing as personal security if potentially the whole world can know where you are and where you are going at random times. And if this is a minor concern for me, something that is still bugging me a week later, there are others for whom it is a very big deal: corporate executives, minor celebrities, and Occupy Wall Street protesters, to name a few.

I haven’t seen any indication that Google is abusing its personal location tracking abilities, but on the other hand, that is not the kind of information a big, powerful corporation would tend to broadcast. And even if Google itself doesn’t use personal data indiscriminately, what of the marketing partners that it is sharing people’s location data with? We can hardly form an opinion about them, not knowing the first thing about who they are, or who they might be in the future.

I dug into Google’s privacy policies in the hope that they might shed some light on the subject. Although they run to hundreds of pages, they are strangely silent about Google’s uses of personal location tracking. However, they do contain this cautionary note:

Certain of our products and services allow you to interact and share your information with others. Please consider carefully before disclosing any personal information or data that might be accessible to others.

In that spirit, I am considering what I might do to share less of my location data with Google. I am not suggesting that I could stop using Google entirely. But it seems only prudent to look at alternatives and find the easiest ways to cut back. If I am connected to Google services only intermittently, and never all day long, then Google or its partners can’t produce a coherent narrative of my comings and goings.

When I started to look for alternatives on Saturday, I found that Google’s users have more choices than ever. Years ago when I signed up for Google Mail, it was the only email service of its kind. Now there are hundreds. Similarly, Blogger has gone from being one of the more powerful blog engines to merely being one of the more convenient. Google itself has an engineering initiative, Data Liberation, to help users extract their data from Google products so that it can be taken elsewhere.

As an easy first step, I deleted everything from Google Docs and Google Mail. That took 10 minutes. I removed Google Mail from my mobile phone, replacing it with another email account. Ten more minutes. I am trying to develop the habit of accessing all my Google stuff, including web searches, at once, especially at night or early in the morning. That alone may reduce my Google footprint by nearly a third. If the Google tracking problem continues to bug me, I may do more.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Jefferson County: Another Greece

At first glance, the bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alabama, the county that includes Birmingham, looks like a repeat of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In Harrisburg, it was the failure of an incinerator overhaul that left the city insolvent. It was an isolated case, since so few municipalities have incinerator overhauls that run into problems. In a seeming parallel, it was a sewer project that caused the financial problems in Jefferson County.

But look closer, and it is not the same at all. Jefferson County’s problems were not so much with the sewer system itself, which is working essentially as planned, but with a badly mismanaged bond issue.

The bungled bond deal was one that Wall Street had its hands in. And Wall Street has its hands in a lot of things. Essentially, Jefferson County is not another Harrisburg, but another Greece. An order of magnitude smaller, but the same essential dynamic.

Jefferson County is obviously not the only place where financiers and officeholders had private profit on their minds. The outcome there lends credence to the thought that there may be a flood of local government bankruptcies in the next three years as the U.S. economy goes through a new series of stresses.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fall Arctic Ice Falling Too

The NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent graph has been tracking with the 2007 graph all year. Occasionally it has popped lower to set a new record low. That appears to be happening again now, with ice growth flattening since Thursday to track slightly below the record from 2006. Fall had been the one season in which Arctic ice extent was only modestly lower than the historical record, but now fall too is opening up a conspicuous gap from its pre-2000 record.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Steps to Reduce Corporate Control

Bank Transfer Day saw people moving their bank accounts to their own towns. It was meant as a blow to the big corporations the seek to manage people’s lives from far away.

A week later, people may be wonder what else they can do. At AlterNet, Anna Lekas Miller suggests “3 More Ways to Move Your Money Away from Corporations”:

  1. Buy local.
  2. Buy union made.
  3. Buy green.

Bank Transfer Day is just one of the first big successes of what will become a sweeping movement: a movement of individual actions to reduce the centralized control of the global economy. It is a reaction to a growing problem: as more economic decisions are made by fewer people paying less attention to the circumstances of people’s economic lives, errors and dysfunction are growing and breaking points are occurring more frequently.

This dynamic explains why a group of bankers could imagine it made sense to charge customers who can’t necessarily afford it, $5 a month for a non-service in order to fund bonuses for bank executives — the specific outrage that fueled Bank Transfer Day. It didn’t occur to the executives that $5 a month was enough money to matter to anyone. That kind of error is inevitable when decisions are entrusted to a committee of millionaires, sitting around a table with no view of the street, or any group equally removed from the real world. Equally clueless business decisions are made every day by corporate executives and committees that are so out of touch with the way the world works that they don’t understand the harm they are doing.

