Creative Destruction and the Fight For Your Eyes

“You know what it is?  You’re always attracted to someone who doesn’t want you, right?  Well, here you have somebody who not only doesn’t want you, doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist, wants your destruction! That’s a turn-on.” – Curb Your Enthusiasm

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Behold, the chainsaw of Creative Destruction. This one will take care of those pesky optometrists!

There were vast periods of human history where . . . absolutely nothing happened.  If they had a newspaper, it would be blank for decades at a time.  Our Neanderthal (many of us) and other cave-dwelling hominids (all of us) ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years with little or no innovation, and that innovation that did show up was not all that exciting.  My bet is that most of them were fairly stupid, and it took generations of stupid people not having kids until humans were smart enough (and eloquent enough) to make an attempt at civilization.

Even with that first civilization, things changed only very slowly.  A thousand years of Egyptian dynasties (the pharaohs ruled Egypt for three thousand years) could pass and no one invented Cool Whip®.  You an Egyptian forward in time a thousand years and the only thing that had changed was that the music the kids listened to these days was too loud and just plain awful.  To put how very stagnant these civilizations were in perspective:  Jesus is closer in time to the people living today than He was to the time of the construction of the pyramids.  This statement will be true for another FIVE HUNDRED YEARS.

The Egyptian empire lasted a really long time, and since nothing changed, like a televised baseball game, it seemed even longer.  But then?  The Romans began to change the world, with a much shorter period of dominance.  And things keep changing faster, and faster.  More perspective:  an 85 year old has lived through 37% of the history of the United States.  An Egyptian 85 year old would have lived through less than 3% of the total length of the 3000+ year span of the pharaohs.

But scientific progress undid the pharaohs in what economist Joseph Schumpeter would call “Creative Destruction.”  Schumpeter originally derived Creative Destruction from his readings of Marx (Karl, not Groucho).  Creative Destruction is predicated on technological innovation coupled with entrepreneurial spirit in an effort to make money by disrupting previous economic structures and replacing them with new, more efficient structures.  An example:  Live performers were replaced by records.  That were (briefly) replaced by 8-Tracks.  That were replaced by cassettes.  That were replaced by compact discs.  That were replaced by .mp3 files.  That were replaced by . . . streaming music.  Each innovation replaced and (mostly) eradicated the previous iteration, making music more easily and reliably available.  Unless you have our mobile phone service:  streaming doesn’t work so well, since our wireless phone provider uses a series of wire coat hangers where we live to broadcast signal.

On Friday (LINK) I wrote about the coming Optopocalypse™.  This is another example of Creative Destruction in action.  Records destroyed local bands – you could hear better at home anytime than the local talent.  mp3’s destroyed record companies.  And 75%+ of optometrists will be looking for work soon enough because technology will have made most of what they do irrelevant.  And, outside of their families, the “Destruction” part of Creative Destruction results in greater value to all of society – more people will be able to see, since there’s hardly anyone that won’t be able to afford the low cost of the EyeQue®.

Another example is Zenni Optical (LINK).  I got great glasses from them (via my new prescription from EyeQue™).  I was testing out that prescription, and wanted to get some glasses.  I put my order in, and was even allowed to pay via Amazon, so they didn’t get credit card information.  I ordered my glasses on a Thursday, and got them the following Saturday (nine days later).  They were perfect in every way!  I then put in a new order for three more pairs.  Total cost, including express shipping?  About $200 for the three pairs, with the best lenses they offered, plus extra slip on sunglass attachments (and bifocals).

I ordered them on Saturday, and tracked progress.  By Sunday they were complete.

Here’s the shipping:

Origin Scan
CN
10/25/2017 9:49 P.M.
Order Processed: Ready for UPS

Shanghai, CN
10/25/2017 11:16 P.M.
Departure Scan
Arrival Scan

Anchorage, AK, US
10/25/2017 3:26 P.M.
Brokerage released the package. It will be processed through a clearing agency before final release to UPS.

Anchorage, AK, US
10/25/2017 4:46 P.M.

Departure Scan
10/26/2017 2:54 A.M.

Arrival Scan
Louisville, KY, US
10/26/2017 5:32 A.M.
Departure Scan

10/26/2017 5:51 A.M.

The glasses hit my hands about 2pm that day.  And, just like the first order, they were perfect.

If you look, it appears the package goes back in time a bit, but remember about the whole date-line thing.  Regardless, I’ll go with the story that my glasses came from the future.

Well, they did come from China.  Express, for $18.

This is certainly a great way to add value, and it (by definition) changes the price that many people will pay for glasses.  It’s Creative Destruction on a grand scale – Zenni will make billions.  But it cuts off another revenue stream that will add to the Optopocalypse™.  If you look online, optometrists are out in droves complaining about both EyeQue™ and Zenni®, some of which take the form of reviews that I think are less than honest.

And the optometrists are also fighting by trying to make innovation illegal – at least innovation that hurts their profit margin and their monopoly over information about your eyes.  They typically will call the bill a “patient protection act” or something similar, so it makes it sound like it’s really for the benefit of the patient.  I’m picking on optometry not because they’re unusual – they’re much the same as everyone else who is facing having their entire life and livelihood replaced by a disruptive app or Silicon Valley startup.

These regulations and laws actually end up hurting the economy – they make it more likely that companies like Zenni manufacture outside of the United States and not subject to US or state law rather than creating an eyeglass factory in . . . Kentucky, or Illinois.  I’m not unsympathetic to the 55 year old optometrist – and I don’t have a good answer for what he should do.  Becoming a roustabout in North Dakota in the oilfield is probably not a reasonable answer.  In times past, however, people displaced by technology and Creative Destruction have found new things to do.

Maybe they could ascend to that highest throne of prestige and power.

Blogging, anyone?

EyeQue, Tom Cruise, Ben Franklin, and the Coming Optopocalypse

“J-Roc, I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optometrist but you gotta keep your eye on Randy, he’s doin’ stuff. I don’t trust that guy, I don’t.” – Trailer Park Boys

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The Boy with his first pair of glasses.  He might be ready to be an NFL® referee. 

If I were an Optometrist, I’d be afraid, very afraid?

