Friday, March 24, 2017

iPhone Perspective

When the Utah representative, promoting the new healthcare plan, suggested that people could spend money on healthcare “[r]ather than getting that new iPhone,” it pushed some people’s hot button.  A few days later Wired came out with the headline “No, iPhones Aren’t Luxury Items. They’re Economic Necessities.”  In it the author explains how, only ten years after their introduction, iPhones and similar smartphones have moved from the novelty category to must-haves.  To get ahead and stay ahead, “you have to stay connected in an economy built on the assumption that anyone is always reachable anywhere.”

Of course, you would expect Wired to take this stance, just as Car and Driver might scoff at people wanting to ride their horses to work.  But they make some strong arguments.  Even if the lawmaker was referring only to those who buy the newest model, discarding a perfectly functional phone, he probably picked a poor analogy.  What Wired can’t argue is that all Americans make excellent decisions when prioritizing their spending.

Given that Wired is right and iPhones are in fact a necessity, there are still two disturbing aspects of the article.  One has to do with perspective and the other with magic-money-tree thinking.

Perspective helps us take the long view, in this case to look back and understand how we got here and where we are heading.  Only ten years ago this condition of constantly being connected was not nearly as urgent.  Twenty years ago, it was not even possible, except for a few very rich or innovative with their car phones or big, clunky handheld portable telephones, both of which were limited to making phone calls.

Today we must think about society in terms of Moore’s Law, the insight that processing power doubles every 18 to 24 months, exponential growth.  You buy a new computer and it seems obsolete a few months later.  By some accounts you have more computing power in your smartphone than on Apollo 11.  And things just keep getting smaller, faster and more connected.  On their website Intel proudly states, “The inexpensive, ubiquitous computing rapidly expanding all around us is fundamentally changing the way we work, play and communicate.”

The perspective question is how are we changing with it?  Are we struggling to keep up?  We may be technologically savvy, but how many parts of our lives are falling through the cracks?  How are we reacting to the big and small threats that accompany these rapid advances?  If we are getting so advanced and sophisticated, why do we still face so many basic problems:  retirement insecurity, the obesity epidemic, inadequate sleep, a struggling education system and fears that our children and grandchildren will have shorter, less happy lives as they struggle to pay off overwhelming personal and public debt?

That fundamental change in work, play and communication has not translated into a fundamental change in thinking and behavior.  So many decisions are still reactions.  We use social media to fight with strangers or stress about frightening potential outcomes based on politically motivated predictions.  We blithely share our personal data, while constantly on guard against hacking and identity theft.  Our focus is distracted from simple solutions (like eat less and exercise more) by the constant barrage of demands on our time.  Faulty behavior in the five key dimensions results from everyone walking through life staring at a device while processing the information with a primitive brain (evidenced by PSAs reminding parents to tell kids to stop texting while crossing the street).

The magic-money-tree aspect of that article is also a problem.  They cite the following:  “Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the internet was a basic human right.”  This is the same organization that protested when Detroit turned off the water supply to those who were seriously delinquent in paying their bills.  The UN likewise called access to clean water a human right – even if you won’t or can’t pay for it. 

The UN, Wired and many others must understand that rights are recognized and respected not granted.  We have rights to free speech, religion, to bear arms, etc.  Those rights are guaranteed by a requirement on the government not to interfere or deny them.  They are not like these UN-established rights, a good or service you can demand that the government or someone else pay for.  A declaration of these rights does not make the cost go away.  

Yet we scurry through our lives as they become exponentially more complex, texting, taking calls or making appointments on the run, mystified by such basic economic concepts.  Without better performance in the five key dimensions, how will we ever be successful in this new, fundamentally changing society?  If what was brand new ten years ago can become a necessity today and technology is growing exponentially, we must be alert and approach new threats and risks deliberately, not with the same behavioral habits as our ancient ancestors.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Time To Look It Up

There are so many urban myths and other falsehoods arising out of social media and other sources.  As has always been the case, falsehoods spread quickly while the truth struggles to catch up.  Today with the Internet, the speed and range of these myths just increase, while people, even intelligent people, seldom take time to verify facts.  Generally, again with the accessibility of the Internet, it’s an easy lookup.