We can’t individually stop the dynamic of central control of the economy, but we can reduce our personal involvement. It is hard to know what specifically to do because almost everything a corporation does happens behind closed doors. Just to find out what products a corporation makes is a challenge. But we can start with what we do know, and add more as we go along.

For now, I will add three more suggestions of my own, suggestions that aren’t specifically about money:

  1. Cook your own food.
  2. Stay healthy.
  3. Spend less time watching commercial television.

None of these are meant as rules to follow all the time. But each time you can solve a problem outside of the corporate scheme, it reduces corporations’ grip on the world and their influence on your personal life.

Friday, November 11, 2011

This Week in Bank Failures

European leaders have begun talking quietly about breaking up the euro. The big winner in that scenario would be the larger banks — those that survived the initial turmoil, that is. Banks would gain about $2 billion per day in fees for currency exchanges that don’t have to be done in the euro zone. Wall Street would stand to gain an additional $1 billion per day in currency trading by manipulating exchange rates.

Those keeping score on Bank Transfer Day, a week ago tomorrow, say it was a big event, with a quarter of a million U.S. customers setting up checking accounts at new banks and credit unions. The amount of money moved on Saturday was only a few billion dollars, but partly that is because many participants were more focused on opening the new accounts than on closing their old accounts. Consumers wanting to minimize the frictional costs of moving their banking will continue to write checks on the old checking account until its balance dwindles, while doing all other banking at the new bank.

One small bank failed in Georgia. Community Bank of Rockmart‘s single location will carry on as a branch of Century Bank of Georgia, which is assuming the deposits and purchasing two thirds of the assets. The failed bank’s emphasis on commercial real estate was its undoing, according to regulators. It also suffered from inauspicious timing. It launched in May 2005 and opened its permanent location in March 2006, just at the time when the Georgia economy and real estate market were coming apart.

The bank closing occurred last night, not on the usual Friday night, because of the holiday today.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keystone XL Pipeline: Unofficially Canceled

Officially, the announcements about the Keystone XL Pipeline project are noncommittal. The State Department’s Inspector General is looking into the serious irregularities in the overview of the project, which include public hearings run by lobbying firms instead of government officials. According to reports, the White House has decided to look into an alternate route for the pipeline that would have a reduced threat of environment damage, and that is expected to be announced to the public this afternoon.

Changing the pipeline route won’t change much, though. There are problems with the route, but the fundamental problems with the pipeline are economic. The oil fields in and near Alberta will deliver only a modest amount of oil, and at a higher cost of extraction than the world’s currently active oil fields. With those limitations, the Alberta-to-Texas route doesn’t much any sense, unless you’re the owner of a refinery in Texas. The project stands a better chance of financial success if the oil doesn’t have to be carried the length of the continent for refining. The oil could easily be refined and used entirely in western Canada and the adjacent border states of the United States.

The premise of the project, of a massive public effort on behalf of an ill-conceived project that will only benefit a few people in Texas, helped to inspire a large-scale protest action last weekend, in which protesters circled the White House while carrying a large balloon in the size and shape of the proposed pipeline. The Texas oil refineries’ hope of getting the project quietly approved have obviously failed. Realistically, the announcement of a delay can be understood as a way to quietly cancel the whole project after the 2012 U.S. elections.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Confidence and Ability Are Overrated

Two current stories show that two of the most important personal attributes according to folk wisdom and management theories — a record of achievement and an air of confidence — don’t guarantee meaningful results. In Italy, the billionaire-investor running the country is prepared to throw up his hands in defeat and step down from his post. At Adobe, 750 layoffs are on the way as the company abandons plans to be the go-to source for cross-platform user interface development. Adobe had huge successes with software in the past but, despite a massive effort, couldn’t deliver a competent development environment. Berlusconi’s history proves he knows how to handle money, but he couldn’t find a solution to his country’s financial woes.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Credit Card Strategies for an Imagined Expansion

Consumers this month have been cutting up their credit cards for Bank Transfer Day. At the same time, several of the largest credit card banks are in the middle of the biggest marketing push to sign up new customers for credit cards. When you hear this, it almost sounds as if credit cards are a good deal for banks and a bad deal for consumers.

But wait a minute. Just last year the banking industry was screaming about how much money they would be losing on credit cards after the new rules went into effect.

These banks involved in this reversal of strategy either were wrong last year when they imagined that credit cards would become a money-losing business, or are wrong now to spend around a billion dollars to sign up 2 or 3 million new cardholders.