Why?

The Optopocalypse is coming, and it’s coming fast.

What’s the Optopocalypse?

To get to that, you have to start at the beginning . . . .

Optometry was originally the practice of figuring out which glasses went with which eye.  The first pair of glasses for corrective vision were most likely used in Europe about 700 years ago.  They were Ray Bans®.  Tom Cruise (who never ages) may or may not have been the first customer.

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Tom Cruise, circa 1284 AD.  You should see this movie if you’re 18 and haven’t.  (Image via Wikimedia, ©Warner Brothers) 

Books mentioning how to fit people with eyeglasses date at least as far back as 1623, with nary a mention of Johnny Depp, who, to be fair, only smells that old.  And Benjamin Franklin saw that there was a LOT of real estate left on the eyeglass, and he invented bifocals so he could stare at the ladies both far away and up close.  Franklin was a genius, and his invention (probably around 1784) was the most significant invention in optics up to that time.  All so he could see the ladies.  And the Constitution and stuff.

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So, ladies, swipe left or right? (Image Courtesy Federal Reserve)

And that brings us to the most significant innovation in optometry since Franklin’s bifocals.  EyeQue™’s Personal Vision Tracker®.

I might be overstating it, but I don’t think that I am.  EyeQue™ is a system . . . and it’s a pretty cool one.

I have worn glasses since I was about 20.  My original pair were round gold-rimmed glasses, because Indiana Jones® wore those, and it partially made up for the fact that they wouldn’t let me carry a bullwhip and a pistol around the college campus.  It was amazing (the glasses, not the lack of bullwhip, that sucked).  I remember looking out over a valley in winter the day I got them, the outline of the mountain was so crisp in the winter air.  And trees!  They had individual branches that had edges and everything!

My prescription hasn’t changed much since then.  It’s been stable for decades.  Most recently I’ve been wearing glasses that were made before Pugsley was born (Pugsley is 12 now).  They work fine, but they’re twelve year old glasses that are scratched a bit.  I’ve been to the optometrist more recently, but my glasses were getting pretty bad.  One pair was eaten by a puppy (you could still use them but the lenses had little teeth craters in them), one was scratched up and the nylon that kept the lens in place broke.

I’d been meaning to go to the optometrist two years ago (just for a new prescription, no other problems) but she had cancelled my Saturday appointment.  My choices?  Take a day off of work to go see an optometrist, or . . . wait.  Waiting always works.

I waited.  And then one day I saw the ad for EyeQue™ (LINK) Personal Vision Tracker©™®.  Hmmm.  It was available on Amazon®.  The reviews were mixed, but at $30 and at least half a day of my time?  Worth it to take the risk.

Second day air brought me the EyeQue™.  It’s pictured.  It consists of a small plastic cylinder with a rotating eyepiece.  It straps to your phone screen.

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After you get the physical diagnostic piece (which I’m assuming contains prisms, mirrors, elfin magic and a small piece of dark matter) you have to download an app.  Once you’ve done that, you use the serial number that came with the EyeQue™.  The app, curiously, asks if you have a screen protector, but doesn’t ask you to remove it.

I tried it on my cell phone, but since I’d not updated my Android operating system since 2015 (really), I used The Mrs.’ updated phone and logged into the app.

The device/app combination is ridiculously easy to use.  The eyepiece is dialed between 1 and 9.  You start at 1, and use the + and – keys on the screen to make a green line and a red line merge into a gold line.  Most boring video game ever.  The only difficult part (and it isn’t very difficult) was to make sure that you could see both lines at the same time.  After you merge the lines, you tell the app that you’ve done it.

You then turn the eyepiece on the EyeQue™ to 2 (I assume this rotates the elfin dark matter, but if you don’t rotate the eyepiece it won’t work.) . . . and repeat until you’ve gone through all 9 settings.  Then Gandalf’s voice comes on and says, “You shall not pass.”

That’s one eye.  Repeat for your left eye.  Unless you’re a cyclops, in which case Odysseus would like a quick word with you.

Done, right?

No.  You might be not very good at easy tasks, or drunk or something.  EyeQue™ makes you do the same nine measurements at least three times on each eye, for a total of a (minimum) of 54 measurements.  I’m pretty sure this is to make sure that your readings are consistent, as you have to have a minimum cumulative score prior for it giving you the measurements of your eye required to order eyeglasses.  I got the max score each time, so only had to repeat the process three times.

I wrote my EyeGlass™ Number (that’s what EyeQue™ calls it) down.  They looked pretty close to my last prescription, but my last prescription had probably been through the laundry, eaten by prescription-moths, or taken by Russian operatives to be included in the Trump dossier.  Whatever.  It was gone.  But the numbers looked right.

I got online.

I went to Zenni Optical (LINK) and bought a relatively inexpensive pair of glasses to test out the numbers (I won’t call it a prescription) that I got from the Personal Vision Tracker.  I waited nine days, and got my new glasses.

Wow.

Wow.

I’d never had a prescription so good.  My go-to test required the stars to be up . . . I looked at Orion, and, boom, you could see that the third “star” in his sword was really two stars.  I’d read once that this was a test the Sioux had used to see if a young man could be a hunter – he had to be able to see the two stars.  And I could!  Even the bifocals were awesome!  Now I must get ready for the hunt.

I’ve since ordered three more pairs of glasses from Zenni (more on that on Monday).  All of them work stunningly well.  All of them are amazingly inexpensive.

The Boy is similarly nearsighted, and has a fairly recent prescription, but is pretty sure his isn’t as accurate as it could by – he thought my glasses were better than his.  I can buy another subscription to the Personal Vision Tracker® for him (LINK), and will do so tonight so he can get some better glasses.  The cost of the subscription is a bargain – and is fair, reflecting the tremendous amount of time, research and effort put into programming this wonderful App.

The idea that I can, in twenty minutes or so of easy work in my home, get a stunningly accurate set of numbers that I can order cheap glasses online is amazing.  It is revolutionary, Ben Franklin level (but with less time in France).  Let’s be honest – the only reasons anyone goes to the optometrist is:

  1. Because they need glasses,
  2. Because they have other vision issues/symptoms, or
  3. Because they are married to the optometrist.