This came to mind earlier in the month when Chelsea Clinton posted pictures on Twitter of spinach pancakes for National Pancake Day.  The response was swift, as followers commented negatively both on their appearance and their imagined taste.  They certainly didn’t look very appetizing.

In response to the mild uproar she posted another Tweet:  “Dear internet, my daughter needs +iron so we put spinach in everything we can.”  After that the commotion died down.

But wait!  That belief that spinach is super-loaded with iron is a myth.  Look up on Google spinach-iron-myth and it comes up immediately.  Look up spinach-iron and the myth information is first or second on the listing of sources.  Here is a sample:

“For a hundred years or more spinach has been (and clearly still is) renowned for its high iron content compared with that of other vegetables, but to the joy of those who dislike the stuff this is quite untrue. In 1870 Dr E. von Wolff published the analyses of a number of foods, including spinach which was shown to be exceptionally rich in iron. The figures were repeated in succeeding generations of textbooks – after all one does not always verify the findings of others – including the ‘Handbook of Food Sciences’ (Handbuch der Ernahrungslehre) by von Noorden and Saloman[1] 1920.

“In 1937 Professor Schupan eventually repeated the analyses of spinach and found that it contained no more iron than did any other leafy vegetable, only one-tenth of the amount previously reported. The fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point.”

That’s right.  Due to a typographical error made almost 150 years ago and initially corrected 80 years ago, many people still credit spinach with an exceptional amount of iron.

But it gets better.  Another source points out:  “The problem, however, is that the iron from plant-based foods, including spinach, is not absorbed as well as iron from meat and poultry.”  Liver pancakes, anyone?

This phenomenon is not limited to iron and spinach.  Several times I’ve heard people tell me they don’t like to use the microwave because they believe all that zapping with radiation make the food not taste as good and destroys the nutrition.  The fact is that “nuking” food cooks it faster with less water, so it is usually more nutritious. 

Likewise cranberries have earned a reputation for being friendly to your urinary system.  But the latest information, reflected in this long quote from a WebMD posting, and confirmed by other sources, tells a different story:  “Cranberry juice is high in salts called oxalates, which can make kidney stones more likely, especially if you already tend to get these types of stones.

“If you take the blood-thinning medication warfarin, you should avoid cranberry products, because cranberries can interact with warfarin and cause bleeding.

“But the weight of evidence, especially those from larger and better-designed trials, points towards the likelihood that cranberry products are ineffective for preventing UTIs” (urinary tract infections).

The lesson for all is to take the time to look it up, even if it’s considered common knowledge.  It’s usually easy to find a reputable source or two.  It saves time and money, and is sometimes safer.  I hope Chelsea Clinton’s defense that her baby needs extra iron is based on a doctor’s testing and recommendation and not just a common belief that babies need extra iron.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Natural Baby Wipe?

Over the last six years I have written many times about how the terms natural and all-natural should not be taken seriously.  I labeled them and other such terms as trigger words, used by advertisers to get you buying without thinking.  Now the public is striking back.  Unfortunately, it is not doing so by stopping to think but by calling in the lawyers.

CBS Money Watch tells how Kimberly Clark has gotten into big trouble for labeling its baby wipes as natural when they contain a synthetic chemical called phenoxyethanol.  The company faces a lawsuit “seeking damages for unlawful business practices and acts and deceptive advertising.”  The mother on whose behalf the suit was filed says that had she known the “truth” about the baby wipes, she would have purchased a different product – presumably one with no artificial ingredients.

So what is the truth about phenoxyethanol?  Honest Company uses it as a preservative and to fight bacteria in five of its cleaning products.  Their website says, “Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea, but the commercial ingredient is synthetically produced in a laboratory creating what’s termed a ‘nature identical’ chemical.”  They go on to say that they have been getting questions from customers due to a concern raised by an on-going on-line controversy about the chemical’s safety.  But surprise!  Just like every other chemical in the world, including good old H2O, too much can be bad.  They reassure their customers:  “Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite small. That’s why it’s approved at levels up to 1%.”