The worrisome thing about the new credit card rush is that the economic forecasts it is based on might be mistaken. The banks are particularly eager to sign up new cardholders now because they imagine the economy and job market will have to improve soon. The most eager adopters of this fall’s credit cards will be using them on the same theory. It is the same error, of course, that created the home mortgage mess six years ago. Maybe the economy will be booming again next year. But if it is not, the consumers and banks who make a move into credit cards now may just be creating the next credit mess.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Large-Screen TV Prices Are Falling

The 3-D fad is over. In the television business, the main focus has returned to large-screen televisions this Christmas season. But most American households that had a use for a large-screen had already purchased one by 2010.

When manufacturers are trying to keep selling into an already saturated market, that is reason enough to expect big price cuts. And there is another, more fundamental reason for lower prices of televisions this year. Engineering and design improvements have improved the manufacturability of the video displays. Flat-screen televisions now cost less to make than they ever did.

But even prices as much as 40 percent less than two years ago may not spur enough demand to sell all the televisions that manufacturers can make. Consumers who purchased a television within the last three years will subconsciously avoid the television promotions in stores, not eager to discover that the unit they paid $4,000 for is now worth less than $2,000. With banks in the news again, many households will think twice about making a frivolous purchase on a scale that resembles a monthly mortgage payment, perhaps opting to delay until the mortgage is paid off.

This, then, could be the last year in which large-screen televisions dominate Christmas-season store layouts. Everyone who was holding out will have a chance to buy a large-screen television in the after-Christmas, pre-Super Bowl sales of January. After that, manufacturers will have to cut back on production, and retailers on floor space, to a scale that fits a replacement-cycle product.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Starting a New Chapter, Today

This month I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. I will attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel during the month of November. Every year, tens of thousands of novels are written this way. I have never written a full-length novel before, but I have written plenty of nonfiction books and short fiction, not to mention this daily blog, so there is little doubt that I will now be able to write a full-length novel. The only suspense is the question of how well I can do it in one calendar month.

One of the advantages of writing a novel this quickly is that the story can’t get boring. Thus far, I have written five chapters in five days, and to finish the novel during the month, I will have to continue writing nearly one chapter per day.

In the traditional novel form, and in the novel I am writing, each chapter is a new threshold. That is, the lives of the characters change just enough during the course of a chapter that the events of that chapter could not occur in the same way in the previous chapter or the next chapter instead. This convention gives rise to a familiar life metaphor.

There are actually two familiar metaphors or cliches that come from the experience of a novel. You “turn over a new leaf” or “turn the page” when you change a single habit or let go of something from the past. This level of change in life is like going from the right-hand page in a book to the left-hand page that follows on the other side of the same sheet of paper (called a “leaf” when it is bound into a book).

A bigger change, when you change your way of living so much that the previous pattern of daily action is no longer possible, is “starting a new chapter in life.” You might move to a new town, get divorced, start college, quit smoking, or change careers. People think of these big changes occurring only every couple of years. We all know people who have gone twenty years or longer without this level of change in their lives. On the other hand, there are also times when change is forced upon us, and we start a new chapter in life whether we are ready or not.

This especially tends to happen to characters in novels. In the novel I am writing, the main character has gone through five chapters in less than a month. As the writer, I have had to experience these new chapters on a daily basis in my imagination in order to write the narrative that forms the novel. It is not necessarily easy. I spent Friday getting comfortable with the idea of working on a road maintenance crew on a remote highway, only to wake up Saturday and have to follow a rumor that spreads through a town overnight. The pace of NaNoWriMo does not allow me to stand still long enough to get completely comfortable with the circumstances of any one chapter. I must move on as surely as the sun rises if am to reach my destination by the end of the month.

But I can do that. It is not so easy, but it is not so hard either. And if I can do it in my imagination, as a would-be novel writer, I must also be capable of doing it in my actual life. The imaginary mind is the same mind as the real-life mind. If I can imagine something in enough detail that I can write it out coherently in 2,000 words, then I can imagine something else in enough detail that I can live it all day long.

Furthermore, if this is a possibility for me, then it must also be a possibility for people in general. We are all capable of advancing from one stage in life to the next without the need for a long pause of years or decades in between. We can experience a threshold change between one day and the next.

If we have this capability, why do we employ it so infrequently? Well, why did I wait until November and NaNoWriMo to write my first full-length novel? Often, we are just waiting for life to tell us it’s time.

But more than that, it is a matter of doing the work. It is one thing to say, “Yes, I really want my life to change. Yes, I really, really want to change.” It is another thing to apply a disciplined imagination to your objectives, to spend hours working out the details of the next step forward in your life, giving it enough attention that it forms a picture consistent in itself and consistent with where you are arriving from.

Who has the time to do all that? I am only doing it today, for my novel, because the NaNoWriMo schedule says I have to finish during the month of November. But if you decided that you could take the time, it seems to me, you could start a new chapter in your life today.

And then, if you could spare the time again, you could start another new chapter tomorrow.