And you should go to an optometrist regularly for b., because going blind isn’t a laughing matter.  But there is no reason to go (anymore) just for an eyeglass prescription, which is the revolutionary part of what EyeQue™ has done.  (Contact lenses are different – and the Personal Vision Tracker® is NOT calibrated for those.  And you people who stick your fingers in your eyes make me shudder.)

Right now there are only 23 colleges that graduate optometrists in the United States.  That’s probably too many.  If you take the ENTIRE population of the United States and say they should get a checkup every four years (young people longer, older people more frequently) and it takes 15 minutes for a checkup, you only need . . . (working 40 hour weeks) 3,500 optometrists.  A visit should cost a little more than $25 for the fifteen minutes for $200,000 of revenue per optometrist.

Currently there are 40,000 optometrists, and they’re trying to sell you expensive glasses, and vision data that you can get very accurately now for a fraction of the cost of even the $25 visit, I can see this profession going down by 36,000 in the coming years.  Maybe if I’m off it will come down a bit less, but even a reduction of 30,000 at an average total compensation rate of $120,000 yields a savings to the economy (and consumers!) of $3.6 billion every year.  And people will see better!  It’s a win-win, unless you’re an optometrist.

So, the Optopocalypse is coming – and I predict a 90% attrition rate.  This type of dislocation always happens with professions where technology changes a profession, just like Ned Ludd (LINK) leading the frame-breakers in response to the industrial revolution.  You can’t stop the tech.

Ned Ludd

Yup, this is a drawing of Ned Ludd.  Great fashion sense.  Also, a giant.  (wikimedia, public domain)

I’ve not been compensated (yet) for any relationship with EyeQue™ or Zenni Optical®.  And I might never be.  But any link that gets me compensation will be noted as such on the page, should that ever happen.

Also, I’m a blogger, NOT A DOCTOR.  THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE.  The only thing “blogger” has in common with “doctor” is that they end in a similar sound.  Do your due diligence on this or any other advice you get from the Internet.  Heck, there’s one site that says you should avoid setting yourself on fire! 

Rules for Negotiation: Never Negotiate Against Warren Buffett . . .

“To win a negotiation you have to show you’re willing to walk away. And the best way to show you’re willing to walk away is to walk away.” – Burn Notice

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If bidding starts higher than a bag of Skittles® for this truck, it’s too high.

Last Wednesday I posted about how a really big source of wealth was “The Deal” (LINK).  I listed some good and bad deals, and noted that some deals were big winners for all sides.  But deals don’t come pre-assembled.  They’re made (or not made) on purpose.

And as near as I can figure, the people who get wealthy off of deals look at many more deals than they ever make.  Last time I played poker, I played 30 hands for the evening.  I won two.  I made $30 bucks.  I would have made more, but I kept trying to lose so I didn’t walk out of the house $80 up, which I would have considered rude because it was the first time I played poker there.  (My initial stake was $20.)  Lots of bad deals, two winning deals.

One big lesson leads to the first rule:  it’s easier to win or create great deals when the stakes are so small that you can think calmly and rationally.  Hence:  Warren Buffett can make lots of small (to him) bets that were white-knuckle negotiations on the other side of the table.

Rule 1:  BATNA

The first rule of negotiation is that you don’t have to end up with an agreement – you need to know your BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.  In the poker example, I folded and was out a buck or two on each hand I walked away from.  Several times in my life I’ve walked away from job offers because they weren’t right.  And no amount of negotiation could have made them right.

Sometimes, most times, the best deal is no deal.

Warren Buffett generally walks away from most deals.  He could literally do almost any deal he wanted to do, since most companies are smaller than the available cash that his company has on the books.  He reminds me of the story about the guy on the golf course who kept talking about how much money he was worth.  The old Nebraskan golfer couldn’t stand it.

“How much are you worth, son?” asked the Nebraskan.

“Fifteen million dollars.”

The Nebraskan responded . . . “Flip you for it.”

The question you have to ask is . . . what happens if you don’t come to an agreement?

If you’re Buffett, there’s no deal you have to make.  But you’re you – there are consequences from missing deals – sometimes significant.

One particular negotiation that I had to make involved negotiation over some land with a guy worth about $80 million bucks.  If you can help it, NEVER negotiate with someone worth $80 million dollars.  Unless the deal is ludicrously good for them, they have NO reason to even speak with you.  Unless, your kid is in the same calculus class.  So, he talked with me.  And gave offered us his land at 10 times the going rate.

Our alternative as a company?  It was spending several million more than his offer on another patch of land.  We almost the other land, on principle.  The rich guy?  He wouldn’t have cared.  Our deal, worth more than the average family makes in years, literally was a favor because his kid went to school with my kid.

Sometimes your alternative sucks.  But we had one.

Another big mistake is buying into the frame of reference of the other party.  If his opening position is that he’ll trade you a handful of magic beans for your two children, negotiating him down to just one child isn’t awesome negotiation (unless you really want him to take both).  No, the deal is bad and probably isn’t worth negotiation.

Rule 2:  Don’t negotiate against yourself.

I worked with a guy named Moe who was a genius at negotiation.  We would drive around in the company pickup and he would take me, the new kid at work, out to look at jobsites.  Occasionally these trips would involve Moe’s personal shopping, as well.  He was a golfer, and one time we walked into a golf shop and he asked about a specific club.  He then proceeded just to walk around the store, and the clerk would follow him around, constantly lowering the price.  The clerk was negotiating against himself, while Moe looked disinterested.  I tried the same tactic later that week at a furniture store – same result.

Rule 3:  When you get to yes, shut up.

This one is pretty simple.  I’ll just shut up now.

Rule 4:  The deal isn’t done until the deal is done.

When I bought my first car from a dealer, I was surprised that negotiation wasn’t done.  We had just negotiated price.  Then there was financing.  And undercoating.  And floor mats.  And add on maintenance contracts. And about half a dozen other things.  The deal wasn’t done until after another dozen “deals” were done.  They tend to push these deals after hours of negotiation, when you’re tired.

Rule 5:  The more information you have the better you can understand what a good offer is, and whether to accept it.