Likewise, according to the Honest Company and CBS, Whole Foods, an icon for natural products, uses it in its Premium Body Care products.  It is also listed in something called The Handbook of Green Chemicals. It may be found in a range of products including many cosmetics, soap, shaving cream, deodorant, ultrasound gel and toothpaste.

In this skin care dictionary of ingredients it’s listed as GOOD as a preservative.  “Phenoxyethanol is approved worldwide (including in Japan and in the EU) for use in all types of water-based cosmetics, up to a 1% concentration.”  Despite some negative comments elsewhere, this site declares it safe and effective, providing external references.

And another point from the FDA website: “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.”  This confirms that to date natural is primarily an advertising term, not a defined category.

What’s really at issue here is summed up later in the CBS article by Kimberly Clark’s response.  “This complaint does not allege a single safety event or evidence of any injury to a consumer.”  In other words, there are no damages to the baby.  The only problem may be a distressed mother, distressed because she thought that natural had a real legal meaning.  And that she, like so many other poorly informed shoppers, is “willing to pay and have paid, a premium for products advertised, marketed, and labeled as ‘natural’ over products containing nonnatural, synthetic ingredients.”  

Thinking about baby wipes in isolation - how natural is the idea pulling a moist towelette out of a plastic container you bought at Target?  All this doesn't seem to matter.

I have been known to make predictions before.  In this case, despite the wide use of the chemical, the lack of definition of natural and the industry standard that it is safe to use in appropriate amounts, here's what is likely.  KC will settle out of court, calculating it to be cheaper than fighting it out in court, faced with a sympathetic jury with no economic understanding, overwhelmed by the dispute between expert witnesses and in the presence of the poor distressed mother.  That’s just a hunch about the direction of today’s America where being a victim of social-media-induced panic or any other irrational behavior is so often rewarded.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bill Gates on Taxes

The story about Bill Gate’s comment on taxing robots was featured on several news sites.  USA Today has a short audio clip and CNBC carried the full story under the headline:  “Bill Gates: Job-stealing robots should pay income taxes.”

His reasoning, which he recently shared with the editor of Quartz, is as follows:  If a robot comes in to do the same [job as a worker], you'd think we'd tax the robot at a similar level.”  He is actually enthusiastic about robots replacing humans in some areas so the people can be deployed into the types of roles where empathy and understanding are more important, like eldercare and teaching.  But more taxes are needed for retraining and creating the new jobs.  So, the robots should be taxed at the same level as the now redeployed humans.

The first question that comes to mind is: What exactly is a robot for tax purposes? Must it have arms and legs, like the traditional idea of a robot from science fiction, or have arms only or perhaps have a single arm like some seen in the automotive assembly plants?  He seems to mean any automated tool that can do a job (or part of a job) that a human does today – any machine that puts people out of work.  Besides the obvious ones in heavy manufacturing, this could include many other machines:  self-service checkouts at the supermarket or the library, ATM machines, conveyor belts and forklifts, automated switchboards that replaced telephone operators, elevators that haven’t required a human operator for about 40 years.  Some estimate that drones could replace $127 billion worth of labor – that’s a lot of taxes.

Ironically, the most impactful labor saving device ever has been the computer.  Computers made people more efficient, reducing the overall numbers needed to accomplish the same amount or work.  And both standard computers and all the robots mentioned above require software, which is how Bill Gates became rich enough to sit around and think up these ideas.  Should Microsoft pay taxes for all the secretarial, filing, and presentation design jobs that no longer exist?  Is he proposing this out of guilt for destroying all those jobs?

When unions bargain for higher wages should the robots be taxed at a higher rate?  When workers receive cost of living increases, do the robots pay more taxes?

Everyone should know that when an entire industry faces the same cost increase, all the companies in that industry can raise prices without fear of competition.  Back in the middle of the twentieth century when the UAW bargained a new contract with the American automakers, the prices of all their cars went up to pay for the labor cost increase across the industry.  This was announced on the news.  It was only after they faced serious competition from overseas that they were no longer able to continue this practice so openly.  Surely a robot tax would drive industry-wide price increases wherever they were levied.