Whenever you negotiate for a job, the employer has more information – how much they can offer for the job, and what other things they can do to sweeten the deal.  One colleague I know started a job in management at a company after accepting their offer.  Three months later, a new employee of his started.  The new employee had gotten a signing bonus:  my colleague hadn’t.

Oops.

Rule 6:  Know what is important to the other party.

It might be money.  It’s probably money.  But it also might be looking good to their boss.  Understand what they want, and then see how to best give it to them.  It might be something simple like being able to leaver every other Thursday at 3pm.  It might be that they won’t stop until you give them a coat made from bigfoot hair stained red from a pigment derived from Martian sands.  Or even something unreasonable.

Rule 7:  If you live longer than age five . . . you will run into unethical negotiators.

They might lie.  Which looks and sounds a LOT like bluffing.  But it’s not, and you know the difference.

They might threaten.  One salesman always talked about all the people that got fired for buying the competing product from his competitor.  How did that affect me?  It made me want to never buy his product (I’m contrarian that way).

They might try to impact the negotiation by “accidently” letting information slip.  Information carefully prepared to skew your decision or offer.

My best advice?  Be honest.  No one can cheat an honest man.  And always be ready to walk.

There are other deals.

Stock Bubbles, Tulips, and Toilet Paper

“There’s only two things I hate in this world:  people who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” – Austin Powers in Goldmember

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Read this blog or this man will shoot that car.

People can be stupid.

People in groups are almost always stupid, and they can remain stupid until they do quite a lot of damage.

Let’s take a trip off to Europe (unless you already live in Europe) and back in time to 1636 A.D. (unless you already live in 1636 A.D.) and review the price of . . . flowers???

The Dutch (at least I think that’s what they call the people from the Netherlands, but you can call them Sven or Maria or whatever suits you) in 1636 were a  seafaring bunch, who made money trading all over the world and had colonies in North America, South America, South Africa, India and all those islands between Asia and Australia.  One thing that a Dutch guy brought back (and I don’t think this one was lost) in addition to the most efficient way to remove hair and lint from your bellybutton was the tulip.

In a parallel development, the Dutch were big on trading stocks in companies, like the Dutch East India Company, or in commodities like sugar or pancake mix.  The markets were sophisticated.  In 1632, you could buy sugar for delivery in 1633.  This was nice if you wanted to guarantee your sweet tooth, but you could also trade that contract to somebody else for a higher price if they decided they needed the sugar to make PEZ® or Fruit Pies.   Nowadays we call those “futures” contracts.  Yup, the Dutch were doing this 400 years ago.

But a slight change in laws made those contracts different.  The buyer could buy the right to buy sugar.  The seller had to fulfill the contract, but the buyer had no obligation to buy it.  It was his or her (yup, plenty of Dutch female speculators) option to buy the sugar.  This is what is now known as “futures options.”  And you could buy them on . . . anything.

Even tulips.

In November of 1636 something must have broken in the minds of a batch of silly dead (now, not then) Dutchmen and women.  They started bidding up the futures options contracts on . . . tulips.  And various colors and varieties became more valuable, especially one that that had a virus that changed and made a tiger-striped pattern.  They looked awesome.  But one tulip bulb went for the same price as ten years’ worth of a typical laborer’s wages.  That’s $250,000 or $300,000 today.  For a tulip bulb.

There appears to be little record of people going broke in big numbers when the bubble burst, but certainly there were some people who came out a bit poorer, and the entire reputation of traders was ruined.  Not that it was that great in the beginning, but Jan Brueghel the Younger painted the fine painting below, Satire on Tulip Mania, depicting the traders as monkeys.  If you look closely you can see the nifty tiger-striped tulip in the left corner.  Myself?  I’d pay much more for a monkey that traded futures options contracts, even if he did a lousy job.

1024px-Jan_Brueghel_the_Younger,_Satire_on_Tulip_Mania,_c._1640

Yes, it’s public domain, being nearly 400 years old, unless Disney® wants to try to make a movie about it….

This was the first recorded financial insanity of this type, and it was fairly benign.

What other manias occurred during history?  Well, lots.  But researching them all would take quite a lot of work, and far more wine than I have in the house right now.  So, let’s just look at the ones that I want to talk about:

  • Salem Witch Trials – 1692 to 1693. Twenty people executed when a bunch of kids played a prank.  Or there were real witches.    This is still a bubble, but it was just teen angst magnified a zillion times.  Fortunately, they had awesome wood floors, like in the picture below.  Are those oak?  I’m so jealous!

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

  • The South Sea Bubble – in 1720, the price of shares in the British South Sea Corporation went from £100 to £1,000 (the £ is the funny symbol that British people use for money). Sounds like a great deal, right?  Well, the records seem to indicate that the South Sea Corporation spent most of their time issuing stock and very little time on actually, you know, making money.  So why did so many people (including Isaac Newton himself) shove all of their spare £ into a company that just made stock?  Isaac Newton is reported to have said:  “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.”  Apparently Newton couldn’t manage £1,000-£100=£  Below is a public domain picture by dead artist Godfrey Kneller of Isaac Newton when he was in his “looking like the guitarist from Queen” phase.

800px-Sir_Isaac_Newton_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller,_Bt

  • Radium – 1920’s to late 1930’s. Everything had radium in it or was named after radium.    Drinking water.  Watches with glow in the dark faces.  My college mathematics classroom (yeah, after I took Calculus I, Calc II, Calc III and Differential Equations in the same room?  Enough radioactivity to power all of North Korea and a lot of corpses that are technically nuclear waste.  I have a straight razor case from the era.  You guessed it:  “Radium Straight Razor Company.”
  • 1920’s Stock Bubble – The classic. Fueled by post World War I enthusiasm and the rise of new technology (radio, the automobile, phones, and PEZ®) people went . . . insane.  Everybody was investing in the stock market, including a shoeshine boy, who famously gave Joe Kennedy (father of President John F. Kennedy) a stock tip.  Kennedy then decided if shoe shine boys were involved in the stock market, too many people were in the stock market.  He then proceeded to smuggle a bunch of liquor and manipulate a senator or two, then lunch.
  • Hula Hoops™ – Watch The Hudsucker Proxy to see exactly how this was invented. Okay, I kid.  But the Hula Hoop® hit when Hawaii was just becoming a state, and there was a large mania about the place, even though it had been a part of the US for nearly a century.  100 million were sold within two years, despite the US population being only 180 million at the time.  Sales fell off when people were finally told that there wasn’t a limit on the number of times a hoop could be hooped prior to it wearing out.
  • Johnny Carson’s Toilet Paper Run – in 1973, Johnny Carson (a late night television host back when there were only three channels and who was very popular) noted that there was a toilet paper shortage, but was referencing commercial grade toilet paper. He used that to make a few jokes.  (Toilet paper is just plain funny).  People took him seriously, and pretty soon there were shortages and rationing of consumer grade TP in several cities.  Shortly after the commotion, Carson told his audience he was joking.  People in the US could again poop without fear.
  • Pet Rocks® – A rock. As a pet.  For money.  Broke sales records, until people figured out that they’d paid $3.95 (plus tax) for a rock.
  • Cabbage Patch Kids© – A really ugly doll, but middle-aged women jumped out in droves to fight each other in a series of battles that would have made the gladiators of the Colosseum in Rome proud, if they had been middle-aged women with purses the size of four year old children fighting each other for dolls in the aisles of K-Mart®, Montgomery Ward™ and Sears©.
  • Beanie Babies™ – A really cute doll that spiked in popularity in the late 1990’s. The creator of the company decided to make special “limited runs” of a cheap, plush doll that looks like a dog’s chew toy.  Middle-aged women fought each other in the aisles for these as well, but it was the 1990’s so they all had greasy ham-hair like Kurt Cobain.  After a brief spike of popularity, most Beanie Babies are worth . . . dog chew-toy value.  There are a very few that might be worth some change, but don’t hold your breath.
  • Dotcom Bubble – The thing I wrote about Beanie Babies™ above? Just replace “Beanie Babies®” with “stocks” and “Middle-aged women” with “greedy but stupid baby boomers.”
  • Tasers© – At one point in 2004, Taser™ the company would have had to sell three Tasers® to every person in the United States to make the profit the stock $150 stock price implied. We didn’t buy the Tasers®, and neither did you, so you can buy the stock for $20 or so.
  • Housing Bubble –House prices never go down. It’s a fact!  Except when it’s not and imperils the entire economy of the world.
  • Tesla® – I’m not saying it’s a bubble (LINK), but it’s a bubble. Tesla© is not worth more than Ford™.

Most of the bubbles or manias I’ve listed above share a similar pattern –

  • Start – The guy started making Beanie Babies®. They only sold a few.
  • Spark – A reviewer mention in an article that some are “valuable” and “rare”.
  • Information Spread – Engage middle-age lady network.
  • Publicity – News stories show up in newspapers, television.
  • Mania – Nobody wants to be left behind, so everybody buys all the Beanie Babies®.
  • Market Collapse – Somebody writes an article questioning paying $10,381 for a dog chew toy. “Bubbles burst when fools run out of money.”
  • Regret – Closets of Beanie Babies© sit in closets, since one day they’ll be valuable.
  • Next Mania – Well, maybe next time I’ll be in first and make all the money…

And financial markets work exactly the same way, but with less dog chew toys.  People want to seek a return on their money, and when there’s enough money just lying around, stupid investments get made.  And some of those investments pay off in a huge way, especially for those that got out early.  The Dotcom crash?  Plenty of people sold as it was on its way up, and made huge amounts of money.  The housing crash?  One guy predicted it and put in place investments so that he made hundreds of millions off of the crash.

But sometimes what looks like a bubble . . . isn’t a bubble.  It’s a trend, and a real trend based on sound, rational economics.  The guy who was sure that the smart phone was a fad (me), the guy who thought that credit cards would never catch on with a rational public (my dad), and the guy who thought that Europe would be plunged into a horrific war (my great, great grandfather).  Oh, wait, the last guy was right.

And sometimes there are bubbles, and sometimes there are trends.  One person working to figure out the difference is a geophysicist named Didier Sornette, who has an amazing Wikipedia page (LINK), and looked at the mathematics that surrounded earthquakes and compared it to stocks or other financial assets in a bubble.  Turns out that the bubble was analogous to a really stressed mass of rock.  He made some predictions after the Dotcom bubble, and was right enough that he got hired to just study financial crises in Zurich (LINK).  Tough duty.

When you think a deal is too good to be true, or you see a group of people jumping on a bandwagon, think twice (cough Tesla® cough).  You want to avoid the Hula Hoop® Witches™ without Toilet Paper.

This blog is NOT stock advice, I don’t own any positions in anything mentioned, and don’t plan on any for the next month or so.  

The Link Between Sugar, Cancer, and the Kardashians

“What about the reality where Hitler cured cancer, Morty? The answer is don’t think about it.” – Rick and Morty

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Artist representation of what a cell might look like.  Just kidding – fireworks at night in Fairbanks on July 4th.  Hint:  on July 4th there is no night in Fairbanks.

In new news this week:  cancer eats sugar.  But that really isn’t new news, since Dr. Otto Warburg won a Nobel® Prize in 1931 for showing that a cancer cells use ten times the amount of sugar as a normal, healthy cell.  Sugar consumption also leads to cancer’s biggest risk factor:  being fat (I could say overweight or obese, but let’s not chop the onion too finely – Arnold Schwarzenegger was overweight, but never fat.  I’m talking fat, here.)  Now that correlation is clear – fat people catch more lung cancer than smokers.  But is the cause right?  Is being fat the problem, or is it the things that you do to get fat that cause the cancer?

As we’ve discussed in the past, much of medical research has the same scientific rigor as astrology (Sagittarius, here!) or alchemy (I know where soooo much lead is) or even astronomy.  Ha!  The Earth revolves around the Sun!  What a hoot!  A recently released review indicates that as many as 30,000 (that’s not a typo) scientific (if you call biology “science”) papers were based on using the wrong type of cell.  In one case they were using liver cells instead of lung cells.  I personally taste my all my cell cultures before using them, and always check the expiration date.  Even a rookie can taste the difference between liver and lung!