In this case as in so many others, the poorest among us are the ones who would endure the brunt of this ill-advised policy.  As Forbes points out at the end of a long article explaining the faulty economics of this idea, “All taxes come out of the pocketbook of some live human being.”  It’s OK for those with deep pockets like Bill Gates, but the rest struggle with each price increase.

Basic economic understanding reminds us – as it should remind Bill Gates and all those news agencies that reported on this idea implying it should be seriously considered – economies don’t grow and increase our standards of living by shifting money around.  They grow by increasing productivity.  Taxing those mechanisms that actually contribute to those productivity increases is bad for everyone.  At least Forbes had the sense to refer to the robot tax as Gates’s “latest odd idea.”

Fox included in their report that “European Union lawmakers considered a proposal to tax robots in the past. The law was rejected.”  Sounds like a smart move.  After all, robots don't pay taxes; people pay taxes either directly from their income or indirectly in the increased prices caused by ideas like this.

Friday, March 10, 2017

GMO Orange Juice?

As I was waiting in line at Subway next to the refrigerated display where they have their bottled drinks and apple slices, I noticed a couple of rows of bottles labeled as Non-GMO orange juice.  Of course as a critical thinker, the first thing I wondered is whether there was any GMO orange juice, or is this just another marketing ploy to take advantage of the scientifically challenged.  Remember a couple of months ago when the Hunt’s Company was embarrassed because they implied in ads that they used only non-GMO tomatoes in their products when, in fact, there are no GMO tomatoes being grown commercially anywhere in North America.  Whoops!

Research in this case was quite easy and interesting.  I found this article on the Huffington Post website from May 2015.  It describes the effort by one company to develop and get approval for GMO oranges “to resist citrus greening, a ruinous disease that has caused orange production to plummet to the lowest levels seen in decades.”  This is a very serious problem.  The bacterial disease is “spread from tree to tree by tiny insects called psyllids.”  It causes the trees to bear small, green, bitter fruit that drops prematurely.  As a result the orange production is dropping, driving up the prices of oranges and orange juice.  This worldwide problem “could eventually destroy the American citrus industry” with far reaching effects throughout the economy.

The best defense to date has been the heavy use of nutrients and insecticides, but this is not totally effective nor can it be seen as a long-term solution.  The best alternative seems to be one taken by Southern Gardens, developing a GMO orange, resistant to the disease, by splicing in a gene from spinach.

The advantages to this approach are many.  It will drastically cut the need for insecticides.  Since the gene comes from spinach, which people eat already and to which allergies are very rare, the resulting oranges should not be a danger to anyone.  Furthermore, “the overwhelming majority of scientists, and almost every major scientific organization that has taken a stand on the issue, believe that genetic modification poses no inherent risks to human health, and that the GMOs that have been approved for consumption so far are completely safe to eat.”  And with the very un-scary spinach connection, even some GMO skeptics have endorsed the idea.  Finally, the oranges must be thoroughly tested and approved before going to market.  So GMO orange juice is not a bad thing - and far better than no orange juice at all.

The biggest fear of GMO products results from a combination of the novelty and mystery of the technology to the general public, the fear mongering among a small group of self-proclaimed food experts and the effort by advertisers (like the makers of that so-called non-GMO orange juice that I came across) to exploit the consumer misconception that non-GMO means safer and healthier.

The final and perhaps most telling point comes near the end of the article.  Trees are not like corn.  You can’t just plant a seed and see results at the end of a growing season.  It will take years, so “the very soonest these oranges could come to market would be in three years, but…five to seven years would be a more realistic target.”  Five to seven years from May 2015 would be around 2021.  Contrary to what those bottles on the shelf imply, today there is no such thing as a GMO orange or GMO orange juice.  To say your juice is non-GMO is worse than meaningless.  It may not be false advertising, but it certainly isn’t completely honest either.  Whoops!

By the way, the same goes for the "non-GMO" lemonade sitting on the shelf beside it.