See, I told you people don’t know how to Science anymore (LINK).

But a recent study that seems to have actual science behind it (and by authors whose first names are Johan, Wim, and Veerle) investigates the relationship between sugar and cancer.  It seems that cancer cells get energy through fermentation of sugar, and the more sugar a cancer cell has, the faster the cancer grows.  (Normal cells generally oxidize the sugar, so they use a different path.)  Again, in their study, increased sugar led to increased growth, which is what you want in a bank account, not a tumor.

But your body has to have sugar, right?

Well, no.  Generally the brain prefers glucose (the kind of sugar found in your bloodstream) but it can do just fine, thank you on ketones.  What are ketones?  A 1960’s Motown band?

No, ketones are what happens to fats (your fat, or butter, or cheese) when your liver rips ‘em apart and stuffs them back into the bloodstream where they eventually feed your brain (and every other organ, too), so you can save the sugar packets that you were going to send to Congress and the Kardashians (Say, would that be a great TV show or what?  Congress and the Kardashians . . . ).  But your body (the liver, again) can also turn protein into glucose.  So, is it necessary to have carbs or sugars in your diet?  No, not really.

So, curing cancer just means avoiding Twinkies® and chocolate-covered raisins?  No.  Or at least I don’t think it’s that simple.  If so, I’m free to give my Nobel™ acceptance speech any time after next Wednesday.  What my Internet sources indicate is that it’s not a bad idea to go low carbing if diagnosed with cancer, along with cutting back on the protein because it can become glucose.

One doctor in particular (LINK) recommends a diet of up to 70% of calories from fat in response to cancer.  Actually, he recommends this diet to all patients, regardless of cancer status.

So, is there a link to cancer growth and sugar?  Absolutely.  Is there a link to getting cancer in the first place and sugar?  Probably.

Should you trust what you read?  Hmmm.  Remember when carbs were good for you and eggs were bad for you?  I’m expecting smoking and scotch prescriptions before I die . . .

Am I a doctor and should you trust this without checking with somebody more than me?  No way.  Check all of this out for yourself.

Deals: How George Lucas, Bill Gates, and Almost Every Other Rich Person Got Rich

“I guess the only other fair way to go about this would be that one of us deals with the body situation while the other one of us deal with the Krazy 8 situation.  In a scenario like this I don’t suppose it is bad form to just flip a coin. Heads or tails?” – Breaking Bad

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Who would have guessed that George Lucas would have his own Lego™?

Some small group of people become wealthy due to savings.  Some other small groups of people get wealthy by growing their business slowly over time.  Besides being born rich (which is the easiest and surest way to get rich), what do the majority do?

The Deal.

There are good Deals, and there are bad Deals, and I’ve been involved with both kinds.  So have you.  Anyone who has done a Deal (and, really, that’s everyone – two year olds start bargaining for candy and to stay up late as soon as they can speak) has likewise done good and bad Deals.

Let’s start with bad Deals.  One of the worst Deals I ever did was when I traded in my first car at a car dealership.  I traded for a pickup that was older than the car.  Six years older than the car.  Plus I gave them a big wad of cash to do the deal.  After that Deal was signed, the store manager played a recorded sound of a bomb dropping and exploding over the store intercom.

I innocently asked why they had played the explosion sound.  The car salesman said it was, “just a thing the manager does.”  Of course, it was in honor of the horrible Deal I’d just done.  I suppose it was fair.  Several years earlier I had sold them my used car.  After several hours of negotiation, they offered me a pretty good price.  I asked, “Do you need to know if there’s anything wrong with it mechanically?”

The salesman said, “Nah.  Just the body.  They can fix any mechanical problems.”

The car had a cracked engine block.  Hint:  seeing steam coming out of your tailpipe is never a good sign.

Well, I did ask.  Actually, several times.  I’m not sure they really liked that Deal . . . I guess I wish I had a little bomb sound that I could have made . . . “oh, no, that’s nothing.  Just something I like to do.”

But they got the last laugh with the pickup.  A year later it threw a rod (this is very bad) through the engine block and oil pan while I was driving seventy miles per hour.  Pretty impressive, actually.

What are some examples of other famous Deals/decisions?

  • George Lucas got the merchandise rights for a little film he did called “Star Wars®” for $20,000. I think that one little afterthought deal earned him over a billion dollars – and that’s after taxes.  Nerds who live in Mom’s basement can afford a LOT of Boba Fett® figurines, since they can avoid that whole “dating” money sink.
  • Bill Gates bought DOS® for $50,000. It formed the basis of MicroSoft™.  It became really valuable because IBM® said, “Who wants to own software, am I right, Brandon?  The money is in the hardware.  Let’s go get some martinis, cigarettes and blow dry our feathered hair, maybe play some Pac-Man™.”  Or whatever IBM© dudes said at lunch when Reagan was president.
  • Peter Thiel bought 10% of Facebook® for $500,000. He now only owns 2-3% of Facebook© due to dilution and share sales.  Don’t cry, he can still afford to buy lunch out once a week.
  • The Internet Bubble was probably the greatest mass insanity since the Dutch sold tulip bulbs for the price of a house (yes, this really happened, and I’ll talk about it in a post somewhere during the next week or two). I had a friend who got caught up in a website during the Bubble.  He ended up selling a company (he owned about 20% of it) to Alta-Vista©.  Who?  Alta-Vista™!  They were the Google™ before Google®.  How much did they sell the company for?  Fifty Million Dollars.  Immediately, my friend was worth Ten Million Dollars.  Unfortunately it was in Alta-Vista stock, which, by agreement he couldn’t sell for six months.  Six months later?  His Ten Million in stock was worth Two Million.  He got out, but he was a 36 year old with $2,000,000, which I guess is a pretty cool consolation prize.  Why did Alta-Vista™ want his company?  It had huge growth – heck, it made $2,000 a month!
  • AOL®-Time™ Warner©. Investors lost $8 billion on this merger.  Who could have predicted that dial up internet wasn’t the wave of the future?
  • Invading Russia or Afghanistan. Repeat after me:  no land wars in Asia.  Oh, we’re involved in two of them right now?  Yikes!
  • Nathan Rothschild had early information on the result of the Battle of Waterloo where Wellington defeated Napoleon in “Friday the Thirteenth Part 4: Napoleon Strikes Back.”  Even from the Rothschild archives we find:  “I am informed by Commissary White you have done well by the early information which you had of the victory gained at Waterloo.”  So, knowing the outcome of the battle, it seems certain that Rothschild made some money as the markets were agitated with the uncertainty of the war.  How much did Rothschild make that day?  History does not record, but Rothschild built a fortune that is estimated at $450 billion dollars in today’s money.  That’s five Mark Zuckerbergs.  Nathan didn’t make many bad Deals . . . .

What characterizes a Bad Deal?

  • Missing information: When I made my stupid truck deal, I had no idea how to get car value information.  This was pre-Internet.  Mismatched information leads to one-sided Deals.
  • Failure to understand potential: Star Wars® merchandise might have been a few posters and t-shirts.    Biggest movie merchandising Deal ever.  This is similar to what Bill Gates saw.  He figured that DOS® was worth much more than the owner did, and used it to leverage into everything MicroSoft™.
  • Taking advantage of circumstances. Thiel originally lent money to Facebook® that they needed badly.  He ended up with the 10% equity stake in the company.  Nice timing, good Deal.
  • Stoned-Level Euphoria: The Internet Bubble was characterized by wisdom of a mob all high on PEZ® and thinking that a website that was clearing $2,000 a month was worth $50,000,000.  Like toddlers with checkbooks making Deals.  Trade a Bugatti® for Cadbury Cream Eggs®?
  • Invading Russia or Afghanistan just shows that you have no ability to learn from either history or The Princess Bride®.
  • Rothschild bet on bad Deals made in a hurry under pressing circumstances. Never make a Deal under pressure, unless you have to.  Really have to.

Nature of the Deal

I’ve seen company take long, agonizing looks at acquisitions and mergers that amounted to far less than 1% of the company’s value.  I’ve also heard that Warren Buffett has bought many a company on a one page contract.  He says his lawyers make them longer now, but the Deals that made him rich (well, richer) could be written on a single page.  And nobody argues that Buffett does bad Deals.

But are there really Win-Win Deals?

Whenever I hear “win-win” I think of those zombie adult over-enthusiastic motivational speakers.  You know the ones I mean – the ones that are always insufferably happy?  Them.  They talk about win-win.  But win-win deals can be real, and here’s an example:

I was working at a multi-billion dollar company when a multi-billionaire decided he wanted to buy it.  He offered 30% above the current stock price, which was six times what I had gotten my shares for.  I took his offer (for my shares, not the company) in a second.  The billionaire then structured his payments from the profits so that his original purchase was paid off in about three years.  Plus he still owns the company.

So, I got more money out of the stock than I ever expected, the billionaire got more billions, and he still employs thousands of people daily to make products that millions of people use.

That’s a win-win-win-win.  Yay capitalism!

What was my personal best Deal?

When taking a job at a company, I requested as part of my offer that if they ever asked me to move, they’d pay me at least what I’d paid for my house.  Since house prices always go up, this was an easy calculation for the company, right?  Sure!  They agreed, and I said, “yes.”

Eleven months later when they asked me to move, the housing bust was in full swing.  Thankfully, they cut me a check for the difference between the appraised value of the house versus my original purchase price.  Had I not asked for that simple clause, I would have been out $45,000.  The upside?  The company also paid the mortgage, insurance, and property taxes until the house sold, a year and a half later.

Don’t feel bad for the company . . . they still got the better end of the deal.

They got me!

The Future of Employment, or, Almost All of Government is a Jobs Program

All right, listen closely.  I was at the unemployment office and I told them I was very close to getting a job with Vandelay Industries, and I gave them your phone number.  So now, when the phone rings you have to answer “Vandelay Industries.” – Seinfeld

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Notice it doesn’t say Texas Pain RELIEF Institute?

What are we going to do with everyone?

I’ve been (throughout my life) a proponent of the human race.  I like it.  I may not like certain individuals, but I’ve got a great degree of hope when it comes down to humanity.  And up to now, the equation has been that more people equals more Einsteins, more Isaac Newtons, more Nikola Teslas, and more Stephen Hawkings.  These are shining examples of humanity – folks who helped the human race achieve much more than we would have or could have without their knowledge.  I read an article recently (I am not making this up) about rising obesity rates in Ghana due to KFC® becoming the restaurant of status and choice.  And we know how much Einstein contributed to the secret government project that led to KFC™’s fried, greasy goodness.

There are seven billion of us, and 2.1 billion have the problem of being obese or overweight.  Less than 800 million are suffering from hunger or malnutrition.  This is a victory of the greatest magnitude.  Yes, obesity is bad, but I would much rather have people having heart attacks in their fifties after having a tasty chicken wing versus starvation at fifteen.  Everyone who has that choice would make the same choice, and raise their greasy hands up if asked.

In general, the world is getting better as we as a society create more wealth, as I talked about in previous posts (LINK).  But I’m really concerned as I look forward with simple questions:

How much does the future need us for continued prosperity?  How many people do we really need?  How many can be actively employed in productive work?

There are various reasons that I’m wondering:  Increasing Productivity, AI, Smart Machines, Robots to name a few, though there are other issues as well that we’ll skip today.

I’ve written before that trucking is a sure bet for replacement once self-driving trucks are approved by the Department of Transportation and the various states and a self-driving unit costs less than (about) $400,000 per unit.  After those conditions are met, at least a million jobs (and likely more) will be gone as fast as the autonomous trucks can be produced.  But it’s not just truckers.  It will be fast food workers.  It will be janitors.  It will be an increasing number of lower and mid-skilled jobs throughout industry.  If it can be described by an algorithm or computer program, it will be automated.  A large number of sports articles and financial news articles are now produced with no human intervention.  Journalists would worry, if there were enough of them left to worry.

And jobs that aren’t eliminated will be minimized.  An example:  a structural engineer nowadays runs calculations for a new bridge or skyscraper through a computer program that analyzes the stresses in the structure and optimizes the design for code and seismic conditions.  It then chooses the beams and columns and other structural members based on tens of thousands of calculations and three dimensional finite element analysis, and then pops out design drawings. Sproink.  (That’s the noise the drawings make when they come out of the machine.)

Fewer engineers are required, and the engineers don’t need to be as proficient since the engineering knowledge is built into the program.  Both the number of people and the quality of people goes down.

Another example:  I just bought (for $30) a device the will give me the data I need to order glasses online.  No prescription, no optometrist, no waiting.  Also, no glaucoma check, but I don’t have to take off time from work to visit the doctor.  And the glasses I ordered online cost less than I would pay, even at Wal-Mart®.  I may describe it in Friday’s blog.

Another example:  I had a cold that I was pretty worried was heading into my lungs and I was worried that I’d get pneumonia.   For $60 I got online from my basement (where I was in a cold sweat despite my 101˚F, got antibiotics, and got better.  Otherwise?  A $120 doctor visit where my copay would have been at least $100.  Yes, a real doctor was involved in the visit, but it was incredibly efficient for them – I’d imagine they make $300 an hour.  No office, no actual contact with icky sick people.  It was a great transaction for both of us.

But . . . it means we need fewer Doctors.  And fewer waiting rooms.  And fewer nurses.  Et cetera.

Efficiency is awesome.  It lowers costs, and does that while quality is increased, in most cases.

When economists study inflation, they study the price of the item.  I have a color TV in my house.  When my dad bought his first color TV, he spent (on an inflation adjusted basis) over $3,000 in today’s dollars.  With that kind of money today?  You could buy a 75” Sony® Ultra HD that also has a popcorn maker and margarita blender built in.  So, economists measure how much better a thing has gotten as well as what the thing costs.  They call this measurement “hedonics” because it’s way more confusing than “measuring how stuff got better.”

So, we live in a world where getting sufficient food to eat is easier than at any point in history.  We also live in a world where getting information is easier than at any time?  Want to listen to a song?  Unless it’s the Beatles™, it’s pretty much on YouTube®.  And we can make more things, better, faster and cheaper, than at any time in history.

But why hasn’t efficiency hit, oh, say the Department of Motor Vehicles?  Or the local County office where I go to get license plates?  At both places, you have to stand in line.  At both places, hours are limited, and you’d better get done before quitting time, because they’re serious about closing up at 4:30pm.

In a typical business, the best parking spaces are reserved for the customers.  In government?  The best parking places are reserved for the employees.  And I think government is giving us a hint:  the most important consumers of government are its employees.  You and I are the product.

And why, in a world where I can apply for $100,000 credit at midnight can I only get my driver’s license between 9AM and 4:15PM (closed for lunch hour)?  Why is it harder each year to deal with government?  Why do their budgets keep going up, faster than inflation?

Because nothing the government does is intended to help you, the consumer.  The bright folks that are hired to make wonder weapons?  Jobs program.  We do NOT want people that smart on the street.  The people who work for NASA®?  Jobs program.  They don’t even have to make rockets anymore, and Elon Musk has clearly shown that if he had NASA’s budget he’d be building Burger Kings® on Mars, because he’s have a million people living there in the next decade.  NASA spent money putting together braille books on the solar eclipse in August.  That might explain why we have to piggy back a ride with the Russians to get to the International Space Station.  NASA is a jobs program.  Originally it had a job to get people to the moon.  Now?  It produces new classes of astronauts with no vehicle to fly.  Thankfully they have a budget for cardboard boxes to sit inside and make rocket noises.  There’s even a budget for markers to write “ROKET” and “USA” on the side of the boxes!

The Department of Education, which has taught no classes?  Jobs program.  The Department of Energy, which has never produced a Watt?  Jobs program.  The military?  Parts of it are a jobs program, but most if it is real.  But you better pay attention to what congressional district and state the new weapons will be built in . . .

Your liberal-arts college professor?  Given a job so that they wouldn’t agitate for revolution in the streets, rather, they can agitate for revolution to rich kids who would much rather play Playstation® and X-Box©.

Ever wonder why they rip up a section of street that looks pretty good, and then work it for months?  Yup.  Jobs program.  Not to say that the original Interstate Highway System wasn’t real.  It was.  But now what do we build?  What infrastructure is left?  Dams are awesome for hydroelectric power, but just try to build one nowadays . . . it’s easier to declare war on Ghana.

It really took me by surprises that this was the case – that most government spending is based on the concept of giving people money so that they don’t riot in the streets (dumb people) or so they won’t plot and plan a revolution (liberal arts professors) or build wonder-weapons in a James Bond worthy plot for foreign governments (government scientists)?

Why is government inefficient?  It’s not.  It’s a very efficient jobs machine.  You’re just the product, not the consumer.

But what about the jobs that are already out there?  A recent study says that the average worker works less than four hours a day.

Think of the creativity that creates!  How to look busy for eight or nine hours a day when you’re done working after four?  And how long will a business stand for this?  Eventually, in private business, all of the “four hour a day” jobs will be eliminated – the business has to pay taxes, remain competitive.

But government will respond.  New regulations will be created and enforced that require new employees to compile data and report it to the government.  This is done mainly so that the government has excuses to hire more employees, but has the side effect to requiring more private sector compliance workers.

I actually had a job once where, on my start date, my office wasn’t yet ready.  They told me . . . come back in two weeks from now.  Did they pay me for the two weeks?  Yes.  And, who did this?  Yup.  It was a government job.  And, although I saved them several million dollars, they were kinda disappointed.  They wanted to spend their full budget.

But there will be in the next decade millions of people becoming unemployed as their jobs are minimized or eliminated due to clever business disruption, probably faster than the government can create jobs (hint: the government is broke (LINK)).  I’d love to suggest a minimum basic income, but we can’t pay for it.  We can’t even afford PEZ®.

What do we do?

There are millions of people in the United States right now that would love to work.  And millions more in made-up jobs that produce nothing that would love to work in productive jobs.  Around the world, this number is surely in the hundreds of millions.

And we need fewer of them every day.

How about . . . we let someone smart pay them to work on something really important . . . like going to Mars?

Paging Elon Musk . . . .

Unless someone else has a better idea?  Raise your greasy hand and sing out!